The Golem and the Jinni *** (of 4) by Helene Wecker

 America, Book Reviews, FICTION, Jewish History, Psychology  Comments Off on The Golem and the Jinni *** (of 4) by Helene Wecker
Sep 072017
 

In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another.  A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers.  In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength.  Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous.  So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human.  They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions.  They chafe at being immigrants in a new city.  They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves.  The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.

Regeneration by Pat Barker **** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, Europe, FICTION, FOUR STARS ****, History, Prize Winner, Psychology  Comments Off on Regeneration by Pat Barker **** (of 4)
Mar 312017
 

Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I.  Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience.  Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning.  They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night.  Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health.  The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets.  In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.

Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim **** (of 4)

 Asia, Book Reviews, NON FICTION, Psychology  Comments Off on Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim **** (of 4)
Dec 092016
 

sukiSuki Kim spent six months teaching English to the sons of elite North Koreans enrolled at Pyongyang University for Science and Technology (PUST), an evangelical college in the world’s most secretive nation.  Kim is neither a teacher nor a practicing Christian and yet maintained her cover despite being entrapped on the campus — there is no free travel in North Korea — and watched round the clock by North Korean minders.  What strikes Kim as most frightening is the total dependence of North Koreans on their Dear Leader who provides for jobs, food, beliefs about their past, their relations to others, and their future.  Free will has been utterly squashed.  Until she attends a Sunday morning prayer session with the Christians who run PUST and recognizes that entreaties of administrators and missionaries are virtually the same as what is broadcast on North Korean television.  She needs only to exchange the names of Kim Jong Il and Jesus.  She laments the inability of her college students to access the Internet, convinced that if only they could understand how much knowledge there is in the world each one of them would be free.  She wrote the book just two years before American Evangelicals, Fake News and post-truth politics cherry-picked from the Internet by his supporters led to the election of Donald Trump.

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin *** (of 4)

 America, Book Reviews, History, Law, Memoir/Biography, NON FICTION, Psychology  Comments Off on American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin *** (of 4)
Dec 012016
 

hearst24n-8-webPatty Hearst was the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential media men in American history (think Fox News) when she was kidnapped in the early 1970s by a shadowy radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army.  During her months of captivity, Patty Hearst came to sympathize with her anti-establishment captors, going so far as to rob banks at gunpoint, and firing weapons at innocent bystanders.  Toobin does a reasonable job of setting the context of the period: the Vietnam War was refusing to come to an end, African Americans were raging against oppression, women were recognizing their own restrictions, drug use was up, domestic bombings by radical groups against symbols of government and police brutality were in the thousands, and the country was divided between blue-collar supporters of law and order and youthful proponents of peace and equality.  A lot like today’s red-blue divisions. Toobin’s fundamental question is whether Patty Hearst’s law-breaking escapades were the result of her kidnapping and fear for her life if she did not act in accordance with her kidnappers, or whether, as the historical record indicates, Patty voluntarily switched allegiances, moving from far right to far left, and was responsible for her own actions.  The question of the extent we are responsible for our own behaviors or are swayed by larger societal forces is a great question, but unfortunately, it is buried for most of this book as the moment-by-moment details of the kidnapping ordeal are laid out.

Jul 222016
 

one_of_us_0Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise.  Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth.  He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head.  Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy.  Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer.  Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania.  One of us.  This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.

Apr 232010
 

Christopher Boone has Asperger’s Syndrome and Haddon’s book is the best portrayal of what goes through the mind of a young teen who is simultaneously a brilliant mathematician and incapable of comprehending facial expressions, other people’s emotions, or jokes, to name just a few symptoms. The book follows Christopher’s attempts to write a mystery book about a murdered dog and does an astonishing job of describing what a wonderful kid he is and how unbelievably challenging it is to live with him. January 2007.

Apr 292010
 

Both of my parents, and the critics, raved about this book, so take my review cautiously. The story revolves around the meticulously described single day of a neurosurgeon in London as he wrestles the inner demons we all face — self doubt, fatigue, the challenge of ageing, parenting — and the external terroristic demons of the post 9/11 world. The author provides exceptional insight into the protagonist’s state of mind while playing off a turbulent backdrop of an anti-Iraq-war protest in London. A squash game covers a dozen pages and is described so accurately you can hear the ball pop off the front wall. In fact, you’ll be breathless and perspiring by the fourth of five games. On the upside, too, the main characters are all nice people. The neurosurgeon’s family, in contrast to the depressing majority of recent publications, is entirely functional. Perhaps, it was my mood, however, but all the detail left me impatient for action. At least for the first half of the book, the part I read, not much of consequence happens. It’s just one long day, Saturday, in the life of a doctor. Obviously, if you’re in the right mood, this book could be a winner. July 2005.

Apr 302010
 

A bottomless well of hopelessness, despair and background warfare in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion of the 80s through the American invasion post 9/11. Seen through the eyes of two women who lose nearly everything they can imagine either blown to bits around them or whose common husband senselessly beats them. And yet. Hosseini’s crystaline writing and, in my case, Atossi Leoni’s heart wrenching reading simultaneously suffocated and repelled me. I wanted to stop the pain, but could not turn away; instead I lay awake for nights praying for salvation for Leilo and Miryam, two women who endured. December 2007

Jun 212010
 

James Boylan, a college classmate of mine, and chair of the English Department at Colby, at the age of forty could no longer bear the pressure of living in the wrong body and became Jennifer Boylan. With an ample supply of good humor and equal dose of pathos, she describes what it takes to change genders even after being married and fathering two sons. She’s one of the few people to know what women talk about in public restrooms and what men don’t say in the men’s room, and to compare the ease of purchasing dungarees in the men’s department versus the insuperable challenges of buying women’s jeans. Which is all to say she supplies a credible voice for what it takes to be a woman in America even for someone not women-born. October 2005

Dec 262012
 

A graphic, graphic-novel of the author’s descent, ascent, descent, and ascent through bipolar disorder.  Her story is told with exceptional clarity, honesty, more than a little humor, and wisdom.  It speaks to anyone that has ever suffered from a high, a low, or something worse, which I believe probably includes everyone.  Her images and text are partnered perfectly and together prove to be remarkably informative.  Her story opens with a discovery chapter, followed by denial, a highly educational center wherein author and psychiatrist spend considerable amount of time engaging in therapy and searching for the right cocktail of medications, and a satisfying conclusion.