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Book Review: Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife by Sarah Smiley

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”):

My friend Teresa suggested this book as the inspiration of a multi-continent skype session. Katie and I jumped onboard and we were soon underway. The three of us are married to Navy service members and thus, we are military spouses. Katie’s husband deployed to Guantanamo Bay, my husband deployed to Afghanistan and Teresa’s husband deployed with an aircraft carrier, so we have all faced deployments. Our were different from the pilot deployments Sarah Smiley writes about in her memoir, but the stresses and worries were the same.


This memoir covers the pre-deployment and deployment experiences of a military spouse, Sarah Smiley. She takes the reader on her emotional journey as she questions her marriage, digs around for her self-esteem, and laughs with her friends along the way.

A quick glance below will reveal that I have chosen to exclude any excerpts from this book. I had a guttural reaction against much of Ms. Smiley’s writing. As helpful as some of those passages might be in describing to you what I mean, I couldn’t bring myself to mark them as I was reading. You might say my immaturity was inspired by what I read on the page, and you might be right. I see it more as embracing my desire not to spend time engaging in activities that are negative for my psyche.

If you’re reading along, then you have probably gotten the hint that I do not have a favorable opinion of this book. Bingo! On the positive side of things, Ms. Smiley writes with a pleasantly humorous touch, and her honesty is applaudable. Yet, for all of her honesty about her marital doubts and her infidelity fantasizing, she barely scratches the surface of her role in each relationship. The book is full of excuses for her behavior, passing up moments for introspection and instead pinning the blame on others, and a complete lack of ownership in her actions. While she manages to take care of her children, help her fellow military spouses, and finally mow her own lawn, these self-sustaining capabilities are still absent from her emotional experiences by the end of the book.

The book does provide a window through which we can see the stress put upon families of deployed military members. By looking around the scenes that Ms. Smiley describes, we can see how the other spouses manage and we can imagine how we might act. Ms. Smiley deftly shows us her role models in the group of military spouses, and we see much of Ms. Smiley in her depictions of her mother. Yet, she avoids contemplating any of these influences on her life and keeps herself and us busy with fantastical thoughts and creative evasions of reality.

As a military spouse, I can safely say that I found little of value in the relational aspects Ms. Smiley describes. Perhaps that is because I failed to identify with any aspect of her character, except perhaps her sense of humor, which is substantial. She embraces the female-male divide that I find outdated, she wallows in self-pity of her own choice, and she does not seek help available to her. Does Ms. Smiley portray the life of a military spouse? She portrays her version of it, most definitely. Yet, please do not read this book and think this is the representative version of a military spouse. Not that you would be so simple-minded to think that, and not that Ms. Smiley is so simple-minded to think she represents us all; this is more a book about Ms. Smiley than it is a book about military spouses.

For more about Sarah Smiley, see this New York Times Magazine piece about her.

Best Excerpts:

ISBN: 0451218515

Book website: http://www.sarahsmiley.com/

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Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”): The book club I raved about chose this book for our November book club meeting.


The book starts off with a tantalizing Prologue that introduces the main characters of the book, Marion and Shiva (twin brothers), Addis Ababa (capital city of Ethiopia where most of the story takes place), Missing Hospital, Sister Mary Joseph Praise (twins’ mother), Dr. Ghosh (father to the twins), and Dr. Thomas Stone (biological father). Other major characters factor into the life of Marion, whose life we follow, including Hema, and Genet, but we meet them later in the story. Dr. Abraham Verghese is a theatrical writer and leaves several hints and clues in his prologue.

However sly Dr. Verghese is, a prologue is known for providing some essential information for the reading of the book. This holds true for the prologue here, and more importantly, it offers the mystery. If you do not grab ahold of this mystery, you may not make it to the meat of the book, which reaches prime juiciness around page 250. While there are moments in the first 250 pages that pulled me along, I cannot say I was committed to finishing the book until about page 250. Well, I committed to finishing the book for book club, but without that I may have abandoned the book. The book is too good to abandon, but it did betray me at page 485. Yes, it was such a deep betrayal that I noted the page and cursed Dr. Verghese.

Why, you might ask, did I feel so personally betrayed? Mostly because Dr. Verghese pulled me along with the hope of strong female characters so lacking in much of literature (and yes, please leave book titles in the comments that have strong female characters). As I was saying, he pulled me along with this promise. While there are strong female characters in the book, they are limited to peripheral roles. Even Hema, who mothers Marion, got a great introduction, we really get a sense of how she thinks, her familial history, and who she is – and then POOF! She is reduced to a mere figurehead who, while offering great influence in Marion’s life, no longer gets page time of her own development. That was disappointing, but not the cause of the betrayal. I will let you read the betrayal yourself, and will close this topic by saying it underscored Marion’s disdain for all females, a trait Dr. Verghese cleverly disguises but which is simmering below the surface throughout the book. Or is it Dr. Verghese’s disdain seeping into his character? Is it his commentary on society? On Marion? Why did he choose this act for Marion’s zenith? It is impossible for me to say.

