Sunday, December 28, 2014


Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks

Music seems to be a universal cultural phenomenon, but as with all things in life, it impacts each individual differently. Sacks, a neurologist who has spent several years working in a hospital for people with chronic illnesses, looks at a multitude of ways music impacts the individual, usually focusing on the abnormal, exceptional, and pathological. Although he focuses on abnormal musical conditions, that does not mean that all situations are negative. Such instances include the appearance of musical talent and intuition after a lifetime of only superficial appreciation, mysterious degenerative muscle conditions that derail professional performance careers, people born with prodigious musical talent but not the ability count, and many, many others. Sacks combines personal experience, case studies of patients, correspondence with others, and extensive scientific research into a study on how the brain processes music and what happens when that processing goes awry. Infused throughout is a deep appreciation of music, revealed in occasional side notes detailing a nuanced and thorough knowledge of composers and how their lives reflect those of Sack’s current study. The end result is not so much a book that addresses music, but one that looks at the wide variety of musical expression, impact, and understanding.

“Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks offers an unexpected perspective on music because it focuses on everything beyond the realm of typical musical expression and appreciation. Sacks displays his expertise both as a neurologist and one who listens to music through incredibly thorough scientific research on the history of how musical abnormalities were first recognized and how treatment has progressed over the decades. As a neurologist, his writing centers on the neural processing of music, and he frequently references brain structures, neural and mental processes, and physiological and organic roots of the conditions he describes. He contextualizes these conditions at a personal level by sharing his personal experience and discussing case studies of unique conditions that reflect a range of severity and daily impairment. Sacks broadens the understanding of music beyond listening to songs by addressing atypical musical abilities and detailing a multitude of experiences, talents, and disorders to create an appreciation of music that encompasses basic and complex processing.

Although I learned a lot from this book and was often surprised by the conditions Sacks describes, I was generally less than enthralled while reading it. Sacks’ history as a neurologist shows through in his writing, and I felt that the book is almost inaccessible. His emphasis on brain structures recalled my days in psychology class, and while I distinctly remember Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, I no longer remember the function of the basil ganglia or the temporal lobes, much less how a stroke impacts the neural abilities in those different sections. Additionally, his continual references to case studies and correspondence resulted in a mass of names that meant nothing to me as the reader and became one more detail to skim. Interesting, but not highly readable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I am Subject Stories: Women Awakening

I am Subject Stories: Women Awakening – edited by Diane DeBella

 I’ll start with my usual preface that anthologies are somewhat tricky to review due to the variety of authors, topics, and writing styles. That being said, “I am Subject Stories: Women Awakening” is a very impressive anthology. Diane DeBella, author of the collective memoir “I am Subject,” compiles stories from women on the topic of finding or claiming agency in their own lives. DeBella organizes the pieces into four sections, adding flow throughout the book and cohesion within the sections. The individual pieces are astonishing, boldly offered stories of endurance, triumph, and making meaning in less than ideal circumstances. Some essays describe the joy and happiness found in the pursuit of previously suppressed passions or new perspectives on old relationships. Others share harrowing tragedies that irreversibly alter life trajectories or personal struggles against internally or externally imposed limits. No matter the details, all the stories convey unyielding fortitude and optimism, humbly offering inspiration along with fallibility, vulnerability, and hope.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Following the suicide of his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, Clay finds himself reeling but coping with this new absence in school. Then one day he comes home to find a package on his doorstep with no return address. The package holds seven tapes labeled on each side with a number up to the number 13. Mystified, he plays the first tape in the stereo and is immediately knocked off guard when he hears the voice of Hannah. She explains that each side represents one of the reasons why she decided to kill herself, and the people listening to the tapes all have one side dedicated to their impact on her life. The listeners are instructed to follow her story along with a map they had each received a few weeks earlier, then mail the tapes to the next person in the narrative. Captivated by confusion, pain, and intrigue, Clay follows the instructions, and the map, all over town in the course of one night. He learns of the disingenuous pretense that hides devastating secrets for his classmates, and though his understanding of his peers is irreversibly altered, he also discovers an opportunity to rise above the secrets, rumors, and assumptions that determine social interactions in his high school.

“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher is astonishing, insightful, and unbelievably original in such a dense young adult genre. Asher intertwines two narratives, Hannah’s tapes and Clay’s evening adventures, into one story, leaving just enough information unsaid to build an underlying suspense as the reader grows more and more invested in the events of Hannah’s life and death. By incorporating the map as part of the narrative, Asher also creates a sense of location, belonging, and movement. These are all relevant themes for the transition from adolescence into young adulthood, and add depth to the story by bringing in the element of place. The content of the novel itself is highly charged. Asher discusses suicide, alcohol, sex, and the insidious power of rumors in high school student life. He skillfully navigates issues of self-blame, victim blaming, and bystander ambivalence, challenging readers to confront their own assumptions and beliefs on these topics. Fortunately, Asher does not strand the reader with these topics and emotions. He offers resolution, both positive and negative, through the actions of the characters, and infuses the story with the possibility of redemption.

I found myself both very impressed and very annoyed with this book. After reading about the inspiration for his novel, an audio tour at an art museum, the tapes and map felt somewhat contrived. The map especially. I also felt disgruntled that a male author focused on sexual rumors as the primary contributing factor for a female character’s decision to kill herself. BUT. Annoyances aside, I am truly amazed with his presentation of challenging topics. I frequently had to stop reading to sort through my own reactions to some of the behaviors and statements from the characters. Incredibly thought-provoking and well worth the read.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield is being expelled yet again from another school, so rather than finish out the last few days of the term he decides to head home early for the holidays. However, he does not want to break the news of his expulsion earlier than necessary to his parents, so he decides to wander around New York City for those few days before returning home. With his illicit freedom, he pursues life with reckless abandon, following impulses rather than a plan. From meeting up with old friends to getting drunk at a popular bar and even sneaking into his own home to visit his sister while his parents are out, Holden’s days are full of adventures. The one thing that is missing, though, is his little brother, Allie, who died a few years ago. Despite all his carousing, Holden finds himself fed up with all the phonies in New York. His friends from childhood, the actors in the show, and everyone from every school he has ever been kicked out of. Rather than put up with it, Holden resolves to leave town without notice and make a new life for himself. His sister convinces him to stay, and instead Holden finds himself in another hospital similar to the one he stayed at after his brother died so many years ago.

“The Catcher in the Rye” is a compelling story of teen angst, overpowering loss, and all-encompassing frustration at the state of the world and the people in it. Salinger narrates Holden’s adventures in a highly conversational tone and it is easy to become caught up in a world of phonies where everything is either depressing as hell or so ridiculous that you end up laughing like a madman. Salinger seamlessly transitions between adventures so that Holden’s somewhat less-than-logical decisions show smooth connection and believable reasoning. As a reader, you only receive quick glimpses into Holden’s past; Salinger remains focused on Holden’s present life and decisions. He offers an interesting perspective on the world, simultaneously sorrowful and resigned yet almost objective in his universal rejection of others. By creating such a melancholic world, Salinger evokes sympathy, pity, and also a keen eye for the positives, however slight or fleeting they may be.

