Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Finds

So it was an interesting week in book-buying for me. First up is Leila Aboulela's The Translator, a love story between a Sudanese Muslim woman and a Scottish, secular Islamic scholar; I'm about three chapters in and enjoying it very much. I'm reading it for my Muslim/Christian/Jewish book club and it's a nice change of pace from a reading schedule that is otherwise often heavy with theology, which I sometimes find dull. I much prefer learning about people and their lives rather than reading about dogma. For me learning about religion boils down to learning about how people live and why, and learning about what they think of what they do. And I think I just prefer novels in any case.

The second thing I got this week is an out-of-print graphic novel called It Disappears, by Nate Powell. I tried to get it directly from the publisher, Soft Skull Press, but although they were out I managed to snag a copy from Amazon.

Finally, last but by no means least, I picked up Familiar Strangers, an anthology of new and collected poetry by Irish poet Brendan Kennelly. My friend and I went to Grolier Books this afternoon, a poetry-only bookshop in Harvard Square, and I just had to have it. I lived in Dublin for a few months after college and met Mr. Kennelly a few times in the restaurant where I worked as a waitress; he made an odd impression but I got a copy of his then-just-published Poetry My Arse and quickly became a big fan. I am very excited to start reading this volume and I will have to remember to return to Grolier soon. I actually hadn't been in to the shop in over ten years!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Collectibles

Today's Booking Through Thursday is about collecting books.
  • Hardcover? Or paperback?
  • Illustrations? Or just text?
  • First editions? Or you don’t care?
  • Signed by the author? Or not?
I don't really collect books per se, though I have a nice first edition hardcover of my favorite book (Possession, by A.S. Byatt), and my paperback is tattered and worn but it is also signed. When I was in college my friend and I used to go to a lot of readings and collected signed books for a while. I still get a charge out of getting a book I really loved signed, but I don't go out of my way to collect first editions or anything else.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

REVIEW: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson. Originally published 1938. This edition 2008 by Persephone Books. Literary Fiction.

I picked up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day after seeing the movie of the same name, which came out last year. The movie was delightful- sunshine on the screen. The book is sunshine on the page.

Miss Pettigrew is the story of a poor single woman, Guenivere Pettigrew, in 1930s England who is having trouble finding work. She ends up, quite by accident, in the employ of one Delysia LaFosse, a gorgeous, bubbly young actress who needs someone to keep her head on straight and her boyfriends at bay. As we watch her bumble her way through a thicket of romantic entanglements, we wonder, which man will Delysia end up with? Will Miss Pettigrew be cast out on to the streets? What will become of either woman?

First of all, if you've seen the movie and you want to read the book, be aware that there are some differences between the two. The filmmakers took license to create dramatic situations in the movie that don't exist in the book, and certain characters that barely merit a mention in the book are major players in the movie. The book also has some drug references absent from the film. But you'll recognize it nonetheless- the premise is the same, and Miss Pettigrew and Delysia, Delysia's dilemma, and the romantic entanglements, and the story's slapstick humor and pacing, remain the same.

The story is told hour by hour from Miss Pettigrew's point of view, and recited in a delicious, delightful period voice that captures the heady chaos of Delysia's and Miss Pettigrew's life. As the hours tick by, we see Miss Pettigrew change from a shy mouse who feels like an impostor and believes herself unworthy of love, to a more confident woman who just might be ready to change her life. Delysia learns that she deserves more too, and these transformations- and the sweet friendship between the two women- are what makes this Cinderella story so wonderful. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a delight from start to finish. As I came to the end I actually teared up a little at Miss Pettigrew's happy ending. You will, too!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Musing Mondays

How often do you visit the library? Do you have a scheduled library day/time, or do you go whenever? Do you go alone, or take people with you?

I'm a librarian, so I spend a lot of time in libraries! As far as personal visits, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I don't go to my public library all that often. The main branch of my city's library is being housed in a school as the city completes renovations on the original building (and the temporary location may even be closed at this stage) and it's not really a comfortable place to hang out right now. My neighborhood branch, located about a block from my house, is likewise small and sometimes I feel self-conscious about spending too much time there because I'm an introvert and can't hide anywhere. :-) The staff there are really nice though and when I go in to pick up interlibrary loans it's always fun to say hi.

Musing Mondays is hosted at Just One More Page.