The delightful part of reading Dr. Verghese’s well-crafted story is in the details. He sets the story in revolutionary Ethiopia, highlights the Italian influences on Addis Ababa left over from Italy’s occupation, describes numerous diseases and medical procedures, and thoughtfully sets up questions of philosophy and morality upon these backdrops. With the mystery of Marion’s parents’s lives leading us by the nose throughout the book, we have ample opportunity to search our own souls on questions of what family means, what role family plays in personal development and career choice, and how much of ourselves is inherent in our genetics and how much is learned and chosen. These questions play out over a dramatic story of a place that is a fantasy. The fantasy is in the foreignness, for westerners like me who haven’t traveled in Africa. The fantasy is in the selective application of timing of historical events for those who lived through them. Dr. Verghese admits to this free use of history and he applies it well to the dramatic development of the storyline.

The excerpts below show the deep thinking of Dr. Verghese’s characters in “Cutting for Stone.” It was a book that presented many difficulties which were well matched with highlights and rewards for working through the difficulties. While my sense of betrayal keeps me from embracing this book wholeheartedly, I feel quite comfortable recommending it to anyone who is looking for an escape from everyday life, looking to step into another time and place and imagine how your choices would play out in these circumstances, or looking for a thought-provoking book with a well developed story and lovable characters in a foreign land.

Best Excerpts:

“We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot.”
p. 6

“No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible for you.”
p. 6

“But of all the qualities of the women he met in Addis, the most important was their acquiescence, their availability. For months after his arrival in Addis, well after his discovery of the Ibis and so many other bars like it, Ghosh was celibate. The irony of that period was that the one woman he wanted rejected his advances, while all around him were women who never said no. He was twenty-four and not totally inexperienced when he arrived in Ethiopia. The only intimacy he’d ever had in India was with a young probationer by the name of Virgin Magdalene Kumar. Shortly after their three-month affair ended, she left her order and married a chap he knew (and presumably changed her name to Magdalene Kumar).

“Hema, I am only human,” he murmured now as he did every time he thought he was being unfaithful to her.

p. 126


“The following night, we couldn’t wait to talk about Abu Kassem. We all saw it the same way. The old man was right. The slippers in the stry mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny…I met Hema in the septic ward at Government General Hospital in India, in Madras, and that brought me to this continent. Because of that, I got the biggest gift of my life–to be a father to you two. Because of that, I operated on General Mebratu, who became my friend. Because he was my friend, I went to prison. Because I was a doctor, I helped to save him, and they let me out. Because I saved him, they could hang him…You see what I am saying?”

I didn’t, but he spoke with such passion I wasn’t about to stop him.

“I never knew my father, and so I thought he was irrelevant to me. My sister felt his absence so strongly that it made her sour, and no no matter what she has, or will ever have, it won’t be enough.” He sighed. “I made up for his absence by hoarding knowledge, skills, seeking praise. What I finally understood in Kerchele is that neither my sister nor I realized that my father’s absence is our slippers. In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit they are yours, and if you do, then they will get rid of themselves.”

All these years and I hadn’t known this about Ghosh, about his father dying when he was young. He was like us, fatherless, but at least we had him. Perhaps he’d been worse off than we were.

Ghosh sighed. “I hope one day you see this as clearly as I did in Kerchele. The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

p. 286.


“The black-suited drivers led their passengers to sleek black cars, but my man led me to a big yeloow taxi. In no time we were driving out of Kennedy Airport, heading to the Bronx. We merged at what I thought was dangerous speed onto a freeway and into the slipstream of racing vehicles. “Marion, jet travel has damaged your eardrums,” I said to myself, because the silence was unreal. In Africa, cars ran not on petrol but on the squawk and blare of their horns. Not so here: the cars were near silent, like a school of fish. All I heard was the whish of rubber on concrete or asphalt.

