“Brain on Fire” by Susannah Cahalan

So far, “Brain on Fire,” has been unlike any book I have ever read. It is a memoir that tells the story of a terrifying experience in the life of Susannah Cahalan. One day, Susannah became paranoid, confused, and angry for seemingly no reason. Her brain seemed to stop working. Little did she know, her symptoms would escalate and eventually place her in a hospital bed. Her terrific memoir has so far been an interesting and exciting read, and I have been unable to put the book down.

Susannah is a journalist for the New York Post, so it is understandable that her memoir is written so well. So far, she has done a great job of narrating her own story while also teaching the reader about the brain, body, and her rare symptoms. Not only have I been entranced by her personal experience, but I have also found myself extremely interested in what I have learned. For anyone who is interested in psychology or the medical field, I greatly recommend this book.

The author’s impressive writing style has kept me turning pages throughout the whole first half of the memoir. Her use of foreshadowing especially has captivated me and encouraged me to keep reading. For example, after initially explaining her strange symptoms and habits, she ends the chapter with: “The doctors don’t actually know how it began for me. What’s clear is that if that man had sneezed on you, you’d most likely just get a cold. For me, it flipped my universe upside down and very nearly sent me to an asylum for life” (Cahalan 9). Susannah includes interesting foreshadowing like this all throughout her writing. It is effective in keeping the reader engaged. Also, I enjoyed Susannah’s inclusion of “you.” I have become so used to formal literature that it is nice to read a more personal form of writing.

Overall, Susannah’s incorporation of her personal story and interesting information has kept me on the edge of my seat. Paired with her foreshadowing, “Brain on Fire” has been impossible to put down. I am excited to continue the book, as I am almost sure it will be just as good or better than the first half.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (1/2)

When I was in the sixth grade and being homeschooled for middle school, my “science teacher” (otherwise known as my dad) decided to start me on a unit about nutrition.  He checked out some books from the library, including Food Rules by Michael Pollan and the abridged “middle school” version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and then gave them to me to read.  I think it was around this time that I first realized how interesting food is to me.  It is something we spend time consuming every day, and yet half of the time we don’t pay attention to what it is we’re eating, let alone where it came from.  These are themes I love to explore, and this year I decided I was finally ready to read the longer, much denser version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Pollan splits up the novel into three parts: a section on fast food, a section on sustainable, organic food, and a section on food hunted and foraged in nature.  For each section, Pollan provides in-depth research into how and where the food is grown, as well as how it is prepared.  Then, he tells a story of eating a meal from each type of food he studies.

For the first half of this book, then, I learned much about fast food and the farms from which it originates.  Pollan begins by talking about corn, and I was shocked to learn just how much of it we eat:

“Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak.  Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.  The eggs are made of corn.  The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.” (18)

If this weren’t disturbing enough, Pollan also reveals how corn has made its way into processed foods and drink in the form of sugar (high fructose corn syrup) and other forms of corn, like corn starch and corn oil.

He then moves on to talking about the farms on which this plant grows, where I was repulsed to hear of the disgusting surplus of corn that farmers will grow just to have it dumped in a giant pile and left outside in the rain:  “The pile represented what was left of the millions of bushels of corn that had overflowed the [grain elevators] last October.” (58)

The most lucrative option for many corn farmers, Pollan states, is to grow as many bushels of corn per acre, since long ago the official “grading system” (60) decided that quality was no longer an issue, for they wanted to “keep production high and prices low” (62).  However, with so many farmers trying their hardest to grow as much as possible, there is now an abundance of farm sitting in a big “pile”.  Instead of being used to combat malnutrition, however, much of this pile is used for factory farms and processing plants.

Finally, Pollan talks about his meal eaten at McDonald’s, where the corn and animals he studies come together in one, highly processed meal.  Hearing the list of ingredients confirmed my decision to never again eat a meal at this notorious food chain.  Not only is the food seriously unhealthy and mostly comprised of corn, Pollan shows that it also has the potential to be dangerous:

“Perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to “help preserve freshness.” …ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause ‘nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.’  Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.” (114)

The first half of this book finishes as Pollan begins to describe part two of his food journey: his exploration of organic food.  Pollan’s writing is very engaging and fun to read, and I look forward to this next section of the novel; it’s time to learn some dark secrets about the organic food industry.

 

 

 

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The Complete Sherlock Holmes Vol. II by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1/2

Ever since I finished the first volume, I knew that this book would be my next independent reading book. In the first volume, Sherlock Holmes is killed off by London’s most notorious criminal. However, in the very first story, Holmes makes an appearance (well obviously he would be alive, why else would there be a second volume). Once again, I am transported from my bedroom chair into 221B Baker Street following Holmes and Watson as they solve case after case. The book once again is consisted of dozens of short stories categorized between The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and one long story that is an entire category on its own.

