April 21, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
2013 Harper Audio
Reader: Neil Gaiman
Finished on 2/16/14
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

A brilliantly imaginative and poignant fairy tale from the modern master of wonder and terror, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman’s first new novel for adults since his #1 New York Times bestseller Anansi Boys. This bewitching and harrowing tale of mystery and survival, and memory and magic, makes the impossible all too real...

Move over, Jim Dale; I think I’m in love. Neil Gaiman has such a rich, smooth voice; I would happily listen to him read a Subaru service manual. What a fabulous performance (because, quite honestly that’s really what this experience felt like; not simply an author reading his book, but one who is telling you his story). I enjoyed it so much that I found myself listening to a track a second time, and I even considered listening to the entire book once again. I’ve only experienced one other book by Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) and now I’m eager to sample more from his backlist, especially if the audio books are narrated by the author.

Final Thoughts:

In a word, enchanting. This slim novel (a fairy tale for adults, really) is worth your time. Read it. Listen to it. Just don’t miss it!

April 18, 2014

Iron Lake

Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
#1 in Cork O’Connor Series
1998 Atria
Finished on 2/14/14
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, Corcoran "Cork" O'Connor is the former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota (population 3,752). Embittered over losing his job as a cop and over the marital meltdown that has separated him from his wife and children, Cork gets by on heavy doses of caffeine, nicotine, and guilt. Once a cop on Chicago's South Side, there's not much that can shock him. But when a powerful local politician is brutally murdered the same night a young Indian boy goes missing, Cork takes on a harrowing case of corruption, conspiracy, and scandal.

As a blizzard buries Aurora and an old medicine man warns of the arrival of a blood-thirsty mythic beast called the Windigo, Cork must dig for answers hard and fast before more people, among them those he loves, will die.

After reading William Kent Krueger’s amazing stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace, I was anxious to try this debut novel in his Cork O’Connor series. After a bit of a slow start, I became more interested in the mystery, as well as in Cork’s past, and found the second half quite intense. I couldn’t put the book down and am now eager to try Boundary Waters.

On winter in Minnesota:

He’d always loved winter in the North Woods. The clean feel of a new snow. The icy air almost brittle in his nostrils. The way sound carried forever. He could hear Walleye barking a long way off as he parked his Bronco on the frozen lake, climbed the rocky slope of Crow’s Point, and made for Henry Meloux’s cabin. The world felt empty of everything except that sound.


He was intent on the trail of oil when out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash of orange at the far right fringe of his headlight beam. He realized it was one of the signs warning of open water ahead, and he pumped his brakes, fighting to keep from sliding into an uncontrolled spin as he attempted to turn the Bronco. He felt the wheels drift over the ice as the vehicle slid sideways. A brief, panicked vision came to him of the Bronco gliding unchecked off the ice and plunging into the black depths of Iron Lake. He eased the wheel into the spin and managed to regain control. From behind the curtain of falling snow ahead, the blackness of the open water came at him like a gaping mouth. He continued to slow and to bring the Bronco around. Then he heard the ice groan and crack beneath him. Steadily he pushed down on the accelerator, running parallel for a moment to the open water, trying to keep the weight of the Bronco moving ahead of the breaking ice. His right hand ached, but he held tight and carefully brought the wheel around until he was moving back to safety. He made a wide full circle. When he came across the black train of oil, he centered it in the beam of the headlight, illuminating the stretch of ice between him and the open water. He killed the engine and got out. He could hear wild flailing in the water ahead.

Final Thoughts:

I sort of hate to get interested in another series, as I have so many titles remaining to read in John Sandford’s “Prey” series, as well as the Jack Caffery series by Mo Hayder. However, Krueger is a skilled storyteller with beautiful phrasing (reminiscent of that of Dennis Lehane), and I’m curious to see what’s in store for Cork O’Connor. If you haven’t explored this author’s backlist, I recommend beginning with Ordinary Grace (did I mention I loved that novel?!) and then give Iron Lake a try. You won’t be disappointed.

April 15, 2014

The Silent Wife

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
2013 Blackstone Audio
Readers: Karen White and Donald Corren
Finished on 2/7/14
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)


Jodi and Todd are at a bad place in their marriage. Much is at stake, including the affluent life they lead in their beautiful waterfront condo in Chicago, as she, the killer, and he, the victim, rush haplessly toward the main event. He is a committed cheater. She lives and breathes denial. He exists in dual worlds. She likes to settle scores. He decides to play for keeps. She has nothing left to lose. Told in alternating voices, The Silent Wife is about a marriage in the throes of dissolution, a couple headed for catastrophe, concessions that can’t be made, and promises that won’t be kept. Expertly plotted and reminiscent of Gone Girl and These Things Hidden, The Silent Wife ensnares the reader from page one and does not let go.

