Saturday, May 18, 2013

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan

Rating: 4/5

It's not often a journalist tells a story of their own illness, and even it's rarer for one to do it with much objectivity. Cahalan has an advantage in this respect, since she has almost no memories of the acute stage of her illness (the month of madness), and so has had to research her story like any other journalist might. She interviewed doctors, nurses, friends and family, watched surveillance video taken during her hospital stay, and used journals written by herself and her parents to piece together the events that she suffered but cannot remember. She's added to that information the things she does recall from before and after the acute stage of her recently discovered autoimmune disease, in which autoantibodies attacked neuro-receptors in her brain, which resulted in an amazing number of bizarre symptoms, some of which could have (and probably have been, in others) mistaken for schizophrenia. I like that, even after going through this trauma and struggling with about a two year recovery, she realizes how lucky she was. As far as debilitating illnesses go, she basically won the lottery - not because of the illness she got, but because it was discovered and treated and she more or less got her (arguably charmed) life back. 

Susannah is by all accounts a gifted, successful and well-loved individual. Her million dollar treatment was covered by insurance and well-off parents. She had a very large support network that were incredibly involved and not one of them abandonned her. She happened to be able to get into a hospital and eventually be referred to arguably the only doctor in the world that could help her. She had understanding employers that kept her job open for her. Susannah was very fortunate, indeed.

This is not to downplay her horrible, nightmarish journey, which I bet a part of her is thankful for not remembering. She suffered, and the people around her suffered too. The story she tells is both fascinating and heart-breaking. For the most part, this book is fast-paced and smooth, but it also includes some scientific information that you may have to slow down to understand.

On a personal note: 
As someone who has suffered from (non-psychotic) mental illness since childhood, and debilitating, incurable and untreatable physical illness for the past ten years, I have to admit I was envious of Susannah. Her family and closest friends showed a level of loyalty and support that I can't even imagine having. These relationships have remained intact, some of them have even improved, and she has returned to the job she loves. She's even helping others by sharing her story and offering compassion and information to people who contact her with tales of similar illnesses. Once you've had chronic illness for awhile, you realize how preferable acute illness is, even if it is as severe as Susannah's. With chronic illness, family and friends eventually slip away, as do any dreams and plans you had for your future. Your entire life is reduced to infirmity and survival, with literally no end in sight except death. So yeah, I was envious, reading about Susannah's supportive family and ultimate recovery.

To her credit, there is not even a whiff of self-pity in Cahalan's story. She knows how fortunate she was, and how many others aren't nearly so lucky. She's extremely grateful to everyone involved. All in all, a well-written, interesting book that I would recommend to people who like medical memoirs.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dead Ever After (Sookie Stackhouse #13) by Charlaine Harris

Dead Ever After (Sookie Stackhouse #13) 

by Charlaine Harris

Rating: 1/5

Ughhhh. This book was pretty painful reading. Look, I've never been a huge fan of Charlaine Harris. I enjoyed the first few books of the series like I enjoy Cheetos -- it's total crap, but it's easy going down and kind of fun. There were things that annoyed me about Harris' writing right from the beginning, but I just tried to overlook them. The longer this series went on, the more these things bugged me and the less I cared about these characters. When I heard this was to be the last book in the series, I was relieved. I felt too invested to stop reading them, even though I didn't enjoy them anymore. It's like the bag of Cheetos was 3/4 empty and I figured I may as well finish them, even though I felt slightly sick and could no longer taste them.

I could tell very early on in this book who Sookie was going to end up with. I knew before reading it a lot of people were upset about it, and I'd thought I really didn't care who she wound up with in the end. But I'll admit, when I got the first whiff of it in Chapter 1 or 2, I was surprised to find out I had quite a negative reaction. It seemed wrong somehow. By the time they actually hooked up, I was more resigned to it and back to my state of apathy. It's far from the truimphant homecoming I assume Harris feels it to be in her own mind. But that's not the reason I gave this book such a low rating.

I've got to be honest - this was just a generally shitty book. It reads like a first draft, like Harris never went back to polish it at all. Maybe she didn't. It's sloppy, lazy, and often tedious. Do we really need an item-by-item inventory of Sookie's dresser drawers? This book was so laden with filler, the actual plot probably couldn't even carry a novella. As far as I can tell, nearly every character that made an appearance in the whole series was either mentioned or showed up in person to give Sookie a piece of the puzzle. And of course, each time someone popped in out of the blue, we had a short history lesson along with a "how's the family" dialogue, neither of which added anything at all. Every piece of plot information these characters provided (if they provided any) could easily have come from someone more centrally involved. Harris threw her story's integrity under the bus in service to her wish to have a parade of former cast members.

