Monday, October 15, 2018

The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars

Title:  The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars:  A Neuropsychologist's Odyssey Through Consciousness
Author:  Paul Broks
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0307985792 / 978-0307985798

Book Source:  I received this book through Penguin First to Read free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This wasn't my idea."

Favorite Quote:  "The human brain is a storytelling machine and the self is a yarn it spins."

Paul Broks is a English neuropsychologist. Neuropsychology studies the physical brain (the "neuro") as it relates to a person's behaviors (the "psychology"). Yes, I looked that up. It is considered an experimental field looking at the behavioral and cognitive effects of neurological disorders. Paul Broks practiced the field both as a clinician and as a researcher.

Paul Broks is also a grieving husband, having watched his wife battle cancer and sadly pass away. In her final months of her life, she chose palliative care as opposed to curative or life-extending options. This book is primarily a struggle to come to terms with this loss and this grief. As we all do, he applies what he knows to try and understand.

This book is many things. Personal story. Case studies. Religion. Science. Mythology. Fiction. Philosophy. And sometimes a combination of all of the above. It is a collection of essay like moments more so than a cohesive story. It is certainly more than the memoir it is categorized as. Let's take for example the first four chapters. The Prologue stipulates the organization or lack thereof; it likens the book to a "rambling, ramshackle house." The first chapter is his wife's death. The second is a traumatic childhood moment with his first experience with death. The third is a flight of imagination. So on, the book continues.

The book is composed of three sections - A Grief Observed, A Thousand Red Butterflies, and Into the Labyrinth. I deliberately don't say that the book is "organized" into three sections, for organization is too strict a term for the somewhat scattered collection. Within each section are individual essays or thoughts. It is almost as if the mind considers one, puts it aside, and moves on to a different one. That cycle repeats as the book winds its way from beginning to end. Even beginning to end is a stretch for truly each thought or chapter could be considered individually.

In some ways, this makes the book easy and quick to read even though given Paul Broks' background, the book does have a rather academic tone. Short chapters not always connected lend themselves to quick reading and the ability to pick a book up and put it down. In other ways, this makes the book a challenge because it is difficult to find or follow a continuity. It is a challenge, but then again, perhaps that is the point. That is often the process of grief as the mind drifts from thing to thing to thing attempting to make sense of a situation. I don't know if that is the intent, but that is what I take away from the book for I bring to it myself and my own experiences with grief. That lens allows my own interpretation of these thoughts.

Loss and grief is an individual process. It is unique to every person and to every situation. This book is Paul Borks' journey - not a literal description of the "life" aspects of that journey but rather a mental and emotional journey put on paper. An interesting addition to the books about grief.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Intermission

Title:  The Intermission
Author:  Elyssa Friedland
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399586865 / 978-0399586866

Book Source:  I received this book through Penguin First to Read free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Jonathan and Cass Coyne watched as the bride opened her mouth to receive the first bit of wedding cake, a four-tiered monstrosity covered in fondant roses and edible pearls."

Favorite Quote:  "Marriage shouldn't mean becoming one person, with each spouse swimming inside the other's private thoughts. No, the best relationship were built like Venn diagrams of two overlapping circles, where the only variable was how big the shared part was and how much remained for the individuals. The real question was how much overlap was enough."

The seven-year itch. Ok, Jonathan and Cass have only been married five years, but the seven-year itch seems to be what is ailing Cass. The term, which has its origins in an actual physical ailment, now refers to the psychological phenomenon that marital happiness declines and divorce rates climb around the seven year mark of a marriage. It seems to be the theme of this book.

Jonathan and Cass have been married five years, seemingly happily so. They have attended many weddings, always competing with each other to guess how long the marriage will last. They actually keep track on these conversations about their friends. They compare who predicted it correctly and who came closer. Of course, of themselves, they say theirs will last forever.

That is, until year five. Cass decides she needs a break. She does not want to separate or divorce; she just wants to take a break and think. Fortunately, there are no children involved as yet. The conversation, in fact, arises because one is ready for that family and the other wants to make absolutely sure that this marriage is the right thing. A custody issue arises, but it relates to the dog.

I find the premise of the book promising. A look at marriage after the honeymoon period wears off can provide a lot of food for thought. Two individuals questioning whether or not they made the right choice should involve thought and self-reflection. The fact that their doubts have roots in childhood experiences has the potential to add further depth to that story. We all bring baggage to relationships, and communications is generally deemed the key. In Jonathan and Cass's case, the key seems be an intermission.