I remember reading this book for the first time in high school, but I cannot for the life of me remember my reaction to it. Whatever it was then, I’m sure my response is drastically different now. I want to “social work” everything these days, so I spent the entire story tracking Holden’s behavior, making note of duration, severity, and frequency of depressive symptoms. I also found myself questioning his perception of the world because it was so pervasively negative. As a result, I was highly engaged with the story throughout the entire book, and it was a notably different reading experience. Diagnoses aside, I like this book but I don’t love it. It would be good to read if you have time, but not necessary if you don’t.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened – Allie Brosh

 And yet another atypical book and book review. “Hyperbole and a Half” is a collection of some of the more spectacular and hilarious blog posts from Allie Brosh. Brosh chronicles everything from childhood escapades in the name of cake, to failed attempts to raise adequately well-behaved dogs, to the sheer terror of finding yourself suddenly trapped in your own home by a goose. She also addresses some weightier concerns like one too many adult responsibilities, learning how to cope with life when it refuses to follow your expectations, and admitting that you might have suicidal ideation. That last one was more serious that most, but equally deserving of attention and written with the same tone as her other stories. Brosh approaches all of these situations with a cavalier attitude while sharing her vulnerabilities, frustrations, and random thought processes. And did I mention that there are pictures? Yes, pictures! Not only is this book evocative and relatable, but also endlessly entertaining! I frequently found myself laughing out loud, and so had to restrict myself to reading this book in private but not right before bed because it was too funny. Well worth the read.

The Gift

The Gift – Hafiz

 This is another atypical book, so it also will not receive my typical book review. ”The Gift” by Hafiz is a collection of poems that have endured several centuries and been translated into numerous languages throughout that time. Most poems in the book are not explicitly religious, but all of them have some degree of spiritual undertone. Through clever metaphors and hilarious tangents, Hafiz accurately and often painfully captures the fundamental contradictions of being human and trying to make meaning out of life. I cannot make it clear enough how much I love this book. I love this book so much that I can’t hold onto it. I regularly give away my copy because it is so urgent to me that someone else read it RIGHT NOW. Since I first read this book, I think I have purchased 5 copies for myself that have ended up in other hands, and 3 more intentionally as gifts for someone else. I finally gave in a bought a copy of it on my kindle, but even that wasn’t good enough, so I went and bought another paperback copy and I already have plans for who will receive this one. READ IT. If you don’t, then it is entirely reasonable that you should expect to receive my own dog-eared copy one day.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn

This isn’t exactly a typical book, so it will not receive my typical review. “Wherever you go, there you are” is more or less an instructional book for practicing mindfulness and meditation. In short chapters no more than 3 or 4 pages long, Kabat-Zinn describes various steps in the process of sitting back, observing, and letting go. Illuminated with “tips for practice” and personal stories from his own experience with mindfulness, this book is understandable, relevant, and not at all intimidating as an introduction to mindfulness practice. When I first began this book, I undertook reading it as I would any other book, which turned out to be a mistake. Because the substance of this book invites reflection and deep thinking, I quickly found myself losing track of what was covered in each section. After that, I decided to read no more than one or two sections at a time so I could fully process what Kabat-Zinn offers in each of his suggestions for practice, and the book made much more sense. I highly recommend this book because it is simple yet profound. And also because I’m neurotic and I find it helpful to incorporate many of his suggested strategies into my life.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Beloved – Toni Morrison

Sethe, a former slave, lives alone with her grown daughter, Denver, her two sons having run away years ago. Although their house once served as a way-station for escaped slaves, they now live in isolation except for the haunting presence of the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter. One day, an old friend, Paul D, arrives at the house. His presence drives out the ghost, and although Denver is reticent about the arrangement, Sethe hesitantly welcomes the possibility of creating a family. Shortly after, another girl mysteriously appears at the house who claims not to have any people or place. She merely calls herself Beloved, the same name of the ghost daughter that had been haunting the house since the time of her death. Sethe, Denver, and Paul D are at first drawn to the daughter, sister, or lover that has entered their lives, but as Beloved’s presence grows stronger and more vital, their individual lives begin to unravel. With no other option than to confront the horrific past that Beloved brings with her physical presence, the individuals and relationships contained within the house start to crumble as they struggle to relate to this familiar stranger.

 “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, tells the story of heart-wrenching loss and desperate attempts to avoid further pain, further loss, or, if possible, both. Morrison alternates narration between characters, focusing on different histories and relationships and how they intersect. She also jumps between the current situation, past events, and memories, showing how the past leads precisely to the present. The variety of perspectives and timelines contributes a degree of uncertainty to the story, emphasizing how individual perceptions are limited by their singular understanding, but also legitimizing multiple interpretations of the same situation. At the center of the story, the characters each struggle to reconcile their own histories with their present circumstances. Morrison’s characters suffer unfathomable pain and loss, resulting in actions and reactions that can only be deemed understandable considering the circumstances. Blunted emotions, distant relationships, and fierce independence are all means by which the characters protect themselves because suffering is always hiding just around the corner. “Beloved” offers a view of human strength and perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles that is simultaneously devastating and inspirational.

This book was difficult for me to get into at first because I was confused by the story. I almost felt as though Morrison was making assumptions about my prior knowledge of the characters and their histories, and so I seemed to be missing crucial aspects of the story in the first few chapters. Eventually I realized this was not the case and that those crucial points would be revealed later in the novel. I would recommend reading this book when you have ample time to make progress (like a cross-country plane flight) so that the various timelines and perspectives come together to form a cohesive whole. Confusion aside, I loved this book. Yes, it was violent and depressing, but it gives voice to a part of history that often goes unacknowledged. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Veronika Decides to Die

Veronika Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho

24-year-old Veronika leads a predictable life. She works in a library, rents a room in a convent, and goes to the same bars and meets the same type of people. Nothing has ever changed, nor is there any indication that it will change, so she decides to commit suicide because she has already experienced everything she can possibly experience in life. However, she realizes her plan didn’t go as expected when she awakes in an ICU, then again a few days later in a notorious mental hospital. The doctors inform her that she has less than a week to live because her suicide attempt caused irreversible damage to her heart, so rather than the immediate death she planned for, she resigns herself to a few more days of not feeling, not experiencing, and not living. She quickly stops building barriers, though, as she learns that the world of the insane is one that offers liberation, freedom, and life. With no reason to do what others expect them to, the people she meets in the mental hospital pursue their impulses and passions without inhibition. Even as she faces her death sentence, or perhaps because she faces her death sentence, Veronika finally learns what it means to live.

“Veronika Decides to Die” is another masterpiece from the ever-inspiring Paulo Coelho. Before addressing the “human condition” discussed in this novel, it is worth noting that Coelho explores several important tangible themes, including the stigma and stereotypes of mental illness, ethical concerns of treatment, and the politics of money. Discussing concrete examples of the impacts of injustice gives weight to Coelho’s discourse on mental health by providing very real illustrations of how people live with the consequences of societal norms. Social justice aside, the novel explores the philosophical meaning of being “insane” or “crazy.” As always, Coelho writes with validation, forgiveness, and liberation, offering reassurance that everyone has value in their individuality and hope that a better future is possible through the pursuit of passions and dreams. This book is fodder for hours of contemplation about why society acts the way it does and what that means for the individual within society.

