My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let’s put this out there from the start. This book is raw, emotional, thoughtful, and heartbreaking. While light and breezy in terms of structure, the content is as heavy as it gets. This is not the first book written by someone with the grim perspective of knowing the end is near, but it may be the first by someone with as unique a set of experiences as Paul Kalanithi.
When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s account of dealing with the fragility of mortality. At 36 years old, as he is finishing up his training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi suddenly discovers he has lung cancer that rapidly leaves him weakened and in pain. He recounts the irony of doctor turned patient and pads each experience with the proper oddness of hearing his family members say the things he’s used to hearing from those of his patients. Providing the patient’s experience and transformation from the doctor’s perspective is endlessly fascinating. The terminal diagnosis Kalanithi receives is while starkly shocking, never something to be pitied. Knowing you are living prolonged life rather than living a life with no idea when it ends does not have to be as tragic as it sounds.
I mentioned Kalanithi’s unique set of experiences. What makes him both a fascinating narrator and a powerful writer are due to two elements. One – Kalanithi has a broad background in classic literature, and two, as a neurosurgeon he has a great understanding of the brain, surgically. Rarely is there someone prepared to tell a story like this so eloquently, but Kalanithi’s background in literature makes him most apt to explain the seemingly unexplainable through allusion and metaphorical connections. That along with his surgical knowledge makes him keen to concisely tackle the psychology of terminal illness along with the emotional and report it to the reader in a palatable way. Kalanithi balances his perspectives of death as doctor and patient well. His doctor side resists the whole, “Why me?” mentality, and not to look at cancer as a “battle.” His patient side reexamines how his condition requires goals to strive towards a quality of life that is attainable and rewarding.
As his illness progresses, Kalanithi and his wife Lucy ask themselves questions about mortality, and they are questions that all people probably have asked themselves, only Kalanithi is willing to pose some possible answers and actions. Spirituality is noticeably absent but rightfully so. This story would not benefit from excluding or alienating anyone. Literature is the closest thing to spirituality, and as a book about mortality, it is appropriate that Kalanithi cites literature as a major calming for his spirts and in many cases the impetus for the questions he and Lucy pose and answer about life and mortality. One such answer results in the line, “We decided to carry on living, rather than dying.” In this way, When Breath Becomes Air is as interactive as it is poignant and beautifully tragic. This book ends abruptly, and while a short read, it is impossible to forget. A
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Turns out Bruce Springsteen has been a pretty busy guy! I know it’s hard to believe. As I read this enormous 528-page oeuvre, I had to admit, “This guy does nothing half-assed.” We start at the beginning, and I dare to say, we don’t gloss over much. Springsteen is the moody, insightful, straight-forward narrator you’d expect. The Jersey-Strong balladeer, rock legend, and BOSS does nothing to turn off fans and does a lot to gain even more new ones. This book is intelligent, engaging, and fascinating.
Springsteen’s inspiration for writing this book was the Super Bowl XLIII half time show in 2009. The experience was so rich and unique, he felt an urge to write about it. And then, he realized his life has been pretty rich and unique, so why not keep writing. We are dropped into suburban streets of Freehold New Jersey, where Springsteen comes of age. Representative of the best, worst, most typical, and most atypical experiences middle class America has to offer, Springsteen waxes on about his parents, family, heritage, religion, and of course – music. By chapter 18, about a third of the way through the book, the Springsteen that fans are somewhat familiar with begins to emerge.
I won’t say that it couldn’t do with a little cutting here and there, but I will say that he has verbose style that is also highly engaging and affectionate. His style is introspective, but also as relatable and proletariat as his reputation. I LOVE how he picks apart how his lyrics work and how he arrived at the arrangements that blew people away. I thought Born to Run was an amazing album, but it turns out I NEVER understood what it really was about.
And then there’s the insider facts sprinkled about like how, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” was Van Zandt’s only Born to Run appearance where he spontaneously arranged, badgered, and befuddled the jazz players of a prized NYC horn section. Or how that “and” was really important: AND the E-Street Band. He offers a beautiful epigraph for the band, a loving eulogy for Clarence, and a powerful epitaph for music and the main six guys who made up E-Street!