In this book, Sookie is downright rescued by everyone she's ever known (who's still alive). She does absolutely nothing to help herself besides play hostess to a bunch of people who inexplicably arrive in desperate desire to help her, and then, one by one, leave before the job is finished. While the only three friends that remain in the end are off tracking down people who are actively hunting her, Sookie leaves her protected house to go out for a fun line-dancing double date. I can't even. I just. No. 


See my reviews of 
Dead Until Dark (#1)
Dead in the Family (#10)
Deadlocked (#12)

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rating 3.75/5

I always meant to re-read this book, because I originally read it in high school, where I hated most of the "classics" I was forced to read (one notable exception: Tess of the d'Urbervilles). So when Stephen Colbert decided to have book club in celebration of the release of the new film adaptation, I figured it was a good time to give Gatsby a second chance.

I don't remember exactly why I hated this book in school, but I can give a pretty good guess: I most likely thought it was pointless and boring. Nothing actually happens until the last quarter of the story. I had no historical/cultural context in which to place this book. I knew nothing about that period in history. I'd also never been around disgustingly rich people (nor have I since, though I've seen them on television), or given much thought to this iconic thing called "The American Dream". Aside from the two years I lived in Tennessee in grade 2-3, I've spent all my life in Canada, where our dreams are probably less grandiose (grandiosity isn't very polite, you see). I was a hard-working student, and an athlete, concerned (to the point of constant anxiety) with excelling in achievements that didn't involve fame, money and pomp. I had no context in which to place the characters in Gatsby - they may as well have been aliens, they were so unrelatable. 

I've recently read some opinions online regarding whether or not the "relatablilty" of a book's characters is a valid way to evaluate a book. I think it is, though it shouldn't be the only standard. The Great Gatsby has many redeeming qualities that have been pointed out by others - its prose, its social criticism, its portrait of an era in American history. But I think the average teenager needs to connect with a story on a personal level in order to enjoy it.   And I don't know that a lot of them could do this with any character in Gatsby, without a lot of help from a talented English teacher. Which I obviously did not have. Most kids can relate to a Holden Caulfield, but not a Nick Carraway (who is kind of a blank slate, anyway), or even a Daisy Buchanan. I think this is an adult book, with adult topics, and if you force kids to read it, they are going to hate it and never go back to it, which is a shame, because reading it now in my late thirties I can finally begin to "get it". 

You might ask why I bothered to pick it up again if I hated it so much when I was younger. I've read a lot more classics since then, and learned a little bit more history. I have more context. I knew the book couldn't be as bad as I remembered it. And it's not. But it's not the best book I have ever read, either. I don't think there is such a thing as "THE Great American Novel", and even if there was, I don't think this is it. I think there is much more to America than the themes explored in The Great Gatsby, especially now. Gatsby makes a good-sized dent, but it's incomplete and one-sided. Maybe it's the Great White American Novel of Its Day, but it's not so accessible to a lot of people. 

The Great Gatsby sometimes reminds me of a television soap opera my mom has been watching pretty much since I was born - a bunch of bored rich people creating their own drama because they're so rich they have nothing better to do. I get that that's not what it's really about, but that's the window dressing, and it's so blindingly banal, it's off-putting. You have to do some work to get inside the house, otherwise you're just standing on the lawn feeling uneasy about what's going on in there. 

Look, I get it. Wealth, obsession, the American illusion, and I get why this would be a wake up call to people caught in the trap. I've never been in the trap, and in a sense my whole life has been an exercise in being Nick Carraway, looking at the illusion from the outside, sometimes drawn to it, other times repulsed, but always on the outside, analyzing and shaking my head (okay, Nick doesn't do "judging", so that's all me). I'm not a professional reader, I'm just a reader that likes getting sucked in, feeling involved, feeling a connection. I can appreciate The Great Gatsby's cultural criticism and often amazing prose. I can appreciate the 'snapshot' of a mass illusion in progress. I like Gatsby as a tragic figure. I can even appreciate a book that makes you work for it. But I don't really do book reviews. I do personal reading experience reports. And my personal experience reading this book was kind of "meh" until near the end. Which is improved from the "zzz" I must have had when I read it in high school. 

Recommendation: Get yourself some context before reading it. Know what you're supposed to be looking for, and why it matters, and you may not get bored.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Emperor's Conspiracy by Michelle Diener

The Emperor's Conspiracy 

by Michelle Diener

Rating: 2/5

Don't let the beautiful cover and the grand-sounding title fool you, this book is not a serious work of historical fiction. It's a bit of a period caper dressed up in finery. There's even a reading guide with discussion questions at the back, as if the publishers expect this book to be taught in school or used often in book clubs. I don't know why it would be. The only thing historical about it is the "conspiracy", i.e. Napoleon's plot to steal England's gold. 

