“Without: Poems” review

Without: Poems
by Donald Hall

Patricia‘s review – Feb 22, 2017

It was amazing
 A moving elegy in poems by Donald Hall for Jane Kenyon, his beloved wife and fellow poet, who fought valiantly with leukemia. These poems grapple with and then embrace his loss, before and after her passing. What a marriage this must have been, to her last word (“O.K.”, about his putting her letters in the box); and her last kiss:
“At eight that night,
her eyes open as they stayed
until she died, brain-stem breathing
started, he bent to kiss
her pale cool lips again, and felt them
one last time gather
and purse and peck to kiss him back.”

“How We Decide” review

How We Decide
by Jonah Lehrer (Goodreads Author)

Patricia‘s review – Jul 20, 2012

Liked it

Decision making is supposed to be objective. As rational creatures, we humans are supposed to draw upon our mental data banks, prior experience and sensory input as we approach an important decision. Jonah Lehrer, in his book How We Decide, explores how we really make choices, and it turns out that humans aren’t as objective as we might think.

Since Plato, philosophers have labeled decision making as either rational or emotional: we carefully deliberate, or we “blink” and go with our instincts. But as neuroscientists attempt to crack open the black boxes, analyze the data and recreate the tangled emotions of a crisis, they’re discovering that reason and passion compete, fence and tango in the human mind. Our best decisions are a finely-tuned blend of both feeling and logic–situationally unique. The trick is to determine when to lean on which part of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.

Drawing on cutting-edge research, some of which may be familiar to those who have read recent non-fiction exploring how the brain works, Lehrer chooses a wide variety of “deciders” in real word scenarios, from hedge fund investors and military intelligence, to poker players and television producers. His book answers two questions: How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?

Lehrer reveals how we make decisions under stress, and how psychology experiments are devised to test decision-making. The author discusses the difficulties one man had with making simple day to day decisions after the emotional portion of his brain was impaired. Lehrer raises and answers some stimulating questions, like whether inexplicable gut feelings are really windfalls of insight, and what do they really mean? Why is it easier to spend greater sums of money with a credit card than we would if paying cash? Does expensive wine taste better than cheap, or are we subconsciously influenced by the price? Why do we cheat on diets, or buy on impulse? How long can unsupervised toddlers resist a marshmallow?

By exploring how we choose a car or house to purchase, or whom to marry, or whether or not to eat an offered slice of cake, we can learn when to rely on reason, and when to cave to emotions.

How We Decide is published by Houghton Mifflin. Jonah Lehrer is editor at large for Seed magazine and the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes scholar, Lehrer has written for The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He edits the Mind Matters blog for Scientific American and writes his own highly regarded blog, The Frontal Cortex.

“Flotsam”

Flotsam
by David Wiesner

Patricia’s review – Jul 20, 2012

It was amazing

This is a beautiful picture book with no words at all. My son was fascinated with the illustrations (he’s 12.) Fantasy and realism coexist in watery seashore illustrations, in which a boy checks what the tide has brought in, and finds an underwater camera that leads to further adventures.

“Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within”

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
by Natalie Goldberg

Patricia’s review – Jul 20, 2012

Really liked it

I gave this a four star rating because I think it was a well-written book of essays on writing. I think it might inspire people to write the poems or stories they have been meaning to put into words. I am not sure I was as inspired as I could have been. I have encountered better writing prompts, but it did hold my interest, and the brief little passages fit well into my reading schedule.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” review

A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini (Goodreads Author)

Patricia‘s review – Jul 18, 2012

It was amazing
_A Thousand Splendid Suns_ is a gritty, yet dazzling portrayal of two women in Afghanistan and their no-win lives, against the background of 30 years of war, terrorism, violence and religious strife.

The two main characters, Mariam and Laila, come from very different families, but both are forced to marry the same loathsome man when they are trapped by shameful circumstances. Although the novel’s intensity is built on the juxtaposition of violence and true love, war and innocent lives, beauty and destruction, forced marriage and free will, this is no Gone With the Wind. Its realism and irony make it more closely akin to Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God”s Wife. And the (male) author’s uncanny portrayal of the innermost thoughts of a woman is in the tradition of Madame Bovary or The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Although there is one love story in the book, it is a tiny spark of light compared to the years of grueling oppression, humiliation and abuse experienced by Mariam.

