book review

Brain Candy by Garth Sundem

Date of Publication: 2010, Three Rivers Press

Number of Pages: 266

Synopsis (from back cover): Tastier than a Twizzler yet more protein-packed than a spinach smoothie, Brain Candy is guaranteed to entertain your brain – even as it reveals hundreds of secrets behind what’s driving that electric noodle inside your skull.

These delicious and nutritious pages are packed with bits of bite-sized goodness swiped from the bleeding edge of brain science (including the reason why reading these words is changing your hippocampus at this very moment!). Shelved alongside these succulent neurological nuggets are challenging puzzles and paradoxes, fiendish personality quizzes and genius testers, and a grab bag of recurring treats including Eye Hacks, Algebraic Eight-Ball, iDread, Wild Kingdom, and Logic of Illogic.

Review: This is one of those books that never gets old, no matter how many times you read it. It also has an almost magical ability to make you feel either really dumb or really smart. I found out things that made my various and very weird idiosyncracies seem justified. Did you know that my fear of teenagers actually has a name? It’s called ephebiphobia. And I’m right in thinking that my boyfriend has the handwriting of a serial killer…he matches up well with the Zodiac Killer. And it seems my hours spent daydreaming are actually making me smarter! There are personality tests (I found out that I’m an intelligent, incredibly introverted, absurdly liberal neurotic), intelligence tests (despite the aforementioned personality test that proved my intelligence, I also seem to have a slight case of dementia), puzzles, eye teasers, incredible brain facts, and hundreds of other tidbits that altogether make for hours of kind of depression, often hilarious, and always enlightening fun.

Rating: 10/10

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Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Date of Publication: 2009, Nation Books

Number of Pages: 205

Synopsis (from back cover): There’s more to travel than good-value hotels, great art, and tasty cuisine. Americans who “travel as a political act” can have the time of their lives and come home smarter–with a better understanding of the interconnectedness of today’s world and just how our nation fits in.

In his new book, acclaimed travel writer Rick Steves explains how to travel more thoughtfully–to any destination. He shares a series of field reports from Europe, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East to show how his travels have shaped his politics and broadened his perspective.

Review: As a long-time fan of Rick Steves’ PBS travel show, “Rick Steves’ Europe”, including his special Iran episode, I was really excited to read this book. I was certainly not disappointed! Steves’ writing is honest, open-minded, thoughtful, and humorous. He challenges his readers to travel with a purpose, to go outside their comfort zones and learn what the world around them is really like. America does not have all the answers to the world problems…in fact, there is no country on Earth that does. What makes Rick Steves unusual is that he is willing to consider solutions from other places. Does universal health care in Europe really work? According to the Danish people, yes it works wonderfully. Does legalizing marijuana really reduce crime? Just ask the Dutch. Is America the only country struggling with immigration? No, just look at England, France, and Germany. Can we learn from their solutions? Yes. And they can also learn from us. There is no anti-Americanism here.

Steves also challenges Americans to look at the effect their country has had on the rest of the world. During three trips to El Salvador, over the course of almost twenty years, Rick Steves saw the effects of the brutal civil war fought between the leftist FMLN forces and the America-backed, right-wing ARENA party and their infamous death squads. The leftist rebels were seeking economic equality, something that went against American corporate interests. Today, the defeated poor of El Salvador still revere the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest who advocated freedom and justice, and who was gunned down in front of his congregation. Although this chapter depressed me and made me feel shame for my country’s leaders, it still didn’t feel unpatriotic, something that many of Steves’ critics have accused him of being. Acknowledging that your country has made grave mistakes and that those in power often have different priorities than the average American, is not hating your country. Throughout this book, Rick Steves strives only for understanding and peace.

This is accomplished not only in war-torn El Salvador, but even in Iran, that great “axis of evil”, as named by our rather thoughtless former president. Probably the most surprising fact about the people of Iran is that they don’t hate America. Yes, our governments do not agree on many things, and most Westerners find the rhetoric of the president of Iran to be, at best, horrific (such as denying the Holocaust, wishing for the elimination of Israel, etc.). But the people of Iran live lives surprisingly similar to ours.

