Book Review: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author: M. L. Stedman
Genre: Fiction
Format: Kindle
Year Published: 2012
Source: I purchased this book

This novel is a tragic story studying the choices we make and how they can have long-lasting repercussions.

In the early 1900s, Tom Sherbourne takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the Australian coast. The island is very isolated, and there are few visitors. The supply boat comes once a season.

Tom marries Isabel, a young and devoted wife. Their extreme physical isolation from the rest of the world means that they depend on each other for everything.

After Isabel suffers two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat washes up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. Isobel makes a critical decision: she wants to keep this baby! After all, who would know?

Tom does not approve, but Isabel has been so wracked with depression over losing her other children that he finally acquiesces. Tom never stops regretting the decision, however.

This decision leads to a heartbreaking series of events that will change their lives forever. His guilt increases over the years until he has to decide whether to tell the authorities. The story was depressing, but so well written that I really wanted to find out what happened.

What prices would Tom and Isabel pay for the decision to keep someone else’s baby? They are not bad people at all; they just make serious lapses in judgment.

I found the final chapters convincing in tying up the storyline. The story is poetically written but it is overwhelmingly sad.

Book Review: The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory

Title: The Cat Who Came For Christmas Author: Cleveland Amory
Genre: Animals, Memoir
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 1987
Source: I purchased this book many years ago.

Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came For Christmas is the delightful holiday tale of Amory and his cat, Polar Bear.

It was Christmas Eve 1977 and Amory, a well known Boston Brahmin, society writer, and former TV Guide critic, had established The Fund for Animals, and was deeply involved in animal rights issues.

On a rescue mission, he meets Polar Bear, a stray cat who is living in deplorable conditions. Polar Bear immediately touches his heart in an unusual way. Amory loved all animals, but had never been owned by a cat before – he was a “dog man.”

But that cold Christmas Eve changed all of that. He seems to know instinctively that this small, half-starved creature will be important to him. Amory and Polar Bear were perfect for each other.

The book was a huge bestseller upon its original publication in 1987 and has been republished numerous times, with the most recent edition in October 2013.

The book can also be very funny as Amory tries to see things from a cat’s point of view. It is a sweet story and makes for wonderful Christmas reading.

The book was so popular that Amory wrote two sequels:

The Cat and the Curmudgeon, 1990

and The Best Cat Ever, 1993

Curmudgeon is about the continuing relationship between Amory and Polar Bear, especially after fame has struck.

The Best Cat Ever is actually mostly about Amory’s interesting life and not so much about Polar Bear, although it does have the very sad but inevitable conclusion to their enduring friendship. Amory passed away a few years later in 1998.

Or you can get all three volumes in one book, Cleveland Amory’s  Compleat Cat.

For some reason, these books are not available for Kindle or Nook – yet.

Book Review: Dearie by Bob Spitz

Title: Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
Author: Bob Spitz
Genre: Biography
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 2012
Source: I purchased this book.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child is Bob Spitz’s long but entertaining biography of the woman who transformed the American culinary landscape, in addition to being an important figure in television history.

Julia McWilliams Child was an entertaining character. She didn’t become famous until she was around 50 years ago, but she led an interesting life well before then. Born in Pasadena, California, into wealth and privilege, she attended Smith College, but she still had no idea of what she wanted to do. She had no interest in being a mere housewife and country club matron. Julia was never one to go unnoticed – she was about six feet three inches tall and had a unique, warbling voice, and a great sense of humor. Julia was an original.

Julia had an adventurous spirit and decided during WWII to go to Washington, DC, to work for the government and eventually joined an intelligence agency and went overseas. In Ceylon, she met Paul Child. They eventually married, and theirs was a lifelong and devoted love affair.

Paul was in the foreign service, and they eventually settled in Paris. Julia’s first taste of French cooking changed her life, and she went on to attend the famous cooking school Le Cordon Bleu.

She eventually published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was a cookbook geared towards Americans to learn how to cook gourmet French food. The book was so popular that she ended up on television to promote the book and was such a success – partly because of unique persona – that she ended up hosting “The French Chef” and various other television programs, most of them on fledgling PBS. More than anyone else, she is responsible for the success of PBS!

The American public immediately fell in love with Julia. If you are not familiar with Julia Child, let me present to you one of her most famous moments: Julia Child and the Chicken Sisters!

Dearie is a very affectionate look at Julia’s life. The author admits in the acknowledgments that he had a powerful crush on her when he met her even though she was around 80 at the time! That said, he doesn’t hesitate to mention some of Julia’s less admirable traits. Fortunately, most people really liked Julia.

