Audiobook Review: And The Mountains Echoed

16115612No, you’re not seeing double – this novel has been acclaimed previously by the Hoarders.  Last year, Penny wrote a lovely review of the tale, which you can read here.  I myself was patiently waiting for the audiobook, having heard that the story is even more engrossing thanks to the voice talents of the author Khaled Hosseini, and his fellow narrators Shohreh Aghdashloo and Navid Negahban.  I put a hold on one of the audio copies at my local library (I believe I was 86th in line – is that all?), and kept checking my inbox for the notification.  Once in my possession for those precious few weeks, I learned quickly that it was well worth the wait.

And The Mountains Echoed is heartbreaking and gorgeously written.  This is a novel that boasts some of the most elegant prose that I’ve encountered in a very long time.  Hosseini’s words are silk. Each line is more poetic than the last.  Having those words read aloud to me was like listening to a melancholic lullaby, and I was left drained at the end.  This was my first experience with Khaled Hosseini’s work, and I now fully understand why this author has such an enthusiastic and devout following.  And The Mountains Echoed wrapped itself across continents and generations, and offered a surprising number of rich characters.  The sprawl of the tale was almost dizzying.

The book opens with some lore; a haunting children’s bed time story that would keep most awake until the wee hours.  You would do well to pay close attention to these pages, as the story succinctly sets the tone for the rest of the novel.  This sober bedtime story does more than share a lesson; it prepares the reader for what lies ahead.  I’ll warn that the novel pulls no punches.  You’ll be drawn in by beautifully written characters, and will have your heart broken shortly thereafter.  The novel opens up with a darling brother and little sister, both of whom you’ll love.  The brilliance of the novel is that their tragedy at the beginning sets off a ripple of effects for generations to come.  It was the most profound case of cause and effect, as family members remained touched by the heartbreak for so many years. Aunts, Uncles, caregivers, children, and children’s children were impacted by what happened at the novel’s start.  If anything, this is among the most difficult of life’s lessons; that certain events have the power to affect families across generations.  You can’t run from the past.

I have to confess that I found novel’s first characters the most compelling.  While the stories that followed were brilliant, I always longed to return to ten-year-old Abdullah and his three-year-old sister Pari.  I found myself more invested in these two children, and no matter who was introduced afterward, my need to hear their continued stories only grew. Walking with them through their childhoods, adolescence and adulthood held more emotion for me than the rest of the people in the novel combined.  And while I understood that the stories that followed Abdullah and Pari were forever linked to the children, I selfishly just wanted more from the original two.  That’s not to say that the post-stories were not compelling or beautifully written.  They most certainly were, and the same level of attention was paid to the characters that followed.  For me, however, the lives of Abdullah and Pari were the most precious of the novel.  I wanted happiness for them at any cost.

Without giving away the close of their stories, I will say that I understood the end.  The fact that not everything comes neatly wrapped in a bow may not comfort you, but this version of closure can at least offer some peace.  While this book did not necessarily whisk me away with the ending that I greedily wanted, it did give me pause.  I admire and respect the emotion of the novel’s close, and appreciated its confident look forward.  Not only can the past affect you, but it can also provide a springboard for true contentment.  Sometimes, I let my need for literary vindication take over, rather than allowing the novel to guide me through a natural karma-laden path.  And The Mountains Echoed was just that. Love, spirituality and a smattering of karma.  Beautifully done.  4.5 stars.

Book Review: The Hungry Ghosts

ghostsMany thanks to Random House of Canada for sending this marvelous novel; a story that I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to final page.  The Hungry Ghosts has everything you want in a smart read: marvelously intelligent characters, elegant prose and most of all, great wisdom.