Although I find Paulo Coelho’s books to be hit or miss, I absolutely loved this one. Mental health is a very prominent aspect of social work, so this book was very relevant to what I am learning in school. Several times I had to stop reading to consider the implication of something Coelho had just written, which is one of the highest compliments I can give to a book. There were a few times where I couldn’t quite follow his reasoning and the argument was a bit murky, but overall, I think I would be able to describe his main points, and I agreed with them all. I also thought of several people who might gain something from reading this book, so I already have my recommendations lined up. If I’m already planning for someone else to read it, that should be reason enough for anyone to read it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Salmon of Doubt

The Salmon of Doubt – Douglas Adams

This posthumous collection of essays, articles, interviews, and sundry quips and excerpts is a sampling of Douglas Adams’ work from across his lifetime. In fact, it starts out with what is believed to be his first published piece of writing: a letter to the editor expressing anticipation and gratitude for his favorite magazine when he was 12 years old. Many pieces in the collection are articles or columns propagating his absurd yet astute philosophy and observations on how the world works. Others are essays or quick little thoughts, calling attention to the irritations of technology or the slight but significant difference between things like “fried eggs” and “Fridays.” My personal favorite is an ode to Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, in which he eloquently attempts to describe the sheer inadequacy of words to capture the essence and art of music. Brilliant and beautiful, this is undoubtedly Adams at his finest, funniest, and most insightful.

 “The Salmon of Doubt” by Douglas Adams is a little tricky to review because the pieces included in the book are so varied, so instead I will just tell you why you should read it. Adams has long been one of my favorite authors because he is sarcastic without being cynical, and his jokes are incredibly clever. I was reading this book over a lunch break and although there were other people in the room, I was almost constantly chuckling with occasional bursts of outright laughter. His writing is characterized by his intelligent, bizarre, and profound observations that always manage to draw attention to things most often taken for granted (especially gravity). His ideas are so far out of the box that the box probably doesn’t even exist in another universe, which makes his stories and characters unique in every way. Have I convinced you yet that you need to read everything he has ever written? Because you need to.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Aleph – Paulo Coelho

Upon finding himself stuck on his spiritual journey, a famous Brazilian writer, knowing that his soul connects with movement, fills his life with a lengthy and erratic schedule of publicity events around Europe. The biggest of these commitments is traveling the 9,288 kilometers along the trans-Siberian railway in Russia, a trip of numerous stops and even more weeks that will test the patience, endurance, and stability of everyone in his traveling party. Shortly before leaving, his group of companions is joined by a strange woman, Hilal, who insists that she must travel with them because his soul is calling to hers. Without understanding what she means, the writer agrees to have her join the party. As they spend increasingly more time together, the writer begins to realize that she is a direct connection to one of his past lives, and to an event in particular that has haunted him through all his incarnations since it happened. Although some answers only lead to more questions, it seems as though his soul has finally found the impetus needed to overcome the obstacles in his spiritual path as he seeks to discover his past while also protecting Hilal in the present.

“Aleph” by Paulo Coelho is a story of magic, time travel, reincarnation, and the patterns of behavior, choice, and life that persist through subsequent incarnations. Although not advertised as such, “Aleph” is a roughly autobiographical account of Coelho’s travels during the same time period in which the story is set. This indistinction allows the story to be read as real without logic entirely taking over and denying certain aspects of the account as impossible. As always, Coelho finds a way to describe in simple yet stunning language the complexities of both spiritual disillusionment and awakening, giving voice to those feelings that evade expression due to an inability to capture and convey the essence of it. The physical journey of traveling through Russia by train takes on a secondary importance in the story, serving as more of a metaphor for spiritual growth than as the main element around which the story is told. The multifaceted experience of travel validates the various struggles and accomplishments that often come with encountering the unfamiliar, humbly offering hope and guidance for other travelers.

I was more inclined to interpret “Aleph” as a work of fiction rather than an actual recounting of his travel experiences, but it was still a classic Coelho novel. In terms of his other work, I would say it falls somewhere between the best stories I’ve read by him and the somewhat-less-than-inspiring stories I’ve read by him. I can always find something to relate to in his stories, and I appreciate his emphasis on the journey – life is constantly changing and we need to grow with it rather than strive for perfection. Classic Coelho. If you’re only going to read one book by him, then I probably wouldn’t recommend this one, but if you’re going to read multiple of his works, then this one could certainly be included.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Best American Travel Writing 2013

The Best American Travel Writing 2013

In this collection of essays, authors share their experiences of travel, which range from putting their lives in danger to literally following their dreams, and encompasses all the bliss, serenity, chaos, and awe that results from putting oneself in unfamiliar places. Often, all of these experiences happen on the same trip. Through adventures ranging from bushwhacking up the precarious mountains of Papua New Guinea, to an unfortunately authentic recreation of Dickensian London, to staying in exactly the same location with all the familiar surroundings, the learning and growth that comes from travel contributes to a deeper understanding of self, others, and the world. Whether describing in hilarious detail a trip to the dentist, respectfully observing generations-old traditions, or offering commentary on wild dogs running rampant in the city, this collection of essays provides enough variety in travel experiences to suit those who are comfortable with staying home and those with insatiable wanderlust.

“The Best American Travel Writing 2013” was a compilation of pieces chosen by guest editor Elizabeth Gilbert. Her main criteria for inclusion was finishing a piece and not feeling a desire to travel to whatever place had been described, but feeling as if she had already been there. Reading these pieces with that perspective in mind certainly brought that experience to the fore. Each author write with their unique style and voice, and the collection of pieces offered a fairly balanced mix of observation of other cultures and traditions and personal reflection on what is gained, or lost, through travel. Not every piece appeals to every audience, though, which is bound to happen with an anthology.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but anthologies are somewhat tricky to review because they cover such a wide variety of stories, styles, and purposes. Unfortunately, the amalgamation of travel experiences was not as immediately enthralling as I was expecting. The thing I forgot about travel writing is that it often includes nuances in language and geography that must be described in a roundabout way rather than directly translated, so I found myself caught up in details more than I would have liked, which meant losing perspective on the big picture of whatever essay I was reading. On top of doing this with individual essays, it happened in piece after piece after piece, making the anthology somewhat of a chore to get through. In fact, when I misplaced my bookmark and skipped 60 pages of the book, I continued reading without realizing this discrepancy until I finished and had to go back to the pieces I had missed. Individual essays about travel are certainly captivating and worth reading, but I may not read another whole book of individual travel experiences pieced together.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ready Player One

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is in one of millions of people who live their lives through OASIS, the massive multi-player online reality. Through OASIS, Wade uses an avatar to attend school, make friends, and, along with thousands of others, search for the “Easter egg” hidden in the system’s code. The founder of OASIS left a secret egg hidden somewhere in the OASIS virtual world that, once discovered, will grant full authority of OASIS to the person whose avatar accomplishes a series of mysterious tasks. To locate the egg, OASIS users must decipher clues, seek out hidden gates, and accomplish unknown tasks, all somehow related to 80s pop culture, the pet passion of the founder of OASIS. Working as his avatar, Parzival, Wade and his friends, Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, compete and cooperate to discover the egg before it falls into the hands of the enemy, the Sixers. The Sixers are a fleet of corporate-sponsored avatars that have real and virtual advantages including cheats, backdoors, and money to support their efforts in reaching the egg. To maintain the integrity of OASIS, Parzival and his companions must outsmart and outmaneuver the Sixers in the most astounding battle ever to occur in OASIS.