The book definitely could have been shorter. Sometimes the author rambles on a bit, but he is also very funny at times. Despite the length of the book (over 500 pages!), the book is very entertaining and an enjoyable read.

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Crime
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 2012
Source: I purchased this book

Nick and Amy Dunne seem to have the perfect marriage. They are bright, very attractive, and talented writers. Amy is the daughter of well-known psychiatrists who have created a series of children’s books called “Amazing Amy”, based upon their own daughter. But on their fifth anniversary Amy disappears from their Missouri home she shares with Nick, leaving behind signs of a struggle.

As the media turn up to report the story of the missing beautiful “amazing” blonde wife, Nick’s problematic behavior comes under increasing scrutiny. He doesn’t seem to be the grieving husband that everyone wants him to be. As public suspicions turn  towards Nick, a closer look reveals the unraveling seams of the seemingly “perfect” marriage.

Both had lost their jobs in New York and had moved back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri. Amy was unhappy with the move. Nick was having an affair with another woman. Was this motive enough to want to harm Amy? Has Nick murdered her? Or is there any other reason for her disappearance?

This very popular novel is interesting in that alternate chapters are “written” by Nick and Amy. I found this a little confusing at first, since Nick’s chapters are at first written in the present and Amy’s chapters, are told in the past tense, by necessity, from sections of her diary.

There are several major characters in the book: Nick, Amy, Nick’s sister Go, Amy’s parents, Nick’s senile father, Nick’s selfish mistress, and several other key characters. As the story goes along, however, it becomes increasingly clear that none of the main characters are very likable, except perhaps Nick’s sister, Go, who is a not a fully fleshed out character. As a matter of fact, most of the characters are pretty loathsome, and one of them is a certifiable psychopath.

Flynn does have an amazing imagination, and is able to tell a great story for the most part. However, the book is quite graphic, and anyone squeamish about strong language and sex scenes should not read this book.

The ending, which I shall not give away here, has been controversial. Some readers have not found it satisfactory, partially because not everything is resolved in a tidy little way. It may be somewhat realistic, however, noting the strange, twisted relationships that these people have. I find myself ambivalent about the ambivalent ending!

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Biography, Science
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2010
Source: I purchased this book

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31 from cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where it was discovered that she had an amazingly aggressive tumor and was in agonizing pain. While she lay dying, some of her cells, both healthy and diseased, were extracted from her for further use in research. This was done without her knowledge or permission, or the knowledge of her family. This was actually common procedure at the time. At the time, permission was not required.

Cells from other patients had not worked. Most cells will divide for a certain number of times and then die. But for some reason, Henrietta’s cells were amazingly vital and survived. Her cells were dubbed “HeLa”. HeLa cells were the first human cell line to prove successful in vitro, in test tubes or Petri dishes , which has had profound impact on medical research. For example, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to test the first polio vaccine. They have also been used in cancer and AIDS research. HeLa cells were dubbed “immortal” because they could be divided an infinite number of times. They still exist, in various forms, today.

Henrietta’s family knew nothing about the HeLa cells until many years later. Here is where the story gets even more complicated: the original doctor, George Gey, seems to have had no bad motives. He was completely dedicated to medicine, and simply wanted the cells for further research. Gey freely donated the cells to other researchers. However, it was other companies who obtained HeLa cells who made money off of products invented because of the cells. Henrietta was forgotten or unknown to most of the scientists and researchers. While some corporations made millions, Henrietta’s family, while proud that her cells have helped countless others, have remained poor.

The whole idea of medical ethics is enormously complicated. Was racism involved? Was it because Henrietta was poor and black? Or was it simply in the interest of science and medicine? What about the companies who benefitted financially from the research? Are cells still harvested today without permission? The answers are not as simple as they may seem.

This book studies medical ethics, family history, racism, and poverty. Author Rebecca Skloot does a fine job in researching and setting forth her arguments. This book was obviously a real labor of love and she is passionately devoted to the subject. Skloot became so involved with the family that she set up a foundation to help them: The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

If I have any quibbles about this book, it is that it is a bit too long. I did make my husband read the book. It is not at all the sort of book he usually reads, but he is a scientist and he found it fascinating.

I also highly recommend this book. It is not light reading, but it is undeniably intriguing and important.