Bookroom Reviews Book Giveaway Carnival

During the week of March 2-8, I will be participating in the Book Giveaway Carnival. I haven't chosen the book yet, but I promise it will be a good one- it might even be a couple of books. My giveaway will be open to residents of the United States only. So come back on March 2 and find out what it will be!

Graphic Novel Monday: French Milk, by Lucy Knisley

French Milk, by Lucy Knisley. Published 2007 by Simon & Schuster.

Click here to buy French Milk from your favorite indie bookstore.

French Milk is an autobiographical graphic novel by writer and illustrator Lucy Knisley, about six weeks she spent in Paris with her mother when she was 21. Told in journal form, it's a sweet and sentimental look at a special time in her life.

As the trip approaches, Lucy and her mother are each facing an important birthday- Lucy will be 22 and her mother will be 50. They arrive, set up house in a rented apartment, and proceed to enjoy the City of Lights to its fullest. The museums, the squares, the cafes, the shops- and above all, the food. The title, French Milk, refers to Lucy's favorite French food- the wonderful dairy, and throughout the book there are cute sketches and lively depictions of French food- foie gras, cornichons, various pastries and sweets, hot chocolate, and on and on. Knisley's pictures delve into the minutiae of everyday life and while her emphasis is more on recounting daily life than on drawing any great insights from her experiences, what emerges is a picture of a young woman enjoying her explorations and having fun.

Knisley draws the story in simple pen and ink line drawings, but her art is expressive and fun, and the writing is straightforward and light. Knisley punctuates her drawings with photos from the trip, showing people, animals, street scenes and of course herself and her family. The photos break up the (somewhat monotonous) one-panel-per-page pattern and give her story a certain timelessness as well. Knisley has a smart eye for detail and the pictures remind me of other simple, evocative pictures of Paris I've seen over the years.

Easily digested in two or three sittings, French Milk is a sweet, charming read about a likeable young woman on a trip with her mother, working her way towards adulthood but quite young and carefree still. It has a little swearing and some sexual references (as well as some depictions of nudity in art) so I would recommend it for older teens and young adults, and for Francophiles of any age. Reading it, I felt nostalgic for Paris and enjoyed indulging my love of all things French. It's a cute, fun book- chouette et amusant.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Salon

Today the term "Sunday Salon" seems fitting because we're playing host to my husband's writing group in our living room.

A year or so ago, my husband joined a science-fiction writing class at Pandemonium, a local bookstore that specializes in scifi and fantasy. The group consisted of about a dozen writers who were working on various stories and novels, and two professional, published authors who guided and mentored them. They met for 10 weeks or so and my husband started working on a great novel of his own. He's kept working on his book, and since then the group has continued to meet on and off. This week, the group needed a place to meet since the usual hostess is out of town, and they're here. So I made them brownies and now I'm going to leave them alone!

While they're talking, I'm upstairs cleaning up my sewing room and getting ready to continue work on a couple of quilts I have going. I'm also reading Tightrope, which retells European Jewish history through the story of one family, from the Black Plague to the twentieth century. It's absolutely fascinating history and I love family stories, so I'm excited to be reading it. I've already heard lots of great things about it- Lorri of Jew Wishes has a great write-up, for example- and I can't wait to tell you all more.

What have you heard great things about this week?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Finds

New to the TBR pile this week are five great books I'm really looking forward to- and one that I've read before.

Poets on the Psalms, a collection of essays by different contemporary poets talking about the Psalms, arrived from the Catholic Library Association for a professional review assignment. I'm halfway through my current assignment, so as soon as I finish that I'll dive right in. It looks great. I'm not familiar with any of the writers but I look forward to getting to know them.

An ARC of The Local News, by Miriam Gershow, came courtesy of Spiegel and Grau. This looks to be a novel about a young woman whose brother has disappeared years before. I read the first chapter and I think I'm going to like it.

Bookmooch brought me Dara Horn's The World to Come, about a stolen Chagall painting and the worlds of family and history behind it and its thief, who believes the painting used to belong to his parents.

Remy Rougeau's All We Know of Heaven arrived via Bookmooch as well and I was very excited to receive it because I actually read it a few years ago and for some reason got rid of it. I was thinking of it a week or two ago, and how much I enjoyed it, and luckily enough was able to snag a copy pretty quickly. It's about a young man who enters a Cistercian monastery in 1970s Canada, and it's written by a former Benedictine monk. It's such a great book, and I'm so happy to have it back. I see it as a book to read in the summertime and will hang on to it until then.

