REVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande [5/5]

“The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.”

being-mortal-atul-gawande

Title: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Author: Atul Gawande

Genre: Nonfiction, Medicine

Rating: 5/5

Blurb:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.

Full of eye-opening research and riveting storytelling, Being Mortal asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience even to the end, providing not only a good life but also a good end.

This is not a book I would have picked up on my own, and truth be told, the way in which I acquired this book is so strange that it seems almost like providence. I’m a shift supervisor at Starbucks, and about a month ago, a customer came through the drive-through and offered the barista this book. I don’t know what was said; once the person had driven away, the barista approached me and simply said she’d been given the book by the customer and had no idea what to do with it. A glance at the cover left me uneasy. It wouldn’t have been the first time a religious pamphlet had been handed to us. But after I looked at the subtitle and read the inside flap, I became intrigued. It seemed interesting enough, and as I’d been hoping to reignite my love of reading, I made it the next book on my to-read list.

Being Mortal may now be one of the most influential books on my life. I don’t need to fear just yet a death by old age, but of course we’re aware that it is possible to be taken before our time — a car crash, cancer, a chance slip and fall. Depression has made me think of death too often, but I never truly considered the act and process of dying except to reel from it in disgust. Being Mortal forced me to look at it.

Atul Gawande is a renowned and experienced surgeon, and he’s blatantly honest in this work. For the longest time, he had only one mindset: death is the enemy and must always be fought. However, he had rarely if ever given thought to the consequences this “save at all costs” mentality could bring. His experience with suffering patients and dying family forced him to reevaluate his mindset. He watched lives be saved, but at the cost of dignity and happiness. He saw people who were alive, but who were not living. And he saw the toll this took not only on the patients themselves, but on their families as well.

In this novel, he interweaves anecdotes and science in a way to cause envy in other authors. His prose is elegant and accessible. It does not talk down to you, not does it assume you to be an idiot. The flow is seamless, and the stories engaging. More importantly, this novel forces us all to consider that which we fear to consider: perhaps it is better to allow death to take its course than to force someone to live.

This book is a must-read for anyone, especially for those whose loved ones may soon be reaching the end of life. It teaches the importance of not saving life, but saving the act of living. Safety, Gawande finds, is not the key to happiness, but rather the ability to maintain agency of one’s self in whatever capacity one may have. Too often, we do not talk about death. We instead avoid it, shushing anyone who might try to start the conversation because we do not want to think about the inevitable. But these conversations are important, and they can set the tone for how we will end our lives. The only certainty in life is death, yet we rarely prepare for it.

Gawande’s book is, in a word, masterful. I am only twenty-three, nowhere near death (I hope), and yet I was enraptured and educated on an idea I may have otherwise never considered — until it was too late. Death is scary, but dying is scarier, and Gawande helps ease us into the conversation of how we need to think about it in order to have a truly fruitful end-of-life. This is not a book that must only be read by those close to death or whose loved ones are close to death. This is a book that must be read by everyone.

Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel [5/5]

fun home“Grief takes many forms, including the absence of grief.”

Title: Fun Home

Author: Alison Bechdel

Genre: Graphic Novel, Autobiography

Rating: 5/5

Blurb:

Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescense, the denouement is swift, graphic — and redemptive.

After the musical came out, I figured it was finally time to read this book. I’m mad I waited so long. Fun Home was just as amazing as everyone made it out to be. It’s received numerous awards, and for good reason.

Bechdel is amazing at telling her story. There’s more text in this book than you might expect from a comic, which means it will take you a little bit longer to read. But everything is poignant and well thought-out. Bechdel doesn’t completely understand herself, and she doesn’t pretend she does. She is brutally honest about everything, and she pulls no punches. It’s a beautiful work, and the expressiveness of her characters strongly roots you in her childhood.

I don’t know what else to say but that it was amazing. I wish I had read this as a teenager because it would have helped everything make more sense.

Review: The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks [1/5]

The-Way-of-ShadowsTitle: The Way of Shadows

Author: Brent Weeks

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Rating: 1/5

Blurb:

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art-and he is the city’s most accomplished artist.

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.

When I read this blurb, I thought, “Wow! This sounds so cool! I can’t wait to read it!” And then I did, and wow, was I disappointed.

