The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
(This review was first published in The Caldwell Perspective-
The history of medical advances is riddled with suspect practices and ideas that with hindsight seem less than stellar. Luke Dittrich’s new book takes a close look at mid-century neurologists who were operating at the height of the lobotomy crazy, one fueled by open access to insane asylums and mental health wards. (In a short two-year period in the 1950’s, the state of Connecticut alone authorized 550 such surgeries, the vast majority performed on women in an attempt to cure their “hysteria,” forcing them to conform to the expected role of docile and meek spouses so prized in housewives of the era.)
Excellent narrative writing, combined with the fascinating history of the brain and memory research in the United States creates a spellbinding tale, but with Dittrich’s personal connection to the #2 lobotomy surgeon in the world, the story of medical research dovetails with his personal history to create characters who are more than just names on documents. While his discoveries do not always paint his great grandfather in a favorable light, Dittrich refuses to shy away from asking difficult questions about the practice, its history and its seemingly limitless practice in New England mental institutions. Investigation of ethical lines within medical research is an overarching theme of the book, delving into the murky gray areas of consent and the debate about human research.
Fans of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will want to head to the bookstore today to pick up Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, Luke Dittrich’s newly released narrative non-fiction publication, a great companion read that continues the exploration of what we, as society, are willing to condone in the name of medical research and advancement.
2016 Book Challenge- A Book Recommended by a Friend
When I think about this last June, I can’t decide if it flew by or dragged along. Looking back at all that happened over the last thirty days, those early ones seem like they were eons ago, but at the same time, with it being my last full month in Kuala Lumpur, time went way too fast for my liking. Even with Thad’s embassy Fourth of July bash, our adventure caving trip to Mulu and getting ready to put everything we own into boxes (again!) I did manage to read twelve books this month, a number I found surprisingly high when I went back to my GoodReads account to check.
For this month’s reading challenge, I decided to expand a bit and rather than just read a book recommended by a friend, I went with an entirely new author. (New to me. The internet seems to be well-versed and he’s been publishing for over a decade. I guess I was way out of the loop on this one.) A friend/colleague was telling me about Jasper Fforde, who I was initially drawn to because of his awesome last name. I want a name that starts with two of the same consonants. Maybe I will start going by Mmichelle or Sshell. (The second sounds a bit to snake-like for my liking though.)
Through the month, I got to three of Fford’s books, one stand-alone and two that are part of a literary detective series. After expressing an interesting in Fforde, Nathan brought me a pile of books, mostly part of the Thursday Next detective series, so in I dove. I knew I only had June to make any headway on the books, since I’d have to give the stack back at the end of the month, done or not. I started with The Big Over Easy, a “murder mystery” where the deceased is none other than Humpty Dumpty. This book had me laughing out loud in places. The wittiness of the writing caught me off guard, but had me wishing the copy was my own so I could highlight especially clever phrases.
After thoroughly enjoying the nursery rhyme crimes of The Big Over Easy, I picked up the first in Fforde’s highly popular Thursday Next detective series, The Jane Eyre Affair. Again, the one-liners throughout the book kept me intrigued and I loved the way the author ties reality and fiction into a seamless world where their coexistence isn’t questioned, but I must admit that my favorite part of the Thursday Next books is the side bit where dodos are coveted pets and they “plock, plock” their way around the narrative. Now, I really want a pet dodo!
Overall, I would say that the Fforde books, especially the Thursday Next series, are great for planes and beaches. I’m not a huge detective novel fan, but the literary references keep me guessing, which I love. They are paced quick enough to make a long plane ride a little less painful, but without the inane babbling of what I would normally term a “beach read.” I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next in the series right away, but I will be keeping an eye of Fford and his future publications. He is a great new addition to my reading list. Thanks for the suggestion, Nathan!
