Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Brain on Fire

Having suffered from clinical depression, I am always interested in learning more about how the brain influences one's mental health.  While waiting for a doctor appointment, I chanced upon an article about Susannah Cahalan's experience descending into madness for a month.  The article was fascinating, but I wanted to know more.  I wanted to read the full story.

In 2009, Susannah Cahalan was a vibrant, loquacious reporter with the New York Post.  In Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah tells the story of how she began experiencing paranoia over bedbugs, then started having hallucinations and eventually was wracked with terrifying seizures.  Her family looked on in astonishment as this bright young woman became unrecognizable to them.  She slipped from psychosis into catatonia.

Although the experience left her without vivid memories of the events, Susannah stepped into reporter mode.  She compiled interviews with her family, friends, and the amazing doctors who saved her life.  She secured journal entries from her father, hospital records and surveillance videos. Pulling together these puzzle pieces, Cahalan provides the tale of this extraordinary experience.  As the fly-leaf proclaims, "Far more than simply a riveting read and a crackling medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman's struggle to recapture her identity and to rediscover herself among the fragments left behind."

The story was, indeed, riveting.  The author was eventually diagnosed with something called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.  Basically, her immune system began attacking the right side of her brain.  Early tests all came back normal, until finally a brain biopsy revealed the intense inflammation.  Thankfully, Dr. Souhel Najjar, later named one of New York Magazine's best neurologists in the country, came on the case. 

It amazes me to think of what would have happened to this young woman if she had encountered these symptoms just a few years earlier.  At that point, doctors would not have figured out the connections or the nature of this disease.  She would have probably ended up in a mental hospital and eventually died of the ailment.  Because of their swift intervention, doctors were able to fight the inflammation on the brain and assist Susannah in returning to her normal self.

I've always explained my depression in this way.  When I am in the throes of it, I am clearly not myself.  I long to just be "me" again, but am often leery of the very medications that promise to return me to my rightful identity.  Who knows what these drugs are fully doing to my brain chemistry?  But this book, gives me hope that eventually doctors will more completely understand the links between the brain and mental illness.  As the author notes, "This is all the more reason that psychiatrists and neurologists are finding ways to break down the barriers set in place between psychology and neurology, urging for one uniform look at mental illnesses as the neurochemical diseases that they are, and, in the process, perhaps getting more grant money to study the overlap."  That, to me, is promising!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review: The Spindlers

There's something to be said for the enticement of a cover.  The cover on this audio book jumped out at me and pulled me in.  The girl is adorable with her broom tucked over her back and the lantern by her side.  The title proved to be a good hook as well.

Lauren Oliver has created a magical world below in her story of The Spindlers.  When Liza wakens one morning to discover that her brother Patrick is no longer his real self, she knows full well that the spindlers have gotten to him and stolen his soul.  She is determined to save him, no matter what.  She heads Below with her broom and meets up with a charmingly unique and vain rat, Mirabella.  Together, the two journey to find the nest of the spindlers and face one challenge after another.  Liza must be very brave, despite betrayals, riddles, and terrifying tests.

This book, aimed at readers between the ages of 8 and 12, provides a delightful journey.  The female protagonist is sure to appeal to girls and the adventures will please even boys who are reluctant readers.  This alternate reality is populated with rats, moles, spiders, troglods, nids, and nocturni (dream-weavers) ... a delightful imaginary world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Review: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

This book jumped out at me from the recent acquisitions shelf at our library.  I think what appealed to me most was the idea of the epistolary format (I'm a sucker for that).  It turned out to be a pretty good read.

Kate Spencer loses her friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.  Almost a year later, she learns that Elizabeth bequeathed her antique chest full of journals to Kate because "she's fair and sensitive and would know what should be done with them."  Kate spends her summer vacation on Great Rock Island poring over the journals and getting to know her friend more intimately than she'd ever expected.  The new vision she forms of Elizabeth is quite unlike the person she thought she knew and secrets come out that are difficult to handle.

