Review of Mexico by Josh Barkan

I’m not usually drawn to collections of short stories however, after my local Barnes and Noble rearranged the ENTIRE fiction section, I made this rather rash book buying decision. Luckily, this ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made. Mexico follows the stories of various characters who are simply living their lives and trying their best to avoid the violence surrounding the. Regardless of their best efforts to do the right thing and make the best lives for themselves, the violence manages to impact their decisions and day-to-day experiences.

The reason I usually steer clear of short story collections is because I feel as though they can be disjointed. Just as I feel connected to the characters in one story, it’s time to move onto the next one which I find very frustrating. Barkan, on the other hand, created a truly cohesive and moving collection of vignettes. He manages to transport the reader within each story with the strong, unique voices of each character and reaches a level a closure as the end of each one which allows for a seamless transition onto the next story. Furthermore, each story leaves the reader wrestling with the question of what really is the right thing to do in many of the circumstances each character faces, among other important questions about the human condition. Ultimately, the organic way in which Barkan captures how the violence from the cartels manages to snake its way into the lives of even the most innocent individuals is what makes this book so unique.

Mexico is a truly remarkable collection of short stories. I could not but this book down for the life of me because I was so moved by each characters story. Despite being a work of fiction, Mexico offers a refreshing perspective on what Mexican citizens are enduring in their day to day lives. If you’re looking for a book that no other collection of short stories will compare to, be sure to bump Barkan’s Mexico to the top of your reading list. You won’t regret it.

5 out of 5 stars

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Review of Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

I am an absolute sucker for a good story about man’s best friend so when I happened about Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus at my local public library, I couldn’t help myself. To put it simply, this story is about a man named Ted whose best friend is his aging dachshund named Lily. After discovering a tumor, or “octopus,” on her head, Ted struggles to come to terms with losing the one thing he never imagined life without.

As someone who lost a four-legged friend to an octopus of her own, I thought Rowley did a phenomenal job of capturing the unique bond between a person and their dog as well as the heart-wrenching moments when you are forced to say goodbye. However, I thoughts the personification of Lily’s brain tumor as an octopus watered down the significance of Ted and Lily’s relationship. As cheesy as it may sound, I found myself longing for a montage that showed how Lily has helped Ted through his various struggles. Instead, the reader is left to navigate these seemingly never-ending, elaborate, octopus-destroying fantasies that left me very confused. While I understand that referring to the tumor as an”octopus” was a coping mechanism for Ted, there were many moments, such as the inflatable shark bit, where I thought it went too far and absolutely overpowered what could have been a truly remarkable story.

While I do find Steven Rowley to be a very talented writer overall, I believe this story could have been a lot better. To put this book in the same league as Life of Pi simply because they both feature fantastical relationships between man and animals is absolutely ridiculous in my opinion. While Yann Martel’s Life of Pi offered eloquent and thought-provoking commentary on the human condition, Steven Rowley’s “octopus” did nothing more than detract from the beautiful relationship between Ted and Lily.

3 out of 5 stars

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Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers

GoodReads Summary: 
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America–even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

Review:
The Circle was both gripping and eerie. When I first started reading this novel, I felt a similar sinking feeling in my stomach as I did when I started B.A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors. I knew something was off, but I could’t figure out what was exactly making me feel so uneasy. The descriptive language that Egger uses is unique and crucial to creating this world within The Circle that the reader quickly recognizes as too good to be true but somehow seems unstoppable.

Through this ultra-connected dystopia, Eggers makes some very important social commentary, by showing just how damaging this can be. He clearly demonstrates how easily we can get caught up in our online presence that we lose touch with our ability to converse in real life with out the added “watchers” of people in our social networks. Furthermore, we have gotten to the point where we are more willing to spend hours stalking someone on social media to find out more about a person instead of simply communicating with them directly, just as Mae felt the need to do as the novel progressed. Mercer’s character also demonstrates just how resistant some people can be to technological advances. Although in this particular case Mercer rightfully recognized the ramifications of The Circle, his actions speak volumes about individuals in today’s society who resist both social change and technological advances on principle.

As for the main character, Mae Holland, I was quite disappointed with her. She seemed so strong-willed and capable of beating to her own drum even within the confines of The Circle that I firmly believes that she would be this story’s heroine. However, the way in which she was so easily absorbed into the faux-community culture and inner workings of The Circle despite seeing all that it was capable of was extremely frustrating to me. The Circle cost her so much, including her parents, that it was just hard for me to respect her as the novel went on.

