Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Doctor Confidential: Secrets Behind the Veil

by Richard Sheff, MD

South Kingstown RI, Listen to Your Heart Press, 2011

342 pages Memoir

Everyone has doubts when they begin a new career. Certainly Richard Sheff did as he began medical school. Doctor Confidential is an intimate memoir describing Sheff's years of training, from medical school through residency training. Chapters focus on each aspect of his training, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Through all of these experiences, Sheff shows the reader both the overwhelming amount of training that is necessary to become a physician, but also the overwhelming amount of humanity it takes to become a good doctor. He says, “The mystique of physicians is not that they are so very different from the rest of us, but rather that they have had the unique privilege of experiences denied to most, especially if they have allowed such experiences to deepen their humanity.” One reviewer called this book “an everyman’s story of quest, discovery, and redemption.”

What I found remarkable about the book is the intensity of Sheff’s memories about his training and the patients he treated during his training. He is a very good storyteller, and the stories resonate for even the casual reader. I especially enjoyed the chapter about obstetrics, most likely because my daughter is about to deliver, and she wants me to be there. This will be the first birth I will be participating in that wasn’t my own. I appreciated the humanity with which Sheff dealt with the young woman as he helped her through labor and delivery.

Sheff has two purposes for this book—to describe the complexity of medical training and to show that medical careers should be chosen based on a desire to show love and compassion to people who are at their most vulnerable. He wants his readers to see that physicians are constantly dancing between making scientific choices and making humane, loving choices. He says, “Students are selected for medical training because of their capacity to achieve in the face of obstacles, to set aside personal needs when a job must be done, to act with clear logic by suppressing emotions.” Because he is such a good storyteller, he is able to describe the dance in such a way that the reader forgets all the times that a doctor appeared to be uncaring and unfeeling, and to look upon the doctor as a partner in the healing process. Sheff chose family medicine because of his desire to become more involved with patients over the long term, rather than as a specialist who is in and out of a patient’s life.

One thing I particularly liked about the book was that he moved most of the technical descriptions into footnotes, which I tended to read over. I was much more interested in the narrative than the technical stuff. But because of the footnotes, a person interested in technical information can find it.

I was a young wife with three small children when my husband died of cancer. Lee had the same oncologist during the entire 5-year process, and the doctor was there with us on the day before Lee died. I never particularly liked our doctor; he seemed to me to be knowledgeable but cold and unfeeling. When the doctor asked for a meeting with me at his office, I remember being so offended by the way in which he told me my husband was going to die, and was going to die sooner, rather than later. He smoked three cigarettes during the time that he was talking to me—in hindsight, I realize that he was experiencing as much anxiety as I was. The last time he came into our hospital room, he stood beside me looking down at my dying husband. He put his arm around me and began to cry; he wept silently for a moment, and then quietly left the room. This is the kind of humanity that Sheff addresses in his book.

Richard Sheff’s personality, warmth, and humanity shine through in Doctor Confidential. The book would be a valuable addition to the library of a medical student or a student contemplating medical school. It would also be a valuable tool for a guidance counselor helping students make career choices.

This book came to me as an advanced reader’s copy. It appears to be self-published.

A good review:

The book’s Facebook page:

Richard Sheff’s website:

After I posted this entry, Dr. Sheff sent me some clarifications. I asked if I could include them in my blog, and I am including them with his permission. He says:
For how I remembered things in so much detail, as mentioned in the Prologue, I started writing this book in the year I finished residency (1984). At that time I outlined the key stories I knew needed to be in the book. But also as noted in the Prologue, I found my initial attempt sophomoric, and could not find my writer’s voice. When I found myself launched into finally writing the book following my chance encounter on the airplane with a dying woman, I was surprised at how vivid the memories were that came back to me. My wife (and toughest critic) has always remarked on the unusual capacity I seem to have for remembering details from the past. (Now that I am 57, I find that easier than remembering yesterday, but this comes with the aging process.)

