Review: A Gathering of Old Men

A Gathering of Old MenA Gathering of Old Men
By Ernest J. Gaines
(Vintage, Paperback, 9780679738909, June 1992, 224pp.)

The Short of It:

A short but powerful read.

The Rest of It:

Borrowed from Goodreads:

Set on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation in the 1970s, A Gathering of Old Men is a powerful depiction of racial tensions arising over the death of a Cajun farmer at the hands of a black man.

If you’ve been watching the news lately, racial tension is at an all-time high. How fitting that our book club chose A Gathering of Old Men for this month’s meeting. Of course, we picked the book back in January so we had no idea how it would mesh with current events but mesh, it certainly does.

The story is told very simply and perhaps that is what makes it so powerful. The book opens with the death of a Cajun farmer and in order to protect the person who did it, Candy, a white woman, confesses to the crime. Realizing that many will not believe her story, she gathers a group of elderly black men, all with shotguns, thinking that it will be impossible to investigate the crime if she and others come forward and take responsibility for what happened.

This story has many narrators, all of them distinct. With so many narrators, sometimes it’s hard to follow a story through but I enjoyed the different points of view. This is a book that you should take some time reading. It’s short but there is a lot to digest and think about. And when these men come together to stand-up for what they believe in, the outcome is somewhat unexpected.

My book club will be discussing this book during the holiday gathering that we have every year so I hope we actually get to discuss the book. I’m curious to hear everyone’s thoughts.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at MemorialFive Days at Memorial
By Sheri Fink
(Crown, Hardcover, 9780307718969, September 2013, 576pp.)

The Short of It:

A nearly impossible to believe account of what happened at Memorial Medical Center after the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Rest of It:

I don’t know what I was doing when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 but let me tell you, I had no idea that any of the accounts in this book took place. Fink provides a detailed account of the five days immediately following Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that affected Memorial Medical Center. I will provide some highlights:

  • The lack of power was a problem, as was the lack of fuel for the emergency generators which happened to be below flood level.
  • Hospital staff was limited, and those that were there had their families and pets staying there with them.
  • No running water, meant no use of the facilities and the back-up of human waste was impossible to contain.
  • Many patients required life-saving assistance and without power, the care of said patients posed a problem.
  • Rescue was made by helicopter but getting patients to the helipad without elevators presented a huge challenge.
  • It was hot. SWAMPY hot and without AC or fans, some of the patients declined rapidly.
  • DOCTORS ADMINISTERED LETHAL DOSES OF MEDS TO THOSE WHO MAY NOT SURVIVE THE ORDEAL.

Did you read that last one? After five days, there were still patients in the building with no way to get them out. These were the most critical cases or in some cases, the most elderly. The staff was told that they MUST evacuate which meant leaving these patients behind. One doctor in particular, Dr. Anna Pou, made the choice to “make patients comfortable” by giving them what was essentially a lethal concoction of two medications to make them sleep…forever.

The first half of the book provides a detailed account of those five days and the second half covers the legal proceedings that followed. The first half was riveting, the second half, not so much and could have been shortened up, in my opinion. This was a hard book to digest for many reasons. The idea of a doctor deciding a person’s fate is alarming but don’t they do it all the time?

While reading, I found myself thinking “No! These people are bat-shit crazy!” but then a few pages later my opinion would change. In the back of my mind, I have convinced myself that something else could have been done, but these people were exhausted. Were they even capable of making such big decisions? No sleep. Limited food. Horrible conditions. I’m not sure.

My main problem with the book, and one that kept coming up for me over and over is that Fink didn’t appear to have an opinion of her own on the situation. She’s a journalist but she received her M.D. from Stanford so she must have a medical opinion on what took place. Right? If it was there, I didn’t read it.

I think anyone who works in the medical profession can learn something about disaster recovery by reading this book but really, anyone interested in disaster recovery can learn a lot from all of the mistakes made. The hospital and the administration and staff were not prepared for such a disaster. Simple things like outlet placement by windows, or the fact that the generators were in the basement below the flood plain, stuff like that.

This book was read for my book club and it was a lively discussion.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down
Never Fall Down
By Patricia McCormick
(Balzer + Bray, Hardcover, 9780061730931, May 2012, 224pp.)

The Short of It:

McCormick delivers a heartbreaking account of survival.

The Rest of It:

Never Fall Down is about Arn Chorn-Pond and how he survived the Cambodian Genocide under the Khmer Rouge. I know many of you have read about the Cambodian Genocide before. There are lots of books on the subject, but what struck me about this one is that it’s tied to music and it’s told in novel form, but based on true events.

Arn and his family are forced to leave their home with thousands of others, to march along the road with just a few possessions and very little food. Their journey goes on for a very long time. Their only order is to keep walking. As the people around them die of dehydration and lack of food, Arn, eleven at the time, is forced to witness the countless killings of those too weak to continue. When Arn is chosen by the Khmer Rouge to play an instrument, he feels as if his life depends on it, and it does. He learns to play the khim, a rather difficult instrument to pick up, and as a result, falls in favor with some of the Khmer soldiers.