Last but certainly not least is Laila Lalami's Secret Son, an ARC I received courtesy of Algonquin Books. Secret Son is about a Muslim family in crisis after son Youssef discovers his dead father is actually alive. It looks fantastic. So many good books this week!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

I recently got new bookshelves for my room, and I’m just loving them. Spent the afternoon putting up my books and sharing it on my blog . One of my friends asked a question and I thought it would be a great BTT question. So from Tina & myself, we’d like to know “How do you arrange your books on your shelves? Is it by author, by genre, or you just put it where it falls on?”

Like some of you, my bookshelves were better organized before I had mountains of TBRs- before Bookmooch and reviewing and librarianship in other words! I have one main bookcase in the house, and I've organized it roughly by genre- fiction, nonfiction, French books, manga, graphic novels and reference, including one shelf just for dictionaries and language-learning books. There is also a separate shelf for books about Russia. The other bookshelves- the shelf in the den and the shelf in the bedroom- are a jumble of TBRs and have-reads. When I'm done with a book, it goes on the main shelf in the "correct" place and I basically know where to find any book in the house, even if the right answer is something like "in that pile next to the couch".

Monday, February 16, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: Broad Appeal

Broad Appeal, edited by David Roman. Published 2003 by Friends of Lulu. Paperback.

Click here to buy Broad Appeal from your favorite indie bookstore.

Broad Appeal is an anthology of comics and graphic storytelling all by women- some well-known, and some making her debut in this volume. It's published by the Friends of Lulu, whose purpose is to increase the number of women reading, drawing and publishing comics. To that end, they've put together this great anthology.

If you're a reader of zines and graphic novels you'll recognize many of the women featured here- Abby Denson (Passing Notes), Megan Kelso (The Squirrel Mother), Amy Kim Ganter (Sorcerers and Secretaries, a great English-language-original manga), Lela Lee (Angry Little Girls!), Rachel Hartman (Amy Unbounded) and others as well.

Since it's an anthology, Broad Appeal features a variety of styles and subject matter. It's all in black and white but the styles of drawing represented go all over the map, from simple sketches to highly accomplished pen and ink art. My favorite comic in the book is Jennifer Feinberg's hilarious four page short story "The Glue Factory", about what happens to misbehaving cats. It's not what you think!

The book also features interviews with several artists, to give some more insight into the art and business of comics, and biographies of all contributors. Overall the content would be appropriate for teens- there's not much in the way of either foul language or sexual references, but the humor might be a little too sophisticated for smaller children. I really, really enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) this fun anthology and I hope that anyone interested in getting to know graphic novels would want to pick up a copy too.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Musing Mondays

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about book reviews…
Do you read any non-blogging book reviews? If so, where (newspaper, library etc)? Do you have any favourites sources you’d like to share?

I read a lot of non-blogger book reviews. For work I use professional library journals to pick things out for work, and usually I end up finding a few things for myself as well. When it comes to my personal reading, I read reviews in magazines and newspapers- the New Yorker has great reviews, and The Economist runs good features now and then, such as one they did a year or so ago about international crime fiction, which helped me pick out some great gifts for a thriller-fan in my family. I'm not one to discount so-called "traditional media' and I relish the Books section in the Boston Sunday Globe and the Boston Phoenix. And of course The New York Review of Books is the best of the best for smart book-talk.

Musing Mondays is hosted by
Rebecca at Just One More Page.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Salon

I've had an interesting week of reading.

I'm not finished with my book-club book (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, by Peter Gomes) but I'm moving along and plan to spend more time with it today. He's a liberal Protestant theologian from Harvard and I find myself nodding along with him quite a bit. Alongside him I'm reading Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's And From There You Shall Seek, and I have to say it was interesting reading two very different Boston preachers- a liberal Protestant from Harvard and an Orthodox rabbi who founded a well-known day school- alongside each other. It's like having my own personal comparative-religion course.

I also got a good start reading Someone to Run With by David Grossman, an Israeli novel about an Arab boy and a Jewish girl who I believe will strike up some sort of relationship based on their mutual love of a dog. I'm leading a book club discussion group on the book in March and enjoying it quite a bit. I also think it will make great discussion material.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Finds

So despite the fact that I celebrated my seventh 29th birthday this week, I only have a couple of books to add to my collection. The simple reason is that I didn't get any books! I got a gift certificate to Amazon thanks to my in-laws, but no books! Why, I hear you ask, would a bibliophile not receive books for her birthday? Because she already has a lot of books, and even bibliophiles have their limits!!

