Monday, January 30, 2012

The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein

Perhaps because I grew up in New York City and counted the Metropolitan Museum as one of my stomping grounds, or perhaps because one afternoon several years ago I took the elevator down to the basement and wandered through aisles and aisles of similar chairs—I loved revisiting the museum in Linda Fairstein’s novel The Bone Vault.

I really didn’t care who murdered whom or even why— save when knowing those things enhanced my foray through the museum’s labyrinths. Fairstein is an expert when it comes to setting the stage for her mysteries. There is no detail too small if it adds to the atmosphere of the story.

The setting is another character in this tale of museums stealing the skeletons of indigenous people without any regard to them as people. Within the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum—often buried in a warren of rarely used or seen rooms —are the bones of native peoples. The desire to return the bones sets off the mystery part of this novel.

Since I knew that the murderer would be caught and his heinous crime brought to light, I allowed myself the luxury of delighting in the tour of the museums.

TBR Challenge

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This is both a fascinating story of cells that proliferated and benefitted countless number of people who suffered from a wide array of disorders and a tale that highlights the enormous divide between the races and between different economic levels.

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks , a poor Africa-American woman, died of cervical cancer. Her five young children grew up without a mother and without any knowledge of what had happened to her cells.

She received treatment in the "colored" ward of John Hopkins. When she died her tissue was removed and cultured without any prior permission and those cells were the first to reproduce in a lab. They were named HeLa and would , in time, become available to labs all over the world.

Rebecca Skloot reminds readers that Henrietta was more than cells. The poverty of the family is palpable and while their mothers's cells earned money for a number of pharmaceutical firms they were without medical insurance. Perhaps some of the medicines they used were discovered through the use of their mother's cells.

I wonder if Skloot knew it would take her years to complete this book, to gain the trust of Henrietta's children? Many ethical questions are raised and certainly things have changed since 1951.

What these children, now adults, wanted was to know more about their mother. And in some respects Skloot was able to provide them with some personal information.

What the reader is left with is the awareness of the gulf that exists between races and social classes.

Ebook Challenge

The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

I've never been too enamored with hypnotism, but this book certainly whet my appetite to learn more about its use as therapy.

There's been a horrific murder— a couple and their young daughter have been found hacked to death. The only survivor is their son who is in the hospital with multiple stab wounds. The detective assigned to the case, Joona Linna, wants to question the son, but his condition and the trauma make that risky. He wants the boy hypnotized in order to garner some leads about who could have perpetrated this grisly deed. He's also concerned about an older daughter who is not living with the family.


Years beforehand Dr. Bork, a well known psychiatrist, had been an expert hypnotist. We learn that he has ceased to use that method of treatment because of some event that happened with his last therapy group. Joona persuades Dr. Bork, whose marriage is unstable and who pops pills because of persistent pain, to question the young man under hypnosis.

Then the domino effect begins—Dr. Bork puts the young man under and discovers that he is psychotic and he in fact killed his parents and wants to kill his sister. We also learn of the last therapy group and the cataclysmic revelations and traumas his therapy unleashed. Add to that scenario there's a fourteen year old boy who has been abducted, Nazi like characters who engage in bullying.

The storyline becomes more like a tentacle with numerous feelers—with ample space devoted to the horrific backgrounds of the clients engaged in therapy. The author's , yes there are two —a husband and wife—Alexandria and Alexander Ahndoril, place the blame for the twisted lives of Dr. Bork's therapy group on the failure of a mother's nurturing.

The setting of the book, Swedish winter, lends a shiver or two to the story.

Library Book Challenge

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Art of War by Steven Pressfield

This is a rather unusual book about creativity and writing. The worst enemy of writers, or people who want to write, is resistance. That insidious force robs us of creativity.

Pressfield says, "The inability to move forward melts when you open a reference book." It may act as a trigger to propel you in a direction. I once found that reading an article about someone who dared to accomplish a risky endeavor became the impetus for writing about taking risks.

In today's paper there's an article about the woman who just completed a solo ski trek across Antarctica in fifty-nine days. Reading the article made me think of solitary pursuits and what that means for people. There's an article or short story bubbling to the surface.

"Thinking in propinquities." What's in proximity to what you're writing.

Pressman quotes Anne Lamott ,who thinks most of her first drafts are trash—ready for a complete over haul. Those first words, pages, entire stories are not the finished piece. They are the way to get down the story.

Paragraphs are referred to as furniture and when you think about furniture you realize that there are lots of options to move it around. Pressman suggests that you do it the old fashioned way—print out the draft, cut out paragraphs and move them around. Don't neglect to write in the margins. And what are you writing? You're asking the paragraph what it means. "This is called indexing."

Then he suggests asking yourself questions" Have I repeated myself, just used different language?"

Are there too many self referencing statement starting with I?

Have I checked all my adjectives and nouns?Are they doing their job?

He also suggest writing five pages a day. F

I do like his punch list. (The words in italics are mine.)

•" toss out your writing prompts
write with intent
write what you know ( I'm not certain I always agree with that statement)—there's always research
tell the truth ( I like this as a mantra)
make every page drive a story forward ( even description moves the story along)
What is this about? ( I often ask people to state in one sentence what the story is about.)
take notes, use references if needed —( nothing turns a reader off more quickly than a fact they know to be erroneously reported)
focus—
think in propinquities
map out your structure
write a draft ( don't worry about that first draft—it's not supposed to be perfect)
choose your audience ( most important)
I love this one —edit with murder on your mind "

Library Book Challenge


The Memoir Project—A Throughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life by Marion Roach Smith

I first picked up this book because the title caught my attention. How often we hear about the importance of first sentences—the hook line, paragraph. Creating a title for a story is important, but selecting the title for a book may be what gets the browser to pick up a book.