One thing that I have noted from reading is that instead of being a somewhat ‘invincible’ drug addict, Sherlock Holmes comes back a much more somber, reflective person. He does not take his life for granted ever since he was almost killed. His interaction with Professor James Moriarty in which the previous volume ended on leaves Holmes haunted. Holmes is much more emotional compared to first ancestor and expresses emotions such as disgust and repulsion at certain crimes. He seems to resent that he almost died and somewhat takes it out on criminals. He works even harder than before even when he’s sick in order to bring the justice he longs to see on the people who tried to murder him. Holmes only sees the bad in people which he displays in The Norwood Builder. He describes the ‘corrupted builder’ as “very deep, malicious, vindictive person” (33 Doyle). Instead of understanding the painful life of Jonas Oldacre he only sees him as an awful man who would do anything to make money.

This book also shows the first time Holmes cares for another human being. In The Three Garridebs, Watson gets shot by a criminal. Holmes cries out and immediately checks him for injuries. He expresses his worried nature when he asks Watson if he is “not hurt…? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” (532 Doyle). This raw emotion is completely unlike the cold, calculating detective that can bend iron and stand against hounds of hell. He builds himself up as a man who scorns everything but reason. However, his caring of Watson shows that he really does have a heart inside his outer tough shell. This display of the man behind the shell made me think of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian when Junior collides with Rowdy during his sister’s funeral. Rowdy is crying which he never does and even misses a punch at Junior’s face. Even though Rowdy is extremely tough and even “fought the weather. He’d throw wild punches at rain” (14 Alexie), he is still only fourteen and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Both Holmes and Rowdy prove that no matter how tough and rock-hard you are, there is always something that can break deep within your heart.

On a whim, I looked up on the making of this novel and discovered something shocking. Doyle had originally intended to kill off Sherlock Holmes in the last few pages of the first volume and had no intent to bring him back. In a private letter to his mother, he wrote that he would try and “slay Holmes in the last [story].” Doyle was tired of being occupied with Holmes and wanted to focus on other writings. However, the public outcry that arose became too much and Doyle was almost forced to bring him back to life. When reading about this, I became surprised. Sherlock Holmes was so popular but Doyle wanted to kill him! However, when reflecting upon this, I have realized that it must be hard to keep up to the standards everyone has for Doyle’s writing. In 1927, Doyle wrote to a reporter that he “was glad to withdraw Holmes before the public were too weary of him.” For almost 100 years (1892-1978), Doyle managed to do what almost no other author has accomplished: a beloved bestseller that is still popular today. I am excited to read the second half of this book and hold the same standards as I had for the previous books.

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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

After reading The Kite Runner, I found Khaled Hosseini’s beautiful writing style incredibly unforgettable, and when it came time to choose a new book for independent reading, I chose A Thousand Splendid Suns, another novel by the same author chronicling the life of individuals amongst the chaos of modern Afghanistan. A Thousand Splendid Suns begins with Miriam, a young teenage girl living outside of the city of Herat. Miriam has been raised all her life by a mother (Nana) who essentially abuses her daughter emotionally, referring to her as harami, or bastard. Miriam’s father, Jalil is one of Herat’s wealthiest men, only visiting his daughter born of wedlock each Thursday.

Miriam is guided in her life by the ideals of what it means to be a woman in Afghanistan, taught by Nana that men are dangerous, constantly reminding her daughter that “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam” (18). In the first moments of the novel, I was conflicted in my view of Nana, questioning if she was truly correct to caution Miriam about the so-called “perils” of the male species, or if Nana was simply bitter as a result of being a spouse-less woman raising her daughter.

Yet, I began to see the downfalls of Jalil, a man who at first seemed to be a kind and loving father, who revealed himself as the one truly seeing Miriam as a burden. No matter how much his daughter loves and adores him, he fails to make his presumed love explicitly known to Miriam. Nana, scoffing at a necklace Miriam receives from Jalil, states that her father has bought her  “Nomad jewelry,” she said. “I’ve seen them make it. They melt the coins people throw at them and make jewelry. Let’s see him bring you gold next time, your precious father. Let’s see him” (45). Though materialism does not exactly convey true parental affection, Jalil is a rich man who no doubt posesses the ability to buy his daughter expensive jewelry, and by not doing so, he reveals to the reader thinly veiled shame of his daughter’s circumstances.

My suspicions about Jalil were finally confirmed after the unspeakable tragedy following  Miriam’s escape to the city of Herat. Instead of welcoming her to his household with open arms, Jalil marries off his daughter to a much older man named Rasheed, a shoemaker living in Kabul. Miriam, too, realizes the terrible actions of her father, and leaves him, with the parting words “It ends here for you and me. Say your good-byes” (96). This simple, yet incredibly heartwrenching phrase, truly indicates the power of Hosseini’s words in invoking the emotions of both character and reader. Yet this event is only the catalyst for the various hardships that follow Miriam as she is quickly swept into her role as an Afghani woman forced to grow into her role as a perfect wife.

In addition, I cannot forget to mention the historical aspect of the novel. At the same time as Miriam’s life is completely turned upside down, Afghanistan is experiencing one of the many political conflicts detailed in the novel, the first being the 1973 coup d’état by Mohammed Daoud Khan and his supporters, forever ending the country’s system of a monarchy. As someone who is possiby unusually fascinated by history and politics, I found it rewarding to enjoy both a unique story and to gain further insight on two of my passions. A Thousand Splendid Suns is currently proving itself to be an incredibly intriuging and well-written novel, and I am beyond excited to continue Miriam’s story.

