Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “#ElCicco”

ElCicco CBR#4 Review #52: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Woohoo! This is my final review for Cannonball Read 4, so I wanted to review something related to the holidays and not too long because it’s kind of a busy time of year. A Christmas Carol fits the bill nicely.

Two things struck me as I read this classic. First, while I am quite familiar with the story thanks to movies, TV movies and cartoons of it, I think this is the first time I have actually read the story. How shameful! While the visual representations are (mostly) entertaining, Dickens was meant to be read, and the writing is so delightful, the images so evocative. For example, here is a description of the grocer’s wares in preparation for Christmas: “There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.” I also enjoy Dickens’ humor, which is evident in abundance throughout this short tale. On page one, he tells us of Marley’s death thusly: “Old Marley was dead as a door-nail…. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.” The writing is even better when you read it out loud, and I am struck anew by what a marvelous tale Dickens crafted.

Second, A Christmas Carol is an appropriate follow-up to the last book I reviewed — Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a non-fiction work about poverty and the struggle to survive in the slums while an indifferent over-society in India looks on. Dickens covers similar territory in mid-19th-century England. And I suppose it’s a universal theme, one that any society at any point in history can relate to — grinding poverty, hard work and short lives for some; indifference to their plight and resentment of them from other quarters; the feeling that the poor get what they deserve. But when you look deeper at the real people who are suffering, when you get to know who they are and put yourself in their shoes, you might experience a conversion. One passage that I found illuminating and sort of progressive for the time (the story was written in 1843) is an exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas present. Scrooge and the ghost are watching people carrying their food to the bakers for cooking before their Christmas feasts. Scrooge asks the ghost why they (the ghosts) deprive the poor of access to this service on Sundays, when the bakers are closed. The ghost, surprised to be charged of such a thing, places the responsibility for this where it truly belongs, responding, “There are some on this earth of yours … who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” That’s what I call a timely message!

A Christmas Carol is a popular story that has never gone out of print for good reason — it touches on issues that we can all understand, and with clever, entertaining and witty writing, teaches us a little lesson and makes us a bit more introspective. If you haven’t read it in a while, take an hour or so to do it this Christmas. You’ll enjoy it. And here is a link to the cartoon version that I remember from my childhood. It freaked me out then, but it’s actually quite good. It came out in 1971, features narration by Michael Redgrave and has Chuck Jones as Executive Producer. The animation is cool, in my opinion — it really captures that dark, gritty industrial/Victorian atmosphere.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #51: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

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Katherine Boo is a journalist who has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and various writing awards, including the 2012 National Book Award for non-fiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers. For this work, she spent 4 years gathering information on the slums of Mumbai, particularly the Annawadi slum near the airport. Her question in approaching this research was, “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?” Boo has frequently covered poverty and the attempt to rise above it in her highly regarded research. Far from a dry, tedious study of poverty and opportunity, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like a novel. Through her extensive interviews with residents of Annawadi and access to public records such as police, hospital and education records, Boo paints a detailed picture of the rise and fall of particular families and individuals against the backdrop of government corruption and a booming Indian economy that goes bust in 2008. In the e-book form, readers can also see short videos of Annawadi and its residents.

A few families and individuals dominate Boo’s research. The Husains are at the heart of the story. They are a Muslim family and therefore part of a minority, and the fact that they have become successful trash pickers makes them the object of envy and resentment. Eldest son Abdul (a teen) more or less runs the family business alongside his mother Zehrunisa. Abdul is a quiet young man without many friends, but as we discover throughout the story, he wants to be a good person and do the right thing. He understands that his family’s success could be the cause of trouble for them if they are not careful. Their neighbor Fatima or “One-leg” is a disabled woman married to an alcoholic. Her disability makes her an object of derision, and Fatima resents the way her neighbors treat her. Desiring to be valued, she takes in a variety of lovers but is mocked all the more by her neighbors for this. Asha is a savvy, ambitious woman who aspires to become the slum lord and then to move beyond the slum to the “over-city.” She tries to use the corrupt governing system to help herself and her family. Among the residents of Annawadi, Asha is recognized as the person who can get things done or make problems go away. She has important contacts among the police and in her political party. When an argument erupts between Fatima and the Husains, trouble rains down upon both families. Boo then exposes the corruption among the police, in the judicial system and in the hospitals that deal with the poor. As Boo writes, “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage …. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