Bass – Gary Tallent
Organ – Danny Federici
Guitar – Little Steven Van Zandt
Drums – Max Weinberg
Piano – Roy Bittan
Sax – Clarence Clemmons
I also loved hearing about Bruce’s inspirations and hearing him explain how his sound and persona were influenced by certain acts that he grew up with.
I’ve heard Springsteen talk about some of his music before. For example, the freedom of Darkness on the Edge of Town or the misunderstanding of Born on the USA, but in the same way that a long form interview is better than a short excerpt, Springsteen’s ability to use this book to provide context to these stories and connect and reflect makes everything that much more fascinating.
And then, you also get little stories like when an excited Little Steven and, in solidarity, a Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen are kicked out of the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm for wearing bandannas.
When Springsteen finally gets to the Super Bowl recount that inspired the book in total, we are already mired in his thoughts, experiences, and stories. It is crazy to think that if not for this 14 minute performance in 2009, the 400 pages that came before it may not have ever been written. That idea certainly adds to the weight of his recount his wild, crotch-sliding halftime show.
I know it may be unconventional, and for many readers, it may be distracting, but I can’t recommend enough that once you get to Book II and Springsteen starts really dissecting the albums, that you put on the albums in the background as you read. It really made the experience deeper reading about Born to Run while it plays quietly in the background, then listening to Darkness at the Edge of Town as Springsteen recalls “Badlands.” Next put on The River as Springsteen discusses his decision to do a double album, and blasting Born in the USA as he jettisons himself into the mainstream. I noticed Springsteen released a companion album to this book called Chapter and Verse. I wish I had known that before I started reading. It is a nice collection that certainly complements the book, especially with some of the early stuff from Steel Mill and The Castiles. Still, I like the idea of tying the albums as a whole to Springsteen’s progression. For example, when he discusses the construction of Tunnel of Love, “Brilliant Disguise” is not enough to represent these chapters, but that is the only track on the companion album from Tunnel of Love.
This book took me forever to read. I started it in December, and finally in February, I finished it. It was not so much a page-turner as I’d hoped it would be, but the chapters are short, which makes for easy reading. It is hard to give this one a rating because if you like the man, it’s practically required reading, but if you don’t it may not have the same appeal. I’d say it does have the potential to convert new fans (which is a challenge in itself), and there are insights about life, love, and fatherhood that are universally appealing. This is overall an easy book to recommend, and while the enjoyment factor will vary, no one will be disappointed.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is the surprise of the year for me. I don’t think the cover, book flap, or even other reviews prepare you for the experience you get when you read Double Cup Love. Huang is one of the most charismatic narrators you’ll ever read. I knew nothing of his work, I don’t watch Fresh off the Boat, and I have never really followed his exploits in food and media. However, after reading the first few chapters of this highly enjoyable memoir, I had a great impression of Huang. His New Yorker persona is engaging, his pop culture and sports allusions are creative and spot on, and his conversations about food, culture, and love are funny and inspired.
Double Cup Love is a memoir-style story about Eddie Huang’s journey of self-discovery as his passions converge, stirring a need in him to reconnect with his culture and visit China.
The narrator makes the memoir. My previous review of Norm MacDonald’s book is a perfect example of this. I loved that book because I loved Norm’s voice. The difference here, is that with Norm MacDonald’s book, Based on a True Story, you had to know Norm to understand the book and you pretty much had to like Norm to like the book. Here, with Double Cup Love, that’s not really the case. You don’t have to know Eddie Huang to understand the book (count me as Exhibit A), and your opinion of Huang enhances your feeling about the book, but no matter what you think of him, you can enjoy the book and what he has to say about the universal topics he discusses.