The Hungry Ghosts centers around Shivan Rassiah, a wonderful character in war-torn Sri Lanka, whose life becomes a wide open book for the reader.  Shivan’s mother and sister live with him in his grandmother’s Colombo home at the novel’s start, which proves an impossibly uncomfortable situation.  Shivan’s grandmother adores her beautiful grandson, and places him on a pedestal.  Her love for him places everyone else in a dark shadow, and simultaneously drives an invisible wedge between Shivan, his mother and his sister.  While the politics of his home country ravage communities and citizens, Shivan’s extraordinarily wealthy grandmother miraculously keeps her family safely tucked away.  The reason for this emerges as the story progresses, and Shivan comes to discover her true character. Continue reading

Audiobook Review: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

ruthieThe Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a heartfelt ode that author Rod Dreher wrote for his sister.  This book gives new meaning to the word sincerity, and I would be remiss if I did not commend the respect that this man demonstrated for his entire family.  In his quest to discover what made his sister tick, the author took an unflinching look at himself, which is never easy.  The book opens its heart to the reader, and reveals truths that were both sweet, and sometimes unkind.

Living in a small Louisiana town of 1,700, Ruthie Leming never felt the need to leave.  She was a simple girl, and her aspirations revolved around her town, her family, and her community.  She knew from the start that home is where the heart is, and her personal goals never took her far from her parents or her neighbors.  She married her High School sweetheart, and had three lovely children.  She became a school teacher, and by all accounts, was a gifted one at that, inspiring her students to be the very best that they could be.  She was a devoted wife, mother, and daughter.  She was happy.

Her brother, on the other hand (the book’s author), was not happy with small town life.  His aspirations took him away from home, and he became an accomplished journalist.  He lived in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.  His parents and his sister did not take kindly to his departure, and on more than one occasion, I was very disappointed by the accounts of their behavior.  His sister thought that he was too big for his britches, and would toss comments his way during family dinners, to ensure that he knew in no uncertain terms that his leaving home was wrong.  At one point, the author and his wife visited his Louisiana family and decided to make everyone dinner.  Because the dinner had a fancy name, however, no one would touch it.  I found this so disappointing and childish that it colored my view of the family.

In her early 40s, Ruthie was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of lung cancer (a surprise for someone who never smoked).  She fought the horrific disease for 19 months, and during the battle, she was surrounded by the extraordinary love of her family and her friends.  There was no question that this was a remarkable town.  Everyone knew everyone. Neighbors were always ready to lend a hand, or a shoulder to cry on.  It was a community of faithful, and it was clear that Ruthie was blessed to be part of it.  It was impossible not to be moved by her fight.  Her determination to keep her family safe from fear while the disease sapped her strength was valiant; she tried to protect them to the end.  When cancer finally robbed this community of their beloved Ruthie, the heart of the town stopped beating for a few moments. Everyone was devastated, and this portion of the book was completely heartbreaking.

After the death of his sister, Rod Dreher wanted back in to the community that he left so many years ago. Seeing first hand the warmth of a tight-knit town propelled him to move his own wife and children “home.” (I thought very highly of his wife for doing this, as she had her own hometown in Texas that she left to be with Rod.)  Regardless, the move was made, and here Rod was forced to come to terms with a troubling discovery, that his sister had unkind words to say about him when he was not around.  I found this to be terribly sad, because life is just too short to pay heed to petty issues.  Love your family for who they are.

The author repeatedly chastised himself for pursuing selfish dreams, and for forsaking the love of his hometown for his own interests.  (The author does eventually note that he does not regret the life that he led before returning to his roots, and for that admission, I say thank you.)  Overall, however, he maintains that there is no true happiness to be found in large cities, because neighbors don’t know neighbors.  The gist here is that people essentially live in bubbles of self-indulgence while missing out on true happiness. That happiness, according to the author, can only be found in the zip code of your youth, where roots have been growing for generations.  You should know everyone that surrounds you, and you should always be ready and willing to be there for them in their time of need.