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline is an engaging and surprisingly, and pleasantly, thought-provoking novel. Perhaps most important to the success of this story is that Cline makes the world of virtual reality accessible (helpful for the non-technologically inclined) by explaining terms and repeating them throughout the story so the words become familiar and also have context within the world of OASIS. Constant references to iconic 80s movies, games and songs contribute to the sense of reality within a fictional world, and also allows readers to nerd out about special interests without any shame or embarrassment. The most interesting aspect of the novel is the interplay between the virtual world of OASIS and the real world in which Wade physically exists. Although Cline could spend more time philosophizing on the connections and disconnections between the two worlds, he does comment on what is gained and lost in each reality. Altogether, Cline crafts a captivating world within a world that encourages critical reflection on what aspects are most important and most essential to what it actually means to exist.

Being unfamiliar with video games, this book was new to me in most ways, but still relatable and entertaining. I didn’t feel left behind when Cline talked about systems and codes, and I recognized more 80s references than I thought I would. A few parts of the book felt somewhat contrived, but in general I appreciated his effort to recognize issues like race, gender, and sexual orientation and the different impact it has in the real world and the virtual world of OASIS. With enough action, nerdy references, and thought-provoking moments to keep a variety of audiences engaged, I would say this is a pretty good book. Worth the read.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity – Katherine Boo

Mumbai is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the world, heralding globalization, international interest, and the promise of a better future. Unfortunately, many of the people drawn in by hope and possibility instead find self-interested corruption that disparages communities, families, and dreams. Beyond the gleaming airport and shiny advertisements selling a “beautiful forever,” thousands of people live on pavement or in ramshackle huts in the slum of Annawadi, struggling to survive in an “earn-to-eat” lifestyle. Abdul, as the eldest son and primary wage-earner in his family of eleven, first seeks meaning then settles for any small profit in his business of sorting and recycling trash. Manju, the first female slumdweller to attend university, strives to improve the lives of children in her neighborhood and also defy her mother by providing the free education promised by the corrupt slumlords with whom her mother associates. United, the potential political power of everyone living in poverty could possibly have an impact on Indian policy, but larger political decisions are more likely to be forgotten amid personal concerns and neighborly disputes. Life in the slums stands in stark contrast to the hope promised by the city; sometimes that hope survives, and sometimes it is overwhelmed, like everything else, by the sheer reality of life in the slums.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo is a thoroughly documented accounted of life in poverty in Mumbai. Boo focuses on a small group of community members, and knows when to bring in other players to emphasize friendship, family ties, corruption, hope, or whatever other aspect of slum life to which she wants to draw attention. The story of Abdul, Manju, their families and the community unfolds over several years, which Boo condenses into a logical and uninterrupted series of events. Her narrative poignantly captures the sense of hope, desperation, and futility that accompanies life in the slums. Her reporting humanizes life in poverty as a series of daily occurrences and difficult decisions rather than an unfortunate and overwhelming set of circumstances. The overall effect of her narrative reporting results in an intimate portrayal of vulnerability without being overly intrusive, creating a story full of compassion, hardship, and the indomitable human spirit.

This book is fabulous. However, the author’s note comes at the end of the book and I would have preferred some kind of foreword to clarify the context. Boo’s narrative style of reporting confused me early in the book because it easily reads as a work of fiction instead of a nonfiction account of life in poverty (Boo admits to paraphrasing and summarizing when recounting the internal monologue of people in the book). Which also makes for great reading. Her descriptions are vivid and detailed, sometimes graphically so, the people in her book have understandable and relatable motivations, and the storyline progresses clearly with no extraneous points. Easy to read, compelling, and fascinating.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

After a childhood full of unsuccessful foster placements, Victoria ages out of the foster care system to become emancipated, unemployed, and homeless. She lacks job skills, experience, and even a resume, but she does know the language of flowers. One of her foster mothers taught her that each flower conveys a specific message, giving Victoria a secret language with which to communicate when words don’t work. Through a chance encounter, Victoria earns a job as an assistant at a small flower shop, arranging bouquets and centerpieces full of meaning in addition to aesthetic beauty. Her work with flowers also brings an unexpected connection to her past when she runs into Grant, someone she knew from her last foster placement when she was 10 years old. Grant’s persistent presence dredges up memories full of regret, guilt, and shame about how her foster placement ended, and Victoria struggles to address her troubled past while also learning to trust people in the present. Her new reliance on and responsibility to other people threaten to overwhelm her, and she reverts to her old habit of isolating herself from everyone. Gradually, she learns forgiveness and trust, and starts over yet again with a life that has more stability, more direction, and more hope for the future.

“The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh immediately establishes an emotional connection that remains unrelenting throughout the story. Looking objectively at the story, it is easy to feel protective and compassionate for Victoria, considering her life circumstances, but also easy to see how her actions hurt both herself and others. Diffenbaugh’s characters encompass the full range of human emotion and response, and all her characters are continuously loveable and relatable despite that. Or perhaps because of that. Although the plot is somewhat formulaic and the ending is fairly easily surmised from early on in the book, there are so many aspects of the story that make this book unique. With such a strong emphasis on flowers, Diffenbaugh crafts her story with a language beyond words, adding dimension to her characters and enhancing the magic of her novel by perfectly capturing the clumsy inadequacy of words. The story is beautiful – emotionally, aesthetically, and poetically.

I generally love reading books that have been specifically recommended to me for one reason or another, and this book absolutely follows that trend. Although the story was not complex, the characters were, and Victoria’s development throughout the book was amazing and inspiring to follow. I did have some issues with timing (whole days and weeks just magically disappeared, or were repeated!), but that only matters if I’m being really picky about it. The whole concept of the language of flowers was new to me, and I loved learning the meaning of each flower throughout the story (and there’s an appendix in back, so don’t worry if they’re not all defined in the text). Educational, emotionally gripping, and unique – what else could you want from a story?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen – Christopher McDougall

Ultrarunning (any distance beyond that of a marathon) is a somewhat unusual sport with an unbelievably dedicated cult following. Nonetheless, ultrarunning shares many traits of mainstream sports including elusive superstars like the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara are a tribe of indigenous people living in treacherous canyons in Mexico (due to both geography and sociopolitical upheaval in the region) known for their ability to endlessly and tirelessly run the trails traversing the steep canyon walls. Despite unsuccessful attempts to integrate Tarahumara talent into mainstream Western races, scientists, distance runners, and enthusiasts alike remain undeterred in efforts to learn from Tarahumara tradition. Whether analyzing gait, replicating diet, or speculating about the “heart” of running, much can be learned from the generational talent of the Tarahumara tribes. As Christopher McDougall prepares himself for the race of a lifetime – a one-off 50-mile race between a handful of elite endurance runners and the most renowned tribesmen – he tells the story and legend of the most fundamental human trait: the ability to run.

