READ: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

One of the best parts of working at a university is the library. Students are busy reading for class, so new releases are almost always available and I can check them out for 5 months. I picked up The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri about 2 months ago from Geisel Library, but it sat, untouched, in a pile of books in my bedroom. Then I received an email from the library telling me that I had to return it within five days because it had been requested…I can’t stand returning my library books late, so the email prompted me to pick it up to read the first page, and I had no problem finishing it in the five days that I had left to read it.

UCSD Geisel Library
UCSD Geisel Library

Surprisingly, “The Lowland” is the first book I have read by Lahiri. I have heard all good things, but for some reason I haven’t read her work. After reading this, I will definitely be checking out her previous novels. “The Lowland” covers four generations of an Indian family whose lives go from India to Rhode Island to California. The chapters rotate narrators, and the literary device helps this novel explore the theme of the big, gigantic pain of secrets.

Subhash and Udayan are brothers growing up in India with a close bond, but as they enter college they start to separate, especially when Udayan becomes involved in the Naxalite movement (which I had never heard about prior to reading this). Subhash moves to the United States to complete his education, while Udayan stays in India and marries a woman named Gauri. Tragedy strikes, and the lives of these characters intersect in a way that none of them expected.

My favorite narrator in the the book is the somewhat unsympathetic character of Gauri. Her passion for philosophy leads to beautiful passages about time. Gauri has “an acute awareness of time, of the future looming, accelerating. The baby’s lifetime, so scant, already outdistancing and outpacing her own. This was the logic of parenthood.”

When Gauri talks about her daughter, it reminded me of so many children who are trying to understand the baffling, incomprehensible passage of time. In particular, I remember my sister, Julie, doing this: “At four Bela was developing a memory. The word yesterday entered her vocabulary, though its meaning was elastic, synonomous with whatever was no longer the case. The past collapsed, in no particular order, contained by a single word…Bela’s yesterday was a receptacle for anything her mind stored. Any experience or impression that had come before. Her memory was brief, its contents limited. Lacking chronology, randomly rearranged”


Time helps heal some wounds in the book, however the characters feel overwhelmed by the inescapable past. It is always there. The secrets spread apart the family and cause a lot of pain. Lahiri tells a satisfying, deep, multicultural story that beautifully comes together and sticks with the reader.

On a different note, I have rediscovered my love for audio books. Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to “Fin and Lady” by Cathleen Schine, “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke, and “Lit” by Mary Karr. They have all been great, escapist audio narratives, especially “Lit”. Karr is a master memoirist who narrates her audio book with her southern accent and lots of emotion. The book explores her descent into alcoholism and the years it took her to grapple with her demons. Listening to these books on CD makes my crappy commute so much better, in fact, some days I am glad to be stuck in a traffic jam on the 5.

READ: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I stayed up late the other night finishing “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert because I wanted to see how it all turned out. “I want to see how everything is going to turn out” is the signature phrase of my Great-Aunt Nancy, and it fits her to a tee. Her curiosity has played a strong part in keeping her alive, and sharp, into her 90’s. The main character in “The Signature of All Things,” Alma Whitaker, has that same inquisitive trait (she reminds me in many ways of my Great-Aunt Nanc) and the story of her life makes for a fantastic read. I loved this book. It is an essential read.

I learned a lot while I read “The Signature of All Things,” but I didn’t realize it until I finished because I became so lost in the narrative. Gilbert masterfully provides her readers with science and history lessons, all seen through the eyes of Alma, one of the most fully developed characters I have encountered. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge sustains us. Gilbert’s narrative demonstrates that searching for answers, asking questions, and looking for meaning are all human traits that are absolute gifts (most of the time).

The Signature of All Things

Alma Whitaker is born in 1800 into a privileged life on an estate in Pennsylvania. Her father and mother have high expectations for Alma’s behavior and attitude, so every moment of the day is filled up with opportunities for her to learn and experiment. The house she grows up in has a steady stream of esteemed visitors, who must be interesting, articulate, and intelligent to meet the intellectual demands of Alma’s father. One of my favorites scenes in the book occurs when an astronomer creates a solar system at a party held outdoors. I don’t want to spoil the scene for people who haven’t read it so I won’t describe it in detail, but at one point Alma becomes a comet. Gilbert writes:

Astonishingly, at some point, a sputtering torch was thrust into her hands. Alma did not see who gave it to her. She had never before been entrusted with fire. The torch spit sparked and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos-the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path.