Boo shows readers that the slum-dwellers are hard working and ingenious at finding ways to make money and at trying to rise up in conditions that militate against such success and mobility. Their very poverty, however, prevents them from working together to collectively improve their lot and leads to fierce competition. In some cases this competition leads to self-destruction and in others, it leads to improving your own situation only at the expense of others’ well being. Asha creates a non-profit that filters money away from legitimate programs and into her own pocket. She says, “How can anyone say I am doing the wrong when the big people did all the papers — when the big people say that it’s right?” Abdul, who wants to be a good person says, “I tell [Allah] I cannot be better because of how the world is.” In her afterward, Boo addresses what outsiders see as indifference toward suffering in the slums. She writes that the seeming indifference toward suffering and death, particularly among children, “… had a good deal to do with conditions that sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action.”

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo treats the residents of Annawadi with respect and compassion and gives readers a new perspective on poverty and the poor — a perspective that many politicians and policy makers in the West would benefit from considering.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #50: Never Fall Down – A Novel, by Patricia McCormick

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You think you never can get used to a thing this sad, kid dying, but you do. You think maybe you want to die also. But you don’t. You not living. And you not dead. You living dead.

This YA novel, nominated for a National Book Award this year, is a fictionalized account of the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a real person who survived the killing fields of Cambodia. Arn was 11 when the Khmer Rouge came to power. His family, like all the others in his town, was forced out of its home, separated and put to work in rice fields under brutal,  inhuman, often deadly conditions. Some 2 million Cambodians died under Khmer Rouge oppression. Arn’s story is both painful and powerful. The author worked with him in telling it and uses his voice (including grammar and syntax) to bring it to life. Despite the fact that this is youth lit, McCormick does not flinch from vividly depicting the horrors of the labor camps. Yet she also captures Arn’s compassion, intelligence and the strength that helped him to survive and then learn how to live again.

Arn was the sort of kid who just seemed lucky or perhaps had always been street savvy or world-wise. As a child before the war, he managed to get extra money for himself and his family by selling ice cream and gambling. He kept himself alive in the camps by learning to play an instrument and mastering songs that the band played to entertain the Khmer Rouge elite as well to cover up the sounds of death at the work camps. He marvels at his own unusual luck while he sees others dying horrible deaths, and like the other children, he learns not to show any emotion about it because to do so meant certain death for yourself. But Arn never lost his compassion. He tried hard to protect other kids and some of the adults around him.

The years of the Khmer Rouge regime brought death every day. Arn saw children fall down in the fields and never get up again. He saw prisoners brutally put to death by an axe blow to the skull and then he had to help push the bodies into burial pits. He saw Khmer Rouge slice the livers out of prisoners and eat them. He learns that even members of the Khmer Rouge live in fear because they could be denounced at any moment. Arn also learns that he is capable of killing. By the time the Khmer Rouge have fallen, Arn is about 15. He has found his way to Thailand and a hospital/orphanage for Cambodian children, and there he meets an American who takes him and others back to the US. But Arn still must come to grips with the killing fields and the horrors he endured, the horrible things he had to do to survive. The description of his first experience in the US as a high school student, taunted both by the white American students and by other Cambodians, is absolutely heartbreaking. But the story of how Arn uses his story to educate others and learn to live again is simply beautiful and brought me to tears.

