Sunday, July 28, 2013

70. "Kent State" by James Michener

Michener, James. Kent State: What Happened and Why. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1971.

512 pages.

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

Kent State does exactly what the title suggests; it explains what happened during the Kent State riots and why. I went into reading this book with preconceived ideas about what the 1960s and 1970s were like. Most of these ideas were born from media representations of this time period. Reading this book opened my eyes in exactly the way I was hoping. I knew that my understanding of the decade was based on exaggerated and romanticized ideas of hippies, political radicals, and free love. This text helped me ground my perception of the era within a more realistic framework. 

Michener's text is nonfiction but reads like a novel. After completing in-depth interviews with many people involved in the Kent state riots, he crafted a piece that is engaging and eye opening. I was not aware of the seriousness of the situation or the complicated nature of the activism that took place in this point of American history. We came very close to losing our established educational system to groups of people who relied often on violence as a means of change. I used to side with these groups in a romantic, idealistic fashion, but after reading Kent State, the issue has been complicated for me and I no longer do so.

No matter where you stand on the issues surrounding these events, Michener has you covered. He does a very good job documenting all sides of the issue and important events in American culture that shaped this era and lead to the riots. This book might not be for everyone as it does rely on a lot of historical discussion and thinking, but if you like learning about the 1960s and 1970s, I highly recommend it!

3.5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: Return to the friend from whom I borrowed it. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

69. "Enlightened-ish" by Gail Dickert

Dickert, Gail. Enlightened-ish: A Grief Memoir About Spiritual Awakening. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013.

153 pages.

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

This is Gail Dickert's second book. She is an author, poet, blogger and activist. She is especially active in LGBT communities and advocates for former "ex-gays" and youth. Enlightened-ish is a memoir of her experience of awakening following the death of her father. Emphasizing that everyone's experience of spiritual awakening is uniquely his/her own, Dickert walks readers through a series of "Freedoms" that she learned on her own path. Woven in with descriptions of these "Freedoms," Dickert illustrates the grieving process she went through after the death of her father as well as her means of healing after witnessing a man's suicide.

There were several "Freedoms" that rang very true for me. The first point was in the chapter titled "The Freedom to Cuss." In this chapter Dickert dissects the idea that your body and soul must be separate and that your body, or the human condition, is an obstacle to spiritual awakening. It's true that we, especially in the west, separate our body and "soul" (however you may define that) as often competing entities. Our body has base, carnal needs that get in the way of spiritual purity. This leads us to believe we are imperfect and immoral from the start simply because we have bodies. Dickert is able to break this idea down and show why body and soul should not be considered competitors but teammates in the game of life.

The next chapter that stood out for me was one titled "The Freedom to Say 'Enough!'". Dickert breaks this Freedom down into several principles including being able to relinquish the need to do it all, the need to be seen and heard, the need to be right, the need to know, the need to rescue or be rescued, and the need to suffer (Dickert, 71). Relinquishing the need to rescue and be rescued was a principle that stood out for me as I lean towards being a rescuer in my personal life.

Finally the last chapter that reverberated for me was one title "The Freedom to Save Yourself." This chapter explores what it means to love yourself, forgive yourself, and be your own best friend. It touches on providing for your own emotional needs rather than expecting another person outside yourself to provide those needs for you.

These are just the chapters that touched my heart, but if you read the book yourself, you may find that several other chapters, entirely different from the few I've chosen here, speak to you personally. Because of the way individuality is emphasized in the text, you are free to take from this book whatever fits your own personal path. Nothing is prescribed; it is merely suggested as a possibility to open unexplored places in our heart and psyche. At the end of each chapter, Dickert provides some workbook pages in which discussion questions are provided to help readers connect the reading to their own experience. In this way, Dickert's story helps readers to open themselves to their own stories of grief and awakening.

4 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

Sunday, July 14, 2013

68. "Creole Belle" by James Lee Burke

Burke, James Lee. Creole Belle. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

528 pages.

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

James Lee Burke is an award winning author with Guggenheim and Breadloaf fellowships, Crime Novel of the Year Award, and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship all under his belt. He has written and published over thirty novels, many of which were a part of the Dave Robicheaux series of which Creole Belle is an installation.