Unfortunately, neither Jonathan nor Cass are particularly likable characters. That can still work in the story because perhaps it will be about overcoming and balancing each other shortcomings. Perhaps, it will be about loving someone despite differences. Unfortunately, Jonathan and Cass's both seem completely self-involved. The book tells the story from both their perspectives. I find Jonathan's perspective to be slightly more sympathetic, but truly find neither likable.

The book covers six months in almost 400 pages. Clearly, the book is character rather than plot driven. The plot, in fact, is somewhat episodic. Unfortunately, the main human characters do not seems to change or evolve significantly in the book. The intermission resolves - I won't say if it ends in divorce or reconciliation. Secrets, some expected and some unexpected, emerge; none of the secrets are truly shocking or climactic. The most interesting character sadly is the dog Puddles.

The consequence of that is that I end up not really caring about the outcome. To some extent, I end up feeling that no matter what happens, they do it to themselves. The premise of the book seems to be about how well you really know your partner; the book goes more in the direction of how well do you really know yourself. The lesson I walk away with is don't judge a book by its cover or a relationship by its outward appearance.


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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Warlight

Title:  Warlight
Author:  Michael Ondaatje
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0525521194 / 978-0525521198

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who many have been criminals."

Favorite Quote:  "I suppose we choose whatever life we feel safest in."

"Whenever my sister and I recalled this story, it felt like part of a fairy tale we did not quite understand." That, in a nutshell, summarizes how I feel about this book. I had a lot of trouble following the story. I got lost and never really recovered. So, here goes my attempt at an explanation.

The book begins with a story being told of the aftermath of World War II. The opening sentence sets a somber and mysterious tone that matches the cover of the book. I am intrigued by fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his sister Rachel. That opening pulls me in. I want to know more. Questions abound. Who are Nathaniel and Rachel? Who are their parents? Why did they leave? Where did they go? Who are the mysterious caretakers of Nathaniel and Rachel?

The rest of the book are in theory the revelations that answer these question except that for me, the history never really gets clarified. The book weaves through multiple time periods - the war, the time when the parents leave Nathaniel and Rachel, and a time years later as Nathaniel tells this story. It is a story within a story within a story. With character names like the Moth and the Pimlico Darter, this book sounds as though it is a children's fantasy adventure. However, it is not. This is a story of war, smuggling, violence and cruelty.

Historically, the term warlight refers to the blackouts during the war. The objective of the blackouts, of course, was to create an opaque, absolute darkness and to let no light through. If the enemy could not see you, then perhaps, they could not attack. To me, the title is literal - this is a book about the war - and metaphorical. Memories are a hazy view, clearly visible to only the one on the inside, the one in whose mind the memories exists.

The metaphor holds because I think this is a story about memory. It is a statement on the fact that memories are viewpoints not the truth, and they should not be taken as the truth. The confusion and the haziness is part and parcel of what a memory is. This story within a story is an adult Nathaniel looking back on his childhood. As such, he brings to his entire life experience, and he brings to it his imagination. As we all do, he paints in the holes in our memories with his imagination to create a complete image. Memories are our truth, but they are not the truth.

The result of this narrative perspective is that Nathaniel and the book tell me, the reader, this story. The "telling" creates a distance that is difficult to overcome; as such, I find myself removed from the story. Viewing the story as a hazy memory further widens that distance. The philosophical premise is intriguing, and I can see spending hours discussing it with friends. However, unfortunately, reading and trying to understanding an entire story based on it was too much of a challenge for me.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Lady be Good

Title:  Lady Be Good
Author:  Amber Brock
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1524760404 / 978-1524760403

Book Source:  I received this book through Penguin First to Read free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Kitty Tessler sat at the long wooden bar in the Palm on a chilly Friday evening, steadily losing confidence that her date deserved the seat next to her."

Favorite Quote:  "She hadn't known her world as well as she'd thought. She saw injustices, small and large, things she never would have noticed before. A certain group prohibited from this building. A muttered word to that person. If those were the things she could see, how much more was hidden? And the penthouses of Manhattan always towered high above it all, far away from the realities on the ground. But as she went out into the city each day, pieces of it began to seep into her. She took bits of her experiences with her, and they began to reshape the map of her home in her mind. She was newly arrived in a different world."

The lady in question is Kitty Tessler. Kitty's father Nicolas Tessler owns and runs numerous hotels; they live in the Penthouse of the hotel in New York. Yet, Kitty feels that she does not fit into New York high society. Her father worked his way to rich and is "new" money. The old money families still rule New York society, and it is definitely a closed group. Kitty's best friend Henrietta Bancroft belongs to such a family and thus has a status that Kitty aspires to.

The "be good" can be interpreted in many different ways depending on your perspective. Be good; in other words, don't rock the boat. Be good as in stick to society's established rules. Be good and follow what your father asks of you. Be good in staying true to yourself. Be good in moral terms.

