The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All MaladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Do I really need to summarize this one? Mukherjee has put together an amazingly detailed, complex look at the history of cancer. It’s called a biography because cancer is so complicated and its history is so interesting that to call it anything else would be wrong. In this book, cancer is an evil enemy, one that doctors have come close to defeating but, as you will learn if you read it, may never be eradicated completely as it is ever-growing and changing.

I have to be honest and say that The Emperor of All Maladies took me forever to read. I chose to listen to the audio version, and I must admit that it wasn’t the kind of book that I compulsively listened to – in fact, it was quite the opposite. While it was interesting, I would stop listening for a while and had to force myself to pick it up and start again. About halfway through, I almost gave up on it, but since I was so far involved I made myself finish. While I’m glad I finished the book, it was LONG. And while I know it was fascinating, I think you have to be really patient to get through it.

And yes, the book was incredibly interesting. This is a complete look at cancer over the years – how far the research and treatments have come, what the doctors have learned, etc. But it was also scary because as much progress has been made, people still die from cancer every single day. There are still so many unknowns about cancer, and Mukherjee was not afraid to point out that fact.

I don’t know. I can recommend the book, if you are patient enough to get through it. And/or if the topic interests you enough. But it was a difficult read for me. And I know with absolute certainty I would not have made it through the print version. If you are an impatient reader like myself, and you are determined to read this one, I would recommend the audio.


Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Published by New Directions Books (2000 edition)

In 1950’s London a group of elderly friends suddenly begins receiving strange phone calls – a voice says, “Remember you must die” and promptly hangs up. These calls soon have these people examining their own, and others’, mortality, and it also spurns secrets and lies coming to the surface.

Memento Mori, for me, was … interesting. Upon finishing it, I had this feeling like I was missing something. Like it’s an incredibly profound piece of literature and I couldn’t quite get why. I feel that there are a ton of metaphors and poignant things being said in this book but I maybe missed some of them. Like I’m not quite smart enough to understand.

However, the book did make me think. I don’t think I’ve read another book told from the point of view of the elderly. There is a woman here who lives in a nursing home, a woman who cared for a dying person, another one with dementia, and to be honest I don’t give a lot of thought to what it must be like to be an older person in our society. The book definitely made me think about that.

I don’t know, I think I need to take more time to digest this one before I can really decide how I feel about the experience of reading it and what it really means. Again, I get that this is an important work of fiction and I saw many interesting themes throughout the novel, but overall I think I missed a lot too. Maybe I should read it again?

Have you read Memento Mori? Or anything else by Muriel Spark? This is my first time experiencing her work so I’m curious to know what you guys think.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

How to Save a Life   by, Sara Zarr  How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Published by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette

Jill MacSweeny is doing everything she can to cope with the fact that her dad died. Unfortunately, she’s not coping well, as she’s isolated herself from her boyfriend, her friends, even her mother – the only person who can truly understand what Jill is going through. When her mom decides to adopt a baby, Jill can’t believe that her mom would want to replace her dad with a baby, like that’s even possible. Mandy Kalinowski understands what it’s like to grow up unloved – her mother never wanted her and doesn’t shy away from letting Mandy know what a burden she has been her whole life. When she becomes pregnant, she knows she needs to provide a better life for her baby than the one she has. When Jill and Mandy are thrown together, their worlds turn upside-down and they are each forced to reexamine everything they thought was true about themselves and their lives.

Remember how I said before that there are some YA authors who are Saying Things? Well, Sara Zarr is another one of those authors. How to Save a Life is about so much – grief, choice, poverty, borderline child abuse, growing up – but it’s also an incredibly touching, moving novel that you will be unable to forget.

I LOVED these characters. Jill is in such a sad and difficult place after losing her father, her most favorite person in the whole world, but at the same time she is just so feisty and raw and real. She is so sure of herself, she knows herself so well, in a way that very few teens, very few people really, actually are. And Mandy is just the complete opposite. Her view of herself has been shaped entirely by what her mother has taught her, so when she meets Jill and her mother and sees a different way of living and of being in the world, she doesn’t know what it all means. She is so unsure of herself and has zero confidence, she can’t believe that people will be able to love her baby, much less Mandy herself. It’s incredibly sad to watch but ends up being an amazing personal journey by the end of it – for both Jill and Mandy.

