Book Review: Beartown by Frederick Backman

My name is Adri and I’m addicted to Scandinavian fiction.

All kidding aside I just finished up reading Beartown by Frederick Backman, a book about a dying town, hockey, and the consequences of a crime committed against a girl by someone she trusted. There were a lot of small truths in this book and Backman shows us yet again the sometimes crushing realities of ordinary life.

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I appreciate that Backman took the time to use his literary talents to highlight the modern reality of sexual assault and the trouble that victims go through to get people to believe their ordeal and support them. It takes a truly talented author to write about such a grim subject and still get the reader to laugh and smile from time to time. Backman floats gracefully between seriousness and lightheartedness in the way a maestro takes an orchestra from piano to fortissimo and back again.

Would I recommend reading this book? As long as it isn’t going to be a trigger for a previous negative experience, I highly recommend this book. If you have assault in your personal history I would ask someone you trust whose read the book whether they think it’s okay to read. I didn’t find the book to be very graphic but actual found it difficult to read about the main female character’s subsequent depression having dealt with depression so just make sure that you’re ready to confront this particular story before you start reading because the book is truly so good that you won’t want to put it down.

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Book Review: Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All by Jonas Jonasson

Last week I finished up another great novel by the Swedish journalist Jonas Jonasson. I put off reviewing Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All because it’s difficult to summarize the plot. In short, it’s the story of a former criminal who upon meeting a receptionist at a 1 star motel and an atheist priest, suddenly turns to Jesus. You’ll laugh the entire time you read this lighthearted book.

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Even though, like other Jonasson novels, the plot makes little sense and the story seems downright silly,  Jonasson has a way of tackling serious subjects in his books with dry humor and over the top scenarios. Examples of themes include greed vs. generosity, actions and consequences, misinterpretations of the bible, scandal in religious organizations, the balance in giving and receiving, and last but not least sensationalism in the press. Give the book a read and stay tuned for a future review on Frederick Backman’s Beartown.

Book Review: Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free is unquestionably the most suspenseful book I’ve ever read. Most of us probably remember the story of the Chilean Miners who were rescued in a difficult but successful operation in 2010. I never thought much of the story back when it happened since American News networks have a tendency to move quickly from story to story, but as it turns out the men were trapped for more than two months from August 5, 2010 to October 13, 2010. Tobar, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, spent 4 years collecting interviews from the 33 miners that were trapped when the hard stone of the San José mine split in half, sending a piece of mega rock crashing through the only entrance/exit point to the mine.

Most writers would have relied solely on the drama of the collapse and rescue but Tobar did the hard work of collecting every detail about both the exciting and mundane aspects of surviving underground. As one reads further it’s hard to remember that the reader isn’t also trapped in the mine. I found myself overly invested in the family life of 33 strangers, portrayed not as larger than life figures but as real, flawed, macho yet vulnerable men who must grapple with their own mortality and the limitations of their human body and spirit.

Had the men decided to keep to themselves instead of coming together and organizing their limited resources they probably would not have lasted so long. It was interesting that there was more solidarity between the men in the 17 days that rescuers were unable to send them down food than in the following days when a small drill hole made it possible for the miners not only to be sent down food but also luxury items like electronics, a projector, and for one miner, running shoes. The absence of scarcity combined with the realization that above ground fame and donation money awaited them made it harder to stay sane as they impatiently awaited their ultimate rescue. Such was the psychological distress these men suffered that one man was actually afraid to leave the mine once it was finally time. He claimed he didn’t know if the rescue pod would really hoist him up safely and that he should perhaps stay underground where he would be certain he’d be alive. Nevertheless all 33 men are saved, at least physically, from the wrath of the mine, reborn back into the world of sunlight and fresh air.

Tobar did not stop the story at the heroic rescue but chose to delve further and highlight what life was like after the rescue. All the miners suffered post traumatic stress syndrome, though some dealt with it better than others. Some quit working and had a really hard time recovering mentally from what they experienced. A few actually went back to underground mining jobs, putting their lives back at risk but facing head on their fears through a kind of exposure therapy. Edison Peña, who had once attempted suicide before the mining accident, unfortunately relapsed into alcoholism and had to be institutionalized in a hospital in Santiago. Most of the men were somewhere in a mental state between complete recovery and complete mental collapse. All were thankful to still be alive. Ultimately Deep Down Dark is so relatable because it’s more than just an account of a mining collapse and rescue but an exploration on the human psyche and what happens to a person who has all human comforts stripped from them and must therefore confront the fragility of their own body.