Nobody stopped her.

She was a comet.

She did not know that she was not flying.

Her knowledge gives her confidence, and one of the characters tells her that “The entirety of your being is reassuring, Alma.” As a woman in the 19th century her opportunities were limited, but she makes the best of her circumstances and eventually her life leads her to places and to people she would never have imagined. Alma does not have a perfect life, but it is a full, meaningful life. Really, what more can we ask for?

More than anything Alma likes to study and theorize. She devises theories of time and thinks of them in four groups: Human Time, Geological Time, Divine Time, Moss Time. Alma thinks, “The most striking characteristic of Human Time, however, is that it moved with such amazing quickness. It was a snap of the finger across the universe…She was a mere blink of existence, as was everyone else.” Her descriptions of all the Times are beautiful and thought-provoking.

My favorite line of the book, which brought tears to my eyes because I thought of my Great-Aunt Nanc, is when Gilbert writes that Alma, “…still wanted to see what happened next, as much as ever.” Because we all live in Human Time, as Alma would say, we don’t get to see what happens next. We need to make the most of the time we have.

Aunt Nancy when she was about 85. She had just made us pull over when we were driving so she could look at plants growing on the side of the road.
Aunt Nancy at about 85 years old. She had just made us pull over when we were driving so she could look at plants growing on the side of the road.

READ: Best Books of 2013

This is the time of the year when all of the best books of 2013 lists come out. Of course, the lists come out right before Christmas. I am sure that is not intentional.

For the most part I am doing a book Christmas this year, it is my way of fighting the commercialism of the holiday season. Books are lasting gifts that can be passed from person to person so the cycle of giving can continue.

I love “best of” lists (Remember Nick Hornby’s book “High Fidelity” where they compile a Top Five list for everything? So great). I obsess over the best book lists that come out and immediately start reserving books from the library. After reading the lists below, my library reserve list has thirty books.

Here are some of my favorite best book lists of 2013 (click on the links to visit the lists):

In a few weeks the Morning News of Books  Tournament will announce the best books of 2013. They hold a March Madness of books with a champion crowned. Great fun for those of us that love books! The last two winners of the tournament have been my favorite books of that year. In 2012, “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson won and in 2011, “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan won. See below for my favorite book of 2013/prediction for the winner of the tournament.

My top books of 2013 were:

  • MaddAddam” by Margaret Atwood. This is the last book in the “Oryx and Crake” apocalyptic trilogy. It is creepy, horrible, and so believable. Atwood continues to amaze me.
  • Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson. I’ve talked about this book in a previous post. It is so good. Read it.
  • “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khalid Hosseini. I have also mentioned this devastating and wonderful book in a previous post.
  • Transatlantic” by Colum McCann. McCann is a phenomenal storyteller who weaves multiple story lines together. This book is historical fiction that covers normal lives filled with happy and sad moments.
  • Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes. This book surprised me, because I did not expect to like it. It is an unconventional love story that I am sure will be made into a movie.
  • “The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer. A big, juicy book that covers the lives of a group of six friends from New York.
  • Tenth of December” by George Saunders. My FAVORITE book of the year. A beautiful collection of unrelated short stories that explore capitalism, greed, stupidity, and the absolute beauty of life.

This list is not complete because I have a lot of 2013 books to read. I just picked up Veronica Roth’s “Allegiant” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” from the library. I am also very excited to read Mary Oliver’s new collection of poems and “Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

In a week or two I’ll have a post on the books I am most looking forward to in 2014.

Happy Reading!

Christmas is on its way
Christmas is on its way

READ: Literary City Guide San Diego, California

Just a quick post to share something I am excited about. Eat this Poem is one of my favorite blogs because it involves two of my favorite things: poetry and food. Nicole blogs about these two items that have brought me lots of comfort and joy over the years, so of course, I am a fan. I also think the literary city guides that she posts are spectacular!

I contacted her a few weeks ago with my ideas for San Diego, and it came together yesterday. I am excited to join all the fantastic literary city guides that are on her blog. San Diego is a great city and I love sharing things that I’ve discovered. Please check out my Literary Guide to San Diego here.  I hope it makes you want to come visit.

