Monday, June 3, 2013

What's New? June, 2013 Edition

Since I've had the good fortune of reading more books published in 2013 than I could blog about in one post, the bounty of good reading will continue to this week's edition. The fun begins with Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Now, I can say unequivocally that if this "canal" appeared on most readers vacation itinerary, they would happily cross it off. However, for myself and many other readers, it resulted in a fun visit through the sanitary pages of a book! The journey continues inside the borders of Chechnya with A Constellation of Vital Phenomena penned by first-time author, Anthony Marra. This book already receives high praise with good reason. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout, follows with her newest, The Burgess Boys, where racism and dysfunctional families combine for another bestselling novel. Carol Burnette's memoir about her daughter, Carrie and Me, puts the final touch on this week's blog.


What I liked about Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal:
Author Mary Roach could allow the book to be fetid, but she is anal about reigning in on the crude humor without eliminating the  riveting aspects of a journey down the alimentary canal. The book explores the gastrointestinal track from the mouth and mastication (chewing) through to the end product (ahem) exiting the rectum. At stops in between, the reader learns about the strength/weakness of hydrochloric acid, why beans produce gas, if mealy worms can really eat through a reptile's stomach and so much more. Introductions are made to scientists who study flatulence, stomach contents as well as accounts of past physicians like Pres. Garfield's very own Dr. Doctor who advocated rectum feeding. Gulp! Roach approaches an unappetizing subject with tasteful humor.

Why this book won't be for everyone:
The obvious. Not everyone will appreciate the subject matter or Roach's often corny humor or 300+ pages about what happens to a bolus.

My rating 4 stars


What I liked about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena:
Origin of title: "The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians...
She flipped through the book and found answers to questions no sane person would ever ask. the definition of a foot, the average length of a femur. Nothing for insanity by grief, or insanity by loneliness, or insanity by reading reference books....Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena-organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."

Culture and history: I found this book to be an excellent look at Chechen culture during the First and Second Wars with the Russian Federation. I appreciated the glimpse from the Chechen viewpoint since Chechens are usually looked at as "terrorists", or at best, the bad guys. Whether they do have a higher number of both amidst their population or not, one has to wonder how kindly we would feel towards our Mother Country if we had our villages destroyed, family members raped, maimed, killed and tortured in retaliation to our resistance for having relocated us and our families to Siberia in a previous era. Like with any slice of history, there will be two sides to a story and the truth normally lies somewhere in the middle. I choose to believe that with Chechen history. I doubt that the Soviets moved the Chechens to Siberia for no reason, but by the same token, did they really think a spirited group of people like that would trust them with their welfare in the future? Anyhow, I digress, especially since this book doesn't spend time debating this issue. What it does reveal is much pain, suffering and courage on the part of a couple of Chechen families in the village of Eldar and a physician, Sonja, her sister, and a couple of sisters that work at Hospital No. 6 where Sonja is the Administrator. With the meshing of their lives, the story of a young girl, Havaa, and their love for her emerges.

Why this book won't be for everyone: 
1) The book flips back and forth throughout a timeline spanning between 1994 and 2004. Since much of what takes place occurs either at Hospital No. 6 or Dokka's home (in Eldar village) with the same cast of characters, it can be confusing even though the beginning of the chapter indicates the time period. I found myself referring back to the beginning of the chapter to refresh my memory as to the date of occurrence.
2) When I finished the story, I looked forward to reading the Author's Note anticipating that Anthony Marra must have a Chechen heritage or lived there for awhile since the picture of Chechen life was so vivid. Nothing was said to indicate that either was the case. Instead, I found that his writing was based on research.

My rating: 4 stars


What I liked about The Burgess Boys:

The Contrasts.
The seemingly successful Burgess Boys of Shirley Falls, Maine leave their sister and quiet hometown at their first opportunity. Oldest brother, Jim, makes good - partner in a respectable law firm. Bob also adopts law as his profession, but as a Legal Aid attorney. Bob's twin, Susan, sticks to Shirley Falls, marrying, divorcing and raising a son, Zach, on her own.

The Coping Contrasts:
The family looks to Jim when  Zach foolishly pulls an attention-getting stunt that gets plastered on national headlines for its racist implications. Jim reluctantly gets involved, but it is mild Bob who spends time with Zach to determine where the real problems lie. Susan falls apart.
The Contrasts in the Character's Conclusions:
No spoilers here. I will simply say that there are many layers not initially visible within each character. Secrets (such as which child should be taking responsibility for their father's death, if any), swirl beneath the surface to erupt at inopportune times. Things didn't end as I expected.
Why this book won't be for everyone:
This is a book about a dysfunctional family. It is not a happy book. Its not a book that most people will relax and actually enjoy. What it does do is raise important questions for the reader to contemplate.

My rating: 3 stars

What I liked about Carrie and Me  by Carol Burnette:
The candidness of this memoir by Carol Burnette about her eldest daughter, Carrie, pleased me. The reader watches Carrie grow from cute little tyke to drug-addicted teen to creative adult. I loved the warm friendship between mother and daughter indicated by printed copies of e-mails between the two. The depth of Carol's love for Carrie resonates in this short book. She even includes an unfinished cowboy romance novel that Carrie was working on when she died. Carol had promised Carrie she would see that her story was published.
Why this book isn't for everyone:
There are large gaps in time. While I loved seeing how Carrie's book came together for her (through the e-mails to her mom), the entire memoir left me with more questions than answers regarding Carrie's life.

My rating: 3 stars

View all my reviews


Publisher's Weekly Bestsellers List

USA Today's Bestsellers List

Guardian's List of All-time Bestselling Books in the UK
(I was surprised by the #1 book!)

How Stuff Works calculation of the bestselling books of all-time.
(Note: the books are listed by clicking on the gray boxed beneath the article. You can scroll over the boxes to get the titles.)


 Steinbeck! Lots of it. I will post Part I of my reviews of his books published between 1932 and 1937.

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Wishing you a week of Happy Reading! See you next time.