How to Save a Life made me cry. In public, no less. Had I not been in public, on a plane, I would have sobbed, but as it was I attempted to silence my tears. There are so many things I want to tell you about this novel, but I don’t want to ruin its beauty or its brilliance by sharing everything… so just read it. I loved this book in a major way and I would love to know what you think when you read it too.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheers

A Thousand LivesA Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheers
Published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher

A Thousand Lives is an extremely thorough, well-researched account of what really happened at the Peoples Temple church that caused so many people to follow Jim Jones into Jonestown and to murder their children and kill themselves all because of this one man.

I was born in 1983, so I grew up with only a vague understanding/knowledge of Jonestown. I can remember seeing images of all those people dead at Jonestown on TV after some other (much smaller) mass murder/suicide, and just like everyone else of my generation I have used the phrase “drink the Kool-aid” without really thinking about what it really means. I read Scheers’ memoir, Jesus Land, a few years ago and it was definitely interesting.

Anyway, A Thousand Lives is fascinating. Fascinating in that car crash kind of way – you don’t want to look but you just can’t help it. I’m sure that anyone who is familiar with the tragedy at Jonestown wonders how on earth these people could be so brainwashed as to kill themselves for a “cause”. Well, the story is not anywhere near as simple as one would imagine. As Scheers carefully uncovers, the people who followed Jim Jones were originally following a man who believed in social justice, equality, and love for all people. By the time his “church” morphed into something else, many of these people had given everything to Jones and his church – their homes, their cars, all of their money, and no longer had anything else BUT the church. And at Jonestown it gets even scarier – their passports were taken from them, they were literally not allowed to leave Jonestown or have contact with anyone from the US, they couldn’t escape even if they wanted to, and many did want to. And as for the mass suicide, well it becomes obvious when reading A Thousand Lives that for many of these people it wasn’t suicide but murder. The whole thing is just so very devastating.

If you have even the slightest curiosity about Jonestown, I would highly recommend reading A Thousand Lives. Scheers expertly gives the reader a complete picture of this tragedy from beginning to disastrous end.

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins

Pen, Cat, and Will met on their first day of college and became an inseparable trio that lasted several years before dissolving once the realities of adulthood entered their lives. It’s been six years since that fateful day that ended their friendship, and Pen and Will suddenly receive emails from Cat begging for a reconciliation at their college reunion. But when Pen and Will reunite and Cat is nowhere in sight, they realize the emails they were sent had a different motive behind them than what they thought – and with Pen’s young daughter and Cat’s angry husband along with them, Pen and Will set out on a journey to discover the truth behind why their bestfriendships dissolved all those years ago.

Falling Together has received many lukewarm reviews, but I have to say that I actually quite enjoyed it. While I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with this novel like I did de los Santos’ first two books, I thought Falling Together had its own merits and I honestly had a difficult time putting it down.

I have to admit that the story and characters weren’t quite as strong in Falling Together as what I’ve come to expect from de los Santos, but I still liked Pen and Will a LOT. It sort of broke my heart how they obviously loved one another and clearly were meant to be together but it was almost like Cat had gotten in the way for all those years… and then when Cat was gone, they got in each other’s way. It was frustrating but also made me hopeful throughout the novel for some real connection between the two of them to develop. It was interesting to me that the reader only got to know Cat through Pen’s and Will’s eyes, in effect really not getting to know the real Cat at all. I almost think de los Santos is going to write her next book about Cat, from Cat’s point of view, and if that happens I have a feeling I might end up liking Cat and respecting some of the seemingly wrong decisions she made.

What IS as strong in Falling Together as what I was expecting is the writing. De los Santos puts together the most beautiful phrases, and imparts serious wisdom in many of her characters’ conversations. There were so many beautiful passages that rang so true to me in this book that I can’t even begin to talk about them. I would find a gem of a passage on almost every page.

I think that if this book was written by anyone other than Marisa de los Santos, I would be loving it. But since I’ve come to expect perfection from her, this one was only a like for me. It’s a beautiful novel but doesn’t quite live up to her first two books, which is rather unfortunate. I still really enjoyed it, though, so I would suggest you give it a try if you are a fan of her work. If you are going to read her books for the first time, however, I would recommend starting with Love Walked In.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio
Review copy provided by the publisher

I am not an Apple person. I have an iPod Nano and that’s it. I think their products are great, but I’ve just never been super into them for whatever reason. However, I knew that Steve Jobs had a fascinating life and his ideas and creations have been hugely impactful in the technology industry. So when I was offered this book for review, on audio no less, I happily accepted.

