BLOG TOUR – The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

The Mountains Sing

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing.  I have to admit my stop was actually scheduled for Tuesday, March 17, but the world has a way of taking over sometimes.  Tuesday was the first day that our entire office began working from home due to that nasty ol’ COVID-19, and things were a little chaotic.  I just flat forgot about the blog tour until today, but this is a fine book that deserves many kudos, so better late than never I say!  Kick back and let me bend your ear about this one.

Tiny, beautiful Viet Nam.  A country seemingly forever at war, and a watershed moment in the course of our own history.  In Vietnamese mountains and jungles, so many fought and died.  We asked why, did not buy the answers, and we changed.  In a worldwide dispersal, countless Vietnamese refugees left their country for ours and others, and we changed.  Never the same, but, you see, we didn’t know Viet Nam then, and we don’t know it now.  Many of us don’t, anyway.  Most of us, perhaps.  For anyone who remembers our involvement in Viet Nam, anyone who wants to more fully understand that dark, unsettling time, The Mountains Sing is a must.  For everyone who simply wants to read an extraordinary book, what can I say except “this one”.  Here it is.

Vietnamese native Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel reverses our perspective as we view her struggling country through Vietnamese eyes, those of the Tran family and, in particular, the family matriarch Dieu Lan and her granddaughter, twelve-year-old Huong.  Huong’s father is away at war and no one knows if he is alive or dead.  When her mother, a doctor, goes south to find him, she leaves Huong with her grandmother, a strong, strong woman who is a teacher and, in her youth, a beauty, a “jade leaf on a branch of gold”.  According to Vietnamese tradition, she calls Huong by a nickname, Guava, to guard her from evil spirits.  They lose their home to American bombs, depend on the kindness of their countrymen and experience their cruelty as well.  Run, hide, take shelter, survive.  Through it all, Dieu Lan steadies and supports Huong with stories of her own life, their family and their homeland, its history and its people, and it is in this way that we, as readers, experience life through four generations in this war-torn country.  Beauty and brutality.  Guilt and innocence.  Pain and hope.  Huong finds comfort and strength in her grandmother’s stories and Vietnamese proverbs, as do we.  “Intact leaves safeguard ripped leaves.”  “One bite when starving equals one bundle when full.”  We lose ourselves in Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s lyrical prose, and we learn.

Reading such a book as this reminds me that perhaps American readers are not as cognizant of international authors as we could be, of the value and insight they bring to our world view.  Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is also an award-winning poet, and it shows in her amazing book, so Asian in character yet so wondrously written in English by this non-native speaker.  Lovely.  And we learn.  We learn and re-learn what we already knew, what we instinctively know – surely we do.  That war is hell for both “sides”, that family is strength and love, that people are only people after all.  Let The Mountains Sing remind you just how good a book can be and why we love them so.  Explore international authors beginning here.  Read this one.

Thanks so much to Kelly Doyle at Algonquin Books for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for The Mountains Sing.  And even bigger thanks to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai for creating this masterpiece for us all to savor and enjoy.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come

It’s OK to dangle your foot over the edge of the bed.  Really.  There are no monsters underneath.  Really.  Truly.  It’s OK to read Stephen King or even Edgar A. Poe just before you turn out the lights.  Sweet dreams.  But, if you read Richard Preston’s most recent non-fiction entry about the Ebola virus, Crisis in the Red Zone…….?  YOU’LL NEVER SLEEP ANOTHER WINK IN YOUR LIFE!  My friends, as we’re finding out with the current Coronavirus pandemic, we are not prepared.  Preston’s newest title was released in July of last year, months before the current outbreak, so it’s even more relevant now that the world finds itself in this new, major viral predicament.

Ebola?  A possibility we know about.  What we don’t know is what we don’t know.  What I do know is that this good book will keep your lights on for hours, so you wouldn’t be sleeping anyway.  Remember Preston’s equally fascinating The Hot Zone?  Chapter and verse on the African Ebola outbreak of the 1970’s.  Crisis in the Red Zone, his latest, gives a brief and interesting recap of that epidemic and then takes us to 2014.  Remember?  Another horrifying outbreak in West Africa that modern medicine couldn’t quell, an outbreak that suddenly had us all sweating the possibilities.  Global travel.  Permeable borders.  Airplanes and cruise ships.  Possibilities that we’re all sweating again today with coronavirus.  Ebola made it to the US that time.  It surely did.  And so has coronavirus.

