Review: The Liar by Martin A. Hansen

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Johannes Vig, Sando island school teacher, composes a memoir and history of the island and its peoples. As he tells his own story, the details of the lives of other islanders are combined with his and told as stand-alone tales, to bring the epistolary together. Through the voice of Johannes, the reader comes to understand that the tales he tells, the characterizations and pictures he paints, may or may not be true. The narrator devises notions regarding himself and others, which are a modes of viewing situations and people merely as he wishes to see them. This causes the reader to reflect on the narrator’s perceptions, ideas, and actions. There are two themes which remain present throughout the story: the character of Johannes, a liar, and the ways in which his writing reflects the actions and personalities of other islanders and all people.

Hansen’s title, The Liar, intentionally leads the reader to constantly consider the concept of truth within the pages of his masterpiece. The reader soon becomes aware of the many forms of deception, which flawed protagonist Johannes, uses with himself and others. Many are, perhaps, unintentional, and, at times, difficult to detect. Through his isolation and loneliness, over time Johannes lies more and more to himself and those around him as he: tries to please others, remain a good school teacher and parish clerk, gain the attention of the island’s women, and portray the history of the island accurately in his writing. As the story continues, the reader begins to question reasons, definitions, and values of the idea of truth.

What is the intention of the author in depicting a lonely man building a real and imaginary world on lies? The reader begins to view Johannes’, histories and relationships not in black and white, but rather in a shade of gray. When Johannes lies to himself to feel better or feels uncertain about his faith in God, he becomes more complex, more human. Hansen shows the reader that Johannes is not bad and he’s certainly not alone in his struggle to exist in a way he can accept.

The Liar reminds a reader that lies are not always what they seem; lies defend, alter and mend a person’s experiences. From these alternative perspectives, memories, change, isolation, and loneliness can be more manageable. Applying these notions both in Hansen’s text and one’s own life can be an altering and inspiring opportunity.

 

Star Rating 4 out of 5 stars

Review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

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In Dear Life by Alice Munro, a collection of fourteen short stories gives the impression that themes which range from the past, memory, loss, winter, and death, are used to describe a dark, lonely, and wanting side of life. Each story is interwoven to reflect and influence the others. Each character with his or her unique qualities can be viewed as experiencing the pain of a similar and at the same time different existence. By depicting one salient meeting or interaction upon which the rest of the story is built, the author creates a unique person, life, world.

In many of the stories there is a sense of looming or foreboding that is depicted in various ways ranging from tone, setting, and characterization. The first line of each story isolates the subject matter and sends the message to the reader that uncertainty is the only guarantee. In “Amundsen,” for example, Munro’s first line is, “On the bench outside the station I sat and waited.” (31). The author follows up her unsettled tone in her introductions with bleak surroundings, including freezing cold Canadian winters, which further suggest isolation, desolation, and, immobility. Finally, characters who experience loneliness while in the presence of others or characters who experience loss of life, love, or friendship, solidify the overall message the author looks to convey.

Since Munro overlaps her tone, settings, and themes so beautifully, she is able to weave together her stories in ways which fully utilize literary devices; the stories and characters stand alone and combine to create a cohesive whole. In retrospect, a reader can see in “Amundsen,” the complexity of a young teacher who meets her first love and the ways in which the loss of the love, for example, relates to other experiences of loss in the text (Munro 31-67). Pieces of the literary puzzle combine, so that in the end, the reader develops several isolated ideas from single stories in addition to the more holistic themes included within the text.

Although this text is about dark subjects, there are still positive aspects that can be pulled from it, which blend to make it remarkable. Not only is it written by a seasoned professional, the overall message she provides is one of connections people make in an instant. She writes of those experiences, good or bad, which alter a person. She shows that life’s greatest circumstances always come with a lesson, if one is reflective.

Final Star Rating: 4 out of 5

 

Review: Total Recovery: Solving the Mystery of Chronic Pain and Depression by Dr. Gary Kaplan

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I learned about Gary Kaplan’s book, Total Recovery:Solving the Mystery of Chronic Pain and Depression, in a Women’s Health article, which summarized the contents and importance of the book. That same day I placed the book on hold at the library thinking maybe more than just the summary would be helpful? This topic, when covered in the thorough and educational manner the author presents it, can be useful to all people, because we have all experienced physical and emotional pain. According to Kaplan, this pain can be linked to future difficulties if left untreated. The text is separated into three parts: Part I: Asking New Questions, Part II: Solving the Mystery, and Part:III: The Path to Total Recovery. Kaplan encourages his reader to consider how he or she first started feeling unwell and what it means to stay unwell without treatment; he discusses the implications of new scientific evidence that the brain becomes inflamed with each new emotional and physical trauma and he provides a list of treatment methods used at Kaplan Center,his integrative medicine facility.

