Category: FG – Fiction General

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

February 6th, 2017 — 3:29pm

As any student of US history would know, there was not an actual “underground railroad” where slaves could ride a train and escape to the north or to the west where they could be free. Rather the term was used for men and women, black and white who risked their lives and developed an “underground” network where fleeing Blacks could be hidden and sheltered as they sought to be free of slavery and oppression that existed in this country.

Colson Whitehead, the author of this book turns this metaphor into an actual train which would have the potential to ferry people to freedom. However, the very clear message of this book is that there was essentially no pathway to freedom in our country during this shameful period of US history. We see not only for slavery in the cotton fields and other areas of hard labor but also domestic slavery in the most “genteel” homes. We are reminded of the historical truth of the “breeding” of slaves, since children who grew into adult slaves had monetary value to their “owners.” There can be no denial of the brutal treatment of black slaves who were beaten and raped at will. The concept of so-called “ownership” of another person is explored at length in this book as we are introduced to the “slave catchers”. These are people who chase and trace slaves and bring them back to their “owners” for a large reward (often plus “expenses”). These bounty hunters have no border restrictions and were free to do their work in any part of the United States. As we were reminded of in the outstanding book and movie “12 Years a Slave” there were no safe zones in any part of the United States even in New York and in New England. Perhaps there were some so-called “black freemen” in some states but in additional to prejudice and discrimination which they faced, there was always the possibility of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

As is often the case with a great novel, the author tells his or her story through the eyes of one or more characters. There were several people in the book who gave this reader the opportunity to understand their experiences. Most meaningful to me was to inhabit Cora, a young black girl who eventually “rode the railroad” and her mother Mabel, who abandoned Cora at a young age and made her attempted run for freedom.

Then there is the question of what would I do if I lived in that period and have the opportunity to hide a fleeing slave or perhaps a persecuted Jew in Nazi Germany, and in both cases knowing that if I were discovered it would mean death to me and my family. The author allows us to get some insight into such people who chose to be part of the “underground railroad”.

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

October 13th, 2016 — 2:19pm

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman51mquehbm3l-_sl300_

This is a Swedish book all about a man who could be described as a “crabby old man…curmudgeon…angry…stubborn…etc..” He doesn’t seem to like new technology such as the Internet. He only buys Saab automobiles. He seems fixed in his ways. Now older people are known to gravitate towards these characteristics. (So I have been told) But wait, he really wasn’t that old. It was mentioned a few times that he was 59 years old. Maybe this is all relative or perhaps the author was fairly young when he wrote this book. (I was able to determine that he was 32 years old when the book was published)

As the book progresses, especially through various gravesite one way conversations with his deceased wife we learn about the very close relationship he had with her during their 40 years of a childless marriage in which they both seemed to be very happy. We see that beneath it all Ove is a caring person who will teach a pregnant neighbor to learn how to drive, build her a crib for her expected child, relate to a young kid next door and have some very endearing characteristics although hidden under his gruff surface. There is also a part of him that can’t find the reason to live and seemed determined to carry out a neatly organized suicide. We can even empathize with him especially when we see that he clearly believes he will be reunited with his beloved wife.

The main character did hold my interest but overall this book was not a page turner for me.. The success of this book, I believe is to the degree in which the reader relates to Ove and finds important characteristics in him with which to self-identify. In the case of women, I  imagine if they would have to recognize in him certain traits of the men that they love. I personally  could indentify  with  someone who cares more than he overtly shows it. Perhaps that is a guy thing. Then there is the issue that his wife really understood him and now that she was gone, he had to find a way to hold on to her. The book certainly did not have a complicated plot. We were not taken to exotic places or given unusual dilemmas. I could only hope that the pending movie can raise the pulse of this story.

Comment » | FG - Fiction General

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

June 4th, 2016 — 12:30am

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 3.01.52 PMThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

If there is any book that has greatly contributed to my understanding of the bravery and resilience of victims of Nazi, Germany it was The Diary of Anne Frank. That book was written by a teenage girl who was hiding in Amsterdam for two and half years until she and her family were betrayed and she was killed. There have been many subsequent books about World War II and the Holocaust. Yet none of them has done it better than The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, an American novelist who was a lawyer turned writer. She did not go through any horrendous experiences as did Anne Frank and others in her own life but she obviously is a thorough researcher and a very skilled, sensitive writer who has written many successful novels prior to this number one bestseller.