The author, Kaleed Hosseini, is a native of Kabul, Afghanistan, and is best known for his breakout first novel, The Kite Runner, which was recently made into a major motion picture.

Hosseini’s depiction of Afghanistan during the last three decades is raw and vivid, and reads like cold, hard truth. His storytelling is incredibly beautiful, even when its images of war and carnage are most excruciating. Like snapshots of a war correspondent, the humans in this novel hurt your eyes while engaging your heart.

Hosseini begins his book with the story of Mariam, who is introduced as a five-year-old child being raised in a tiny earthen hut by her mother, who calls her a harami, or bastard. Her father, Jahil, visits her every Thursday, and calls her his little flower. Mariam’s little life revolves around Jahil’s visits, and he tells her stories, including one about a little wooden puppet who becomes a real boy.

Although her mother’s tone is often sharp and Mariam’s scope is very confined, she dreams of going to Herat, knocking on her father’s front door, and being recognized as a favored child. However, when she ignores the warnings of her mother and walks to the city, Jahil refuses to come to the door, and she sleeps that night in the street. Inside are Jahil’s three wives and a number of children, none of whom wish to meet their illegitimate sister, daughter of a banished cleaning lady. When she finally gives up her quest and trudges home, she finds her mother’s corpse dangling in a tree.

Ironically, the death of Mariam’s mother causes her father to grudgingly bring his child to live in an upstairs room of the family home. Although she is treated humanely, the legitimate wives and children opt not to interact with Mariam, and soon she is married off to a fellow merchant, middle-aged, who has lost his wife and child.

Although Mariam begins to accept and tentatively grow fond of Rasheem, she realizes that his favor depends on her production of a male child, to replace his young son from his first marriage. That little boy had drowned in a stream near his home, when no one was watching. Mariam is treated well during her pregnancy, but when she miscarries in a bathhouse, he turns on his young wife. Despite numerous attempts, Mariam is never able to produce a live child, and Rasheem grows more and more abusive and threatening.

The next section of the book concerns Laila, a daughter of a woman named Fariba who attempts to befriend Mariam after she and her husband move to Kabul. Fariba is a lovely, friendly woman who is casual about “covering,” or wearing veils, scarves or the much more substantial burqa when in public. Since Rasheem insists that Mariam wear the burqa at all times when she is outside of her home, Mariam senses that she should not associate herself with Fariba, to avoid infuriating Rasheem.

After giving birth to two fine sons, Fariba bears a daughter with unusual coloring, blonde with green eyes, that she names Leila, which means “night beauty”. Leila’s father is a teacher and well educated man, who loves poetry as well as Afghanistan. He quotes two lines about Kabul, written by a seventeenth-century Persian poet, Saeb-e-Tabrizi:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

As the novel progresses, wars and coups play out around the characters, with each warlord turning out more bloodthirsty than the previous one. As Laila grows, her best friend from early childhood is Tariq, a neighbor boy who lost his leg to a mine at the tender age of five. It is implicit in her family’s daily interactions, that she and Tariq will probably marry, upon reaching an age of consent. Laila’s father is disturbed by the violence that constantly reverberates throughout Afghanistan, and when Laila’s two brothers are killed on the battlefield, her mother takes to her bed in a near-death depression.

When Fariba regains her senses and agrees to leave Kabul, her husband and daughter are ecstatic, eager to rejoin Tariq’s family in Pakistan. Laila volunteers to carry book boxes to the waiting car, and is knocked unconscious by the bomb that lands on her home, killing both of her parents. When she awakens, she is told that she was pulled from a pile of rubble by Rasheem, Mariam’s husband. As soon as she recovers from her injuries, Rasheem brings her a visitor to tell her of Tariq’s death. Rasheem tells her that her only option is to become his second wife, which she accepts. Without spoiling the ending, the unlikely friendship that develops between these two women is redemptive and moving, giving each of them a purpose in the random world in which they find themselves, and a friend worth dying for.

