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

Review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, A Side of Hurricane Katrina You Haven’t Heard


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I began reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, because I wanted to learn about Hurricane Katrina from people who were there when it happened. I had seen the news footage, but this could not come close to telling first-hand accounts: what was it like when the storm hit, how did everyday Americans deal with the devastation, and how were their efforts to rebuild helped or hindered by the U.S. government? Eggers approached the story of the Zeitoun family through a journalistic lens, which delved deep, explaining a struggle a reader may find hard to believe was possible for a family in this country to experience, while finding ways to maintain an empathetic perspective. Due to the author’s decision to tell a story that included both components of non-fiction and empathy, I had mixed reactions as a reader that eventually lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the situation being documented.

Eggers began the story by humanizing the Zeitoun family in the eyes of the readers by depicting a typical family, loving and struggling. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun were written as an American family similar to that of the reader, they highly value family and friends and felt lucky for their good fortune. But, Zeitoun, the father, while kind and well-liked by his wife, children, friends, and patrons of his business, was an Islamic Syrian immigrant. Reading about his five-time-per day prayer schedule and American- born and raised wife Kathy’s insistence on wearing a hijab, I thought, distanced them from a most white American readers. I admit, that as I learned more about Zeitoun’s past in Syria and Kathy’s conversion to Islam, I wondered why this family was chosen as a representation of a ‘New Orleans’ family. The differences between this family and many others were highlighted by the author, because they become essential to the story. They cause the reader to question his or her own stereotypical thinking and to reconsider how these thought processes affect the family and this country at it’s highest levels of government.

The storm arrived, and soon the levees holding back the flood water had broken. Many people were left behind on roofs and in seconds floors of buildings as contaminated water threatened to destroy the foundations of houses and businesses. Zeitoun, a former sailor, ready to battle the water, stayed behind to salvage what was left of the family home and business and to help those left behind. When his actions towards his fellow New Orleanians after the storm were revealed, Zeitoun immediately became an insider as opposed to an outsider in the eyes of the reader; his role became a rescuer, noble and brave. Then, the government sent armed militia into the city, and Zeitoun was arrested, jailed, and eventually imprisoned, all without having been provided Miranda Rights or Due Process. Next, the author combined the reader’s prior feelings of dissociation to Zeitoun due to race and religion with a newly evolved empathic relatability to the man and the unfairness of his situation.

After Zeitoun’s arrest, the reader began to comprehend that the same ideas he or she used to judge the Zeitoun family for being ‘a little less American’ than everybody else were the same stereotypes and racial profiling that the militia used to imprison Zeitoun. The fact that he was an innocent, and a good person, being held by the United States government for no documented crime, made him and his story relatable and terrible. What felt worse as the reality set in for the reader is that any person reading this story could have been a fellow prisoner. Since it could have been any one of us, the story matured into an American story.

Most Americans don’t even consider that horror stories such as this can or do happen in the United States. Still, almost ten years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in more ways than one, we have not escaped other similar stories of our freedoms being infringed upon. So, when we hear about the NSA tapping phone lines or Guantanamo Bay keeping people imprisoned for years without cause, it is stories such as this one that remind people who think they are immune to reassess that perspective.

Final Star Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See


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For me, reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was like adding refreshing new to information to two texts I had previously read: The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and The Three-Inch Golden Lotus by Feng Jicai. All three novels were sad, beautiful, and informative historical fiction texts, which communicated parallel stories of the gender and class struggles of Chinese women from different periods of Chinese history. See’s version was unusual, because it portrayed a woman’s duties towards family and husband as Buck had previously shown, she incorporated descriptions involving the cruelty of foot binding similar to Jicai’s, and she added a unique new component, a secret language for women. These three aspects of her protagonist’s life came together to create a compelling feminist depiction of loss and perseverance in the life of the Chinese woman.

