David Oliver Relin did not live long enough to witness the publication of his new book, Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives. It is a top-notch, inspiring account of two brilliant physicians from opposite ends of the world, one a Harvard-educated adrenaline junkie from America, and the other a disciplined trader's son from a remote Nepalese village. The unlikely duo combine their generous talents for one lofty goal: to cure preventable blindness. In 1995, they founded the Himalayan Cataract Project as a way to treat thousands of impoverished Himalayans in that isolated, mountainous region.
For ophthalmologists Geoffrey Tabin and Sanduk Ruit, the means to an end seemed simple yet difficult. In developing countries, cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness among the poor, including children. In wealthy countries, it is a common and treatable ailment of the elderly. "Some conditions of existence are more painful than others," Ruit tells Relin. Ruit would know; growing up, the nearest doctor was a six-day-walk away. He watched as his siblings died of curable illnesses.
Relin transports readers to Ruit's temporary eye hospital, formerly a filthy military post in the village of Kalikasthan, where young and old shuffle in from scorching heat to have red-brown dust scrubbed from their faces. The high energy Tabin, who early on abandoned a medical career to pursue athletic passions, was inspired by Ruit. Together, their respective stories led the dynamic pair to their calling. Thousands have been cured with their simple surgery that costs a mere pittance.
Relin, who co-authored the now controversial bestseller Three Cups of Tea with Greg Mortenson, committed suicide in November 2012. In telling this compelling and hopeful story of two medical pioneers, the author was not immune to the poignancy of what he was witnessing. When an elegant 56-year-old seamstress, who was forced to sell her sewing machine, finally sees again, Relin thrust into her hands a wad of bills. "For a sewing machine," he said.
Anguish over the loss of a child is life altering and permanent. Just suppose, years later, a stranger tells you that your child may still be alive. That unimaginable scenario greets Geniver (Gen) Loxley in Sophie McKenzie’s tightly wound new thriller Close My Eyes, where the still grieving mother's encounter with an unexpected visitor leads to an unthinkable possibility.
After eight long years, life is standing still for the childless Gen. Despite a comfortable, albeit boring, life with her ambitious and devoted husband Art, the former writer and part-time teacher can't seem to move past the death of her stillborn daughter, Beth. When Gen's husband suggests they keep trying for another child his sullen wife resists. Then one day out of the blue, a woman appears at their door with an incredible accusation: the Loxley baby was born alive and healthy. For the fragile Gen, it is about as cruel a joke as possible. Her emotional unraveling worries her husband and her best friend, both of whom dismiss outright the stranger's claims. When one coincidence too many does not add up, Gen plummets into a wave of confusion and doubt. What really did happen in the operating room years earlier? It is true; she never saw her dead daughter. As she sets out to revisit the past she discovers an equally devastating reality may await her.
The London-born McKenzie, whose previous works included children and teen novels published in the United Kingdom, has crafted a roller coaster plot with flawed characters and a disturbing narrative. Fans of last summer's mega-hit Gone Girl will be hooked by another enticing and twisty psychological thriller that visits a dark place with unsettling consequences. It is not likely to disappoint.
As reform-minded voters were casting their ballots in Iran’s election last month, Iranian-born author Sahar Delijani was publishing her first novel. In her ambitious debut, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, opposition to the repressive regime led to a generation of displaced children in post-revolutionary Iran. Delijani gives voice to those left behind by the ensuing bloody purge that claimed thousands of lives. With her own family's experience close to heart, Delijani weaves together beautifully written and intimately entwined stories spanning from 1983 to 2011 of those lives forever changed for elusive freedoms past and future.
This was a revolution gone astray. Revolutionary guards, policemen, and morality guards patrolled the streets. So called "brothers and sisters" could not be trusted. The children of political activists, who ended up incarcerated or in mass graves, were left behind. They included Neda, born under horrific conditions while her mother was imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. There is Sheida, whose mother keeps hidden her father's execution for fear her daughter will follow the same path 20 years later. There is three year-old Omid, whose parents' "papery lives" of forbidden books, poems, leaflets, led to their arrest straight from the kitchen table. There are the caregivers, too, like Leila, who tends her sisters' children while their mothers serve out jail sentences.
Delijani, who was born in an Iranian prison, connects her many well-drawn characters through shared experiences, as they wrestle with a past that repulses as much as it begs not to be forgotten. It is the symbolic Jacaranda tree, with its stunning purple-pink panicles, that serves as a reminder to fight for, and free, the tree inside. For those who enjoyed Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan the weight of history upon the next generation will look familiar, as will the determination to move forward.