There are many lessons to be learned throughout this book. At the outset, Steves makes clear that he is writing from his own perspective, and he stays true to this through each issue he examines. But even if you disagree with his views, you can still learn how to “travel as a political act”, how to travel with an open mind, ready to learn from those whose lives are different, who tolerate different things, and who value different things, and how to bring those lessons home with you.

Rating: 9/10

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Date of Publication: 1962, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Number of Pages: 211

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

Review: Having only very vague memories of reading this as a child, I was pleasantly surprised this second time around. I immediately fell in love with the Murry family, especially oddball Meg, who seemed to be a mirror image of myself as an awkward adolescent. This story is completely enchanting, from the very beginning, and L’Engle’s writing totally drew me into her world. I found myself tearing up at certain, heartbreaking moments in the story (I don’t want to give anything away). Also, I found that reading it as an adult allowed me to grasp the writer’s philosophical theme. Normally, I steer clear of books with heavy Christian overtones (my one exception being The Lord of the Rings), but L’Engle masterfully weaves together science and spirituality. This is not, by strict definition, a “Christian” book. Jesus is mentioned only once as being one of many people from Earth who have battled evil throughout human history. And it somehow delightful that the most pious characters in the story are the aliens of the planet Ixchel. The three Mrs. Ws (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which) act as guardian angels (and are referred to as such by Calvin), and various mythological names and beings make appearances throughout the story, a further demonstration of the un-religious (as in specific, organized religions) spiritual theme of the book.

A Wrinkle in Time is a book that teaches. It teaches the importance of love, as both a simple emotion and as a weapon against great evil. It teaches the importance of trust, as the children’s trust, in each other and in those around them, is repeatedly tested and shaken. And it teaches that the simple pleasures of family, friends, good food, and good health are all that are needed to live a good life.

I recommend this book both to children and adults, as it has lessons and delights for people of all ages.

Rating: 10/10

Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 2006, Penguin Classics

Number of Pages (including notes): 268

Description: Considered to be one of the greatest national writers of Japan, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa had a short but brilliant career in the early twentieth century. This collection includes some of his best known short stories, such as “Rashōmon”, “Spinning Gears”, “Loyalty”, and “The Nose”, as well as some of his lesser-known works. The stories range from humorous, to historical, to agonizingly autobiographical. The Penguin Classics edition also includes a wonderfully insightful introduction by Haruki Murakami.

Review: For much of Akutagawa’s early career, he delved into Japan’s literary past. The story “Loyalty” is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one’s master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.

Some of the more humorous stories include “Horse Legs” and “The Story of a Head That Fell Off”, both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa’s own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa’s childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, “Spinning Gears” tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa’s overwhelming despair:

I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep”

The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa’s tortured mind.

Rating: 10/10

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Date of Publication: 1993, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 169

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles – as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.

Review: First, be warned: this is nothing like the movie. Some of the characters are the same, but this book does not follow the same linear, safe direction as the film. Most of the events of the movie don’t even take place in the book. This is a memoir of the truest sense, in that the author explores simply her own understandings of her experience, her illness, and her surroundings. Kaysen’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, although not discussed until the final chapters, is the overall theme of this book. Kaysen, like many of her fellow patients, is straddling the line between sanity and insanity, between the world outside the hospital and the world inside. She identifies with both the other patients and the nurses, who each represent the world they inhabit. Even though she feels a kinship with her fellow “insane” patients, she also longs for the sense of normalcy that the nurses bring in from the outside.