I note that you took away from the reading experience that my apparent motivations in writing the book were related to two goals: documenting the complexity of medical training and making the point that medical careers should be chosen based upon a desire to show love and compassion. My own experience is that my motivations for writing this book that I felt I had to finish before shuffling off this mortal coil were more varied than that. Some of the motivation came from wanting to share what portion of wisdom I have amassed over the years concerning the best of good doctoring. Much came from a heartfelt desire to drive changes in healthcare as it is provided today, both by individuals and by our healthcare system. Another motivation came from the process of healing my own wounds (which I had not even realized had been there before beginning this project). As noted in the Prologue, I also see this book as potentially invaluable to young students of medicine as they prepare for and undergo medical training, hopefully helping them to preserve and deepen their humanity during that extraordinary socialization process that does so much to destroy that humanity. But one of my greatest motivations was to reach out to the countless individuals who have had experiences with doctors and the healthcare system because of illness for themselves or loved ones. Many of them have come away from those experiences feeling something they needed or wanted went unmet (such as your experience with your husband’s oncologist). Hearing that someone, somewhere “gets” what their experience was and what they so deeply needed has actually been healing to many of the early readers of the book. Finally, I have sought to convey some the deep lessons I’ve learned through the privilege of serving as a physician concerning the journey of our lives, including confronting illness, loss, and death. These are universal experiences, but ones we too often keep behind a veil of secrecy. So one more goal is that reading Doctor Confidential will help prepare readers for these experiences and, for those who have already lived through them, to help them heal. That is, after all, why I went into medicine.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Who Do We Trust?

I’m not sure how I feel about the controversy over Greg Mortenson. I was shocked and appalled because, of course I had read Three Cups of Tea—twice as a matter of fact, and posted on my blog. I just re-read my post and I mentioned that when we heard him speak at a local high school there were about 2000 people there. And I wrote: “People are so hungry for inspiration; it was very clear to us that we were in the presence of humble greatness.”

After the speech, a teacher we knew mentioned that Mortenson had insisted on a limousine to bring him from the hotel to the high school, and that usually the Superintendent drove guest speakers around. At the time, we found that odd; now we know that is the standard for him.

To add to my concern, earlier this month I read Little Princes by Conor Grennan and wrote a post about it. Somehow, as I was reading Little Princes, I felt a closer connection to the author because of his love of children. The author seemed like a regular guy recording a unique experience in his life. Or am I just gullible?

I don’t know any more. I do know this about myself, I occasionally don’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story—or so my children say in accusation. And readers crave a good story. So, my questions are: When does the need to make the story inspiring come at the expense of good journalism? How much leeway do we give people writing memoirs? What if the author makes millions off an erroneous story? What then?

And then, of course, there are a whole series of questions that can be asked about transparency in non-profits. And questions about the need to skewer an entire organization that may be doing good work because of an exposé on 60 Minutes. It seems, in part, that we like to see the mighty fall, as much as we like to be inspired by them. We love a good scandal.

But then, of course, there is the matter of the $100,000 that came to the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s non-profit, from President Obama’s Nobel Prize winnings. And all the millions that were donated to Pennies for Peace. How much of that money went for its intended purpose?

All in all, I am left with more questions than answers.

Here is the article by Jon Krakauer which precipitated this avalanche of bad publicity. It is published as a Kindle single and available here:

And a very thoughtful article on the New Yorker website:

S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She’s Mailed Him

By Adam Chester

New York, Abrams, 2011

178 pages Memoir

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Adam Chester has written a funny-odd ode to his mother in S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She’s Mailed Him. I’m really not sure which genre this little book fits into—humor? Memoir? Psychology?

Chester collected the letters his mother sent him over the years, beginning with his arrival at USC as a freshman, when to her credit, she remained in Miami. He continued collecting them through the years, until now, when he says that she still continues to write him weekly even though she only lives 20 minutes away.

