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Notable Books

Notable Books | Four recent novels reviewed by Susan Olasky

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

Cutting for Stone

With the breadth of a 19th-century novel and a plot too complicated to summarize here, this novel chronicles family fracture and professional dedication as it travels from India to Ethiopia and then to America, along the way encompassing years of political upheaval. We see the bustling life of a mission hospital in Ethiopia, the nursing nun who becomes pregnant and delivers conjoined twins and dies, their skilled surgeon-father who abandons them, and the doctors who raise them, passing on their love of medicine to the boys, who also become doctors. Cutting for Stone is warm and earthy-it includes clinical descriptions of medical procedures performed on the human body-but also spiritual, with characters acknowledging that more exists than can be seen and touched.

Room

Five year-old Jack calls the 11 x 11 shed in which he lives with Ma, "Room." The floor covering is "Rug" and the opening through which "Old Nick" comes at night is "Door." From the beginning of this novel, Donoghue alerts the reader that something is odd about their existence, a feeling reinforced by her choosing to tell the story in the present tense from Jack's point of view. As the story unfolds, the reader increasingly grasps the horror of their true situation: Ma has been held hostage for more than six years and Jack is the result of a rape by her captor. Ma has created a benign illusion to protect her son, so when they escape Jack needs to learn about a world he never knew existed.

My Hollywood

Hollywood may be a city of dreams, but not always sweet ones. In alternating chapters, Simpson portrays life from the point of view of her two main characters: Claire, a mother who composes serious music and is married to a writer, and Lola, a nanny working in America to pay for her daughter's medical school tuition back in the Philippines. This story of sacrifice and ambition is also about what matters, and how we often don't know what matters until we lose it. A large cast of characters weighs down the plot, but this comes through: The Americans don't know how to care for their children, and the Filipina nannies don't get the chance to care for their own.

A Cup of Friendship

Rodriguez (author of Kabul Beauty School, a memoir) has now written a chick-lit novel obviously drawn from her Afghan experiences-but the genre doesn't fit the seriousness of the subject, women's oppression. By making an American café the novel's hub and its owner the protagonist, and by tying up all the romantic loose ends at novel's end, Rodriguez has given us a silly book, not a satisfying one. I don't usually take up space to pan a novel, but The Kite Runner and Three Cups of Tea have left readers eager for engaging books about Afghanistan. This isn't one of them, and its failure is intensified by casual sex and swearing that seem entirely gratuitous to the story.

Spotlight

Surprise: For the past several months George W. Bush's Decision Points has topped The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of top-selling books on college campuses.

No surprise: WORLD columnist Janie Cheaney and former children's book editor Emily Whitten have launched a good book blog for Christian parents and teachers called Redeemed Reader (redeemedreader.com). Both are experienced homeschoolers aiming "to help older kids and grown-ups with the task of 'thinking Christianly' about what they read-as well as evaluating and selecting good literature."

Generally engaging: Susan Cheever's Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography (Simon and Schuster, 2010) has too much about Cheever and the burdens she feels, but it does convey a sense of Alcott's world and her immersion in every cutting-edge movement of the day. Cheever clearly knows little about the Puritans-ignore what she says about them-but has nice things to say about my favorite Alcott book, An Old Fashioned Girl.

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