“Born to Run” is the sensational story of the peak of human ability in the most unbelievable circumstances. McDougall tells a lively story, integrating his own running triumphs and travails with legendary stories of runners suffering excruciating breakdowns and overcoming insurmountable obstacles. Although the stories often border on grandiosity (or spill over entirely), McDougall also roots his investigation in scientific endeavors and explanations. His attention to the technical aspects of training, nutrition, stride, and every other aspect of running that can possibly be analyzed is absolutely captivating for anyone with even the slightest interest in running. His tone throughout the book is that of the capable athlete who has accepted that he will never be elite, so instead he focuses on the love of the sport, infusing his descriptions with humor and sarcasm. The end result is enthralling, entertaining, and inspirational.

This book was a bit hard to get into because McDougall’s writing was a bit hard to swallow at times, but once I got about 50 pages in, it was almost impossible to put down. His approach to telling stories and overall tone were definitely the hardest parts about reading this book. He also makes some inaccurate statements. When discussing diet, he remarks that it would be best to “eat like a poor person,” by which he means that people should eat lots of fruits, veggies, and whole foods (not the store). What it actually means to “eat like a poor person” is to eat lots of cheap processed foods full of sugar and fat. When I wasn’t hung up on his writing, though, the book as fabulous. The stories about races, runners, and technique make running seem as riveting as it feels to me, and I really connected with the spirit of running that he describes throughout the book. Well worth the read, whether you run 50Ks, 5Ks, or not at all.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Renee Michel is the concierge for an apartment building of wealthy and oblivious tenants in France. She molds herself to the expectations the tenants, responding promptly to the smallest beck and call to run errands, complete tasks, or perform other duties befitting a concierge. What she does not reveal, however, is her reflective and satisfying inner life, stimulated by contemplating philosophy, enjoying classical music, and performing her daily tea ritual. Paloma Josse, a 12-year-old resident in the same apartment building, similarly disguises her aptitudes and interests. Before reaching adolescence, she has already discovered that life is a lie that people dedicate themselves to perpetuating. Rather than grow into an adult who is complicit in the deception of life, she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Paloma and Renee offer commentary on the habits of others while covertly pursuing their own interests until a new tenant arrives, which causes an unexpected intersection in their parallel lives. Kakuro, a foreign entity in every way, brings a new perspective to the apartment building by disrupting tradition and creating different possibilities. As a result, Paloma and Renee both find a new reality that challenges their previous ways of thinking and, despite the vulnerability and discomfort it may cause, encourages them to live honestly, openly, and fully.

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery is almost as much a work of art as it is a novel. Every page is filled with exquisite prose. Barbery’s descriptions are almost (but only almost) unnecessarily eloquent and detailed, vividly bringing to life the smallest task or most mundane setting. Amazingly, she never runs out of words. Throughout the book, she maintains the expressive tone of the story and characters by incorporating an unbelievably extensive vocabulary, which makes for entertaining and engaging reading. This is a book that cannot just be read; it must also be processed.

I absolutely loved this book, though I had some difficulties with it at the start. The story is told from two alternating perspectives, and for a while I was convinced that it was the same character at different points in time, which was quite confusing. Once I figured out the characters, though, the rest of the book was heartbreakingly beautiful to read. On multiple occasions, I had to stop reading to think about what was written on the page, and I was always happy to do so. I would have been even happier to discuss it with other people. Books that spark both thought and conversation are incredibly satisfying. If nothing else, you absolutely MUST read her page-long description of drinking tea. I read it three times in a row, and that still wasn’t enough. All around fabulous.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cowboys Are My Weakness

Cowboys Are My Weakness – Pam Houston

In her collection of more or less autobiographical short stories, Houston shares stories about searching for adventure out West. From rafting a river at the highest recorded water level in decades, to winter camping in mind (and limb) numbingly cold temperatures, to hunting Dall sheep all across Alaska, these stories cover the entire range of the western mountain existence. Of course, stories of adventure often coincide with stories of love, and the added element of personal relationships increases both the excitement and the danger. More often than not, the stories are the same, and seeking love is as much a part of adventure as thrills are a part of intimacy. Whether caught up in the exhilaration that comes with living life to (and beyond) the limits or the whirlwind of new romance that destroys every aspect of a carefully constructed existence, these stories thoughtfully reflect on finding yourself, losing yourself, and reconstructing yourself through adventure.

“Cowboys Are My Weakness” is an entertaining collection of stories about life at the limits. Pam Houston writes with bluntly accurate and witty honesty, daring to reveal patterns of behavior that perpetuate problems rather than solve them. Her tone helps convey the lessons of her stories because gentle, vague references of losing yourself for love more often obscure the subject matter, whereas direct statements drawing attention to problems help to identify and clarify what exactly is problematic. Her stories of love and adventure are sincere because Houston writes unapologetically and authentically with no pretense about having all the answers. Despite certain niches in subject matter and terminology (particularly as it relates to hunting, rafting, and other outdoor pursuits), the stories are relatable and understandable. Houston has a knack for finding misadventure and taking the reader along for the ride.

There are a couple reasons I really loved this book. It was recommended to me by a friend who has excellent taste in books and can generally be trusted to provide quality reading material. The setting and content of the stories reminded me of my time working at camp in Colorado, biasing my reading of this book with always helpful nostalgia. And the stories themselves are engaging and entertaining retellings of adventures that are on the outer range of activities that I would consider doing (but for now, I’ll settle for living vicariously). Not to mention the painful but healing self-reflection that comes with attentively analyzing these areas of life. Overall, I found the stories in this book to be funny, exciting, relevant, and challenging; a combination of characteristics that make for high quality reading material.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Girls At War and Other Stories

Girls At War and Other Stories – Chinua Achebe

This collection of 12 short stories from the span of Achebe’s writing career shows the diversity of experience in developing Nigeria. His stories address everything from the differential impact of free primary school education, to how men gain respect and reputation in the village, to how women behave during war. Each story offers a glimpse into the daily routines of village life, how dreams become expectations, and how reality lurks constantly out of sight with the possibility of either bringing to fruition or dashing those cherished hopes. One misstep and the village chieftaincy will be forever out of reach. One oversight and a girl can leave a neglectful home life and never look back. This collection of stories conveys the challenges, struggles, and miracles of life in rural Africa.

Achebe writes simple stories, choosing to focus on daily lives and tasks of people living in a developing nation. However, simple stories do not necessarily mean simple interpretations. Achebe’s stories emphasize the irony and discrepancies (and intersections) of personal choice, village politics, and national attitudes. He offers up routines and habits which, upon closer inspection, reveal discrimination, corruption, and the heartbreaking impact of living unknowingly in false hope. Achebe’s attention to detail creates a world full of relatable characters, lively settings, and familiar struggles. Although he certainly draws attention to nuances in village life in Africa, Achebe’s stories also highlight the struggles, victories, and defeats that everyone can relate to.