Overall, I was absolutely fascinated with this book. Although it was published a few years ago, I feel as though the social commentary that this novel makes is even more relevant now as we continue to become increasingly connected in today’s world. If you’re looking for a book that is somewhere between George Orwell’s 1984 and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Pretties, and Specials trilogy, I would highly recommend The Circle by Dave Eggers.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

After the results of the 2016 election, I found myself asking one question repeatedly: how did this happen? I was very troubled by the fact that many of my fellow Americans voted for a man who, in my opinion, used incredibly hateful rhetoric during a campaign that was otherwise filled with a lack of productive ideas to move this country forward. However, through my own frustrations and disappointment with Mr. Trump, I failed to genuinely consider how some of what he said may have been exactly what many middle Americans had been waiting to hear for a long time. To begin to understand his appeal to voters in the Rust Belt, I reached for J.D. Vance’s memoir entitled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. 

In this memoir, Vance eloquently chronicles his life growing up in the poor Appalachian town of Middletown, OH. Through the lens of his rather tumultuous childhood Vance offers poignant sociological commentary on the inner workings of the white working class and its overall decline over the past four decades.

JD Vance writes in a way that is incredibly thought-provoking and moving. His story humanizes a group of people that are often cast aside and misunderstood, especially by New Englanders and people of color like myself. As he reveals his complicated family life and struggle with living at or below the poverty line, Vance astutely draws connections between the problems facing the white working class and other extremely marginalized groups such as African Americans. Furthermore, his introspective reflection on the impact that “hillbilly culture” has on upward mobility was particularly interesting and important to my understanding of the Vance family and the white working class in general.

Ultimately, I reached for this book to lean about a group of people that I may have jumped to conclusions about, and Vance did not disappoint. I realized that many of the experiences that many members of the white working class with shared with some of the other marginalized groups in this country. If you’re looking to read a truly eye-opening story that will leave you with a greater understanding of your fellow Americans in Appalachia, look no further.

5 out of 5 stars

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***

“To understand the significance of this cultural detachment, you must appreciate that much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country…Mamaw and Papaw taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood. Whenever times were tough–when I felt overwhelmed by the drama and the tumult of my youth–I knew that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to made the good choices that others hadn’t…If Mamaw’s second God was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to religion. The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired me, had seemingly vanished…President Obama came on the scene right when so many people in my community began to believe that the modern meritocracy was not built for them.”
-p. 189-91.

Review of The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens

The Guise of Another is Allen Eskens’ second book (which I accidentally read third), which is centered around an identity theft case that falls into the lap of Detective Alexander Rupert at a rather trying time in his life. He has been temporarily reassigned to the Fraud Unit, pending his appearance in front of a grand jury for corruption charges. As this cases evolves into much more than a typical identity theft case, Alexander’s quest for a key piece of evidence make him trained assassin Drago Basta’s next target. As things begin to spiral out of control, it is up to Alexander’s brother, Detective Max Rupert to try and clean up the mess that this investigation unleashes.

Maybe it is because I read the books out of order and was coming off the high of The Heavens May Fall, but this book was a bit of a disappointment for me. Part of the reason I have been particularly drawn to Eskens’ books in the past is his ability to create a cast of beautifully flawed characters that you can’t help but root for. However, with Alexander’s corruption charges and otherwise shady behavior that continues throughout the book, I found it hard to find him deserving of this big break of a case. Moreover, the villain Drago Basta is so cold and heartless in everything that he does, I struggled to be captivated in moments that he was the driving force of the story.

As always Eskens’ background as a criminal defense attorney helped root this ridiculously twisted case that stretched across state lines in reality and in all honestly, this writing style was probably one of the only reasons I was able to finish this book. Although I am grateful to now have the background of what happened to Alexander that I needed before picking up The Heavens May Fall, I don’t think was Eskens’ best work. The Life We Bury and The Heavens May Fall were far superior in my opinion. That being said, I hope that we haven’t seen the last of Eskens and the wonderful characters that he creates and I look forward to reading anything he writes in the future. Stay tuned for my review of The Heavens May Fall in the next few days and as always, let me know your thoughts on this book or anything that you’re reading in the comments below.