I did, however, buy a couple for myself.
First up is Mort Rosenblum's The Secret Life of the Seine, his memoir/travelogue of living on a boat in the Seine River in Paris. Should be fascinating and perfect for Francophile moi.

But then the Irish girl in me wants to read J.G. Farrell's Troubles, written in the 1970s but set in 1919 as one Major Brendan Archer returns from World War I (or The Great War as it was called then) to Ireland to check on the status of his engagement to an Anglo-Irish lady who may or may not be aware of the engagement, and chaos ensues.

Both books came from the awesome Bryn Mawr Bookshop in Cambridge, which sells used and rare books and donates its proceeds to scholarships for students of the college. A good cause!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

REVIEW: Sima's Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross

Sima's Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross. Published 2009 by Overlook Press.

Click here to buy Sima's Undergarments for Women from your favorite indie bookstore.

Set in the Jewish-Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park, New York, Sima's Undergarments for Women centers on Sima Goldner, an older woman who runs a lingerie shop in her basement, one of many such under-the-radar neighborhood businesses dotting this close community. Sima and her husband, Lev, are childless and entering late middle age locked in a tense relationship characterized by a lack of communication and a lack of warmth. The shop is Sima's domain, her escape, and her means of establishing relationships with her community.

Then one day, a beautiful young Israeli woman named Timna enters the shop. Newly arrived in America, Timna, who as it happens is a skilled seamstress, ends up working for Sima, doing alterations and selling lacy pretties to the customers. Sima is smitten with Timna and soon builds a vivid fantasy life around the quiet young lady, leading her to become ever more attached and involved in her life.

The story unfolds on a double time line- the present and the past comingling as Stanger-Ross takes the reader to the early days of Sima's marriage and her struggles with fertility. Sima is devastated that she cannot have children, and this sadness fuels her alienation from her husband and her involvement in work. Now, I understand that Sima's feelings towards Timna are supposed to come from her thwarted maternal instinct- Timna is supposed to represent a surrogate daughter. However, Sima's behavior- sniffing Timna's sweaters, obsessing over her love life, dressing up in a disguise and stalking her- strikes me as less maternal tenderness and more mental illness. Couple this with her bitterness and nasty coldness towards her husband, and, despite the personal tragedy of her infertility, she comes across as quite unpleasant.

So it's a problem when a novel hinges on your compassion for a character who's actually quite unhinged herself. Timna seems like a normal enough young woman- outgoing, busy, lots of friends, with normal post-adolescent ups and downs with parents and boyfriends, but really almost all we know about her is that she's pretty and from Israel. Sima's husband Lev strikes me as the real tragic figure of the novel. He sits upstairs by himself all day, his loneliness relieved only by occasional visits from his wife's employee who comes up to share a cup of coffee and a little conversation, while his wife berates, belittles and humiliates him. Much of the novel's melodrama focuses on Sima's low self-esteem but Lev deserves a lot better than what he gets for most of the book, too.

On balance I think Stanger-Ross has written a good first novel, and I know a lot of other reviewers saw different things in it than I did, and I respect that. I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone else from giving it a go who's interested in women's or Jewish-interest fiction but for me it was hard to like only because Sima was so hard to like. What I like best about Sima's Undergarments for Women is the way Stanger-Ross has created a microcosm of womens' lives and moods and feelings. It's a neighborhood shop filled with different kinds of families, women and men, where all kinds of personal and domestic dramas are played out over what bra to buy- weddings, bat mitzvahs, training bras, bras to show off in, bras to hide in, bras for comfort and fashion and fun. And her lead characters, Sima and Timna, certainly exemplify the many stages and permutations of a woman's life as well.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Abraham Verghese Reading at the Harvard Book Store

So last night I got to attend a reading at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, something I rarely do and should do more often.

I went to see Abraham Verghese, author of the amazing and just-published Cutting For Stone. I've already told you how much I loved this book- I laughed, I cried, I couldn't put it down for all 500+ pages.

The reading was very well-attended, between the usual Cambridge crowd as well as his own friends and family who live in the area. I was very lucky to get a seat- I think it was the last available one!