But there was a vaccine in 2014, right?  Yes, experimental ones, but for the most promising one there was only one existing test on primates and none on humans.  The story of the vaccines alone is a fascinating one, particularly so in that most of the development was entrepreneurial.  But it’s perfected now, right?  Well, you’d think.  And imagine the medical, ethical and personal quandary, the agony, of a doctor presented with enough of this untried vaccine for one patient – when you have a quarantine compound with hundreds of sick and dying.  It happened.  The man forced to make that call exists.

There was no cure.  In Africa, the focus had to be on controlling transmission, and you’ll be introduced to the seemingly cruel, but ultimately effective, Ancient Rule.  You’ll learn that Ebola is a wet virus that is transmitted only through direct contact with bodily fluids.  OK, that’s good to know, but you’ll be asked to think about the possibility of a dry, or airborne, virus that is as deadly as Ebola.  Is the coronavirus that virus?  Given a 3.4% coronavirus mortality rate vs. Ebola’s 90% death knell, probably not.  But there’s still every reason in the world to be worried.  Feeling a little feverish?  Thank you, Mr. Preston, for another important book that, as always, is also a great, timely read.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Saint X: A Novel

Release Date:  Today, February 18, 2020 / Available here from your local indie bookstore!

There are two sides to everything.  Simple folk wisdom that we use and hear so much it’s almost meaningless.  Nevertheless, it is still wisdom.  And it is this universal dichotomy that Alexis Schaitkin examines in her excellent novel Saint X.  Further, where I am today is rainy, foggy and gloomy, just nasty, so, heck yeah, let’s go to a Caribbean island.  Saint X itself is an island with two sides.  There’s the beautiful side where the resorts are, and the not so beautiful where the islanders go about their lives.  The beautiful side is still relatively unspoiled, not overrun by tourists, so the Thomases congratulate themselves on their choice of vacation spot on Indigo Bay.  Their two daughters, college freshman Alison and seven-year-old Clair, are of two minds about the whole thing.  Pretty, vivacious Alison wants to party.  Clair is a rather odd child, pale and awkward, an observer.  On the last morning of their vacation, Clair wakes her parents and tells them that Alison is gone.  Just gone.  Her body is found sometime later under a beautiful waterfall on an uninhabited island overrun by goats.  And two black men employed by the resort, Edwin and Clive, are suspected.  She partied with them.

Ah, so it’s a murder mystery then?  No, no, it most definitely is not. Certainly it is reminiscent of the famous Natalee Holloway disappearance on the island of Aruba.  In this case, we know that there is a death, but, as in Natalee’s case, we don’t know if it’s a murder.  Unquestionably there’s a mystery, and there are bereft parents, searches, law enforcement, news media, interrogations, witnesses, all that.  However, the depth and unquestionable quality of this book places it well above a “murder mystery” in the customary sense of that term.  Two sides.  Heads, tails.  Concave, convex.  Beauty, squalor.  Edwin and Clive.  Alison and Clair.

Clair is left to grieve and come to terms for the rest of her life – her shining star of an older sister, the beautiful, accomplished girl who snuck out at night to party, drink and dance with Edwin and Clive.  “My sister was an innocent, blameless in her horrific fate.  And it was all her fault.”  Edwin and Clive, too, must start over, and Clive moves to New York where Clair pursues him and, ultimately, develops an odd relationship with this man, built on both suspicion and trust.  “I had to find a way to understand how truth and untruth make each other.”  Saint X  – truly excellent fiction.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Celadon Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

M.T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family

  Now available in hardcover from Celadon Books / Due in paperback on June 30, 2020.  Support your local indie bookstore with your purchase or pre-order!