Superorganism. A biologist coined that word for our giant African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in the individual ant but in the collective ant mind. The trail of red taillights stretching to the horizon as day broke around us made me think of that term. Order and purpose must reside somewhere other than within each vehicle. That morning I heard the hum, the respiration, of the superorganism. It’s a sound I believe that only the new immigrant hears, but not for long. By the time I learned to say “Six-inch number seven on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce,” the sound, too, was gone. It became part of what the mind would label silence. You were now subsumed into the superorganism.”

p. 379


“I took my own deep breath. I sat on the edge of his bed. I held his hand. “Mr. Walters, I’m afraid I have some bad news. We found something unexpected in your belly.” This was the first time in America that I had to give someone news of a fatal illness, but it felt like the first time ever. It was as if in Ethiopia, and even in Nairobi, people assumed that all illness–even a trivial or imagined one–was fatal; they expected death. The news to convey in Africa was that you’d kept death at bay. Those things that you couldn’t do, and those diseases you couldn’t reverse, were left unspoken. It was understood. I don’t recall an equivalent word for “prognosis” in Amharic, and I’d never tried to speak to a patient about five-year survival or anything like that. In America, my initial impression was that death or the possibility of it always seemed to come as a surprise, as if we took it for granted that we were immortal, and that death was just an option.”

p. 396


ISBN: 0375414495

Book website: http://www.abrahamverghese.com/books.asp

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Book Review: A House in Sicily, by Daphne Phelps

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”):
I am sure I came across this book while perusing blogs about Italy, however dear reader, I have had this book since early September and I can no longer remember how I found it. Suffice it to say, it is about a house in Taormina, which is just north of Catania (where I live) and that was interesting enough to attract me.

Ms. Daphne Phelps tells us her provocative story in an antiseptic manner. She hints at daring adventures and dishes on the sordid affairs of her friends, but Ms. Phelps never reveals any of her own tawdry tales. Nevertheless, if you are at the beginning of a romance with Sicily the way I was, you can fall in love with Ms. Phelps’ Sicily. She takes us to Motta, where I was living when I read the book, she introduces us to puppeteers (world famous!) and she shares her own unexpected love story – falling in love with a culture, a house and a new world.

The prose of her book suggests that Ms. Phelps was a no-nonsense type of woman. What humor is to be found is extremely dry, though she produced a surprising chuckle or two from me when I picked up on the wit behind her sardonic text. Do not expect an emotional journey in this book; instead, it reads as travel book might – plenty of specific details in some areas, and leaving others completely unexplained. Overall, I loved this book, because I enjoyed imagining my upcoming adventures through Ms. Phelps’ experience. My heart is enamored with Sicily for now. Time will tell if I fall as deeply in love with the island as Ms. Phelps did.

Best Excerpts:

“Once I was lunching with Piero in the hotel at Gela when a waiter told me there was a man wanting to speak to me. He was not asking for me by name. This seemed odd. Did he not know me? After lunch he came forward carrying a parcel wrapped in newspaper. He said it was a Greek vase. Would I like to buy it? Piero was just behind me so, although full of curiosity, I virtuously said no. Piero, who had the right to confiscate immediately any contraband, stepped forward saying he was interested. Strangely the man didn’t know who he was; it seemed odd that he had not taken the trouble to learn the identity of the only two men with the right to confiscate. Encouraged, the would-be seller opened the parcel. He wanted 12,000 lire for what looked to my unskilled eyes to be a black, two-handled crater in perfect condition. Piero carefully examined it, turning it over and over, then finally said he wasn’t interested. Diappointed, the man wrapped it up and went off.
‘Whatever was all that in aid of? What is it?’
‘A black crater.’
‘Then why didn’t you confiscate it?’
‘We already have three others like it. If we confiscated everything we are shown, we should have no friends among the peasants. We want them to bring us their finds instead of going straight to the Mafia.’
It seemed reasonable, but I would have liked to buy that vase.

p. 148


“One beautiful morning we started down the rocky path to the beach where a fair was held each month. We soon overtook an old couple leading a sheep and two lambs. In pure Sicilian, which I couldn’t follow, and with a great deal of shouting and waving of hands and arms, a bargain price was fixed. I suggested therefore that there was no need to take the poor animal all the way to the beach when he would have to be dragged up the hill again. The old man thought it was a good idea, but his wife, evidently the manager, was against, so we all continued down.

While we looked around at the crowded and gay scene with peasants, horses, pigs, sheep and, alas, songbirds in cages, Turiddu [Ms. Phelps’ Sicilian companion] kept an eye on his lamb. Soon we saw him advance angrily on the old woman. She was sitting bolt upright on the sand with her legs stretched out in front of her, a kerchief on her head to keep off the hot spring sunshine, munching away on a piece of bread and pretending to be not the least interested in Turiddu. Obviously she had insisted on the whole troupe coming down because she had hoped to find a more generous purchaser. She continued munching steadily, feigning deafness as his voice rose highter and his gestures became fiercer. But suddenly she gave up and took the notes he was waving, with ever-increasing fury, in front of her nose. ‘Martino’ was ours at the price first fixed.

