2011

The Space Between Us Thrity Umrigar

3.6

The setting is Bombay, India.This is the story told by two women: Sera, an upper middle class Parsi, and her longtime domestic servant, Bhima. Bhima has been working as a domestic for Sera. Bhima resides in the slums and lives with her granddaughter, Maya.

For twenty years, the two women shared their lives. Bhima cooked and cleaned for Sera, helping raise Sera's daughter Dinaz. Bhima tended to Sera's bruised body after having been beat time and again by her abusive husband, Feroz.

In the meantime, Sera helped Bhima when her husband was injured in an accident and wasn't getting proper medical care. When Bhima's daughter and son-in-law died, leaving Maya to live with her grandmother, Sera paid for Maya to go to the University.

Even though these two women were indeed friends, they were separated by class. Bhima had her own cupboard at Sera's house where she kept her drinking glass and eating utensils. When she sat and had tea with Sera, she sat at a distance on her haunches on the floor while Sera sat in her chair at the table.

When Maya becomes pregnant, she has to leave University and her future to get herself and Bhima out of the slums is slashed. Sera's family and Bhima decide the best thing to do for Maya is to have her get an abortion. Maya agrees only if Sera is the one to take her and they go alone. After the father is revealed to Bhima, no ones life will be the same.

India comes to life for the reader; the visuals of the streets, market, the people, the smell of the foods, streets, the slums, and the difference in the classes- the poor and their strength, the rich and their greed and weaknesses.
After having just finished our 2010 year with the book "The Help", it was an interesting comparison in the relationships between employee and employer and where to draw the personal line.
 
Sarah's Key Tatiana De Rosnay

3

On July 16, 1942, the French police, collaborating with the Nazis, raided Jewish homes, arrested the families and took them to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, a stadium. The families were kept there for days then shipped to the Aushwitz camps and their eventual demise. This was a two day roundup known as the "Vel'dHiv". 

Sarah was 10 when she heard the knock on the door by the police. She realized her family had to leave so she locked her brother, Michel, in a cupboard and kept the key with her. She thought she would be back shortly to let him out. 

Sixty years later in Paris, Julia Jurmond, an American married to a Parisian, is asked by her Paris based American magazine to write an article for the anniversary of the d"Hiv. Surprisingly, not many French know too much about the roundup. In fact, it wasn't until 1995, when President Chirac apolgized to the Jewish citizens for France's involvement.

It is through Julia's investigation, that she learns about her husband's family connection with Sarah's family.

The first half of the story is told with intermittant chapters between Sarah's life and Julia's. Sarah's voice is very compelling describing the Holocaust and what the families went through. The second half of the book is about Julia, her relationship with her husband, daughter, his family, and her obsession with Sarah. We found the change in voice was distrupting and it slowed the story down. Julia became self absorbed in herself and this other family. 

It is another lesson of history during WWII that we did not know about.

The Cookbook Collector Allegra Goodman

1.8

Emily and Jessamine Bach are sisters and are 5 years apart. Their mother passed away when Emily was 10, leaving Emily to look after her younger sister. They were raised in Massachusetts but now live in Berekely, California- Silicon Valley.

Emily took after her father, getting a degree at MIT and is now the CEO of Veritech, an internet company about to go public. Jess is still in college, a graduate student in Philosophy, and is having a hard time writing her dissertation and getting through the courses. She is a woman of nature: vegan, environmentalist, and is involved with an organization that is trying to save the trees by sleeping in the redwoods so they cannot be chopped down. Emily's boyfriend, Jonathan, is in his own dotcom security start up business and lives in Massachusetts. They maintain a long distance relationship. Jess's boyfriends run in her circle, with no real future, as in job security.