Coronado Beach

LIFE: Meditation

I am on Day 5 of the Oprah and Deepak 21-Day Meditation Experience. I encourage anyone reading this to join in on this free three-week series. It is the third time I have participated and it is a great way to experience the benefits of meditation. The theme of this three week journey is Desire and Destiny, finding your passion and purpose.

I understand that time is a luxury, but it is crucial to find time for things that improve our well-being. Depending on the day, I’ll meditate in the morning or on my lunch hour. I prefer to do it first thing in the morning and begin with a cup of coffee as I listen to Oprah and Deepak introduce the meditation. Each session is about 8 minutes of them talking about desire and destiny, and then 10 minutes of meditating. This morning Oprah reminded listeners to “Pursue the moments that light us up.”

Birch trees in Upper Michigan
Birch trees in Upper Michigan

Mantras and visualization help me when I meditate. A mantra is a phrase that is repeated in our mind to help us relax and concentrate. Deepak gives a different mantra each day of the 21-Day Meditation Experience. If I forget his mantra while I am meditating, I start to use my favorite mantra, which is Om Shanti. To begin the meditation I picture myself at places that I love, like on my Aunt Nanc’s porch in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula listening as the wind goes through the trees. When I start thinking about things I have to do I re-direct my focus to the mantra and to a place where I am calm.

Some days are harder than others to meditate. I try really hard not to judge myself and to keep doing it. You can’t do meditation right or wrong, you just need to do it. I find that I am a more considerate and aware person on days when I meditate, and that is why I do it. I know this sounds new-agey, weird, hippyish…but it works for me and I wish more people would do it every day.

Like a lot of women my age, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” was a life-changing book for me. It came to me in 2006, at just the right point in my life, and I feel like it helped me through a lot of things I was working on. (A few years ago, I was at a talk by one of my heroes,  Bill McKibben, and he said, “The Holy Spirit is the one that puts one book in your hand instead of another one.” I know that is true. Books always seem to enter my life at just the right moment – I plan on writing lots more about that in this blog.) Italy (Eat), India (Pray), and Indonesia (Love) are all a part of Gilbert’s journey; the India section spoke the loudest to me because of her descriptions of her meditation experiences.

She writes, “Why have I been chasing happiness my whole life when bliss was here the entire time.” She describes all of the frustrations that came up while she was practicing meditation at an Ashram in India, more importantly she talks about what the meditation does for her spirit. Gilbert writes, “The Yogic path is about disentangling the built-in glitches of the human condition, which I’m going to over-simplify define here as the heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment.”

If you have not read “Eat, Pray, Love” I think you should. It is an ESSENTIAL read. Also, it is not to late to join the Oprah and Deepak 21-Day Meditation Experience. You can still start at Day 1.


READ: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

It’s been a busy week. I spent the last six days traveling in San Francisco, Napa and Livermore for work and fun. In addition to my husband, Sean, I had another great companion for traveling, Khaled Hosseini’s new novel “And the Mountains Echoed.” This is an essential read. I finished the book on the plane ride home and I have not stopped thinking about it.

I remember being devastated after finishing “The Kite Runner,” and this novel left me feeling the same way. Hosseini is a master at capturing complicated family dynamics and feelings of guilt that can last a lifetime. In this new story he uses different narrators with unique voices for each of the nine chapters. Each of the chapters is linked to the others, but it could also be read alone. My heart broke a little more with each consecutive chapter.

And the Mountains Echoed

The story begins “So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one.” Hosseini then tells a story that spans three generations, three continents, and multiple tragedies. Over and over again we are reminded of the many ways a family can fall apart or come together.

Like his other stories, the main protagonists are from Afghanistan; in this one, he focuses on the love between  Abdullah and his sister, Pari. These young siblings have an uncommon, unbreakable love for one another. Within the first thirty pages they are separated and the reverberation of this is explored throughout the book. Some of the narrators are intricately connected with the main story, and others are related by small associations. The connections are sometimes revealed slowly, which made me want to keep reading to see how it fit together.

My favorite chapter/story in “And the Mountains Echoed” focuses on two men who are Afghan Americans. After living their entire existence in California, they visit Afghanistan to reestablish ownership of their family home. The two men interact with medical relief workers and visit a young girl who has been horribly disfigured. The meeting with the girl demonstrates the true nature of each of the men, and it reveals that good intentions and actual actions are completely different.

