Monday, April 22, 2013

334 (2013 #18). Still Alice

by Lisa Genova

My online book discussion group chose this book, and I'm so glad they did.  The Alice of the title is Alice Howland, a 50-year-old respected psychology professor at Harvard, with a fellow-professor husband, John, and three adult children.  She's busy with her career (teaching, research, and speaking engagements) and in good shape from her frequent running.  She starts having small moments of forgetfulness, and on a run one day momentarily forgets the way home.  She shrugs it off as early menopause, but as the symptoms worsen and she seeks medical help, she learns their cause:  early-onset Alzheimer's.

In the next two years, Alice's condition rapidly deteriorates.  The sad part is, because of her background, Alice knows what's going on.  She participates in a trial for a new medication, and makes some decisions on her own about her career.  Her illness has a genetic component, and it's interesting to read why her children do (or don't) decide to get tested.  Her husband reacts in ways that are understandable in some aspects and puzzling in others.  Reading this book is both sobering and heartbreaking.

Author Lisa Genova has a degree in neuroscience from Harvard herself, bringing insight to the story from Alice’s point of view.  Genova initially self-published the book as she was told its appeal would be limited; ultimately the book reached the top ten in sales.  The book has been endorsed by the National Alzheimer's Association, and is accurate in portraying the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and eventual outcome (currently) of early onset Alzheimer's.  Makes me want to donate to help find a cure for this disease.

We had an excellent discussion of this book online, and I think it would be good for book clubs who can stomach the topic.  Highly recommended.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Saturday, April 20, 2013

333 (2013 #17). Another Piece of My Heart

by Jane Green

At 37, Andi finally meets the perfect man.  Ethan is divorced with two daughters, teenager Emily and pre-teen Sophia, and has custody of them most of the time.  Andi has always wanted to be a mother and loves having an instant family.  Emily, though, is not so thrilled about her father's remarriage, and creates challenges for this blended family.

I won enough copies of Another Piece of My Heart to distribute to my book club, and we discussed it at our last meeting.   This isn't the type of book our group typically chooses - we tend to gravitate towards literary fiction, historical fiction and narrative nonfiction.  However, members felt that even though it read "like a soap opera in the beginning," most of us "actually liked it by the end."  In fact, one member thanked me for introducing her to a new author - she's since read two other books by Jane Green!  She said she felt this book "covered every facet of society," from divorce to stepparenting and blended families, to alcoholism and drug abuse.

One member felt aspects of the story were "very lifelike," even Emily's behavior.  Ethan was "sort of a wimp," with Emily "taking advantage of him," and Andi was "really trying."  Another said she was "frustrated with the relationships" between the characters, and felt the family's two gay neighbors were "more like counselors."  Another felt there was a "convenient plot twist" involving Emily, and yet another that the "ending was a little unbelievable."

One member described the book as "kinda Nora Roberts-y" at first, but "not chick-lit - more serious issues, similar to Jodi Picoult."  We all agreed with the latter similarity.  We also agreed that there could be another book with these characters - Sophia in particular is a little too perfect and will probably suffer some angst as she gets older.

It was interesting to learn that Green has personal experience with blended families (although this book is NOT her own story!).  Green noted in an interview that once a parent remarries, it destroys "the fantasy that the biological parents will reconcile," and takes "more of that parent away from a child who has already experienced serious loss."  That's certainly the case with Emily, whose birth mother is an alcoholic at the beginning of the book.

Part One of the book is called "Andi" and is written in third person from her viewpoint.  Parts Two and Three, "Family" and "Parents" respectively, include chapters with Emily's viewpoint in first person.  In the same interview, Green said, "The book took off for me once I took my editor's suggestion and started writing in Emily's voice — it gave me such understanding and empathy for her character. If anything, I think I ended up preferring Emily to Andi, which I hadn't expected at all."  I didn't prefer either character, finding them both whiny and selfish, but I did have a little more sympathy for teenager Emily rather than the supposedly-adult Andi.

One member who couldn't attend our discussion wrote the following, which rather sums up our feelings:

It was "fluffier" than books I prefer but there was much reality to the situation. Step families have problems more often than not. Fortunately not always as serious as the issues portrayed in the book.

Thanks for signing us up for this. I enjoy reading books from time to time that are not necessarily ones I would choose. 

We used a few of the ReadingGroupGuide.com's discussion questions and shared some personal experiences with divorce, parenting, and blended families.  We enjoyed the opportunity to read a genre we might not normally choose, and thank Bookreporter.com for the chance to do so!

As for me - while this isn't normally a book I'd choose either, I enjoyed Jane Green's writing.  I'm willing to read another of her books - and I will be, as I won yet another in a contest!

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[Would you like to get free copies of Another Piece of My Heart for your book club to discuss?  I have a number I can send one lucky group, if you and members of your group will agree to post comments or feedback about the book and/or their discussion on one or more of the following:
  • Jane Green’s Facebook page 
  • Your personal Facebook page, Twitter account or blog. 
You also need to agree to pass the books on to others for free, or donate them to a library or other charitable group.

E-mail me at chick_a_deedd at yahoo dot com and tell me the number of members in your book club.  First group to respond with the number that matches the quantity of books I have wins, and I will send the books to you for free by media mail rate.  Contest open only to residents of the USA.]

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

332 (2013 #16). The Kite Runner

written and read by Khaled Hosseini

I first read this book in 2005, for a book club discussion.  Recently, I decided to listen to the audio version of this powerful story.  Khalad Hosseini does an excellent job reading his own work, and it's wonderful to have a reader who knows exactly how to pronounce the Farsi and Dari words he sprinkles in the novel.

Set in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1975-76, 1981, and August 2001; and in Fremont, California, from 1981 through December 2001, this novel has as its backdrop the tumultuous recent history of Afghanistan - the overthrow of the monarchy, the invasion of the Soviets, the takeover by the Taliban, and 9/11.

The main character is Amir, son of a wealthy man in Kabul he calls Baba.  When the book begins in December 2001, Amir is 38, and he is remembering what happened that previous summer, when an old family friend calls from Pakistan.  The book then flashes back to Kabul in 1975, when Amir is twelve years old.  His main companion is a boy a year younger than him, Hassan, the son of his father's servant Ali.  Ali and Hassan are Hazaras, an ethnic group looked down upon by other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.  Amir and Hassan compete together in kite-fighting competitions, and Hassan is Amir's kite runner - the one who tracks down the kites they cut down and brings them back as trophies.  One day in the winter of 1975, something happens while Hassan is running a kite that changes things forever.
Besides providing fascinating insights into life in Afghanistan and for Afghan refugees in America during this period, The Kite Runner is also an exploration of betrayal and "a way to be good again," of the relationships between fathers and sons, and of the meaning of friendship.  Highly recommended.

The graphic novel version (pictured at left), illustrated by Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo, doesn't have the depth of the original novel, but would be another good way (besides the audiobook) to introduce this worthwhile book to a reluctant reader.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The audiobook, a print copy for reference, and the graphic novel version of the story were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]