I read this book in one sitting, something I haven't done since before my children were born. In the busy season of life that I currently find myself...moreI read this book in one sitting, something I haven't done since before my children were born. In the busy season of life that I currently find myself in, there's really only one viable scenario in which reading a book in one sitting is even a possibility for me. It's not vacation—it's the flu. I read this novel in one sweaty, chill-ridden sitting, in the same moist clothes I've been wearing for two days straight: black sweatpants and an over-sized white t-shirt with Mr. T pictured on the back, his face grimacing above the caption, "Shut up, fool."
This is the story of a cloistered housewife who suddenly decides to stop taking her psychiatric medication, and, as a result, remembers. That is all I will say about the plot.
I would actually recommend that everyone read this novel while bed-ridden by the flu. I truly believe that the flu was the ideal accompaniment to this story, in the same way a perfectly imagined score enhances a film. I turned the pages with feverish intensity, and, somehow, the captivity of my sick bed enabled me to better identify with the novel's first person narrator.
I don't really have a consistent standard by which I award books the five star rating, although I try to reserve it for ones that engage both my mind and my emotions, stories that I respect intellectually but that also move me to tears. This novel certainly did both for me. I found it incredibly powerful, and I don't think that's just the flu talking.
I met Amiri Baraka today. He shook my hand and signed my edition of this book. I'm still reeling from the experience.
With two colleagues, I heard him...moreI met Amiri Baraka today. He shook my hand and signed my edition of this book. I'm still reeling from the experience.
With two colleagues, I heard him speak at the 7th Annual Poetry Festival at Albany State University. In order to better acquaint myself with the man and his work before attending his presentation, I read two of his more famous plays over the weekend, Dutchman and The Slave, both first performed in 1964.
Sitting in a small lecture hall that should have been overflowing with students but was, instead, only sparsely attended, my attention was rapt from Baraka's first words to his last. He began by reciting one of his poems, "Wise Ones." One couldn't help but note the contrast between his diminutive, slightly stooped and elderly appearance and the powerful cadence of his voice, paired with the ferocity of his countenance. Even though it would be pretentious and disingenuous of me to say that I can identify with his rage, I still found my eyes moistening and my skin prickling at the poetry of his words. I didn't agree with everything he said, but I appreciated one message he repeated throughout his presentation to the young students: Find something you care about, and pursue it with passion; no one will do that for you.
Dutchman and The Slave are gritty, visceral, shocking and dripping with rage. They are interesting, but morally problematic. As a reader, I found it difficult to reconcile the important message imparted by these plays with their aggressive militancy, misogyny and sheer hatred. While reading The Slave, I was quite disturbed by the suggestion that, in committing a violent act against a hated woman and her children, an oppressed man somehow experiences catharsis, redemption or a just revenge. The rage may be justified, but the action, whether real or imagined in art, is reprehensible. I'm not the first to have this apprehension about Baraka's work. In addition to being thought of as misogynistic and homophobic, Baraka was stripped of his status as Poet Laureate of New Jersey in 2002, after reading aloud at a poetry festival his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?", which was perceived by many as anti-Semitic. The man is undoubtedly controversial.
Realizing today how excruciatingly rare it is to find oneself in the presence of an important author whose book you have in your hands, my pulse was racing with questions I wanted to ask, so many questions. But, ultimately, I found myself too intimated by the man—and the heated controversy that surrounds him—to ask even a single one. Despite my very mixed feelings about Baraka and his work, I felt it a unique experience to hear from a man who has so shaped the course of literary history, particularly the Black Arts Movement. Today was certainly a day I won't forget.(less)
Prophet’s Prey is the riveting story of a bounty-hunter-turned-private-investigator who made it his singular obsession to bring down FLDS prophet Warr...moreProphet’s Prey is the riveting story of a bounty-hunter-turned-private-investigator who made it his singular obsession to bring down FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs. I admit that, in the past, I’ve been very suspicious of popular books written by two authors—who are we kidding, they are usually terrible. But, this book is different. It certainly helps that Jon Krakauer, masterful storyteller, is one of the authors. But, Sam Brower, the other author and protagonist of the story, is certainly no slouch. The man is quite a bit like Krakauer—a tough-dude, smart-as-a-whip, lone-wolf type—so it’s no surprise that the two men became close friends while collaborating on this book.
As an author, Sam Brower has a few quirks, the most obvious being a complete and total conviction in his own personal awesomeness. To my surprise, though, this quality never diminished the book for me. (Okay, I really didn’t need to know his college G.P.A.) Because he actually seems as cool and tough as he describes himself to be—and equally sincere—I was able to overlook this potentially annoying trait and see it as somewhat endearing instead. He certainly tells a good story and he’s likable, if you enjoy the upstanding cowboy type.
