Review: All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks

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All About Love: New Visions discusses the ways society traditionally views love and the roles it creates for love in our lives; but, the information is recycled and some of the perspectives are biased. The author , bell hooks, provides helpful information and personal stories, which describe how repeating incorrect patterns of behaviors lead to unhappiness. However, as opposed to other self-help books, many of her suggestions for living with more love, lack applicability. Perhaps most lingering, her feminist background gets in the way of her positive, loving message.

The author suggests definitions of love commonly held in society, which influence the ways we learn to love, are flawed. hooks points out that standard romantic or familial norms indicate that love is natural or a gift, when in reality giving and receiving love takes work. She uses M. Scott Peck’s definition as a guide, “Love is an act of will-namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice, We do not have to love. We choose to love.” (4-5) With this new description, the reader sees that love is about choices and effort. hooks asks the reader to consider how his or her life can be different by choosing instead of expecting love.

hooks wants people to individually and globally choose more love, which, despite several admirable suggestions, is difficult to implement in the real world. hooks uses her own past as an example of how she repeats incorrect behaviors she learned from her parents in her own life. She recommends recognizing old patterns, making the choice to change, and forgiving.  She more broadly, discusses the ways that individuals can change the world through love. She also recommends sacrificing money, job security and personal happiness for the betterment of others, society and world peace. But, none of this is practical. Most important, she fails to provide concrete information about how to achieve these goals. Finally, her message of love is clouded by her feminist views.

While most of the text asks the reader to love more, hooks gets carried away with insults and negativity in Chapter 3: Honesty: Be True to Love. hooks is famous for her feminist text, Feminism is for Everybody, in which she asserts just that-feminism is all inclusive and unbiased. But is it? Her chapter on honesty is a harsh rant about how men lie in relationships in order to keep power and maintain the patriarchy. Saying that “men” do this is as biased as saying all “women” think, do say, similar things, it’s incorrect, biased, judgmental. Accusing an entire group of people of dishonesty, especially for such a manipulative reason, certainly isn’t about seeing the best in people or choosing love.

hooks asks her reader to think about how his or her choices and actions related to love are influenced by the past and will make an impact in the present and future. She succeeds in making the reader think about love in his or her life. Actually making changes is always easier said than done. Nothing in this text is groundbreaking. In fact, any information that provides tangible examples to promote change and access is common sense or has already been covered in other texts. This is not bell hooks’s best work.

 

2.5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

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I read The Tin Drum twice; I admit, that both times I read this novel, I forced myself to read it.  The first time I only made it to page 100, then stopped. The second, most recently, I tried again for a classic book club and finished. Both times I read it because it is considered a classic; Grass is a Nobel Prize in Literature winner. As with other masters of the craft, Grass’s work is complex, multi-layered, and difficult to comprehend for the average reader. Despite my experience with German history and literature, I miss many of the messages the author is trying to convey. I spend a lot of time analyzing the text, re-reading, and wondering how the characters and stories are meant to be interpreted? While other novels require analysis, which is rewarding in the end, this text requires the reader to constantly assess and reconsider the characters, stories, historical and cultural contexts, which makes for a frustrating reading experience.

Grass composes a work that is both stand-alone story and historical and political commentary, making the story more complex and requiring the reader to delve deeper to gain understanding. The Tin Drum is the story of protagonist, Oskar Matzerath, a boy growing up in Nazi occupied Poland, who cannot grow. It is littered with metaphors, analogies, anecdotes, which keep the reader guessing about the concepts of truth and reality for the characters in the story and more broadly, for German society. In using figures of speech so abundantly, Grass achieves a tone of confusion and misunderstanding that stays with the reader throughout the story. The intricacies of the text can either be valued by the reader, or viewed as a hindrance.

The novel requires that a reader constantly question the motives of the author in telling Oskar’s story. The stories about Oskar are too odd to be real, so the reader knows there must be underlying messages to interpret from them. There are overarching cultural and historical themes, which seem obvious, such as Oskar’s guilt and shame mirroring those of the German people. But, there are many more situations, characters, events, where the reader must guess about the author’s intentions. For me, never being certain of where or how the author intends the story to proceed makes the reading less enjoyable. Although any interpretation is subjective, I feel incompetent for not knowing, for certain, the messages I should take from the text. I prefer a novel with symbolism clear enough that I can eventually interpret it. Much of The Tin Drum still baffles me, and this makes it hard to like the book.

