Tag Archives: book review

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

brain on fireIt’s been a while since I’ve posted, but then again, it’s been awhile since I read something that I liked enough to share with you.  But Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, is definitely a book worth sharing.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan’s account of her mysterious neurological illness which essentially caused her to go crazy.  Cahalan went from being an ordinary woman in her mid-twenties who had everything–a job she liked, an apartment of her own, and even a new boyfriend–to someone her friends and family didn’t even recognize, both in physical appearance and personality.

One thing I found very interesting about this book is that it’s a memoir written by someone who has almost no memory of the experience she’s writing about.  It works because of Cahalan’s journalistic background.  She starts the book by explaining her process–she conducted countless interviews with her family, friends, and doctors and nurses, had access to surveillance videos taken of her during her time in the epilepsy ward at NYU, and used that information to build upon the few memories she had from that time.  The end result is a gripping, “user friendly” account of a medical mystery and how it affected her life.

Many times throughout the book, Cahalan wonders how many people who suffer from the same disease go untreated, resulting in death or institutionalization, and it is that haunting question that has remained with me as a reader.

Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Image from BN.com.


Leave a comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Memoir, Non-Fiction

The Giver

the giverOne of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to read more books that are considered to be classics.  I decided to kick off this resolution by reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a book that is a staple on many young adult reading lists, and that I feel I should have read long ago.

Jonas is an eleven-year-old boy who grew up in the Community, a place where everyone has a role to play and where people thrive on sameness.  Jonas anxiously awaits the Ceremony of Twelves, where he and his classmates will receive their assignments for their role in the community and take their first steps into adulthood.  But Jonas isn’t assigned–he is selected, selected for a very prestigious and rare role, known as the Receiver.  As the Receiver, Jonas works with the Giver to receive memories of things and feelings from “back and back and back” and Jonas begins to wonder whether the Community’s commitment to efficiency and sameness is wrong, or possibly even sinister.

The Giver is a story that celebrates difference by imagining a world in which everyone is the same.  Even if the story is rather predictable at times, it’s not any less powerful or gripping.  This book is a quick read, and I’m very glad I finally picked it up!

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Random House, 1993.

Image from BN.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Fiction, Young Adult

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

proust and the squid

Reading changes our lives, and our lives change our reading.

I am an English major through and through.  Science is interesting, but mostly over my head, and math–ha!  But the subject matter of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, convinced me venture into the realm of science (at least, the kind of science an English major can understand and appreciate).

The book is divided into three distinct sections: “How the Brain Learned to Read,” “How the Brain Learns to Read Over Time,” and “When the Brain Can’t Learn to Read.”  The first section gives an overview of the history of language, writing, and reading and how the human brain had to evolve to accommodate such developments.  The most interesting and important thing I learned from this section of the book is that our brains are not hard-wired to read; over time we have sculpted our brains into “reading brains.”  The second section focuses on the process children go through to learn to read.  In essence, Wolf explains how the childhood brain undertakes the same challenge in about 2,000 days as the collective human brain accomplished in about 2,000 years.  Finally, the third section examines the brains of those with reading disabilities, specifically dyslexia.  Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston, and this section of the book is where she brings in her team’s findings.

I strongly believe in the importance of reading in childhood, and therefore the importance of children’s literature.  There were a number of times in Proust and the Squid that Wolf confirmed this importance, and perhaps that is the reason I liked the book so much.  For example, she defends the merits of children’s books such as Harry Potter by explaining, “The worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts provide fertile ground for developing skills of metaphor, inference, and analogy, because nothing is ever as it seems in these places” (138).  Wolf also points out a study that found that “the average young middle-class child hears 32 million more spoken words than the young underprivileged chid by age five” (20) simply because the middle-class child is so much more likely to be frequently read aloud to.

I would recommend this book to anyone who believes in the importance of reading, especially in light of an increasingly digital world.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Designed by Renato Stanisic.  Image from Goodreads.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Non-Fiction

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

quietI have been described as “quiet” my whole life.  I am not the person in the middle of the crowd, I am the one on the edges, watching and listening.  I need time to myself, and I can only put up with large groups of people for so long.  I enjoy in-depth conversations, but excessive small talk wears me out.  In short, I am an introvert.

General opinion often prefers extroverts–the life of the party, the smooth talker, the one who exudes confidence.  But in Quiet, Susan Cain makes the case for the “quiet leaders.”.  She uses well known and influential people such as Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt as examples of how the world needs introverts as well as extroverts to reach its full potential.  Cain assures readers that introversion is not something to be suppressed like a bad habit, but simply a different way of viewing the world.  Cain stresses the need for an understanding of why introverts and extroverts act the way they do–an understanding that can result in a much stronger and less stressful relationship between spouses, parents and children, and coworkers.

