The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

The Book of Two Ways: A Novel: Picoult, Jodi: 9781984818355: Amazon.com:  Books

Dawn, is a death doula, one who gently and passionately escorts those who are dying through this process. She is also married and the mother of Meret. Right now, though, she is on a plane, and all of that other stuff means nothing because this plane is going down and the only one she is thinking about is an old flame, Wyatt. What does this signify? Where does her heart really belong?

As usual, Picoult has managed to entangle her readers (or at least this one) in another intricately woven fabric of rich characters who walk off of the page and into your heart. As Dawn wrestles between her past, red passion for Wyatt and her current, serene comfort with her husband Brian, we feel this wrenching tension as if it is our own. When Meret struggles, we struggle. When her dying patient declines, we decline. The effect of this is that Picoult is able to render the reader sympathetic to every perspective, and as Dawn digs deeper and deeper into her quandary, we are more and more wedded to every possible outcome.

Likewise, as in her other books, Picoult has done her due diligence in her research – and here, it is on the topic of Ancient Egypt. Here we learn about this civilization’s many rites and rituals celebrating the dead and dying. We learn about hieroglyphic translations and the symbolism of the art inside their tombs. We learn that this art tells the story of the life of the individual who is buried there, and, moreover, how Egyptologists learn about the culture and society from these findings.

We also learn of a beautiful way of leaving this world. I’d never heard of a death doula, but it is a lovely idea and sounds like a wonderful luxury. To have someone to attend to the “business” of dying – not the medical issues, mind you — but the messiness of it. Taking care of your last wishes, ensuring that you get to see the people you want to see, ensuring your matters are wrapped up, having someone to hold your hand as you take your last breath. How precious is that.

This is yet another incredible work by Jodi Picoult. As readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan. Some argue that she has a formula in her work – and I see that, but for me it works. She develops intricate plots that challenge current complex issues, she creates beautiful, human, complex characters, and she writes them witty dialogue that always keeps me surprised. What more can you ask for in a novel?

SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK, DON’T CONTINUE READING!

I am curious to know what others think of the ending…. I was surprised and initially very disappointed at this one, actually. My first reaction was that it was a cop-out. However, the more I thought about it, the more I believe it was fully intentional and not just avoidance. Going along with the theme of “two ways” and Brian’s physics theory, maybe she imagines there is a way for her to be choosing both? Meret certainly got 2 dads here, as it happened, right? Or maybe it is just symbolic of how so many times, we want to go in 2 directions at the same time and decisions in life are hard. But these decisions often impact the ultimate direction of our lives in so many ways, setting us on a path that we cannot possibly foresee.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend: A Novel: Dicks, Matthew: 9781250031853:  Amazon.com: Books

Budo is Max’s imaginary friend, and therefore is visible only to Max and to other imaginary friends. He is able to slide through doorways and windows, appear almost real, and run quite fast, but only because Max has imagined him so. He has been alive longer than many of his fellow imaginary friends and he is quite proud of this fact – although it gives him some anxiety because he is aware that his time in existence may be limited. In fact, he’s watched others disappear. On the other hand, he knows that Max needs him more than many other kids need their imaginary friends, because Max, as Budo describes him, lives more on the inside than on the outside. As Budo narrates Max’s story, we see how truly dependent on Budo Max is – and yet how eventually, Budo empowers Max to save himself.

What begins with the feel of a children’s book actually builds into quite an insightful and even suspenseful novel. Telling the story from the perspective of the imaginary friend gives the story an air of innocence, lulling the reader into a false sense that all will remain benign. This provides that much more of a jolt when Max, who is clearly caught unaware, does get entrapped in a very precarious situation.

This is also a subtle and powerful way to communicate the experience of a child who likely carries the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder, formerly known as Asperger’s. Budo speaks for Max as he describes what he likes and doesn’t like, how he has an easier time with routine, how he cannot tolerate too much stimuli, and that he prefers not to be touched. He describes that he prefers to be alone or with Budo, and that he’s ok with being alone, even if his parents are worried by this. Budo also describes the frequent discomfort of others around Max. He highlights the few, and one teacher in particular, who really make an effort to get to know who Max is. He loves this teacher because she focuses on Max’s strengths rather than his shortcomings, how he is special, rather than how he is different.