In each chapter of the text, Kaplan uses case studies, to help the reader better comprehend the subject matter he is discussing. He begins with the example of Billy, a teenager who was in a skiing accident and had ACL surgery. After the surgery Billy is incapacitated with pain. (p. 3-32) It takes seeing numerous specialists, years of pain, suffering, and testing, for Dr. Kaplan to conclude that Billy’s pain is not the result of one injury, but of several, which have inflamed the glial cells in his brain, which are designed to protect, but often times become overactive after being subjected to years of  injuries, leading to headache, dizziness, and achiness all over. (p. 96) Once it is understood how pain is amplified by the brain, the author discusses ways in which physical and mental components of the body are interrelated.

Kaplan writes about emerging science and his own struggle to make connections between physical pain and mental disorders. With each new case that is presented, the doctor and reader see a pattern of emotional and physical injury the body has tried to cope with maladaptively in different people: migraines, acute pain, brain fog, depression, fibromyalgia, anxiety disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, PTSD. (p.105) Kaplan shows that the treatment plan must also be integrative, or a whole body approach, as opposed to treating only Billy’s ACL injury. (p. 26-28) One problem compounds another. Also, the importance of treating the inflammation of glial cells; and, therefore the symptoms, is discussed in terms of neurodegeneration. (p. 52) This means that the longer an issue, such as past trauma or acute pain remains untreated, the worse it and it’s comorbid disorders will become. Next, Kaplan provides individualized information about treating emotional and physical pain.

What can a person who experiences an array of physical and emotional discomforts do to fight them? Kaplan provides the website of his integrative medicine practice and a link to a timeline, like the one he uses with his patients, to start your exploration into your past. Using the chart you will plot the occurrences and dates of physical and emotional stressors, and eventually, determine which issues have been treated or resolved, and which ones might be having lingering effects on your body. He also includes a list of recommendations to try, in order to reduce inflammation in the brain. These things include, non-inflammatory vitamins like magnesium, vitamin-D, and omega-3’s, dark chocolate, a gluten free diet, avoidance of stimulants, such as sleep aids, NSAIDS, and caffeine, probiotics, green tea, regular exercise, and daily meditation. (p. 191-203) This may seem like a lot of things to do or change, but how much are you willing to sacrifice to feel well?

This text provided a lot of practical and educational background helpful in solving a problem I have been experiencing most of my life. I can imagine that many others could benefit, if not from all, then at least in part, from the knowledge provided by Dr. Kaplan. Although I have known for years that I might need to do some of the things recommended in this text, I never have. The research-based material, spoke to the logic in me, and made me realize I need to change for my health, not only now, but in the future.

 

Star Rating 4 out of 5 Stars

Review: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

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Super Sad True Love Story is a novel filled with both positive and negative aspects, which induced similar emotions for me as I read through its pages. It contained a certain visionary prose and plot that I enjoyed and admired pondering; Shteyngart placed his characters amidst a world in chaos after fall of American commerce and government, in which Asia, Europe, and High Net Worth Individuals possessed complete control. I did not particularly like nor relate to the communications and retail hungry main characters and lovers, Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, as their personalities and actions made them difficult to comprehend; but, I came to understand that these traits and actions were relevant and necessary within the context of text.

Throughout the novel the reader has a sense that he or she is viewing the dystopic future. Through the perspectives of Lenny, Eunice, and their friends and family, a series of diary entries and internet messages are read, which unveil the struggles of different people to keep living as the world around them constantly evolves. Lenny’s job helping rich individuals live forever and his own obsession with immortality serve as a backdrop and even metaphor for greater cultural, economical and political issues. With government imploding, people losing jobs, possessions, lives, one must question the point of living not only forever, but in the moment. Lenny and Eunice never seemed to analyze the existential questions too deeply, as they were always concerned with things that didn’t really matter.