See’s novel is told by the eighty-year-old female narrator, Lily’s, reflections on her life. It is littered with sadness and negativity about her fate, which is inextricably tied to her roles as a woman. From a very young age, she recalls watching her Mother, Aunt, and Edler Sister, accept their roles as women: they must practice Confucian Obediences and Virtues without question (52). The women will be sold for a bride price, give birth to sons, complete housework, live a life of servitude to men; and, an ideal woman practices these tasks silently and suffers invisibly. Lily views experiences modern women would consider joyful as sorrowful. On her wedding day, she recalls thinking: “I truly felt like a bride-afraid, sad, and very scared now to leave my family (109). Her goal is to be loved, but she knows this is unlikely, as most women live without love or feelings of worth in her world. Still, there is a way to obtain a life of stability and recognition that all girls learn from an early age; great value and esteem is awarded the women with the most perfectly bound feet.

The flawless bound foot, the three-inch golden lotus, would earn a women a place in a wealthy family through marriage. Lily had beautifully bound feet and made a good marriage. Thus, she could hope and pray to give her husband sons; and, this would lead to acknowledgement and positive treatment from her new family. But, performing all of a woman’s required responsibilities was no guarantee of the rare gift, Lily was able to find through female companionship. Snow Flower and Lily were matched together as best friends, laotong, or ‘old-sames.’ The two provided each other with hope, comfort, and most essential, love.

Instead of a focusing on the suffering and oppression that Lily and Snow Flower endured year after year, See turned their story into one of hope, love and rebellion. The pair was matched together at a young age, and they were taught nu-shu, a secret language, only spoken and written among women (69). See showed the girls growing into women, able to withstand the seemingly endless turmoils they both faced, through this private mode of communication. Without this support, and more importantly, knowledge that someone loved them, Lily and Snow Flower’s life stories would have been significantly altered.

While The Good Earth and The Three-Inch Golden Lotus were note-worthy and compelling stories that stood alone in the telling of Chinese history, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan blended an equally interesting new element to create a separate story. Learning about ways the lives of women with laotong were similar and different from those women without them, made for a fascinating comparison and contrast. It was nice to think that some women might have experienced optimism as an alternative to hopelessness in their lives.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

More Information:

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: Film (2011)

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


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John Green’s young adult best-seller, The Fault in Our Stars, is a simply written and heartfelt novel that reaches readers through a lightness of prose and personalities of characters, which allow readers to forget about the devastating seriousness of the subject matter. Thus, a story, which involves teenagers struggling with terminal cancer, develops into more of a light romance than the tragedy it could be read as.

The characters of Augustus Waters and Hazel Lancaster are unexpectedly portrayed as hopeful, happy, and inspiring. Readers young or old soon come to know the characters possess a maturity beyond their years as they face challenges we all pray we never have to suffer. Knowing that cancer may lead to death at any time, they contemplate some of life’s most challenging concepts, love, life, the impact a person leaves behind in death, with a sort of fearlessness that this reader admired. Green carefully ties in the wider implications of these concepts to the teen’s interests in society and culture in order to further connect, both the concepts and the characters, to different audiences.

Gus and Hazel use literature, video games, and art as methods of escape and means of achieving greater understanding of what is happening to them and why. Literature, for example, is a way to analyze life, love, and death in the past, present, and future.  The title of the text refers to a line from the Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar, in which they and their favorite author Peter Van Houten contemplate the words: “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars/ But in ourselves” (Green 111).  Similar to many others on Earth, Augustus and Hazel share a fatal flaw, yet they find that loving each other means that they have made an imprint on the world- this is enough. Next, their favorite, third-person shooter,video games Max Payne, can transport them out of time and from experiencing the lives they lead (Green 133). The games are relaxing; and, in the moment, give them power over their circumstances. lastly, art, such as Hazel’s “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe” t-shirt, allows her to experience objective beauty. Despite not knowing when their time will be up on Earth, the lives of these young people are rich with thought and emotion. Green’s lesson to his readers is obvious but useful: anyone can choose to see beauty in the world.

The subject matter of the text could lead to a book that is depressing and unreadable. Instead, the author shows that even when the worst outcomes are possible, people can thrive if they let love and the happiness that life can bring in. Augustus and Hazel choose to remain positive, and together they are able to achieve lives that have meaning, which makes for a story worth reading.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

More Information”

The Fault in Our Stars (film)


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