Havaa’s father once told his young daughter that a true chess player thinks with his fingers. The eight-year-old girl would remember his comments when a year later her father's fingers were savagely cut off by government security forces in war ravaged Chechnya. It is one of the many atrocities in Anthony Marra's beautifully realized literary debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, where the spiral of murder and torture is as much a part of the landscape as the myriad of landmines, checkpoints, and disappearances in the night.
Spanning a decade of war with Russia from 1994 to 2004, Marra exposes the underbelly of his complicated Caucasus region by weaving together the lives of the damaged souls in its wake. At its core are two doctors whose pasts must be reconciled as they cycle toward their fates. There is Akhmed, a neighboring doctor who rescues Havaa, now being hunted by the "feds" after her father is kidnapped for aiding the rebels. Akhmed flees with the girl, careful to avoid a neighbor's war damaged son who is now an informant. They end up at a nearly abandoned hospital heroically run by a brilliant, sharp witted ethnic Russian doctor named Sonja. She reluctantly agrees to hide the child in exchange for Akhmed's help. An artist at heart, Akhmed would rather be drawing his patients than amputating their mangled limbs.
Marra enriches his compelling, richly-detailed writing with surprising bursts of humor, sidebars, and characters whose stories are plentiful and achingly poignant. It is a place where death is prevalent but hope is instinctive. It is about being ready when the time comes; just like Havaa's "just in case suitcase" her father had her pack, waiting by the door. Readers of The Tiger's Wife or The Cellist of Sarajevo will recognize here the challenge of living with dignity at the greatest of costs.
Riding in a beat-up bus among bald hills and scrub on his way to Namibia, Paul Theroux wondered what was compelling him to take yet another arduous trip. At 72, here he was again: in a parched climate, traveling alone, crossing more borders. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, the prolific and highly regarded American writer of travel literature packs his bags for one final journey to Africa and up the little known western coast, where he seeks harmony not just with the continent he has come to love but also himself.
Theroux is no stranger to "the greenest continent." He spent his happiest years in Africa as a young Peace Corps worker almost 50 years ago and has returned several times, writing insightfully along the way. Suggesting this 2011 trip is his last, he dives into the gut of this complicated place. From the slum tourism of Cape Town to the Tsumkwe village crossroads of one of the world's oldest cultures, to being stranded in the Angolan bush, Theroux observes countries slowly sliding into one another. He transports readers smack into the middle of a vividly wrought landscape with his richly detailed, elegant prose, adding his characteristic wry, at times dark, commentary. He is at his best telling stories of the local people he meets while showing no patience for meddling foreigners, like the "trophy hunting for dummies" set or those simply "busybodying.''
With over 40 books behind him, including the classic The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux seems to be signaling that this is the end of the line. His aptly titled last chapter is in the form of a question, "What am I Doing Here?" Yes, the Africa he leaves has a plethora of problems, but for fans of this acclaimed literary nomad the answer is simple—bringing us his world.
Whoever said growing old gracefully was easy has not met the residents of Pine Haven Estates, a retirement community in Fulton, North Carolina. Decisions regretted and bittersweet memories are countered with surprising friendships and old fashioned orneriness. The confederate jasmine and wisteria arbor may shield the cemetery next door, but Pine Haven residents know it is the next stop. Oh well, such is life and death in Jill McCorkle’s stirring new novel, Life After Life, where the challenge to keep from disappearing meets the desire to embrace life at any age.
McCorkle, whose previous five novels were New York Times notable books, has loaded this, her first novel in 17 years, with quirky, well-drawn characters from both in and out of the retirement village. Making sense of it all is hospice volunteer Joanna Lamb, who ensures that dying residents are not forgotten. Arriving after her own tough spell, Joanna is there for their last day in the sun, "one more song, word, sip of water" before they pass. So she holds the hands of the dying and writes in her journal touching, eloquent remembrances of those who have died. For the eccentric group of residents still around, life remains a journey defined by their own choices. A former lawyer who feigns dementia, a retired school teacher who thinks everyone is really eight-years-old at heart, a Jewish resident from up north who wonders how she ended up in "the land of quilts and doilies," are among the repertoire of voices. Youth, too, passes through Pine Haven, as seventh grader Abby prefers the residents to spending time with friends her own age, and a tattooed young mother named CJ does pedicures to escape her own past.
At times witty and other times poignant, McCorkle's brief narratives show off her penchant for short story form, along with the soul-searching that takes place when the life one has always known coalesces with the realities of aging. Fans of this southern writer are likely welcoming her return.
Elizabeth Strout is adept at creating flawed, ordinary characters mired in a changing, unforgiving world, and instilling in them traits that all can recognize. In her latest novel, The Burgess Boys, the highly regarded writer returns to a small town in Maine with an observant, tragic-comic story of a family as burdened by its past as it is overwhelmed by its messy present. Clearly, navigating life and the human condition is never easy.