However, this brief respite (if you can even call it that) does not shield him from the horrors of war. Every day, someone is killed. Kids he’s come to know, or music teachers or other educated people. His slow starvation and the effects of malnutrition begin to take their toll. But through it all, Arn remains positive, hopeful even. When given a tiny bit of food, he opts to give it to those who need it more. But when forced to take up arms and fight alongside the Khmer Rouge, he becomes what he calls “a tiger” which is something he regrets and probably one of the hardest things he has to work through once he makes it to the States.

Arn’s story is truly amazing. His strong-willed personality and his love of music is what sets him apart. This was a tough read because of the subject matter, but McCormick’s decision to tell it in novel form gives the reader the distance he/she needs to experience the horrors but from a few paces back. Also, this isn’t a one-sided retelling of what we’ve all read before. This book touches on members of the Khmer Rouge and one soldier in particular that helps Arn survive his horrible ordeal.

The other thing to point out, is that this book was initially geared towards younger readers. Because of this, the material is very easy to read but at the same time, gives you a lot to consider and discuss. My book club discussed the book last night and we had the opportunity to do a teleconference with a survivor, which really added to the discussion. The book gives you a very realistic account of what went on during that time. There is also some humor and a lot of heartbreak. I listened to a portion on audio and it was a very emotional experience. I highly recommend the book and audio. It was a National Book Award finalist in 2012.

If you are interested in Arn’s story, I suggest you check out this video to get a good sense of the author’s purpose as well as Arn’s message to “never fall down” to always rise up.

 

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt
(Little, Brown and Company, Hardcover, 9780316055437,  October 2013, 784pp.)

The Short of It:

Memory, in and of itself, has the ability to restore and destroy.

The Rest of It:

While visiting a New York art museum, Theodore Decker, thirteen, is separated from his mother in an explosion that leaves him dazed and confused. In the immediate moments after the blast, Theo sees, and takes, a valuable painting for safekeeping. Not fully understanding what has happened or why, he stumbles out of the rubble but his life is forever frozen in time. When he realizes he has lost his dear mother, he finds himself floating through life, encountering many obstacles along the way and revisiting those final moments in the museum over and over again.

This is one hell of a book.

It’s long and I know some readers who won’t even touch it because of its length but they are really doing themselves a disservice because it is really a fine piece of work. I had planned to read it “someday” but when it was chosen for book club, I was pushed encouraged to read it a little bit sooner than I had planned and then it was awarded the Pulitzer which piqued my interest even more.

The Goldfinch  is an adventure. It meanders, there is action but not that much of it and it’s repetitive when it comes to behaviors like the excessive drinking and drug use that riddle its pages. But even with all of this going on, it’s incredibly heartbreaking and yes, beautiful. At first glance, Theo seems to be handling his loss quite well, but with each page, his pain and devastation become more real, more tangible and he becomes more reliant on the actions of others to save him. Not to mention the painting and the significance behind him taking it in the first place. Its purpose, so it seems, is to remind him of that fateful day but as it certainly does just that, it’s also a constant reminder of what he needs to do to keep it safe.

This is a book with some memorable characters too. Boris, the Ukrainian kid Theo hooks up with, is part hoodlum, part philosopher but more than anything, Theo’s best friend. Think “The Artful Dodger”. Popper, a mutt that Theo takes pity on, ends up being a loyal companion to Theo and one cannot forget Hobie, the lovable furniture maker who takes Theo in when he has nowhere else to go. These unlikely characters come together to essentially save Theo from himself, but it’s not always evident that that is what is happening. There are lots of pitfalls along the way and the journey can be tedious, but in the end, I found myself loving the story, wishing I had taken more time with the last few pages. It’s about love and trust and redemption and what’s not to like with its art world setting?

Talking about it here, I realize just how much I miss the characters. So, even though it’s long and intimidating to some, I urge you to pick it up because it’s really a book to experience first-hand.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
By Anne Bronte
(Oxford University Press, USA, Paperback, 9780199207558, May 2008, 441pp.)

The Short of It:

A scandalous novel for its time.

The Rest of It:

Published in 1848, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Graham, a woman whose unfortunate marriage forces her to make some difficult decisions for herself and her son.

This book has a little bit of everything to make a reader happy. There’s the scandalous story of Helen and her husband Author Huntingdon. Probably one of the most self-indulgent men you could ever meet. His love of drink and fine things leads them to financial ruin and Helen has no choice but to  leave him, which of course is frowned upon greatly by society at large. She ends up at Wildfell Hall and introduces herself as a widow.  She quickly becomes the infatuation of Gilbert, who lives across the way. A new, interesting woman that he can talk to. So unlike the frivolous girls he comes across daily. But when another man enters the picture, Gilbert questions her and in return, is handed her diary which tells her sordid tale.