I loved how this novel explored the appearances we put up as mothers, that sense of having it all together when we really are drowning in the details of diapers and preschools and the minutiae of motherhood.  It made me really pause to think about who I would want to read my most personal writings.  It also made me wonder what sorts of things others are harboring secretly which would change my whole impression.  The novel is full of philosophical thoughts about fate, friendship, marriage, private dreams and ambitions, secrecy, and the fears of life.  I would probably give it 3-1/2 stars.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: Diary of a Teenage Girl

I have written four Christian young adult novels.  When you are interested in breaking into the publishing world, they say you should immerse yourself in the competition to know what's out there, what's been done and what works well.  In light of that advice, I sought out a book by one of the most prominent names in Christian young adult fiction: Melody Carlson.  She's written numerous books and has quite a following among teenagers.

This was the first Melody Carlson novel I tried and I can completely understand her popularity with teens.  In Diary of a Teenage Girl, Carlson nails the voice of a typical teenager so well.  I appreciated that she didn't shy away from clearly dealing with the spiritual questions teens are asking.  I felt drawn into the story and cared about the characters.

Caitlin O'Connor has never been popular, but lately she's been hanging around with a crowd of the more popular kids and she can't believe her good fortune.  Of course, she's sad to have left behind her best friend, Beanie, but surely Beanie can understand that you don't pass up such opportunities.  Unfortunately, the popular kids are a complicated lot and knowing what to say and do requires careful thought.  It can't be good when you start falling for the boyfriend of your new best friend though.

Throughout the struggles, Caitlin shares honestly with her diary her perspective on living life, finding love, and seeking God's will.  She is authentic and down-to-earth, often pointing out her own weaknesses and failings.  Of course, the teens and grown-ups around her are flawed, as well, and Caitlin must find a way to navigate in this fallen world.

This character-driven novel offers a glimpse at one teenager's attempts to know God and to follow His will.  I loved the diary format.  I am anxious to read the sequels, as I've discovered there are 5 books in the Caitlin series.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mixed Feelings Towards Manna

I have been reading the Day by Day Kid's Bible with the little boys since the beginning of the year.  As we have watched the journey of the children of Israel through the wilderness, the repetitious whining of the Israelites has not been lost on my two little guys.  They groan when they hear the complaints all over again.  They eagerly ask "What was manna?" and declare "That would get boring to eat the same thing day after day."  And they also point out that the children of Israel shouldn't complain so much because God is leading them and He has done magnificent things, like leading them out of slavery and bondage, and parting the Red Sea, and talking intimately with Moses.  They are taking in this journey and responding to it in their own sweet ways.

But I'm experiencing the story all over again, as well.  As I read about the Israelites' backward glances towards the life they left in Egypt, I feel my own pangs.  It has been six years since we moved from Illinois to Indiana, to live in my husband's grandmother's home in the middle of the country.  Back in Illinois, I had a job, a Bible study, a writer's group, and loads of friends.  While I don't regret coming here (it has been such a blessing for the boys and for my husband and I fought for the chance to stay home with my younger two), it is hard not to make the same comparisons the Israelites succumbed to.  Sure, we had our own situations of bondage back in Illinois, and God has taken us out of those particular chains and given us freedoms we never expected.  Yes, God is guiding and providing every step of the way.  Yes, His power is great and I thoroughly trust His leading.  But, oh how the manna is making me sick.  And, oh how I long for those solid meals enjoyed back in Illinois.  The friends.  The laughter. The community.  The sense of belonging.  I knew where I fit and what was expected of me.  I didn't subsist on the provision of manna.

Those meals back in Egypt were filling and good.  Why would God bring me into the desert and seemingly leave me to die?  "How are You being served by my isolation and wandering?" I rail at God.  Even though I can see the blessings all around me (the chance to be home with our sons, the time and space for writing that I never thought possible, the renewal of my marital relationship in ways I also never thought possible, etc.), I cannot shake the longing for what was left behind, for the life of comfort and certainty, for the clear vision of my place in the world.  I miss community.