Subjectively, this novel rings true to me, partly because of its thematic similarity to the graphic novel and film Persepolis, about a girl’s childhood and adolescence in Iran. I felt it accurately captured Afghanistan over the last 25 or 30 years, which turned out to be very similar to the way my friend Fariba, a fellow student at Geneva College in the early 1980s, described Iran. Although my friend viewed Iran from the point of view of a member of the privileged class, actually a relative of the deposed monarch, her luggage contained several burqas, and she was doubtful she could return safely to her beloved country in the middle of the hostage crisis.

I was amused by her lofty attitude toward Arab students as a Persian. She would say, in Arabic, “What desert have you been walking across?” when they showed up late for tutoring. And Afghanistan, as depicted by Hosseini, is more culturally akin to Iran, or Pakistan, than to other Middle Eastern countries like Iraq. The characters speak Farsi, or modern day Persian, and their brand of Islam has Buddhist influences. The most emotionally honest moment is when Mariam, seconds before execution, prays to Allah, her heart calmed by the realization that her life did not turn out to be so bad, and that she was loved. And Mariam’s isolated character, as an illegitimate daughter of a house servant, resonates with my friend from Uruguay, whose upbringing continents away was nearly identical. The themes of trying to win a father’s love, or a husband’s, or a child’s, are universal.

“Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” review

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi (Goodreads Author)

Patricia‘s review – Jul 18, 2012

Really liked it
(This review was written in Oct. 2009)
While not hot off the press, the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, has new relevance with the flare of protests over the election results and nuclear capabilities in Iran. Nafisi’s book, copyrighted 2003, is still relevant reading for anyone who has ever wondered what significance English and American literature, or Western culture in general, has for citizens of Muslim countries. Anyone curious as to how female Iranians perceive themselves as women, as political pawns or targets, or as sex objects, may find this work of non-fiction intriguing. Anyone looking for titillation because of the mention of Lolita in the title will be largely disappointed, however. Nafisi begins her tenth chapter: “I have asked you to imagine us, to imagine us in the act of reading Lolita in Tehran: a novel about a man who, indirectly, causes the death of her mother, Charlotte, and keeps her as his little entrapped mistress for two years. Are you bewildered? Why Lolita? Why Lolita in Tehran?”

Nafisi emphasized that they, the woman of the group, were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea. “Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives,” she explains.

RLT also addresses more fundamental questions: what is the role of fiction in women’s lives? How can a young, or not so young, woman, with intelligence and emotions, survive in an Islamic dictatorial theocracy? What attributes of women, and humans, are universal, and how long can they be suppressed and denied?

The title refers to the author’s whim, shortly after resigning as a member of the English Literature faculty at the University of Tehran, of choosing ten of her best female students to study English and American works of fiction privately, at her home. The selection of readings were chosen for their relevance to the group of young women living in a state of revolution and repression. This process of choosing works that college or graduate school Iranian woman would relate to under the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini was central to the author’s experiment: the intensity of their connections to the literature was unexpected and deeply moving. During the course of several years, many of the women were arrested and imprisoned for infractions as daring as participating in riots, or as innocuous as having a satellite dish or wearing pink socks. One woman, finding Nafisi on the street, told her of her days of incarceration, her amazing release, and of the tragedy of a fellow student, who was executed. The two students were sometimes able to talk in prison, and the survivor told of how they would reminisce on the lives of fictional Western lit heroines.

The characters and physical traits of these women are as important to the telling of their stories as the works of literature, and these female portraits come alive as they react to the plots of the novels they study, with amusement, understanding and envy at their relative freedoms. Daisy Miller is inspirational for her courage. Lolita is a sympathetic character to readers from a culture of arranged marriages, paired as adolescent girls with middle-aged husbands, for she is trapped, held prisoner by a much older man, who lusts after her pubescent body and ensures that her innocence and girlhood is completely destroyed.

One of the girls, Yassi, on reading Austen, paraphrased the famed first sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife.”