He read from two sections of the book- one funny and one serious, and took questions. He talked about a lot of things- his career as a doctor, the rewards of practicing medicine, how his writing and medical work intersect, and his previous memoirs as well. Since Cutting for Stone only just came out, the memoirs are what most of his fans have read. Verghese talked about the process of writing Cutting for Stone, the research he did into 1950s medical practices, including purchasing an entire set of 1950s textbooks, and how he felt like he had poured everything he had into the novel- and believe me, it shows. If you haven't read it, you need to- it's a showstopper.

He read beautifully, and seemed like such a sweet man as well. During the signing, he took a few minutes to talk to each person in line, asking questions that showed interest in each person- even little old me. I didn't mention my blog but he had some nice things to say about librarians, which I appreciate.

And I did something I have never done- I bought it in hardcover, despite the fact that I already have a galley. I kind of had to- I couldn't find my galley for the reading and I wanted to get his autograph. Plus today is my birthday, so it was a little early present to myself. When I was in college my friend Jean and I went to readings together all the time; I have this whole collection of signed books that we got at readings. Anyway it was a great time.

Here's the trailer for the book:

So read the book, but do me a favor and ignore the terrible write-up it got in the New York Times!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

REVIEW: Notes on Democracy, by H.L. Mencken

Notes on Democracy, by H.L. Mencken. Originally published 1926. This edition published 2008 by Dissident Books. Essays.

H.L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy is a book of essays on the faults of democracy as a form of government, and it read to me like an extended rant that rings as true today as in 1926, when it was first published. Mencken himself was a newspaperman and editorialist who was famous for his quick wit and sharp tongue, a complicated and contradictory man who, among other things, deplored allowing women to vote, but married a suffragette.

I had heard to Mencken before but had never read any of his writings, so I was intrigued when offered the opportunity to read a book by an important thinker and social critic of the early 20th century. It's hard for me to sum up how I felt about it.

On one hand, I enjoyed Mencken's writing immensely; he's a skilled prose stylist who knows how to make a snappy, convincing point. On the other, I was often offended by his attitudes- his condescension, his casual racism, sexism and social snobbery. He mocks the political structure, elections and social institutions; he believes that democracy is founded on the belief that the common man is wise and to be trusted, and that that belief is false. His basic argument is that democracy is a farce, that "common people" are lazy, selfish and routinely hoodwinked by people even stupider and more selfish than they. He spends a good deal of time criticizing elected officials, judges, and conservative religious movements of every stripe. He deplores religious conservatism for its sanctimony and attempts to force its values on others- he feels that the religious proponets of Prohibition, for example, as well as other "morality" campaigns, are joyless tyrants who want to ensure that other people are as joyless as they.

In general his arguments and perspective feel fresh and current to me- change the references from William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft to George Bush or Bill Clinton, or exchange Prohibition for gay marriage and he could just as easily be talking about contemporary American life. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, right? He was much tougher than I expected on many topics. There were also times when his writing was repetitive and the references dated and stale, but I enjoyed having the chance to read the book, and I'm going to keep my eye on the publisher, New York City-based Dissident Books, to see what they come up with in the future. Right now it looks like Notes on Democracy is their only title. To quote from their website:
Dissident Books offers independent visions and accounts to those who have grown tired of adult lullabies. Our books are for readers who have both the stomach and the desire for the undiluted, no matter how strange, ugly, or sad it might be.

Who can say no to that? Notes on Democracy is a valuable historical document with much to teach us about America even today and even though Mencken might not be everyone's cup of tea, it's a worthwhile read and a sparkling piece of writing.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review courtesy of Online Publicist Lisa Roe.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Graphic Novel Monday: SquareCat Comics by Jennifer Omand

SquareCat Comics, by Jennifer Omand. Published 2005 by JetPack Press.

Click here to buy SquareCat Comics from your local indie bookstore.

SquareCat Comics
is a collection of slice-of-life comics by writer and illustrator Jennifer Omand. She uses the comic to tell stories about her everyday life- work, relaxing, spending time with her boyfriend. She represents herself with the square cat and her boyfriend by the bird.

The comic started when she resolved to write and draw a comic a day, and the reader can see her growth as an artist as over time the drawings become more sophisticated and finished. The art starts out fairly rough but as the book progresses the reader can see the figures becoming more consistent and the background details rendered more clearly and effectively. The storytelling also becomes a little more complex as it goes along. I enjoyed paging through her day to day adventures, even when the comics were about something as simple as needing to find a topic for today's comic. Most of the comics generate a smile; some are laugh-out-loud funny and some are just sweet.