This is a beautiful story, with very unique narration, and with a surprising crescendo. Something quite different, for sure!

The Missing Letters of Mrs. Bright by Beth Miller

The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright: An absolutely unputdownable feel good  novel about love, loss and taking chances - Kindle edition by Miller, Beth.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

It is time for Kay to end her marriage. She does not have a solid plan of what she will do, but she knows it is time. Her life just has not worked out the way she’d hoped –she has not accomplished even half the goals she’d listed as a young and optimistic teenager. Maybe now is the time to begin to work on them. She’d enlist Bear to come with her to conquer some of these goals – Bear would understand, if anyone would. That is if Bear is ok. She hasn’t actually heard from Bear in months. As Kay seeks out her dear friend, she begins to also discover more about herself, and develop the courage to follow her own, true path.

This story is sort of “midlife crisis lite.” While Kay is truly going through a difficult time, and her decision impacts many around her, no one really seems to be that bothered by any of it. She herself is maybe a bit thrown, and while she has no idea what she’ll do for money or where she’ll live, she seems to not be worried about these details. Likewise, her husband is a bit shocked and maybe doesn’t get out of bed for a few days, but then bounces back so quickly that he’s already moved on by the time she’s returned for her things. Her daughter is bothered by it, but she is, in fact, mobilized out of her own quagmire of stasis, so it works out for her as well. It all fits just a little too perfectly.

On the other hand, this may be just the right tone for this moment, as Covid is still raging, as our country is still so divided, and as we are all struggling to make it through our days – maybe this is the one place where things can work out alright and life can fit back into place. Maybe that is what fiction is for?

Windfallen by Jojo Moyes

Amazon.com: Windfallen eBook: Moyes, Jojo: Kindle Store

Lottie and Celia are almost as close as sisters – in fact, they’ve been raised as sisters for the past few years, although Lottie is acutely aware that she is only with the Holden family as long as they continue to generously support her. However, when she and Celia stumble into the acquaintance of new, artsy friends at the Arcadia estate, Lottie’s eyes are opened to a new kind of freedom, a new way of living that just might present opportunities – or perhaps danger. She is not quite sure.

Fast forward to the present time, and we meet Daisy, whose life seems to be falling apart. Her partner has walked out on her and her infant daughter, and she is left to sort out their upcoming project of restoring a controversial estate -yes, Arcadia. Will she be able to navigate this overwhelming time in her life? Her sister does not seem to think so, but she must prove her wrong. She has to…

Here is another winner by Jojo Moyes. While it did not grab me immediately, I will admit, it grew more and more magnetic with each chapter. It may be that Lottie’s character, while complex and reserved, was so, perhaps, hardened by her circumstance that she was ever so slightly less likable and therefore less relatable. On the other hand, once we meet Daisy, we find her so much more of an open book, her emotions so raw and apparent, that she breathes a sort of spark into the story, enlivening it with her heart and energy. We love her from the start and root for her until the end. Both characters are beautiful in their own ways, of course, but they differ in how relatable they are, I felt.

Moyes beautifully depicts an undertone here of the social conflict between old/conservative thought and new/liberal perspective. The setting is a small, harbor town in England, where everyone knows everyone and families have long-held histories of judging others’ families for past ills. Arcadia, with its modern design, intrinsically represents– both physically and by its inhabitants — possibility, openness, and forward thinking. The town, and its people, are always whispering against those in Arcadia, fearing what it represents and rising up against it in various ways. And Lottie, for her part, becomes caught in between, at once part of Arcadia and then fighting against it, because of what it represents to her at different junctures of her life.

This is definitely worth reading. I don’t think it rises to a “Must Read” but it comes fairly close!

Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz

Here All Along - National Library Board Singapore - OverDrive

In this book, Sarah Hurwitz, better known for her speechwriting for the Obamas, takes us with her on her spiritual journey, her quest for a deeper understanding of Judaism than her elementary, religious school education had afforded her. After being re-introduced to Judaism through a course at a local JCC, she was inspired to delve deeply into various texts, study with various rabbis and other learned folks, and seek out various religious and spiritual experiences to try to identify what Judaism could mean for her. In doing so, she discovered that there was really no comprehensive book that did this for her, and thus, made it her business to try to create this one for others seeking to possibly do the same.

