For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘summer reading

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen, Random House, 2014, 252 pp.

Still Life with Bread CrumbsThis qualifies as book #2 in the “light summer reading.” As far as I know, I’ve never read an Anna Quindlen novel before. They always struck me as too sappy, with women characters who were too predictable to be interesting. This one was a basic story of a woman finding herself and finding love, in an unexpected place and in spite of obstacles. I read it in an afternoon on vacation.

Rebecca Winter is famous for a series of photographs called “Still Life with Breadcrumbs,” which have given her money and artistic respect, and made her a feminist icon. However, her work has not continued to thrive, and her divorce, care for her son and parents have left her nearly broke. She moves outside New York City to a small-town cabin, where she breaks with her Manhattan snobbery habits for the first time in her life. She meets Jim Bates, who fixes her roof and becomes her friend. Rebecca takes long walks in the woods, and joins Jim in looking for wildlife. Along the path, she discovers mysterious memorial crosses and begins to photograph them.

You can predict the outcome from here, can’t you? Rebecca and Jim find love in one another. Her photographs in the woods bring her back to artistic promise and financial security. Of course, there are interesting twists and turns along the way, some star-crossed lover moments with the two of them, and some interesting secondary plots with Rebecca’s parents. Don’t be mad and accuse me of spoilers. You will know from the first chapter, just like I did, that Rebecca and Jim are destined for each other. In the end, though, it’s a story we read not to find out what will happen, but exactly how and when it will happen. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it made for a fun vacation afternoon.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a simple story of a woman finding herself, getting her groove back, and finding love. Rebecca Winter is not an especially well-developed character with a rich internal life, but consequently we can read ourselves into her story. She gives us the opportunity to become her for an afternoon, and perhaps discover that we too can find ourselves, get our groove back, and even find love old or new. Enjoy your summer reading!

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Random House Vintage Books, 2009, 669 pp.

13-cutting-for-stoneThis novel is epic–in the traditional sense of the word rather than the modern slang. It is the story of an entire lifetime–two lives, really–with a cast of characters that develop and evolve across four continents and the entire 20th century. Its nearly 700 pages flies by, with every detail coming together into a complete story. The book has everything I love–compelling characters, interesting plot, difficulties (both emotional and embodied) to overcome, and a fascinating setting. I loved it.

The narrator and central character is Dr. Marion Stone, along with his twin brother Shiva. The story begins with their sudden, surprising and dangerous birth to a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, at the Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The narrator then traces back the story of their parents, from their birth onward to their meeting and partnership. Their mother was from India, becoming a nun and nurse whose order sent her on an ill-fated mission to Africa. Their father was an English doctor born and raised in India, who was serving at Missing Hospital to escape his own sorrowful story. At their birth, their mother dies and their father disappears. The story unfolds their lives uncovering the mystery of their parents’ stories.

Meanwhile, they are surrounded by an adoring family at Missing Hospital. Two other doctors, Hema and Ghosh, serve as their mother and father, joined by two nannies/maids, Rosina and Almaz; the hospital’s odd priest/gatekeeper Gebrew; Missing’s director Matron; and even a sister in Rosina’s daughter Genet, born just a few months after the twins. Together they raise Shiva and Marion, alongside Genet, in the midst of an Ethiopia dealing with coups, poverty and more. Both boys are drawn to medicine, but follow different paths. In their late teens, there is a fracture in the relationship between the twins, and the novel reckons with that brokenness and painful reconciliation.

The author himself is a surgeon, and this book could almost be classified as “medical fiction,” if there is such a genre. Verghese writes of the human body, of surgery and illness with great detail and unique insight, but that expertise is partnered with great wisdom about human living. Just a sample few lines from the opening chapter:

We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasn’t to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound. (7)

Cutting for Stone is the kind of story I hesitate to share in detail, because each small detail of plot turns back on itself in the story’s resolution and I do not want to give it away. The book requires a commitment, but it is beautiful and wonderful and well worth it. I foresee this being one of my favorite books of the year, with characters and story that are easily forgotten.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Crown Publishers, 2012, 419 pp.

0806_gone_425This was a great summer thriller, and a perfect escape novel. I don’t often read thrillers, but this one came highly recommended, and the story was eloquently written and intricately told.

Nick comes home one day to discover that his wife Amy has disappeared. There are signs of a struggle, but no signs of where she might be. The story is told in alternating chapters, one voiced by Amy, the other by Nick. The story unwinds the intricate, tangled web of their complicated relationship, even as it details the efforts by police, family and Nick to find out what has happened to Amy, whether she is alive or dead. Without giving anything away, let’s just say I started out liking both characters, then disliking one, then liking that one and disliking the other, then back and forth again, and ended up uncertain if I liked either of them anymore–and it didn’t matter, because I was already so attached to them that likability was no longer relevant.

Flynn’s prose was a big step above the average thriller. For example, I just loved this little bit, voiced by Nick:

It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. … I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. (72-73)

This particular example drew me in because I resonated with the sentiment, but the book is full of other keen observations that add to the interesting characters and plot.

Gone Girl is summer reading at its finest. Go and enjoy it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, Harcourt, 2003, 546 pages.

I’m not big on romance novels, so this book did not attract my attention for a long time. Its billing as a love story made me think of fawning girls, juicy kisses, pining hearts and all that other mushy stuff—not anything to hold my interest. Finally, a trusted friend who knows my taste gave me a recommendation, and I was desperate for something escapist to read quickly during vacation. This was a great choice.

This book is a lot more than mushy love stuff. It is an amazingly well-crafted intersection of two lives, one of which does not move chronologically. Henry DeTamble is a time traveler, against his will, and his life intersects with Clare Abshire from the time he is twenty years old. However, because of his time travel, those intersections take place from the time Clare is six years old into her adulthood. Because their lives are so intertwined, neither Clare nor Henry hold the entire story of their lives—they each only know parts and pieces, and their partner must forever be helping them by giving them the whole picture.

Throughout the novel, I kept comparing their unusual relationship to a more traditional one, and I see connections everywhere. I think all of our relationships, especially those that continue over many years, help us to fill out our memory and understanding of life’s events. J and I have been married for 13 years (tomorrow!), and we act as mirrors and memories for one another. One of the greatest gifts of marriage is to have a witness to your life. We go through things together, and we see each other change and grow. We remember our younger selves, and hold on to pieces of memory and self for one another. This is not so different from Henry and Clare.

The novel itself is a beautiful, intricate construction. Niffenegger somehow manages to assemble all the pieces of their lives—Clare’s chronological movement with Henry’s jumping about—into a cohesive whole. No detail or element of plot is irrelevant or neglected. The author deftly winds up every loose detail into a complete and satisfying story and ending. There is a sense of genius in the construction.

Most importantly, though, I just enjoyed reading it. I read the whole thing in 24 hours, and enjoyed every minute of it. I loved all the characters, and wanted to spend more time in their world. It was a great escape novel, with enough to keep the mind churning after turning the last page.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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