Breathe the scent of spring with THEBOOKJEANIE

Thank you for joining me once again to share the love of reading. This book review blog will now be published bi-monthly, the first and third Sundays of each month. Please feel free to comment or make suggestions!

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. I must admit that I am drawn to the whimsical and offbeat in literature although this title is by no means without substance including a rather pointed examination of research and ethics in the biomedical/pharma industry.  Veblen, a young woman named for the Norweigen American economist Thorstein Veblen who coined the term "conspicuous consumption," translates documents into Norweigen, is in love (perhaps) with a rising medical researcher at Stanford, and thinks that a squirrel living in her attic is trying to communicate with her. Of course all stories make their way back to family and Veblen's is no exception: trying to please her domineering hypochondriac mother and to ensure the proper care of her institutionalized father puts stress on her relationship with Paul who comes from a no-less-eccentric family of northern California hippies. Veblen wants to believe that she is in love with Paul but his business relationship with a pharmacutical executive interested in funding and marketing his innovative surgical technology is troubling to her in many ways. McKenzie has created a character that a reader can fall in love with, a young woman who constantly questions herself yet possesses a core of sensibility and goodness that we all hope that she will eventually recognize. Her writing flows beautifully; both thoughtful and thought-provoking, her novel will please even the skeptics of the talking squirrel.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyguyen.  Although this novel is a brutally honest look at what Americans call the Vietnam War, it is told from the eyes of young Vietnamese soldier and includes an incredibly witty and ironic take on American culture and politics as well. Nyugen possesses such a powerful command of  language and style that I had to stop and reflect in amazement at times. Most of this novel takes the form of a confession addressed to an unknown "Commandant," a character whose identity is not revealed until the final chapters of the book. The narrator remains nameless but his voice is powerful as he reveals an unsentimental and often brutal picture of his life as a spy and a traitor.  Born in rural Vietnam to young teenage mother seduced by the local French Catholic priest,  he was scorned by his village throughout his childhood. Eventually he forms a close bond with two boys, Man and Bon, sealing this brotherhood in a solemn blood ritual. As the French depart and the American army invades the country, Man and our narrator become members of the northern freedom fighters, the Viet Cong. When Man gains status and rank in the movement, he persuades his friend to join the South Vietnamese Army and spy for the Viet Cong.  The narrator is at times conflicted about his role as betrayer and liar to those with whom he works as well as to his other close friend Bon who is a genuine loyal soldier fighting alongside the Americans. In one of the most dramatic scenes in the book,  he is airlifted out of Saigon as the Viet Cong are entering the northern perimeter of the city, trying to bring Bon and his family aboard the aircraft as well. After weeks in a refugee camp still suffering remorse and guilt for the events that occurred on his last day in Saigon, he is eventually flown to California, beginning another duplicitous life in Los Angeles amongst the Vietnamese refugee community. This complex story, at once a historical novel as well as a personal narrative, flows as a reflection of a dual life as a bi-racial outsider as well as a friend and a betrayer. Nyguyen explores what it means to be human, including our capacity to act in ways that are inhuman during times of war, and how bad decisions create an intersection of past and present.   The reader is taken on a  journey through the past, one that cannot fail to evoke sorrow and guilt for the role our country played in the massacre and  destruction of Vietnam and its people, a journey that may serve as a reflection on our current role in the politics of world conflict.   

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.  I prefer not to dwell on the impending final stage of my life; it always seems too far off, I have so many things to do, and subconsciously I cling to a vision of gently slipping away in a sleep-like manner sometime in the distant future. Unfortunately, this serene scenario is not one that most people experience.  Dr. Atul Gawande addresses the need to prepare ourselves and our parents for that last phase of  life in order that we can have "the freedom to be the authors of our lives." Gawande draws from his own experiences as a son whose father is in the end stage of life, having to help his parents make the best decisions possible amidst conflicting opinions in the medical community. His very personal narrative will touch the heart of anyone who has ever had to face this heartwrenching situation with a family member. Dr. Gawanda notes a current study led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital that found "those who saw a palliative care specialist, stopped chemotherapy sooner, and entered hospice earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives - and lived 25% longer than predicted."  The medical community often does not consider what makes life significant for the individual; they are only interested in prolonging life without taking into account the quality of that life.  Dr. Gawande proposes a health care system that will actually help people achieve what's most important to them at the end of their lives.  If communities can develop clusters of assisted living that provide interaction with animals, gardens, children, and volunteers, elders can make their own decisions and also feel part of a community. As Gawande notes "The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society." Of special importance, he says, is to be able to identify purposes outside ourselves. Dr. Sue Taylor, a friend and Director of Palliative Care at Tucson Medical Center, calls this book "her bible." Recommended as an important read for all.   

Further reading:

Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim.  Suki Kim, a Korean-American journalist travels to North Korea under the guise of being a teacher with a Christian missionary organization. The mission provides English language instruction for the sons of the North Korean elite at an isolated college campus outside Pyongyang. This is a compelling narrative of life in a society closed off from the rest of the world, where even educated young people have no idea about the world outside their own country. Kim's observations and reflections are thoughtful as well as conflicted as she grows to love her students. A fascinating read. . .

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt. A professional couple in Maine adopt the newborn twin sons of a distant relative and feel that their life together is finally complete. As their darling sons grow into toddlers and then preschoolers they note that the boys have very different interests and tastes. Eventually they come to realize that little Wyatt is not at all like his brother, in fact he is attracted to all things soft and girlish, preferring pink dresses and purple skirts rather than blue jeans, and shys away from rough and tumble play. Amy Ellis Nutt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, takes the reader on an often painful journey with this loving family as they try to nurture their son, later daughter, while at the same time protecting her from ignorance and hate in their community.

Nourish your mind . . . 


  1. Hi Jeanie - This is the first time I've read your blog. Love your reviews! They are clear, concise, informative & your passion for reading definitely shines through! Will be a regular reader from now on.

  2. Thank you for your sensitive and insightful reviews of these books!


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