This is a book that flows like the best stream of consciousness types of books, like On the Road – albeit less ambitious. The enjoyment factor for Double Cup Love rests fully in your ability as a reader to accept some brashness and appreciate its layers. On one level it’s a book about food. On another level, it’s a book about relationships. However, on its most fascinating level, it’s a book about the Chinese-American’s place in modern culture. The story of race in America is complex and tumultuous, but the Chinese-American is often but a footnoot in that story. However, Huang represents a very topical and conflicted presence in America. A modern, young man with hopes for success living in a country where nearly all role models, icons, and artists do not reflect his heritage. This type of upbringing results in a unique and valuable outlook that is nicely represented in this book. In a way it’s a filling book, but… don’t read this book hungry.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve read quite a few memoirs of various levels of seriousness, heart, passion, and quality. I have never read one like Norm MacDonald’s Based on a True Story, and I loved it! I am an unabashed Saturday Night Live super-fan. I’ve always said, if I had the time to binge any show from beginning to end, it would be SNL. All 40+ years of it. So my initial interest in MacDonald’s “memoir” was the SNL angle. Upon finishing it, the SNL stories were actually the least interesting thing about the book. I put the word “memoir” in quotes a sentence back because it is not your typical memoir. There are touchstones of memoir in this book, but it reads like a novel and MacDonald’s persona is not that of a comedian telling his story. MacDonald invokes Mark Twain in the best possible way and has strung together a series of anecdotal loosely related plotlines all contained within an epic gambling narrative that spans the entire book. Norm’s storytelling is poetic at times. He pokes satirical fun at the writing process itself by including the interjections of an imaginary (and tortured) ghostwriter, he includes poignant asides about his adventures like assisting a young boy in his dying wish to club a baby seal, and then there’s Old Jack… The joy of his word choice is easily Based on a True Story‘s most winning quality. His jokes are polarizing like virtually no other comedian working today. However, you have to admit, his delivery, cadence, and syntax is unique, arresting, and in my opinion, brilliant. I mean, if you are nostalgic for Steinbeckian phraseology or feel it’s been a “pickler’s fortnight” since you read a book about guys who get “drunk as a boiled owl” and “cracker-barrel the night away,” then this is the book for you!
Here’s a litmus test for whether you should pick up this book:
“…getting to work with such experienced and talented movie actors proved to be a double-edged sword. Now I understand that all swords have two edges, so let me save some time by taking that back and just saying that getting to work with such experienced and talented movie stars was a sword.”
Did you laugh? Then buy this book!
This is not a “get to know Norm” book. You have to be familiar with Norm to like the book, and you have to have some understanding of Norm to know what’s real and what’s not. For example, Norm was infatuated with Sarah Silverman while a cast member at SNL. Norm was not arrested and imprisoned for conspiracy to murder Dave Attell because he was dating Silverman at the time. Both, however, are in the book. Norm twists reality into fantasy relentlessly in Based on a True Story, which results in most of its charm. Accompanied by his “AsSISTant” and foil, bone-headed Adam Egat, whom Norm continuously refers to by his full name, Norm regales us with tales of a comedian that span genres from prison memoir to rural coming-of-age drama.
If Norm’s book has one problem, it’s that if there’s not a punchline at the end of lengthy, deliberate, agonizing prose, then some may feel lost. This is likely an intentional decision, but as far as a reader experience, it’s not always ideal. However, what Norm does here is provide insights on comedy and life, but not with the out-rightness that one expects from the genre. We are treated to Norm’s Top 25 Weekend Update jokes, which are “nonpareil,” to quote the hopelessly morphine addicted, Lorne Michaels. There is also an unhealthy amount of references to answering machines and Charles Manson…NOT THAT ONE! Based on a True Story is clever, enjoyable and one of the funniest memoirs I’ve ever read; you’ll “laugh enough to beat the band.”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Easily pigeonholed as another historical fiction account on slavery at first, but on second glance, Colson Whitehead’s novel is something more. The introductory sections of The Underground Railroad do feel a bit familiar to anyone who has a passing familiarity with media depictions of American slavery narratives. However, stay with this novel, and you will be tantalized and challenged with layers of philosophical truths and their relationship with history and contemporary culture.