I first learned of The Silent Wife when I read Bellezza’s enticing review last summer. I loved Gone Girl, so I was anxious to dip into another psychological thriller when I saw that this was being compared to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster hit. I listened to the audio version of this slim novel and unfortunately was not as impressed as other readers. It’s been two months since I finished the book and I have only a slight memory of the plot! Was I so distracted with my work that I failed to become fully invested in the narrative? Would I have had a greater appreciation for the story if I had read the print edition? Reading through reviews posted online, my memory of this book is slowly awakened. I now remember that I didn’t care for either character, but Todd in particular was completely unlikeable for obvious reasons. Jodi is also flawed and I never felt sympathetic to her plight. The pacing was uneven and I was disappointed at the anticlimactic ending, having anticipated a strong twist at the end.

Final Thoughts:

This may have been a case of poor timing or the wrong format, but it’s not one I plan to read again, nor can I recommend it to others. I didn’t care for either of the audio readers, so if you’re curious, I suggest getting the print version from your library.

A. S. A. Harrison was the author of four books of nonfiction. The Silent Wife is her debut novel and she was at work on a new psychological thriller when she died in 2013. She lived with her husband, visual artist John Massey, in Toronto, Canada.

April 13, 2014

Gratitude Lately

Lately, I've been thankful for

Safe landings on windy runways

New (to me) restaurants in airport terminals

  Goofy mascots welcoming me back

Peaceful mornings at Mom's
in Little Whale Cove

Oceanfront hotels with million-dollar views

 Early morning walks with only the seagulls

Crashing waves against rocky cliffs

  Rooms with views and a delicious Cab

Mornings with nothing to do
but gaze at the sea

Fish tacos and rainy afternoons

Favorite brews in new restaurants

And, in-flight programming on flights home.

Happy Sunday, friends.
What are you grateful for this week?

April 12, 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
2014 Random House
Finished on 2/4/14
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.

Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined.

It’s been four years since I read Quindlen’s amazing novel, Every Last One. That book took my breath away! It sucker-punched with me with its too-close-for-comfort plot and has stayed with me ever since the day I finished. I’ve read other novels and works of nonfiction by Quindlen, yet Every Last One remains my favorite. I was so excited when I received an ARC of Still Life with Bread Crumbs (love the cover art!) and had high hopes for another winner, but as far as I was concerned, this new one missed the mark. It was entertaining and held my interest, but something was lacking, keeping me from running out to buy the hardcover edition when it hit the shelves. In spite of my slight disappointment, Quindlen remains one of my favorite authors, tapping into the psyche of women my age.

On aging (and heart attacks):

There were nights when she woke with a barbed-wire fence of minor but undeniable pain around her heart, and she rehearsed what she’d eaten that day—raisin bran, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chicken and rice, the cuisine of a freshman at boarding school—and convinced herself that it was indigestion, then wondered if she was having the female version of a heart attack, which she had been told was often overlooked, which seemed right since her experience was that women overlooked most of what their hearts told them. In the morning she felt fine except for the fact that she had made her hands into little paws beneath her cheek and they had gone numb at the wrists. In recent years what she missed most about her youth was sleep, that ability to fall into a hole of unconsciousness and land, softly and without sensation, at the bottom, to awake ten hours later rested and with skin remarkably uncreased.

On becoming:

She had been so relieved when the car had turned in to the bumpy gravel drive, when she saw the dog emerge from the back shed, when she opened the door to what had become a familiar smell of old woodsmoke, mildew, and vegetable soup. One day she had been out walking and she had wondered whether she’d become a different person in the last year, maybe because of what Paige Whittington had said about the dog pictures. Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she’d been. She considered the weight at the foot of the bed. For how many years had she said confidently that she was not a dog person? It just goes to show, whatever that meant. Her father had used that expression all the time. It just goes to show, sweetheart!

Final Thoughts:

While not as impressive as Every Last One (and maybe One True Thing), Still Life with Bread Crumbs is certainly a worthwhile read and one that I enjoyed a great deal. It may be a few more years before she publishes another novel, but meanwhile I still have Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake in my stacks. Can’t wait!