I knew Jobs had a fascinating life, but I honestly knew next to nothing about him before listening to this book. I’m glad I did read it, because I learned a ton about this man, a genius of our time. After reading about how major of a force he has been in the technology industry over the years, I truly believe he will be remembered forever, an Einstein of our time. This entire book was incredibly interesting to me and I cherished the time I spent with it.

Now admittedly, I’m not a tech person so there were a few parts of the book that dragged a bit for me. Learning about how all of Jobs’ products were created and developed was quite interesting, but I could only take so much of tech-speak before I would get a little bit bored. However, the book was written in such a way that just when I felt like I couldn’t handle any more of this, Isaacson would switch to more of Jobs’ personal life and relationship-type stuff, which held my interest better. For this reason, Steve Jobs has something for everyone. Those who are most interested in the Apple/technology part of Jobs’ legacy will be fascinated and interested, as will those who are more concerned with his personal life and family history. Isaacson does a great job balancing both aspects of Jobs’ life.

The audio version of Steve Jobs was great and I would definitely recommend it. Dylan Baker does an excellent job with the narration – he is never dry and he keeps the right inflections in his voice throughout. I tend to enjoy nonfiction in audio better than in print – I guess it’s because I am forced to listen while driving or whatever – and I don’t know that I would have made it all the way through Steve Jobs if I had attempted the print version. So I definitely recommend this fascinating biography, and my advice would be to pick up the audio version.

The Sunday Salon: Busy Bee

Well it has been a crazy couple of weeks for me! Last week (as in, beginning March 4), I traveled to Chicago to visit with family and friends. My brother recently returned from a year in Afghanistan and my sister had her second baby in January, my new niece who I’d yet to meet. It was absolutely wonderful to spend time with my parents, siblings, nieces, other extended family, and a few friends for the week. Even better: hubby decided to join me this trip! He hadn’t been back to Chicago since we moved to Florida over two years ago, so he was very busy with his own family, but we managed to spend time together as well. It was a great trip.

However, the trip has made the rest of my life feel incredibly chaotic. The week before leaving I had to work every single day – Monday through Saturday – and then got on a plane SUPER early Sunday morning. We returned very late Sunday night and after falling asleep at 3 am, I woke up Monday morning and went to work. Luckily I had yesterday off so I was able to get a ton of things crossed off my to-do list, but basically I feel like I’ve been playing catch-up all week – both at home and at work – and I’m really hoping to relax and calm down today. It’s been crazy.

But the good news is that it’s an absolutely gorgeous day here in Central Florida and after getting some blogging stuff done and getting laundry started, I plan to spend a few hours reading by the pool. Sounds delicious.

I’m sure you can guess, based on how my schedule has been these past few weeks, that I haven’t gotten much reading done. And you’d be right. This week I FINALLY finished The Emperor of All Maladies, which I’d been listening to on my iPod just about forever, and this morning in print I finished Come In and Cover Me by Gin Phillips. The week of vacation I finished exactly nothing except for what I read on the plane (How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr). I’m currently in the middle of The Replacement Wife by Eileen Goudge on my Nook and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson on CD in my car. If I do get any time by the pool today like I’m planning, I will start a print book as well. So I’m really hoping that my life will start to settle down a bit and I’ll be able to read more… I miss it!

This week should be a relatively quiet one. I’m feeling much more settled at work and home, and things are starting to get back to normal. Besides my small group (church/Bible study) meeting on Thursday I don’t have any major plans… which feels very nice. What are you up to this lovely Sunday?

Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser

Pieces of UsPieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser
Published by Flux Books
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Every summer, brothers Alex and Kyle and sisters Julie and Katie get together at the lakeside community where both sets of grandparents reside. When the four of them are together, they can forget their real lives and become different teenagers. But when the school year starts back up, Alex cannot control his rage at his father who killed himself and at his mother who he blames for his father’s death, and Kyle is angry at Alex’s abuse and at his mother for not caring about how Alex acts. Katie pretends to be the perfect, popular, happy girl that everyone thinks she is, while hiding a devastating secret that would destroy her if anyone found out, and Julie is busy fading into the background of their home, with a mother who doesn’t care about her and a sister who doesn’t want her around. When Katie’s huge secret threatens to get out, these four teens’ lives will be changed forever.