Creole Belle picks up after Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel, best friends and fellow employees of the justice system, are shot in a previous novel. The story begins with Dave in the hospital recovering from his wounds where he is visited by Tee Jolie Melton, a zydeco singer in New Orleans. Tee Jolie is in a bad situation with some shady oil men and is asking for Dave's help. Unfortunately, none of Dave's family or friends believe that the visit was real because Tee Jolie had recently gone missing. It is assumed that Tee Jolie's visit was a figment of Dave's morphine-fueled imagination. 

Once Dave is released from the hospital, he and Clete become entangled in a mystery of mob men and low-lifes being popped right and left by a woman Clete believes to be his long-lost daughter. From here, I can't go into much more without spoiling the story. 

Burke has a very interesting writing style. The first thing that caught my attention was his use of point of view. The book is told half from Dave's point of view in first person limited and then shifts to third person point of view for the other half of the story, following Clete and other important characters through Southern Louisiana. The switch was not jarring and I actually really liked the variance in point of view. It gives the readers insight into the story and into Dave's character in particular. This really added to the complex crime narrative that was very well crafted. 

Speaking of characters--this is where the novel fell flat for me. Granted, this could be because this book is part of a series. It could be that the character development has happened in earlier novels and I just missed out from not reading the earlier stories. That being said, I found the characters to be fairly stock, archetypal, and empty. All the good guys had the same blunt, cold, logical personality with a few quirks here and there. All the bad guys had the same manipulative, seductive, and sociopathic tendencies. Good guys were the same. Bad guys were the same. I wasn't able to connect with any of the good guys because they just seemed to blend together. There wasn't anything significant or interesting about any one of them that I could hold onto. Some of the descriptions of the bad guys' appearances were interesting and unique, but their personalities were all the same. 

Characters are so important to me as a reader that I just cannot honestly say I enjoyed this read. I came really, really close to liking it because the plot was so interesting and I loved the descriptions of New Orleans and Louisiana. Perhaps if I had read some of the earlier novels, I'd have a better understanding of the characters and it would have been more enjoyable. So, my advice with this series is: start at the beginning. It is difficult to jump into it in the later books. 

2.5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: None--it was a library book.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

67. "The Bone Garden" by Tess Gerritsen

Gerritsen, Tess. The Bone Garden. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.
487 pages
Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

The Bone Garden was another one of those books that I bought to build a stack of beach reads. In The Bone Garden, Julia Hamill, recently divorced, buys an old house in Boston and discovers a skeleton buried in her back yard. After the story hits the newspapers, Julia is contacted by Henry Page who is a descendant of the previous owner of Julia's home. Together, he and Julia sort through boxes of old family heirlooms, newspaper clippings and letters to try and uncover the mystery surrounding the skeleton in her garden.

The Bone Garden has a second story arch. The narrative flashes between present time and 1830s Boston where Norris Marshall attends medical school. In a maternity ward, Norris meets Rose Conelly, an Irish immigrant and her sister Aurnia, who is dying of childbed fever. When Rose is witness to a murder, she and Norris are entangled in an investigation to hunt down a serial killer.

This book is a fun read. The sections  of the narrative taking place in the 1830s are much better developed than those set in the present. Julia Hamill experiences a cheeky romance with Henry's nephew that feels contrived and forced. The relationship between Julia and Henry is endearing but not much time is spent getting to know Julia herself. Her character is less of a protagonist and more of a plot device to connect the past to the present. This in itself is not necessarily a bad writing choice, but it did make Julie feel like a hollow and archetypal character.

Rose Conolly, on the other hand, is pretty interesting. She has a fierce devotion to her family and, Irish stereotypes aside, she's strong and easy to root for. The relationship between Norris and Rose also feels a bit rushed and contrived at points but the mystery of tracking down the serial killer, and Gerittsen's descriptions of medical practices in the 1830s were fascinating.

In all, I enjoyed this book. It certainly falls into the category of "beach read" because it was highly entertaining, but not something of high literary value. The next time I want an easy, quick, entertaining read, Gerritson's work will be at the top of my list of choices.