Book Review: Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life by Ariana Huffington

Thrive is Ariana Huffington’s 14th book, a remarkable achievement. While it was easy to read and informational I found a lot of overlap between this book and her more recent book, The Sleep Revolution. Huffington begins this book by sharing a moment in time where she was so overworked that she had physically collapsed. She regards this is her wake-up call and the start to her journey for balance and the development of a new standard for measuring her success in life that she likes to call the third metric.

This book was well written and contained personal anecdotes from Huffington’s life. She shares her daughter’s struggle with addiction and an eating disorder and charming tales of her Greek mother’s generous nature. Though I found the book great to read before bed to wind down from the day, I don’t actually recommend reading it cover to cover if you are busy as the text begins to repeat itself over time. Most of the time while reading I ended up paying more attention to the inspirational quotes she leaves throughout the book from famous authors.

Here are my main take-aways from this book:

  1. No matter how perfect or successful someone looks from the outside, we are all human and have our own limits and personal struggles.
  2. While it’s good to be ambitious and have goals, pushing yourself towards success to the point of unhappiness and burnout is not ideal.
  3. At the end of our lives we are remembered for our personal relationships and our character, not by who can stay the longest in the office.
  4. Don’t let your smart phone and your email inbox take over your life.
  5. Consider taking up meditation.
  6. Volunteering and helping other in general helps us to turn outwards instead of mulling over our problems over and over in our heads. It’s a win-win for all involved.
  7. If you are able to accomplish things on 6 hours of sleep, imagine how efficient you would be with 8!

 

Happy Reading!

Book Review: Flammable-Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown

Flammable , an ethnography by Javier Auyero and Débora Alejandra Swistun, chronicles the daily struggles of residents of an Argentinian slum located next to a large Shell refinery. The area residents inhabit is technically deemed as “unsuitable for human life” by outsiders. A few families have been living there for over 50 years and others were newer to the neighborhood. Those who have lived there longer yearn for earlier times when they say the waters were cleaner, nearby farms grew fruits which smelled sweet and one could sleep with their door open.

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Most residents showed consistent symptoms of lead poisoning: skin rashes, convulsions, lethargy, anemia. Mothers worry for their children and their danger to become contaminated. However, due to misinformation spread by the media, nearby companies and among the residents themselves, there is much disagreement and confusion over the extent of the negative externalities of living in the village. Government officials and workers at Shell tend to use the “culture of poverty” argument, saying the residents have lead poisoning because of personal hygiene issues, the fact that many don’t wear shoes when they walk outside and that those living in the shantytown pay trucks to dump garbage into their backyards to stabilize the swampy grounds around them. This is contradicted by the claim that Shell considers the area to be so toxic that humans should not be inhabitting the space.

Journalists and lawyers frequently come into Flammable making promises that cannot be kept and giving residents false hopes of being able to get compensated and move to another place. This constant influx of authority figures and prospective saviors creates a state of uncertainty and waiting for the residents that increases their lack of agency and ability to organize together to improve their situations. Because the suffering and contamination became worse slowly and gradually over the years, most did not feel the urgency to leave, some even doubting that they have any contamination in their bodies even as noxious fumes are frequently blowing through the neighborhood, making it impossible to be outside.

Reading this book now for the second time in 2018 reminds me of parallels between the sustained confusion about contamination in Flammable with the confusion and disagreement in the American media which has divided citizens and distracted us from taking action on important issues in the face of uncertainty of the facts. One of the coauthors of Flammable, Débora Swistun, grew up in the shantytown. For many years she felt powerless against the contamination in her town and wondered if she should get out herself and leave others behind or find a way to create a collective solution to the problem and help relocate everyone. Through her research she has brought a lot of attention to the problems in her home village, a testament to the power of well done research, activism and strong will. Her book is a reminder that though it may take time, change is possible even in the most dire situations and in our very own backyards.

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

After a year of reading (and forgetting to finish) the monstrously comprehensive biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I am proud to say that last night I finally finished the book.

Coming in at 656 pages, this book delves into every epoch of Jobs’ Apple  journey. I was impressed that Isaacson not only covered Job’s childhood comprehensively but also gave background history of both Jobs’ birth parents and adoptive parents. These details while seemingly negligent are important to understanding Jobs’ notoriously combative and at times destructive personality.