Warren Jeffs. What to say about Warren Jeffs. I feel like Western culture no longer has a category for a man like this. Is he mentally ill? A victim of the kind of abuse he himself perpetrates? Just a sad, weak, pathetic shell of a person? I think he is all of these things, but something else, too. Although it probably makes me sound provincial to use a word to which Western culture is becoming more and more averse, I think it fits: He’s an evil man. He’s given himself over to every cruel impulse he’s ever had and is not at all squeamish about exploiting even the weakest, most vulnerable people around him—children—to satisfy his seemingly insatiable desires. If I didn’t believe strongly in a God who will one day wipe away every tear and bring perfect justice to every brutality, I would absolutely despair when reading about men like Jeffs.
This is definitely a fascinating, mostly harrowing, glimpse into FLDS culture. Some passages are difficult to read because of the cruelty they describe; I had to wince my way through those. But, for those interested in cults or religious splinter groups, this promises to be an engaging read. There are probably better books out there if one’s interest is in Mormon theology or history.
Here’s a quote from the book that I think reflects its most important mission: the shedding of light on the oppression and abuse of young girls within the FLDS:
“They will never become a concert violinist or even play guitar with friends in their garage. They won’t be physicists or chemists or help their own children with their geometry homework because they will never learn geometry themselves. Ambition, goals and achieving one’s potential are limited to what a maniacal religious zealot lays out for them. The only thing on their horizon is bringing as many children as they can into the world, to replenish the insatiable requirement for evermore wives and evermore children.”
Many thanks to my Goodreads friend and fellow Krakauer-enthusiast, Libby, for recommending this book to me.(less)
My husband Matt has the endearing (yet oft annoying) compulsion to share every thought he has about whatever book he is reading with whomever happens...moreMy husband Matt has the endearing (yet oft annoying) compulsion to share every thought he has about whatever book he is reading with whomever happens to be sitting in the room with him (me). His love of books and ideas is one of the things I find most attractive about him (although thank goodness he rarely reads fiction, due to the massive amounts of spoilers that would inevitably plague our home.) I have no problem with this quirk of his—in fact, I welcome it—assuming I do not plan to read the book in question myself. (And, thankfully, for the most part, we read different things.) There have been times, though, when I have opted out of reading a book I was initially excited about, simply because "Matt's Musings" drained it of all its prior mystery and allure.
Cracked: The Unhappy Truth about Psychiatry is a book Matt started reading before me. As soon as he described the book's main argument, I knew I had to read it, which is why whenever he started talking about it with me, I extended a gentle but firm stop in the name of love hand in front of his face. "Please, please. I really want to read this one." Although it caused him visible discomfort, he respected my wishes and pursed his lips. This was a book I just had to discover for myself.
Because Cracked is so engaging, so provocative and so astonishing, I will refrain from saying too much about it, lest I "pull a Matt" and spoil it for those who might want to unravel its revelations for themselves. But, in order to pique your interest, I will share a few tightly controlled thoughts.
In his new book Cracked, psychotherapist and social anthropologist James Davies seeks to expose the shady underbelly of the psychiatric establishment and the ways in which, whether out of greed, a desire to be taken seriously as a medical profession or simply good intentions gone wrong, it has come to fully embrace the "medical model" of psychiatry, much, as Davies argues, to the detriment of society. According to Davies, the "medical model" takes for granted that mental illness (depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, etc.) is rooted in biological causes, not emotional, spiritual or cultural ones, and therefore must be treated with medication in the same way one might manage one's diabetes with insulin. Although the general public (myself included before reading this book) has come to accept as gospel the various "chemical imbalance" theories that have seeped into popular culture through talk shows, commercials, and doctors, Davies cogently argues that there is currently no objective scientific evidence to substantiate such theories. In other words, at this time, there are no known biological causes for the vast majority of mental illnesses. And, studies repeatedly demonstrate that the pills used to treat mental illness work no better than placebos for the vast majority of people.
This is only the beginning of the book's rather shocking, yet persuasive, claims. Other topics addressed include the Faustian bargain many psychiatrists have entered into with pharmaceutical companies, the ways in which dubious research findings and arbitrary, subjective decisions have governed changes and additions to the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—a reference guide doctors use when diagnosing patients with mental illness), the short-term and long-term side effects of psychiatric medication and the ways in which it tends to alter people's personalities, the intriguing ways that culture paves the way for and responds to so-called mental disorders, and (most fascinating for me) the process by which the psychiatric establishment has medicalized every unpleasant feeling we have, thereby stripping our everyday human suffering of its emotional--and perhaps spiritual--significance.