Jess applies for a job at an antiquarian bookstore, whose owner, George, made his fortune in Microsoft, retiring early. George is about 16 years older than Jess. He doesn't understand or share Jess's ideas, but he seems  to enjoy questioning her and getting her ire going. Jess treasures books, the feel of the paper, and the printed word. Whereas, George takes pride in collecting them. In fact, his home is its own museum of collections. George has the opportunity to buy a cookbook collection from the niece of the collector after his death. It is a collection no one has ever seen as it dates back to the 1700's. The book is also filled with the collector's personal menus and drawings. Once the collection is obtained, Jess delves in to categorizing the collection and a stronger bond forms between George and Jess.

When Emily's company is about to go public, Jess needs $1800.00 to buy her shares for the company. Instead of asking her father for the money, she borrows it from a Bialystok Rabbi whom she met from a neighbor. She begins to attend classes at his Synagogue. He also just happens to have a sister and brother-in-law Rabbi who lives in Jess's hometown in MA. This is where the author starts to add too many characters, story lines, and uncanny coincidences to the book, ending up with the two sisters learning more about their mother.

The book is heralded as a modern-day Jane Austen. We only thought the similarity is that there are two sisters with boyfriends. This is no Jane Austen. One of the main points of this book just may be the difference in what is tangible and what is intangible. For example, the dotcom owners and investors became millionaires with intangible wealth,(it is just numbers on paper), whereas, George has wealth in his tangible investments.

Our main question was this, "Why is this book titled the Cookbook Collector?" We did enjoy the recipes of the past and the way words were spelled.

Her Fearful Symmetry Audrey Niffenegger

2

Julia and Valentina are identical sisters. They are 20 and live at home in Chicago with their mother, Edie and father, Jack. They receive a thick letter that informs them that their Aunt Elspeth, their mother's identical twin who lives in London, has passed away. They twins never knew their aunt, as their mother and aunt became estranged when the twins were babies.The letter states that they have been left Elspeth's flat in London, along with her belongings, minus her personal papers. There are two conditions of the will. One, they are to live in the flat a year before they decide whether to keep it or sell it. Two, there parents are not to enter the apartment

Elspeth never married, but when she young she was engaged to marry Jack. That is, until he married Edie. Elspeth was now in a relationship with her neighbor Robert who lived downstairs from her. He had moved into the building to study the neighboring Highgate Cemetery. Elspeth was a volunteer there.

The twins had been in and out of college. Valentina wanted to stay in college but Julia was restless and did not. Julia was the stronger of the two and Valentina seemed to let her sister make decisions for them, even if it was not what Valentina wanted.

The twins decide to move to London for the year. Once they are in the flat, Valentina starts to feel her Aunt's presence. Soon, writings appear on the dusty furniture. Elspeth finds her self back in her flat, a weak ghost. Little by little she gets stronger and begins to communicate with the twins. She and Valentina seem to have a stronger connection. In the meantime, Robert watches the twins from a far as he his nervous to meet them. When he does, he feels an instant connection with Valentina. As their relationship gets closer, Julia starts to feel left out. She becomes friends with Martin, the upstairs neighbor. Martin is agoraphobic along with being extremely OCD. His wife Marijke, leaves him after 20 some years of marriage and returns to Amsterdam, where she is originally from. Their son is now grown and on his own. The twins want to learn more abut their aunt and would like to read her papers. Robert declines but decides it is time for him to read them. That is when he discovers the truth. (I will not mention what that is).

The twins tell Robert of Elspeth's ghost and he is now communicating with her. Elspeth also notices that Robert and Valentina are getting closer. This is when things start getting strange. I can't really write more or I would be giving too much away. I will say though that as the book climaxed and wrapped up, it lost us. We became very confused. We didn't like what was happening or how it ended. The book did create a lively discussion and if you like a supernatural story, you would like this. It is a fun, light read on your own, but for a book club, there are many other books out there to be discussed.

 
Fall of Giants Book One of the Century Trilogy Ken Follett

3.6

This is the way one should learn History. Ken Follett has written a fictional historical novel based on well researched facts of WWI. When I first saw the size of the book, (985 pages), and the cast of characters, (fictional and real), involving five countries worldwide, I was overwhelmed. I wondered how I would ever remember them all and keep everyone straight. Follett writes with a gripping storyline that keeps the story moving and easy to absorb.