 

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Stripped by Cara Alwill Leyba

(Part 1)

“She realized that vulnerability was easier to wear than vanity. So she stripped down to nothing. And set herself free.”

Stripped by Cara Alwill Leyba is an array of poems designed “For every woman on the edge of change” that is divided into four collections: Wish, Evolve, Love, and Surrender. The first half of the book I read covered Wish and Evolve and so far I have been drawn in with every poem. What I have enjoyed the most thus far is the lack of sappy-ness and heartbreak that I often find in many works of American poetry. Not that I have anything against heart to heart, touchy-feely poetry books, it is just that I find them quite repetitive amongst themselves using all the same metaphors with references to flowers, honey, and heartbreak. Leyba’s work doesn’t reveal the woman to be a broken soul who lets her tears out through poetry, rather she empowers female readers with, “[She] knew the beauty / in standing / and the grit / in fighting / was magic / worth living, / even when you fall” (1). Her poems divulge rawer emotions that go beyond heartbreak and explore the self as a strong, self-empowering person. The poetry on her pages does not ask readers to sympathize with her or offer her their tears but rather offer her their time to think about themselves as powerful forces. Unlike other works I’ve read before, her poems feel cohesive even when they don’t all necessarily feed directly into one another. You can feel the flow and ease of her words as they are not forced from her to create a complex metaphor but rather they are simple, honest, and true facts about life we all could acknowledge and by doing so, better ourselves.

She ends the final poem in Wish with the last line being, “‘It is time to write a new story’” (17) which opens the second collection, Evolve. The poetry in Evolve is no less stunning than in Wish, but you can see the renewal of a battered person rinsing themselves to start again emerge bolder in these poems. I was a bit concerned I would struggle to write something here for often times poetry books seem just a string of words, but there is a trace of a peak in Leyba’s words as they seem to building up to a grand epiphany. I’ve already been greatly enlightened already with her work so far but I am sure the end of the book will offer me a great insight to my own empowerment. Although it is small and thin, don’t let that deceive you. I’ve found more meaning in this book than any other past IR books. All the small discoveries of myself and of other women that I have been able to find in Leyba’s poetry keeps drawing me in to read each poem over and over again so I look forwards to more self discoveries with more elucidations.

 

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The Fellowship of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord in his dark throne,

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

This is the Tale of the Fellowship of the Ring Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the One Ring given to him by Bilbo Baggins, this novel tells of his fight against the dark forces of middle earth. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastic story, and a classic piece of fantasy literature, so many parts of this saga have been used as quotes, and references that are everywhere is today’s culture. As I have been reading this book, I have been thrown into a fantastical world of magic and lore that immediately entrapped me into the storyline, and is making it nearly impossible to pull myself away from it. I find it exciting, albeit a little “wordy”, and the story makes me quite eager to learn what will happen on the next page, and the next, and the next, on and on. I am a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and this book is no exception to his high standards of writing.

His characters, while not actually real, act in such a way that what they’re going through feels real, and I know that while dragons and orcs aren’t real, the battle against the dark side in everyone, the constant battle to live within the light, while a little exaggerated, is real. The third-person perspective of the story really helps the reader process all of the little details that end up coming into play later on in the story and the descriptive nature really helps to form a picture in your mind of what’s going on.

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

1/2

I have always been intrigued by John Green’s writing style. In the past, I have read both Paper TownsThe Fault in Our Stars, and now Turtles All the Way Down, and I have noticed that there are a few recurring themes throughout each book. First of all, Green never fails to make his characters seem realistic. Instead of painting an unfeasible story about a couple teenagers who are living a dream life, Green highlights the fact that each person is fighting through their own internal struggles. And, the problems these characters face are similar to those of an actual person you could meet walking down the street. For example, the narrator, Aza, struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder. Her obsessive tendencies reflect this: “You’re fine he’s not even the first boy you’ve kissed eighty million organisms in me forever calm down permanently altering the microbiome this is not rational you need to do something” (153)This quote in particular emphasizes the fact that, even though she wants to, Aza cannot control her thoughts and is instead stuck in a cycle of battling her own mind. The signs of Aza’s mental illness are ever-present throughout the book, even when she fights against them, which I believe adds to the authenticity of her problem.

I also enjoy how Green often focuses on the power of relationships. I have found this book to be similar to The Fault in Our Stars, in that Aza and Davis need each other just as Hazel and Augustus did. Both of their characters had been undergoing challenging times in their lives when they met, and I am interested to see whether they are able to help each other cope through these difficult times in the second half of the book.

There is also the ever-present sense of mystery that Green often includes, that deals with the disappearance of David’s father, and whether or not Aza will try to find him. I was hooked by the mystique that surrounds his disappearance, but at the same time it is not overwhelming, which gives a chance for the reader to focus on different aspects of the book such as David and Aza’s relationship.

Lastly, John Green’s novels almost always incorporate a deeper meaning. I am curious to figure out if Turtles All the Way Down follows a similar path. Overall, I am excited to continue reading an unveil the answers to my questions.

 

 

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