This is an impressive volume that I feel can help anyone who may be either contemplating becoming a Jew by choice, or really anyone just wishing to learn more about their own Judaism. Even having had the benefit of having studied various texts of the Talmud in my younger days, and have celebrated most of the holidays on a regular basis, there is always more to learn and I feel I did so from this book. She is contemplative and analytical about so many aspects of observance, about belief in God, about the beauty and significance of Shabbat, about the idea of what happens when we die – that there is truly something here for everyone.

I love that the language is accessible and non-judgemental as well. Having been educated in an Orthodox day school, I have experienced a heavy dose of Jewish guilt first-hand and it can be exhausting and alienating. Here, on the other hand, Hurwitz emphasizes the positive – the ethical values and actual responsibilities that Judaism expects of the individual toward those who are marginalized in any way, to animals and to the earth. And while observing the laws and rites and rituals remind us of who we are, the fundamental moral practices keep us grounded in our humanity and are likely what take us to a higher place spiritually.

I suspect this will be a gift I will consider giving to others. You may consider giving it as a gift to yourself!

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Untamed: Glennon Doyle, Glennon Doyle Melton: 9781984801258: Amazon.com:  Books

Just as a cheetah in a zoo is caged and trained to repeatedly chase after what she perceives as prey, so too are women caged in by society’s expectations and rules. We live and breathe in the norms around us — the standard of the thin, beautiful, smart, soft, modest, quiet, unassuming, and all-giving idea of the perfect woman — and cannot avoid striving for this, even when we are not even aware that we are doing so. This is what Glennon Doyle becomes aware of as she watches this caged cheetah pace back and forth and sees that she is not much different from this animal. It’s just a bit more complicated for her to work her way out of her cage, as it involves more than just her own life – it involves the lives of her husband and children as well.

In this memoir, Doyle reflects, through tiny moments and vignettes, about her metamorphosis as she moves from inside the cage to outside. She reflects back through her journey through recovery from bulimia and substance use, disentangling from a dishonest marriage, and tiptoeing through tightrope-like moments of parenting. Unlike many of us who struggle with similar issues, she also had to do this while living as a public figure, so had to also contend with answering to the public about this deeply personal process. What she learns, however, is to use her anger and her pain for good. She learns that rather than trying to escape these feelings, sinking into them actually can make her stronger.and push her into constructive action.

This is a powerful book that has many lines of wisdom contained within. Here are 2 of my favorite lines:

“If you are uncomfortable – in deep pain, angry, yearning, confused — you don’t have a problem, you have a life… You will never change the fact that being human is hard, so you must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.”

and

“Maybe Eve [from the bible] was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

This is an enriching read for both women and men. It will open your mind and your heart and force you to look both inward and outward.

Another MUST READ! (This list is growing so long!)

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Amazon.com: Anxious People: A Novel (9781501160837): Backman, Fredrik: Books

Ostensibly, this is a story about a bank robbery gone bad, resulting in a hostage situation in an apartment showing across the street from the bank.  It is even authenticated by the presence of a gun, a police interrogation, and even hostage negotiators on the way. However, what we gradually come to learn is that the real story is in the details of how each of the characters were brought together by an uncanny coincidence of fate to the hostage situation.  As we learn their stories, we become held ourselves, invested in seeing each of them resolve their own personal crises.   

Few are able to captivate their readers in the way that Fredrik Backman is.  His warmth and his humor permeate his writing, and he has a magical way of creating characters that are deeply human, layered and vulnerable.  He also constructs a tale that is utterly engaging.  What starts as a seemingly simple story winds its way into a much more complex drama, twisting with surprises that come when you least expect them, and occasionally unmasking our inherent biases  and beliefs.  

I am reluctant to say more, as I don’t want to give any of it away.  Suffice it to say that reading this will be a wonderful gift to yourself – it is a gem with perfect writing, beautiful characters, and a plot that will hold you and keep you smiling until the very last word.  