3.5 out of 5 stars 

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Review of The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I requested The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen because although I didn’t read his first novel The Sympathizer, it was so highly regarded that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his latest work. The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories featuring the voice of Vietnamese refugees who are navigating their new country and those who were left behind in Ho Chi Minh City.

In all honesty, I couldn’t bring myself to finish this book. Although I really enjoyed and admired Nguyen’s writing style, I really struggled to connect with the experiences that characters were enduring. My knowledge of the Vietnam War does not extend much further that whatever we learned in eighth grade history class, so I think my ignorance of what the Vietnamese people truly experienced prevented me from being captivated by this novel. Furthermore, as a reader, I struggle with the lack of continuity and cohesiveness in collections of short stories. As strange as it may sound, I find it very challenging to keep having to reset every few dozen pages and open my heart to new characters, only to have them disappear so quickly. That being said, The Refugees is definitely a novel I would return to after I brushed up on my history because Nguyen did a remarkable job in creating depth and giving warmth to the characters he introduced in such a confined space.

Despite my high hopes for this novel, The Refugees fell quite short for me. However, for those of you out there who loved The Sympathizer and have a strong understanding of the impact of the Vietnam War, I think you will be very impressed with itNguyen writes with a whimsical style that is very impressive, however the overall context of the short stories failed to draw me in. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on Nguyen’s first novel The Sympathizer if you think I should give it a chance and The Refugees hits stores on February 7th!

2 out of 5 stars

**A special thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced review copy in return for an honest review**

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Review of Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou

As strange as it may sound, I became intrigued with Maya Angelou after her passing in 2014. A few months before her passing, she had scheduled a speaking engagement at my alma mater, only to cancel due to her declining health. I was so looking forward to finally seeing and learning from this remarkable woman whose name was tied to one of my favorite quotes of all time: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” After missing this opportunity to see her in person, I was so excited to receive Letter to My Daughter in my stocking this Christmas because it felt like a second chance to learn how to live my life as she did.

In a series of over twenty essays, Letter to My Daughter gives glimpses of the rather challenging life of Maya Angelou and the variety of lessons she learned as she endured these different experiences. From becoming a mother at the young age of sixteen, to simply learning to navigate the world as a six foot tall black woman who stood out in so many ways, Maya Angelou offers wisdom that shows women of all colors and from all backgrounds how to lead a meaningful life.

Although I loved every moment of this book, the essay that resonated the most with me was the one entitled “Fannie Lou Hamer,” who was a civil rights activist who fought vehemently for the right to vote for African Americans. It is in this essay which Angelou says:

“I believe that there lives a burning desire in the most sequestered private hearts of every American, a desire to belong to a great country. I believe that every citizen wants to stand on the world stage and represents a noble country, where the mighty do not always crush the weak and the dream of a democracy is not the sole possession of the strong.”

As we quickly approach the inauguration of a man who campaigned on hate, xenophobia, and divisiveness, it is very easy to lash out against those who supported him. However, this quote gives me hope. These words remind me that regardless of who you voted for on this past election day, you felt in your heart that you were placing your support behind someone who would make you proud to be an American. Although I will continue to speak out against injustices and vulgarities, as Maya Angelou also encouraged, it is through these words that I can begin to understand the very things that divide us in this country.

Ultimately, Letter to My Daughter is required reading for every mom and daughter out there. I encourage everyone to wrap themselves in the warmth of Maya Angelou’s words in this collection of essays. You won’t be sorry 🙂 As always let me know if the comments below your thoughts and check back on Thursday for my thoughts on Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur.

4.5 out of 5 stars 

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Review of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a letter to his fifteen year old son in which he discusses race in America. Specifically, he touches on the Black Lives Matter movement, the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and the various institutions that have systematically oppressed black people for centuries. He confronts and analyzes these issues within his own experiences as a young black man growing up in Baltimore as well as his time surrounded by black excellence at Howard University. It is through this analysis that Coates attempts to answer the many “whys” and “hows” that his son and people of color in general have been asking for years.

The idea that black bodies are so easily destroyed without a second thought and have been for years is such an important concept which Coates beautifully illustrates. Furthermore, Coates eloquently and accurately cites much of America’s relentless oppression of black as a way to keep the guilt free “dream” of white America alive because to acknowledge and validate the problems facing black Americas is to take responsibility for this continued oppression.

