Review: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

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The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom is a popular self-help best-seller, in which the author guides the reader through the four most salient and life changing ideas or mantras rooted in Toltec traditions. Ruiz breaks the short book, which is 137 pages with large font, into eight chapters. These include each of the four agreements: Be Impeccable with Your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best. His agreements are insightful and undoubtedly helpful anchors for people either seeking new information to improve their quality of life or readers seeking reminders of things they already know, which encourage following a healthy and enjoyable life path. The explanations for the agreements are insightful and worth considering for every person. We tend to think we are alone in our struggles, but the truth is we could all use some advice about how to think outside of ourselves and feel better. Instead of appreciating all the positive aspects of the book, readers may experience a disconnect between information and narrative flow. The author comes off as an uncertain and inexperienced writer.

It is easy to understand why this book is popular; Ruiz cultivates meaningful messages with his four agreements. Throughout the text Ruiz teaches reasons about how and why following the agreements can be essential to living a happy life. For example, when explaining why we should not take things personally, Ruiz rationalizes that we cause our own suffering, anger resentment, and misunderstanding by assuming that other people think or act because of us. “We are all living our own dream,” he says. He shows readers new ways to consider their perceptions of experiences, relationships, worldview, in the context his agreements. These four ideas, accompanied by short explanations, are provided on the front inside cover; which stand alone as a useful tools.

All the the contents of the book have been provided more concretely on the inside cover. Each chapter dedicated to one of the four agreements reviews the information given on the cover and adds some useful explanation; but, after the first few paragraphs of description, the chapters are wordy and repetitive. The concepts are interesting, yet they don’t flow together to create a cohesive whole, and readers are left feeling as though time is being wasted. The author is talking in circles. Readers have to sift through the fluff, but the pages discussing the agreements contain a wealth of wisdom, which can inspire readers to exchange old habits for new.

The book is not well-written and much of the information is repeated, yet there are a few really essential components to take away. I continued reading and finished, because my interest was piqued by the chapter titles and introductions. The book is so short that it took little time to finish; I read it in less than two hours. The author makes some really great suggestions about how to re-define the ways we think and act. So, although his ideas aren’t communicated perfectly, I felt it is well worth the time it took to read.

Stars: 3 out of 5

 

Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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In Middlesex, the character of Calliope and later Cal, Eugenides takes his readers on a refreshing and well written journey into an often unknown subject, hermaphroditism. Calliope tells the story of her family’s past in Greece and their present in Detroit, as she guides her reader through the emotional and biological steps that have lead to her difficulties with maturation and development and her eventual transformation into a boy. In uncovering Calliope’s struggles in adolescence, young adulthood and later adulthood through the development of her/his gender and sexual identities, readers discover new insights into the lives of people who might be labeled as different by society. Some of the most important and lingering realizations readers encounter about the narrator, who thinks and feels like an outsider, are not the differences, but the commonalities that persist in the human experience.

Family plays a large role in determining Calliope’s future, through both nature and nurture. The author builds his story around the foundation of the past Calliope’s family has laid down before her. Decisions made by her ancestors, grandparents and parents, to marry family members create a genetic mutation, which is passed down for generations to her, leaving her with, among other things, an underdeveloped penis, feminine features,  and more male sex hormones than other “females.” Her differences go unnoticed for years, and her parents raise her as a girl. She is dressed in pink, taught to paint her nails and is sent to an all girl’s school. Her Greek family has strict gender distinctions, women do housework, cook and clean, while men earn a living. From an early age Calliope has a sense for the ways she should act, look, and feel. When she feels different from the messages she is sent, she starts to question her normalcy.

As Calliope enters adolescence and young adulthood, changes in body and mind start to confuse her. Eugenides captures this time in her life with skill as he describes the comparisons that she makes with the other girls at school. She wonders about developing breasts, armpit hair, getting her period. All the other girls have boyfriends, but she is confused because she likes a girl, The Object. She starts to wonder about what it means to be different.  Is she different? She thinks, maybe the others are all having these thoughts, aren’t they? If it is just her then she is wrong or bad. As readers we remember our own private thoughts from back then, and we become immersed in her thoughts, her fears.

