Monthly Archives: February 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This was the last book that I read as I returned from my winter vacation with my family, so perhaps it is fitting that it is the first of the many books that I write about for Book Baristas.  I found this book to be beautifully written and very thoughtful.  Paul Kalanithi was, from a very young age, trying to understand what it meant to be human.  He achieved  many different degrees of  higher learning in the pursuit of what was meant to give his life passion. The title, When Breath Becomes Air,  which is paraphrased from a verse in Caelica, a 17th century poem by Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “You that seek what life is in death, Now find it air that once was breath”, is a particularly fitting one.  This book, which which gives an intimate look at one man’s highs and lows, has two distinct parts, the first is about a young man becoming a doctor, a husband and the second is about a patient facing the very thing he trained years to defeat-death.

Everyday, as a doctor, Kalanithi faced life and death decisions, as a patient, Kalanithi uses all the the same intensity that propelled him to the top of his field in Neurology, to discover the meaning of his new terminal diagnosis.   As he did in graduate school  he reads, books about death-Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, anything he can find that might help him orient himself in his newly defined world.  Searching for the words to make sense death. To somehow try and find a new sense of himself, so he could move forward knowing there was a new, revised finite end.  Paul did not finish his book.  Although you wouldn’t know it.  Where Paul’s part ends and his wife Lucy’s epilogue begins seems right. Paul’s last message is to his young daughter and it is a simple one:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

Paul Kalanithi lived right up until March 9, 2015.  Paul gifted us with this uncompromising look at one human’s struggle with mortality.  This book made me stop and think about what was really important to me.  In a time where so many of us are looking down at small screens- considering what gives your life meaning and joy is not such a bad thing.  This book pulsated with life. I feel privileged to have been allowed to know Mr. Kalanithi at least a little, through this book.  One thing’s for sure, when Paul came to the time in his life when he had to ” provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world” his ledger would have  been  full,  for the way in which he tried to live his life, for the things he did big and small and for what he meant to the people he touched.


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The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig

I love to walk into a historic building or a really old house, and think of who lived there.  What were they like?  Who did they love?  What is their story?  The Forgotten Room is the novel form of one of those curious visits, bringing to life the stories of three women: Olive, a housemaid in 1892, her daughter Lucy, a secretary in 1920, Kate, a nurse and Lucy’s daughter in 1945.  The chapters rotate through their points of view.  While written by three different authors, the writing is generally smooth enough to make me forget three women wrote this book.  I will say it did take me a few chapters to understand the depth of the relationships and connections between the generations.  That technique, is in fact, one of the great things about this book.  I also found myself flipping ahead occasionally, looking for resolution and not wanting to be left hanging about a particular character through two more chapters!

Olive, Lucy and Kate are the people, the Pratt Mansion is the place.  Today, the Pratt Mansion is a posh wedding venue.  Here is a brief description and a few pictures.

Pratt Mansions Fifth Avenue is an elegant New York City landmark located directly across from the Metropolitan Museum. The perfect venue for weddings, parties, meetings, private events and other special occasions, this unique event space on Manhattan’s Upper East Side combines the grandeur of a mansion with the warmth of a gracious home.

1027 – Pratt Mansion: Designed by the architectural firm of Van Vleck and Goldsmith, and built on speculation for Benjamin Williams between 1901 and 1903, the milk-white façade of 1027 Fifth Avenue was unusual even by the standards of Gilded Age extravagance. An article appearing in the New York Times described 1027 as a mansion “on a magnificent scale,” the most expensive house built for sale in New York when it was erected. Once completed, Williams sold it to George Crawford Clark, a banker, for $540,000. In 1919, the mansion was purchased by Herbert Lee Pratt who, like his father before him, was a leading figure in the U.S. oil industry. When he became head of Standard Oil Company of New York in 1923 he appeared on the cover of Time.

(images and description courtesy of

While there are definitely some liberties taken with Harry Pratt and his mansion, I think using a real place added to the plot.  If you like historical fiction, and you like a good romance (but not a bodice ripper), give The Forgotten Room a try.  Come summer, this will be the perfect book for the beach or pool.


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Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinner Time by Ree Drummond


Ree Drummond.  I met her through her Thanksgiving turkey techniques and have never once doubted the benefits of her influence on my cooking.

One of the things I love about the library happens around 11:00 – 11:30 each day.  The desk staff stomachs start grumbling and we look forward to what we are making for dinner.  Between patrons (and often with patrons),  we share recipes, talk about how they worked out and who liked them, and make shopping lists.  It is a great time to peruse cookbooks, and the beauty of our 3 week check out period/preview is a chance to cook a few recipes and decide if the cookbook is one to own or just borrow occasionally.  The popularity of some cookbooks, the good reviews, the number of times they are featured on talk shows…it all goes to the borrow or buy question.  I will say, when Ree Drummond comes out with a book, it is a BUY!  This is a fantastic cookbook!  A great selection of recipes, delicious but not too time-consuming or complicated, pictures to show you step by step what to expect (and what a delight to find your cream sauce turning into something very like the picture!) and a very helpful feature: what to pair recipes with and options for varying recipes based on taste and pantry.  These meals are family and friend pleasers.   Ree’s own family stories are shared throughout the book, making it almost like she is at the circulation desk helping us decide what to make for dinner.  “Simple, Scrumptious, Step by Step” says it all.

Beef Stroganoff, spicy cauliflower stir fry, lemony green beans, beautiful roasted vegetables, baked ziti, cheesy cauliflower soup, tuna noodle and chicken noodle casserole, chicken with mustard cream sauce…all such delicious takes on classic dinners.  It is February.  Fall in love with family dinners.

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The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Love, love, loved this book!!!

In 1959, Paul and his young family are transferred to Idaho Falls. We meet them on their two week plus hot car ride across the country.  You will feel hot and sweaty and grubby until they stop for a swim.  Then, you will feel refreshed, and be glad for the swim.

When they arrive in Idaho Falls,  Paul will begin work at the nuclear reactor-one of the first in the United States, and Nat will raise their two girls and take care of things at home. Unfortunately, Paul discovers some dangerous conditions at the reactor, but is under pressure not to report them, and Nat discovers other ways to combat her loneliness and boredom.  Told from alternating points of view, mostly Paul’s and Nat’s, and based on a real situation at a small nuclear reactor in Idaho Falls in 1961, The Longest Night endeavors to bring to light some of the fascinating early American nuclear history.

Here is what I liked:  I love Nat as a mother, balancing expectations of her as a military wife with what she believes is best for her young children.  She is modern in her approach to parenting and yet is wonderfully 1950s as well. Paul reminds me of a boss I once had, a retired Navy man, who led with great organization and attentiveness to reporting and a patient kindness that we see in Paul with his children.  Both Paul and Nat struggle with what the right thing to do is, and both feel the repercussions of their struggle, and ultimately their choices.  The Longest Night was a page turner for me–on hand for every free minute!


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