April 9, 2014

Wordless Wednesday

Port Orford, Oregon

Florence, Oregon

Charleston, Oregon

March 30, 2014

Gratitude Lately

Lately, I've been thankful for gorgeous sunrises

Sunny afternoons

Walks in the park

A new mug for tea

Tried-and-true recipes that bring smiles

The arrival of spring flowers

Dog parties

And for music in my home.

Happy Sunday, friends. 
What are you grateful for this week?

March 26, 2014

March 24, 2014

Top Ten Books for Spring

Inspired by Trish's recent post (and her pretty button, pictured above) in which she lists her Top Ten picks for springtime reading, I decided to gather a stack of my own books to focus on, hopefully beginning in another week. Yes, I realize spring began on the 20th, so I'm a tad bit late to the party, but I'm currently reading East of Eden (finally made it to the last third of the novel!) and have high hopes to finish before I head out of town on the 1st. It's too big of a book to haul in my carry-on bag!

Here are the books that I'm most anxious to read before summer arrives. Some have been on my shelves for a few years, some were given to my by a wonderful friend, one is on loan from a co-worker, and the rest were either sent to me by the publisher or purchased at work. Now to decide which to read first! Any suggestions?

Not familiar with some of these gems? Click on the links to read more. I've heard nothing but great things about all of this books!

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Last Letter From Your Lover by JoJo Moyes

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Gemini by Carol Cassella

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Yep. That's an ambitious list (and 11 books, not 10), but the first day of summer isn't until June 21st. Of course, I'd have to read one book a week in order to finish this entire stack, but you never know. With the crazy weather we've had this winter, we could wind up getting snowed in anytime in April. You just never know with the weather in Nebraska! ;)

March 23, 2014

Reconstructing Amelia

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
2013 Harper Audio
Reader: Khristine Hvam
Finished on 1/23/14
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

The real story of Amelia's life and death emerges slowly, through a creative blend of Kate's present, Amelia's past, and such varied communication methods as texts, e-mails, blog entries, and Facebook status updates. . . . McCreight portrays the darkness of adolescence, complete with doomed love, bullies, poisonous friendship, and insecurity. Fans of literary thrillers will enjoy the novel's dark mood and clever form.
— Publishers Weekly


Litigation lawyer and harried single mother Kate Baron is shocked when her daughter's exclusive Brooklyn private school calls to tell her that Amelia—her intelligent, high-achieving fifteen-year-old—has been caught cheating. But when Kate arrives at Grace Hall, she's blindsided by far more devastating news: Amelia is dead. Despondent, she's jumped from the school's roof. At least that's what Grace Hall and the police tell Kate. It's what she believes, too, until she gets the anonymous text: Amelia didn't jump. Now, Kate is going to find the truth—no matter where it leads. Sifting through Amelia's e-mails, text messages, and Facebook posts, Kate reconstructs the pieces of her daughter's life and the people in it, uncovering why she was on Grace Hall's roof that day—and how she died.

A superb blend of Tana French and Jodi Picoult, Reconstructing Amelia is a story of secrets and lies, friends and bullies. It's about how well any parent really knows their child and how far one mother will go to vindicate the memory of a daughter whose life she could not save.

I listened to this audio thriller a couple of months ago and while I’ve forgotten some of the more minute details, I do remember feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness for today’s children. When I was growing up, I knew who the mean girls were. I knew who enjoyed picking on those who weren’t cool or who didn’t fit in. I knew who egged my parents’ house and let the air out of the tires of my mom’s car. But with Facebook and texting, those “mean girls” can hide while they hurt and, possibly, destroy a life simply because they can. In this new age of cyber-bullying, it’s more difficult to know who your enemies are.

This compelling thriller kept me guessing from beginning to end, but it’s been two months since I finished the book and the story is quickly fading. I suppose a thriller, in spite of the dark undertones, can be considered “brain candy.” However, while somewhat forgettable, this story has left its mark and while I am breathing a sigh of relief that my daughter is past the age of this type of bullying, I do worry about my granddaughter and nieces. Unfortunately, it’s probably about time to talk to each of them and tell them they can always come to me if they are ever in a similar situation as Amelia. Sigh.

Behind the Book (an excerpt from the author’s website):

And how on earth—in a world so filled with dangers, big and small—will I ever keep them safe?