Coates repeatedly talks about how inspiring the words of Malcolm X were to him and frankly, Coates had the same effect on me. With each page, I found myself nodding and smiling because he verbalized and validated frustrations I couldn’t find the words for and brought attention to just how heavy the weight of centuries of oppression can be on people of color. To put it simply, I am incredibly grateful for this Coates’ words and encourage everyone and anyone to put this book on the top of your reading list.

5 out of 5 stars  

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Favorite Quotes:

“Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim your present circumstance–no matter how improved–as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the post humous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs never compensate for this.” –p. 70

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of tis country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies–the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects–are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police if to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.” –p. 79

“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body and you must find some way to live within all of it.”

“Our current politics tell you that should you fall victim to such an assault and lose your body, it somehow must be your fault. Trayvon Martin’s hoodie for him killed. Jordan Davis’s loud music did the same. John Crawford should never have touched the rifle on display. Kajieme Powell should have known not to be crazy. And all of them should have fathers–even he ones with fathers, even you. Without its own justifications, the Dream would collapse upon itself.” –p. 130-31

Review of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

 When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just as his career is about to start. With his musical prose, Kalanithi takes the reader on an incredibly moving journey as he comes to terms with his own mortality and identifies what makes life worth living.

It is hard for me to put into words how much this book means to me. As someone who sees death and all its ugliness almost every day as part of my work in a neuroscience intensive care unit and is simultaneously petrified of not having enough time in life, I found Kalanithi’s perspective particularly interesting and familiar. The idea of him not recognizing death when it was happening to him personally, despite his daily encounters with is as a neurosurgeon is a sentiment I found to be both poignant and important. Kalanithi’s portrayal of the array of emotions and challenging decisions associated with facing his own mortality and ensuring his last few days were meaningful was so moving and truly unlike anything I have ever read before.

I am absolutely in awe of this book. Dr. Kalanithi taught me more about having a meaningful and fulfilling existence in 200 pages than I have learned in 22 years of living. I can honestly say that I am a better person as a result of reading this memoir and can say with confidence that this is the best book I have ever read. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy and learn from Paul. You won’t be sorry.

As always, let me know in the comments below your thoughts on this book and check back here over the weekend for my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. 

5 out of 5 stars 

***

Favorite Quotes:

“While all doctors treat disease, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of ourselves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living…Because the brain mediates out experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer the question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” –p. 71

“Death, so familiar to me in my work was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable” –p. 121

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Happy New Year/Review of A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman

Happy New Year Everyone! With 2016 being a less than stellar year, I wanted to start 2017 with good vibes and of course good reads. This week, I’ll be bringing you reviews on the three books that made my transition into the new year absolutely perfect: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. These are honestly three of the best books that I’ve read and I can’t wait to share my thoughts with you all!

****

After experiencing quite the reading hangover after I finished The Wonder, the only thing that could bring me out of it was the beautiful prose of Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. This novel is about an elderly Swedish gentleman named Ove who is described as “the bitter neighbor from hell.” He starts his days with a daily inspection of his neighborhood and does not hold back when people are not following the rules or doing things up to his standards. However, when a young couple moves next door to Ove and accidentally knocks over Ove’s mailbox with their moving van, a rather unexpected friendship begins and truly changes Ove’s solitary and cranky ways.

To put it simply, Frederik Backman can do no wrong by me. Every single word he writes captivates me and A Man Called Ove was no different. Ove is the most lovable of curmudgeons. The pace at which Backman reveals Ove’s past and the true colors of his character is perfect and simply made my love for him grow with each turn of the page. Furthermore, I loved how dynamic each of the supporting characters were. I could easily picture Parvaneh waddling into Ove’s house unannounced or the “Blonde Weed” shrieking about Ove’s newly adopted cat swatting at her dog because Backman truly creates characters that leap off the page.

A Man Called Ove is a truly heartwarming tale. Backman perfectly captures how love, loss, and true friendship can shape an individual. If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh out loud, cry, and leave you with a new appreciation for life in general, then I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of A Man Called Ove (or any Backman masterpiece for that matter!)

Let me know your thoughts on A Man Called Ove in the comments below and check back on Thurs for my review of When Breath Becomes Air!

5 out of 5 stars

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