The title itself is misleading. It suggests a wide-spread plot involving royalty, but it actually takes place solely in a small section of London, over the course of a week or two, and the players involved are entirely fictional. None of them are important historical figures, and yet they alone seem to be tasked with uncovering a serious historical event. There is no emperor in this book, and there's scant reference to his conspiracy until the second half of the book. However, the plot--despite not being as advertised--is a nicely complicated work of intrigue. 

This is definitely a plot-driven story, fast-paced. An author's blurb on the back describes Diener's writing as "richly detailed", but I have to strongly disagree. It just isn't. Much of the book is dialogue, and the rest of it is either action or (less so) character introspection. The descriptions are very minimal.

The character backgrounds are very minimal as well, and told (i.e. not shown) in retrospect. That is references are made to the past quite often, but they are often repetitive and just tell of significant events, rather than create an atmosphere and a scene. And only Charlotte's past is discussed in any depth. Catherine, who is an often present character, is ridiculously underdeveloped, to the point where she seems like just a device. We never even find out why she's a widow, or her thoughts and motivations behind adopting Charlotte. She's just some angelic guardian whose presence is the very foundation that makes any of the story possible. She's essential, but neglected. 

Charlotte also seems to be developed specifically to fit the plot, and I find it implausible that a character such as herself even exists in that setting. Not that she started as a poor street urchin and wound up a lady thanks to Catherine's benevolence, but that she is able to keep a foot in both worlds without having a tarnished reputation. In some ways, she is much too mature for her age (even taking her childhood experiences into account). She's too cool, too calm and collected, too able to maneuver without gaff in both circles. She has the poise and self-confidence of a matron. On the other hand, she's emotionally immature enough to mistake gratitude and compassion for love. 

Over and over again, she tells of how much she loves Luke, a self-destructive, murderous crime boss who stalks and surveilles her in the most organized and elaborate fashion. He saved her from the streets when she was a child, and she felt obliged by her gratitude to let him have sex with her from the age of twelve. Then he was seriously injured and ill, and she nursed him back to health. You'd think at that point she would have felt her obligations fulfilled, but instead she feels so sorry for him because he's chronically injured and impotent, and she still carries her overwhelming gratitude. She forgives him instantly for murdering people, and trying to hurt people she cares about. She says he's her family and she loves him like a brother. I say she's suffering from something like Stockholm Syndrome. The reader is supposed to think she's this amazing person for being so compassionate and forgiving towards him, because he's so tortured, but the man is an obsessed violent stalker who she allows to remain in her life out of "loyalty". Even at the end of the book, when he decides to leave town for awhile, she promises to see him when he comes back. 

The setting for this book is early 19th century England, but the dialect and the characters' attitudes are far too modern to sound authentic. I have read quite a lot of 18th and 19th century English literature, enough to know that Diener's syntax and vocabulary (for the upperclass 'nobs', anyway) is all wrong for this period. I know less about the culture of the poorer folk, but it seemed more authentic. 

Edward and Charlotte's romance wasn't quite 'instalove', but it was close enough to bother me a little. Fortunately, it wasn't the main focus of the story. 

The ending was rather abrupt and unsatisfying. We never find out whether Edward and Charlotte actually end up together. It seemed to be heading that way, but since she kept the door open for Luke's return into her life, and Edward has a problem with that, it seems there could be issues. The conspiracy, as well, was left hanging. Did they have enough information to find and convict the rest of the conspirators? We will never know. 

I gave this book 2 instead of 1 out of five because of the plot, the fast-pace and how quick and easy it was to read. This is non-serious beach reading, if anything. But there is a wealth of historical fiction out there, and I'd recommend somebody like Margaret George instead. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Romanov Cross by Robert Masello

The Romanov Cross by Robert Masello

Rating: 2.5/5

I hesitate to call this book a "thriller", because the first 275 pages were anything but thrilling. They were extremely slow-paced, even dull. At times, they even threatened to put me to sleep. It literally took half the book to "set-up" for the thrill ride. After page 300, it does become much faster-paced and action-packed, and as such is a much easier read. 

I have difficulty with authors who seem to want to prove how much research they've done by putting every piece of it in their book, regardless of how much it slows down the pacing. There weren't any huge info-dumps, but rather a lot of information spread out through the entire first half. As a reader expecting a quick, fun, light read, it took some effort to push through this. 