3 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: DONATED

Sunday, June 30, 2013

66. "Women Food and God" by Geneen Roth

Roth, Geneen. Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. New York: Scribner, 2010.
211 pages.
Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

Roth writes, "On the first morning of my retreats, I tell my students that the great blessing of their lives is their relationships with food" (27). In Women Food and God, Roth explains that everything we know about ourselves and our lives can be unlocked by breaking down our relationship with food. Her target audience is individuals who struggle with disordered eating whether they binge eat or starve. Her approach to healing from disordered eating boils down to being kind to yourself. 

Roth's approach to healing from disordered eating draws from the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and the practice of inquiry. Both of the practices involve living fully in one's body rather than caving to your incessant brain chatter. In the inquiry process one is to ask what they are feeling in their body. Is it a burning sensation? How big is it? Is it moving? Does it have a color? A shape? The goal is that in doing this, a person will learn to listen to the needs of his/her body rather than just eating on auto-pilot. When we listen to the needs of our body and eat when we are hungry, when hungry eat exactly what our body is telling us we need, and stop when we are full, Roth argues, that our weight will level out to our "natural body weight" and the battles that take place in our hearts over food will come to a stop. 

Roth's work is compelling and applicable even for individuals who don't necessarily suffer from disordered eating. Her practices are outlined in easy-to-implement steps that would benefit anyone wanting to get in better touch with their bodies. Interestingly, she points out that when we are able to get in touch with our bodies we are also more easily able to access the part of ourselves many conceptualize as "souls," "God," "Buddha nature," or "consciousness." The book is not specific to any religion or creed but is instead a good practice of psychological health. I certainly recommend this to anyone interested in self-improvement!

4.5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP


Sunday, June 23, 2013

65. "The Crush" by Sandra Brown

Brown, Sandra. The Crush. New York: Warner Books, 2002
470 pages
Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

Beach Read/Beach Trash: noun. A book that is easy to read and in which its sole purpose is to entertain the reader and not add to a literary cannon.

Everyone needs to read some beach trash every now and again. I did not make this word up. My friend did (but I solidified the definition above. Perhaps I should send it in to Urban Dictionary). That aside, the term fits a genre and style of novel in which it is good to indulge. Beach read novels don’t necessarily add anything new to the literary world or work to push any boundaries. Beach reads are all about stories and not just any stories, but stories that are wildly entertaining, easy to consume, and fun. I need more beach trash in my reading diet.

Thus, at a used book sale, I stocked up on paperback novels that fit this genre of “beach read” and started to dig into the pile this spring. The Crush is the first that I picked up and I wasn’t disappointed.

Rennie Newton is a top surgeon at a hospital in a Texas town. Blonde, beautiful and completely uninterested in romance, Rennie is chosen to lead a jury in the trial of Ricky Lozada, a known contract killer. During the trial, Lozada develops a mad crush on Rennie, and is not found guilty. A few months later, a fellow surgeon competing with Rennie for a promotion at the hospital is found murdered in the hospital parking lot. All the evidence points to Lozada being the killer but Rennie is considered a suspect as well.

The police department then calls on the help of Wick Threadgill, a police officer taking a break from police work after the murder of his older brother, who was also employed as a police officer. Reluctantly, Wick agrees to help with the case, but on his terms and in his own way. As Lozada stalks Rennie more closely, Wick also grows attached to her but the mystery surrounding Rennie Newton grows even more tangled when he discovers secrets from her past she has worked hard to bury.

I stuck this book in my purse and took it with me everywhere. It was a great read to escape the stress of daily life. I read it in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices. I read on my lunch break at work. It served as an escape which is exactly the purpose of a beach read. While it didn’t add to the literary world any new prose or genius stylistics, I found Brown’s writing to be clever. The narrative held my attention throughout the story which didn’t feel too contrived or cliché for me to enjoy it (I am, after all, still a slight book snob. I admit it). I liked the characters and the plot exhumed some emotion as I read, but not so much to be overwhelming as some books can be. This text found the perfect balance between being suspenseful and being entertaining. Not a bad start to my pile of paperbacks!

