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.

SERIES REVIEW: Neon Genesis Evangelion by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto [5/5]

eva mangaSeries Title: Neon Genesis Evangelion

Author: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto

Genre: Manga, Science Fiction

Rating: 5/5

Blurb:

Once Shinji didn’t care about anything; then he found people to fight for—only to learn that he couldn’t protect them, or keep those he let into his heart from going away. As mankind tilts on the brink of the apocalyptic Third Impact, human feelings are fault lines leading to destruction and just maybe, redemption and rebirth.

The blurb does not do this series justice. This manga is about Shinji Ikari, a fourteen-year-old boy with crippling depression and self-doubt. When his years-absent father suddenly beckons him to the city of Tokyo-3, Shinji is caught up in the attack of an angel — a monstrous creature from the sky set on destroying the city. As the angel wreaks havoc, he’s taken to the underground control center of NERV, an organization that has created huge, pilot-able biorobots called “evangelions” to fight the angels, and Shinji learns that his father didn’t call on him because he missed him — he needs Shinji to pilot an eva unit.

This is an amazing series. I watched the anime and four movies a couple months ago, and I absolutely fell in love. I’m not the type to buy merchandise beyond the movie/book itself, but now I own a NERV messenger bag, a Sachiel phone sticker, and a framed portrait of the main character. So I was incredibly excited to read the manga.

Fans of the anime might say that there’s some wonky characterization,and I would almost be tempted to agree if I didn’t think that these subtle changes in personality and character were reflective of the NGE world as a whole. Without giving too much away, the anime, manga, and reboot movies all differ in some ways, but these differences actually add to the richness of the world rather than distract from it or contradict it. By looking at these other adaptations outside of the popular anime, one gets a much greater appreciation and understanding of the Eva world. The nature of the manga also allows us to go more in-depth into some side stories that were never explored, and the world-building pages and interviews at the end of every volume help one understand the history of the world much better.

While I could sing the praises of this series all day, the only criticism I can really offer is that there are still world-building elements that are left muddy and confused. Do not read this thinking that once you reach the end, you’re finally going to have a complete understanding of the story. You’re not. While NGE starts off as an apocalyptic scifi novel, it ends as a psychological and philosophical one — and that means there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense until you’ve talked to fourteen different people about it, consulted the wiki, and read it a couple more times. And even then you still have questions.

Nevertheless, Neon Genesis Evangelion is an amazing series in all its forms. If you have any interest in science-fiction, the occult, mythology, or psychology, then this series is for you. If you’re looking for something lighter, though, then I’d say look somewhere else.

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: Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Javier Pulido [5/5]

hawkeye

Title: Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon

Author: Matt Fraction (mattfractionblog)

Illustrator: David Aja, Javier Pulido

Genre: Superhero, Graphic Novel

Rating: 5/5

Blurb:

Collects Hawkeye #1-5 & Young Avengers Presents #6.  The breakout star of this summer’s blockbuster Avengers film, Clint Barton – aka the self-made hero Hawkeye – fights for justice! With ex-Young Avenger Kate Bishop by his side, he’s out to prove himself as one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes! SHIELD recruits Clint to intercept a packet of incriminating evidence – before he becomes the most wanted man in the world.

I have no complaints about this first volume of Hawkeye. Literally none. This was a stunning, flawless introduction to a new run of this underrated Avenger, and I couldn’t be happier.

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Matt Fraction in the past; he’s a weird guy, but in the best way, feminist and taking no bullshit from anybody. And after reading this, I was glad to see that was true.

Everyone’s characterization was great, made clear through excellent paneling and dialogue. The piece holds a wonderful tone, quirky and fun with just the right amount of seriousness. It’s complimented by David Aja’s art. Aja serves as the illustrator for the first half of the comic, and his work impeccably complements Fraction’s writing.

When it comes to the two-issue video tape arc, Javier Pulido comes on the scene to illustrate. His art is highly stylized, and its vintage style works perfectly with the arc which seems to call back to more 1960s comics.

Like I said, I have no complaints. This was a great introduction to a character and a new story. I loved Fraction, I loved Aja, and I loved Pulido. Together, they make a flawless team.

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: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow [3/5]

Little-Brother“I can’t go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.”

Title: Little Brother

Author: Cory Doctorow

Genre: Political Fiction, Young Adult

Rating: 3/5

Blurb:

Marcus aka “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, his injured best friend Darryl does not come out. The city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: “M1k3y” will take down the DHS himself.