I made it three chapters in before I had to give up. This book is so riddled with cliches and tropes (for characters, plot, world, EVERYTHING) it made me dumbfounded. It almost seemed like a parody. Every part of the story was so predictable, so easy to guess, so unentertaining that I couldn’t make myself finish the story. I don’t even know if I can get too far into it just because I tried to purge the bit of story I read from my brain. The writing was okay, but not nearly enough to get me through the story. I’m so glad I didn’t read the whole thing.

REVIEW: Veiled by Eka Waterfield [5/5]

veiledTitle: Veiled (Book 2 in The Fae Feast)

Author: Eka Waterfield

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5

Blurb:

Twenty years have passed since the events of Sinners, and Niavin Arkezea is thriving. Sure, there has been an influx of attempts on his life recently, and an annoying upstart vendor came into his markets with strange new substances that lured away many of Niavin’s customers. But that is business as usual, nothing Niavin cannot handle.

Then a being ancient beyond belief comes forward to strike a deal with him, and things start to get interesting.

You may remember my review of the first book, Sinners, in this series last year. I beta read the work and loved it every time I read it, so I was more than pleased when Waterfield came to me ask me to beta read the sequel as well.

In Veiled, Waterfield has not disappointed. The plots are just as intricate and complex as ever, and the twisted interactions of characters are expertly unraveled throughout the story. Niavin is such a great, sassy, asexual Sidhe drug lord, and the cast of characters in this work is even stronger than it was in Sinners.

Overall, I found this work to be better than the first. Waterfield really seems to have found her groove in writing, and she’s obviously comfortable in the world of the fae. The pacing of the plot is perfect, with alternating scenes of fast-paced action and intense dramatic dialogue. I especially loved how so much from the first book was tied in with this one, and the details contained in the novella are just enough to remind you of what happened without overwhelming you with summary.

Veiled is an excellent sequel to an already excellent novella. I can’t wait for more of Waterfield’s works, and I definitely hope to see more with Niavin in the future.

Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins [4/5]

MockingjayCover“It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.”

Title: Mockingjay (Third Book in The Hunger Games Series)

Author: Suzanne Collins

Genre: Science-Fiction, Dystopia

Rating: 4/5

Blurb:

“My name is Katniss Everdeen. Why am I not dead? I should be dead.”

Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.

District 13  has come out of the shadows and is plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Though she’s long been a part of the revolution, Katniss hasn’t known it. Now it seems that everyone has had a hand in the carefully laid plans but her.

The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss’s willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels’ Mockingjay – no matter what the cost.

Mockingjay is the final chapter of The Hunger Games, and while it might be the best of the series in terms of how it wrests emotion from the reader, it is also the most heart-breaking and sad.

I tried reading this in 2011, but at the time, it was too different from the other books for me. In the first two, Katniss is relatively determined and fierce, but in this, she is broken, hurt, and a shell of herself. It makes sense, of course; she has post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, it made it a hard read for a younger me because it wasn’t what I had expected.

Today, it’s still a hard read, but for much different reasons. When I finished the book, I had the worst panic attack of my life. I was sobbing, inconsolable, and it wasn’t because I was upset for the characters, it was that the emotional trauma that Katniss goes through had culminated in this horrible mirror of my own. It touched me deeply, and I found myself sick with grief and empathy for her.

This is not a happy book. The epilogue may try to trick you into thinking it is, but it is not. It is a good book. The plot is believable, rich, and emotional, just like the characters. The writing is okay. It’s what I’d expect from a YA novel concerned mostly with keeping young readers engaged, and honestly I would have given this book 5 stars in spite of that.

So why dock a star? Truly, it’s because of my vehement emotional reaction. For the last half of the novel, I felt sick and upset for Katniss. While this is certainly the mark of a good book, I have to dock a point only because I didn’t enjoy reading this. It felt like a chore because I knew I would feel upset when I began reading it. And reading, for me, should be enjoyable. So while, yes, it did an excellent job at ripping emotion from me, it was rarely an enjoyable experience. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent book.

Review: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (4/5)

adwdTitle: A Dance with Dragons

Author: George R.R. Martin

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Rating: 4/5

Blurb:

In the aftermath of a colossal battle, the future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance—beset by newly emerging threats from every direction. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen, the last scion of House Targaryen, rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has thousands of enemies, and many have set out to find her. As they gather, one young man embarks upon his own quest for the queen, with an entirely different goal in mind.