3 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: DONATE

Sunday, June 16, 2013

64. "Insomnia" by Stephen King

King, Stephen. Insomnia. New York: Viking Press, 1994.
787 Pages
Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

I have not read much of Stephen King’s work. His last book I read was Bag of Bones and I read it in high school which, as of this May, was officially ten years ago! A friend of mine loves his work and recommended I read Insomnia based on her knowledge of my novel preferences. Ironically, I was having bouts of insomnia myself when I picked up the book, making it a good fit for the time in which I read it!

Insomnia follows Ralph, an old widowed man, as he wanders through the haze of sleeplessness—a haze which slowly turns into hallucinations that Ralph has a difficult time distinguishing from reality. Ralph loses his ability sleep over time, and he insists that the hallucinatory existence in which he now resides is a result of his insomnia. When he is witness to one of his long-time friends behaving strangely, Ralph is sent spiraling into a neon, dreamlike, domino cascade of events. One thing Ralph is sure of is something very important is happening to him and the town in which he lives.

Ralph eventually surrenders to this new world, a world that overlaps with the real world but no one but Ralph is able to access. Eventually he learns that his long time crush, Lois, is also suffering from insomnia and she admits to having similar experiences with an alternate reality. Lois and Ralph’s journey intensifies as they meet Clothos, Lachesis, and Atropos, three mysterious beings that live, not in this world, but in the colorful alternate world only Lois and Ralph can enter. Together they learn to develop their own personal skill sets that help them in an unfolding battle between good and evil.

This is one of the most interesting books I think I’ve ever read. King reaches deep into a collective unconscious to explore the afterlife and the true meaning of morality. The story presents readers with questions about their own perceptions of the world and how it works. Readers must also make a leap of faith—is what Ralph experiences true and valid or just insane ramblings from a senile old man? Do you believe him or do you think King will chalk it up to a loss of mental faculties by the end of the narrative? These questions kept me turning pages along with his brilliant descriptions of a beautiful world that exists alongside our own. The text is rich and complex and swayed my decision to read more work by Stephen King! I can’t say much more than that without giving the story away! This is definitely a good started text for anyone unfamiliar with King's body of work. If you read it, let me know what you think!

4 darts out 5
Bookshelf Project Status: borrowed from a friend.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

63. "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2008.
- - - . Catching Fire. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2009.
- - - . Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2010.

1,154 pages total.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

This review contains information about this series that reveals important plot points.

The Hunger Games is the first book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy set in a dystopian future. In this future, the United States is divided into 12 districts that are all ruled by the Capitol and renamed Panem. The districts are poor and tightly-knit while the Capitol is rich and wasteful. The districts formed after a rebellion against the government and, as a punishment for the rebellion and a reminder of the peace the Capitol now brings, the Capitol mandates The Hunger Games which is an arena-style fight to the death. Each district must sacrifice two children between the ages of six and twelve, one boy and one girl, to fight in the Hunger Games. The children are chosen by a lottery and then taken to the Capitol to train for the games. Once trained, the tributes, as these children are called, are thrown into an arena and must kill one another until there is only one left—this last tribute is then declared the victor of the Hunger Games.

In the first book of the series, readers are introduced to the protagonist Katniss Everdeen. Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen as one of the tributes from their district so Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and Peeta, the other tribute, then travel to the Capitol, train, and enter the Hunger Games. The two end up successful by tricking the game maker into thinking they would commit a double suicide rather than killing one another.

This first book does an excellent job introducing the readers to the characters and dystopian structure of Panem. Collins avoids falling into any dystopian clichés that tend to run rampant in the genre such as the world being overtaken by technology or completely returning to agrarian lifestyles with no technology at all. Collins finds a nice balance between these common depictions which makes the setting of this series eerily plausible.

Right away readers are presented with important questions. Is your own survival more important than the life of another human being? In a world that is strewn with poverty, disease, and violence should one even entertain the idea of raising children of one’s own? These are all questions that Katniss and other critical characters wrestle with in The Hunger Games.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games leaves off with Peeta and Katniss on their victory tour. By rebelling against the game-makers, the two have unintentionally started rebellions in varying districts and President Snow has demanded that they settle the unrest on their tour. When the duo are not as successful as Snow desires, a 75th Hunger Games is created in which all the victors must return to the arena, sending Peeta and Katniss in for round two. During this Hunger Games Peeta and Katniss make alliances with victors from other districts and are unknowingly caught in a tangled web to overthrow the Capitol.