The book begins on July 22,1911 and ends in January 1924. We learn how the war started and how the countries were all drawn into to defend and protect themselves and their allies. From Britain, to Germany, Austria, Poland, France, Russia and the Russian Revolution, to the imminent involvement of the United States, we are taken on a journey through the lives and families of those who fought in the war and those who kept the home fires burning.

The fictional characters provide for a better understanding of the human side of the war and of course make for a more interesting read than a nonfiction dry book. Whatever problems you may find with the characters, they teach you what it was like to live in that time of our history and how governments deal with war.

Little Bee Chris Cleave

3

Sarah is offered free trips through work and chooses to go to a private resort in Nigeria. She is hoping to rekindle her relationship with her husband, Andrew. Ignoring warnings to stay inside the resort, Sarah decides to venture outside the walls with her husband to walk along the beach. There she meets Little Bee and Little Bee's sister.

Two years later, Andrew answers the phone in the early morning. It is Little Bee. She has just been released from an immigration detention center in Britain. The only belongings she has with her are: an English Dictionary, a pair of gray socks, a pair of gray briefs, a United Kingdom Driver's License and a water stained business card. The license and business card belonged to Andrew. She is allowed one phone call so she calls the number on the card. Thus begins the saga of the relationships between Little Bee, Sarah, Andrew, Charlie,(Sarah and Andrew's son), and Lawrence,(Sarah's lover)..

Little Bee's story of life in Nigeria is one of horror and sadness. The ground under her village is filled with crude oil and the companies and politicians want the land. One day, the men come and burn down her village and murder those who stay behind to fight "the men". Little Bee and her sister have been on the run ever since.

The story is told in two voices, that of Little Bee and Sarah. Little Bee's story tells of the inhumane conditions of living in a country of greed and violence. It brings to life the influx of refugees from other countries. Sarah's character is confusing. It is passionate and giving yet at the same time self-centered and selfish. I found her and Lawrence's characters and relationship unlikely, weak, and unrealistic. I didn't like the way Charlie ran around in a Batman costume all the time without Sarah trying to parent him. I did like the relationship between Charlie and Little Bee. The story had high points and low points. We had a good discussion for a book club book but personally, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

The Women T.C. Boyle

3.3

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the world's greatest architect's. But, he had a wandering eye and libido which took precedence over his personal life. "The Women", is the story of the four women with whom  FLW had serious relationships. The story is narrated by the fictional character of a Japanese apprentice, Tadashi Sato, who comes to Wright's residence, Taliesin, in the fall of 1932. He immediately goes to work in the kitchen. Any apprentice coming to Taliesin, is expected to work in all areas of the farm, land, house, and as an apprentice. Upfront, he pays a monetary tuition.

Tadashi, tells the story of Wright's women in reverse order. He begins with Olgivanna Milanoff, his third and surviving wife, a dancer from Montenegro, who falls in love with Wright and moves to Taliesin with him bringing her daughter. Later they have their own daughter. Before they are able to marry, Wright needs to be granted a divorce from his second wife Maude Miriam Noel. Miriam is addicted to morphine and is quite volatile. Wright and Miriam really do not have much in common except for their sexual passion. Wright knew she wasn't the woman for him and he left her a few times. But he couldn't stay away as to every time he saw her, he fell into her arms with lust. Miriam goes after Wright publicly and physically for years until she finally grants him his divorce.