Is this a nice message?  You bet.  I agree that people today are too busy to know one another.  I agree that we could do more to be present for those who love us the most.  I agree that a simple life can certainly be a happy one.  Material wealth isn’t impressive, and shambling up corporate ladders will leave many feeling hollow rather than accomplished.  Where the author and I part ways, however, is the assertion that a town of 1,700 is the only place to find true fulfillment.  That it’s selfish to want more for yourself or your children.  That’s it’s indulgent to pursue a career that takes you away from you parents. None of this, in my opinion, is true.  People leave home all the time for academics, for employment, for love.  It does not mean that they don’t adore, or miss the extended family that they have left in the community of their youth.  It also doesn’t mean that they don’t get homesick.  I think that a successful life is one where you find love, intellectual fulfillment, and spiritual health.  It’s a life where you not only cherish your family, but are there for them in their time of need (even if you have to travel a great distance to be there).  That’s my version of perfection. Is it the case for everyone?  No, of course not, and I would not determine that this is right for you. Everyone has their own path, and strong extended families support one another during life pursuits.

Do I think that Ruthie Leming was a good person, who had faith in God, and a wonderful family?  Of course.  She was blessed.  Cancer robbed this family of a loving member, and they will forever be changed.  Such loss is also true of many, many other families.  The one thing about cancer is that it steals lives indiscriminately.  Thousands of people could write similar tributes to their missed loved ones, and each would be full of unyielding heartbreak.  I do hope, however, that the people who are left behind on this earth are not blanketed by guilt for having lived their own lives.  Because that would be another tragedy.

3 stars for The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.  While I don’t agree with the book’s takeaway, the pages are full of heart, and any sibling would be lucky to experience this kind of devotion.

Book Review: What’s So Funny?

conwayConfession: I love Tim Conway.  I consider myself an immensely lucky person because I had the opportunity to witness his brilliance on the wonderful (and missed) Carol Burnett Show when I was growing up. Thanks to those years, I was excited to delve into Conway’s new book, What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life.

Now I like him even more.

Many thanks to Howard Books for sending a free copy of What’s So Funny? – a book that’s already taking up space in my heart.  With grace, wit and truly astounding humility, Conway offers up his childhood, school years, army days, and life in show business.  He takes his readers from his days with his beloved parents to the ridiculous antics of his sketch comedy. What I didn’t realize until this book was that the crazy person I saw on the screen was (is) Conway on a daily basis.  Comedy is this man’s core, and a good day is marked by the opportunity to make people laugh.  Conway is as charming as he is funny.  His deadpan banter still leaves so many of today’s comedians in the dust.  He never found the need to be vulgar, or put anyone down.  His heart would shine through the jokes, and it was just impossible not to like the guy.

What I enjoyed most about the book was Conway’s descriptions of the pranks he would pull, and the behind-the-scenes details of the skits.  My rule of thumb is that if a book can get me to laugh out loud, then it’s worth my time.  Well, after about the 10th time that I erupted in surprised laughter, I determined that What’s So Funny? is worth your time too.  Yes, I’ve made that decision for you.  Even if you’re not entirely familiar with Tim Conway, I assure you that his antics will help melt away the day’s stresses.  Isn’t that the mark of a good read?  Losing yourself in the antics of another, and coming out with a grin on your face?  I’ve decided that it is.  I’ve also decided that the world needs more Tim Conway.  You can see by the observation below that Conway’s funny bone runs the length of his body:

That’s all I ask of life, residual laughter.

Tim Conway

What leaps from the pages of his book is his love of family and friends, and his passion for the lighter side of life.  Capable of turning any situation into mischief, Conway has endeared himself not only to those closest to him, but also to his audience.  The book made me want to run out and buy a set of Carol Burnett DVDs, with a hefty side of Dorf.  I was also thrilled to read the insight behind some of my favorite Tim Conway moments, especially the Elephant skit.  (If you don’t know what that is, please look it up. You won’t be sorry.)  He had me worried there for a moment though…. I had almost reached the book’s end before he showed his cards on that one.  Sneaky.

If you want to harken back to very funny times, including the antics of wonderful comics like Bob Newhart, Harvey Korman, and of course, Carol Burnett, then What’s So Funny? is a must read.  4 happy stars for Tim Conway’s new book, and a fond look back to a delightful time in comedy.  Here’s to many more years, Mr. Conway!