So, is the novel worth reading? The answer depends on what kind of reader you are and what kind of literature you prefer. Those who enjoy the investigation and breakdown of the narrative and character traits will certainly enjoy the complexities of The Tin Drum. If you know a lot about world history or German history and culture, this novel would probably be less intimidating for you. But, if you like reading that’s straight forward and fast-paced you might want to avoid this one. For me, the amount of time I spent thinking about what I should get out of it made it too hard to experience the pleasure of simply reading the book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

 

Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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All the Light We Cannot See, a Pulitzer Prize Winner and National Book Award Finalist, lives up to it’s reputation as a creative and innovative work of historical fiction. The Word War II setting, while overused and poorly written in the past, shines in for Anthony Doerr as he creates a tale filled with likable and relatable characters and an equally accomplished narrative. Marie-Laure, a blind girl from Paris, lives with her veteran Uncle Etienne in Saint Malo, France, where they protect a precious gem from the Museum of Natural History collection in Paris. Marie-Laure and her Uncle own one of the only radios left in Europe. Werner, an intelligent orphaned German boy from a mining town, is trained by the Hitler Youth to track radio signals for the Nazi’s; He helps them hunt resistance fighters. The reader begs for more, finding both ideas and words swiftly flowing, as she speeds through this text. She discovers a wealth of refreshing content, which holds up until the end.

Doerr’s characters are carefully selected and unique in their traits and contributions to the text. The part each person plays in the novel, when pieced together so skillfully with those of the other characters, reveals that the right characters and narrative can make even the most popular subject matter new. The characters possess vulnerabilities, for example, Marie-Laure, is blind, that make them human and fragile and their stories unpredictable in the face of: struggle, war, the unfairness of life. Perhaps most important, the protagonist characters earn the trust and esteem of the readers, while the antagonists are loathed.

The reader develops an interest and investment into the future of the characters and the story, in part, because Doerr uses his plotlines and settings, so efficiently. The readers sees Doerr combine and overlap several divided stories, which eventually come together to create a cohesive whole. Throughout, the reader is challenged to analyze the events and actions of people, to question the concepts of good and bad, light and dark. The narrative is full of twists, there is never certainty for the characters or the reader. What will happen to these people whose struggles are so accessible? The reader needing to know more and hoping they will make it through makes for a great book.

This novel is good for a number of reasons, but it stands out because of the reader’s attachment to the characters and their special plights. Often people read a book and most of it’s contents are soon forgotten. This is a different sort of story, and it’s contents stand out, because the reader takes the journey with the characters. Doerr finds a way to keep his audience thinking and remembering long after the last page is turned.

4 out of 5 Stars

Review: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

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The Happiness Project is something that has been done before, but this doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable and enlightening reading experience. The book is presented as a memoir of author, Gretchen Rubin’s, year-long journey of research, discovery, trial, error, and progress, to find more happiness in her life. She takes the reader along for the ride as she learns and tests out new ideas, like gratitude journaling and organizing personal spaces, for herself and her family. This enables the reader to develop a sense of things that he or she can take away to try to improve his or her own life. Rubin’s research is thorough, and her suggestions for ways to boost mood and living conditions are abundant in each chapter. My only criticism is that she tries so many different techniques over the course of the year that applying all the new options is a daunting task for most readers.

Rubin begins her story by outlining how she plans her project for the year: she chooses a topic or theme to tackle each month, such as vitality, marriage, work, parenthood, leisure, friendship, money, eternity, books, mindfulness, attitude, and happiness. For each month she reads about the topics and develops tangible goals for how to improve her life in these areas. For marriage, for example, she sets out to: quit nagging, don’t expect appreciation, fight right, no dumping, and give proofs of love. In putting her goals to practice through daily charts, she creates a real-life story of how she influences her own happiness over time. Along the way, she inspires readers with options to choose to try at home, and she provides assistance with the blog she creates while completing her own project. The only limitation is that she gathers so much information it may be hard for a reader to organize.

