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!

Audiobook Review: Life After Life

lifeI have a prediction.  That prediction is that Life After Life will be my favorite novel of 2013.

Yes, this novel is that good.  And don’t get me started on why this title was not nominated for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. That’s a complete mystery, especially considering the fact that I read several of this year’s nominees.  This novel was more deserving of the nomination than a few of the riddles that I encountered on the Booker list.  But I digress; it’s time for me to pen an ode to this magnificent work by Kate Atkinson.

Life After Life follows the lives (yes, lives) of Ursula Todd.  First born in 1910, she succumbs to a very early death, and darkness falls.  Immediately following, she’s born again.  She lives a little longer.  Darkness falls.  She’s born again…. lives a little longer… I think you get the idea.  Believe me, however, when I say that I’m oversimplifying the meaning behind the plot. This novel gave my soul an affectionate squeeze.  I adored every poignant word, and cannot overstate the impact that this book offers, if you open yourself to its message.

With each gift of life, Ursula becomes just a little wiser.  Just a little more worldly.  Just a little more aware.  She can’t shake the feeling that she’s been here before.  She can’t understand why there are moments when something evil seems to be patiently lurking around a corner, causing her to inexplicably take a different route.  The choices she makes affect her life in ways that she can’t even begin to fathom. As her wisdom grows, so too does her longevity.  So too, does her overall purpose.  Her lives eventually culminate into a breathless crescendo; one that left me both exhilarated and exhausted.  I also wanted to start all over again.  I now miss the characters terribly.

If I were to share more about the twists and turns of this novel, then I would be denying you the pleasure of discovery.  I cannot share how Ursula’s choices change her.  I cannot hint at how, after repeated attempts, Ursula is able to see true colors, defend herself, love the right people, and save lives.  To be given the opportunity to live over and over until you get it right…. is that a blessing, or a curse?  If you were given the chance to do everything again, what would you change?  How would your personality grow?  Would you stray from the beaten path, not knowing what was ahead?

This book brushes up against glimpses of the afterlife.  It touches on a form of reincarnation that will lead you to believe in extraordinary cases of cause and effect.  What kept popping into my mind was the Butterfly Effect chaos theory, which purports that a small change in one place can cause significant differences in a later state.  For me, that was Life After Life.  One tiny change was all it took to shape an entire life.  One seemingly minute alteration had the astounding power to affect happiness, social status, and purpose.  What could such hindsight do for history?  My guess is that it would do marvels, if in fact people were willing to learn from the mistakes of the past.  This brilliant book will haunt me for a long time, but in a very good way.

This audiobook was narrated by Fenella Woolgar, and after about 3 minutes of listening, I fully understood why they chose her for the novel.  I quickly became just as immersed in her voice as I was in the story. She embodied each character perfectly.  With tones of silk, Woolgar breathed life into every crevice of the story.  I do hope that I have the opportunity to hear her narrate again soon. She was truly remarkable.

Needless to say, I’m giving 5 heartfelt stars to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  Please get your copy today.  I promise that you will not be disappointed, because you never know if that stubborn “been here before” feeling is déjà vu… or wisdom.