I have never been ashamed to be an introvert, but after reading Quiet I have found that I appreciate my introversion and identify as such without hesitation.  I am happy to simply listen, and proud to be a quiet leader.  I feel that this is a book everyone should read, to see in a new light the value of the introverts in their life (or themselves!) that is so often overlooked.

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown, 2012.

Image from amazon.com.  Cover design by Laura Duffy.  Cover photography by Joe Ginsberg/Getty Images.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Non-Fiction

Trickster’s Choice & Trickster’s Queen

trickster's choice trickster's queenTamora Pierce has written many books for young adults over the years, usually with strong, independent female characters.  I have been reading Tamora Pierce since middle school, when a friend recommended I read Alanna: The First Adventure.  It was the start of a love to rival that of Harry Potter!

I decided to write about Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen instead of any of the others because they are the two Tamora Pierce books that I pick up over and over again–my copy of Trickster’s Choice has a few pages that are falling out and my copy of Trickster’s Queen has a ding on the cover where I dropped it on the street on my way home from the bus stop.  These two books and I have been through a lot together!

The Trickster’s series follows Alianne, or Aly, of Pirate’s Swoop as she becomes involved with a country seeped in racism and poverty and the family that could change it all.  After foolishly leaving her home, Aly is kidnapped by pirates and taken to the Copper Isles as a slave, where she begins to work for the Balitang family.  She soon learns that the Balitangs are not a typical Kyprian family, and something about the two Balitang daughters seems to be of vital importance to the downtrodden raka people of the Isles.  A story of intrigue, queens, magic, gods, revenge, and finding a place and a passion, the Trickster’s series could be called the Game of Thrones for teens.

This is Tamora Pierce at her best!  Give Tamora Pierce a try–I hope you love her as much as I do!

Pierce, Tamora. Trickster’s Choice. New York: Random House, 2003.  Cover art by Joyce Tenneson.  Image from BN.com.

Pierce, Tamora. Trickster’s Queen. New York: Random House, 2004.  Cover art by Joyce Tenneson.  Image from BN.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Coming of Age, Fantasy, Young Adult

The Book Thief

I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one of my very favorite books.  It is the story of a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany who learns to read from stolen books, learns to write by painting words on the wall, and who learns how to tell stories from the Jewish man hiding in her basement.  It is a marvelous story of death and survival and growing up, narrated by Death himself.

The New York Times blurb on the cover says The Book Thief is “Brilliant and hugely ambitious…the kind of book that can be life changing.”  It’s true.  I have never read a book like this one, and only one other book has given me such an appreciation of the power and magic of words (Harry Potter, just in case you were wondering).

I have to admit, I’m having a difficult time writing about this book!  It’s hard to describe the way I feel about this book.  Also, part of the wonder of The Book Thief is discovering it for the first time, so I think I will end by saying: READ THIS BOOK!

P.S. The movie adaptation comes out in the U.S. next weekend (Nov 8).  It looks really good, but please, read the book first, you won’t regret it!  http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi467773465/

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Jacket photo copyright by Colin Anderson/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images.  Image from BN.com.

1 Comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Coming of Age, Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Ender’s Game

ender's gameThe first time I read Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, I was in sixth or seventh grade and I hated it.  In fact, I hated it so much I couldn’t even finish it.  It has been many years since middle school, and with a film adaptation set to be released in November, I felt that the time was ripe to give the book another shot.

Ender’s Game is part epic war story and part school story.  Andrew Wiggin, who goes by the name Ender, is chosen to go to an elite school to train to fight the inevitable second coming of the alien invaders called “buggers.”  The students at the school are divided into armies and spend most of their time playing mock battles against each other.  Ender quickly rises through the ranks and becomes the best student at the school, despite his young age.  Ender never loses.  Could he be the one who can destroy the buggers once and for all?

The most interesting thing about this story is that the whole world is relying on a group of specially trained children to save them.  Card seems to be interested in the idea that wisdom comes from the mouths of children, so to speak, and that children are not to be underestimated.  On the flip side, he asks questions about whether it’s right to deprive a child of his childhood and to ask him to hurt, kill, and essentially lose his innocence for  the greater good.  For being a book that is commonly read by a young adult audience, Ender’s Game poses a lot of ethical questions and deals with heavy topics.

Although Ender’s Game still isn’t my all-time favorite book, it was definitely worth finishing after all this time.  It’s a classic of the genre, and I encourage everyone to give it a shot!

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1977.

Cover art by Sam Weber.  Image from Amazon.com.