The book falls into four sections: Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen, followed by an epilogue.

One of the frequently recurring criticisms of Reading Lolita in Tehran is that, without having read at least Lolita, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, Daisy Miller and Pride and Prejudice, the reader is left in the dark, unable to make the connections necessary to follow Nafisi’s stream of consciousness and complex connections. I agree that in order to appreciate the author’s allusions and segues, it would be of optimal value for anyone planning to read this book to first read the novels of her syllabus, in order to fully appreciate the cultural references. Another frequently posted criticism on Amazon.com’s review blog is that Nafisi writes like the English professor she is.

Quite a few reviewers/raters complain that they were unable to finish the book, or were disappointed that the contents did not deliver the subversive or sexual anecdotes which the intriguing title led them to expect. I think the title was well chosen, especially in view of its subscript: A Memoir in Books. Nafisi has written this as a memory piece, and more aptly a tribute to great works of Western literature as viewed through the eyes of these young Persian women, whose responses as readers to the texts of Nabokov, Austen, James and Fitzgerald are valid, vital and essential.

“PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives” review

PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives (PostSecret)
by Frank Warren

Patricia‘s review – Jul 02, 2012

Really liked it

Looking for summer reading on the run, an entertaining beach paperback or an offbeat coffee table book? PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives, began as a dare, proposed by compiler and artist Frank Warren. His challenge: send me your secrets, by postcard.

In November, 2004, Warren printed 3,000 postcards inviting people to “contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before.” His instructions were to take a postcard, or two, tell your secret anonymously and stamp and mail the postcard.

Warren asked the sender to be brief, legible and creative. He included his web address: www.postsecret.com, and the project address for the postcards: PostSecret/13345 Copper Ridge Road/Germantown, Maryland/20874-3454. He handed out these cards at subway stations, left them in art galleries and inserted them in library books.

Eventually, secrets began to make their way to Warren’s mailbox.

Long after the invitations were gone, secrets continued to arrive. Many were homemade from documents, cardboard, photos, wedding invitations and other personal items. They arrived from all over the world, written in Portuguese, Hebrew, German, French and Braille.

The submissions are revealing, shocking, funny and sad. Some writers sent multiple postcards: most are witty or graphically arty, or both. Some are confessional, some “out” abusers. A few admit to secret bad habits. One of the first arrivals looked like a dog-eared postcard covered with grocery lists, but squeezed into the corner was a tiny confession, “I am still struggling with what I have become.”

Every secret has a story behind it. Maybe this person had such a hard time sharing this secret that they used it as a shopping list, twice. Warren pondered over the accumulated mail and noted,”Secrets have stories; they can also offer truths. After seeing thousands of secrets, I understand that sometimes when we believe we are keeping a secret, that secret is actually keeping us.”
A New Zealander commented,”The things that make us feel so abnormal are actually the things that make us all the same.”
Although each secret has the possibility of being (anonymously) viewed, exhibited and/or published, the clandestine nature of sending something through the mail, without a return address, is obviously exhilarating and liberating for many writers/artists. The secret sharer can neither be seen or heard. So confessions like these pour out:

“I trashed my parents’ house to look like I had had a party while they were out of town…..so they would think I have friends.”

“I’m convinced that my scoliosis is a physical manifestation of how twisted I feel inside.”

“At a young age, I was raped by a boy in the back of a school bus. Since then, I sit as close to the front as I can.”

“I dreamt I was allergic to makeup. Now I am.”

“If i had a million dollars, i would give it all away for one more day with her like it used to be in the beginning.”

“There is a skittle on the bathroom floor at my job. Every time I go pee, I am tempted to eat it. There is also a chocolate kiss under my desk. It’s been there since I started, one and a half years ago. I still might eat it.”

“I think women who don’t wear makeup…are lazy.”

Post Secret is the perfect book to leave on a table for intermittent reading, and a complete entry can be read in a minute. The artistic quality is often startling. Although some of the confessions are disturbing and warrant a PG rating, it might start some readers off on a journey of revelation. Like a message in a bottle, who knows what effects the printed word can create?