Wright met Miriam after the death of his mistress and "soul-mate" Mamah Borthwick Cheney. He met Mamah when he designed and built her and her husband Edwin's house. They lived in the same neighborhood in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. While Wright was building the house, he and Mamah would have stimulating, intellectual conversations. They believed in freely loving each other no matter who they hurt. It was a selfish love as both Wright and Mamah were married with children of their own at the time. Wright had had other affairs in the past but none that he felt this love for as he did Mamah. Mamah abandoned her family as did Wright to move to Europe where they both found work on their own. When they returned to the States, Wright bought property in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to be around his family. He  built, Taliesin, a home for him and Mamah. There was a lot of turmoil around this. The neighbors did not like the fact that Wright was living in sin. This was 1914. Wright was charged with the violation of the Mann Act, crossing a woman across State Line for immoral purposes. After Mamah had lived in Taliesin for 7 months, a worker and his wife, originally from Barbados, came to work for Wright. The husband, Carleton, was very angry of the treatment he felt he received from the white, well to do Americans. Mamah did not like the way Carleton treated his wife Gertrude and spoke with him about it. When Mamah stepped into the kitchen as Carleton was beating his wife, Mamah fired him. Mamah's two children happened to be visiting at the time. Carleton left and came back with an axe and killed 7 people that day.

Before Mamah, there was Wright's wife, Kitty. He married her when she was 17.They had 6 children together. Kitty did not divorce Wright until years later when Wright was involved with Miriam.

All four relationships are made public by the press and all four women publicly defend their relationships or their despair with Wright and the other woman.

What is interesting about Wright that you learn from this book and that of "Loving Frank", which we read a couple of years ago, is about the man himself. He was selfish, egotistical, demanding, talked mostly of himself and didn't care to hear about others. He used people. He didn't pay his debts, leaving them either unpaid or finding others to pay his bills for him. He never felt ashamed about this. He was an important man and was expected to be taken care of or that he was owed "things" because after all, he was Frank Lloyd Wright.  It is also interesting that Wright's father left him when he was a teenager. Wright was so angered he changed his middle name. Yet, Wright behaved just like him.

His architecture was very different and modern for the time. He designed and built his buildings into the environment and wanted a very clean look. When you think of the designs of the late 1800's/early 1900's, his buildings were quite avantgarde for the time. T.C. Boyle gives us a good look into the life of Wright, his life and works, and that of his relationships with his women.

The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver

3

Harrison Shepherd was born in the United States to an American father and a Mexican mother. In 1929, his mother, Salome, left her husband and took Harrison with her to live with Enrique, a wealthy Mexican landowner, at his hacienda.. Salome thought she would become a bride and be wealthy herself. While there, Harrison helped the cook, Leandro, in the kitchen and became quite a good cook himself. He would also go to the beach where he learned to swim underneath the water where he discovered la lacuna. After a time, Salome realized that she and Harrison had to leave Enrique. She had met another business man who would set her and her son up in an apartment. One day Harrison came across the artist Diego Rivera painting a mural. his helpers were having trouble mixing the cement to the correct consistency. When Harrison taught them how to mix it, like dough, Diego hired Harrison. After Diego left town, Harrison met his wife and painter, Frida Kahlo. He offered to help her carry her items. Thus, the lifetime friendship of Harrison and Frida began. 

Harrison became the cook in the Rivera household. Rivera was part of the Communist movement and was a friend of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was in hiding as he was a wanted man by his former friend and Bolshevik leader, Joseph Stalin. Harrison is hired by Trotsky and Harrison finds himself entwined with revolutionaries and artists. After Trotsky's violent death, the newspapers report all the wrong facts. This is Harrison's first experience with the power of the press and how the press can manipulate truth or fiction. People will believe whatever they are told.

As the United States enters into WWII, Harrison returns to the States along with artwork for Frida's show in New York. Once there, he becomes a civil servant for the United States to help with a shipment of art oversees. After the death of Harrison's father, Harrison is left his father's car. He drives south until he reaches the town of Asheville, NC. He decides to stay and rents a room at a boarding house.                                                    
From the time Harrison was a small boy, he always wrote in a notebook about his daily life. However, he wrote in the 3rd person. His mother and others would tell him to be careful what he wrote as they were afraid they may get into trouble with his writings. Once he settled into the boarding house, he began to write his book and had it published. He was able to buy a house and hire his boarding house friend, Violet Brown as his stenographer. After two successful books and a third waiting to be published, Harrison finds himself in the middle of the McCarthy hearings and his past has come back to haunt him.