A DEFINITE MUST READ!!

 

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Image result for image of quiet by susn cain

Do you ever crave an escape from the noisy world we live in? Do you thrive in quieter settings, when you’re either alone with a good book or just engrossed in deep conversation with one friend? Have you worried there was something wrong with you when you panicked at the thought of having to speak up in a group of co-workers or a study group? If you have, you may actually be an introvert – and that is not a bad thing! While our society seems to prize the extrovert, the one who is the outspoken, confident leader — think Homecoming Queen, for example — it may be the introvert who really is behind so many of our major advancements (think Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple). It is the introvert who may allow for the quiet time during which thoughts can generate and percolate, and who may seek deeper conversation that brings people close. To be clear, it is not that introverts do not seek to be with others, but their connections are generally in smaller groups, on their terms, and more intimate. Nor is there a judgement that being introverted vs extroverted is better or worse – this is just a variation in personality style and a way of relating that can be every bit as effective. This book helps to identify and elevate those who are introverts to allow for all of us to prize introverts for their unique value just as we do extroverts for theirs.

An important impact of how society values extroversion is on our educational system. More and more, classrooms are being set up to promote group activity, with desks moved into circles rather than in the classic rows. This is great for those who function well in groups, the extroverts, but those who learn better with time to themselves, this may be more challenging. It is up to the teachers to appreciate and value both personality types and learning styles and to accommodate both.

I wish I had had the opportunity to read this book years ago. I learned so much about both myself and members of my own family through the pages of this book. I now understand why after caring for patients and interacting with my colleagues all day at work, all I am usually able to do by the end of the day is to get into bed and read. I realize that while I feel privileged to have the interactions I have both with my patients and my colleagues and I do feel passionate about what I do and enjoy it, it does take all of my energy to maintain the level of human interaction that it requires. At the end of the day, I need to refuel. Apparently, I am a true introvert.

This is an important book for so many of us to read. It gives us a much deeper understanding of our family, our colleagues, and our friends and enables us to value each of them for their unique styles of interaction. It may also give us a deeper understanding of ourselves. It certainly did this for me.

I recommend this as a MUST READ!

 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - By Lisa Wingate (Hardcover) : Target

Avery Stafford is finding her place, as she’s come back to the south to possibly carry on the family’s senatorial dynasty. When she visits a nursing home during a publicity event, she stumbles upon a woman she fears may hold a family secret that may threaten all that she and her family have worked for.

Then flash backward and we meet Rill Foss, a precocious 12 year old living with her poor but happy family in their river shanty. Rill is thrust suddenly into being responsible for her 4 younger siblings, for keeping them together and safe, and we watch as she is torn apart as adults attempt to destroy the family she fights to save.

As these two stories unfold side by side, we are breathless to know how they intersect.

This was an excruciating story to read at times, but at the same time, it was one that I could not put down. And while Rill herself is not an actual person, her story is based on historical events and children’s experiences that have been documented from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. That is, a woman named Georgia Tann, ran an adoption center in Memphis that actually bought and sold children as if they were property. Some of these children were actual orphans, but many were stolen from their homes, kidnapped while walking home from school, or worse. Some were placed in high profile homes, such as in homes of celebrities and politicians, but many were mistreated and hundreds are thought to have actually died under her care. She apparently made thousands of dollars from this business and had politicians and law enforcement in her pockets and avoided any legal confrontation to her dying day. Georgia Tann is the one non-fictional character in this book.

The writing in this book is gripping, particularly Rill’s story. On the other hand, it at times can be so utterly painful that some is extremely hard to read. It’s that same feeling one gets seeing a terrible car accident – can’t look but can’t look away. I personally have the hardest time hearing/reading about abuse of children and tend to avoid books like this. I have to admit, though, that the author handled it well. Just as it reaches a moment of peak discomfort, the story switches to Avery’s story line to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to breathe. This is the only way I was able to get through, I think.

And in Rill, the author has created an extraordinary character. Though young, she is wise, cautious, kind, and she fights for her family with a passion that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. There is no way not to love and empathize with this character.

This is an extraordinary tale, told well. Isn’t that all we want in a book???