Although she is declared “recovered” upon her discharge in 1969, Kaysen freely admits that once you’re insane, that other world never really disappears. It hovers around the edges, and even affects people who have never been inside a hospital, as if she carries a “crazy cloud” around with her. Kaysen explores the difference between insanity of the brain and insanity of the mind, arguing that each need to be treated differently. She also includes actual documents from her medical records from her time at the hospital, which provide an interesting backdrop for the narrative of the so-called “insane” person. This isn’t The Bell Jar. There is no real mental breakdown, no literary examination of one’s own insanity. Although Kaysen does explore her own illness to a degree, this is mostly an exploration of the dual worlds that mentally ill people must inhabit: the world of the sane, and the world of the insane.

Rating: 8/10

Chosen to Die by Lisa Jackson

Date of Publication: 2009, Zebra Books

Number of Pages: 460

Synopsis (from back cover): Detective Regan Pescoli has worked the “Star Crossed Killer” case for months, never imagining she’s be captured by the madman she’s been hunting. Regan knows exactly what he’s capable of – an avoiding the same fate will take every drop of her courage and cunning.

Regan Pescoli is unlike any woman Nate Santana has met before. But now she’s missing, and Nate knows something is dangerously wrong. The only person who can help him find her is Detective Selena Alvarez, Regan’s partner. As Nate and Selena dig deeper into the Star-Crossed Killer case and the body count rises, the truth about Regan’s disappearance becomes chillingly clear.

In the desolate Montana woods, evil is lurking. And with time running out, the only way to save Regan will be to get inside a killer’s twisted mind and unravel a shocking message that is being revealed, one body at a time…

Review: The story starts out with a bang…literally. As Regan Pescoli is crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, heading toward her ex-husband’s house, her tires are skillfully shot out and she careens off the road. What follows is a frightening imprisonment in the lair of the Star-Crossed Killer. Regan’s disappearance completely takes the sheriff’s department by surprise, and those close to her – her lover, Nate, and her partner, Selena – struggle to unravel the cryptic messages left by the killer with each of his victims.

There was a lot I liked about this book. The pace of the action is excellent, and the small-town characters are vivid and entertaining. Lisa Jackson is able to tell her story not only through action and dialogue, but also through images. The starkness of the Montana winter is expertly described, and even though it’s currently the middle of summer, I found myself growing colder and colder as I read. I could picture each and every scene in my mind with ease, making it seem like I was watching a movie.

However, I did have a few issues with this book. Some of the characters who seem like they’re going to be a significant part of the story are never alluded to again. One example is Grace Perchant, a reclusive woman who talks to spirits. She comes to the police with her psychic intuitions about the killer, never to be mentioned again. The amount of attention that Jackson gives her early on in the story made me expect that Grace would become a central character. However, she’s barely mentioned again. Also, this is apparently the second book in the Star-Crossed Killer series, and some of the characters from the first book (Left to Die), show up again…but for readers, like me, who had not read the first book will remain confused as to their place in the story.

In the end, though, this book is a terrific thriller with plenty of action. The suspense is maintained extremely well, with no slow sections. I did find myself impatient for the conclusion, but that is just more proof of how well Lisa Jackson is able to draw her readers in. I’m definitely going to be reading more of Jackson’s books!

Rating: 8/10

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Date of Publication: 1963, Harper & Row

Number of Pages: 244

Synopsis (from back cover): The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

Review: Probably the thing that scares me the most about this book is how much I relate to Esther, the brilliantly mad heroine. Of course, it’s not her brilliance to which I relate, but her madness. Sylvia Plath indeed makes Esther’s breakdown seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Esther is battered left and right by people’s expectations of her, as a woman and as a writer. All of these expectations are burdens, weighing her down until she finally falls into a dark hole. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.

Sylvia Plath uses the story of a fig tree to illustrate how Esther sees the many different possible paths in her life. One fig is the talented poet, another is the doting wife and mother, and another is the powerful editor….it goes on and on. Many people have struggled with the same thing. Esther feels pulled in many different directions (as do I). Her descent into madness throws a wrench into her plans, forcing her to deal with the imperfect person she really is. Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.

The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.

Rating: 10/10