Ms. Hannah has told the story how she came across the account of a Belgian woman, Andrea DeJoneg who was part of the underground resistance during World War II and guided many downed Allied pilots across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain at the risk of her own life. Based on her research and her insight into the human psyche, Ms. Hannah was able to create the characters of this book. She recounted the acts of tremendous bravery that were shown by her protagonists and she was empathically able to describe their emotional experiences in a very believable manner.

The author focused mainly on women, particularly two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac who were not Jewish and lived in Carriveau, a small French village that was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The reader comes to understand the backstories of these women. Isabelle, the rebellious one, ultimately becomes a very brave woman who shepherds downed British and American pilots across the rugged mountains to safety, risking the severe repercussions which she knew would happen if she were caught.

Her sister Vianne became a heroine in her own right, hiding Jewish children when their parents were taken away by the Nazis. Her actions reawakened questions that we have asked ourselves over the years. Would we have taken in a child (or an adult) to hide or disguise them, when to have been discovered would not only endanger our lives but those of our children? There was another point in question raised by this book when at the end of the war Vianne is faced with the prospect of now having to give up her five- or six-year-old child that she has raised for the past few years when her Jewish friend was taken away to the concentration camps. Now after the war was over, relatives of the deceased Jewish parents want to take this child to America so family there can raise him. But perhaps the most challenging question that the characters in this book face is whether Vianne should tell her husband, who returned home after being a POW held by the Nazis, that the pregnancy with the child that he now feels is his child, but was actually conceived shortly before they reunited, is really the pregnancy of the brutal rape from the German officer who made her house his living quarters before he retreated with the Nazis when the Allies liberated France. Should she have told her husband the truth and should she now more than 40 years after the end of the war tell the truth to the now grownup child who is a successful surgeon and very attentive to his mother.

It is these stories as well as the vivid description of life in occupied France as well in the concentration camps, which are part of this novel that makes this book so unforgettable. It well deserves the acclaim that it is receiving and I’m sure it will be made into an unforgettable movie.

Comment » | FG - Fiction General, FH - Fiction Historical

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

March 17th, 2016 — 1:01pm

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 10.02.31 PMFate and Furies by Lauren Groff

Apparently, people either love or hate this book. If I hated it maybe that would have meant it had some special emotional meaning to me, which I don’t believe was the case. I certainly did not love it.

The main protagonists are a married couple, Lotto and Mathilde. They are seemingly very much in love but as often is the case there  is much more than meets the eye. Lotto was an actor turned into a successful playwright. In such a situation it would be expected that we might better understand him through his plays. We are presented with many pages of his plays which don’t really provide any great insight into him. We understand Mathilde as we learn more things about her earlier years, which gradually unfold throughout the book.

The author’s style reminds me of my early encounter with the classical writers which I did not  particularly understand and was not especially moved to figure them out. Perhaps this is my shortcoming. Another way of describing the style of the author is to say it is very pretentious. There were many metaphors which where not decipherable and seemed “cutsie”.  Sometimes while I was trying to figure them out, I felt I lost to some of the story line. Many authors successfully jump back and forth into different points in time, but usually there are some reference to where the particular chapter is taking place as well as the time period. This was not so with this book. I found that the time and place were not immediately obvious and therefore the readers may be  trying to figure them out rather than focusing on the plot.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the presence of “secrets” in the lives of the characters. Often these secrets when they are present contain something about their biological origin and/or secret sexual encounters. Why these secrets are so meaningful in a particular narrative is that they are often the doorway to some interesting psychological dynamics. I believe that with this book, the author would  knock on the door but then not clearly deliver on this possibility. Overall, I would say that this book was not my cup of tea.

Comment » | FG - Fiction General, FR - Fiction Romance

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

February 13th, 2016 — 12:15am

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 10.52.38 PMThe Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

This is a sequel to The Rosie Project by the same author which in my opinion did not add anything to the first book. The main character, Don Tillman, a professor of Genetics from Australia who now is working at Columbia Medical School in New York has married Rosie, a combination PhD and medical student, who was the object of his attention in the first book. Rosie is now pregnant and Don’s reaction to this situation occupies much of the attention in this sequel. As we previously noted, I think it is fair to say that Don has a condition that might be called Asperger’s syndrome. He is obviously a very brilliant man who is extremely logical and analytical but he doesn’t quite get the meaning of feelings and emotions although he does clearly love Rosie. Don will make a spreadsheet to analyze any problem. Think Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Rosie is concerned whether Don will be able to relate to their impending child (designated at BUD for baby under development).