I can't fault the plot in any real way. It was a good plot. The modern-day characters were more or less typical of what you'd expect from this genre, and mostly likeable. The plainly idiotic ones drove me up the wall, ruining everything for everyone just by being stupid and selfish. People like that are a pet peeve of mine. I enjoyed the historical sections, about the Romanovs during the revolution, from Anastasia's perspective. I know absolutely nothing about Rasputin (maybe less than nothing, since I'm familiar with the lyrics of that 80's song) or the Romanovs. But I liked Anastasia and her relationship with Sergei. I thought it was a sweet romance.

I had a rather opposite feeling about the romance that developed between Frank and Nika. It seemed so pat, almost forced. These are both two extremely practical, rational, job-focused individuals, so it seemed way out of character for both of them to go from "he/she's attractive and has admirable qualities" to "I'm totally in lurve!" in a matter of days. Days filled with seriously distracting and important work. I really dislike romances that don't advance the plot and are just stuck in a book because the genre seems to demand it. I had a similar issue with the romance in another of Masello's books, Blood and Ice. 

The ending of this book was a little clumsy, a little cheesy, but mostly satisfactory. I didn't like how the (fire) gaff made Frank look even more incompetent to the other characters in authority. Even though none of what went wrong was his fault, he ends up looking like a bumbling fool who can't do anything right in the eyes of all but his team. And he just accepts that reputation without complaint, as if he deserves it. I'd have been able to keep my respect for him if he'd stood up for himself at least a little. Instead he's all "who cares if my career is over, I'm IN LOVE!!" 

If you can get through the first half of this book without resentment, you'll probably enjoy the second half. There is nothing inherently bad about the plot development or writing style (except I noticed a 'then' in place of a 'than' in one passage). I guess I just keep wanting Masello's books to be a little bit more engrossing than they turn out to be. After reading three of them, I think I will be looking elsewhere when I feel like a thriller.

See my reviews for Masello's The Medusa Amulet and Blood and Ice

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Rating: 4/5

"What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?"

Life After Life combines the notion of eternal recurrence (and Nietzsche's amor fati) with the well-known thought experiment: if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you do it?

Ursula Todd, born just before World War I, lives the same life over and over again, making small changes each time that have big consequences. In one of these iterations, she kills Hilter. In the others, she saves herself and other people. We witness the many variations of her death, which are almost always horrific and tragic. 

This book was difficult to read for two reasons, the first being the above-mentioned deaths. But that's also what's really great about it. As we read, we know she's going to die again, but not how or when, and that creates a lot of suspense. Watching her deaths also creates a lot of compassion for the character. The title may be Life After Life, but what really stood out for me were the deaths. Maybe that's just my morbidness showing.  

The other difficulty was the confusion created by the narrative. We are necessarily taken back to the past with each new beginning, but that's not the problem. Even within each life, the story is told out of sequence, with Ursula being one place and flashing back in her memory to previous experiences. There were also a lot of characters and places and details to keep track of, some of which are mentioned once in an early life and only referenced again much later. I have a terrible memory, though, so this may not be a problem for most readers.

There was a lot of untranslated German language, which I found frustrating. There was some French, too, but I was able to use the remnants of my 6 years of school French to figure it out. I'm completely lost when it comes to German. In the climactic scene, I had to stop and Google the phrase "Wacht auf, es nahet gen dem Tag," (Awake, the dawn of day draws near), which ruined the flow. There were a ton of other casual references to things I'd never heard of as well. Those parts were an alienating reading experience. Don't get me wrong, I don't expect everything I read to be familiar to me, but I do expect some context, some translation. Instead they were dropped into the narrative as though Atkinson expected them to be common knowledge to her reader. Not everyone is a history buff, but historical fiction should be accessible to everyone. Mind you, as frustrating as this feature is, it's not an insurmountable obstacle to reading this book.

Ursula's many lives are an emotional roller-coaster. Her family is extremely well-written, each character delineated and individual without seeming like one-trait caricatures. Atkinson does a pretty good job with the minor characters as well, making them seem like real people despite their short amount of "screen time". There were so many of them, though, it was hard to keep track. 

At the end of this book, I found myself feeling a sense of profound horror. Because after Ursula manages to put herself in a place to kill Hitler, and does it, she's born yet again. It's one thing to contemplate eternal recurrence, quite another to realize that, in the end, there is no end. Did she really accomplish her goal if she's born yet again, forever? Does she have to kill Hitler forever? By the dozenth or so life, her sense of deja vu was making her crazy. And it all seems so pointless, because when she resets, everything she did is erased. Even when she arguably lived the best possible life, she has to do it again. It may start out seeming like an opportunity, but eventually seems like the most hellish kind of trap. 

Anyway, this book will make you think, if you choose to. Or you can just ignore the implications and focus on Ursula's variations, almost all of which are interesting but tragic and heart-breaking.