I want to say more, but perhaps I've already said too much. Let me tell you, friends, this book is riveting.(less)
What timeless and endearing creatures these Moomins are! My daughter and I both loved The Moomins and the Great Flood.
As an American who has cast a lo...moreWhat timeless and endearing creatures these Moomins are! My daughter and I both loved The Moomins and the Great Flood.
As an American who has cast a longing eye over the Atlantic since girlhood, I found this book delightfully "Euro." Perhaps only Europe-infatuated Americans can feel the weight of this term. What I mean is that the book is quirky, surprising, atmospheric and weird, in just the right ways. My American-ness seems so pragmatic and boring when juxtaposed with such splendid Euro-hood.
What really captured my imagination about The Moomins and the Great Flood is the book's wonderful quality of creating intriguing characters and landscapes that seem simultaneously sinister and safe, hostile yet inviting. I love when books do that to me, gently urge me to enter into their worlds, at my own peril, perhaps, or maybe for my own good.
And the pictures! They are so wonderful. All I wanted to do was put on some ambient, slightly dissonant music and stare at them. (Again, Euro.) Tove Jansson's artwork is beguiling, and there's pretty much an image on every page.
My daughter found this book a bit frightening, just enough to engage but not traumatize. When I asked her what she thought of it, she said, "Ooooo, Mommy, it was pretty scary...and pretty nice." Apparently, we need to work on our vocabulary! :)
Many sincere thanks to s.penkevich for the recommendation! We are looking forward to hearing more from the Moomins.(less)
This is my kind of children's book. My daughter and I both enjoyed it, but on two very different levels. She was engaged by the silly antics of the in...moreThis is my kind of children's book. My daughter and I both enjoyed it, but on two very different levels. She was engaged by the silly antics of the intrepid Pippi Longstocking (whom she repeatedly referred to as Peter Longstocking, much to the feminists' chagrin), and her one-line assessment of the book upon its completion was "It was kind of scary...but nice."
Like Amelia, I enjoyed the silliness, but it's ultimately the covert sadness that makes me love this book. Perhaps my predilection for tragedy is causing me to read too much into it, but all I wanted to do was scoop Pippi up into my arms and rock her to sleep. She reminds me of Holden Caulfield in this way: Underneath all the good-humor and ironic posturing, there is loneliness and loss.
For example...(spoilers ahead!)
The scene in which Pippi braves the robbers and prolongs their stay in her home just for the company was so poignant to me.
And, the last chapter with the ghosts in the attic! I kept waiting for Pippi's father to finally show up, and then when Pippi appears to Tommy and Annika wearing his nightshirt, and they think she is a ghost---that was heartbreaking to me. And then, the siblings' father comes to pick them up, leaving Pippi alone at night and further solidifying the lonesome atmosphere of the book's closing pages. Even though the novel ends with a buoyant quote in typical Pippi fashion, I think I saw through it.
This is not just a silly book, it's a moving and beautifully sad one. I don't think I agree with Amelia that it's scary, though.
A "nice" selection, highly recommended to adults looking for novels to read aloud to very young children. (less)
My first exposure to Elif Shafak came while reading Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, published in 2008. The older writer met the younger in...moreMy first exposure to Elif Shafak came while reading Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, published in 2008. The older writer met the younger in Istanbul while on the railway journey that would later become his book:
"We met at the Ciragan Palas, on another rainy day. She was so beautiful I forgot her books, writing seemed irrelevant, I was bewitched. I was reminded of the Kipling line 'Much that is written about Oriental passion and impulsiveness is exaggerated and compiled at second-hand, but a little of it is true,' and Elif Shafak seemed the embodiment of it. She was about thirty, with gray-blue eyes and the face of a brilliant child, which is also the pedomorphic face of a Renaissance Madonna, framed by wisps of light hair. All over her hands and fingers were thin silver chains, looped and dangling, attached to a mass of silver rings, as though she'd just escaped from a harem" (55).
In the same way that Shafak beguiled Theroux, this passage beguiled me, and I resolved to read a Shafak novel soon. I opted for her latest, Honor, which tells the story of an honor killing and the familial misunderstandings, forsaken hopes and small cruelties that precipitate it.
