Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter

Losing Touch: Arjun Kulkani moved his entire family to North London from India. Like many immigrants, he works hard to fit in but also wants to preserve the values and traditions of his homeland. He has studied the English and outwardly makes every effort to blend in - he is careful in his appearance and tries to always be quiet and respectful. Even though he tries so hard to blend in, he is frustrated by his son Murad and daughter Tarani who try to distance themselves from their Indian heritage and adopt the cultural norms of their new home but without his intense desire to fade to the background and not stand out. This generational struggle is only one of many faced by this family especially when Arjun begins to decline from an inherited form of muscular dystrophy which first steals the feeling in his leg and gradually debilitates him until he is completely dependent on his wife, Sunila, for care. With the passage of time and loss of ability, Arjun makes observations about this own life and the family he has built, however clumsily, in London.

 The book opens with Arjun and the family attending the funeral of his younger brother, Jonti. Jonti has died from the muscular dystrophy that Arjun fears and eventually develops himself. This scene at the funeral provides the first snapshot of the Kulkani family including the extended family of Aunts, Uncles and cousins. We meet Sunila, Arjun's wife, and immediately detect her dissatisfaction with life and even with Arjun. There is tension between the Arjun and Sunila which is exacerbated by Arjun's obvious feelings for his sister-in-law, Pavi. While Sunila seems to harp on what they don't have or what she wished was different, Pavi seems to understand Arjun and speaks gently with him. Of course, the move to London and the pressure to fit in has been difficult on everyone and Sunila is no exception - as the book progresses so does an understanding of Sunila's dissatisfaction and what she has also sacrificed to make this move and live this life.

 My Thoughts
This book beautifully portrays the passage of time and the losses and pain which accumulate over the years. Each chapter provides another snapshot of the family - the story is not continuous so much as a series of snapshots but the themes of generational struggle and Arjun's increasing understanding of himself even as his physical abilities decline run throughout these snapshots. We see the children grow and Arjun's generation age.  Interestingly, we also see Arjun become more of an outsider rather than less despite all his efforts to assimilate. Where first his status as an immigrant makes him and outsider, towards the end of the book he is also and outsider within his own family as they live life around him and his becomes increasingly disabled due to his disease.  In this passage, Arjun muses on his status as an outsider:
What importance he used to place on small things: his perfectly ironed shirts, the knife-crease in his trousers, the well-tailored jackets and suits, his meticulously folded socks and underwear, his Kiwi-polished shoes, his leather wallet. These details made him feel a little taller, a little better prepared to face the hostile he had moved to . . . . It all meant something, some sense of striving for decorum and order, some sense of fitting in to the middle-class neighbourhood whose ideals he's never quite grasped. 
The feeling of donning an armor to face a new country or striving but never truly understanding the new country you have moved to is one faced by many immigrants but so poignantly told in this novel. The author has told a beautiful story of a single family through a series of snapshots that captured the big, but most small moments of a lifetime.

I read this book as part of the TLC Book Tour - you can find other reviews of the book here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro

In Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro, a motley crew of five families and a nanny from Brooklyn head to a shabby house on Long Island for a long weekend. The parents have largely been thrown together by their children who share music classes and the playground. Personalities abound among the parents as well as the children and those personalities eventually clash as the group spends a weekend in close quarters in the house where they face each other's idiosyncrasies. The parents are most challenged over the weekend, however, when they face their own limitations and insecurities.

 Nicole leads the group to her parents house in Long Island for the weekend. Mother to Wyatt who has his share of behavioral issues, Nicole has a disproportionate anxiety about disasters and her car trunk is stocked with gas masks and non-perishables. Her husband has grown weary of her worries and finds Wyatt challenging at best leaving Nicole feeling very alone. Tiffany leads the music class all the children attend and her daughter, Harper Rose, is a born leader who frequently bullies the other children. Tiffany is too focused on trying to bury her own working class background by helping her daughter achieve and climb socially (at age 3!) that she is oblivious to Harper's poor treatment of the other children. Tiffany is strikingly attractive and used to getting her own way. The daddy in the group, Rip, is father to Hank and a stay-at-home Dad while his wife works at a high-powered job. He desperately wants a second child but is having difficulty convincing his wife to get pregnant again. His resentment of her reluctance to have another child only stokes his attraction to Tiffany which is hard to keep under wraps while they are all together for the weekend.