This book is a compendium of some of the funnier and some of the more pathetic examples of the 1000s of letters he has received over the years. The book is almost as schizoid in its format as it is in its content, although it is kind of “cute.” Letters are included as they are written and then translated into text so they can be deciphered. The style seems to suit the content. Here is my favorite:



Do me a favor—

Please don’t eat sushi!

Thank you—



I also loved the letter that was a quarter taped to a piece of legal paper with nothing else.

Chester says: “I had no choice but to accept my costarring role in my life’s popular, non-televised reality show, Adam’s Mom, as best I could.” The letters show a lot of love, a lot of worry, generosity, and a slightly manic desire to be part of her son’s life. Chester seems to acknowledge that love and be touched by that even as he fights against it.

I was reminded of the letter I received from my own mother, who, even though she was the mother of four of which I was the oldest, still found the time to write me every week I was away at college or in graduate school. I was planning on driving home from Boston at Christmastime with my new boyfriend Lee, and my mother wrote to tell me that if the weather got bad on the way home, we were to stop and get two motel rooms–one for each of us—and Dad would reimburse me for the cost when I got home. That was Lee’s introduction to my mother.

Chester’s mother seems to know when she goes over the line, but she just can’t help herself. I understand that. I have to catch myself all the time, and sometimes I cross the line despite my best intentions. The mother of adult children walks on a taut tight wire, and one can very easily fall off. My son told me the other day that I was becoming a caricature of myself. And while I understand the truth in what he was saying, I didn’t take it as a compliment. In this book, Chester has made a caricature of his mother. And while she understands the truth in it, I can’t believe that she is flattered by it. I hope that he is squirreling away the proceeds from the book to pay for his mother’s long term care.

I am not sure who the audience is for this book. One reviewer suggested that a child of a single mother with no siblings plays a unique role. I believe I understand that comment. Mothering, under those circumstances can easily become smothering. Perhaps this would be the best audience. I think my oldest son might find it really funny, since he bore the brunt of my single parenting. I don’t think my sister-in-law, who has one child and tends to be a smotherer, would find it funny at all. She works in a book store. I’ll ask her opinion.

I received a galley proof of this book from the publisher. From now on, I’m keeping my mouth shut!

Here is Adam Chester’s blog of letters from his mom and incidents involving his mom. There is also a video of Kevin Bacon singing. (Adam Chester is in the music business.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kitchen Daughter

By Jael McHenry

New York, Gallery Books, 2011

272 pages, Fiction

The Kitchen Daughter is the first published novel by Jael McHenry, and it appeared in bookstores earlier this month. This is a novel about cooking, family, and Asperger’s Syndrome. But more than that, the book explores the differing ways in which individuals cope with grief and loss.

Ginny and her sister Amanda have just lost their parents in an unfortunate accident. Amanda, a young mother of two little girls, lives about a half hour away from the family home. Ginny, her sister lives in the house where she was born in Philadelphia and has never strayed far from home. Although it is undiagnosed, she suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and doesn’t relate well to those she doesn’t know well. Ginny does relate well to food, and over the years, she has become the family cook and the keeper of the family recipes. She also thinks in terms of food—her sister has an “orange juice voice,” for example, and whenever Ginny is particularly agitated or upset and needs to calm herself, she thinks of recipes and cooks them in her mind.

The book is as much about Amanda as it is about Ginny. The cataclysmic event that caused their parents’ death weighs heavily on Amanda. She feels that she must become the caretaker of her sister, and in her extreme grief, she comes across as overbearing and domineering, which is greatly resented by Ginny, who is suffering in her own way and believes that Amanda is intruding on her sheltered life. While she understands intellectually that her life is going to have to change, she cannot express in words what those changes should look like. So she cooks.

In describing Ginny, Jael McHenry says: “I wanted to write a character who was passionate about cooking but had never used it to connect with people—I feel like food plays this great role in connecting people, especially family, and a character who cooks just for the process of cooking and not for the end result was really intriguing to me.” As Ginny cooks family recipes, she conjures up the memory of the family cook who made that particular recipe. The memory appears to be strong enough that the ghost of the cook appears as the smell of the food fills the kitchen.