In an attempt to gain insight and understanding of young children, Don attempts to shoot some videos of children playing in the park. This leads him to be picked up in the park by the police for suspected pornographic intentions. This develops some interesting storylines that are clever but not brilliant enough in my opinion to become a page turner. For the most part, the author seems to be going over the same ground as in the first book. Don’s way of thinking is logical and seemingly without any psychological defenses. He says what he thinks and this allows for insightful if not amusing comments. He has a few loyal friends which allow some focus on interesting ideas about infidelity and friendship bonds between these guys. Every new character who appears in the book is described by Don by his analysis of their BMI (body mass index) which is amusing but wears thin after a while.

The first book, The Rosie Project presented an original character through whom the author could reflect on many human foibles. The author developed a base of loyal readers who might be expected to embrace the return of this character in The Rosie Effect. For me, the first book was good enough.

1 comment » | FG - Fiction General, FR - Fiction Romance, Uncategorized

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

January 13th, 2016 — 11:06pm

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.53.06 PMWhat She Left Behind

By Ellen Marie Wiseman

This book is composed of two interweaving stories. Clara, a woman who lived in the 1930s was committed to a mental institution against her will based on her wealthy father’s unhappiness about her Italian immigrant boyfriend and her refusal to marry the rich guy that her father picked out for her. The other story is about a current day teenager named Izzy who is a foster child of Peg and Harry after having lived with several previous foster parents since her mother unexplainably murdered her father. Peg is working on a museum project examining newly discovered suitcases of belongings of former patients (including those of Clara) of a now closed psychiatric facility, in order to gain some understanding of their lives. Izzy helps out with this project and finds the diary of Clara and becomes interested in her life.

Being a psychiatrist, I was initially drawn to this book with the idea that I would gain some insight into the lives and treatments of psychiatric patients living in the first half of the twentieth century. This was the case and it included vivid description of the treatment that was done at that time such as ice baths, insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Although I never worked in a state hospital, when I toured them in the late 1960s, such treatments except occasional ECT under humane conditions were things of the past. As far as the possibility of someone spending most of their life committed to a mental institution based on the word of her father when she clearly did not have a mental illness, I would like to think that this would not have been possible. Certainly, in modern times from my experience someone being hospitalized against their will would have to go through a legal hearing with the patient being assigned an attorney if they don’t have one. Once in a hospital with treatment with modern-day medicines (which were not really available until the 1950s) most mental illness can be put at least in temporary remission with such treatment. Today, there would be reviews by multiple doctors with no mandate to keep the person in the hospital against their will unless they were a danger to themselves or others due to a mental illness. I would hope that nothing like Clara’s situation could occur today. Obviously, I can’t speak for every state hospital in the United States and certainly things were different in the 1930s.

There was another aspect of Clara’s case was particularly disturbing to me in that the psychiatrist in charge of her care was depicted as a mean, cruel, selfish man who was mainly responsible for Clara’s lost life. I felt it was an unfair indictment, which suggested all psychiatrists of that time might have been of the same cloth. I understand that the author has the creative choice to develop characters in whatever fashion she chooses. I probably would not be complaining if the character were a dishonest lawyer who did unsavory things in the interest of an interesting storyline but nevertheless, I felt that this book was stigmatizing my profession.

There was particular theme of this book, which also had a special interest to me. Three characters in the book were driven to try to understand their early origins. Izzy, understandably could not fathom why her beloved mother murdered her father. This ultimately led her to empathize with a schoolmate who had some parental trauma. It contributed to her mission to find Clara’s daughter who was essentially separated from her at birth, and hand over her mother’s diaries so she could know about her mother’s story. Clara’s daughter led a life of yearning to know what happened to her mother and Clara similarly went through life wanting to know what happened to her daughter. This is a variation of a theme, which I have seen played out in many people’s lives as well as in some interesting movies. Persons, sometimes separated at birth or when they are quite young often yearn to know their biological parent or parents with whom they may have had no relationship for decades. I have reflected on the psychodynamics of these issues in a psychiatry blog that I write. Therefore, I was particularly interested to see how they played out as major motivating factors in the characters in this book.

I believe the author Ellen Wiseman has created an intriguing story that will hold the interest of the reader whether or not you come from a psychiatric background.