More than once, I’ve turned a corner on the way to pick up one of my children and seen an ambulance parked in front of one of their schools. Or at least that’s the way it looks, from several blocks away, down a busy Brooklyn avenue. Every time, I tell myself that my child has not accidentally eaten one of those cashews that she is so allergic to or fallen off the monkey bars or choked on a carrot. No, my child is fine.

And yet, I always walk a little faster, eyes locked on the ambulance, until I can confirm that it’s actually just parked, off-duty. Perhaps, I worry because I’m especially fatalistic. But I don’t think so. I think I worry because, deep down, I know the truth: that there is only so much I can do to protect my girls.

That’s what I thought a couple years back when I read about the star student and athlete who committed suicide by jumping out a window at Dalton. It’s what I thought about when I first heard about Tyler Clementi’s tragic leap from the George Washington Bridge after being surreptitiously taped. And it was brought back to me again when New Jersey teen Lennon Baldwin hanged himself allegedly in response to bullying.

My novel is told from the alternating perspectives of both Amelia and her mother Kate, to show how children—no matter how well-adjusted, no matter how well-loved—can be so easily singled out for abuse and suffer its inevitably heartbreaking consequences. Reconstructing Amelia explores how our children can get so terribly lost, despite the fact that we’re trying our best to keep them found.

March 17, 2014

Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
2013 Atria Books
Finished on 1/11/14
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)

Addendum: William Ken Krueger will be at MY Barnes & Noble store in Lincoln, Nebraska (SouthPointe Pavillions) on April 27th at 1:00 pm. I am so excited!

Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for Best Novel of the Year



New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were selling out at the soda counter of Halderson’s Drugstore, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, a preacher’s son, it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.

Told from Frank’s perspective forty years later, Ordinary Grace is a brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God.

“A pitch-perfect, wonderfully evocative examination of violent loss. In Frank Drum's journey away from the shores of childhood—a journey from which he can never return—we recognize the heartbreaking price of adulthood and it's 'wisdoms.' I loved this book.” (Dennis Lehane, New York Times bestselling author of Live by Night and The Given Day)

I, too, loved this book!

Ordinary Grace is the second book I finished reading this year and I knew early on that it was not only sure to be a winner, but that it would be the first title on my 2014 Top Ten list. Seven books later, it remains at the top of that list.

Part coming-of-age, part mystery, Krueger’s stand-alone novel is reminiscent of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Prayer For Owen Meany. I quickly fell in love with this author’s prose, characters, and sense of place, and was eager to tell my friends and co-workers about this amazing novel. The writing is so lovely and I can hardly wait to try the audio book later this year.

On the gift of music:
When my mother sang I almost believed in heaven. It wasn’t just that she had a beautiful voice but also that she had a way of delivering a piece that pierced your heart. Oh when she sang she could make a fence post cry. When she sang she could make people laugh or dance or fall in love or go to war. In the pause before she began, the only sound in the church was the breeze whispering through the open doorway. The Coles had chosen the hymn and it seemed an odd choice, one that had probably come from Mrs. Cole whose roots were in southern Missouri. She’d asked my mother to sing a spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

When my mother finally sang it was not just a hymn she offered, it was consummate comfort. She sang slowly and richly and delivered the heart of that great spiritual as if she was delivering heaven itself and her face was beautiful and full of peace. I shut my eyes and her voice reached out to wipe away my tears and enfold my heart and assure me absolutely that Bobby Cole was being carried home. It made me almost happy for him, a sweet boy who didn’t have to worry anymore about understanding a world that would always be more incomprehensible to him than not. Who didn’t have to endure anymore all the cruel mockeries. Who would never have to concern himself with what kind of a man he would grow into and what would become of him when his aged parents could no longer protect and care for him. My mother’s singing made me believe that God had taken Bobby Cole for the best of reasons.

And when she finished the sound of the breeze through the doorway was like the sigh of angels well pleased.

Final Thoughts:

I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I believe it’s destined to become a classic.

William Kent Krueger is the author of the Cork O’Connor series, which I quickly jumped into after finishing Ordinary Grace. There are 13 books in this series, so I have plenty to look forward to by this gifted storyteller. I’m most anxious, though, for the companion novel to Ordinary Grace, on which Krueger is currently working! I'm also thrilled to learn that the author will be in Nebraska (at the Keene Memorial Library in Fremont) on April 26th.