The Underground Railroad in its simplest construct is a journey-novel. The protagonist, Cora, escapes her Georgia cotton plantation with fellow slave Caesar, and they embark on a journey via the Underground Railroad heading North to freedom. The novel follows Cora and Caesar as they cross from state to state, each containing its own horrors and redemptions, whether its South Carolina’s insidious agenda or North Carolina’s blatant white supremacist almost “holocaust-like” ideology – The Underground Railroad grounds us in Cora’s observations as she inhabits new “worlds” every 70 to 80 pages! These stark experiences are the crux of the novel’s true magnificence. Whitehead uses state lines to take the reader on a historical journey that peels back the layers of American slavery and shows the progressiveness and the stubbornness of a nation divided. It is a story of persecution but also survival for Cora as she must duck and dodge the horrors that have become common-place and ingrained in American culture. And to add salt to the wound, Cora is also being pursued by a maniacal and horrendously determined slave catcher by the name of Ridgeway who is hip the the underground railroad and is motivated to capture Cora at all costs. Ridgeway feels like a lost Cormac McCarthy villain and his looming presence transcends traditional characterization in that he embodies principles and overt constitutions beyond that of the simple “bounty hunter.”
There is a lot to absorb from this novel. It certainly is not the end-all, be-all of this genre. What it does, is provide innovative and extraordinarily well-written context to the larger conversation. Characters are vibrant and fascinating. Additionally, protagonist, Cora is rather understated, a brilliant decision by Whitehead, allowing her to be an observer more than anything else, allowing the reader to fall deeper under the book’s spell. This is a truly satisfying read and a book likely to live a long, relevant life in the canon of American literature.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a perfect example of the volatile nature of drama. I imagine “Sorry Wrong Number” was quite tense in its day. I also imagine that it is a story most deserving of being performed and not simply read in script form. The problem is that the tension and originality have worn away over the years. This story remains worthy of accolades in a nostalgic sense, but the predictability and nonsensical hubris of the Mrs. Stevenson leave a reader wondering what this story could be with some more moving parts.
What I found most interesting was its novel use of the (relatively) new invention of the telephone and operator service. A play so suffocated by the passive treatment of the voices on the other line as an invalid woman is growing more and more hysterical is quite an intriguing idea. The paradox of something both so connective and so isolating is not without its charm. The concept is still pretty relevant actually. With technical advances, the conflict of “Sorry Wrong Number” has evolved into cinematic thrillers like Scream, Taken, and Unfriended. Still, much more could have been and has been done with this concept. Kudos to Fletcher to being a pioneer, but this play is most certainly a starting point and not an ending point for the genre.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve only read two Jack Reacher books now, and both were absolute page-turners – albeit disposable page-turners. My best advice on these books is that you have to be in the mood before you pick one up. Never Go Back slightly edges out A Wanted Man. We get some detail about Reacher other than his simplistic nomadic lifestyle. There are some twists about his past as well as a surprising number of references to Shakespeare and Romantic English poetry.
Never Go Back has Reacher meet his old military unit’s new commanding officer, Susan Turner. However, when he arrives he finds she is in jail and he has charges against him as well. The story progresses from there with Turner and Reacher working to clear their name and uncover a conspiracy against them.
As usual, my favorite parts are when Reacher has himself outnumbered or seemingly in a tight spot, but somehow wriggles free. The scene where Reacher and Turner attempt to escape the military base is great! This is the 18th book in the series, and I got the idea that I was missing out on some inside jokes and references. Still, the book works on its own. I’m not sure if I’m a full Jack Reacher fan yet, but I will continue to dip in and out of the series from time to time.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
So first of all, this book requires managed expectations from the get-go. Yes, this is a Harry Potter sequel in that the action takes place after Deathly Hollows and revolves around the same characters from the previous seven novels. That being said, this is a published script of a theatrical performance, which means J.K. Rowling is not the true author, although she did write the “story.” The play and the words you read in this book are written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, director and playwright of the theatrical performance respectively.
This is not to say that the story does not feel authentic; it does. But much of the nuance, detail, and depth normally associated with reading a Harry Potter story are not experienced with this book; it is only 320 (script) pages as well.
