Friday, May 17, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra - TLC Book Review

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Hogarth, 2013

Source? the publisher via TLC Book Tours
**FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in exchange for a review.  However, the review below and the opinions within are my own and offered without bias.

Title? a dictionary definition of life...perfect.

Cover? eh...gray matter with hidden trees...I'm not sure what I would have done differently, but the promise of an extraordinary story pulled me in for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena rather than the cover.  

I was reminded of?  The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Why?  Wars I don't know much about...a narrative about the human spirit against all odds, survivors...bring it.

What Now? I'm going to let this one rest a while and then I'm going to pick up two books recommended by the author:
The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire and A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya

Golden Lines

The gerontology department had been closed in the first war due to a scarcity of resources and the general consensus that prolonging the lives of the elderly was a peacetime enterprise (43).

She had to harden him, to teach him that saving a life and nurturing a life are different processes, and that to succeed in the former one must dispense with the pathos of the latter (48).

At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice.  Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared (120)

"There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family, then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren't even a memory, you're only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well." (124)

"I've amputated one thousand six hundred and forty-three legs.  You've done three, and you think you have the right to diagnose me?" (161)

Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly.  Life: a constellation of vital phenomena - organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaption. (184)

The Parkinson's that would turn him into a quivering jelly mold in eleven years was already fermenting in his midbrain, but his hands didn't shake when he went to light his cigarette (195).

"War is unnatural," Akhmed said.  "It causes people to act unnaturally" (201).

For nearly two years he had worked as an informer for the state security forces.  He had given up neighbors who had wished him a happy birthday every year of his life.  And still he believed himself the victim as much as the perpetrator of his crimes (240).

Yes, they would likely be shot if discovered by the Feds or state security forces, but that could happen as easily in Eldar or Volchansk, in their homes or in the street, while they slept, or while they played chess, a fate so likely to befall a Checken man it seemed silly to worry about it too much (244).

Khassan walked to the door, opened it to the wind.  He looked back. Ramzan watched him, as frozen and impenetrable as a winter pond.  You are mine.  I recognize you.  We twist our souls around each other's miseries.  It is that which makes us family (292).

God, like everything kind and good, lived in London (318-319).

The second bullet put a hole in her chest, and she felt her breath leave, but neither the third, nor fourth, nor fifth, nor sixth, nor seventh, nor eighth, nor ninth, nor tenth, nor eleventh, nor twelfth, nor thirteenth, nor fourteenth, nor fifteenth, nor sixteenth, nor seventeenth was seen, or felt, or heard (348).

Short and Sweet Summary

Over the course of 5 days in Chechnya, the lives of Havaa, her father Dokka, Havaa's rescuer, Akhmed, the surgeon, Sonja, the memory of Sonja's sister, Natasha, Khassan and his son, the informer, Ramzen, will all intertwine in magical, yet heartbreaking, realistic ways.  
Hospital #6

What I Liked

The words - I'm a lover of words...and as corny as it sounds, I can read a good book like some people listen to Mozart...that's the kind of book this is, one you read for the story but also for the experience, one you return to just to read pieces over and over again.  On pages 138-140, there is a section describing what family's feel after they look at their missing family member's portrait as drawn by Akhmed.  The sentence is a swirling, whirlpool of words, where the reader rides all the way down to the deep and can see how the literal "constellation of vital phenomena" takes shape...yes, it's one sentence...and I read it over and over and over again.  I even went back and read it again before discussing it here...just for the ride.  Now that's a book.

Sonja and Havaa - survivors

War - the truth - so much of history is glazed over, hidden from view.  I don't know whether it's on purpose or not, but I think we find ourselves repeating the same mistakes when we forget or, for those of us who never experienced certain events, are not paying attention.  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place during my lifetime, but I might as well have been reading ancient history as familiar as this story of war-torn Chechnya is to me.  

A hospital story - heroin as a painkiller because morphine is too expensive, one doctor running an entire hospital, using black market supplies, amputation as the most commonly performed procedure, 

The humor - mixed within the horrors of war, there are laughs...many of my favorites were glimpses of how the protagonists view American culture, the little they knew of it.  I was blown away by a conversation that Sonja and Akhmed have about American presidents and the rise and fall of power here as compared to their own country.  The idea of McDonalds through the eyes of non-Americans is also hilarious.

The glimpses into the future of many of the characters both big and small.  

The circle of lives and how they story comes back together again...brilliant.

The secrets - the secrets are buried, believed, and accepted.  They don't define any of the characters nor do the characters let the secrets fester.  It's war.  

What I Didn't Like

That this story is a true one for so many people...while many of us were living "normal" lives in the U.S.  Did we know?  Once more, I've got a lot more reading to do.

Ramzen - but then, just as soon as I type his name, I feel guilty.  What would any of us in his shoes do differently?   What would any of us in any of these characters' shoes do differently?

Overall Recommendation

This isn't a "happy" story by any means, so if that's what you're looking for, you might want to look elsewhere.  But, if you're looking for a vivid description of the daily lives of a group of very normal people from 1994-2004 in Chechnya, a story in which the indomitable human spirit and sacrifice as well as making choices where there isn't an obvious right and wrong answer are strong themes, then this is your next read. 

The Author

Other Stops on the Tour
Monday, May 6th:  An Excellent Library
Tuesday, May 7th:  Caribousmom
Wednesday, May 8th:  A Bookish Affair
Thursday, May 9th:  Unabridged Chick
Friday, May 10th:  Luxury Reading
Monday, May 13th:  Book Hooked Blog
Tuesday, May 14th:  Broken Teepee
Wednesday, May 15th:  BookChickDi
Thursday, May 16th:  The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Friday, May 17th:  Peppermint Ph.D.
Monday, May 20th:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, May 21st:  Speaking of Books
Wednesday, May 22nd:  Chaotic Compendiums
Thursday, May 23rd:  Knowing the Difference
Friday, May 24th:  The Relentless Reader
Tuesday, May 28th:  Book Chatter
Thursday, May 30th:  Books Speak Volumes
Monday, June 3rd:  Booklover Book Reviews
Wednesday, June 5th:  Rhapsody in Books 


  1. Wonderful review, Patti! Your descriptions of this book are riveting and intense, and I do think I'd also enjoy or get a lot from this book, which presents the "indomitable human spirit".

    1. Thanks so much, Suko..."riveting and intense" are perfect descriptions for this story so I'm glad I could do it some justice. A must read!

  2. No, not easy to read at all but it was one I was glad I read for its power. Horrifying really what people do to and are forced to do to other people.

    1. We all like to think we wouldn't do certain things...but in Ramzen's situation, which choice is the "right" choice? A powerful read for sure!

  3. I like this one but I CANNOT get through it. It's so slow to me! I am only halfway done and I have been reading it for weeks. I am on the tour and I will finish it for sure but man... I need a turbo boost or something.

    1. I didn't feel like it was slow, Ti...but it is definitely not an easy read. I think I read in another review that the reviewer needed to read some and give herself time to digest before moving on. That makes sense to me as well. The subject matter is intense, no doubt.

  4. I'm hearing such amazing things about this book! I can't wait to read it myself.

    Thanks for being a part of this tour.

    1. I sooooo enjoyed this one, Heather! You definitely need to read it!