Written in the form of journal, letters, and news clippings, this book takes a wonderful look into the lives of Rivera, Kahlo, and the politics of Mexico and the United States. Kingsolver takes us to the Aztec ruins and the stories behind them. However, the book does drag on at points but to true Kingsolver's writings, she brings it all together at the end.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot

3.25

When the author took a community college biology class in 1988, her professor was explaining cancer cells and he wrote the name Henrietta Lacks on the board. He explained that Henrietta died in 1951 of cervical cancer. But, before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. The professor then added on that Henrietta was a black woman. Rebecca became intrigued about who the woman was behind the cells. She spent the next several years researching the story of the cells and that of Henrietta and her family.
Henrietta was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. When her mother died, she returned to her father's family tobacco farm in Clover, VA. The family had farmed the same land since their slave ancestors. She grew up with her older cousin David, Day, Lacks. He was 5 years older. At age 14, Henrietta became pregnant with Day's child and they married.They had 5 children. Day was always cheating on Henrietta and gave her various STD'S.

In 1951, after waiting a year, Henrietta went to John Hopkins Hospital to see a Doctor. She told them she had a knot in her womb. As the Dr. flipped through her chart from previous visits, he noted she had been diagnosed with neurosyphilis but had cancelled treatments. She had also tested positive for gonorrhea and increased cellular activity in the cervix. She had declined follow up treatment. Shortly after, Henrietta had given birth to a baby at the hospital yet, no tumor was detected at time of birth. Either it had been overlooked or it had grown that fast after 4 months. A sample of the tumor was taken and sent to pathology. When the Dr. began treatment on the tumor, he took samples of healthy tissue and the cancerous tissue. He then sent them to Dr. George Gey's lab. Gey was experimenting in growing cells from tissue. So far he was not having success in keeping cells alive. Henrietta's cells were different. They grew. He labeled his samples with the first two letters of the patient's first and last name. These cells are now known as HeLa cells.

HeLa cells with their unique properties became the cells to test every vaccine or procedure on. They were used to test the Salk vaccine for polio, radiation from a nuclear bomb, chemotherapy drugs, hormones, AIDS, deep sea diving and spaceflight. They were also infected with TB, salmonella and bacteria. It was later discovered that her cancer was caused by the HPV virus. HeLa cells became a researcher's dream. Factories were built to mass produce the cells. They were shipped all over the world, first freely by Dr. Gey, then for money by companies.
It wasn't until a Rolling Stone reporter showed up at the Lack's home in 1975, did the family find out that Henrietta's cells were still alive and being used for research. This had quite an effect on the family.

Now in the 1990's, Ms. Skloot goes back to the Rolling Stone article and follows the research into the Lack's family. It takes time and patience but through numerous interviews and gaining confidence with the Lack's family, they let her in. Through a timeline back and forth, which aids in keeping track of where the author is in the book, we learn the science of the cells, the family relations of Henrietta, the ethical questions it raises about using cells from a donor or in many cases, not a donor, and making money from them. Henrietta's family never saw a cent from the millions the cells have made for companies. They have lived in poverty with no health insurance. I believe the book is very fair in showing both sides. Without testing on tissues, organs, blood, etc. after we are done with them, either in surgery or through lab work, there would be no way to find new cures for diseases. Yet, here is a family who could have really needed some compensation. Maybe John Hopkins could have at the very least provided free health care to the family as a sigh of good will. That is just my opinion. In the past couple of years, new laws have been written to protect the privacy and rights of the patients. We are a more informed patient.
HeLa cells are still being used today.