He was a splendid animal and surprisingly clean; he had clearly been laundered before his sale.

“Turiddu, why Martino?”

He looked at my pityingly for my ignorance: ‘All lambs are called Martino.’

p. 130-131

ISBN: 0786707941

Book website: http://www.casacuseni.org/

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Book Review: Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”): To be honest, the cover represented a nice, relaxing book to read by the pool, and that is what attracted me to the book. I choose the book as a “light read” in between other “serious” books. What a joke! Ms. Smiley writes complex characters with heavy dialogue and heady interactions. The thick chapters and weighty topics were not burdensome when paired with Smiley’s enticing characters.


Friends and family spontaneously gather at the home of a fading Hollywood director. He and his live-in girlfriend host children, grandparents and long-time friends over the course of ten days. During that time, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq begins and this event anchors many conversations in the rambling house in the hills. An opportunity to change locations (yet still stay in the hills) affords the group new material for the continuous bickering, debating and laughing routines they have established among themselves.

As a whole, I found this book to be challenging and thought-provoking. Jane Smiley is clearly an intelligent and gifted writer and she portrays compelling characters that exude stereotype without becoming cliche. Just when I thought I had deduced Smiley’s pattern, she would insert a twist or provide an inspiring moment to distract me from my predictions.

While the book pulled me along, I cannot bring myself to recommend it strongly nor to recommend you avoid it. I had the chance to dig into this book for three hours the first time I started reading it and I think that helped me enjoy it more. I created a strong visual space for each of the characters and I was able to follow the subtle character development that Smiley showed over ten days. My emotions were aroused as I read and at times when I was bored with a character, rather than being bored with the book, I still felt more alive for the time I spent reading. While I can’t say that I will revisit this book, I am interested in reading more of Smiley’s work.

Best Excerpts:
“You know that there are people whose job it is to know more about this than you do and that they think this is a regrettable necessity, right?”
“I’ve heard that rumor, but I question their motives. If their motives are humane, I question their logic. If their logic is reasonable, I question their worldview and their right to impose their worldview on the lives and bodies of others.”
“Then, honey, you question the nature of civilization.”
“And you don’t?”
p. 24-25

“Cars were wonderful philosophical things, zones of privacy and occasions for cooperation. There was something especially fine, she thought, in world-historical terms, about a car belonging to a stranger whom you had never seen before moving into the left lane in order to allow you onto the freeway. There was something politically beautiful about four cars at a four-way intersection smoothly taking their turns. Good traffic made you a benevolent person and a believer in basic human goodness.”
p. 112

“”But you asked me why I still care. It was the agressive, open gloating. It was more than a lack of shame. Not only were we supposed to acknowledge that they had the power, we were supposed to admire the idea of cheating as a method of attaining power. They preened themselves upon being corrupt and morally bankrupt. If he had gone to his inauguration and said, ‘I know I cheated, and I know most of you didn’t elect me, and I know I am indifferent to all issues of right and wrong as they apply to me personally, but I’m here and I plan to make the most of it.’ I wouldn’t be so angry.”
Max laughed. The fact was, there was an element of delight that he felt about everything she said. But he tried to speak seriously: “I always think it’s funny that the main thing you want is for them to see themselves as you see them, when that’s exactly the very thing that they can’t do. Honey, you’re never going to get that from anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are, they get to have the one thing, their own point of view.””
p. 171-172

“In that moment, Paul decided once again that family life was, in general, something to be avoided, except as an occasion for exercising patience.”
p. 306

“Max drew in a deep and, to Stoney, threatening breath, and said, “Stoney, are you telling me the truth?”
Stoney sat silent for what he considered to be a long moment, pondering this question. Questions about the truth worried him, because of course he didn’t know what the truth was. His own true feelings were always confused, he had no access to any general truths, and if you said you were telling the truth, you laid yourself open to all sorts of contradictions that would ultimately confuse you even further. Whenever “the truth” came up, it was often as a prelude to a lengthy and usually contentious discussion.”
p. 336

“She had dived into the deep end, where the virgin’s hair swirled into the tail of the unicorn, and in the middle of her second lap had realized that in fact she was precisely different from the person her father thought she was by the measure of Stoney’s influence. It was scientific. Here would be Max’s wish, that a young man and she would be equally idealistic and optimistic, and they would be just self-centered enough so that they would set out confidently to save the world, or some part of it, African felines or babies suffering from malnutrition and dehydration, and they would work out a plan and start a family, no knowing any better, and their life would become a fait accompli before they realized how hard it was, and then, after they realized that, they would do as everyone else does, wake up from their idealism and go on to achieve what they could.”
p. 433.

ISBN: 978-1-4000-3320-1

Book website: Jane Smiley’s website.

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