Welcome to Scandinavia – again (and again).  Sweden, in this case, but not just another Scandinavian mystery novel.  Yes, there’s a murder, and no, we’re not sure who the murderer is, but the mystery is not the story.  The murder may be the reason we have a story, but it is not the story.  The Sandells, the nearly normal family, now there’s the story.  Adam Sandell is a minister in the Church of Sweden, and his wife Ulrika is an attorney.  Daughter Stella is turning eighteen, finishing school and dreaming of traveling on her own in Asia.  Always a headstrong girl, she’s highly intelligent, but likes control and is quick to anger.  Stella loves her parents but is a challenging daughter, and as a friend, she is loyal to a fault.  She stands firm in her individuality, refusing to be anyone other than her unique self.  And she stands accused of murder.

Adam and Ulrika Sandell love each other deeply.  They love Stella as only parents can, but each relates to her quite differently, and their reactions in the face of the charges against her are markedly different as well.  A pastor and an attorney and all that is presumed to entail:  morality, ethics, beliefs, legal and religious standards, personal integrity.  Firm convictions and principles.  Holding fast on higher ground.  Really?  Is it humanly possible?  In these circumstances?  I’d guess so; I’d certainly hope so.  Is it possible for this particular pair, though?

As robust a cast of characters as you’ll find, and as flawed as human beings come.  None will elicit your complete sympathy throughout.  The murder victim himself is pretty despicable, and, in fact, I’m not sure Mr. Edvardsson could have pulled his concept off if the victim had been worthy of our concern.   So then . . . are some less-worthy people more worthy of murder?  Interesting question.  Here’s another:  Did Stella kill him?  You know, I almost felt like I became a character in this book because there are decisions to be made, big, crucial ones; and so many people are in over their heads.  And that’s where you come in.  Calmer, unbiased heads must take a look.  Readers, in all your infinite wisdom, I guess it’s up to you.  Enjoy Sweden.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Celadon Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

Alexandra Fuller’s Travel Light, Move Fast

  Release Date:  August 6, 2019 / Travel light but move fast to your local indie bookstore and shop here!

If Alexandra Fuller writes a shopping list, read it; margin notes in her high school biology text, read them; weekly menu plans with beans and franks every Tuesday, read those, too.  Anything you can get your hands on.  Ms. Fuller will always have something original to say – even about the beans and franks.  But, of course, if you are familiar with her brilliant memoirs, you know she is from highly original stock, the peripatetic Fuller family of here and there, Africa, and in her work, she returns to her family again and again without ever losing an iota of freshness or impact.

Of the five children born to Tom and Nicola Fuller, Alexandra and her sister Vanessa are the only two who survived to adulthood – a family of survivors, actually:  tough, hard-working and hard-drinking, creative, intelligent as all get-out, eccentric, frivolous, flawed, forever bereaved, and determined to cope.  And if coping doesn’t work, then cope harder.  At times, over the years, the Fullers were even without a “fixed abode”, but they always managed to rebound, eventually settling on a farm in Zambia raising bananas and fish.

In Travel Light, Move Fast, advice from Tom Fuller appears as chapter headings, and, perhaps, this optimistic dreamer is best summed up in the first one:  “In the Unlikely Event of Money, Buy Two Tickets to Paris”.  Never one to let insecurity get in his way, he would have done just that in such an unlikely event.  In fact, he and his beloved Nicola are on vacation in Budapest when he falls seriously ill and is hospitalized.  Alexandra, now living in Wyoming, flies to Budapest to be with her parents and returns with her mother and her father’s ashes to the farm in Zambia and to a family in the aftermath of another death.  Determined.  Shattered.  Forever bereaved.

As for me, well, I am both besotted with and puzzled by the Fullers.  I have been ever since Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight:  An African Childhood, and I return to them every time the talented Alexandra offers a new opportunity.  If you know Ms. Fuller’s good work, you will be saddened beyond measure by Travel Light, Move Fast.  If you’re new to her books, this latest can be read as a stand-alone, but I’m going to be honest with you, Readers.  While I’m usually not much troubled by jumping in and out of sequence, I’m not sure this book is the best place to make your first acquaintance with this writer and her family.  You see, it is a book of endings.  Personally I’m glad I began at the beginning, but the choice is yours, of course.  The very best advice I can give you is quite simple, really.  Read Ms. Fuller’ books.  All of them.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Press via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and Edelweiss for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action

  Release Date:  September 10, 2019 / Support your local indie bookstore by purchasing a copy here!