Today, Arn is known not just for his story but for the great works he has done on behalf of children in war-torn nations, especially in Cambodia. While the details of the killing fields may be hard for teens to hear (they were hard for me and I’m 48 and have a background in Soviet history), imagine how hard it must have been for a child to live them. This is an outstanding book that educates the reader about a shocking and brutal episode in 20th century history, but also demonstrates the amazing resilience and indomitable spirit of one person who came through it. McCormick, whose previous works have likewise been nominated for National Book Awards and other prizes, does a masterful job of presenting this story in a way that is suitable for a younger reader without pandering or watering down the material. It is a great novel period. Read it.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #49: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat is a work of historical fiction set in 1914, two years after the sinking of The Titanic. The Empress Alexandra, a luxury liner en route from England to the US, has sunk at sea for reasons unknown. After several weeks in a lifeboat, a few survivors are found, and after being saved, some are put on trial for murder.

Told from point of view of newlywed Grace Winter, whose banker husband has perished, the story recounts Grace’s troubled family history, the unusual circumstances of her courtship and marriage, and a mystery surrounding her presence in the lifeboat. Grace is one of the people on trial.

Is our narrator reliable? I always enjoy a story where I’m not sure. It keeps me on edge and makes me read closely. The pretense for the story is that Grace’s lawyer asks her to write a diary of her time at sea so that he can help defend her, perhaps present an insanity plea. Each chapter covers a day on the lifeboat, interspersed with Grace’s trial preparation. It’s easy to feel sympathy for Grace. Her father’s suicide and her mother’s rapid mental deterioration afterward led Grace and her sister to make quick important decisions about their own futures. But does Grace make an admirable decision? Given that it’s 1914 and women’s opportunities are limited, are we right to judge her? Grace seems to have gaps in her memories about the weeks on the lifeboat. It was a harrowing experience following a tragedy, and the survivors make difficult decisions to ensure their survival. Would we make the same? Is it fair to judge them? And again, is Grace telling the truth? She comes across to some as fragile and needing protection, but it requires great strength to survive, and Grace has demonstrated her own strong survival instincts prior to embarking on The Empress Alexandra. Is forgetting what is too difficult to process a sign of that survivor’s strength? Or is Grace dissembling?

Three pivotal characters who help drive the drama are Mr. Hardie, the only seaman in the lifeboat and a man who takes charge but seems to be hiding things from his fellow survivors; Mrs. Grant, a woman who emanates understanding and compassion as well as leadership, but also then becomes a rival to Mr. Hardie; and Hannah, Mrs. Grant’s right hand woman. Some of the decisions made in the lifeboat involve distribution of food and water and whether to link up with other lifeboats or assist those in the water. Ultimately, the passengers are forced to decide who should lead with deadly consequences for the loser.

The Lifeboat, in addition to being a riveting story, provides commentary on the lot of women in 1914. Viewed as the weaker sex and in need of male guidance, they must obey laws made by men and are judged by juries of men. Does the system work to Grace’s advantage because she can present an image of a traditional woman who needs protection and was easily led by stronger personalities? Did the system lead to justice in the end?

To the author’s credit, at the end of the story, readers might draw very different conclusions about the actions of the people in the lifeboat and of Grace in particular. The author doesn’t leave the reader with a strong feeling of one character’s guilt or another’s innocence. Instead, we are left with an unsettling feeling about what we might have done in similar circumstances. A good book.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#48: Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Care of Wooden Floors is a sometimes amusing, sometimes unsettling novel, with several tips of the hat to Edgar Allan Poe. The story’s narrator, an Englishman who is never given a name and whom I shall hereafter refer to as “N,” has just arrived in an East European country to stay at his friend Oskar’s flat while he’s in California. Oskar is a successful composer, fastidious and demanding, with high standards for everything — music, food, drink, living space. The man loves and craves order. His best known composition is based on the theme of tram schedules and he is working on a piece that will be an homage to the Dewey decimal system. His apartment is a newly renovated masterpiece with fine wooden floors. When it comes to things, Oskar demands and gets the best. When it comest to people, he is often disappointed. His wife has left him and returned to California to divorce him (the reason for his absence) and his friend, the narrator, is watching the apartment and cats while Oskar is away.