Although some situations the author puts Calliope in may be different from those readers experienced, they are all relatable. All families pass down traits we wish we didn’t have. In the same ways, we can all think of things things we wish our parents would have done differently. We think, if only they hadn’t been so negative, I would hate myself less or whatever it is. Anyway, we all have enough grievances with our own parents to imagine a house where they are clueless enough to raise a boy as girl and completely destroy the child’s gender identity. We can remember grade school and middle school, analyzing everyone else’s situation and comparing. We all ask ourselves: Am I normal? So we read this descriptive, emotional novel and we empathize. It is sad, because it’s believable. It’s good, because it’s real. With time, change, and transformation there is hope. By the end of the novel we see this doesn’t just apply to Calliope; she represents something bigger. We’re all evolving from what we once were.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5

 

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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Dear Life by Alice Munro, a collection of fourteen short stories, has themes which range from the past, memory, loss, winter, and death, used to describe a dark, lonely, and wanting side of life. The author interweaves each story to reflect and influence the others. Her characters experience the pain of similar and at the same time different existences. By depicting one salient meeting or interaction upon which the stories are built, the author creates unique people, lives, worlds.

In many of the stories there is a sense of looming or foreboding that gains the reader’s interest. She reveals intrinsic human struggles in various ways ranging from tone, setting, and characterization. The first line of each story isolates the subject matter and sends a message to the reader that uncertainty is the only guarantee in life. In “Amundsen,” for example, Munro’s first line is, “On the bench outside the station I sat and waited.” (31). The author follows up the unsettled tone in her introductions with bleak surroundings, including freezing 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 conveys.

As a reader, it is easy to absorb the beauty and mastery of her writing, despite it’s complexity, because it falls together so perfectly. Since Munro overlaps her tone, settings, and themes so elegantly, 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. We empathize for the loss of the love, for example, as it 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 and more holistic themes included within the text.

This text focuses on dark subjects, and it still remains a positive reading experience, because the author, writing, and ideas are great. She writes of those experiences, good or bad, which alter a person. She shows that life always comes 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? When covered in the thorough and educational manner the author presents it, Total Recovery can be useful to all people, because we have all experienced physical and emotional pain, which Kaplan poses, can be linked to future difficulties if left untreated. His approaches to treatment revolve around the implications of new scientific evidence that the brain becomes inflamed as a defense mechanism with each new emotional and physical trauma. He concludes with a list of treatment methods used at Kaplan Center, his integrative medicine facility. Kaplan provides case studies from his practice to help the reader understand his thesis, which allows the reader to make comparisons and gain more self-awareness about his or her own health.

In each chapter, Kaplan uses case studies, to help the reader better comprehend subject matter and also think about his or her own health in comparison. He begins with 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 him to turn to  Dr. Kaplan. Finally,  Dr. Kaplan concludes that Billy’s pain is not the result of one injury, but of several, which have inflamed the glial cells in his brain. He explains the idea behind this new science: glial cells are designed to protect, but often times become overstimulated after being subjected to years of  injuries, leading to headache, dizziness, and achiness all over. (p. 96). Once the reader understands how pain is sometimes amplified by the brain, he or she reads about ways in which physical and mental components of the body are interrelated to cause illness.

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 tries to cope with maladaptively in different people resulting in migraines, acute pain, brain fog, depression, fibromyalgia, anxiety disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, PTSD. (p.105) Kaplan shows that treatment plans must 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.  The reader thinks about his or her own life, trauma, symptoms. Next, Kaplan provides individualized information about treating emotional and physical pain.

Finally,  Kaplan shows how he helped each patient in his case studies repair his or her health. What can a reader or any 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 an exploration into their past. Using the chart patients can plot the occurrences and dates of physical and emotional stressors, and eventually, determine which issues have been treated or resolved, and which ones might have lingering affects on the body. He also includes a list of recommendations to try, in order to reduce inflammation in the brain.

His recommendations are thorough and easy to understand. These things include taking non-inflammatory vitamins like magnesium, vitamin-D, and omega-3 suppplements. He recommends eating dark chocolate, drinking green tea, and maintaining a gluten free diet. He asks patients to avoid stimulants, such as sleep aids, NSAIDS, and caffeine.  He also suggests taking probiotics for gastrointestinal health. Finally, he sees patients feeling better who excercise regularly and mediate daily. (p. 191-203)

In this text, the author provides new insights and possible answers to mysterious health concerns for readers who are suffering from chronic pain or know someone who is. Even those not suffering from chronic pain may benefit, if not from all, then at least in part, from the practical and educational approach provided by Dr. Kaplan. His ideas about resolving past issues to maintain health make sense for long term health maintenance for every person. This deserves our attention.

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 readers, 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 perfect lines 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 readers 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 for hope that linger throughout. Tom Perrotta has constructed a great piece of fiction with The Leftovers.

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

 

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