The best part of this book is the story. Rowling sets the adventure 19 years after the events of Deathly Hollows. Harry and the gang are in their mid-thirties, and Harry is preparing to send his youngest son, Albus off to Hogwarts. Harry’s relationship with Albus is surprisingly strained however, and he struggles to relate to the young boy as Albus’s education at Hogwarts progresses. Albus’s sense of pressure under the Potter name affects him more than it does his older brother and younger sister. The story focuses mostly on Albus and his experiences from this point forward. Harry’s wife Ginny, Ron, Hermoine, Draco, and other familiar characters portray glorified bit roles in this story, but not much more. Fortunately, they are present enough and all serve a worthwhile purpose when they do appear.
Albus’s need to live up to his name causes him to take on an adventure with an unlikely partner, Scorpius Malfoy (son of Harry’s nemesis Drac0). The two boys and unlikely friends learn of a request from Amos Diggory, father of the late Cedric Diggory, that Harry (who now is Head of Magical Law Enforcement) use an illegal Time Turner to go back and save his son from being murdered during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. This sends Potter and Malfoy on a “Back to the Future 2” style adventure in the hopes of rescuing Diggory.
The book has some surprises and like I said, the authenticity of the Potter world is nicely preserved in this story. What’s missing are the immersive details and character balancing that made the first seven books so legendary. Potter fans should most certainly read this story and they will enjoy it, but don’t expect to be blown away or left feeling satisfied. While the story is enjoyable, and the end of the day, this book is unnecessary.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ok, I’ve read a few Chuck Klosterman books, and this is by far the most dense. Many of his books focus on viewing different aspects of the world through a pop culture lens, and while this one is no different in that respect the concept is pretty high brow this time around. Now, don’t get me wrong (a phrase Klosterman somewhat lambastes in the book), I loved the book, but be warned that this one is not a breezy ride through pop cultural perspectives on media and world events. The title of the book does a good job of describing its message. Klosterman analyzes media, history, science, and culture with the expressed intent on hypothetically proposing that like so many before us who were proven wrong in their respective fields by cultural advances, “What if we’re wrong?” about many of the things we hold to be absolute certainties. If many contemporaries of Aristotle agreed with his thought that gravity’s effect on a stone is based on it being made of a similar substance as the ground and thus, it “wanted” to be on the ground, then how do we know many of the things we agree about today are so correct?
The book goes on to discuss many of the facets of today right up to the latest current events of 2016, and wonders what future societies will hang on to from our time on earth. Will the cultural landmarks we consider eternal be left in the dust while total obscurities are held up in high regard? The book help my attention, but was a surprisingly complex little book. If you like Klosterman, there is plenty to enjoy and appreciate, but as Klosterman warns, don’t take it too seriously but rather use it as a form of broadening your perspectives on some of life’s truths.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
***Warning, I did not flag this review as containing spoilers because there are none in this review. However, without this warning I fear some may consider some of what I write below as potential spoilers.***
Some of the best and worst works of dramatic fiction are based on a character’s misinterpretation of events. The Girl on the Train uses this trope as well and while it does not result in the best dramatic mystery you’ve ever read, it’s also does not result in the worst. The Girl on the Train tells the story of Rachel, a recently divorced, unemployed alcoholic whose daily train rides are her only form of escape from her rather tragic existence. Her story soon becomes entwined with two other women whose perspectives along with Rachel’s comprise the 38 chapters of the novel. This is good summer reading fare and while it has some moments of unevenness, especially in terms of mood – it is a fast read that does keep you moderately engaged.