When we first meet Marcus Yallow, he’s kind of a punk. He prides himself on undermining his school (which has, in his defense, implemented some sketchy tracking software to watch its students) through his manipulation of his school-provided laptop and sneaky ways of ditching to go play a scavenger hunt. When bombs blow up a nearby bridge, he and his friends flee and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That unlucky happenstance ends up getting Marcus and friends sent to a secret jail run by the Department of Homeland Security, interrogated, and psychologically tortured. Marcus and a couple others are released under the promise that they will be watched and are not allowed to breathe a word of what happened to them. Marcus, scared out of his mind, is almost ready to comply, but when he reaches the real world again and realizes that the DHS kept his best friend imprisoned, Marcus swears that he will fight ’til his last breath.

The old adage of “show, don’t tell” doesn’t apply to this book, at least not when it comes explaining the technology. Pages of text are dedicated to explaining how different things work — encryption, arphids, stuff you’ve never heard of. Unfortunately, these pages are needed. If I hadn’t had most of the stuff explained to me, I would have had no idea what Marcus was using in order to fight the DHS. So, yes, telling is strongly needed, but it doesn’t always work, either. There were passages where, even if I read them two or three times, I couldn’t quite grasp, and I had to just trust Doctorow knew what he was doing. This made keeping up with some of the plot elements difficult.

On the flip-side, it’s just this attention to detail that got it an extra star. Doctorow knows his stuff. His afterword is full of resources, and you can tell that he absolutely knows what he’s doing. The more I read, the more I was impressed at all the research that had to go into this thing, and for that, it gets an extra star.

However, the story isn’t that great. It’s not bad, but it’s predictable. It follows the beats that you would expect this story to go. There’s never a huge surprise. So while there isn’t anything wrong with it, it never really hooks you. The characters, on the other hand, need a lot of work. With the exception of Marcus and Ange, the characters are rather one-dimensional. This is especially true when it comes to the characters who work against Marcus. These characters are never presented as people, but practically as monsters. They have no sympathy, no good qualities, and definitely no valid points. They are punching bags for Marcus and Doctorow to show how superior their views are. Don’t get me wrong; I agree with these views. However, seeing these opposing characters presented as inhuman villains is lazy writing and does nothing for anyone’s argument.

The book was fine to read, though. Like I said, it was very interesting to learn all the stuff about technology used to track you and technology you can use to avoid being tracked. The story was decent, as well. However, that’s about all it’s got going for it. It does have a blatantly diverse cast, race-wise, which I appreciated, though Marcus throws around transphobic slurs a few times. If it didn’t have the technology, it’d be an okay book.The tech — real tech, that actually gets used — makes it a decent one. If you’re looking for a quick read or something politically relevant, I’d pick this book up, but otherwise you might want to give it a pass.

Review: Norwegian Wood [2/5]

Title: Norwegian Wood

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating: 2/5

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Blurb:

Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before.  Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable.  As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

Norwegian Wood centers on Toru, a young man in college with no real aim in life. He has no goals beyond getting through the day, and sometimes he doesn’t even seem to want that. Toru lives a miserable existence of perpetual apathy and loneliness until the death of someone close to him sparks an emotion. Though the only times he seems somewhat living is when he is with someone he loves, one of those women has locked herself away in a new age rehabilitation center and the other is so busy and fickle that it’s a miracle he gets to see her at all, despite her biting at the chomp to see him whenever she can.

This is a drag of a book, and I don’t just mean because not much happens (which is also true). The tone sits in constant, melancholy monotony, never changing. Even when Toru is having sex with someone he loves and is supposedly happy, it still just reads as the saddest sex scene you’ve ever come across. And you will come across many of these sad sex scenes, because sex seems to take up about a quarter of the book. I’m not a prude by a long shot, so when I’m getting tired of all the banging, you know it’s too much.

One of the women Toru falls in love with is the perfect example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and honestly she doesn’t have much personality beyond that. She exists in the story as a foil to Toru’s other girl and to catalyze Toru’s character development. She has no goals of her own — but then again, Toru doesn’t either, so maybe that isn’t a huge criticism.

Stylistically, the story is well-done. Though my rudimentary knowledge of Japanese and browsing of reviews informed me that this is not a great translation (done by Jay Rubin), the lyricism and imagery of the piece is still able to pierce through. While I can’t give Murakami many points on the character and plot front, I can at least give him this.

Norwegian Wood was a huge disappointment, especially after having heard so much praise for him and his writing. I may try another of his books; I’m a huge fan of 1984, and I’ve heard his 1Q84 is a good read. However, I certainly won’t be scrambling to get to it. Maybe reading his other work will change my opinion on him, but right now Murakami is coming up as just a little more than typical.