In Search of the End of the Sidewalk’s 2016 Reading Challenge
_____ A book published this year– (A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin)
_____A book you can finish in a day- (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)
_____A book you’ve been meaning to read
_____ A book recommended to you by a librarian
_____ A book you should have read in school
_____ A book chosen for you by your spouse/partner, friend, child or sibling (Jasper Fforde books)
_____ A book published before you were born (And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie)
_____ A book that was banned at some point (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)
_____ A book you abandoned previously
_____ A book you own but have never read
_____ A book that intimidates you
____ A book you’ve read at least once (I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali)
As a new side-gig, I am now writing a short monthly book review for The Caldwell Perspective, a hometown newspaper. Here’s February’s review and a link to the online paper:
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson
Review by Michelle Ross (www.insearchoftheendofthesidewalk.com)
Jenny Lawson’s second book, Furiously Happy, is a hilarious look at life through the eyes of someone struggling with crippling social anxiety and depression. While the topic seems heavy, Lawson does an amazing job of taking her readers on a journey through mental illness, the good times and the bad, letting them peek into her world for a few moments of sheer craziness. Between her obsession with all things taxidermy (she only purchases ones that are proven to have died of natural causes) to her belief that flight attendants should get to bop one passenger, per flight, on the head for their stupidity, this book has something to make everyone smile.
Glibness aside, Lawson doesn’t shy away from the dark side of her mental illness, letting readers in on her own struggles to keep from cutting herself and her desire to lock herself away in her home for days on end. This book takes readers on a roller coaster of emotions, much like Lawson’s illness does in her own life, but in the end, learning to laugh at her own crazy antics is at the core of her tale.
Public reading warning: You will laugh out loud, making yourself look ridiculous. Ignore the stares. This book is worth a bit of public humiliation.
“Sometimes stunned silence is better than applause.”
― Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things
How far would you be willing to push the line between right and wrong to ensure your own safety? What options would be on the table if it meant keeping your spouse and unborn child protected? At what point to the heinous choices of others become too much and you break off the relationship, even if it is providing you with the basic necessities for survival? Edan Lepucki’s new novel, California uses a post-apocalyptic outer Los Angeles setting to address these questions, creating a world where black and white are no longer distinguishable amongst the thick gray swath painted by the morals and ethics of personal survival.
Reminiscent of The Road, although less bleak and not as beautifully written, California takes place in the near future, when much of the United States has been destroyed through a series of natural disasters, followed by widespread crime and violence. As the infrastructure of cities begins to breakdown, those with the means to do so are willing to pay for protection in the form of Communities- self-contained areas that promise tranquility and peace through heavy vetting of residents and high costs for inclusion. Those without the money to buy their way into these new establishments are left to fend for themselves, some remaining in the decaying cities while others strike out on their own in the wilderness.
Cal and Frida are part of the latter. After Frida’s brother dies as a suicide bomber in the city, she and Cal realize there is no place left for them in “civilization,” so they embark on a journey into the woods where they hope to create a new life for themselves. Soon though, the desire to be with others is overwhelming and after hearing of a larger community of settlers just a few days hike away, they set out to find their neighbors. Having been warned away from this group, they are nervous, but especially Frida, who believes she is pregnant, can’t stop her curiosity of what might be just over the ridge.
What they find is a surprise on many levels. Now, they must decide if they want to be a part of this reclusive settlement (if the members will even have them) or if it would be best to go back to their small cabin and continue on their own. The longer they stay and the more they learn about this functioning outpost, the harder their decision becomes and the less in sync with one other the tight couple grows.
Lepucki forces the reader to confront a series of philosophical conundrums, both about what it means to be a family and at what point the price for security is too high. With no tightly tied up happy ending, the novel leaves the reader to put themselves in this near future setting and wonder what choices they would make and at what point it would all become too much. Although the basics of the post-apocalyptic plot aren’t’ new, the twists and turns and ethical challenges help Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, earn a solid:
If you’re like me and always scroll to the bottom of a book review to see what “ranking” it received before going back through and reading the review itself, let me warn you that this one is a bit deceptive. Don’t give up on this book just because I didn’t love it. Touched by Kim Firmston is the kind of book I would buy for my classroom in a heartbeat even though on a personal level I didn’t love it. You see, as a middle school teacher, I often ran into 8th graders who were reluctant to pick up a book. For a variety of reasons, reading wasn’t fun for them- it was work and no one wants more work. This book is written for those who may shy away from books because their reading level doesn’t match their interest level when it comes to many of the options on the library shelves.