Allie and Susanna, a lesbian couple, are also no strangers to ambivalence about expanding their family. Susanna is pregnant with their third child but Allie resents the ways in which their lives have changed since having children. She loves their boys Levi and Dash but she also longs for the couple they were before children - she is only along for this trip to the burbs to satisfy her heavily pregnant partner. Leigh, the daughter of a wealthy family, has two children - Chase and Charlotte. Chase is on the spectrum and challenges Leigh every day. In addition to the trials of a child with special needs, Leigh is quietly dealing with financial issues and has gone to great lengths to keep them hidden. All of this pressure is somewhat alleviated by the help offered by her beloved nanny, Tenzin. Tenzin is along for the weekend.

My Thoughts
Through chapters that alternate from parent to parent, this book presents parenthood unvarnished. The parents are inherently flawed and it is a good reminder that parenthood doesn't transform everyone to better, higher human beings. Although all these parents love their children unconditionally, they still grapple with their own insecurities which sometimes cloud their ability to model the best behavior for their children. Tenzin, with limited means and living far away from her own children, is the moral compass for this crew and is able to see truths that the other parents cannot see because they are so wrapped up in their own issues. She offers an excellent balance to a dysfunctional cast of characters.

It takes a special talent to make unlikable characters compelling and that is just what Fierro does in this book. I would like to think I have little in common with these characters and on the surface I probably don't but we all have insecurities and on that level I can relate to these parents. The honesty of this story is refreshing and its use of parental stereotypes is spot on.  Definitely recommend.

Thank you to TLC Booktours for having me on the tour.  You can find links to reviews from others on the tour here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee

The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee: After the ultimate betrayal by her husband, Portia Cuthcart flees her proper, wife of a politician life in Texas and takes up residence in the garden level of a NYC townhouse previously owned by and left to her by her aunt. Portia has many fond memories of summers spent there with her Aunt and hopes returning there will bring her some comfort. Practically, she is broke and the inherited townhouse gives her a place to live. Her sisters, also living in NY now, sold their floors of the inherited townhouse to financier Gabriel, who lives upstairs with his two young daughters. Portia's talent for cooking which is tinged with a bit of magic in that she has visions compelling her to cook dishes which turn out to be exactly what someone needs has her tending to the two young girls in no time. As she gets more involved with their family, and especially complicated Gabriel, Portia begins to question why she has tried to suppress her gift.

Portia grew up at the feet of her grandmother who owned a restaurant in Texas called the Glass Kitchen. Like Portia, her grandmother had the gift and could divine what a customer needed before they even understood that they wanted or needed it and why. This ability to provide comfort with food but on a level much deeper than satisfying a craving or physical hunger, kept the restaurant bustling. When her grandmother dies tragically, though, Portia blames the gift and immediately closes the restaurant and attempts to suppress her culinary instincts. By the time she arrives in NY, she is still trying to shut down those instincts but when she meets Gabriel's young daughters, Ariel and Miranda who are so in need of comfort after the recent death of their mother, it becomes more and more difficult to deny cooking what they need and Portia begins to value the unique gift she has to bring people comfort and healing.

My Thoughts
This book successfully brings many themes together - sisterhood, acknowledging and embracing who you are, and transformation achieved through healing. Sprinkle that with some romance and the foodie culture and you have a delightful book. Although I liked Portia as a character, my favorite character was Ariel. As a young girl with the weight of her mother's death on her shoulders, Ariel tries to cope with humor and a precocious way of seeing people for who they really are;  but she is still only a young girl and grappling with so many emotions. I found her funny but also touching and wanted to take of her myself.

I also enjoyed reading about the delicious meals whipped up by Portia. The descriptions were vivid and included all the senses. Beyond that, however, was the description of the experience which was always more of the focus than just the taste of the food or the nourishment it offered. For example:
For a meal to work truly, it must be an experience. From the moment a guest arrives in the Glass Kitchen to the moment they set their napkin down, they must be enchanted. More importantly, the giver of the food must believe that they have the power to enchant. No person, whether she is a scientist or a cook, can find success if she doesn't first believe that she has power in her hands-not to use over people but to use for the good of another. Food, especially, is about giving.
Who wouldn't want to eat a meal prepared by someone with a philosophy like this? The Glass Kitchen transports you into just such a meal many times over.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Audiobook Review: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink (read by Kirsten Potter; 17 hours, 33 minutes) recounts the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina from the perspective of inside the walls of the city of New Orleans's large downtown hospital. Caring for many of the city's most vulnerable, those at the hospital made fateful decisions amidst the chaos following the hurricane - decisions for which some of the physicians and nurses faced criminal charges in the aftermath of the storm. A physician and investigative journalist, Sheri Fink takes the reader right into the hospital during the storm and tells the stories of the doctors, nurses, administrators and patients caught in the frantic deterioration following the devastation of the storm.