But I must remind myself that God is still providing.  Even though the provisions don't match my longings, He is sustaining in the midst of this wilderness experience.  He is leading, even when it feels like my soul is wandering without direction or purpose.  He is guiding with a pillar of fire and a cloud.

We recently came to the point where the children of Israel reach the Promised Land and no longer subsist on a diet of manna.  I had to remind myself that the Israelites wandered for forty years.  FORTY YEARS!  That's practically a lifetime.  I'm probably right where they were at year six.  I'm torn between gratitude for the manna and longing for the meals back in Egypt.  I don't know how many years my wilderness experience is slated for.  Perhaps, I'm not even half-way through.  Perhaps, I have years more manna to ingest.  As I weary of hearing the Israelites complaining about their manna, I weary of hearing my own complaints and vow to seek out the gratitude more than the discouragement.  But, like the Israelites, I'm human and my tendency is to focus on the lack rather than the provision.  I need new eyes.  I need His eyes.  May the manna be enough.  May He continue to guide even when I'm stubborn and rebellious and discouraged.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

This is a debut novel for M. L. Stedman, and I can't wait to read more from this amazing author!  By far, this has been the best book I've read (listened to) this year!  It was beautifully melodic and hauntingly stirring.  I am penetrated by a deep sense of ache upon finishing it.  I know the book is going to resonate in my brain for many weeks to come.  If you read only one novel this year, make it this one!!

Tom Sherbourne is a very private man.  He doesn't easily give forth the details of his life, whether his fractured childhood including the loss of a mother or the dreadful experience on the front lines during the war.  When Tom returns from war and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock (nestled between two oceans), he takes with him his bright-eyed, eager young wife, Isabel.  Life on the small island is lonely and filled with pain as Isabel loses one child after another. 

Then, one day a boat washes up on shore with a dead man and a tiny, living baby.  Always one to follow the rules, Tom wants to report the finding, but is swayed by the urgency of his grieving wife to keep this baby she sees as a "gift from God."  It is only when they return home to the mainland for a furlough, two years later, that they learn the full dynamics of their actions.  Will they set the story straight and return the child to the rightful mother or will they cling to the happy family they have carved out of someone else's tragedy?

The story is magnetic.  The writing is lyrical.  Here's just one brief example of the poetic nature of Stedman's prose: "Like the wheat fields where more grain is sown than can ripen, God seemed to sprinkle extra children about and harvest them according to some indecipherable divine calendar."  I would have taken down more if I hadn't been listening to the book in audio form.  It was pure joy to listen to the mesmerizing rhythm of words crafted in this novel.

The characters will get completely under your skin.  They are compelling and deeply human, with all the faults and foibles that brings.  You will ache as you get sucked deeper and deeper into their dilemma.  You will find yourself torn by all the possible outcomes.

I cannot recommend this novel enough.  It was a brilliant tour-de-force and one I can't wait to read again in a few years when the dust has settled and the story can be somewhat new again.  Just a warning, you will weep and be saddened in the process of experiencing this heart-rending tale of longing and loss.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: Sufficient Grace

I stumbled upon this book quite by accident.  I think the title jumped out at me and then the jacket flap descriptions hooked me further.  It received good reviews on Amazon and was suggested as a good book club choice. However, I would have to say that, for me, this book was just okay (nothing spectacular).  The inside cover declares it a "spellbinding debut novel."  While it was well-written for a debut novel, I didn't find it spellbinding.  In fact, I couldn't really tell where it was headed or why it was taking so long to get there.

The story line is compelling enough.  Here's the book flap description that sucked me in:

"One quiet spring day, Gracie Holloman hears voices in her head that tell her to get in her car and leave her entire life behind - her home, her husband, her daughter, her very identity.  Gracie's subsequent journey releases her genius for painting and effects profound changes in the lives of everyone around her.  Ultimately, her quest leads her into the home of Mama Toot and Mattie, two strong, accomplished women going through life changes of their own.  As the bonds between these women grow stronger, and the family Gracie left behind come to terms with their own loss, both worlds slowly and inevitably collide, revealing a long-buried secret that they share."