Touched is about Ethan, a high school student with amazing computer skills. When Ethan feels like his dad isn’t paying him enough attention, he decides to use his electronic aptitude to make his dad sit up and notice him. Ethan hacks into his school’s central computer system, installing a virus that he is sure will catch his father’s attention, since his dad works in electronic security. But it doesn’t because his father is too preoccupied with Ethan’s step-sister’s meltdown.
Haley is a few years younger than Ethan, and they used to be close, but lately she’s been rebelling, focusing all the family’s attention on her. As she focuses inwards, Ethan pushes harder to be noticed, but in trying to impress his dad he starts sabotaging his relationships at school. With things spiraling out of control at school, Ethan’s home life matches it negative step by negative step.
Then, accusations of molestation emerge. Ethan is left without a support network of friends and wondering who to trust.
This book isn’t going to win any prizes for complex storylines and writing, but that is partially the point. For a student who struggles with reading, this book is perfect! It has an engaging plot, filled with computers and robots and family drama, but is written in a straightforward way, with lower-level vocabulary, that makes it accessible to upper grade readers with lower grade reading levels. Plus, at just over 100 pages long, it isn’t intimidating to pick up. (Many of my middle schoolers, including the good readers, didn’t judge books by the covers so much as they judged them by the width of their spines!)
Computer hacking and robot building are not things that I often sit around contemplating, so my personal rating of this book is going to be much lower than if I were giving you a teacher recommendation. For my classroom, I would buy multiple copies of this book and hand them out like candy to my reluctant readers-both boys and girls, as it fits both teenage audiences well! But, because this is blog is my personal review of books and not one based on me wearing my “teacher hat,” Kim Firmston’s Touched earns:
After avoiding it for months because it had become “too” popular, last winter I finally downloaded Gone Girl to read on the long flight from western China to Idaho. (I tend to get a little snotty about books that *everyone* says I must read. When they become a cultural phenomenon, I get turned off by the saturation in the news and internet. It’s uppity and judgmental, I know. And yet, it’s how I roll.) But back to Gone Girl,I loved it! With that rambling introduction, this isn’t a review for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, but rather one that came up on a recommendation list I look at saying if I liked that one, I should try Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight. They were right!
Much like the suspense that kept me turning pages way too late at night with Flynn’s book, Reconstructing Amelia had me spellbound much longer that was prudent for the few days the book lasted. McCreight’s story starts with the suicide of Amelia, who jumped off the roof of her liberal, left-wing private school, and her mother’s arrival on the scene. But, it quickly jumps back in time, leading readers through the months prior to Amelia’s death, creating a picture of a teenage world much more complicated than her single, long-hour working lawyer of a mother would have liked to believe she lived in.
Told through Kate’s investigation of her daughter’s death (six weeks after Amelia’s death, on the day she returns to work at her high-priced law firm, Kate receives a text message from a blocked number saying Amelia didn’t jump), the reader follows Amelia’s steps, and missteps, in those crucial months before she died. We not only get to have Amelia as a narrator, but, along with her grieving mother, we delve into her texts and emails (somewhere most parents don’t want to go), her relationships (both long-standing and newly-budding) and read past editions of a nasty online newsletter circulated anonymously at her school.
Several time throughout the book I thought I had pieced together the puzzle of why Amelia would take such a drastic measure, only to have the pieces shift and leave me looking at a whole new scene. McCreight does a wonderful job of giving readers enough information to keep them hooked, but not revealing the entire story until the final pages of the novel.
A tale of a young girl’s suicide may not seem like the book you want to rush home from work to curl up with on the couch, but Kimberly McCreight weaves a tale so intricate and twist-filled that I did just that- scurried home from work and into my pajamas so I could read a chapter or two before dinner and then another few before bed, easily earning Reconstructing Amelia: