Sisterland

One of my favorite writers is Curtis Sittenfeld.  I was so excited when I heard she had a new book out, a follow-up to her last novel, American Wife, which was released in 2008.  Was it that long ago?  5 years was a long time to wait for a new book!!  American Wife was a masterpiece, a fictionalized biography of Laura Bush.  This book, of course not a real biography, was intensely researched, and included many details of Mrs. Bush’s life.  It brought me to tears, and had me rethinking my opinion of the Bush family.  Sittenfeld is a great storyteller, and has a knack for evoking sympathy and emotion for the most unlikely characters.

Her newest book Sisterland9781410460189_p0_v1_s260x420 was released this summer to much anticipation.  This new tale focuses on the relationship of identical twins Daisy and Violet.  What I found most interesting about this book was the location: St Louis, my hometown.  After countless books that have been focused on New York, in which authors assume or expect readers to be either familiar – or interested – in the city, this was refreshing.  When referring to neighborhoods, restaurants, city landmarks, I knew exactly what she was talking about!  Setting may not always be the most important part of a novel, but for me the detail and attention paid to the city itself was incredible, considering Sittenfeld herself does not live there.

Unlike their appearance, the twins could not be more different.  After a rather unconventional upbringing, Daisy seeks stability and convention, while Violet is more of a free spirit.  With various flashbacks throughout the book, chroniciling their younger years, the novel begins while the women are 34.  The one thing that strengthens their bond is their clairvoyant abilities.  Daisy, in her attempts to be as “normal” as possible, has denied this gift, and has even changed her name – going by Kate (which comes from her middle name, Katherine).  Vi has embraced her power, and works as a medium.  The story is focused on Vi’s big prediction of an earthquake, based on the New Madrid fault line in Missouri, which gains worldwide recognition.  This, of course, creates drama between the two sisters.

“Of course I understood; even at her most impossible, Vi had never said or done anything I could not imagine saying or doing myself, if I had less self-control and respect for convention.  But her tone was rubbing me the wrong way, and I said, “Sorry to disappoint you.” – 97

Like all sisters, they fight, they disagree, and their lives follow different paths.  They also love and respect each other on a very deep level.  No matter what happens between these two, they have an unbreakable bond.  The detail of their upbringing takes this story to a dark place, but it also gives insight into their relationship.  They are both nurturers, yet in very different ways.

This is a really good book.  It’s not great, and it doesn’t measure up to the greatness of her earlier novels, Prep, and American Wife, but that’s a tall order!  After so long after her last novel was published, I of course gobbled it up!  Now onto the rest of my long list of new fall books!

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Dr Sleep

Today is the official release date for Dr. Sleep, Stephen King’s follow up to The Shining, coming almost 40 years after we last encountered Danny Torrance.  I pre-ordered this book a little bit ago, and can’t wait to get my hands on it!  More than any other book coming out this fall, I’m super excited to read it!  I’ve been a big King fan for many years, and I think The Shining was one of his best.  I’d heard rumors about him writing a sequel to The Shining, yet couldn’t imagine where the story would go after that book’s climactic end.

The Shining told the story of a hotel that was more than just haunted, it had soul, a spirit.  This soul seems to gain 9781476727653_p0_v5_s260x420increasing control over the mind of Danny’s father, a character made famous by the genius Jack Nicholson in the movie version of the novel.  The hotel plays a much more sinister part in the plot of the book, less so in the movie version.  The story is told from the perspective of Danny, who at the time his family moves to Overlook Hotel is around seven years old.  He is clairvoyant, and before their arrival at the hotel, he had not been able to understand or identify this exceptional capability.  It is another hotel employee that is able to help him harness his talent.  Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read The Shining, and plan to, you may want to avert your eyes!  Danny and his mother were able to escape at the end of the book, with the help of that same hotel worker.

It will be interesting to see where Dr Sleep picks up, now that Danny is approaching 50.  I’ve read a few previews of the book online and it seems as if Danny has struggled in his years since escaping the Overlook.  If you haven’t read The Shining yet, it’s time.  It’s one of King’s finest, and the movie really doesn’t do it justice.  If Dr Sleep is even half as good, I think I’ll be happy.

Anyone else excited about this one?

Living and Dying in Brick City

Over the summer I had the pleasure of reading several great works of non-fiction.  Just a few days ago I finished Living and Dying in Brick City: An E.R. Doctor Returns Home, by Samson Davis.  I read an earlier book of his, The Pactin which he collaborated with George Jenkins and and Rameck Hunt.  The special relationship he had with two other young men, from the same rough Newark, New Jersey is detailed.  They made a promise to each other that they would get through college together – and eventually become doctors.  I read this book when it first came out, amazed at their combined dedication – to each other, and their goal.  This latest memoir catches him about ten years later, with many years of E.R. experience under his belt.

In this book, Samson returns to the hospital his was born in, after completing med school – Beth Israel in Newark, NJ – Brick City, his city.  The book follows him in his experience there, not necessarily chronologically, as he tackles separate subjects in each chapter.  What makes his time there even more remarkable is the ongoing trend of college-educated professionals leaving Newark.  He made the decision to stay, and has been a pillar of the community.  In an interview with NPR, he describes the decision he made to come back.  The interview is worth a listen, his dedication to his community, to his people, is admirable.

His focus in this book is on some of the most pressing issues plaguing the city and community, followed by resources, gang violence, obesity, heart disease, advanced stage cancer, depression, abuse, STDs, and asthma.  These are not the only issues this poor community faces, these are the ones he seems to have the most experience with.  He describes the heartbreaking loss of his sister to AIDS, which seemed to strengthen his resolve.  The cultural implications of these issues are also explored.  An example of this is the stigma he describes or using condoms, which of course leads to higher rates of unplanned pregnancies and STDs.  He also uses the example of a prevalence of fear and mistrust of doctors and hospitals within the African American community.  At the end of each chapter, he lists many resources so that people needing help for themselves or loved one can find it.  Unfortunately, this well-intentioned gesture will probably go unused.  Those who would most benefit from this information are probably not the ones picking up this book.

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He offers insight to the special challenges his community faces:  “Many times I’d found myself explaining to white folks that poverty and crime are not a factor of skin color and that there is nothing about being black or brown that makes a person inherently violent.  I’d argued that desperation and hopelessness often make poor people careless about their actions and the consequences.  Change the conditions, I’d said, and their lives would change.”

This is a strong statement, and he is speaking from a position of experience.  Poverty is at the root of many of the problems he’s attempting to tackle.  Outside the hospital, he is involved in numerous charities – some of which are reaching out to the community, attempting to address these pressing needs.  One thing stands at the middle of all of his work: education, making information available to those who need it, so that they can take charge of their health and well-being.  Another aspect of his focus on education is the work that he’s done in Newark, and in other impoverished and economically disadvantaged areas, is to encourage young people to stay in school.  Through public speaking, mentoring, and work throughout the community, he is making a difference.  A lot of attention has been paid to Newark in the past year or two.  This is just another perspective to add to the conversation on how to help.

The Fault in Our Stars

So summer is officially over.  Right?  Fall technically doesn’t start until later in the 9780525426417_p0_v2_s114x166month, but the pool is closed and kids are back in school.  I hope you were able to get a lot of great reading in this summer.  I’m sharing today one of the best books I’ve read in a while, one I saw on many best of the summer lists, although I’m not sure why.  At the end of this book I sobbed – not something you want to be doing at the beach or the pool!  This John Green gem details the lives of two teens who meet in a cancer support group.  Sounds uplifting, right?  Given that premise even in the beginning of the book, I was expecting something sappy and predictable.  I was wrong.

Of course the ending is sad, but not in the way one might expect.  And without giving away the ending, because this is a book you’ll want to pick up, I will say that Hazel and Augustus (Gus), who are the main characters, will find a place in your heart.  Their relationship is challenged from the start, and unlike other novels I’ve read dealing with cancer and loss, this one focuses on the perspective of the one afflicted with the disease.  Hazel experiences emotion and insight that is far beyond her age.  She wonders several times throughout the book what life would be like for her parents after she is gone.  Wow!  I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be so young dealing with those heavy issues.  She does so with an incredible amount of grace, humor, and humility, while only 17.

John Green is a popular young adult writer you may not be familiar with.  The Fault in Our Stars is one that transcends his genre, and was on the New York Times Bestseller List for quite some time.    It is poignant, and funny, and gives new perspective to the cancer experience.  Green has written several teen novels, this most recent one was released in January of last year.  (Now kicking myself for not having read this book sooner!)

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer.  But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer.  Depression is a side effect of dying.  (Cancer is also a side effect of dying.  Almost everything is, really.)”

This story broke me.  I really had to put it down and pause…  And grab a tissue!    A movie version of the book is slated for release next year – this one I can’t wait to see.  2 big things to look forward to in this movie: Shailene Woodley, from The Secret Life of the American Teenager and The Descendants, starring as Hazel, and Laura Dern as her mother!!  I will be there – with a bucket of popcorn, and a box of tissues!!