I guess by the time I got to the "long-buried secret," it didn't seem like that big a deal.  The book just meandered too much for me and I never really connected with the characters enough to care.  Plus, it seemed to be billed as a religious novel and the religion in the novel was just religion, not a life-changing relationship with God.  Scripture was quoted and hymns were sung, but the lives of the characters seemed unchanged by these interactions.  Perhaps I was seeking more redemption.   For whatever reason, this book didn't stir me as much as I had hoped. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: Help, Thanks, Wow

I'm a big fan of Anne Lamott's writing.  I especially love her book, Bird by Bird, about the craft of writing.  But I can't say I was as thrilled with this book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

It is a simple book about the simplicity of prayer.  Her take is that "there's something to be said about keeping prayer simple."  I guess, for me, there wasn't much substance to the book.  It felt like a rambling, stream-of-consciousness diatribe. Plus, I take great exception to her generalities that prayer can just be applied to whatever force you want to address, even calling your higher power "Howard" or "Phil."

I suppose part of my complaint stems from the fact that we are reading through Genesis and Exodus with the little boys right now.  When I read those early books of the Bible, I get a tremendous sense of the magnitude and power of God.  It seems wrong to address God in such common terms and it feels like a minimizing of His worth to declare that He can be addressed in any way you choose.  If we're going to allow generalities, then really people could pray to a higher power and call it "Satan," for that matter.

Jody Collins, an Amazon reviewer, nailed my sentiments when she wrote: "To mention a casual God of whom she is not really sure is no help to me, nor is it reassuring or encouraging. Why would I pray to a God who fits such a small description--hers, her friend's or anyone else's? Why would I say, 'thanks!' or 'wow!' if I'm not sure of where these prayers are going?"

Moreover, she seems to take on Christians several times and berate them for their beliefs about God.  She writes, "Certain Christians... will happily tell you they have a monopoly on truth..."  I know there are Christians who are in-your-face about their beliefs, but not all Christians approach you with a desire to cram their beliefs down your throat.  Indeed, in writing this book, isn't she declaring that she has her own understanding of truth, when it comes to prayer.

I agree with the three components being useful ways to approach prayer.  We ask God for help, we express our gratitude for his provision, and we stand in awe of His majesty and His works.  I agree with her assessment that we are all a mess and need His assistance in our lives.  I agree that we could benefit from implementing more gratitude into our lives and serving others as an expression of that gratitude.  And, often when I think of God, I do think "Wow!"  So, in more ways than one, we are in agreement.  I just have a more particular focus for my prayers and perhaps feel the need for a bit more reverence.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Several months ago, I discovered a lovely new blog dedicated to making the most out of reading time, called "The Deliberate Reader."  When Sheila, of The Deliberate Reader, mentioned this book I actually went and placed it on my Christmas wish list.  I'm not a big fan of books about cooking.  For one thing, I'm not a big fan of cooking.  But The Kitchen Counter Cooking School snagged me with the subtitle, How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks.  When you know you're a culinary novice and would like to be a fearless home cook, well ... you buy the book.

This isn't a cookbook, although there are recipes included.  It is primarily the story of one woman's mission to make cooking more accessible to a handful of women who tended to fill their shopping carts with boxes and cans and loads of processed foods.  She found nine volunteers, visited and critiqued their kitchens, then offered them a cooking class to learn how to prepare more foods from scratch.  The volunteers were definitely kitchen-phobics.  I could completely relate to this book.  In fact, at times it hurt to read it because it felt like my own angst was splashed on the pages.