March 15, 2014

Still Foolin' 'Em

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? by Billy Crystal
2013 Macmillan Audio
Reader: Billy Crystal
Finished on 1/3/14
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)


Hilarious and heartfelt observations on aging from one of America’s favorite comedians as he turns 65, and a look back at a remarkable career.

Billy Crystal is turning 65, and he’s not happy about it. With his trademark wit and heart, he outlines the absurdities and challenges that come with growing old, from insomnia to memory loss to leaving dinners with half your meal on your shirt. In humorous chapters like “Buying the Plot” and “Nodding Off,” Crystal not only catalogues his physical gripes, but offers a road map to his 77 million fellow baby boomers who are arriving at this milestone age with him. He also looks back at the most powerful and memorable moments of his long and storied life, from entertaining his relatives as a kid in Long Beach, Long Island, his years doing stand-up in the Village, up through his legendary stint at Saturday Night Live, When Harry Met Sally, and his long run as host of the Academy Awards. Readers get a front-row seat to his one-day career with the New York Yankees (he was the first player to ever “test positive for Maalox”), his love affair with Sophia Loren, and his enduring friendships with several of his idols, including Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. He lends a light touch to more serious topics like religion (“the aging friends I know have turned to the Holy Trinity: Advil, bourbon, and Prozac”), grandparenting, and, of course, dentistry. As wise and poignant as they are funny, Crystal’s reflections are an unforgettable look at an extraordinary life well lived.

Nora Ephron may feel bad about her neck, but Billy Crystal feels terrible about turning 65! The first three chapters of this memoir, which are read before a live audience (on this audio production), are laugh-out-loud hilarious . One might say they’re crass, but they are oh, so funny. After listening to them on my Nano at work, I came home and played them for my husband, who agreed they were very funny. Unfortunately, the remainder of the book fell flat. I’m not sure if my disappointment lies in the performance by Crystal or in the material. As a stand-up comedian, Billy Crystal is extremely funny, but the remaining chapters (which weren’t performed before a live audience) are read exactly as written in the book. This is what one would expect from an audio book, but Crystal’s timing was off as he stumbled over the words, pausing at the wrong place in his anecdote, making for a very awkward listening experience. If that wasn’t enough, I also grew weary of the constant name-dropping, which made this memoir feel like one big brag fest.

Final Thoughts:

I loved Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, Forget Paris and City Slickers. I also enjoyed watching him when he hosted the Oscars and I think it would be great fun to see him perform before a live audience. However, listening to him read his own memoir was quite the disappointment. If you’re still curious, borrow the book from your library. This one's not a keeper.

March 12, 2014

Wordless Wednesday

Our first dog, Sidney
August 1988 - March 3, 2003

March 7, 2014


Oxygen by Carol Cassella
2008 Simon & Schuster
Finished on 12/7/13
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Jodi Picoult meets Atul Gawande.

In this riveting new novel by a real-life anesthesiologist, an intimate story of relationships and family collides with a high-stakes medical drama.

Dr. Marie Heaton is an anesthesiologist at the height of her profession. She has worked, lived and breathed her career since medical school, and she now practices at a top Seattle hospital. Marie has carefully constructed and constricted her life according to empirical truths, to the science and art of medicine. But when her tried-and-true formula suddenly deserts her during a routine surgery, she must explain the nightmarish operating room disaster and face the resulting malpractice suit. Marie’s best friend, colleague and former love, Dr. Joe Hillary, becomes her closest confidant as she twists through depositions, accusations and a remorseful preoccupation with the mother of the patient in question. As she struggles to salvage her career and reputation, Marie must face hard truths about the path she’s chosen, the bridges she’s burned and the colleagues and superiors she may have mistaken for friends.

A quieter crisis is simultaneously unfolding within Marie’s family. Her aging father is losing his sight and approaching an awkward dependency on Marie and her sister, Lori. But Lori has taken a more traditional path than Marie and is busy raising a family. Although Marie has been estranged from her Texas roots for decades, the ultimate responsibility for their father’s care is falling on her.

As her carefully structured life begins to collapse, Marie confronts questions of love and betrayal, family bonds and the price of her own choices. Set against the natural splendor of Seattle, and inside the closed vaults of hospital operating rooms, Oxygen climaxes in a final twist that is as heartrending as it is redeeming.