Recipes are shared throughout the book. One interesting aspect is that a family recipe for Ribollita, a bread soup, both begins and ends the book. The recipe at the beginning of the book is Ginny’s grandmother’s recipe, and when Ginny makes it, the ghost of Nonna appears to her. At the end of the book the recipe for Ribollita is Ginny’s own, symbolizing that she is finally coming into her own and taking charge of her own life. As Publisher’s Weekly notes, "The Kitchen Daughter is “an intelligent and moving account of an intriguing heroine's belated battle to find herself.”

More than anything else, this is a book about grief and loss and the differing ways in which individuals cope with that loss. Having lost my mother a few months ago, I related well to that aspect of the book. My sister and I recently had a dinner party for our children to celebrate our mother’s food and our mother’s life. We made pasties, a Cornish meat pie, and one of my mother’s signature dishes. The women in the family chopped the meat, potatoes, rutabagas, carrots, and onions (along with broccoli and cheese for the vegetarians in the crowd). Instead of making pie crust, we used the refrigerated version (please Mother, forgive us!). Then, we let each of the 20+ guests make and bake his/her own pasty. Even the three-year-old great granddaughter was able to put her own pasty together. As my nine-year-old granddaughter was making her pasty, she looked up at me with shining eyes and said, “Oh, Grandma! Let’s do this every year.” And just like that, my mother was there in the room with us.

The Kitchen Daughter appeared on bookshelves last week; I received my copy from the publisher. I can envision a book club reading the book and either making the recipes in the book, or better yet, have each book club member bring a cherished family recipe to share at the book club meeting.

Jael McHenry’s website:

Her cooking blog:

The book’s Facebook page:

An interesting interview with Jael about the process of getting a book published:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

by Conor Grennan
New York, William Morrow, 2010
294 pages    Memoir

Occasionally a book comes along that converts the cynical me to the inspired me. Little Princes by Conor Grennan is such a book. It is the memoir of a brash and earnest young man who finds meaning for his life and his life’s work among some lost children in Nepal.

A few years out of college, Conor Grennan plans a trek around the world, a frequent rite of passage for young adults. Feeling that such a trip would be slightly self-indulgent, he decides to spend three months on a service project of some sort—to give the trip purpose and also to serve as something to brag about. “Yeah. I spent some time helping poor orphans in Nepal.”

He arrives at the Little Princes Children’s Home outside Katmandu, Nepal, knowing nothing about children and nothing about what he would be doing. He is at first charmed by the children and then finds that he likes being with them. Very quickly he finds himself feeling parental to the children, who giggle, climb all over him, and love him unconditionally. A year after his first stint, he returned to Little Princes because he missed the children so much. Almost by accident, Conor and his coworker Farid discover that the children are not orphans at all, but children that had been trafficked from the Nepalese hinterlands—an area called Humla. Promising he will give the children a better life, the trafficker took the children from their homes and walked them for days out of the mountains to Katmandu where they were either sold into slavery or became beggars, or worse, on the streets of the city.

Conor becomes convinced that he has a duty to try to find the parents of the children and goes back to the United States to raise some money and start a foundation, Next Generation Nepal, which will pay for a building and staff to house other lost children, and which will also allow teams to comb the villages of the Humla area for the parents of the children. When he returns to Nepal, he puts his plan into action, buying a house for the children and planning trips into the mountains, pictures of the children in hand.

The most touching part of the book comes when Conor and his team find the parents for many of the children and show them pictures of their lost children. This is when the book turns from being a tidy little memoir to being one that tugs at your heartstrings. “I once was lost, and now am found.”

The book is also a love story, one that begins with an email friendship between Conor and a young American woman named Liz, who visits him in Nepal, falls in love with the children, just as Conor has, and at book’s end, becomes his wife.