Can’t really say why I’ve been avoiding medical memoirs lately, but this one…..well, this one got in my face, in my head and simply wouldn’t be denied.  After losing his mother to a brain tumor while he was an undergrad, David Fajgenbaum committed himself to becoming a doctor.  He wanted to fight back against cancer, however while in medical school, he found himself feeling extremely tired, his lymph nodes were swollen and other symptoms began to develop as well.  Doctors suspected lymphoma or other blood cancer, but this was not a positive diagnosis.  With lightning speed, he became sicker and sicker:  pain, nausea, massive fluid retention, organ failure, ICU, not expected to live, saying good-bye to friends and family.  Then, just as unexpectedly, his condition stabilizes and he’s released from the hospital, only to relapse soon after.  Finally a diagnosis, and it is not lymphoma.  Good news.  Rather, it was HHV-8-negative, idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease, and he had to google that one.  Almost invariably fatal with death occurring from multiple organ failure an average of one year after diagnosis.  So his illness had a name, but little else, and it was certainly not good news.  David was to suffer five near-death experiences from organ failure.

Castleman disease is one of many orphan diseases, orphaned because they are so rare that study and research for a cure does not come with enough bang for the buck.  Maybe one researcher somewhere, maybe not.  Maybe one study, maybe not.  And David’s illness, as an additional complication, is a variation of this hothouse orchid of a disease, not just your “everyday” version.  So, here, readers, is where the story lies.  David – Dr. Fajgenbaum – chasing his cure.  Around bouts of his dreadful illness, he finishes medical school, but rather than going into a residency program afterward, he goes for an MBA.  He’s going to need business as well as medical savvy because, by now, he has learned how research programs work, and time is critically short.  He realizes he’s going to have to find his own cure, probably through off-label use of drugs already FDA-approved for other illnesses.  You will be astounded by this young man’s story and by his insightful look at the state of medical research.  Everybody, thumbs up and a standing O.  Good job all the way around, Dr. Fajgenbaum.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Ballantine Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Olaf Olafsson’s The Sacrament

    Release Date:  December 3, 2019 / Support your local indie book store and snag a copy here!

A good book, this.  Spare and haunting as Scandinavian works often are, suspenseful and mysterious, a bleak, cerebral look at the darker sides of otherwise decent human beings.  And still I couldn’t help wishing for an even better book – because I think it could have been.  Perhaps it is just that – a “look at” rather than a “look into”.  Motivations are pretty apparent, but something was missing or in the way of understanding the “who” of the characters.

Sister Johanna is sent by Cardinal Raffin to Iceland to investigate allegations against Father August Frans, headmaster of a Catholic school there.  Initially we don’t know what the allegations are, but one is tempted to make an educated guess, of course.  Other than speaking Icelandic, Sister seems an unlikely choice for this assignment, but Cardinal Raffin has knowledge that he holds against her and it soon becomes apparent that this is not meant to be, must not be, a serious investigation.  No one really wants to get at the truth, to have it known.

While the book moves back and forth in time providing background, I still felt that something, some piece or pieces were missing, and I found the chronology somewhat confusing at times, though easy enough to resolve.  Maybe just me and my soggy synapses.  Of course, it’s a rare book that ticks all the boxes, and in spite of all that and the painfully guarded characters, this book is a worthwhile read.  As usual, the driver for me is that I had to know.  So will you, and when all is said and done, you might find yourself conflicted about what you know.  You’ll know the who and the why right enough, but trust me, not just anyone would do….that.  Hmmm, a book that drives you to find out and then leaves you mulling its outcome.  Now, you see, that sort of quandary, that sort of something to think about, can go on the plus side for Mr. Olafsson’s book.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Ecco via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.