Most of the story is told through diary entries. At first, I didn’t mind this but it went on for quite a long time and I began to lose interest in the story itself, but the real discussion is the history of the book itself. My book club picked this book for June and there was plenty to say about it. For one, Anne Bronte based many of the characters on people she knew, she wrote it under a pen name and it was originally published in three volumes, and when she passed away, her sister Charlotte refused its republication.  It wasn’t until Charlotte’s death that it was published in one volume. Charlotte felt the book was “course” and not fit for publication.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an important book for many reasons. It deals with some very heavy themes for the time, gender relations, motherhood, alcoholism and  abuse in marriage. Even though it was written in 1848, it has a very contemporary feel to it, probably because many of the issues Bronte includes are issues that we still deal with today.

The one criticism we all shared, was that the ending seemed rushed. Perhaps Bronte’s illness forced her to finish the book quickly or perhaps the book in its republication was cut down when made into one volume? What fascinated me the most was the Bronte family. Such talent and yet, so much tragedy. The three sisters all died from consumption and the brother became an alcoholic.

Overall, I am beginning to believe that I am more of a Bronte gal, than an Austen gal. Last year, I began Jane Eyre and have been reading it slowly (and loving it) and I must say The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a refreshing surprise.

Source: Borrowed
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Review: And the Mountains Echoed


And the Mountains Echoed
And the Mountains Echoed
By Khaled Hosseini
(Riverhead Hardcover, Hardcover, 9781594631764, May 2013, 416pp.)

The Short of It:

A multi-generational saga that begins with a difficult decision, a decision that manages to echo repeatedly throughout the lives of this family.

The Rest of It:

I can’t say that I’ve read Hosseini before this book. I was supposed to. The Kite Runner was a book club pick many years ago but I could not get into the writing so I gave up on it. However, this was not the case with And the Mountains Echoed. In fact, I was immediately pulled into the story and kept with it no matter how many families appeared or what happened to them, but I must be honest, I lost interest during the second half of the novel. For me, there seemed to be too much going on and too many characters to keep track of.

But, that is why it’s good to read these types of books with a book club. You get to discuss the hell out of it and then after all of the discussion, you typically have a new-found appreciation for the writing and that is very much the case here.

The story begins in an Afghan village. Abdullah is ten-years-old and his baby sister Pari,  is only three. They live with their father and step-mother but have struggled with money all of their lives. After losing a baby to the cold the previous winter, Abdullah’s father, Saboor, takes Pari to a wealthy family, where she will live out her remaining years. Abdullah is devastated by this decision. The two of them were very close and losing his sister causes him great pain. Saboor, also greatly affected, has to believe that he’s made the right decision. With so little food and the harsh winter ahead of her, he doesn’t see how keeping her would be in her best interest.

The story then bounces back and forth between Afghanistan and the West as we follow the families involved. All in all, I lost interest in the other generations. Their stories didn’t resonate with me as much as Pari’s or Abdullah’s for that matter, but I can’t deny the fact that Hosseini knows how to tell a story. He does.

As a book club pick, there was actually plenty to discuss. I worried that the conversation would fall flat but everyone had lots to say and most enjoyed reading it. What weighed heavily on me was Saboor’s decision to sell his daughter to the wealthy family. As harsh as the decision was, was it the best thing for her at the time? Most agreed that yes, it was. I wasn’t so sure. Surely, money and position do play a role in a girl’s survival, but was it a better life? I am still pondering the alternative and I finished the book a few weeks ago so that just goes to show you how the book manages to stay with you.

Have you read it? I can’t say it was a favorite but it made for some excellent discussion.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins
By Jess Walter
(Harper Perennial, Paperback, 9780061928178, April 2013, 352pp.)

The Short of It:

Fitting title for a book that just didn’t work for me.

The Rest of It:

This story bounces back and forth between 1962 and the present. Pasquale Tursi, an innkeeper at the not so illustrious Adequate View Inn, finds himself in the middle of a scandalous cover-up. Dee Moray, an actress on the set of Cleopatra is sent away to deal with her cancer. At least, that is what SHE has been told when in reality, what she is dealing with is an unwanted pregnancy and the father happens to be none other than Richard Burton himself.

The Italian setting is lovely as is Pasquale Tursi. Even with his broken English, he is wonderful but there isn’t nearly enough of him in this novel. And Dee? A pleasant girl but clueless. Not really anyone I wanted to get to know. And the entire Richard Burton back story? Please. I will say this, I liked the parts set in Italy much more than the parts of the story set in Los Angeles. That whole Hollywood scene just isn’t my thing and I live here!

Many have given this book high marks. It’s been described as hilarious and fun. I didn’t find it hilarious or fun. At times I found myself frustrated with the back and forth and other times, I just didn’t care what happened to these people. Had it not been a book club pick, I probably would have put it down. It seemed a little cartoonish and stereotypical and as deep as I dug, I didn’t find any depth whatsoever.

I will say this though, with Walter’s work being so well-received by others, I would absolutely read another book by him. I think in this case, the subject matter just didn’t work for me.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

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