Setting and where “home” is are important elements of the novel. It moves from isolated villages in Afghanistan, to large homes in Kabul, to feelings of displacement in California, to sophisticated Paris, and to a remote island in Greece. Over and over Hosseini shows how our environment contributes to the people that we become. It is an inescapable part of our character.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. The imperfect characters, well-drawn environments, and beautiful imagery created a space that I did not want to leave. I was rooting for all of the characters to have satisfying outcomes, but of course, life is complicated and there is no such thing as a happy ending.

Right before “And the Mountains Echoed” I read “Survival Lessons,” Alice Hoffman’s teeny tiny new booklet that was recently published. Hoffman is one of my favorite authors so I read everything that she writes. She wrote this after battling breast cancer and it is a gentle reminder to appreciate all the beautiful, wonderful things around you even during the darkest times of your life. She reminds the reader over and over again that “There is always a before and an after.” It’s a nice book to read when life feels unbearable.

More to come on my trip to Northern California soon!

READ: The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

There are an infinite amount of stories to tell that involve World War II because virtually everyone in the world was touched by it. Every country, and every individual, has a different point of view about the conflict. Chris Bohjalian explores the perspective of an Italian family in his new novel “The Light in the Ruins.” Bohjalian is the author of one my favorite Oprah Book Club picks, “Midwives,” and because of that I have read almost all of his work. His books have engaging story-lines, well-written characters, and solid writing.

"The Light in the Ruins"

“The Light in the Ruins” is a revenge novel set in 1955 that involves a merciless killer who targets members of the Rosatis, a prominent Tuscan family. The story moves between the last years of WWII and 1955  and introduces quite a few characters into the story, which means that there is no shortage of suspects for the unknown killer.

The central WWII story focuses on Christina Rosati, who is young, innocent, and in love with a German officer. The interwoven story line centers on Serafina Bettini; a detective trying to figure out who has a vendetta against the Rosati’s, as she comes to grips with her own history that involves them. The different threads of the story come together in an ending that is a bit anti-climatic. This novel is best at demonstrating that nobody comes out of war fully intact, and decisions that are made under horrible conditions can have a lasting impact.

“The Light in the Ruins” is a good read, but I would not add it to the top of my reading list. There are several other books that involve WWII that I’ve read over the last year that are ESSENTIAL reads. If you’ve missed the below books, I recommend grabbing them:

  1. The Invisible Bridge” by Julia Orringer. I love this book! It is a massive, devastating tale about a Hungarian Jewish family during WWII. It takes place in Budapest and Paris, two of the best places I have ever visited, and it shows the unimaginable ruin that these cities endured. The characters are unforgettable, even though, as Orringer writes about the main character, “He was just an animal on Earth, one of billions.”
  2. Burnt Shadows” by Kamila Shamsie. This book begins in Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped and ends with 9/11. It follows the lifetime of a Japanese woman and her multi-cultural, complicated family. Shamsie is an incredible writer who brings all of her characters to life as they face the political situations of their countries.
  3. Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. This is based on the true story of Louis Zamperini, a United States Air Force bomber in WWII. Zamperini crashes into the Pacific Ocean and endures unbelievable events for the next three years. It is hard to read because it is so descriptive, but Hillenbrand’s gift for narrative had me staying up late to read another chapter. She writes, “As he watched this beautiful, still world, Louie played with a thought that had come to him before…such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come by chance. That day in the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil.”
  4. No One is Here Except All of Us” by Ramona Austebul. Austebul has a very unique voice and her narrative beautifully illustrates the power of stories and how they keep people alive. An isolated Romanian village comes up with a very strange way of hiding from the world, but of course, there was no escaping the horrors of the Holocaust.
  5. Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson. This novel is set in England and has a central character, Ursula, who continues to be reborn and re-do her life during the years leading up to WWII. It is so good! One of her paths involves a Hitler murder story, and others involve the bombings of London in WWII. This books demonstrates all the different paths our lives can take and all the simple, basic decisions that we make can change everything.

All of the books listed above are fantastic, “The Invisible Bridge” is the one that I’d recommend the most. Let me know if you’ve read any of the above and what your thoughts on them are!

Make sure to watch (or Tivo) “Super Soul Sunday” on OWN this weekend – Anne Lamott will be on it! I have watched her speak live twice before and she is always candid, funny, and inspiring. In the previews for the show, Lamott is saying “To be born is a miracle.” I can’t wait to watch the full interview.