I've read several books about memoir and yet still anticipate finding something new—revelatory.

Marion Smith Roach quotes Hemingway's words—What you leave out of a story is perhaps more important than what you put in.

And just because something happened doesn't mean that it was either interesting or fits in with the story you're trying to tell. I like the fact that she reminds writers that you are not the story, that readers must relate to what the piece is about.

What is your purpose?

"If it's something that happened to me, does it become universal?"

"Think of memoir as laying out only a few cards..., from an entire deck, one at a time."

Each card moves the story forward— adding to the story you are trying to tell. Scenes. You are writing scenes.

While I didn't read anything particularly new, I did like the way the book was constructed and the emphasis on scenes.

The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

David Ebershoff's inspiration for this arresting book is the true story of Einar Wegener, a minor Danish painter of landscapes. Einar is married to Greta, an American who paints rather pedestrian portraits.

It is Greta who initially realizes that within her husband there is another personna. She suggests that he pose for a portrait—which includes stockings and high heeled shoes because the model she is painting was unable to finish the sitting and it is the bottom half of the painting that needs to be finished.

The date—1925. Almost immediately Einar feels comfortable in the dress and the stockings. He has crossed over into another world, one that feels authentic.

From this point on Einar inhabits more and more of the Lily side of himself. Greta encourages him to enter this other world. It appears that he is so androgynous that when he dresses as Lily no one suspects that he is a man.

This isn't a case of Einar cross dressing. He is a woman caught in the body of a man.

Eventually he can no longer live in this bind and Lily cannot not be bound within his body. In 1931 a doctor is found who will perform the surgery to transform him into Lily—surgically. Einar will be eliminated and Lily will emerge fully. Drastic surgery leaves Lily weak and in continual pain.

Since there are few detailed letters or diaries, David Ebershoff creates and imagines the dialogue as well as many of the characters in the novel. This is a rare love story. Greta, her own needs toned down, fully encourages Einar to become Lily. She loves him. She loves Lily.

The author's crafting of the setting is rich and the reader senses the atmosphere of Copenhagen, Paris and Dresden through the details he selects.

Despite most of the story being imagined within Ebershoff's mind, I could accept the reality of the emotional turmoil surrounding Einar.

No one who reads The Danish Girl will finish the book without being moved by the inner turmoil of anyone caught between who they know they are and who they appear to be on the surface.

Library book challenge

Monday, January 9, 2012

Breathing Space A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx By Heidi B. Neumark

This book should be required reading for any city planner, public health manager, or educator. It needs to be read by people who live far away from the "inner city".

Reverend Neumark, a Lutheran minister, not only became the pastor at a church in the South Bronx, but she lived across the street. When gunshots rang out she heard them. She lived there for nineteen years and during that time she witnessed great transformations-- new housing, a brand new high school, people whose lives were turned around, an expanded church.

And she brings to light some of the horrors-- the South Bronx is where the garbage is dumped, where a new prison went up, where people were shunted off to when a city planner gentrified parts of the city.

More children suffer from asthma in the South Bronx then anywhere else in the city.

But she also learns from her congregation-- there's a boldness of worship. For many of the people in the congregation this is the first time ithat they feel accepted, wanted, beautiful.

The church programs attend to the needs of the community-- all faith based.

One line in particular stays with me-- when a shot is fired the finger on the gun isn't only the shooter, but all of us.

I grew up in the Bronx-- not the South Bronx, but nott the swanky part of the Bronx. This is a book that touches your soul. Many times my eyes filled with tears-- both because of the harshness of life for many residents and because of the transformation of lives for others.

Library Book Challenge

The Messenger of Magnolia Street by River Jordan

Nehemiah, the protagonist of River Jordan's book, like his biblical namesake is called upon to save a town. The Nehemiah of the Bible was in exile in Babylon where he was the royal cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes.

Nehemiah in Jordan's book had left his hometown of Shibboleth, Alabama to work as an aide to a senator in Washington, D.C.

In the biblical account Nehemiah is saddened when he receives news of the Jews who remained in Jerusalem and were not in exile. The wall of " Jerusalem is broken down and the gates destroyed by fire." The king noted that his cupbearer is overwhelmed with sorrow and asks why? He asks the cause and Nehemiah tells him and also requests leave to go to the city and help with the rebuilding.

In the book Nehemiah is approached by his older brother Billy and Trice, a high school girlfriend , informing him that something or someone is sniffing out the life of Shibboleth and only he can help save the town.

The biblical Nehemiah, in consort with Ezra and the people, rebuilds the wall and turns the people back to the path of obedience to God.

With his work done he returns to Persia, but at a later date he returns to Jerusalem because the people are backsliding.

River Jordan follows the biblical story. Shibboleth is fading away-- losing its light. The people no longer are aware of their purpose. Perhaps this is an allegory where light is covered over by darkness.

There's a regional feel to the story and not because it takes place in the south, but because the theme is typical of that region where the bible holds more of a hold on the imagination. What is at stake in this well- told story is of great importance. People in Shibboleth forgot what is real and either were lulled into a somnolent state or went after false idols.

And the title of the town also has a biblical connection: Judges 12:6


library book challenge