Comment » | FG - Fiction General, FH - Fiction Historical, MHP - Mental Health/Psychiatry

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

January 3rd, 2016 — 7:29pm

One Plus One By Jojo Moyes

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 11.04.59 AMThis is a road story about three plus one unlikely characters. There is Jess, a 20-something single mom, her maybe 12-year-old daughter, Tanzie and her teenage misfit stepson who was recently bullied. The plus one is Ed, a mid-30’s guy who Jess met when she cleaned his house in her job as a house cleaner and also drove him home one evening from the pub, where she works in the evening, after he drank too much. Tanzie is a math wizard who has the opportunity to win a scholarship plus expenses if she does well in the Math Olympiad in Scotland (They all live in England). Ed who is usually called Mr. Nicholls offers to drive Jess and family to Scotland after he sees them on the road when their car broke down on the way there. There is also a large droopy dog, Norman, who is along on this road trip so it is really three plus one plus one.

Jojo Moyes has a writing style that holds our attention with details of an interesting backstory about each person, which also shows their unique personality. We get insight into how the characters were developed. It turns out that they are all troubled. Jess and the kids all had difficult childhood experiences. Ed, while successful in business now has to deal with a recent personal relationship, which threatens to drastically change his life. They are all in the car, driving only 45 miles an hour on their way to Scotland because Tanzie gets sick when the car goes over that speed. As they putter along, their feelings unravel to the reader.

I believe that the magnetism that draws us to this book and makes you not want to put it down is that there always seems to be a glimmer of hope for each of them individually, as well as a group. But as exciting and hopeful as the story swings for them, there are circumstances, which challenge or devastate that hope. There is the wish for a fairytale ending but yet, it is a book about real life.

There is also great potential for this book as a movie with outstanding roles for in-depth character portrayals, which could even include some R-rated scenes. There is passion, love, poignancy, moral and ethical dilemmas. There is even an important role for a dog. But don’t wait for the movie, this will be a great read.

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The Rent Collector by Camron Wright

July 21st, 2015 — 1:00pm

The Rent Collector by Camron WrightScreen Shot 2015-07-21 at 10.06.45 AM

In the past year, I have read various novels about countries, cultures and life experiences that were immensely different than anything that I knew about. This included the fate of orphan children who were shipped throughout the United States, the plight of Mexican immigrants in this country, the difficulties that the Jews and France experienced during World War II, the bizarre life of living in North Korea, the American-Indians living in this country during the 17th century. This novel presented still another perspective of which I was unfamiliar and did not fully appreciate. That is living on a gigantic garbage dump in modern day Cambodia where a person might live with his family in a shack with a tarp as a doorway and no electricity. On top of that, the families would eek out a bare subsistence by picking through the smoldering garbage piles to find any items that they could sell for a small amount of money to buy food which was mostly rice, so their families could survive until the next day. While the details of the story were fiction, the characters in the book were real and there were actual photographs of them at the end of the book.

Yet the novel was much more than a revelation of how some people might live today in Cambodia or the historical and political circumstances behind this travesty. Camron Wright has told a story that reflects the potential humanity that can exist in any life circumstances. He focuses on the tradition for literature to convey meaning, love and hope throughout the ages in a multitude of cultures.

One of the main characters in the book is the story teller of this novel, Sang Ly. We meet her as a married woman with a small sick child who was trying to survive in this horrendous environment. The other main character is Sopeap Sin or the rent collector, a seemingly mean old woman who collects the rent from these poor people who live in the immediate area surrounding this gigantic garbage dump. We learned that she has a poignant and complicated history. Among the many facets of her background is that she has great knowledge of literature. She accepts Sang Ly’s invitation to teach her to read and the plot takes off from there. On one hand, this is a simple beautiful story and yet on the other hand, it is as complicated as the hidden meaning of great literature and the secrets of our dreams deep in our hearts.

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Out of Mind by Sharon Draper (Guest review by Leo Blumenfield – age 11 1/2)

June 15th, 2015 — 12:14am

Review of Out of My Mind by Sharon DraperScreen Shot 2015-06-15 at 12.12.04 AM

Guest review written by Leo Blumenfield age 11 1/2

Out of My Mind is about an 11-year-old girl named Melody who has Cerebral palsy.

“I can’t walk. I can’t talk. I can’t feed myself or take myself to the bathroom. Big bummer,” she tells us on page 1. Because Melody can’t speak, many people assume she isn’t smart. In fact, Melody’s brain works like anyone else’s. She is exceptionally smart, clever and a trivia expert.