I’ve always been fascinated by medical dramas. Over the past four decades, I’ve watched countless episodes of Emergency!, Chicago Hope, E.R., Grey’s Anatomy, and House. I’m intrigued by the specific details of medical care, whether I’m watching a TV show, reading a novel, or hearing about someone’s recent surgery. I’m probably one of those annoying patients (or the spouse of a patient) who asks far too many questions about a specific procedure. ;)

Anesthesia has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. I can never quite shake that strange feeling upon awakening from surgery. One minute you’re awake, waiting to drift off to sleep, and in the blink of an eye a nurse is gently waking you and you feel like you just missed out on a big chunk of your life.
Anesthesia was the antithesis of the complete, personally involved physician I had idealized to myself and my parents for all the years I studied chemistry and physics and biology alongside music and literature. It came as an unexpected, almost uncomfortable surprise to me when I discovered the immediate gratification of my specialty—injecting a local anesthetic at the precise nerve plexus to relieve the unrelenting pain of strained backs or injured limbs; calming a terrified obstetrical patient rushed into an emergency cesarean section, keeping her pain-free and hopeful, so her infant could make the miraculous transition from fetus to newborn uninjured; pulling the sleeping heart bypass patient back to consciousness and the inexpressible relief that they are still among the living. All of this, I discovered, was in contrast to general medicine, which could often do little more than shift the incessant, declining slope of mortality that begins the day we are born.
I understood the general concept of anesthesia (well, as much as a layman can understand something so complex), but until I read Carol Cassella’s compelling drama, Oxygen, I failed to appreciate the incredible talent of an anesthesiologist. It is not simply the job of an anesthesiologist to keep a patient sedated, but it is also his or her responsibility to anticipate the patient’s pain in response to the various stages of the surgery, adjusting or adding the various drugs to maintain the patient’s comfort. Of course, now that makes sense, but it’s not something to which I’d ever given any thought until reading this novel.
People feel so strong, so durable. I anesthetize airline pilots, corporate executives, high school principals, mothers of well-brought-up children, judges and janitors, psychiatrists and salespeople, mountain climbers and musicians. People who have strutted and struggled and breathed on this planet for twenty, thirty, seventy years defying the inexorable, entropic decay of all living things. All of them clinging to existence by one molecule: oxygen.

There is a moment during the induction of general anesthesia when I am intimately bonded to my patient. A moment of transferred power. I squeeze the drug out of the syringe, into the IV line, and watch the face slacken, watch the last organized thoughts slip from consciousness, see breathing shallow, slow, stop. 

I received an ARC of Cassella’s debut novel way back in early 2008. It sat on my desk for a few months and eventually found its way to one of my stacks of ARCs, where I promptly forgot about it. Over the course of that year, I started seeing great reviews for Oxygen and yet it remained in my stacks, soon to be completely buried. I’m not sure what finally prompted me to dig it out after more than five years, but I’m so very glad I did. Cassella’s narrative drew me in from the opening scene and I became completely engrossed, particularly with those sections involving a specific operation.

On the fear of flying: 
Joe squeezes my hand as he pulls out into the runway and waits for clearance. He sounds different talking into his headset, a clipped song in the shorthand lingo of flight. My breath jumps high into my throat when we leave the ground. He banks out over the sound—the city looks like it's cupped inside the protective palms of encircling peaks: the eastern Cascades and western Olympics, the northern and southern volcanoes of Mount Baker and Mount Rainer. From this height the geometry of bridged lakes and islanded ocean sprawls like a rumpled quilt in greens and blues. It's worth the price of fear.

On Texas heat:
Lori lives in the plains just west of Fort Worth, where cattle drives used to camp on their way to the transcontinental railroads and settlers laid claim to Indian lands with barbed wire. Now, a grid of pavement allots quarter-acre swatches of azaleas and scrappy live oaks to homeowners who coax green growth out of the dust. The lushly watered lawns invite barefoot play, until the Texas sun slaps you back inside. 

Carol Cassella is a consummate storyteller and when it comes to medicine, specifically anesthesia, she knows her stuff. She majored in English Literature at Duke University and graduated from medical school in 1986. She is a practicing physician, board certified in both internal medicine and anesthesiology, and has recently published her third novel, Gemini. As luck would have it, I came upon an ARC of Gemini a couple of months ago and I am very anxious to give it a read. And I can assure you that I won’t be waiting five years!

Have you read any books by Carol Cassella? If so, which is your favorite? Healer sounds quite intriguing, too!

March 5, 2014

Bird's-Eye View (III)

Name that mountain!

For more posts about flying, click here.