Conor Grennan is a person of optimism and hope. His exuberance lifts the reader’s spirit just as his tenderness and passion warms the soul. One passage tells it all. When Conor finds the mother of Amita, a little girl at the home, he has this to say: “She reminded me, somehow of my own mother…in the look she gave me, that expectant and fearful look my mother wore every time I saw her at the airport…Amita’s mother had that look now; thrilled at the possibility of news of her daughter but terrified that the news might be bad, that her daughter might be sick or hurt or lost. I wanted to comfort her like I comforted my own mother. I wanted to tell her that her daughter was a shining star in our lives, that we adored her. I wanted to tell her that Amita missed her deeply, that she only wanted to come home, that nothing and nobody could ever take her place in her daughter’s mind.”

This is a very satisfying read. Last year, I read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, another story of a man inspired by the children of a mountainous area and finds his life’s work among them. While Greg’s response is more measured and his passion more low key, Conor’s enthusiasm is boundless and his love for the children is limitless. We are inspired by Conor’s actions, concerned by the problems he faced and continues to face as he takes these children home, and cheered by the resilience of children who face insurmountable odds with such joy, industriousness and humor.

Conor Grennan’s website and blog:

The website for Next Generation Nepal:

An interview where Conor Grennan tells his story:

I received this book from the publicist and thank her for the opportunity to read such an inspiring book.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Quilter's Bible

By Linda Clements

London, David & Charles, 2011

256 p. Non-Fiction

Patchwork quilting is a tradition in our family; the women in the family have been doing it for generations. When my mother died last year, each member of the family came into the sanctuary carrying the quilt that my mother had made for them. Each uniquely designed patchwork quilt was placed on the altar rail and added so much color, joy, and family history to the celebration of her life.

I have been quilting for several years, and enjoyed reading and utilizing The Quilter’s Bible by Linda Clements this week. This is a very skillfully designed book which covers all the necessary information about patchwork, quilting, and appliqué. It is comprehensive, and a beginner who follows all the steps could become a proficient quilter. Advanced quilters will find much to appreciate as well.

I knew many of the basic patchwork techniques suggested in the book, so I decided to follow the directions for appliqué, a technique that I have been afraid to tackle. But, I had two projects in mind; an elephant wall hanging to go on the wall in our new granddaughter’s room (hopefully I will get it done before she is born!) and a batik tote bag for the midwife who will deliver the baby. I used the freezer paper appliqué technique for the elephant appliqué and a raw-edged technique for the flowers on the tote bag. I followed the written directions exactly and was very pleased with the finished appliqué. The Quilter’s Bible has lots of pictures that illustrate each technique, and by utilizing the written explanations and the pictures, I was able to execute my design.

There is a comprehensive section on quilting in addition to the sections on patchwork and appliqué. The directions show the reader how to hand quilt and machine quilt. Additionally, the discussion in the book about choosing fabric is nicely done and helpful as is the section on choosing supplies.

What I love the most about quilting is choosing the fabric and the design. The truly creative aspect of quilting to me is choosing the colors. I think I have a pretty good eye for color. Frankly, I don’t intend to learn how to quilt. I have a fabulous quilter named Patrick who is a genius at long arm quilting, and everything he has done for me has turned out to be a work of art. If I feel that I can get by without the expense of Patrick’s quilting, I am quite happy tying the quilt, a technique I use primarily for baby quilts.

One reviewer noted: “A delightful surprise found in this book are the fun projects dropped in here and there among the techniques giving the reader a hands-on experience learning each process. How clever is that? The photography is lovely, the techniques are dynamic and every quilter’s library will benefit from this essential resource.”

Here is a review from a sewing blogger that is very comprehensive:

I received this book from FSB Media and was very pleased to have the opportunity to review it.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Blessed: Living a Grateful Life

By Ellen Michaud

New York, Best You from Reader’s Digest, 2011

175 pages Spiritual

Yesterday I had the day to myself, something that hasn’t happened for several months. I just let the work pile up, and I spent much of the day nurturing myself by reading the lovely little book, Blessed, a series of meditations on celebrating the blessings of our lives. I checked out the daffodils shooting up on the lawn, watched a pair of squabbling blue jays at the bird feeder, and executed a nice supper for my husband and son. A day of small blessings.