At school, Melody is in a special education class, where she doesn’t learn much most years. Then, the school starts an inclusion program where all the kids in Melody’s class get to participate in a “normal” class once in awhile. Melody is really excited about this, but when the class starts, a couple of kids aren’t very nice to her, and some of the others ignore her. But one girl named Rose sits next to Melody, and they become friends. Melody likes having a friend, yet sometimes she still feels left out. The inclusion program is a little frustrating for Melody because when she knows the answer to a question (which is a lot of the time) she can’t say it. Through all the challenges Melody is still glad to be part of it because she gets to learn so much more than she did before.

The rest of the book shows how Melody sees the world. It shows the relationship between Melody and her parents and family. Also, the book shows how Melody’s next-door-neighbor, Mrs. V. pushes Melody to do the “unspeakable.”Out of My Mind talks about the many stereotypes and assumptions people make about someone who has Cerebral palsy.

I definitely recommend this book if you want to read something completely different. It really shows the way someone who has a disability or many challenges feels, and how they conquer those challengesOut of My Mind is like no other book I’ve read; it makes me realize that there are so many things in life that are far more complicated than we think,

Out of My Mind is the winner of the 2015 Wildwood Medal



Comment » | C - Recommended for Children, FG - Fiction General

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

May 23rd, 2015 — 9:58pm

The Rosie Project by Graeme SimsionScreen Shot 2015-05-23 at 9.57.53 PM

Dr. Don Tillman is a professor of genetics in Australia where the book is set. It is his voice that tells the story. It does not take long to realize that it is probably the voice of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. Don, while obviously quite brilliant, lacks the ability to socialize and empathize with other people. At least so it seems. His only real friends are Gene, a faculty member in the Psychology Department and his wife, Claudia, who is a clinical psychologist. They have an open marriage as Gene attempts to have sex with a wide variety of women from all over the world (putting pins in a map marking each conquest). Gene and Claudia are loyal friends of Don and do their best to advise him how to get along with people.

Don undertakes two projects, which allows the reader to learn about how he thinks as well as getting some insight into human nature. The first is The Wife Project. For this, Don makes a questionnaire of all the characteristics he believes he would want in a wife. With the help of Gene, he is able to distribute this questionnaire to a wide variety of women. Factors that are evaluated are things such as smoking, drinking, eating habits, body mass index (BMI) and many others. No one really measures up to score very high in this questionnaire in Don’s quest to meet his life partner. Don does meet Rosie through Gene, who although she does not meet the criteria set out in the questionnaire but with whom he does develop a friendly relationship. Rosie was initially believed by Don to be a bartender but turns out to be a PhD student working in a bar to earn extra money.

It is with Rosie that he develops a second project known as The Father’s Project. It seems that Rosie was unhappy with the man who was known to be her stepfather because he did not deliver on his promises including a childhood hope to go to Disneyland. Her mother died when Rosie was a young girl and things that her mother told her before she died gave her reason to believe that her biological father was actually someone in her mother’s medical school graduating class and had impregnated her at the time of a reunion celebration. There was a picture of all the attendees at this celebration and Rosie and Don embarked upon The Father’s Project where they attempted to track down all these men and surreptitiously obtain samples for DNA analysis, which Don as a genetics professor could do in his laboratory.

Readers of this book blog as well as my psychiatry blog and movie blog would have noted that I have written about the not so uncommon quest to connect with an unknown biological relative, after many years and sometimes a lifetime of no contact with them and no knowledge who that person may be. ( see psychiatry blog about this subject  ) This theme also shows up in movies ( see movie blog about this subject which will links to several movies ) and books as well as this one and in clinical cases as illustrated in my psychiatry blog. As Don and Rosie team up with The Father’s Project, we appreciate how Don intensifies an interest with Rosie. He begins to question many of his assumptions about relationships and his own feeling.

No matter how well a person may fit, the diagnostic criteria for an entity whether it be a narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder, major depression, Asperger’s syndrome or any other entity, there are human qualities that affect the ability for everyone to care for another person, fall in love and have an ability to change. This interesting delightful and enlightening story clearly makes this point.

I understand there is a sequel book by this author, titled The Rosie Effect as well as a movie currently being made. If you like this book as I did, you probably will want to check these out.

1 comment » | FG - Fiction General, FR - Fiction Romance

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