Why Oskar is friends with N is puzzling to both reader and narrator. N is not particularly successful at anything in his life. He wants to be a writer but is employed as a pamphleteer for his local council. His girlfriend has left him, his apartment is a dump. Oskar and N met in college and maintained a friendship, it seems, because N was the only person willing to put up with Oskar’s persnickety ways and Oskar has worked at maintaining the friendship over time despite his seeming disdain for N’s slovenliness and overall mediocrity. Their personalities are quite opposite. In telling N about his divorce, Oskar says, “People say, this is difficult, that is difficult. It is an excuse for failing, for doing something wrong. It is not difficult — it should not be difficult. As long as there are some rules, some agreements, people should know how to do things, then everything should be easy.” For N on the other hand, “Perfection is aggressive. It is a rebuke.”

When N arrives, Oskar has already gone to California and has left written instructions for N throughout the apartment, often in unexpected places, as if he knows in advance what N  is going to do. Oskar is especially concerned about his floors and has left explicit instructions to call him if anything happens. Naturally, something does happen and N does not call. N seems afraid of Oskar’s reaction but also welcomes the opportunity to put one over on Oskar by somehow hiding what he has done. N thinks he can fix the problems, but as he bumbles about, trying to salvage an increasingly degenerating situation, it is as if Oskar has anticipated every fumble that N would make and has a note waiting. This contributes to N’s frustration and makes him more adamant that he will not give in, he will not call Oskar.

In some ways, this story is like one of those contemporary Hollywood comedies wherein the “hero” is a drunken lout who, through carelessness and bad luck, has to deal with problems that get worse as he tries to fix them. N actually compares his situation to that of Wile E Coyote at one point. Since the narrator is indeed a drunken lout, and he is presenting from his point of view alone, the reader is not always sure if N’s version of events is accurate and truthful. And as story progresses, the reader knows something truly awful will happen. In fact a couple of really awful things happen, and the reader might start to wonder about the reliability and mental stability of the narrator.

Care of Wooden Floors is quite suspenseful and drives the reader forward to see what is going to happen. I was not wholly satisfied with the ending of the novel. I had hoped for something unexpected, even macabre, but the author gives us something worthy of a Hollywood comedy (and not a terribly funny one). Overall, it was an okay book and I feel bad saying that because I feel like I should have loved it. Just didn’t.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#47: Hopeless, Maine by Tom and Nimue Brown

I’m reviewing yet another web comic! Last time it was the outstanding Darths and Droids. This time, it’s a series called Hopeless Maine. Book 1 “Personal Demons” is available in hardback book form. Book 2 “Inheritance” is available on the web site. My husband brought “Personal Demons” home from the comic book store and I was drawn to it by the art. Like the story, it is sort of dark/gothic. The authors describe their style as gothic/steampunk.

The story takes place on an island, Hopeless Maine, that is isolated from contact with outsiders. For reasons unexplained, many children on the island are orphans and end up cared for by a local minister and his wife. The main character, Salamandra, is an orphan who seems to possess some sort of magical power. It is unclear what has happened to her parents, but she seems glad to be rid of them. At the orphanage, she has a hard time fitting in with the other kids except for another girl who is either an imaginary friend or malevolent spirit, and Owen, the son of the minister who runs the orphanage. Salamandra has also befriended a crow and has contact with others on the island who also possess special powers.

In vol. 2, Owen’s mother dies and he wants desperately to leave the island. Sal finds out she has a living grandfather who lives in the lighthouse that is never needed because ships never pass by. Owen and Sal’s grandfather make a plan to leave, while Sal assists them and stays behind at the lighthouse. Will they return? Will Sal’s powers develop? And why are there so many deaths on the island? And why is it so hard to leave?

Some of the art details are lovely — there is an art nouveau feel to it and the magical creatures are unique. The human characters are less distinguishable from one another, which makes it a little confusing sometimes to follow the story. They look a little like goth Precious Moments.

The storyline is intriguing and I look forward to following the mystery as it unravels. Hopeless Maine is safe reading for kids, unless you are weirded out by the occult, in which case you probably don’t allow Harry Potter in the house either.