Shortly after beginning this novel, I discovered Agnes Obel's new album Aventine, which I listened to compulsively and exclusively while reading Honor. The interesting thing, then, happened to me (I wonder if it has happened to you?) where a perfect synchronicity forms between music and fiction, as one gradually becomes a backdrop to the other. While listening to Aventine, I saw Shafak's characters and while reading Honor, I heard Obel's melodies. So, now, laziness temps to me say, if you want to explore whether or not this novel is for you, check out Aventine. Both are playfully melancholy and seem to laugh at the absurdity of life while also courting the hope that something, perhaps, transcends the material.
While Obel's album is perfect to me, however, I found Shafak's novel lacking. This was especially crushing to me because much of it is beautifully done, particularly her ambiguous treatment of myth and superstition. It's as if her writing just doesn't live up to itself in the end. Metaphors are, at times, heavy and unsurprising. The occasional awkward and superfluous sentence destroys that delicate balance authors try to create between detail and mystery.
It's still a worthwhile read, and I look forward to investigating Shafak's other novels, especially The Bastard of Istanbul.
The curse moved from the underground down by the shore And we'll all grow, even hunger, to live unlike before
Mae Holland is the protagonist of Dave Eggers’ newest novel, The Circle. An Every(wo)man for Generation Y, Mea’s story begins shortly after she’s hire...moreMae Holland is the protagonist of Dave Eggers’ newest novel, The Circle. An Every(wo)man for Generation Y, Mea’s story begins shortly after she’s hired by The Circle, a fast-growing megacorp reminiscent of what a conglomeration of Amazon, Facebook and Google might look like. As a character, Mae is meant to embody characteristics common among college-educated twenty-somethings today. She’s progressively-minded, optimistic, eager to please, willing to work hard and more than a bit impressionable. It strikes me that The Circle is primarily a theme-driven novel, and that Mae’s experience of being plunged deeper and deeper into a conspiracy-rich totalitarian monopoly is used primarily as a vehicle to express the author’s concerns about the unique pressures and implications of our social-media saturated age.
Like many others today, I share Eggers’ concerns about the ubiquity and intensity of social media. I wonder sometimes about our ever-diminishing privacy, the addictive allure of screens and the oppressive burdens associated with having to maintain threadbare relationships with old acquaintances from junior high, not because there’s any meaningful connection left, but just because both parties are aware of each other on Facebook. I think Eggers’ concerns are timely and important, and the world he creates in The Circle is a terrifyingly realistic one.
The reason I’m giving the book a lukewarm endorsement is not because I think Eggers should have done anything differently. My three-star rating has more to do with my subjective experience with the book. It read like a YA novel to me (interpret that as you will) and lacked the richness and complexity of What is the What?, which I thoroughly enjoyed. While I found The Circle fast-paced and exciting, it left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied and parched in the end, much like my experience with social media. (If that is Eggers’ intended effect, so that his content mirrors his form, then his execution is truly brilliant.) But, what is equally likely is that he’s trying to reach a younger audience, and perhaps that’s the audience that needs this book most.
“We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment” (485). (less)
I was prepared to give this book two stars because 1) I thought it lacked an engaging plot line, 2) I didn't find Stuart to be a particularly admirabl...moreI was prepared to give this book two stars because 1) I thought it lacked an engaging plot line, 2) I didn't find Stuart to be a particularly admirable or lovable hero, 3) It pales in comparison to Charlotte's Web and 4) I could never quite get over the image of a woman giving birth to a mouse.
But, my daughter's absolute love of this novel compels me to give it an extra star, since her opinion is rather cute to me, and she is the target audience of the book. It seems only fair.
Whenever I read this book to her, she listened with rapt attention, her countenance reflecting that wonderful state little kids enter when they're engaged--wide-open eyes, mouth slightly ajar, expression utterly frozen in expectation. She found Stuart's antics hilarious, and, for some reason, "that bad kitty-cat Snowbell" was quite the compelling character to her.
She's only three, and so also seemed to comprehend the plot events of this book better than she did Charlotte's Web.
For these reasons, I would heartily recommend this book to parents eager to transition their little kids from picture books to children's novels. It was a wonderful success for us, despite its weirdness.
And, as a side note, I would love it if my Goodreads friends could recommend other excellent children's novels and short story collections to me, appropriate for ages 3-6. I'll take all the suggestions I can get! :)(less)
In The Kingdom by the Sea, Theroux sets out to explore, mostly by foot, the coastline of perhaps the most well-traveled country on earth, Great Britai...moreIn The Kingdom by the Sea, Theroux sets out to explore, mostly by foot, the coastline of perhaps the most well-traveled country on earth, Great Britain—a place where “nothing was unknown…just variously interpreted” (77). An American who spent eleven years living in London and speaks with a muted British accent himself, Theroux is in a unique position to write a UK travel memoir; he’s simultaneously an insider and an outsider, both familiar with the culture and self-consciously Other. And it’s from this interesting vantage point that he embarks on his quest to discover “what [this] kingdom is really like” (6).