Ellen Michaud suggests that these small blessings are the “whispers of God.” She says in a video on her website that she hopes that her essays would be beams of “beautiful light that I could throw into the world.”

Many of the small blessings she celebrates come from living in a cottage near Lake Champlain in Vermont, where she works as a writer and has become a master gardener. She has quite consciously settled in to a rural life attuned to the rhythm of nature. She gardens, walks the dog, cans applesauce and salsa, tends to the neighborhood church, and visits the ubiquitous Vermont country stores.

One section of the books celebrates the lives of women who have taken on causes and work tirelessly to make life better for others. Several more of these essays concern women as caregivers, purveyors of casseroles and solace. I believe most of these essays come from her affiliation with Curves, the nationwide chain of fitness studios. While these were nice essays, I was more touched by the stories of daily life that fill the rest of the book.

I found solace in the short essays because in so many ways, they were echoes of my life, and I would guess, the lives of other readers. If I were the keeper of a journal, I would be writing about many of the same things. These small blessings are a part of all of our lives; we just don’t take the time to celebrate them. After a chapter on making apple pies, I made a note to remember the blueberry pie I made with my 8-year-old granddaughter Isabela this week. It was her spring vacation, and so she spent the afternoon with me. Her only wish was to make a blueberry pie. Another chapter mentioned a winter storm and reminded me of the three days we spent without electricity or heat in February and how my husband and I sat in front of the fireplace, played cribbage, and celebrated having nothing compelling to do.

I have read two similar books in the last year—The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. All these books urge the reader to settle down, breathe, and feel the blessings that surge around us. I find it fascinating that we have to be told to do this; giving thanks and feeling blessed should just be a part of our daily lives. What has happened to us that we have to be reminded to breathe?

Without preaching or being overtly religious, Ellen Michaud’s little book, Blessed, gives us insight into the small things of life worth celebrating. As she says at the end of most of the essays, “We are blessed.”

Here is a sample of her work as it appears in

A nice blog review:

Ellen Michaud’s website: Her website:

I received this book from the book’s publicist as an Advanced Reader’s Copy. It will go into my church library next week.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

My Name is Mary Sutter

I am re-posting my review of My Name is Mary Sutter because it has just been released in paperback. I read it in hardback in October of 2010 and was pleased to see it in paperback. It is a very good read.

By Robin Oliveira

New York, Penguin, 2011
384 Pages     Fiction
Robin Oliveira embarked on an adventure with a steep learning curve when she envisioned the young woman named Mary Sutter who she created for her first novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. Not only did she not know much about the Civil War, the setting for the book, but she knew very little about nursing, surgery, pharmacology, obstetrics, or all the other details that are key to this novel’s setting and plot.

Oliveira says, “through it all, there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war.” I think it took a courageous woman to take on the huge task of writing such a book, even as she created the courageous woman who is Mary Sutter.

Mary Sutter is a midwife, the latest in a long line of midwives, living in a time when all babies were delivered by midwives. However, being a midwife is not enough for Mary. She wants to be a surgeon, either by going to medical school or by apprenticing herself to a surgeon. This is not to be, however; in the mid-1800s until the Civil War begins, women have no place in the surgery. When the first troops are called up, Mary sees her chance and goes off to Washington, where the wounded are to be taken, to do whatever she needs to do to learn surgery and to be of service. Dorothea Dix is calling for women to come and learn nursing as it had been taught by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.

What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that the surgery she will learn is the amputation of limbs. She also learns about the prevention of serious disease and death. When she finds a surgeon who will help her achieve her goal, she implores him: “Teach me everything you know. I want to understand what makes the body work. I want to see what you do, how you do it. I want to hear what you think. I want to know which medicine to give for what condition. I want to change dressings, see the wounds, understand why the boys are dying, how to make them well. Not just after a battle, but all the time. Every day. At your side.”