 The book opens a few days prior to the storm as the city prepares for the forecasted hurricane. Inured to the rituals of hurricane prep, many took the warnings less than seriously and didn't heed all the warnings. At Memorial, they arranged to have staff on hand but otherwise additional precautions were not taken. In addition, many of the staff and those that lived near the hospital used it to shelter during the storm. As the storm bore down on New Orleans, the hospital was bustling but everyone felt the hospital would ride out the storm without issue. Of course, the storm was stronger than expected and the breaking of levees with the resulting flooding was not anticipated. As conditions worsened at Memorial in the days following the hurricane, the shortcomings of the city and the hospital's disaster planning became increasingly evident. With power out over the city, the hospital was dependent on back-up generator power. The generators, however, were on lower levels below the flood line; very quickly, the hospital had no power. With patients on ventilators and other equipment, the situation soon became dire. The hospital staff had to figure out how to get patients evacuated from the hospital.

At this point, the lack of coordinated effort between the hospital, its corporate ownership and government became obvious. Messages were going out from the hospital but either not being heard or responded to with inaccurate information that drove some bad decisions. Ultimately, doctors in the hospital triaged patients for evacuation by making judgement calls on the likelihood of surviving the evacuation but they were not operating with the best information about the conditions and timing of any evacuation. Based on where they were triaged, some patients were essentially sentenced to death. Faced with patients they believed were not going to be able to leave the hospital and increasingly deteriorating conditions outside, some doctors and nurses made decisions to hasten the deaths of patients with lethal injections.

 My Thoughts
This story was gripping and read with the pacing of a thriller - the narrator was new to me but kept me gripped throughout without overdoing the drama.  Although the outcome of the storm and the fact that some patients were euthanized was known at the start of the book, I found myself anxiously listening to hear the details and the analysis that was not well understood outside of this book. The author tells the story from a neutral viewpoint and didn't demonize the doctors, nurses or officials but let the facts speak for themselves.

One statement that really stayed with me was that the lack of planning on so many levels is actually the failure of morality in the situation - not necessarily the actions of any individual. During Hurricane Sandy in NYC, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, I watched on television as they evacuated patients from NYU Hospital because the storm waters flooded the lower levels of the hospitals which is where the generators were located - the same situation faced by Memorial. I hope our government and public health officials commit themselves to adequate disaster planning so patients never have to face what was faced at Memorial.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sunday Salon: June 1, 2014

The Sunday

The Scene: 9 am - on the couch, coffee in hand. Enjoying fresh berries from yesterday's Farmer's Market with some plain greek yogurt

Reading: I am currently reading Cutting Teeth by Julie Fierro  - so far, it has provided an interesting insight into the world of the Mommy culture including one mother's paranoia and the constant anxiety that plagues her. Last week I finished The Widow's Guide to Sex and Dating by Carole Radziwill. It was very well-written but I am not sure how much I liked the characters. It was good to finally read the book after watching the drama of "bookgate" on the reality show in which the author stars  - Real Housewives of New York City (RHONY is my guilty pleasure!)  In audio,  I am still working on Americanah - it is very good but long. This week I also hope to finish The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham - I have it on CD and listened to the first half on a drive a few weeks ago. I'll be driving again this week and plan to finish it off. 

Blogging: Oh dear, things have been slow here.  I am reading a lot but having trouble settling down to write posts.  Thanks for sticking with me - I hope to get my blog ging back on track soon!

This week was BEA and I loved reading about all the signings, sightings, etc over at the Javits.  Unfortunately, due to some work commitments, I wasn't able to make it over there this week. I  did make it to one party in the evening - Harper Collins hosted us at their offices and provided a review of their Fall books and then a happy hour with bloggers and authors. It was great to see so many familiar faces and to catch up.  Thanks to Diane at Book Chick Di for this picture of me with author Adriana Trigiani.

Shannon at River City Reading posted part 1 of her BEA wrap-up today if you are interested in hearing what went on. 

Watching : Not much other than my guilty pleasure of RHONY! 

Looking Forward To: Week 2 of the Couch to 5 K program - I am so excited to be back running (well, jogging as this article so aptly differentiated the two!) I tried a running class about two months ago but found it as too much jostling for my abdomen post surgery and had to drop out.  But now I can run without issue and am glad to be on the road again. 

Grateful: For the ability to get out and move in this gorgeous weather. Planning to milk it before it gets hot and humid in the city! 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl: Billie Breslin is a young woman with an amazing sense of taste - she can identify even the most subtle ingredients in a bite of food. She leaves her home in California and arrives in NY to work at the preeminent foodie magazine, Delicious!. Her colleagues quickly learn about her special skill and it earns her their respect and some acceptance into her new world. Billie needs acceptance - she has lived in her older, prettier sister's shadow and considers herself awkward. When Delicious! is suddenly and abruptly shut down, Billie is thrown into uncertainty.  While figuring out her next steps, she discovers a series of letters sent by a young girl, Lulu, to James Beard while he was at Delicious! during WWII. Although only a young girl, Lulu has a lot of lessons for Billie and reading her letters becomes a way for Billie to face some things in her own life which she was tried to avoid.