Henrietta’s cells have helped many scientists and researchers develop new ways of dealing with disease. In this way, Henrietta Lacks has become truly immortal.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Book Review: All That Is Bitter and Sweet by Ashley Judd

Title: All That Is Bitter and Sweet

Author: Ashley Judd
Genre: Memoir
Format: Kindle
Year Published: 2011
Source: I “borrowed” this Kindle book from through my local library

Ashley Judd’s memoir is not your typical movie star autobiography. She actually hardly discusses her movie career at all. It’s mostly about her traumatic childhood and her adult role as a humanitarian.

Judd discusses her extremely dysfunctional childhood (how many memoirs would there be if people had functional childhoods?) Her mother is Naomi Judd and her older sister is Wynonna Judd. Her mother and sister would sometimes leave her alone for days at a time and Ashley had to fend for herself. Sometimes she would live with her father (her parents were divorced) or with other relatives.

Ashley’s childhood was chaotic and unstable and as a child she never felt that her emotional needs were being met. If she tried to voice her feelings, she was not taken seriously. She also suffered from being molested. She felt marginalized and was made to feel that she was unworthy. From a very early age she suffered from undiagnosed depression.

She was a brilliant student at the University of Kentucky, studying French and women’s issues among other things, and became involved in many humanitarian and feminist causes. She realized that she wanted to be an actress. She also wanted to continue her involvement in humanitarian causes, but didn’t know how she could do both. It turns out that her fame as an actress opened many doors to being involved at an international level.

Her feelings of abandonment and abuse stood her in good stead as a humanitarian. Ashley’s work has focused particularly on the way women are treated around the world, especially in Third World countries. These women have no training or education and live on subsistence levels. Many end up working as sexual slaves. The treatment of women has a direct correlation to the AIDS pandemic in many countries.

Ashley has found a real purpose for her life in humanitarian works, but the bad memories stemming from childhood traumas sent Ashley spiraling into a terrible depression and she finally needed to be hospitalized. She got the help she needed, and she is now a happier person.

She is also a profoundly religious person, and has been inspired by her meetings with people such as Desmond Tutu. Ashley went on to graduate school at Harvard and is continuing her fight for the rights of the the poor and voiceless around the world.

You can also read Ashley’s blog.


Book Review: Paris in Love by Eloisa James

Title: Paris in Love  

Author: Eloisa James
Genre: Memoir  
Format: Kindle  
Year Published: 2012  
Source: I “borrowed” this Kindle book from through my local library

Paris is Love is Eloisa James’ account of the year that her family, including her husband and two children, spent in Paris. After she had a bout with cancer, James and her husband took sabbaticals from their American university jobs to live in Paris.

The book is really a collection of essays based on Facebook entries and tweets that James sent during her year abroad. Because of this, the entries are short, more like blog posts. They make perfect light reading at bedtime. I have been reading Gone Girl, but I don’t want to read that before trying to sleep!

Some readers have complained that the book is too much about the author’s reflections of her personal experiences in Paris, but isn’t that what a memoir is supposed to be? This is not a dry account of the family’s days in Paris, nor is it an academic attempt (James and her husband are professors) to understand the French way of life. They are only in Paris for a year, and they are not going to get to know people in any real depth.

It is more an account of the delights of Paris, although James is surprised by the amount of homeless people and how many bad restaurants Paris has to offer. The delightful museums and shops are thoroughly enjoyed by the entire family.

Her children are enrolled in an Italian school in Paris and their attempts to become fluent in both French and Italian, and also adjusting to much harder academic standards, are hilarious. The book is a mostly lighthearted account of an enviable time in their lives.

Book Review: The Complete Book of the Olympics: 2012 Edition by David Wallechinsky

Title: The Complete Book of the Olympics: 2012 Edition
Author: David Wallechinsky
Genre: Non-Fiction/Sports
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2012/new edition published every 4 years
Source: I purchased this book.

Every four years when the summer Olympics are on, I become completely immersed in gymnastics, swimming, and running. I will find myself at 3 in the morning watching sailing – an event so boring to watch that it helps me fall asleep. I am an Olympics junkie!

This is why I have barely touched my blogs during the last few weeks. I am still in a state of delirious happiness because the U.S. women’s gymnastics team – MY gymnastics team — won the team gold medal! I am a huge fan and kept telling my husband that if only they would win the team gold medal, my Olympics would be complete. I’ll admit I cried when they won.

Since I still have the Olympics on my brain, I must confess that I have been absolutely ADDICTED to David Wallechinsky’s Olympic books for many years! They come out every four years. There are separate winter and summer Olympic editions. I admit that I prefer the summer Olympics to the winter Olympics (I am a big fan of summer in general), but I always buy the newest edition. The next winter edition will come out in early 2014, but the newest summer edition just came out this summer!