ElCicco #CBR4 review #46: Darths and Droids by The Comic Irregulars

Darths and Droids  is a free web comic that role playing gamers and Star Wars fans (groups with significant overlap) will love. A group of such guys in Australia began developing this comic in 2007 after being inspired by DM of the Rings — a web comic that imagined Lord of the Rings as played by a bunch of gamers. Darths and Droids is about a group of guys playing a RPG and using the images and characters from Star Wars Episode I but creating an alternate story line. In this imaginary world, Star Wars doesn’t exist but the gamers invent a similar universe in the course of their play. The characters (Qui Gon, Obi Wan, etc) are being played by guys who don’t behave at all as the movie characters but are dead on gamers of the type you might know — the tech fanatic/min-max gamer who loads his character with specialized skills at the expense of more humanizing traits, the guy who just wants to fight and find loot, another guy’s little sister who tags along for lack of a babysitter, and a GM whose best laid plans get completely screwed up by his friends.

The use of actual stills from the movie makes this so much fun to read. I wish they would go back and reshoot the movies using this dialog as it is hilarious and entertaining and Lucas’ characters play against type. Qui Gon is a battle happy treasure hunter, JarJar is a genius, R2 is arrogant, Darth Maul is …. not at all what you would expect. Qui Gon and Obi Wan from the moment they enter the Trade Federation ship ruin the GM’s plan and pretty much act as lawless rogue forces, causing political trouble and unnecessary destruction. Qui Gon immediately wants to search for treasure and steal blasters. Really if you have ever played RPGs you will recognize all of your gaming friends in this comic and if you have GM’d you will commiserate.

Qui Gon is the funniest character. In addition to his distinctly selfish and martial instincts, he has a habit of massacring the GM’s specialized vocabulary (Jedi Knights are Cheddar Monks), trying to “cast spells” instead of using the force (“I summon bigger fish” has become a catch phrase among devotees of the comic), and forgetting what their mission is. The deal he makes with Watto regarding the pod race is so convoluted and ridiculous, you know that true gamers were involved. And the stills used to capture Qui Gon’s expression in any given scene are just laugh out loud funny.

The best scenes involve the introduction of JarJar and later scenes featuring Yoda and the Jedi council. A girl named Sally makes up JarJar from her imagination. “Mesa got biiiig long floppy bunny ears … and a tongue like an anteater. And mesa face is kind of like a pony … and mesa coloured peachy, pinky white!” She also turns the Gunguns into carnivores who prefer human flesh and eventually turns JarJar into a skilled and respected general.

When Anikin (played by a young woman who seems to be the object of all the gaming guys’ fancies) meets Yoda for the first time, there are several truly hysterical scenes. One involves an extensive rif between Yoda and Anikin on the “Fear is the path to the Dark Side” scene. The other is Episode 142, “The Source of the Force, Of Course, Of Course,” which deals with the whole “balance in the force” business and why creating more Jedi via blood transfusions (which Qui Gon does) is a bad idea. Every time I read the last panel in this episode, I laugh out loud.

Each page of the web comic is a numbered episode with a title, and at the bottom of each page is a commentary by the Irregulars along with a transcript of the page. The writer commentaries are often as funny as the comic itself, with ruminations on Star Wars, gamers, other RPGs and more. The writers are still producing this comic, going through every Star Wars movie. Now that Disney has bought out Lucas and is planning to produce more, it looks like they’ll be working for a long time. Yay! This is really funny and creative, and it’s the kind of thing you can put down and come back to later (much like an RPG). It was a nice break to read and now I want to go on a campaign.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#45: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Read it! One of my friends recommended this book to me and it was a NewYork Times best seller. The main character,  Alice Howland, is a distinguished professor of linguistics at Harvard. Language and its construction are her stock in trade. She has published extensively, lectured widely and earned a reputation as a star in her field. As she is about to turn 50, Alice realizes that she is forgetting things — not just where the keys are, but where her house is, the subject of her lecture, how to make the dessert that she learned from her mother and knew by heart. Recognizing that these are not the typical symptoms of menopause, she consults a neurologist and learns she has Early Onset Alzheimers Disease.