Catching Fire was my favorite book of the series because the arena was incredibly creative and the characters unique and lovable. This book was a page-turner—even more so than the first. It expounded on the questions from the previous novel as Peeta and Katniss discuss how to handle this round of Hunger Games as ethically as possible, and still survive.

By the time readers reach Mockingjay, the third and final book, Katniss is in District 13 with a rebel group attempting to overthrow the Capitol. Collins is not kind to her readers in this portion of the series. Beloved characters are maimed and killed. Entire districts are destroyed. In the end, both leaders, Snow and Coin (leader of the rebel group) are murdered. The end of the series is abrupt and hastily written. Many readers argue it is the weakest part of the trilogy and leaves readers with a pit in their stomach. Neither side of this war are redeemable. There is no side to root for, no victory to cheer and by the end, Katniss, the leader, mascot, and symbol of hope is broken.

It took me months to understand how I felt and what I thought about the end of this series. My first reaction was to be extremely disappointed. A nagging at the back of my mind told me there was more to this conclusion than my initial reaction. I realized the ending of the series doesn’t sit well with me because it is so darn realistic. War is messy. War doesn’t have nicely wrapped up climatic endings in which good always triumphs over evil. The line between good and evil is blurry and difficult to draw. War ends abruptly and leaves a lot of loose ends. The conclusion of this series is all these things. Instead of following the typical narrative of romanticizing war, it does the opposite. It says that war is not something to revel in. It is not something to celebrate. No one is innocent. No one is unaffected. We aren’t supposed to enjoy it and until we stop romanticizing war, there will always be another Hunger Games. 

This realization made me really appreciate Collins’ choices in ending the series. Yes, it felt rushed and yes, perhaps I’m assigning my own meaning to this body of work and she was just rushing to meet a deadline. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to do, though? Help us find a deeper meaning and navigate parts of our own psyche? I’ve heard many people bash the ending of The Hunger Games series and all I ask is that you think it over a bit more before drawing your conclusions.

4.5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

Sunday, April 28, 2013

62. "Dark World" by Zak Bagans and Kelly Krigger

Bagans, Zak and Kelly Crigger. Dark World: Into the Shadows with the Lead Investigator of the Ghost Adventures Crew. Victory Belt Publishing.

272 pages

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

Zak Bagans is the lead investigator of the TV show Ghost Adventures. In this show he and two of his buddies, Aaron Goodwin and Nick Groff travel around the world with high tech gadgets trying to document empirical evidence of the existence of ghosts. The show has aired around seven seasons and its fan base is continually growing.

Dark World contains information about how the Ghost Adventures series started, behind the scenes information about their experiences with the paranormal and various philosophies and research about the existence of ghosts. Zak starts the narrative explaining how he came to believe in ghosts and his experiences leading up to the original documentary created by himself and Nick Groff.

Zak explores his person struggles with anxiety and thrill seeking behavior as a young adult. He lacked direction in his life until greeted by a ghost at the foot of his bed one night. This experience led him to develop the life goal of documenting evidence of the paranormal and dedicating his energy to paranormal research. 

He attended film school in Michigan and met Nick Groff, a fellow filmmaker at a wedding they both attended. Getting into a conversation about paranormal experiences, the two hit it off and started planning what was to become the Ghost Adventures documentary wherein they capture some of the most convincing paranormal footage to date. From there, Zak describes how the show came into production on the Travel Channel and experiences his crew has behind the scenes.

While this is no work of literary prowess, it was really interesting to thumb through being a fan of the television series. The book answered lingering questions I had about the equipment the team uses and the research they do when conducting their “lock downs.” I would not recommend reading this book unless you are a fan of the show. If you are familiar with the series on Travel Channel, give this read a go.

3 darts out of 5.
Bookshelf Project status: KEEP