I am thoroughly uncomfortable in the kitchen.  I am insecure.  I fail miserably when I try to make things taste good or look presentable.  I fail at providing my family with the nourishment I want to give them.  That is why this book struck such a strong nerve with me.  It brought to mind a moment when we had company and I had prepared some Chicken Parmigiana from a freezer box.  The wife made an off-hand comment about how simple it is to prepare this yourself and then you don't get all the additional chemicals and unwanted preservatives.  I thought, "Well, this might be simple for you to whip up a feast of chicken parmigiana, but for me it would be quite another story."  It also brought to mind all the times when my sisters-in-law would flood the kitchen (this happens with both sides of the family, actually) and I would hang back worried that they all were thinking I was just unwilling to help, when really the thought of helping terrified me.

I would love to say that after reading this book I've been transformed.  Sadly, I don't think so.  It was fun to read about her method and the class sounded like quite an adventure (despite my kitchen phobia), but I don't think I can transfer what I read into actual practice.  The very first lesson was how to use a knife.  I'm no more clear on how to use a knife after reading about it.  It is something I would need to learn hands-on, I think.  Same thing with the lesson on purchasing a whole chicken and roasting it, rather than buying the packaged pieces (something I don't do all that often anyway, since we don't eat much in the way of meat).  I thought to myself, "I could go ask the butcher in the grocery store meat section to teach me how to cut up a chicken, but why would they agree to do that, when it would mean their expensive packaged meats would be purchased less?"

There were several things mentioned in the book that I'm already capable of.  I steam vegetables regularly and can make a satisfying omelet.  I've tackled soups before with a bit less trepidation than other types of recipes.  Plus, I'm a big fan of fillets in foil (a concept the author highlighted in one of the chapters).  But, I cannot see myself making my own chicken stock by roasting and then boiling the bones.  While I'd love to try the bread, I would lean towards a more whole-wheat recipe than was listed in the book.

I can't really say whether I think this book helped me or not.  I suppose I will give a few things in the book a try.  I still have a desire to improve our diet.  The question will be whether I have the follow-through.  I was surprised when she ended the book with the revelation that all nine students had changed their ways to some degree and were implementing the suggestions made in her classes (getting away from the overly processed foods and the tendencies to both eat out too much and to waste too much food).  In her follow-up visits to their homes, their cupboards and fridges bore evidence of their new-found comfort in the kitchen.   I guess I expected at least one of them to have tried and failed to ease their way into more home-cooking.

I don't know if I'll ever get to the point where I feel comfortable in a kitchen.  Perhaps it is just the way I'm wired.  Still, I enjoyed learning that I'm not alone in my kitchen angst and it was fun to read the story of these women and the classes that changed their lives.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: Katherine Paterson

This was another book about an author's journey to becoming an author, this time part of the "Meet the Author" series by The Learning Works, focusing on Katherine Paterson.  Paterson is the author of several famous children's books, The Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob Have I Loved, and The Great Gilly Hopkins.  I remember reading The Great Gilly Hopkins as a read-aloud to the fifth grade class I worked with many years ago.  The kids anxiously awaited each day's installment.  Katherine Paterson is an excellent author, to be sure.

I found the story of her life to be fascinating.  She was the child of missionaries in China and experienced many hardships during those years abroad.  She freely shares the troublesome things which gave her an internal angst ... things like school, loneliness, a sense of not belonging, etc.  But she took those emotions and channeled them into stories that today's children can easily relate to.

I think I was most touched by the story which prompted her to write The Bridge to Terabithia.  Her young son had been having difficulty adjusting to a new school in second grade, when he made a fast friend in a little girl named Lisa Hill.  The summer after their intense time together, Lisa was struck by lightning and died.  As she told of passing the news on to her young son, I wept.  Writing the book, and dedicating it to the memory of her son's young friend, was cathartic in all the ways that writing should be.

It is always interesting to discover the lives behind the stories that come to life in the pages of a book.  I will never tire of reading about authors and their journey to publication.  One day ... maybe ...  Who knows?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Review: Barbara Park

I chanced upon this biography of Barbara Park while browsing through a library children's book sale (ooh, how I love those and this netted a whole bag of books for a dollar! Score!).  This is part of the "Who Wrote That" series put out by Chelsea House Publishers.  I was thrilled to snatch it up and thrilled to read about this author's interesting journey.