SquareCat Comics reminds me a little of the Jim's Journal series with its laid-back humor and straightforward black and white line art. Some of the humor is a little juvenile (fart jokes, references to things being "gay") and some mild sexual content renders it unsuitable for children but fine for teens. It's a cute, light, quick slice of 20-something life.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Musing Mondays

What do you use to mark your place while reading? Do you have a definite preference? Do you use bookmarks, paper, or (gasp) turn down the pages? If you use bookmarks, do you have a favourite one?

I dog-ear my pages and sometimes use bookmarks. If I use a bookmark it's usually something from the bookstore or something that was included with a galley or a review copy. If I'm reading a hardcover I'll sometimes use the dust jacket to mark my page.

Rebecca at Just One More Page hosts Musing Mondays.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Friday Finds

It's been an interesting and varied week for new books. Bookmooch brought me Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, a novel I'd had my eye on for awhile now, as well as Our Lady of the Lost and Found, a novel I saw in a used bookstore first, about an encounter with the Virgin Mary.

I received Love and Other Natural Disasters, by Holly Shumas, via a giveaway over on The Bermuda Onion's blog. Thank you! I can't wait to get started- it looks like a fun book.

Finally, I received And From There You Shall Seek, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, from the Catholic Library Association for a professional review assignment. It was originally published in Hebrew in 1978 and this is its first appearance in English. Rabbi Soloveitchik is famous around the Boston area as the founder of the Maimonides School, an Orthodox Jewish dayschool. I've already glanced at the first chapter or two and have found it readable and interesting. I always get nervous with very academic, religious books- I worry they'll be a little dry. This book is a meditation on the search for God using The Song of Songs as a framing device. We'll see how it goes!

What book has surprised you recently?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

REVIEW: Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Published February 3, 2008 by Knopf. Literary Fiction.

If you've been following me on Twitter or read last week's Friday Finds, you know that I've been reading Abraham Verghese's debut novel Cutting for Stone. The author of two nonfiction works and a practicing doctor, Verghese shows himself here to be a magnificent creator of fiction as well. Cutting for Stone is one of the best novels I've read in quite a while.

Checking in around 500 pages, the story centers on twin boys, Marion and Shiva Praise Stone, children of a dead nun and her lover, raised in a threadbare hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The narrative flows effortlessly from the story of the nun, Mary Joseph Praise, to that of her children, as told by Marion, the eldest. Three love stories stand at the center of the book and form the basis of the boys' destiny- that of Mary Joseph Praise and Thomas Stone, a surgeon; Hema and Ghosh, the boys' adoptive parents; and Marion and Genet, the daughter of a servant, who grows up with the boys.

Verghese weaves disparate threads into the story- the love stories, the political turmoil of Ethiopia, stories of immigration, coming of age, and above all, medicine. Sister Mary Joseph Praise meets Thomas Stone aboard ship and saves his life so he can save the lives of fellow passengers after an outbreak of disease; later, she joins him in Ethiopia and works by his side in surgery. Their sons grow up to be doctors, raised by Hema and Ghosh, a gynecologist and surgeon respectively. The novel's climax is a medical miracle enacted by their erstwhile father, a venerable surgeon as well as a complicated and deeply troubled man. The beauty of Verghese's writing isn't just the amount of detail and minutiae, medical and otherwise, he's able to pack in, but how he does it without sacrificing the action or losing the reader's attention; urgent and gripping, he makes the details as important (and as fascinating) to the reader as they are to Marion.

There's so much that I admire about Cutting for Stone. The characters are richly drawn, each one with his or her own backstory and place in the landscape. Ethiopia itself is practically a supporting character- its landscape, its cities, its politics and its culture. I love the section detailing Marion's time as an intern in an inner-city hospital, as well as his culture shock on arrival in New York and his contacts with other Ethiopian immigrants. Thomas Stone is a fascinating character, and Sister Mary Joseph Praise and Hema are strong, tough women with their own mysteries and secrets. Shiva, withdrawn and distant, is an enigma; Genet's transformation is heartbreaking and all too real.

Cutting for Stone is an incredibly moving story about people, and about a family, and about lovers- and about cowardice and bravery, anger and betrayal and forgiveness. I was amazed by Cutting for Stone, by how it held my attention and by how it moved me and by how it surprised me. It's a show-stopper for sure; you have to read this book!

Rating: BUY

If you click here, you can read about Verghese's appearance to promote the book in Cambridge, and see the book trailer. It was a great event!

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.