Greater love hath no man than this …

Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese

From the very first pages, I heard echoes of John Irving in Verghese’s first novel: the exotic setting, strangers in a strange land, and unbelievable (and yet SO believable!) twists of fate. Imagine–a British doctor and an Indian nun work together in Ethiopian mission. Sister Mary Joseph Praise finds herself pregnant with Dr. Thomas Stone’s baby, and dies giving birth to Siamese twin boys. Stone, attending the birth only in the latter moments of Sister’s life, attempts to save her by (unsuccessfully) crushing one of the baby’s skulls. The mission’s obstetrician arrives at the last moment, safely delivering the twins by C-section. The boys’ conjoinment, it turns out, is minor–they are attached only by the flap of flesh on their foreheads that is easily detached.

Preposterous. Yet totally reasonable in this convincing novel. The story of Marion and Shiva Stone is a riot of Ethiopian sounds and smells and tastes and
sights. Stone, devastated at Mary’s death, leaves the mission with only the clothes on his back, and isn’t heard from again for twenty-some years. Indian obstetrician Hemlatha is at one of life’s crossroads, and fostering the boys, mothering the boys, gives her a life she dared not imagine. Hema and internist-cum-surgeon Ghosh (who is Stone’s replacement in more ways than one) create a family and find joy in each other. The boys share a magical bond–Marion, ever practical and often altruistic; Shiva, a genius who lives in the moment with seemingly little concern for others.

Events and a woman (isn’t it always a woman?) find Marion in New York, finishing his internship at an inner city hospital. Rudderless, Marion tries to reconnect with his Beatrice, only to have that connection bring him close to death. It is Shiva who comes to Marion’s rescue, along with Hema and Thomas Stone. N0 spoiler alert here–but suffice it to say, with only 75 pages to the end my guess as to who would die was wrong.

If I have any criticism of the novel, it is that Verghese leaned a little too heavily on medical technicalities; I didn’t need to know quite so much about the repair of fistulas or TB or even cirrhosis of the liver. I’m guessing the doctor in the author (for he IS one of those physician authors) got the better of him at times! And near the end, when, say, I STILL couldn’t figure out how the novel would end, I did tire of the plot twists–every corner I turned, it seemed, held another gut-wrenching event. But I reminded myself that Irving writes in much the same manner, seems preposterous himself at times, and still brings me back for more.

It was not without surprise, then, that as I read the author’s meticulous acknowledgments I found the following: “I am grateful to John Irving for his friendship all these years. I have learned so much from him both in our correspondence and in his published work.” Abraham Verghesse has obviously done more than one successful internship, and his mentor’s influence shines brightly.

Next up: finish my February New Yorker! This was a long one at 657 pages.

Snow Day!

Mornings on Horseback
by David McCullough

I was intrigued with McCullough’s premise–to unfold TR’s life to the point where he “came to be” the TR we know from history. And so McCullough writes of Roosevelt up to his run for mayor of New York. I have to admit I knew so little of Roosevelt–mainly, the caricature we have of him in our 8th grade history books: he of the spectacles, bushy mustache, and toothy grin. So with a day off school after we were blanketed with 10 inches of snow, I finally finished the biography I’ve been chipping away at since Christmas.

McCullough spends a great deal of time on TR’s incredible childhood. Wrapped in love and privilege, his interests in science and nature were nurtured and encouraged–in part, because his frequent asthma attacks sometimes brought him to death’s door. Small, bookish, incessantly curious, and wonderously intelligent, Thee (as family called him) was adored by his sisters and brother. The family of six (plus the requisite servants) toured Europe for a year and spent months on the Nile.

I also had no idea that Roosevelt was married to the beautiful Alice, only to lose her four days after the birth of their child. It was in the three years after her death that he spent in Dakota, living the life of a rancher. Baby Alice was left in the care of her Aunt Bamie. Pushing himself to the brink physically, Roosevelt drove cattle, chopped wood, and hunted grizzlies at a furious pace in an attempt to bury his grief. TR never spoke again publicly about his first wife and felt he had failed when he married again three years later. He had hoped to “he would never remarry–as a testimony of love for his beautiful, dead wife, his first and only great love.”

A page later and the book is ended–TR is off to England to marry his second wife, Edith Carow; he has just lost the race for mayor of New York. McCullough felt that at that moment, the historical Roosevelt was finally formed and he would go on to become the Rough Rider, Governor, Secretary of Navy, Vice President, and, finally, President who made his mark on American history.

Next up: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

Too many books, too little time


–for blogging, at least. Sometimes frugal to a fault I hesitated buying this NPR recommended book–but my husband ordered off my wish list as a bit of “Happy Winter Break” reading material and it’s definitely a keeper. While I was initially drawn in by the stories of the help, it was Skeeter Phelan’s story that continued to draw the narrative forward. The lives of Abileen and Minny didn’t really change (although we understood with the death of Medgar Evars that Change was on the way), but Skeeter, a Junior League member standing just on the outside of the Southern Belle circle, evolved as she took down the stories of the colored women who served her family and the families of the other League members.

Skeeter begins her journey mourning the loss of the black woman who raised her and also her status as a “spinster” at age twenty-four. Thinking that since marriage wasn’t currently an option she’d find meaning in a career, Skeeter gets a part-time job at the local newspaper writing a household advice column. Knowing nothing about homemaking (since the help had done all things domestic in her family) Skeeter turns to Abileen, the maid of her best friend for help. Ablileen provides the substance Skeeter needs to write her column–and ends up throwing Skeeter the lifeline she needs. We see Skeeter as she comes to understand the lives of the black women she lived with side-by-side, as she gives up her chase to find a husband, as she throw off the propriety of the fifties to embrace the freedom of the sixties.

A compelling good read.

Moments of always within never

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barberry

I admit that I had a difficult time with this novel at first. In fact, I have been “reading” it for about three weeks–unheard of for me! (But one of those week, I just let it lie on the shelf because I didn’t know if I wanted to go on.) Translated from the French, Hedgehog convinced me that U.S. readers are wimps when it comes to reading novels for the mind. Within the first several pages there were references to Marx, Feuerbach, Mahler, Death in Venice, Proust, Freud, and Japanese art films–topics not addressed even in contemporary American midlist fiction, to say the least.

The novel follows the lives of two misfits–Rene Michel, a well-read, yet (formally) uneducated concierge for a wealthy Paris apartment building, and Paloma Josse, a wealthy, precocious and thoughtful 12-year-old. Both women decry the world they live in and their observations leave them bitter and bereft. Madam Michel hides her true self behind the stereotype of “concierge”; Paloma plans to celebrate her thirteenth birthday by setting the family apartment on fire and committing suicide.

The first half of the book is draining. Both characters are so quick-witted, yet so contemptuous and scornful of those around them, finding empathy for them is difficult. But enter Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, the man who moves both women to awaken to the soft heart of their True selves (yes, a capital T!) and the novel deepens. Paloma quickens to the relationship she develops with both Mm. Michel and Kakuro, and comes to see that her plans of self-destruction really make her no different from the violent youth gangs she sees on TV. And Mm. Michel opens to hope, realizing that perhaps what makes life worth living are those crystalline moments in an otherwise murky existence.

The end was, quite frankly, a shock. Barberry flipped what we were expecting on its end, and, the last incredibly bittersweet pages saw me putting the book aside so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed with tears. It is Paloma who ends the book with, “I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world.”