Filed under Bookshelf, Coming of Age, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow

potluck supper with meeting to followPotluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, by Andy Sturdevant, is funny, authentic, and completely original.  Although Sturdevant isn’t originally from Minnesota, his collection of essays represents Minnesota and the Twin Cities beautifully. In fact, many, if not most of the essays actually taught me something about the Twin Cities’ art scene, history, and/or culture, and I’ve lived in the Cities all my life!

The essays cover a variety of topics, from the life and times of the resident artist of the Metrodome (that no one I know even knew existed) in “Dome Light: The Life and Art of Martin Woodrich;” to an examination of the portraits of every one of Minnesota’s governors that hang in the capitol building in “‘Have a seat, citizen, I’m here to help’: The Completist’s Guide to the Thirty-Nine Gubernatorial Portraits of the Minnesota State Capitol;” to a rather heated email exchange between Sturdevant and the Senior Associate Director of Marketing and Brand Communications of Buffalo Wild Wings in “‘Don’t you think it’s extremely arrogant to presume that because I enjoy the music of Wayne County & the Electric Chairs I am somehow obligated to share your worldview?'”  There is something in this book to make everyone at least crack a smile!

Sturdevant’s voice is amazingly clear.  I was fortunate enough to attend a reading of this book, and as Sturdevant read I realized that hearing the essays in his own voice was exactly the same as I had heard them in my head while reading.  He has a knack for seeing things as they really are and describing them in such a way that the reader feels like Sturdevant has written down a feeling they’ve always had but have never been able to articulate.

Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow is the kind of book that will make you laugh out loud, and that is my favorite kind of book!  If you are Minnesotan, this book should be required reading, and if you’re not Minnesotan, well, you should read it anyways because you just might get an idea of why we all choose to live here despite below-zero temperatures half the year!

Sturdevant, Andy. Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2013.

Cover and book design by Andy Sturdevant and Linda Koutsky.  Image from coffeehousepress.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Essays, Non-Fiction

Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

angel de la lunaAngel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, by M. Evelina Galang, is a beautifully unique young adult novel, set in the Philippines.  After her father dies and her mother moves to the U.S. to pursue the American dream, Angel has to come to grips with her new role as head of the family.  As she settles into this new role, she comes to learn more about herself, her country, and what she believes in.  She finds a place and a purpose, but before long her life is uprooted again when her mother sends for her to come and live in Chicago.  Angel struggles in Chicago, with a new family, a new school, new friends, and even a new language.  She acts out and expresses herself the only way she knows how–by playing the drums like her father taught her.  She has to find who she is in America, and more importantly, she has to learn how to forgive.

Galang is a strong storyteller.  She has created a heroine who is truly original and has given her the sort of life most people can hardly imagine.  Angel is recognizable as an ordinary teen girl who makes mistakes, but is also a great role model; she is smart, responsible, and even involved in politics.  The story is split into two sections (the first set in the Philippines and the second set in Chicago), and this abrupt setting change helps the reader and Angel herself discover her identity and what really matters in life.

Galang is a well known and highly respected Filipina-American, and she has written a contemporary young adult classic.  While I felt that the story started off a little slow, it truly blossomed into the sort of story that makes you think and that sticks with you even after you’ve turned the last page!

Galang, M. Evelina. Angel De La Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2013.

Cover and book design by Linda S. Koutsky.  Cover copyright Niki Escobar.  Image from coffeehousepress.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Coming of Age, Fiction, Young Adult

The Color Master

the color masterI don’t tend to read short story collections very often, generally gravitating towards novels, but an intriguing recommendation from a friend led me to pick up Aimee Bender’s The Color Master.  And I am glad I listened to her, because her recommendation led me to one of my new favorite books!

I think what drew me into this collection more than others was the sense of fairy tale that ran throughout the stories.  Aimee Bender writes in a clear, engaging way and has a brilliant imagination that enchants the reader.  While at first glance each story is about ordinary people living ordinary lives, there is a spark of magic in every story that makes them something special.  In one story, a talented seamstress is hired to mend tigers; in another a girl meets a stranger who happens to have a ring exactly like the one she threw in the river years ago; and in the title piece, the workers at a tailor shop strive to create the perfect blend of colors to make dresses the color of the moon, sun, and sky.

I look forward to checking out Aimee Bender’s other work, and while I was not a fan of short story collections before, after reading The Color Master I’ve been converted, and I certainly am now!

Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Book design by Maria Carella.  Jacket design by Emily Mahon.  Tactile typographic art copyright Dominique Falla.  Image from BN.com.

1 Comment

Filed under Bookshelf, Fiction, Short Stories