Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Book Reviews from Last Time to...Now

Brain on Fire
Susannah Cahalan

Image result for brain on fireAn Occupational Therapist at work recommended this book to me and it was a stirring, visceral read. The author was roughly my age when her brain rebelled against her body, regressing her to a wall-staring zombie incapable of taking care of herself or remembering the month of her life she almost died. She does a remarkable job of piecing together those days off of hospital records, fragmented, fuzzy memories, eyewitness accounts, and faithful diary entries from her parents. Susannah pulls you down the descent into madness with her, blindfolding you to reason, sense, and sharing every intimate detail of her deterioration. The reader gains the benefit of a healthy brain to hear the myriad of medical tests and theories, but stays in the dark as she and her parents do until the real culprit is unmasked: Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. You feel exhausted and relieved as she begins to recover, and feel a satisfying sense of closure as she resumes her life a changed woman, but a recovered mind. 

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi

Image result for when breath becomes airFull disclosure: this book does not have a happy ending. We start toward the end of Dr. Kalanithi's story - he is sick, but the gravity and prognosis is unknown. As a health care professional, and daughter to a man who also died from cancer, this book hit close to home many times. It was a beautiful, heartfelt read. The author manages to take a heartbreaking, joyless topic and keep a positive slant throughout most of the story. He speaks to what he loves in his life cut short: learning, neuroscience and neurosurgery, writing, his background, his wife, and his family.  The story draws the reader along even as the apprehension of disease progression lurks in the background. I found myself wanting to read faster because of his masterful writing style, but dreading the relapse. His writing style waxes faintly melancholy and philosophical and when it becomes evident that he is facing an insidious, terminal disease. His book was left unfinished as he suddenly took a turn for the worse. The transcript was edited as minimally as possible, but left the reader with a sense of transition, not end. His wife, Lucy, writes the epilogue recounting his final days and hours, passing out of this life in the very place he spent so many thousands of hours saving others. I cried freely and extensively reading the final pages of this book, but his wife's strength in finishing what her husband could not stands as a testament to the profound impact he made on people's lives in all facets. This is the mark of a great doctor and a great man: a well-rounded, strong character who, even in his final months of life shares his experience for the benefits of others.

The Time Traveler's Wife 
Audrey Niffenegger 
Image result for time traveler's wife book I didn't see the movie: this isn't my normal genre of interest. However, the fluid timeline of the book bore merit for investigation. Overall this book held my interest. However, I wouldn't count it as a classic, nor as a book I would read again. I enjoyed scenery descriptions and the idea of their life in time more than the actual plot. I found the twists dramatic and over-emotional, and although I cried like a little girl at the ending, it was because of the father daughter dynamics fresh on my own father's passing, not at the authenticity of the story. 

The History of Love
Nicole Krauss

"Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering." 

Image result for the history of loveThis sentiment from the prologue charmed me from the first pages, and kept me reading, pondering, wishing, and connected with the book's characters throughout its packed intertwined story. The book is actually three separate stories, tightly braided together, which the reader at first knows no connection between, and gradually begins to draw inferences about as the book progresses. These are my favorite kinds of novels: the author is completely in control the entire time, but starts from a seemingly arbitrary place in the story to in fact complete a full circle by the book's end. Each story feels real, grounded, and tangible. I could picture myself in Leo's horder apartment, kitchen littered with baking supplies covered in a powdery flour dust. I could hear the radiator clanking of his upstairs neighbor, and picture his face when the door is opened. I could see the pre-pubescent girl, Alma, bored and curious, sneakily opening letters and innocently missing romantic undertones from her lone male friend. I let go of time and space and reality when the stories began to come together, and let myself be wrapt up in the author's oddly satisfying, but completely heartbreaking crescendo and felt simultaneously completely let down and at peace when I read the final page. I do not expect to reread this book looking for a feel-good nothing to kill time, but rather to again appreciate the work of an author comfortable with illuminating the hidden magic of the ordinary and forgotten.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
Charles Blow 

Image result for fire shut up in my bonesThis book was a total impulse pick off the shelf at the library. I was instantly drawn in to the author's deep south upbringing. The introduction was quick and fiery and I wondered at where the rest of the book was headed. However, Charles takes a step back after the introduction, going back all the way to his first memory, and gradually recounting his life from there. The story was full of lovely descriptions of his deep south upbringing, peppered with character descriptions, mouth-watering meals, and places seen with significance that changed as his world expanded. He grew up in abject poverty, but he never complained or victimized his upbringing. Instead, he openly, vulnerably presented himself and his perception of life in Gibsland. I found myself rooting for him, inwardly bracing myself for the trauma I knew from the introduction was coming, but taking delight in hearing his story. His tone reflected the setting of each phase of his story. I could hear his voice in my mind, sitting beside me on a rocking chair on a hot July day, sipping sweet tea, the sound of children playing in the background and old women rocking and gossiping beside me. I ached for him when his innocence was taken, silently, in the night. I waited as his character was questioned, forged, and tested time and time again, and willed his story to be one of success, not defeat. It is, and then some. Highly recommended.