I loved this collection of stories. Each story is quick to read, no more than a few pages, and creates an entirely unique world with characters, settings, and problems that are both familiar and foreign. His stories also reminded me strongly of village life in Peace Corps, so my perspective on this collection is probably biased by nostalgia. Although his stories focus on complexities and difficulties of village life in Africa, the stories are relevant in any setting. Each story tells the truth of the characters in the story, which is the most important aspect of each piece. Take each story at face value, digest it fully, and consider how it relates to your own life. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 25, 2014

I Am Subject

I Am Subject – Diane DeBella

Women have a lot to offer and to learn by sharing their stories. Not the stories of how women are expected to be – those stories are repeated time and time again until they become a mindless repetition that numbs both the author and the subject. The stories women most need to share are the stories of their lives and struggling to cope with an unexpected reality. The experiences of women past are oddly reminiscent of the stories women continue to share amongst themselves today. Problems in the family contribute to problems in relationships, which all contribute to destructive coping mechanisms that may suffocate any possibility of recovery. One opportunity for breaking the cycle, though, is sharing stories to learn from the lives of other women. Part biography, part anthology, and mostly memoir, “I Am Subject” tells the story of the author that also happens to reflect bits and pieces (or entire segments) of the stories most other women share.

In “I Am Subject,” Diane DeBella integrates her story of being a woman with the stories and lives of women writers and also some of the students she has taught in her college writing courses. DeBella simultaneously explores and teaches how to make meaning out of adversity by learning from the experiences of others. She shares her own struggles and reflects on the similarities and differences between her life and the lives of other women writers and her students. Incorporating multiple perspectives emphasizes both the diversity and sameness of women’s experience, which builds solidarity while also respecting individuality. The range of experiences DeBella explores also allows women to connect to her story in multiple ways. DeBella honestly and painfully demonstrates the multi-faceted lives of women by integrating all these different pieces and perspectives. The overall effect creates a story of admission rather than confession, which is humbling in its vulnerability and liberating in its truth.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this book was the emphasis on personal narrative. Social work tends to pathologize human experience, but DeBella focuses on the story behind the problem, which needs unbelievable strength and courage to share so publicly. This book was hard to read at times for the way it related to my personal life, but because of that, it also had somewhat of a cleansing effect. When society would rather focus on the ideal image, taking the time to analyze difficulties, underlying motivations, and weaknesses offers acceptance and relief. Really, though, the best part about this book was the focus on personal story. It was a nice reminder that people can exist with difficulties without needing to label, diagnose, and prescribe because the fullness of human experience can never fit neatly into a box. Great book, I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

At the age of 16, Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal cancer. Her parents pulled her out of school three years ago when things were looking bad, but she made a miraculous comeback with the help of a drug that rarely ever produced positive results. Now she attends class a few days as week at the community college and also goes to Support Group in the Literal Heart of Jesus. One day, her Support Group friend Isaac, who is now blind due to cancer, brings his friend Augustus Waters. Hazel Grace and Augustus quickly become the kind of friends that blur the boundaries of friendship. They have shared interests in metaphors, novels, and trips to Amsterdam to visit a reclusive author who wrote a life-altering novel and then turned into a jerk. Hazel resists Augustus all the while, trying not to put him in a situation to be hurt when her cancer wins the ultimate battle, but love fights to be noticed just as much as cancer does. Suddenly and without hesitation, both love and cancer enter Hazel’s life in a way she has never experienced before, and she accepts both as inevitable in her life story.

“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green is a painfully honest novel of young love, young death, and the heartbreaking and inescapable consequences of poor timing. Green poignantly and humorously portrays the difficulties of terminal illness without emphasizing the associated hardships, problems, or pain. By turning insurmountable obstacles into daily routines, Green’s characters demonstrate how to accept reality without being defeated by it. Green alternates between writing with a youthful perspective and one full of wisdom gained through a lifetime of experience condensed into a few short years, emphasizing the tragic irony of the story. Moreover, Green gives life to his characters without being kitschy or relying too heavily on pop culture references so that the youthful perspective feels more nostalgic and wistful than contrived. Perhaps the most important aspect of the story is that Green challenges us to face our own mortality. Facing the incongruence of early death amid a life full of love forces us to reconsider our own priorities in life and how to incorporate them on a daily basis so that each moment counts for its presence and not just its passing.

This book is some combination of beautiful, sarcastic, cynical, inspirational, and eye-opening. As a young adult novel written from a young adult perspective, it makes for a very quick, but substantial, read. Green does not toss around characters, references, or situations designed to grab attention. Everything about his story is thoughtful and intentional. I felt challenged by how the characters wholeheartedly engaged with life and incredibly uncomfortable at being directly confronted with death and mortality, but these are important considerations that should be part of daily life for everyone and not just people with terminal illnesses. There were also quite a few tears shed on my part, so consider that your warning. Well worth the read.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Housekeeping – Marilynn Robinson

After the death of their mother, Ruth and Lucille are left with their grandmother in the small town of Fingerbone. FIngerbone is small, insignificant town where everybody knows everybody else and nobody really has any secrets. Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother is rooted to Fingerbone by loss: the death of her husband, and all three of her daughters moving out. Following the death of their grandmother, Ruth and Lucille are raised by two dotty great aunts for an interval before their aunt Sylvie, their mother’s sister, returns to Fingerbone to take care of the girls. Sylvie returns to the small town surrounded by whispers about a mysteriously absent husband and a past full of transitions. Initially, Ruth and Lucille are almost overbearing in their welcoming of Sylvie because they want her to stay. Gradually, their patterns of life gain some semblance of expectation, but Sylvie’s expectations differ drastically from Lucille’s. Ruth watches as their haphazard family falls apart from the inside out, irreversibly altering her notion of what it means to have a home, be a family, and live according to the expectations of others.

“Housekeeping” by Marilynn Robinson tells the story of living outside social norms while existing physically in the midst of social structures, expectations, and interactions. Told from the reticent perspective of Ruth, Robinson constructs a story and cast of characters that challenge the notion of home more by suggestion rather than direct action. The mere fact that Sylvie exists threatens to undermine the pattern of life in Fingerbone, demonstrating how fragile the notion of “home” really is. Through her writing style and characters, Robinson makes observations that are so subtle and accurate that they might go unnoticed by those who are caught up in typical notions of family. Every line seems carefully crafted to express the perspective of people and things that exist on the periphery. Robinson also challenges the dichotomy of home and wilderness, blurring the boundaries of separation so that it no longer seems desirable that they exist in opposition. The woods, the lake, and the train are all essential elements of life in Fingerbone, but Ruth and Sylvie give new meaning to these long-standing structures. Robinson emphasizes how accidental actions and subtle observations can have more power in their lack of intention than any purposeful reaction to deconstructing social norms.