The theme of this book is prejudice, along all different parameters and in all different directions. Two alternatives exist:
  • "Those who couldn't hide being Cuban or Dominican, or Jewish, didn't. They had to live with the restrictions or face consequences. Those who could hide, on the other hand, had to choose to bury part of themselves to be accepted. It was more than pretending to be part of the elite. It was pretending to be someone you weren't. Disowning and disavowing your memories, your home, and your family."
  • "I'm proud of who I am, no matter what doors close on me because of it."
The book puts the theme in the 1950s amidst a story of the ultra rich, the "high" society, travel, beautiful people, and a young woman who has led a relatively sheltered life. As Kitty emerges from her sheltered upbringing, she finds that the prejudice she faces, while hurtful, is relatively benign compared to the harsher realities of life. As she meets people in her New York home and as she travels to Miami and to Havana, Cuba, she is exposed for the first time to cultures and thoughts beyond hers.

To a great extent, this book is a journey of self-discovery and almost a coming of age story for Kitty Tessler. However, the plot puts her journey in the context of a romance. Kitty's father has plans to marry her off to protect his business interests and to ensure that Kitty has someone to take care of her; the guy is honest and sincere but not Kitty's choice. Kitty has someone in mind; he is a "catch" who will help her climb the social ladder and gain her the old money acceptability that she covets. Oh, he is also her best friend's fiance and not a nice guy. The best friend Henrietta has ideas of her own. Then, there is the guy who emerges from nowhere. He is not acceptable in any way, but.... Can you see where this is going?

The romance plots in many ways takes over. The statement about equality and prejudice is still made but in the context of the romance, making both less impactful. The end result is a simpler summer beach read, as the cover suggests.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The School for Psychics

Title:  School for Psychics
Author:  K. C. Archer
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  150115933X / 978-1501159336

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The Strop. If there was any place in the world as apporpriately named, Teddy Cannon didn't know what it was."

Favorite Quote:  "Life isn't fair, Teddy. but you have the change to make it just."

This book very much has a young adult feel at times. This comes from the formulaic setup. The main characters are a group of misfits. The main characters all have special psychic abilities. Some have known about this, and others like the lead character Teddy Cannon has not. Teddy knows there is something different about her; she has been told that she is epileptic. All the students have been recruited for a special school. This diverse group comes together, becomes friends, and are off on an adventure/mystery. Some teachers feature as the other mysterious characters in the book. There is a mystery from the past that has implications for this group even today. Sound familiar?

The biggest difference of this book is that these students are in their mid-twenties with the themes to match. Teddy Cannon, before coming to the school, is a Las Vegas gambler in trouble with the law and the Vegas mafia. Once at the school, the relationships between the students and even between students and teachers are adult ones with some physical relationships thrown in.

The other difference in this book is that the main character Teddy Cannon comes from a loving home. She was adopted as a child, but the story indicates that her adoptive parents love and care for her. In fact, they have dealt with her choices and decisions in a loving way. The mystery of her life is the identity and fate of her birth parents. Her adoptive family does not play a big role in this book, and I wish they did. It would be nice to see that relationship depicted in a stronger, positive light. It would also reinforce the point that even surrounded by love, it is possible to seek answers to the questions in your life. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The theme of a search for belonging and acceptance, however, is one found in this book as it is many other that follow this story line. Along with that conversations about trust. Both points are made. Everyone needs people in their life to trust. Every person must choose with care the people they trust.  Friendship is built on that trust. "I guess the skill I've learned the most is that I have to trust my team." The lesson again has very much a YA feel, not that adults don't need to hear it.

This book is very much the start of a new series because the ending is not really an ending. It is not a cliffhanger either, but rather just a pause in the story that must wait until the next installment comes out. The ending seems more the end of a chapter rather than the end of a book. It does not leave me excited as a cliffhanger might but somewhat interested as in I wonder what happens next. However, I also wonder if I would have to reread part of this book to pick up the thread of the story in the next installment when it comes out. Will I move on to the next book when it comes? Maybe. This one was entertaining, but I am not on the edge of my seat waiting for the next one.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Paris by the Book

Title:  Paris by the Book
Author:  Liam Callanan
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1101986271 / 978-1101986271

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Once a week, I chase men who are not my husband."

Favorite Quote:  "Stories provide a form, a mold. And a good story, one that's retold for generations, demands you pour the messy contents of your own life into it to see what happens as it hardens and sets."

A love affair with Paris. A bookstore. Two children's classics. A family. A mystery of a disappearing husband. This book sounds perfect for me. Unfortunately, upon reading, the book feels like a missed opportunity and leaves me wanting more.