Fleeing from Westeros with a price on his head, Tyrion Lannister, too, is making his way to Daenerys. But his newest allies in this quest are not the rag-tag band they seem, and at their heart lies one who could undo Daenerys’s claim to Westeros forever.

Meanwhile, to the north lies the mammoth Wall of ice and stone—a structure only as strong as those guarding it. There, Jon Snow, 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, will face his greatest challenge. For he has powerful foes not only within the Watch but also beyond, in the land of the creatures of ice.

From all corners, bitter conflicts reignite, intimate betrayals are perpetrated, and a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some will fail, others will grow in the strength of darkness. But in a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics will lead inevitably to the greatest dance of all.

There are ghosts in Winterfell, he thought, and I am one of them.”

Prepare for a marathon because the most recent book in the famous A Song of Ice and Fire series is a whopper. This book focuses primarily on the stories of Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Asha Greyjoy, and Theon Greyjoy — a lot of fan favorites. And like Martin’s previous works, the characters, plotting, and world-building are top-notch. The prose is as fine as it’s always been; good enough to get the point across, but with the occasional desperate need for an editor due to an overabundance of mundane detail. This could sometimes make it a chore to read, however, and while I know it’s an unpopular opinion, I highly preferred A Feast for Crows over Dragons in all respects.

If you’re not reading this right on the heels of Crows, however, be prepared for a lot of confusion. The plots of this thousand-page novel are intricately woven into the plots of Crows, making it glaringly obvious that the two books were once one. Even though I went straight from Crows to Dragons, I still had to look up a lot of stuff online to verify what I thought, hoping not to run into spoilers. While there is a historic backlog at the end of the book to help remind you who’s who, it’s a pain to flip to with the Kindle reader and not often very helpful.

While I had some gripes, the book was enjoyable overall. There were the same “aha!” and “oh no!” moments like the previous books in the series, and if you’ve liked the series thus far, you’ll be sure to enjoy this installment. Let’s just hope that Martin gets a little faster at writing the next two books.

Review: Harley Quinn Vol. 1: Hot in the City (New 52)

harleyTitle: Harley Quinn Vol. 1: Hot in the City (New 52)

Author: Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti

Rating: 4/5

Genre: Graphic Novel, Superheroes

Blurb:

Fresh from BATMAN: DEATH OF THE FAMILY and SUICIDE SQUAD, Harley Quinn returns to her first solo series in the New 52! The writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti (ALL STAR WESTERN) and Amanda Conner (BEFORE WATCHMEN: SILK SPECTRE) unleashed Harley on an unsuspecting DC Universe, as she encounters various heroes and villains … and leaves no one unscathed in her wake! With art by Chad Hardin and a slew of comics’ best artists including Darwyn Cooke, Sam Kieth, Tony S. Daniel, Paul Pope, Walter Simonson and Art Baltazar!

Hot in the City is an excellent start to the new series of Harley Quinn comics. The first issue included in this volume is especially great as it pays homage to all the artists who have drawn Harley before — from comic to TV adaptations. It honors the past and then uses that to lead into the new. It was an excellent way to start off a new series, and I loved that Connor and Palmiotti — a wife and husband team — took the time to nod to those who came before them before truly starting their new series.

That feeds into what I loved most about this volume — it’s sincerity. It’s obvious that both authors are big fans of Harley Quinn and don’t want to let her down. The weird plots make it akin to the first run of Howard the Duck in that it’s just the perfect mixture of wacky and wonderful. Since many comic artists like to oversexualize female characters (see: the Hawkeye Initiative), I was especially happy to find no gross fetishization of Harley. She seemed her absolute self, and Chad Hardin never strayed into grossness with his art.

While I found Harley’s characterization mostly on point, sometimes her airheaddedness seemed over the top — at least where her psychiatry skills were involved. She did a few things that I thought didn’t really embody who she is, and those actions seemed to drive the plot, but overall, I thought she was done very well.

I’m really happy to see this New 52 installment doing so well. For those new to comics, it’s a great introduction to Harley, and for those who’ve been with her for a while, it has a touch of nostalgia and a lot of freshness. I look forward to reading the next volume, and I hope to see Conner, Palmiotti, and Hardin continue to do well with her.