Theroux sets the stage for readers by alluding throughout The Kingdom by the Sea, written in 1982, to the current events of the day, just as he does in his other travel memoirs. The Falklands War, the birth of Prince William, railroad strikes, the rise and fall of the Yorkshire killer (a man whom Theroux is humorously mistaken to be on more than one occasion), “the troubles” in Northern Ireland—these and other headlines comprise the colorful backdrop to his narrative, which is usually more about people than places. Fans of Theroux will find other traits characteristic of his writing here, too: The inside joke that strategically perforates the entire book, always appearing at the right time. In The Kingdom by the Sea he introduces the Inside Joke with this line: “It was one of my small talents to be able to tell a person’s name by looking at him” (9) and indeed overwhelmingly proves his knack for conjuring up very funny, very British names and pinning them to the right people—“The Touchmores,” “Vivian Greenup,” “R.L. Justice,” “Mrs. Mumby,” “Judith Memery,” "Roger Cockpole…”
I progressed through the first half of The Kingdom by the Sea at a slightly slower pace than I usually do with a Theroux book. I think this happened for two reasons: 1) I began this book with the annoying and irrational hubris of one who has been to the destination under discussion, and so thinks she’ll have an easy time picturing the sights, but who, in actuality, has not the faintest clue what the place is really like. Because I once spent three measly days in London, my imagination went lazy, and, when I found myself unable to picture some of the scenes Theroux describes, I had to slow down, realizing that I’m essentially as new to the UK as someone who has never been there. 2) Until he got to Ulster and the scenery and mood changed quite dramatically, I found the sights somewhat repetitive: an almost endless string of beach chalets, ugly and joyless holiday camps, bed and breakfasts run by odd characters, skin-head populated piers, empty trains, industrial towns, ominous power plants, etc. Interesting, still fun, but a little redundant. Then he got to Northern Ireland…
Theroux encounters a lot of strange, hilarious and endearing people in this travel memoir—all very British, but all very diverse. When these people are in view, the scenery sort of recedes into the background, as they are the main attraction. Some of my favorite moments include his eavesdropping on two schoolboys discussing in heavy cockney accents which of their facial features they’d most like to change (“Your ‘ole fice?”), his conversation with a troupe of elderly Welsh ladies, all retired school teachers, with whom he watches their professed favorite film, Damien: Omen II, in a bed and breakfast (“’Oh, that will be the Whore of Babylon, I expect,’ Miss Thomas said in her sweet Welsh voice.”), as well as his encounter with John L. Davidson, a Scottish man born in 1895 whose voice dramatically and unexpectedly crescendos from normal decibel levels to triple forte zones and for no apparent reason (“But some of them make me cross! People who travel through Scotland on the train, doing the crossword puzzle! Why do they bother to come!”) And I couldn’t help but laugh audibly at lines like: “On the way, I passed by some woods and saw a man shouting at a small owl.”
That brings me to what I loved most about this book, and what I love about every Theroux travel memoir I have read: his conversations with others. While he’s quick to find ugliness in places, he’s also quick to find beauty and relevance in people, and I find that his exchanges with the often odd, often lovely people he meets, whose portraits he meticulously draws and conjures to life with such verisimilitude, make me love humanity more, for all its richness, diversity and quirkiness. What a common grace blessing given to all of us that we can meet such wonderfully weird people wherever we go and that we, too, can be wonderfully weird to those we meet. I love it, and I love Theroux for appreciating it, in his wry and dry way.
I will refrain from discussing my utmost favorite section of the book. While this is not my most beloved Theroux travelogue, it does contain what very well might be my most beloved Theroux passage, one that I found very humorous and moving. A special treat included just for those who love The Great Railway Bazaar, it occurs toward the end, and it’s just perfect.
[One final note: I listened to an audiobook version of The Kingdom by the Sea, as I have done with all but one of the Theroux books I have read. I’ve now experienced four different narrators’ attempts to embody the voice of Theroux, and the gentleman who reads The Kingdom by the Sea, Ron Keith, does what I imagine to be the very best job. In addition to preforming the various UK accents wonderfully (at least to my under-nuanced American ears), there was something else this listener found so endearing: at various points throughout the narrative, he smiles while reading. He does it often, and I don’t know how, but you can just tell. Contrary to public opinion, I think Theroux does smile while traveling, and so I found this quirk appropriate.](less)