The Other Boleyn Girl Philippa Gregory

3.4

We have all read and been taught the story of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. What we know little of is Anne's sister, Mary. Mary was the favorite and youngest lady-in-waiting for Queen Katherine. She was also married at age 13 to William Carey, a good friend and man high in favor with the king. When Mary catches the eye of the King, Mary's family, The Boleyn's and the Howard's, decide she must leave her husband to be available to the King. Soon, Mary finds herself in love with the King. She gives him two children. When the King begins to lose interest in Mary, the family decides she must step aside in order to let her sister Anne, seduce the King. Anne indeed catches the King's eye. For three years, she keeps the King's interest without giving into him sexually, although she does satisfy him in other ways.The King wants her so bad he will do anything to have her. She convinces him to leave Queen Katherine and to obtain an annulment. She also introduces him to the teachings of Martin Luther. This change in the church practices begins the new Church of England. Anne becomes quite ruthless in her need of power, not only over the King, the Court, but also her family.

Mary had spent time at her family's estate in Hever. After her children were born, the children remained there to be cared for and Mary returned to Court to perform her duties. She was allowed to return to Hever during the summer months. On one of her trips, she was escorted by William Stafford. He stayed at Hever with her and they fell in love. Eventually, they married without permission. He later built her a home in the area, and they moved there to raise their children.
There is so much more detail and story lines in this book; Queen Katherine, the King's spoiled, selfish rants and needs, the relationship between England, France, Spain, and the Catholic Church, the sibling relationship between Anne, Mary, and George, and the dynamics of the Boleyn-Howard family.

We must remember this is historical fiction of the Tudor Court. There are inaccuracies but it gives us a very vivid look into the time period and life of King Henry's court. It was a very enjoyable read.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts a memoir Neil White

3.25

In May 1993, Neil White was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for check kiting to sustain his publishing business. He was to spend his time at the Federal Medical Center in Carville, Louisiana. The medical center was home to the residents with Hansen's Disease, otherwise known as leprosy. The Center opened in 1894 with seven patients. The land had been originally a Southern Plantation. Since there was room at the Center, it was divided in half to accommodate prisoners on one side and the patients on the other side.

When White entered the prison/center, he noticed it was not a typical prison. There weren't bars on the windows or doors on the cells. The prisoners varied from white collar crime, larceny, drugs, and those with more violent crimes but needed medical attention. The grounds were like that of a country club. The prisoners were assigned jobs, and White's first job was in the kitchen, writing the menu on a board in the cafeteria for the residents(those with leprosy). When he discovered he was living with leprosy residents, he feared any contact with them would be contagious.

White had always been an over achiever. He wanted to be in the Guinness World of Records, to be recognized as an important business man. As his business grew, he expanded more and spent more. In order to cover his expenses, he had separate bank accounts and began transferring money from one account to the other. Eventually, it all caught up with him. Now he was in prison without his pressed clothing, his cologne, and even more important, his wife and children. The family had lost their home in two different cities. His wife and children visited him on certain weekends but his wife decided she wanted a divorce and to move back to where she originally lived, Oxford, LA.

White thought he could make the best of the situation by writing a book about the Center. He would interview the residents and the prisoners. He would be like George Plimpton and write an undercover story or expose about the place. While in the cafeteria, he was approached by the residents and while at first very guarded, he became to know them. One in particular, Ella, had been there since she was a child. She was now in her 80's. She was a very wise woman and White often talked and had coffee with her early in the morning before the other residents came in. The prisoners and the residents were not suppose to associate with each other, but White did whenever he got the chance. He began attending church services with the other prisoners and the residents.

The other prisoners, including his roommate, come from all walks of life and a variety of crimes. It is quite interesting and actually entertaining to read about them.

Through his varied associations and time to reflect on his life, he realizes what it is important to him. in life and relationships.

I must admit to my ignorance of leprosy/Hansen's disease. I had no idea it still existed today, let alone that there was an actual center for patients in this country.