Rubin admits that the wealth of information she discovers is hard to juggle at times. She mentions, that she is overwhelmed with work, family, friends-life’s responsibilities. Still, this is a book about attaining happiness, so the author gets caught up in the positive aspects of the process. She discusses so many terms and concepts she is applying to her own life that she fails to mention how daunting it is to change patterns of behavior and ways of living. While it is true that making changes can lead to happiness, isn’t it also important to mention the stress and hard work that goes into them? Often, the application of the happiness project seems easy, when nothing in life is that simple.

Overall, Rubin’s year of positive education and growth is informative, reflective and inspiring. Rubin finds herself absorbed in the subject matter, which directly influences the reader. It should be noted that she makes some of her goals seem easy to achieve. But, her ability to influence readers to follow in her footsteps and make changes for the better in their own lives makes her story one worth reading.

4 out of 5 Stars

Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

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Sarah’s Key is an overrated novel about a popular subject, Jewish persecution during World War II, which drives it’s popularity. There is nothing new or inventive about the subject matter, characterization, or prose found in this novel. Instead, it’s success is driven by the author’s dependence on the long standing fascination among readers with World War II era settings and stories, instead of the draw of an original story. Other key aspects of the text are also lacking: The characterizations are shallow and never delve below surface levels, and the prose is simplistic and uninteresting.

The author attempts to provide a new or surprising approach to a Holocaust story, as this example of gross mistreatment of the Jewish people happened in Paris, France. This draws readers to the text, because people are still interested in and are driven to learn more about the Jewish plight during this time. But, a piqued interest is not enough to make up for the lack of originality in the writing. This book paints the same old picture, a sort of The Diary of Anne Frank meets Suite Francaise meets The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas meets The History of Love. It combines and re-tells stories we have already read. The author also attempts, but fails, to make her characters and prose inventive.

Throughout the novel something remains missing from the character descriptions and narrative. The journalist, Julia Jarmond, in present day, researches the roundup of Jewish families in July, 1942 in Paris. She becomes interested and invested  in the fate of one child, Sarah Starzynski. The narrator describes her deep emotions and connections with the Jewish girl from the past, Sarah. Their tales are interwoven, yet it is hard to fully imagine or accept this fusion. Julia’s notions that she is connected to the girl and the actions she takes to apologize for the things that happened to Sarah as a child don’t exactly fit the situation. In the end neither of the women, nor their stories, feel authentic.

In his non-fiction text, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King wisely notes that anyone can write a bestseller with the right subject, and it doesn’t have to be well written. Sarah’s Key is a good example of this. Choosing the right subject helped sell a mediocre book. Sometimes it’s the poorly written books that become popular, because more people will read them. This doesn’t make them worth reading.

Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Review: Saturday by Ian McEwan

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A day in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, a Saturday. In this exercise in perspective taking, McEwan guides the reader through the thoughts of a man from the time he wakes in the morning until he returns to bed at night. As Henry’s story unfolds second by second, the reader sees patterns emerge in his thought processes, which suggest that people have a significant influence, both on their own perspectives, and the outcomes of events. The author presses the reader to think about the complexity of the choices we make with each thought, each day.

In just one day, so many thoughts and events occur, that most people never realize they exist. With a breakdown of Henry’s ideas, memories, ruminations, McEwan poses the question: Is it possible that so much goes on in our minds, our lives, that we don’t think about how and why? As the text moves along, the reader makes definitive distinctions between two categories of thoughts Henry possesses, which lead to similar emotions: some are happy, positive and some sad, negative. Might this be true for the reader, too?

Through the lens of Henry, it is clear, a person can alter his own experiences of time or his sense of contentment with his associations. Henry’s day flies by as he moves from thought to activity and back. He can feel young and blissful when thinking about his wife, their love, and how lucky he is to have her, for example. He’s happy thinking of his son and daughter, music, snow. The reader sees what Henry fails to notice, that he can slow his perceptions of time, feel lonely and grim when he allows himself to obsess about negative events in the news or his mother’s Alzheimer’s. When a traumatic event takes place later in the day, time stands still. The reader fully grasps the effect of perception on the human mind.

What a day! McEwan creates a character and a story in which parallels are drawn to anyone who picks up this book. It is a statement about how so much of our lives are about choices. We are all left pondering more deeply the broader implications of our own thoughts and actions.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5

 

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

 

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