Lulu lived in Ohio during WWII while her father was fighting overseas and her mother was working at a factory that made planes for the war effort. Although living with constant uncertainty about her father's safety and worries about getting by on the rationed food that was available, Lulu has a sunny outlook which comes right through the letters. With a passion for cooking and baking, she writes Mr. Beard for advice on recipes and ultimately their correspondence develops into one in which Lulu provides updates on her life and even reveals some of her anxieties about the fate of her father and her mother's ability to cope with it all. Billie looked forward to finding each letter (they had been hidden with cryptic clues by a librarian that had worked at Delicious!) and seeing what was happening with Lulu.  As Lulu matured and transformed, so did Billie.

My Thoughts
 This book offers a rich exploration of food, New York City, life during WWII and tops it off with the coming of age story of Billie Breslin.  Like a well-made dish, it has multiple layers and surprises you as you savor it. I was torn between whether I enjoyed the storyline with Billie in current day or the storyline with Lulu set in the 1940's more - both characters have something to hide which is ultimately revealed through the story and that kept me reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it will be on my Top 10 for 2014 for sure! I have not read the author's memoirs but I am certainly a fan of her fiction debut.

For other thoughts on the book, you can visit the blogs on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma: Ari Kong is an eighteen year old girl who was adopted from China by her Chinese-American mother, Charlie, when she was an infant. Raised in the San Francisco suburbs, Ari has always suffered from a sense of displacement even though her own adoptive mother is Chinese and she doesn't look as out of place in her own family as some of her fellow adoptees who were adopted by white families. This sense of displacement drives her back to China and the orphanage from which she was adopted where she begins a self-destructive spiral. Meanwhile, her mother, Charlie, worries about her daughter and wonders where the bubbly infant she brought home from China is - their relationship is now fraught with tension and resentment. In addition to concern over her daughter, Charlie is also coping with her own mother, Gran, who came to the US from China as the privileged daughter of a doctor and was educated at Bryn Mawr. Gran is disappointed by her daughter Charlie's choice to adopt from China, especially without a husband, and doesn't hold her tongue. Three generations of Kong women in crisis and unable to understand each other.

Ari Kong is in some ways a typical teenager  - she resists her mother's involvement in her life and shows her little respect. Her issues, however, are deeper and relate to her conflicted emotions about her adoption. She is desperate to know where she really came from and the story behind how she was left on the steps of a department store. The pain of knowing she was left and potentially not loved cannot be assuaged even by the knowledge that she was wanted by her adoptive mother who traveled to China to get her and poured herself into helping her daughter assimilate and ensuring she honored her Chinese heritage.

Gran is a prickly character who prides herself on her education and privileged background and how she elevated herself above other Chinese immigrants. Her goal for her own daughters was total assimilation - she gave them American names and did not celebrate Chinese holidays. She is inexplicably disappointed to learn her own daughter is going to China to adopt a girl - a baby with no history and who may come from poor and uneducated parents. She has been hardened by her own immigrant experience and can show no compassion or support to her daughter or granddaughter. She even rebuffs her daughter for crying when she met Ari and wishes her daughter could display her own stoic reserve

Charlie is the character caught in between - she is trapped between her mother and her daughter and receives understanding from neither. She seems to be sleepwalking through life - working long hours at her job as a public defender and coming home to the strife of a teenager in crisis. Her older sister, Les, also pushes Charlie around and tries to tell her what to do. Despite adopting a child, Charlie seems to have nothing that is hers - no intimate relationship with a man, no satisfaction or respect at work, and no support from her own family - most especially her daughter Ari.

My Thoughts
This book is told from alternating views - each chapter is told from one of the Kong women's point of view. As usual with this device, it is interesting to see how each looks at the same event since their perspectives are so different and they react to things so differently. The author expertly explores issues with international adoption and the process of assimilation. It is interesting to see how the effects of immigration reverberate through the generations of Kong women and demonstrates how much we are shaped by events even when we are not conscious of the impact and how it drives our behaviors.

Throughout the book, my sympathy went to Charlie - she is epitome of the "sandwich" generation and seems to have nothing satisfying her in her own life. She lives for to others - at work and at home - and seems lost. I did want to see some strength from Charlie and got frustrated at times with her passivity and her lack of fight. The book offers a fascinating exploration of family dynamics and how we never truly escape them.

You can read other's perspectives on the book at the TLC Tour Stops