For Jim and Bob Burgess it is also complicated by family ties. Both New York attorneys, the middle-aged brothers fled long ago from down-on-its-luck Shirley Falls, where now Somali immigrants are changing the face of their hometown. Their divorced sister, Susan, has remained. When her lonely teenage son, Zach, is accused of a hate crime involving a Somali mosque, the brothers reluctantly return to Shirley Falls to obviate the legal crisis. It's hard to tell who is under more stress: the Mainers and immigrants who fret over what Zach's crime means for the community they now share, or the Burgess siblings who continue to define themselves by past demons. Jim, a celebrated defense lawyer with a big house and pretty wife, is revered by his siblings despite acting like a jerk to his younger brother. Nice guy Bob, who works for Legal Aid, drinks way too much. Scarring everyone is a long buried family tragedy that continues to ooze close to the surface.
Strout, whose last novel was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, has again drawn with polished prose emotionally untidy characters whose seemingly unremarkable lives yield the hallmark of human character. With a reflective tone and pitch-perfect dialogue, Strout's fluid storytelling yields a simple, yet difficult message: connections matter.
An American woman’s journey from embassy secretary to African royalty is this year’s choice for the One Maryland One Book selection. King Peggy: An American Secretary, her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How she Changed an African Village chronicles the story of Peggielene Bartels of Silver Spring, Maryland, who learns in 2008 she is the new king of Otuam, a poor Ghanaian fishing village of 7,000. This book was previously reviewed on Between the Covers last year.
Now in its sixth year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people together from across the state through a shared reading experience, book-centered discussions and other programming. A calendar of free public events will be available on the MHC website this summer. Last year’s book, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, attracted almost 7,000 readers in Maryland’s only statewide book club.
Timing could not have been better for John Thavis's entertaining and candid new book, The Vatican Diaries: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. While the long-time journalist stirs in lighter, less sacrosanct moments about life in and out of the Apostolic Palace, there is serious discussion of many aspects of this Vatican City-State visited by millions each year.
Nearly three decades of experience covering the Holy See for Catholic News Service has provided the recently retired Rome Bureau Chief with a heap of material on the men in red. In ten highly readable chapters, Thavis traverses more territory in “arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization” than on his motorino throughout this ancient city. Intriguing chapter headings, like “Hemlines and Banana Peels” and “Cat and Mouse,” provide a fascinating peek at the culture behind the headlines. In a chapter called simply “Bones,” Thavis highlights the difficulty of protecting and conserving the plethora of antiquities that come out of the ground while moving forward with modern development as mundane as a parking garage. Thavis calls it the “politics of the bones.”
No subjects are off limits either, as the Minnesota native seems to have witnessed it all firsthand. He takes on the sexual abuse scandals and other controversies swirling around papal decisions, including provocative observations on the last two popes. Lighter subjects, too, are explored, including free-speaking priests who get into trouble and the mindset of Vatican protocol where things shouldn't go wrong but often do. Even bell ringing has its own challenges. There is chapter on it. Thavis dispels the myth of "Vatican secrecy" in his introduction. "More than 3,000 people work in the Vatican's administrative machine, and many of them will share information if given the opportunity," he says. It is fortunate for readers that Thavis has opened up his reporter's notebooks.
Lawyer Lina Sparrow instantly knew she was staring at a drawing that transcended time. The young African American man at its center stood in a Virginia field with his hands at his side, waiting. More than 150 years may have passed, but Lina knew that the charcoal put to paper that day said as much about the subject as it did about the artist who created it. In Tara Conklin's shifting, stirring debut, The House Girl, two worlds coalesce, as the winds of past sins expose the fight for freedom and family identity that reach from present day deep into America's past.
In the plush law offices of Manhattan’s prestigious Clifton & Harp, first year litigation associate, Lina Sparrow, has just been handed the class action case of a lifetime involving historic reparations for slavery. In locating a slave's descendant to act as lead plaintiff, she stumbles upon the story of artist Lu Anne Bell and her house girl, Josephine, who sometimes painted alongside her mistress. Josephine was seventeen in 1852 when she escaped from the failing Bell tobacco plantation. Now Mrs. Bell’s paintings are highly regarded for their sensitive portrayal of her husband's slaves, but recent speculation has questioned their authenticity. Lina, herself the daughter of artists, delves deeper into the searing plight of Josephine. In doing so, she begins to question her personal life and her own sense of place.
Conklin, a lawyer by training, exploits the double narrative as the means to weave together a historic time period with the legal perspective of twenty-first century restitution. As the prose expands, uncovered correspondences lay bare the horror of slavery. Readers of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini will enjoy this moving connection to the troubled past.