Leah's dream has been Paris for as long as she can remember. She meets Robert Eady; their relationship begins because of a book set in Paris. Robert makes Leah's dream seem achievable. They marry. Years go by, and the dream seems more and more remote. Robert and Leah continue life in Wisconsin, raising their two daughters. Over the years, Robert tends to disappear for a few days, but he always returns. Leah accepts this. They call these days "writeaways," and they keep going.

Then, one day, Robert does not return. What Leah finds instead is tickets to Paris. She takes the girls and goes. Paris brings new clues as to Robert's whereabouts. Paris also brings ... well ... Paris, Leah's dream. Even in her search for Robert, Leah begins to build a new life, but is it quite what she dreamt about?

The ending is somewhat of a surprise, but, by that point, I am not sure I care. This story, for me, stops short of being believable. Leah and Robert stop short of being believable. Perhaps because so much is left unexplored. Robert has on and off disappeared for years, but no conversation really occurred between them about this. Things - a home, a job, a visa, friends - work out just so for Leah in Paris.

For me, the emotions - grief, abandonment, love - are described but not felt. Robert is not in the book enough to become real. The characters of the two daughters seem more interesting. However, this is not their story; it is Leah's. I just don't vest in her story. I keep going until the very end hoping for an "a-ha" moment, but unfortunately, it does not come.

The most intriguing part of the book for me is the fact that the path Leah and Robert travel is based on two children's classics - two books with very different depictions and interpretations of the city of Paris. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans was published in 1958. The story endures to this day. It presents an endearing heroine and a charming view of Paris with its drawn illustrations. The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse was published in 1957; it was a tie in to a short film produced by Albert Lamorisse in 1956. The book used frames from the film to provide the photographic background to the book. The story itself and the mostly black and white images provide a much darker and bleaker image of Paris.

A central theme to Leah and Robert's story is that one prefers Bemelmans' Paris while the other is more drawn to the Lamorisse images. This theme repeats again and again throughout this story and becomes my biggest take away. I find myself reaching for my copies of the classics and rereading.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, September 24, 2018

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

Title:  In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills
Author:  Jennifer Haupt
Publication Information:  Central Avenue  Publishing. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1771681330 / 978-1771681339

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The girl waits."

Favorite Quote:  "Family became more than just a responsibility to fulfill, and love ... is still the primary commitment that defines him."

"People say God lives in the ten thousand hills of Rwanda. During the genocide, he became lost in the Rift Valley. He wandered for ninety days, tears so thick he couldn't see straight." In the 1990s in about a one hundred day period, almost one million people were killed in Rwanda. It was a time of civil war, but it was more a time of ethnic war between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Hutu controlled the government and orchestrated the genocide. Since that time, the political power has shifted and discord continues; millions of both Hutu ant Tutsi still live as refugees.

Small Country by Gaƫl Faye, built on the author's own childhood, presents one perspective on this history. This book presents a completely different one. This story centers on three women. Nadine was a child at time of the war; she survives and bears the scars of what happened. Lilian came, disillusioned with life in the United States; she stayed to help and to make a difference, no matter how small. Rachel comes almost a decade later, searching for her father who disappeared from her life; Africa and Lilian are her only links.

The thread that binds these women together is Henry Shepard, the father Rachel comes seeking. Although his perspective is not present much in the book, he is, nevertheless, the one who brings these women together and who changes the trajectory of all their lives. Henry Shepard is a photographer, who sees life from behind the lens of the camera and from the distance it creates. The lives of these women are forever changed when Henry Shepard emerges from behind that lens and becomes involved in living life not just documenting it.

The setting for the book is Lillian's home, aptly named Kwizera. In the African language kinyarwands, the word kwizera means belief and hope. It is belief and hope that Nadine, Lilian, and Rachel all hold on to; it is belief and hope that keeps them going. Their belief and hope becomes a commentary on war. Victims exist on all sides. Enemies and friends exist in unexpected places. The impact lasts for generations and extends far beyond where the war occurs. We all need to find our own answers to understand and reconcile with events:
  • "Letting go of the past ... Not so much letting go as finding a way to live with it."
  • "Standing up for what's right does matter ... Justice matters."
  • "Justice might be too much to ask for. Maybe the best most folks can hope for is a little peace of mind."
  • "It is not so easy to judge the ones you love ... My husband and my boys did what was needed to survive ... _____ made a profit from the suffering. Who will accuse him in court? Who will lock him away in prison?"

Ultimately, this is a book about survival and about the triumph of hope and love, a memorable story and history that should be remembered.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.