The novel follows Alice over the next two years as the disease altars not only her mind but her relationships with her family. Her husband John, a fellow Harvard professor studying cancer, initially denies that his wife has Alzheimers, then throws himself into the research on the disease, desperately trying to save Alice. As the disease progresses, it sometimes seems as if John is distancing himself from Alice and leaving her out of important decisions. Their son (a doctor) and older daughter (lawyer) also seem to be in denial at first and are very uncomfortable acknowledging their mother’s illness. The youngest child and black sheep Lydia, who has eschewed academia for a life in theater, has had an antagonistic relationship with Alice but is the one member of the family who saw the symptoms early on and demonstrates compassion and acceptance from the start. Alice, who forever hounded Lydia about going back to school, comes to appreciate the plays her daughter performs in and her daughter’s ability to communicate without words.

Genova does an amazing job getting inside Alice’s head and showing the disintegration of Alice’s memories. It is frightening for Alice and in the early days of her diagnosis, she tries various ways to fight the disease — diet, physical exercise, daily mind exercises and ultimately creating her “butterfly file.” The butterfly file would be a great topic of conversation for a book group. In the early days, Alice still has periods of “normal” functioning and can recognize when the Alzheimers is kicking in. She tries to prepare for her future and she realizes that she will be cast out — from Harvard, her field, all the places and endeavors that formed her identity. She wishes she had cancer instead, because people with cancer are seen as courageous and get community support. People with mental issues do not. In one particularly poignant passage, Alice sits at the beach and watches the waves, a metaphor for Alzheimers: “Alice watched the tide coming in, erasing footprints, demolishing an elaborate sand castle decorated with shells, filling in a hole dug earlier that day with plastic shovels, ridding the shore of its daily history. She envied the beautiful homes behind the seawalls.”

While for the reader, watching Alice atrophy is terribly sad, Genova shows that her life is still worthwhile, not something useless or to be wished away. Alice as she declines is no longer as aware of all that she has lost and can find pleasure and happiness in the world she inhabits — a world where she no longer remembers her children’s names or that they are her children, but recognizes that they are loving people who care for her and whom she likes to be with. I sort of dreaded reading this book knowing the subject matter, but I loved it and would recommend it for its compassionate and knowledgeable portrayal of Alzheimers and its complex, human, realistic characters.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #44: City of Women by David R. Gillham

This novel is set in Berlin 1943. The tide of war has turned against the Nazis since the Battle of Stalingrad, and British nighttime bombings have resumed. The Nazis have stepped up their campaign against the Jews, rounding them up systematically and sending them to death camps in the east.

The main character, Sigrid Schroder lives in a flat with her insufferable mother-in-law and works as a stenographer while her husband Kaspar serves on the eastern front. Sigrid, like many Berliners, is detached from the political events that form daily life until a charismatic man named Egon and a young woman named Ericha present her with choices — to get involved, to care, to try to make a difference. Sigrid becomes involved in the dangerous work of hiding “U-boats” — Jews and deserters. In doing so, she encounters other ordinary women and men who use their meager resources to protect and transport these people out of the country, risking their own lives to do so. The Gestapo make it their business to hunt down people like Sigrid, but they aren’t the only danger — ordinary citizens like Sigrid’s co-workers and others who live in her apartment building could denounce her if they became suspicious, and even some members of the Jewish community have been turned into “catchers” — those who hunt down fellow Jews for the Nazis to protect themselves.

As Sigrid becomes more deeply involved in hiding Jews, her relationships with Ericha and Egon become more complicated. Ericha is a young German woman who simply hates the Nazis and will do anything required to help those in her charge. At the beginning of the novel, she is more worldly than the older Sigrid, but by the end, her youth becomes evident and Sigrid becomes more of the leader. The relationships that Sigrid has with Ericha, her mother-in-law, the women in her building, and a particular woman she is hiding, are the meat of the story for me. Due to war, Berlin is a city of women, and their relationships can be nurturing or combative.