The 2012 edition covers all Summer Olympics events, including discontinued ones, up to the 2008 Beijing games. It is just as fascinating as his other editions. I can peruse this large book for hours.

The book doesn’t just tally up the medal winners. It shows the top 8 finishers in each event, and tells you many interesting little stories along the way. Some of the stories are happy and some are absolutely heartbreaking. You will be amazed when you find yourself reading incredible human interest stories about sports you may not even care about. But you will care about the athletes, no matter what country they are from or what sport they play.

I heartily recommend this book!

Book Review: Off Balance: A Memoir by Dominique Moceanu

Title: Off Balance
Author: Dominique Moceanu
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Year Published: 2012
Format: Kindle
Source: I purchased this book.

Dominique Moceanu won an Olympic gold medal along with her Magnificent 7 teammates at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She was only 14 years old, tiny (4 feet 4 inches tall!), cute and charismatic. She has a new memoir called Off Balance: A Memoir, detailing her life as an elite gymnast.

Here is Dominique at the 1996 Olympics during the team competition:

Her life on and off the gym floor has been difficult. She had complicated relationships with her family and with Bela and Marta Karolyi, her official coaches during her champion years. Her parents were Romanian immigrants, although Dominique and her sister were born in the United States. While she loved her mother and sister, her relationship with her father was fraught with complications. He was domineering and abusive.

The book opens when Dominique is an adult, and receives the biggest surprise of her life. Her parents had kept a secret from her and her sister for many years.

Dominique is bitter about many things but she also gives praise where it is due. She actually adored her first coaches, but when it became apparent by the age of 10 that Dominique was exceptionally talented – Olympic material – her father whisked her away to the Karolyi ranch in Texas. She was not at all prepared for the transition. She was shy and was used to a positive environment in the gym, but in Texas she was hopelessly confused and upset with what went on. For example, her favorite coach at the gym simply disappeared (he was fired) and no one ever mentioned him again.

Much has been made of the fact that she was miserable with the Karolyis. Actually, in this book she seems to be more mystified by their actions. After the Olympics they seemed to want to have nothing to do with her. Even though she won a gold medal, she didn’t win any individual medals and apparently that was considered a failure. Even her parents were discouraged from praising her too much.

Moceanu’s body changed rapidly after Atlanta but she still kept pursuing gymnastics – because she loved it.

She had made quite a lot of money from touring in gymnastics shows after the Olympics, which her father had put into building a huge gymnasium. Moceanu famously ran away from home as a teenager and tried to get her legal emancipation from her family. What happened after that is riveting reading.

Quite frankly, I was surprised by this book. If you read enough gymnastics message boards as I do, you would think that Dominique Moceanu was the devil, or is at the very least lying in the gutter with a needle in her arm. Many people find her hopelessly bitter because she has voiced her unhappiness in how she was treated many times. Perhaps because she was so cute and spunky while performing, some gym fans just refuse to accept how difficult her life really was?

Even before her book was released it was being compared to Jen Sey’s notorious gymnastics memoir, Chalked Up, about that author’s bitter experiences in gymnastics. But Moceanu’s book is well-written by her “co-authors” Paul and Teri Williams. The book was far more detailed than I expected, although it does slide over some of the things that happened in her career after 1996, spending more time on the events that happened in Moceanu’s personal life.

Moceanu is currently happy and productive, married to a gymnast-turned-physician, and they have two young children. Her children are involved with gymnastics, since she always loved the sport, but not the outside pressures involved with elite gymnastics.

Book Review: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Title: Autobiography of a Face
Author: Lucy Grealy
Published: 1994
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: I purchased this book. 

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy is like no other book I’ve ever read.

When Lucy was nine years old, she was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. Her likelihood of survival was slim. After her surgery to remove part of her jaw, Lucy was permanently disfigured. She had to endure the cruel taunts of her classmates. She also came from a highly dysfunctional family.

Many more surgeries followed to “correct” the disfigurement but they were ultimately unsuccessful, and came at a terrible emotional cost to Grealy.

Since I knew the eventual outcome of Lucy’s story I expected to be depressed while reading it. But Lucy was so self-deprecating and had such a sly sense of humor that I enjoyed it tremendously. She wrote several other books but this book is her most lasting legacy.

This book was a huge success for Lucy, giving her the attention that she craved. Alas, it was not to last.

I highly recommend Autobiography of a Face. It is a book that you will not soon forget.

You can read more about Lucy here.