The novel’s triple point of view is nicely accomplished. At times, it is a bit gimmicky, but Rachel’s questionable recall of events is nicely tempered with Anna and Megan’s ignorant certainty. This is a quick read and while it has some moments of strength, at the end, you may notice it quickly fading from your memory, not unlike one of Rachel’s drunken blackouts.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Well, I am lost! What do I do now? 3 months ago, The Walking Dead was only a TV show to me. Now over 3000 pages of graphic novel later, I am hooked and left stranded like a walker awaiting the next paper-bound victim to devour. Hats off to Kirkman who just continues to build a universe that haunts, surprises, and entertains. The characters inhabit a separate and vibrant life on the page versus on the screen. For the first time, spoilers abound in any discussion of plot in this edition, but basically the Negan saga takes center stage and unlike the previous compendiums, some real progression of time takes place. As usual, characters you love will perish and new characters arrive that are as interesting and exciting as any from the past. And of course, the tension develops and does not let up all the way to the final panel. The end is absolutely bonkers! So as usual, I can not recommend these books enough and as much as I would like to think I can wait until compendium 4 to pick up another Walking Dead book, I expect I’ll be reading each sequential volume from this point onward!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While I sang the praises of Compendium 1 for certain reasons, I am thrilled to announce that I can sing the praises for Compendium 2 for completely different reasons! Part of the majesty of experiencing the first volume was to compare what I knew from the television series, The Walking Dead, to what I read in the graphic novel. The same was partially true with the second book, until I reached that inevitable moment when I got to move beyond the content that had been explored on the show. I am enjoying the story far more now that I am in untread territory. This second Compendium is wildly dark and emotionally gripping. The artwork continues to be outstanding and at times truly mesmerizing. Not a dull moment in these novels, which continues to impress me now that I am over 2000 pages into the saga! By the way, have Compendium 3 at the ready because this one ends on a real cliff-hanger!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For a play written in the 1930s set at the turn of the century, this is quite a powerful little drama. The innovative nature of the stage manager framing the story and interacting with both the characters and the audience is stunning. I admit, I am not too knowledgeable about Thornton Wilder’s work, but I can see why this play has stood the test of time. Part sociological experiment, part morality play, Our Town on one level is extremely simple and yet on another relates a powerful message on what it means to be alive. I enjoyed this play very much and will certainly read more of Wilder’s material.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am hot and cold on graphic novels, but I can not deny the brilliance of The Walking Dead. I will admit I am a fan of the AMC TV show, which is what inspired me to read the compendiums. Therefore, my experience is more comparative in nature than if I had read the comics first. Still, the heart wrenching story details and spectacular artwork make this one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in the past year. Many of the details from the show are based on these comics, however the television show has altered quite a few specifics, and also it has transferred events that affect certain characters in the book to different characters in the show, which I think is exceptionally fascinating. Furthermore, The Governor…whoa! I can not wait to read the rest of the compendiums and eventually read beyond the television program, so that I can have a more pure experience with these stories and characters.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Station Eleven starts out with great promise, but ultimately becomes rather monotonous as it goes on. I had high hopes given the thematic premise evoked by the tagline, “Survival is insufficient,” but too much time was spent bouncing around between past and present. The novel depicts a post-apocalyptic mid-west where a band of actors and musicians travel to perform Shakespeare and inspire. This is the story’s strength, but just when things get going, the author (Emily St. John Mandel) meanders back to flashbacks of one character’s life before the pandemic. There are some beautiful passages in this book and some real subtext, especially in terms of the subtle comparison between 17th Century Europe and modern dystopian America. Nonetheless, the book leaves me unsatisfied by the end. I don’t get to read as many books as I’d like these days, so I was truly hoping for something great here, but alas – it was not a book of infinite jest or excellent fancy.
Someday, I hope to put all of this to use. This is a dense discussion of the art of screenwriting. I am pleased with the book’s down to earth approach and use of prime examples to make its point. I enjoyed it very much!
Ok, the key is to take this book for what it is. It is a rough draft of a literary classic. In that light, this is a serviceable companion to the art of writing and building a story. I enjoyed seeing some familiar language in its early stages and considering how this book made its way to To Kill a Mockingbird. I also think that when one compares the level of writing in this book to most of the top summer fiction, one would find that the value of good writing is something to be cherished. There is no doubt Harper Lee knows her way around the written word.
It’s no Da Vinci Code, but it’s classic Dan Brown. Very quick read, lots of ponder about art and history, and a lot of action. The ending disappointed, but perhaps this story is not quite done yet?
This is still my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it five times now, and I can never get over how perfect it is. It’s Victorian, it’s Gothic, it’s a coming of age novel, it’s a feminist novel, it’s a Romance, it’s a comedy, it’s got everything! Jane is a very complex, yet delicate heroine who struggles with the conflict of love versus her beliefs. Drenched in symbolism and filled with artistic elements and truly fleshed out characters, Jane Eyre is a brilliant piece of literature and history.