Sigrid’s relationships with the men in her life are more troubling. Even before Kaspar left for the front, their marriage had become somewhat stale. Egon provides the passion that was missing, but the story of how Sigrid and Egon meet and become involved seems ridiculous to me, a male fantasy — two strangers hooking up in the back of a movie theater. Then there is Wolfram, the Nazi officer whose sisters live in the flat across the hall from Sigrid’s. Wolfram lost a leg in the war but not his charisma, and Sigrid becomes involved with him as well. Sigrid’s sexcapades just seemed sort of silly to me and not essential to the plot. Maybe it was supposed to demonstrate that deep down, she was always a risk-taker? Or that the author’s dream is that smart, beautiful women just can’t wait to do it with brutes who treat them like objects? As a card-carrying feminist, I veered back and forth between being aggravated by these passages and rolling my eyes at them.

The plot gets a bit complicated at the end and I felt that some details could have been clearer, but overall this was a pretty good book. Gillham did his research to get the details of life during wartime right, and Sigrid’s transformation from apathetic German trying to get through the war to a protector of the persecuted is convincing.

ElCicco#CBR4 Review #43: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Set mainly in Ethiopia from the 1950s into the 1980s, Cutting for Stone  by Abraham Verghese is the story of twin brothers, Marion and Shiva, whose biological parents were an Indian nun and an English surgeon who worked together at Missing Hospital. When mom dies in birth and dad flees, the boys are raised by two Indian doctors at the hospital, Hema and Ghosh, and follow their own distinct paths in the field of medicine.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. The characters, including Ethiopia itself, are beautifully drawn and complicated, capable of making you both admire them and become exasperated by them. The title Cutting for Stone comes from the Hippocratic oath and refers to performing an operation for which you are not trained (doctors take an oath not to cut for stone). At the “Missing Hospital” (which was really named the Mission Hospital, but local pronunciation made it sound like “missing” and so “missing” it became), there are only a handful of qualified doctors on staff, and Dr. Stone is the only surgeon. He and the other doctors frequently must “cut for stone” because there is no other option for the poor in Addis Ababa. If they don’t try to perform some sort of operation, the patients will die anyway.

The words “stone” and “missing” have much meaning throughout this novel. Stone is the surname of three characters, all surgeons, and is a medical term (as in gall stone, kidney stone), but stone also carries certain connotations — hardness, lack of feeling or sympathy. The characters named Stone can be rather hard and stony. And at Missing Hospital, much is indeed missing: adequate supplies, trained personnel, fathers. The main characters in this book all seem to be fatherless.

This brings us to a theme running throughout the novel — what is a family? How is it defined? In Cutting for Stone, the real family is not necessarily the biological family. Often it’s the members of ones biological family who let one down, who betray and disappoint, while those who choose to become family are most true. For example, Hema and Ghosh (my two favorite characters in the book) are wonderful adoptive parents to Marion and Shiva, Matron is a surrogate grandmother, and Gebrew and Almaz are like a doting aunt and uncle. I must add that the scene on the airplane where Hema is introduced is my favorite scene in the book. It is hilarious and gives you a heads up as to what kind of woman Hema is — one who just isn’t going to put up with any nonsense.

The characters who exasperated me the most were Shiva, Marion (who narrates the story) and Genet — the daughter of Shiva/Marion’s nanny who becomes a revolutionary. Each of these characters annoyed me at times and did distinctly unlikable things. The relationship among the three is complicated and is what drives much of the plot, so I don’t want to give it away, but Marion and Shiva are twins who were conjoined at birth and had to be surgically separated. They seem to share a mystical bond that becomes broken and must be healed. I found that aspect of the plot to be powerful and moving.

One final observation: one of the characters has autism. If you know anything about autism, you will know who I mean and why. I “liked” Abraham Verghese on Facebook and posted a question about this on his wall. I later saw that NPR had a discussion wall on Cutting for Stone where readers could post questions, and someone else had asked my question. Verghese replied in the affirmative — the character is an Aspie even though this is never said in the book. It’s a minor part of the story, but for those of us living with autism, it really sticks out!

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