I don’t even know what to say about Pieces of Us. This novel is suspenseful and absolutely heartbreaking. The characters are the kind that you simultaneously love and hate, the story is the kind that is incredibly difficult to put down. But I don’t want to talk too much about the story itself, because it’s best that you go in not knowing much about Katie’s big secret or what these four teens come to mean to one another.

I cannot tell you eloquently enough the difficulty I had with these characters! I felt so much sympathy for each one of them, yet their actions at times made me unbelievably angry. Alex, most especially, was really a horrible person with the things that he did, but at the same time it was clear that his emotional pain was causing him to be such an abusive, raging person. He had been through so much emotional turmoil in his short life, and he took all that energy and channeled it into treating everyone else horrifically. It broke my heart and made me want to throw the book across the room. But I also wanted to hug him and help him heal. Do you see the conundrum? And the other three made me feel the same way, to a degree, just for different reasons.

Pieces of Us is pretty sexually graphic, so I wouldn’t recommend it for younger teens. But for those of you that can handle books that don’t shy away from real-life pain and incredibly heartbreaking situations, Pieces of Us is a good choice. You will hate these characters but love them too. You will be angry at the book but also desperate to find out how everything turns out. Recommended for readers with a high emotional pain tolerance.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

From the Hardcover editionIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Random House

Mindy Kaling, best known for her role as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, is more than what meets the eye. She is not only a head writer for the same television show in which she is an actress, but she also has experience writing and starring in an Off-Broadway show. In this hilarious memoir, Mindy gives her take on boys, shopping, fame, comedy, and what it’s really like to work at The Office. 

I’ve seen Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Compared to Bossypants, Tina Fey’s memoir, and in fact Kaling actually addresses that in the book, but I have to tell you that the books aren’t much alike. Besides both being memoirs of female comedy writers and actresses, they don’t have anything else in common. Kaling has a personality and writing style that is all her own, and the subjects she covers in her book are completely different from what Fey discusses in hers.

However, they are both good in different ways! Kaling has the kind of humor that I highly enjoy – she is hilarious and self-deprecating and not afraid to laugh at her own expense, while still having the confidence that a person must need to be successful in her industry. She is a regular person who grew up with regular immigrant parents and a big brother. She endured bullying to a degree as a kid because she was always, as she calls it, “chubby”. Her confidence in herself and belief in what she truly wanted to do led her to become a comedy writer for The Office, and it was fun for me to read about the journey she took to get there.

I really liked this one. I think you will enjoy it even if you aren’t a fan of The Office, although familiarity with Kaling in that respect certainly helps. If you enjoy funny, sarcastic, self-deprecating humor, Kaling is your girl. Give her memoir a try.

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins

Liz Bergamots is enjoying her life in New York City with her husband, Richard, and two children, Jake and Coco. But everything changes for Liz when fifteen-year-old Jake is sent a sexually explicit video by a thirteen-year-old girl with a crush on him. Without even thinking, Jake forwards the video to a friend, who forwards it to another friend, and so on, and before he knows it, the video has gone viral. How each member of this family chooses to react to this situation has devastating effects on everything that follows.

My book club chose This Beautiful Life as the February selection, a choice I was completely on board with because I thought the premise of this one sounded fascinating and, unfortunately, entirely realistic. I was sad that I had to miss the meeting due to a work conflict, but had I been there, I would have been a loud voice saying that I was NOT a fan of this novel. Let me tell you why.

The biggest problem I had with This Beautiful Life (or problems, I suppose) was the characters. Every single one of them. I hated the way they each reacted to the video and its aftermath, I hated the way they interacted with one another, and I hated the way they each contributed significantly to the destruction of their family. Liz especially reacted so destructively and almost disgustingly to what happened to her son. It was just not good.

Everything about this novel was just sad. The young girl who found it necessary to email a pornographic video of herself to Jake, the person that Jake turned into by the end of the novel, the way the head of the school reacted to this situation – all of it was beyond sad. By the end, there was just nothing about this book that could redeem it in my eyes.

I suppose I did find the writing in This Beautiful Life to be quite good; in fact I might be willing to read another Schulman novel based on the writing alone. But overall I just did not like this book. It may be a fascinating topic, but it just didn’t work for me.