Something about this book just feels right. The characters, though relatable, are not exceptionally remarkable. Same for the setting. The novel in its entirety has an air of understated but incredibly compelling veracity. It was also interesting to read from a social work perspective because I can see how, from the outside, other people would have to step in to reinforce expected behavior, so I appreciated hearing Ruth’s story from her perspective. Give this book a try. It might seem a bit unusual, but if it doesn’t spark some long-buried need for movement/wandering/change/insert preferred word here, then I’m not sure you are human.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Allegiant – Veronica Roth

After overthrowing the Erudite leadership, the factionless implement a new leadership system that strongly resembles the previous system in that it denies freedom of choice to the people in the city. Influenced by the video urging the people in the city to find a way to get outside of the fence, Tris and Tobias join a group of rebels determined to push the outer boundaries of their knowledge and existence. What they find beyond the fence is shocking, confusing, and just as concerning as what is happening within the limits of the city. A bureau of experts has been monitoring not only Tris and Toabias’ city, but many other cities as well. When the rebellion in the city threatens the stability of the bureau, the bureau threatens to take drastic action to maintain the status quo to the detriment of all the residents in the city. To avoid the destruction of their home, Tris, Tobias, and their group of supposedly loyal friends, make hurried plans and spontaneous decisions to subvert the actions of the bureau. With so many variables, establishing a plan with any kind of certainty is impossible, so Tris and Tobias must move forward based on assumptions, hope, and a dream of what the future might be.

“Allegiant” continues the pattern that Veronica Roth laid out in the first two novels of the series. The book moves unbelievably fast, each chapter is filled with unexpected plot twists, and the story has so many complex layers of uncertainty and half-truths that it is difficult to keep track of what is happening. In addition to adding new characters, relationships, and challenges, Roth also continuously broadens the perspective of the story. In the first novel, Tris moved outside her own faction. In the second novel, the city becomes the main level of interaction. In the third novel, the story moves outside the boundaries of everything that has been known up to this point. Tris moves through all these levels of relationships while maintaining integrity in her actions and singularity in her vision despite the changing landscape. By continuing to change the setting and level of interaction between characters, Roth emphasizes the importance of the big picture.

As interesting as the third book was, I also found it a little difficult to keep track and make sense of what was happening. Roth introduces so many new characters and plot twists that not only are the characters in the story unable to have any sense of certainty, but I also felt that as the reader, I was unable to wholly connect to any one piece of the story. Additionally, she changes the narration of the third novel and alternates between the perspectives of Tris and Tobias for different chapters, which was very confusing to me for probably the first half of the novel. Uncertainties aside, I did find “Allegiant” to be a compelling novel because it serves as a reminder not to get too comfortable with what you think you know. Very interesting, very fast, and very exciting.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Insurgent – Veronica Roth

In the second installment of the “Divergent” series, Tris finds herself in the midst of an uncertain revolution in which all sides clamor to take the lead. Tris and her companions wander around between factions, trying to seek shelter and build alliances for overcoming the threat of the Erudite. They rest and recover with Amity, network with the factionless and Abnegation, and seek information from Candor. Tris also learns about the Erudite when she turns herself over in an attempt to save others. As a result, Tris becomes familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each faction, but she feels less and less certain about who to trust and what the end goals of the revolution really are or should be. In the end, she follows the example of her parents, who fought for freedom of information, and Tris sets out with the most unlikely allies to recover and release the information that will change the lives of everyone, regardless of their faction loyalties.

“Insurgent” is a perfect continuation of “Divergent” because every chapter is quick to read and ends with some kind of cliffhanger, making it ridiculously hard to put this book down. Roth moves the story along swiftly by writing completely unexpected plot twists, which are usually the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, though some show up in the middle of chapters as well. Sometimes the cliffhangers effectively prompt continued reading, sometimes they are heavily foreshadowed (and therefore somewhat less unexpected), and sometimes they lack the full enthusiasm of a cliffhanger. Despite the variation in quality, the cliffhangers and pace of reading make “Insurgent” an exciting book. Roth also spends more time focusing on the differences between each faction, which develops the individual characters, the whole society constructed by the factions, and the storyline of the series. Through Tris, Roth shows how the traits of each faction can be both a strength and a weakness, and how the differences combine (or not) to (de)construct a society. She evaluates these traits without passing judgment, showing that good and evil are part of human nature and the social condition. “Insurgent” offers a bit more depth, a bit more development, and just as much compulsion for reading.

Overall, I enjoyed “Insurgent” a bit more than “Divergent.” “Divergent” is the beginning of the series, and requires introductions to characters and storylines. “Insurgent” offers more depth and development, adding complexity to the story. It also has slightly less violence and slightly more cooperation, which I appreciate greatly. I also felt that “Insurgent” provided more moments for critical thought and reflection by pointing out all the ways the characters and factions are both good and bad, as well as the plot twists of the overarching goals of revolution, and who to trust and why. Excellent considerations for how to relate to people, how to build alliances, and how to establish trust and integrity. Again, I find myself pleasantly surprised by Roth’s ability to do something different with young adult dystopian novels, and I also find myself eager to read the last book of the series.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Divergent – Veronica Roth

Tris lives in a world with clear boundaries and expectations. Five factions share the city, each characterized by a specific trait. Amity seek peace and harmony, Abnegation put all others first, Dauntless have bravery and courage, Candor embrace honesty, and Erudite seek knowledge. Children grow up learning the lifestyle of their faction, but they all take an aptitude test to help them decide which faction they will spend the rest of their life in. Tris’ test results are ambiguous, making her Divergent. Though no one will clarify what this means, she knows it is a threat and must be kept secret, so Tris chooses to be Dauntless, and excels at the initiation training for her new faction. However, her awareness of difference heightens her ability to detect subtle behaviors that don’t quite match up with expectations. Unfortunately, Tris realizes the threat too late, and by the time she figures out that someone has been making secret plans, factions have already collided to throw the city into panic and chaos. With no certainty as to who is an ally and how to stop the rebellion, Tris throws herself into battle fighting for the only thing she believes in – protecting the people she loves.

“Divergent,” by Veronica Roth, is an incredibly fast-paced book. Chapters are short and easily digestible, making it almost impossible to read one at a time. Although most of the book focuses on Tris’ training as an initiate into the Dauntless faction, it never seems dull or tedious. Roth adds enough variety to move the plot along quickly while also developing characters and storylines that I assume will have much more significance in future books. She also leaves enough questions unanswered to encourage continued reading based on sheer curiosity. Although “Divergent” has overtones of series like The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, and even whispers of Harry Potter, and some of the plotlines, especially the love interest, are entirely expected, Roth has contributed an innovative novel to young adult dystopian reading. Some plot twists were heavily foreshadowed and were thus more or less predictable, but Roth also throws in enough blind curves to keep the storyline surprising and engaging throughout the book.