Unlike the two movies on Jobs’ life, this book does not present a one sided analysis focused on his famous tirades. While Isaacson makes sure to include Jobs’ personality flaws in the book for the sake of realism, he also makes sure to show the more human and vulnerable sides of Jobs’ life, from his struggles to rekindle a relationship with his daughter Lisa to his fears of leaving his family and of course Apple behind as he struggled with pancreatic cancer.

Reading this book I was at times so inspired by Jobs’ story that I convinced myself I had chosen the wrong area of study and should go back to school to become a software engineer. After coming back to my senses (and remembering I can’t write error free code to save my own life) I realize now that I probably was just entranced by the effective, whimsical and well organized prose that Isaacson put together in this lovely book.

I would say if you are looking for a book to be your companion for the next year or so in coffee shops, bedside tables and the like, you should pick up this book too.

Happy Reading 🙂

❤ Adri

Book Review: The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Høeg

The Elephant Keeper’s Children is written by a Danish author Peter Høeg (and translated into English by Martin Atiker). The book is all over the place, but if I were to describe its plot, I’d say it’s about a young boy named Peter who lives with his family on the fictional island of Finø where his parents are important religious leaders and run their own church. When his parents mysteriously vanish, Peter and his sister Tilte know immediately that something is amiss. Peter and Tilte go on a crazy, surreal hunt for their parents and what they learn about their parent’s mischievous plans changes them forever.

Reviews:

“It succeeds in being extremely funny while also wrestling with deeper philosophical questions about the role of religion in society and individual choice.” —Huffington Post

“This is the novel of the winter to restore your faith in the magic of human experience.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“As soon as I opened to page one, and met fourteen-year-old Peter, I was hooked…It’s really a crime thriller, yet filled with mystical characters and a surprising amount of laughs.” —Kick Ass Book Reviews

 

While this book definitely has a young adult reader vibe to it, I will warn that there are definitely a fair number of references to sex and drugs in this book, (which I am assuming isn’t much of a concern to Scandinavian audiences given their indifferent attitudes towards nudity, sexuality and alternative lifestyles). If you read The Elephant Keeper’s Children and want to read something else by this author, Smillia’s Sense of Snow is a New York Time’s bestseller and similar in genre to this book.

Minimalism: The Kon Marie Method

I admit to not actually reading Kon Marie’s popular book Spark Joy. I did however watch a few YouTube videos of the woman cleaning other people’s homes. If you have a computer or watch television with any frequency, it’s likely you’ve at least heard a mention of the Japanese organizational sensation.

Kon Marie basically advises that when cleaning the home, to reevaluate all the items one owns, actually hold them in one’s hands and determine whether the item makes us happy or not. Then of course we have to think about function, and then sentimental value in evaluating our stuff. (She also has very interesting ways of optimizing space once we’ve evalated our items. Most of these tips involve either rolling our items, standing them vertically, or a combination of the two).

Kon Marie also advises to clean your home not room by room, but item by item in five larger categories of items: clothes, books, paper, kitchen, and then miscellaneous items (referred to as komono in Japanese).

Using Kon Marie’s tips has helped me a lot to get rid of even more items that just aren’t adding to my life anymore.

Great Reads: The Sleep Revolution by Ariana Huffington

A few days ago I checked out Ariana Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution from the Kanawha County Public Library. I saw her promote the book on a talk show interview with Trevor Noah and I’m really glad I picked it out. I knew sleep was important, but I learned so much, because she executed such a diverse collection of chapters on different topics relating to sleep. As she proudly claims in her interviews, “I’d take it as a personal victory if you fell asleep reading my book.”

Some topics she tackles in her book are the culture of dismissing sleep as a status symbol (in other words, wearing sleeplessness as a badge of honor), the sometimes irreversible health issues that arise from not sleeping, lack of sleep in college, sleep’s effects on our decision-making, the significance of our dreams and our subconscious thoughts, the development of sleep monitoring technologies and sleep centers, and many more enlightening topics.

Also, a key takeaway message she shares is the importance of winding down before bed and keeping electronic screens powered off about 30 minutes before sleep. This is something I usually aim for anyway, but I think I’ll try working on calming down my thoughts before bedtime to truly maximize the great power of sleep.

Though there was one night when reading her book gave me “performance anxiety” and kept me up a little longer than expected, on a whole reading this book at night has helped me to wind down the day and experience restful sleep. I would recommend reading it, (or for the busy bees out there, skimming it or choosing chapters out of it you find useful).

❤ Color Me Adri