Lenny, Eunice, and the other characters in the novel were so self-centered and misguided that it was easy to dislike them as a reader, and it was even more difficult to relate to their struggles. Time and again, it was hard and uncomfortable to imagine making similar decisions in these scenarios, such as Lenny and Eunice spending 11,000 yuan dollars on clothing, while their own families were in need. I often felt upset about how selfish, materialistic, immature, they acted. But, perhaps this was the point Shteyngart meant to make; humanity has these tendencies to cling to the unimportant in the most essential times and places. I can’t decide if this makes the human race disgusting or beautiful. Maybe the author couldn’t either?

In the end, Shteyngart was successfully innovative and exploratory when he penned Super Sad True Love Story. Although I didn’t fully immerse myself in the story while I read it, in retrospect I can see it’s positive aspects and unique qualities, which might draw in readers looking for something a little bit different. Who knows, in fifty years, this might be the next Nineteen Eighty-Four.

 

Final Star Rating: 3 out of 5

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

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When I began reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, I thought it would be solely about what the title and cover description implied, a little girl experiencing the emotions of her mother through the food her mother makes. But this novel ended up being so much more; Rose Edelstein’s special ability to feel what other people do through food extends beyond her mother or the short-term illness she hopes it is, and it continues for the rest of her life. With this magical skill, Rose begins to understand her life, the people in it in, and how they are interwoven, in creative and inciteful ways.

Rose discovers that her mother is not only her mother, but a living, breathing, suffering being. Rose must accept that the person she thought she knew, the people we all think we know, are not the true people, rather they are our own creations.  A once happy and uncomplicated mother is now complex and very unhappy, but she is more real.

Her father doesn’t cook, so Rose doesn’t taste his emotions, but she learns to be more perceptive because of her ability and to examine his behaviors and emotions so that she relates to him differently, too. The dad who is distant and unemotional can also be seen as someone with a past, which has influenced his current actions. His behaviors, such as refusing to enter hospitals no longer seem so black and white.

Rose’s brother, Joseph, exhibits bizarre behaviors, which become a little more understandable within the context of her own and her family member’s struggles over the years. With a noted interest over several years, Rose slowly examines a boy and then adolescent, who seems merely anti-social, strange, and distant, but who also, eventually, becomes a little less of an enigma.

This creative and touching story of a unique family struggling to get by, told from the lens of a sweet, intelligent, wounded, little girl, is like all stories of families, both happy and sad. The author keeps it interesting and readable throughout with innovative characters and touches of magical realism. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

STAR RATING: 3 out of 5

Review: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

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Tom Perrotta’s latest fictional work, The Leftovers, has a fascinating premise: something similar to the biblical Rapture occurs around the world; and, a few million people disappear. While the stories of survivors are heavy-hearted and difficult, the prose flows with the kind of readability that keeps a reader focused and guessing about the creative and disturbing events, which take place for characters who remain on Earth post-Rapture.

The storylines are creative, because the reader is left to consider: where did the people go, why are the people who are left behind the ones who did not disappear, and what would he or she do if a similar event took place today? Perrotta’s inventiveness is exceptional, because it encourages analysis from reader’s, which extends beyond consideration of the occurrences within the text. Instead, readers are able to combine fiction and reality to devise their own “what if” scenario as the novel continues. Larger concepts and lives of characters are examined in detail by reader and author together.

Perrotta’s answers to these questions keep a reader occupied and interested, because the reader knows he or she would long for answers to these same lingering questions, which are both disturbing and uncertain; a reader can relate to the lost, lonely, and vulnerable qualities woven into the characters.  Where did the missing go? No one knows where they are, they seem to have disintegrated into thin air, and this leaves those left behind feeling incomplete and confused. Why were the missing chosen and others left on Earth? Those taken were multi-denominational, all ages, races, so the survivors can’t draw a perfect parallel to the Rapture, but the resemblance is close enough to leave them with the notion God has passed them by. Finally what should they do now? The reactions of the survivors range from political, mental illness, crime, to religious extremes, such as the forming of cults. As reader’s we can imagine this world full of anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness; thus, we can easily picture the scenarios Perrotta envisions.

For those who enjoy alternate depictions of the the world, the novel is a solid combination of fantasy, originality, and personality, delivered in the form of well-written and imaginative prose.What might normally seem dark and dreary subject matter is saved by the possibilities that linger throughout. Tom Perrotta has constructed a great piece of fiction with The Leftovers.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

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Reading Maya Angelou’s memoir, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” was an enjoyable, rewarding, and inspiring experience, which drew me in as a reader, leading me to consider the deeper meaning behind the resonating title and the significance of human suffering. Angelou traveled back in time, writing from the perspective of her own girlhood and adolescence, yet she was able to convey her past experiences with the clarity, maturity, and wisdom of a seasoned adult novelist. Not only was Angelou able to portray her own difficult circumstances through the lens of her past, she also used her unique point of view to acutely observe the oppression experienced by those around her. As I read these observations I constantly thought about the title words, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” and the poetical ways in which they unfolded as the text continued, to become increasingly recognizable and relatable. In the end, I felt that I too, knew why we all struggle and fight to “sing,” regardless of the obstacles in our paths.

Often times while reading this text, I was struck by the ability of the author to communicate adult ideas and observations as she told the story of her youth. The reflective nature of the memoir, enabled Angelou to analyze her own and other people’s situations with a special sort of understanding. She discussed issues that closely impacted her, from her own turmoil with rape and later teenage pregnancy, to the struggles of her nuclear family with racism. She also noted the difficulties of those in the world around her: the Japanese citizens forced into internment camps, negative views of lesbians in society, and the hard lives of people living in the junkyard she once inhabited. Since Angelou used both her past and present self to evaluate the intricacies of pain and suffering, as a reader, I was able to comprehend and share in these experiences in a rare way. This ability of author and reader to dissect the concept of oppression together, gave the title a particular significance.

The idea of various forms of oppression which are experienced by different people, by all people in time, naturally leads the reader back to the title: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” This notion was so inspiring in the context of the text, because we find as readers, that we all struggle, but we can choose to keep singing. Somehow there was a sense of belonging and connectedness that was attached to the turning of the last page of this memoir.

“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” is a perfect title; it is a testament to the story and an inspiration, in spite of struggles the the author is projecting. It also communicates a positive message without diminishing the human plight. I believe people of all kinds owe it to themselves to share in the experience of reading this text.

Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

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Humans are united by experiences that link us together; life, death, love, loss, struggles and pain are things we like to be assured that others feel too. A narrator who tells a story which combines these shared experiences while showing how he also possesses unique perspectives, such as Abraham Verghese does in Cutting for Stone, is able to grab hold of a reader’s attention and keep it. Protagonist narrator Marion Stone’s stories shift from past to present through a series of flashbacks that eventually come together to explain the ways in which a life can be shaped by both other people’s and our own decisions.

Cutting for  Stone begins with Marion trying to piece together the circumstances preceding and resulting in his and his twin brother Shiva’s birth. Through this first story of many, the reader is drawn in by the dramatic occurrences of love, life, death, and deep loss through which the twins are brought into the world. Their parents, an Indian born nun, Mary Joseph Praise, and British surgeon, Thomas Stone, carry on a secret affair at the Ethiopian mission hospital where they work. Mary struggles through a painful birth in which she does not survive. Thomas is devastated and he abandons his newborn sons to the mercy of the other hospital staff.

As the stories continue to multiply alongside the tale of the twins growing up, the reader is introduced to the concept of nuclear and extended histories and present events which fuse to weave the fates of Marion, Shiva, family, and friends. The narrator focuses on the happy and unique family life he and Shiva share as they are raised by two Indian doctors at the hospital, Hema, a gynecologist, and Ghosh, an internal medicine doctor. Through the lens of everyday experiences and family, explanations about where and how the boy’s lives were molded become clear: they follow in the footsteps of their parents to practice medicine, they see the people of Addis Ababa are poor and suffering, their family is torn apart by the inevitable uprising of citizens against corrupt governments, they learn about cultural practices of native Ethiopians. This life and what it entails causes the first-world reader to feel empathy, and simultaneously, to appreciate the uncommon aspects of the novel’s contents.

Verghese is successful in his authoring of Cutting for Stone; because, people enjoy reading about universal subjects and experiences, which are received best, when stories are both relatable and foreign at the same time. The fact that throughout the novel the reader is able to maintain a sense of closeness with the narrator, while also knowing how exceptional many of the moments and coincidences of Marion’s life are, shows how well the book is written.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5

 

Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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The Language of Flowers is narrated by Victoria, whose story alternates between a challenging past as a foster child and a present in which she struggles to get by as young woman, recently sent out on her own by her long-time social worker, Meredith. Victoria is challenged by memories she believes have come together to define her personality and change her life. Her stories flow together to explain how an orphan who moved from one foster home to another eventually arrived at her ideal home and found love with a woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth teaches her to express emotion through the Victorian “language of flowers.” While Victoria’s struggles with poverty and loneliness are interesting, the outcomes were expected and predictable, while the concept of the language of flowers was ultimately the highlight of the text.

From the onset of this story, a reader doesn’t expect a book which was praised as heart-warming and romantic to be the sad story of foster child, moving from one home to another, year after year, unhappy, confused and alone. I wanted a different protagonist, with more initiative for change, despite what I knew about Victoria’s upbringing and how it might lead to negative future behaviors. Her past unfolds and reasons for her solitude are revealed.  But none of it was a surprise, and both people involved and outcomes were too easy to decipher.

As story shifted from past to present, Diffenbaugh interweaves significance of the language of flowers into Victoria’s life. Her foster mother Elizabeth had once taught her to use this language, and Victoria had continued the tradition as a young adult, working at a flower shop preparing bouquets. She remembers first learning how Victorians used dictionaries to express ideas and emotions with flowers; each one had a corresponding meaning. Along with the author’s first explanation of the language of flowers, my expectations for its incorporation into the text were high. In the end I didn’t love the story that was attached to the brilliant idea.

I believe that this was a decent story, that many people might enjoy. It may not have warranted the criticism I gave it, but it was not the story I wanted to read when I read it. I guess I just wanted a different kind of love story and romance than was attached to idea of the language of flowers.

Final Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Review: Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

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Journey by Moonlight is the story of Mihaly’s struggle to decide if he has made the right decision in marrying Erzsi, which he has done to satisfy family and social conventions. Soon, the inner layers of his struggles are revealed and lead him to question why can’t he conform as he is drawn further toward obsessions with the past, darkness, and death. When he turns his search for answers inward, he journeys through Italy’s alleys and passage ways by night, eventually determining that reverting back to death is the answer. The author, Szerb, uses unique character traits expressed through Mihaly and his friends, Tomas, Eva, and Janos, to discuss his main argument: civilization has made our past and death taboo subjects as opposed to humans viewing these concepts as the natural parts of life they once were. Instead, universal human experiences are now taught to be encountered with grief, melancholy and eventually forgetfulness. The protagonist Mihaly’s story shows the reader the results of humans treating loss and death as foreign occurrences which might lead to loneliness, depression and in extreme cases, suicide.

The reader is made to feel life experiences through the lens of Mihaly’s thoughts and actions. For good and bad, after Mihaly is married and meets friends from his past on his honeymoon in Italy, as a reader I could completely relate to his notions of a ‘private past’ that could only ever be shared with those who lived it too. No matter how much he explained what happened in his past life to his wife, she could never truly comprehend. This concept reminded me that there is a certain sadness that goes along with lost moments and people from our past, they will never return. So too, could I relate to Mihaly’s notions that a sense of foreboding and death followed these lost experiences, like a ceaseless shadow.

Szerb makes the case that a deep gloom, stemming from the past leading to dark thoughts and behaviors, draws Mihaly like a magnet to journey alone into the deep alleyways of Italy by moonlight. It is the disconnect between past and present that causes a sadness to persist, following him where he travels. The reader begins to make connections among the author’s strategically placed themes regarding Goethe’s Werther and Italian Journey and how they relate not only to the protagonist, but to the human life cycle. Szerb intelligently points out, “So when we die we are born again…do you follow? (215)  For this reason, the reader understands that Mihaly is in search of death, which would lead him back to birth,  and series of forgotten experiences. Thus, as a reader we come to understand how ignorant we are to have failed to notice this disconnect between Mihaly’s and our own strong desires, darknesses and what society would lead us to believe about life and death.

The dual forces of Szerb and Mihaly combine to make readers think about individual and societal notions of past, present, and future. The manners in which subjective conceptions like time, memory, and life itself are presented, lead to a new understand that they can be viewed positively or negatively, accepted or declined based upon each person’s chosen perspective. So, readers can learn from these new approaches, then, consider, interpret, and create their own conclusions.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 4 Stars

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