As the war progresses and men by the thousand are dying, Mary remains in the thick of it, meeting among others Clara Barton, President Lincoln, and his assistant John Hay. She helps a doctor research the causes of dysentery and other wartime diseases and applies her midwife’s standards for cleanliness and orderliness to the battlefield hospital. In one horrendous scene she has to make the decisions as to which wounded soldiers will live by getting on the train to Washington to be treated, and which soldiers will be left behind to die.

Although all doesn’t end well (her family suffers some excruciating losses), Mary survives the war, returns home to Albany and finds love and purpose for her post-war life.

I was amazed by how the book is so comprehensively researched down to the smallest detail. It is not for the faint of heart, however, and I think that I learned more about the casualties and deaths of the Civil War than I cared to know. This is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and this book is sure to find a place among the other books about this time. That it is about a woman makes it all the more valuable.

During my grandson’s 10-year-old adventure, we visited Frederick MD and toured the battlefields at Fredrick and Antietam, both scenes in the book, My Name is Mary Sutter. Maxwell bought a Union cap at the National Park bookstore and ran through the fields, shooting a tiny GI Joe size gun at imaginary enemies. When we left, he was ecstatic about the adventure of it all. My Name is Mary Sutter certainly removes the romance of war from the reader’s memory and allows you only to feel the pain. Frankly, there were moments when I only wanted the book and the war to be over.

It is a story well told; the characters are believable, the plot compelling, and the story-line filled with the detail that lovers of historical fiction crave. Some of the scenes will stick in my memory for a long time. I can highly recommend this book for readers during this Civil War sesquicentennial.

Some interesting reviews from the Good Reads blog:

An interview with Robin Oliveira:

Robin Oliveira’s website:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

by Anuradha Roy
New York, Free Press, 2008
305 p.   Fiction

An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy tells an intricate story of families, houses, time,and memory in India from the early 1900s to the years following the partition, about 1950.

First it is the story of several families over three generations beginning with a business man Amulya and his wife Kanabala, who settle in a small town, Songarth, where he becomes a prosperous businessman. He builds a large multigenerational home for his older son and wife, his younger son and daughter, and a young widow who takes care of Bakul, the granddaughter.

Second it is the story of two houses, Amulya’s house in Songarth and Bakul’s grandfather’s house in Manoharpur. The houses take on personality much like the people; they nurture the families they house, and then, like the inhabitants, the houses age and decline.

It is also the story of Mukunda, a caste-less orphan, who is raised in the house at Songarth. His story ties all the other stories together.

There is also a tumultuous river, symbolic in many ways. One review indicates: “The striking aspect of the novel is the intricate paradox of stillness as visualized in the description of the picture (the scene) and the onward movement of the river that symbolizes the volatile story enacted along the border of West Bengal.” It would appear that nothing much is going on in this quiet countryside, but indeed a very great deal is going on, including insanity, murder, unrequited love, teenage angst, and grief.

Even though things seem to be at a standstill, time is passing, and Roy shows the passage of time in very imaginative ways. The Independent of London describes the passage of time thus: “Several strata make themselves apparent. There are the huge ideas of geological time evoked in the image of the mounds behind the ruined fort; there are the humdrum indications of change such as the marks of decay affecting the house; and there are, powerfully present in the landscape, the descriptions of the movements of the river in Manoharpur as it advances upon "the drowned house," in which Bakul's mother had died while giving birth and which she now inherits - the house in constant danger before the shifting and rising water. Behind Roy's novel must surely be the words of TS Eliot: "In succession/ Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored."

I was immensely intrigued by the title, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. I understood the concept of longing, because longing permeates the book. It wasn’t until page 199 that the reason for the title comes clear. The third section of the book tells the story of Mukunda, the orphan boy, now a businessman, on his way to becoming successful. At one point he visits an astrologer, who looks at his palm and says: “Your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.” Ah, I thought, now I get it!