I think Barbara Park is the first author my youngest son knows by name.  His kindergarten teacher has been in the process of reading all the "Junie B. Jones" books to the class.  Every time he returns from the school library, he brings home another Junie B. book.  He is bewitched.  He is astonished at how many books there are in the series.

I will admit to feeling a bit annoyed with Junie B. as I read (the mixed-up words she uses not only bothers me, but also big brother Trevor, who is forever interjecting the word which should have been used).  Not only that, her character is quite brash and sometimes disrespectful.  However, I have a deep respect for any character that can motivate a child to latch onto a series and hold on for dear life.  That is how Sean is at the moment.

Barbara Park didn't really set out to be a writer.  How often do we hear that?  She tried teaching and felt it wasn't a good fit.  Then, when her children were in school, she began to ask what her strengths were and she knew that she was funny.  She set out to write funny things, trying her hand at many different genres.  I loved the tale of her first sale to Hallmark cards.  The front read: "Isn't it ridiculous the way some people react to getting older? Face lifts, wigs, wrinkle creams, etc.  There's no doubt about it ..."  Then, the inside read: "I really admire the way you've just let yourself go."  That gave me a good chuckle.

Like other authors, she didn't just write a manuscript and immediately become an overnight sensation.  It took several years of perseverance before she broke into the market.  She herself admits that she looks on her earliest books as a child does on their early artwork.  But once she was approached to write a series of books geared towards the younger set (Kindergarten to 3rd grade), she found her niche with her unique character, Junie B. Jones.

This book tells the story of her life and the path to her rising stardom in the children's literature world.  It gives snippets from each of her books.  I'm now eager to give one of her young adult novels a try (probably the one prompted by the death of a youngster on a bicycle near her home - it sounds heartwrenching, but also uplifting).  It was a joy to read of this author's life and her road to becoming an author.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Book Review: Gregor the Overlander

One of my Facebook friends suggested Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games).  She has been reading the series (5 books long, I believe) to her children aloud and they are completely smitten with the tale.  Others commented on her post, saying they liked the Gregor books more than The Hunger Games books.  Everyone knows the popularity of The Hunger Games, so that's really saying something.

At this point, only one book into the series, I would have to say that I still prefer The Hunger Games, but I would qualify it.  The Hunger Games books are more appropriate for teens and young adults, while Gregor the Overlander, while found in the young adult section of the library, seems more geared towards the 8-12 year old set (for one thing, the main character is 11 years old).  This book was gripping, but not nearly as intense as THG.

Eleven year old Gregor follows his 2 year old sister Boots into a grate in the laundry room of their New York apartment and the two fall down into "The Underland."  Down in this underground world, roaches are enormous and bats and humans have bonded to become sworn allies in a fight against the horrible, gigantic rats.  What Gregor doesn't know is that the humans below have been waiting for a particular person to fall from "the Overland" and save the day with a valiant quest.  A prophecy has been given and the particulars are all falling into place.  Although Gregor refutes his status as "warrior," he agrees to join the quest because he hopes to find and recover his missing father.

I'm not sure what purpose Boots played in the telling of this tale.  It seemed to me that she would have been better off left upstairs in the care of the neighbor who is watching the grandmother while Gregor does the laundry.  As it was, she didn't seem to aid in the quest apart from making Gregor seem like a more appealing character (devoted, as he is, to his baby sister).  But, the prophecy included her and so she was a part of the quest.  I found it quite unbelievable that an 11 year old boy would be able to carry a 2 year old for miles and miles.

Still, the tale was exciting and full of twists and turns.  The characters were likable and the pace steady.  This would be an appealing story for young boys.  I doubt my two guys are quite ready for it (at just 6 and 8), but by next year, we should be able to pick this up and see if they find it as appealing as our friends did.