I was pleasantly surprised by “Divergent.” I thought I had read enough young adult fiction to be able to accurately predict the ending of a book based on the first few chapters. In a way, I still managed to do that with “Divergent,” but there were enough unexpected and surprising events that I was hooked throughout the entire book. However, I had a hard time with the level of violence. Let’s face it – I would undoubtedly by in Amity, which is the polar opposite of Dauntless. Occasionally, I felt the level of detail describing fights and injuries was a little unnecessary. In general, I remain pleasantly surprised – both because Roth was able to do something new with young adult dystopian fiction and also because I was sucked in by the pace of the books. Fun reading for sure.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Book Thief

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Death spends a lot of time in Germany during WWII, helping souls leave their bodies when the time comes. However, Death does not just watch and wait for souls, he also observes life. One of the lives that happens to catch his attention is that of Liesel Meminger, the book thief. Death had taken her brother when they were on the train to their new foster family, and he watches Liesel as she settles in to her new life. Slowly, she learns to participate in life on Himmel Street by loving her parents, making new friends, and stealing when necessary. Suddenly, Max, a Jew who has been in hiding for years, shows up at the door to her house requesting help. Without a question, Max is given a home, albeit a small and cold one hidden in the basement, and as Liesel learns to live her life, she also learns to share it with Max. Her heart grows to encompass new people, a sense of right and wrong, and a determination to follow her own path. Death is watching all the while, for this is Germany during WWII, and when he comes, Liesel must learn again and again how to adapt and grow.

“The Book Thief” is a unique and original novel, and not only because it tells the story from the perspective of Death. The story focuses on a young girl as the main character, giving weight and value to her experiences, opinions, and impressions. By recreating such a devastating time in history from both the perspective of Death as well as the eyes of a child, Zusak creates a poignant, humanizing, and heart-wrenching narrative of coping and struggling to overcome obstacles in life while also facing daily tasks and challenges of adolescence. The story also takes on life of its own because Zusak paints with his words. Not only does Liesel use words to recreate outdoor realms for Max in the basement, but Max reconstructs her tales into stories and dreams while the whole existence of Germany suffers constant upheaval so that it becomes practically impossible to separate fiction from reality. This is a musical novel, an artistic novel, or the novel reimagined. It is anything, as long as it is not just a book because words have so much more value and life than just being letters on a page.

There are a couple reasons I really enjoyed reading “The Book Thief.” I loved the unique perspective, because I have not encountered previous stories that were simultaneously so relatable and humbling by having Death as the narrator. I loved it because Liesel was the main character and youth so rarely holds authority. I also loved it because of the wordplay, but this is not the same wordplay as Douglas Adams or Vladimir Nabokov. Zusak makes music from words, but this is a sentimental story and a painful topic, and beautiful wordplay is very different from the ridiculous wordplay more frequently encountered in novels. But that is a pretty small complaint for such a hugely compelling story. Definitely read this one.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem

Fermat’s Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem – Amir Aczel

In Fermat’s prolific life as a mathematician, he produced many theories and theorems, the most puzzling of which came to be known as “Fermat’s Last Theorem” due to the longevity of the mystery. In a margin, Fermat wrote that an+bn=cn cannot be true for any value of “n” greater than 2 (those are supposed to be exponents), but because of the space of the margin, he could not write the proof that supported this statement. Aczel traces the history of Fermat’s Last Theorem throughout the whole history of mathematics, outlining the developments in math that occurred before he wrote his theorem, and how it evolved after his death until the theorem was finally proved to be true almost 350 years after Fermat first wrote it. With brief biographies about each of the great mathematicians who helped expand the word of math and descriptions about how their theories contributed to the understanding of Fermat’s last theorem, Aczel outlines the various circumstances that lead to this tremendous achievement.

“Fermat’s Last Theorem” is certainly an intriguing story because it was a puzzle left unsolved for centuries despite relentless pursuit by mathematicians in every generation following Fermat. Aczel effectively hooks the reader at the beginning of the book by describing the breathless and expectant atmosphere when Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally proven, then proceeds to outline the mathematical history that made it possible. The evolution of math itself is a surprisingly compelling story the way Aczel tells it. Notable figures in the history of math were not only brilliant and revolutionary in their contributions to the field, but often lead personal lives that were as intriguing as their theories. However, the descriptions of the mathematical theories needed to solve Fermat’s Last Equation were not as compelling. Rather, they seemed unfortunately reminiscent of stereotypical math that confuses more than it clarifies. Although Aczel is adept at telling the history of math, his explanations of math processes left something to be desired.

As I tried to explain this book to various people, it invariably came to some statement about how “it’s really interesting, but I won’t remember any of it.” Someone responded by saying that he “doesn’t explain math for the everyday idiot,” and unfortunately, I agree with this sentiment. The history of math was surprisingly interesting, but I couldn’t tell you anything about Fermat’s Last Theorem except that it was finally proven to be true. I was stuck for a few minutes trying to discern the difference between integers, numerals, and numbers, and when it finally came back to numbers, there were even more to consider: rational, irrational, ideal, and so many more. Aczel seems to be making a lot of assumptions about the people reading this book. While the history is interesting, the math is not. Perhaps a different book would more adequately explain it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Moving Beyond Words

Moving Beyond Words – Gloria Steinem

Through a collection of six essays that could each be their own book if they had a little more room to expand, Gloria Steinem addresses some of the most essential definitions and assumptions of what it means to be both a woman and a feminist. Steinem starts with a gender-bending reconception of Freud’s life and theories (“What if Freud were Phyllis”), which is followed by an in-depth interview with the world’s strongest woman, finding femininity and personal strength in the world of bodybuilders. She addresses a blistering essay toward the advertising industry for buying out women’s magazines and filling them consumables and editorials rather than pressing news and important products, and also discusses class differences within feminism and the importance of revaluing women’s economic contributions. She ends the book with an essay on aging, coming to the conclusion that the most radical act of rebellion is to accurately portray reality. Each of these essays is united by a theme of redefining empowerment, reclaiming women’s value, and embracing change in the face of difficulty and uncertainty.

Steinem is an honest, thought-provoking, and inspiring writer. Her essays have a casual and relatable tone which gives her writing an intimate and genuine feel, but she also conveys information from a perspective of understandable anger that borders on rage without ever coming across too strong. She has no presumption other than the belief that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. While she writes to the universal experience of woman, she also constantly remembers the differences of class, race, culture, and other identity categories. The content of her essays varies as much as her own experience, and she somehow finds a way to make even census categories and paying taxes infinitely more interesting than they sound. With wit, insight, and respect, Steinem draws attention to basic, daily rituals and interactions that undermine the inherent dignity of an entire group of people and offers her own perspective, based on her own experience, on how to live in a way that counteracts these effects. Steinem writes persuasive and logical arguments that provoke both thoughtful and emotional responses.

Reading Gloria Steinem was fabulous for a couple reasons. I have never read anything by her before – or if I have, it has been too long for me to remember – and her essays were a nice reminder of why I believe in the possibility of change. She draws attention to so many things that I either take for granted or don’t notice at all, and it is important to be redirected to notice the ways in which injustice persists. She speaks to and for women with a humble understanding that she could never accurately convey or capture the experience of each individual, making her writing all the more relatable. Certain essays were more compelling than others, but if Steinem’s writing can make me interested in economics, then she is a pretty amazing author. All of these essays are well worth the read.