Although the story line is interesting and intriguing, what makes this book unique and compelling is the mood that permeates every pore of the book, much like the heat that permeates every pore of the characters. One reviewer calls it “a quality that can only be described as grace.” One of my favorite acts of grace in the novel occurs when the businessman, Amulya, realizes that his wife, Kanabala, is going mad. Up until this time, he has virtually ignored his wife, which probably has contributed to her madness. He begins to spend his evenings in the garden with her, talking to her, helping her walk, and tenderly taking care of her.

The book is quite beautifully written. Descriptive passages abound, like this one: “The rushes had stopped nodding, the breeze had stopped blowing through our hair, the stream had stopped flowing, the curdled clouds had stopped drifting overhead, the bird had stopped its call, the two children on the opposite bank had frozen in mid-gesture. . .”

Roy invokes the India of the past in somewhat nostalgic terms, but we are given a glimmer of the India that is to come. Nothing moves very rapidly in Roy’s India, but the undercurrent is there, much like the undercurrent monsoon river that floods the house of Bakul’s grandfather.

Anuradha Roy is a book publisher in Delhi. An Atlas of Impossible Longing is her first novel.

This review in the Hindu, an Indian magazine, gives a perspective totally different from the Western papers that reviewed the book:
Here is a review in a British newspaper. It includes an outline of the plot:

I received this book as a review copy from the publisher.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bullet Work

By Steve O’Brien

Washington, A and N, 2011

338 pages Fiction

Bullet Work by Steve O’Brien follows the lives of the people who work behind the scenes (on the backside) of a race track outside of Washington DC. Dan, who is probably the alter-ego of the author, is a race horse owner and lawyer. He is the filter through which the backside is revealed to the reader. He is also the protagonist and an innocent victim of the violence that ensues from a shakedown that is occurring at the race track.

Dan’s new horse, Aly Dancer, is becoming what any horse owner usually only dreams about—a real winner. Her trainer Jake, groomer Beth, and jockey Kyle do everything they can to prepare Aly Dancer for the big race, but they are distracted by the danger that is unfolding on the backside, including the death of several horses. Dan figures out who is shaking down the owners and trainers and nearly pays for his discoveries with his life.

A peripheral character, AJ, is really the most interesting. A young adult, AJ is autistic and the underdog among the groomers. He lives for horses and has a bond with them that makes him misunderstood by the other grooms and trainers. Dan realizes that he is a “horse whisperer” and becomes his protector and friend.

Readers unfamiliar with horse racing and the way race tracks run are in for an education. Much of the first one hundred pages of the book are spent with descriptions of claiming races, purses, farriers, vets, and on and on. Little bits of plot are disclosed and characters are introduced in the midst of these instructive sequences. Frankly, I lost track of who was who when I got hung up in one of these diversions. When the plot really took off about page 150, I read breathlessly to the end. The race sequences are particularly well written, the villains are true to form, and the shady dealings are plausible.

I wish that O’Brien had developed the characters more deeply. I understand that this is not his long-suit, but I had real trouble envisioning them, particularly Dan, the main character. I had no idea who he was, other than someone who loved horses and horse racing. Frankly, I couldn’t help comparing this book with Lord of Misrule, which I read and blogged about in December. Really, I shouldn’t have compared it, because Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award. And, because I had read Jaimy Gordon’s book, I understood the backside a little bit better than if I had been a rank novice. I do have to say that Gordon breathed life into the same type of characters that O’Brien was introducing, including the horses; characters that lay flat on O’Brien’s pages.

Steve O’Brien is an attorney and fiction writer. His other book is Elijah’s Coin, a young adult novel. They seem to be self-published, which is itself an adventure. I think that this book will gain a following. Dick Francis used to be the king of horse racing novels. It will be interesting to see if Steve O’Brien can pick up the slack.

I received this book from The Cadence Group as an advance review copy.

There are not many reviews of Bullet Work available for comparison since the book is just being released. Here is the publisher’s site:

A blog review by the blogger Rex Robot (You gotta love that logo):