Angel Falls by Kristin Hannah

angelfalls

It is clear that Kristin Hannah’s writing blossomed dramatically between writing this novel and writing her master work The Nightingale.  I was hoping to be drawn into similarly beautifully drawn scenes with intricate plot lines as I was in that great novel – and I was sorely disappointed here.  While there started to be an intriguing idea for the story, and it began well enough, it just was not developed with the same sophistication and elegance as that later work.

This story begins with young Bret preparing the saddle early in the morning for his mom, Mikaela, to have her early morning horseback ride.  Suddenly, something was noticeably off and Bret watched as his mom started jumped the horse and the horse stopped and Mikaela was thrown forward, banging her head against a pole, sustaining a severe head injury.   The next thing they all knew, their lives were thrown upside-down, as Mikaela was in a deep coma and it was unclear if she’d ever recover.  What comes after tests the love each of the family members has for each other.

There are some truly brilliant moments in this story and the basic plot is a clever one.  The test of love that Mikaela’s husband, Liam, faces is a fascinating ethical dilemma that I think many would find paralyzingly difficult.  And there are tender scenes between the various family members that are quite sweet.

However, the writing itself is somewhat simplistic.  The plot could be more involved, with more story lines woven into the main one.  The characters could be much more multi-dimensional – they are extremely flat – and, wow, is the latter half of the story just pure saccharine-sweetness!  It felt as if the author herself got bored with the book about halfway through and just wanted to be over and done with the project, so she wrote whatever came out easily.  It was quite anti-climactic.

So, stick with The Nightingale, and forget about this one, I’d say…

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Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD

why we sleep

After hearing Dr. Matthew Walker interviewed on NPR, I immediately bought it and read it cover to cover – and enjoyed it every bit as much as the interview itself.  Dr. Walker has devoted his career for the past 20+ years to the science of sleep and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on the structure of sleep, the benefits of sleep, the medical and psychological consequences of a lack of sleep, and societal costs of our communal lack of sleep.

What is most impressive about this book is its readability – it is science-based but not full of jargon.  Dr. Walker describes each study that supports each of his claims about sleep, but he does so in a very clear and concise way so that any lay person reading the book can understand how the study group compares to the control group in each experiment and how the conclusions were made.  He also intersperses stories and anecdotes that engage the reader so that it is not just a preachy lecture but rather a mind-opening presentation of scientific ideas based on fascinating data.

His conclusions are many and of utmost importance.  Sleep is critical to our health and our ability to learn and retain memory.  Even getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night can have a detrimental effect on our health, increasing our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and infections.  It can have an affect on our memory and ability to learn – particularly in adolescents, whose school start times are early in the mornings (which doesn’t jive with their later circadian rhythms).  It can also increase risk of depression and anxiety – no wonder there is so much more of it now than there ever was before!

What causes us to sleep less?  We have electric lights that keep us awake longer into the evening/night.  We work earlier in the morning and then later into the night and then have activities and entertainment later into the evening/night.  We have electronic devices which have blue light/back lighting that send messages to our brains that inhibit melatonin that tells our brains that it is still daytime, so our brains don’t think it’s time to go to sleep yet.  All these contribute to later bedtimes.

So what to do?

I’ll suggest you read this book to find out.  There are great suggestions about sleep hygiene, treatment for insomnia (against medication, but supporting CBT), important lifestyle suggestions and some major public health recommendations.  The one suggestion emphasized the most?  To maintain a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week (including the weekend)!

 

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

sweeping up glass

Olivia is determined to figure who is killing and disfiguring the wolves on her property and why.  She has her suspicions about it – the Phelps boys have always been evil, for example- but she cannot understand why.  Meanwhile, she has to go about her life, juggling her responsibilities of raising her grandson, caring for her insane mother whom she has always called Ida, running her grocery store, and maintaining her household, until her life gets completely turned around by her gradual discoveries from her wolf investigations.

The voice of the storyteller is Olivia’s and it is frank and raw and powerful.  Olivia lives in such frequently harsh conditions that her emotions usually must be kept tamed, but the heat of her seething anger sears the page.  She loves her father as fiercely as she hates her mother, and her world is build around this contrast.  She is smart but not educated and while she doesn’t give herself credit for having much, she manages to navigate complicated and even dangerous situations with strength and with heart.  She is a truly beautiful, strong woman character.

I think the way that racism and racial violence is woven into the story is extremely effective as well.  There is a building of very tender relationships between Olivia and some of her black friends, particularly of her best friend, Love Alice, as a preface to any of the tension.  When incidents do happen -or even threats of them-  then, it becomes all that much more personal and so incredibly disturbing.  It feels like my own family members have been affected when they are only fictional characters, because of this beautiful character development.  And the story builds into an incredibly suspenseful and somewhat complicated plot line – I literally could not put this book down!

This was a surprisingly excellent book – I very highly recommend it!  A new “must-read” for the blog!

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McAll Smith

tears of the giraffe

Like the first in this series, this book is lovely.  It is the story of Mma Ramotse, who has established her No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, who now happens to be engaged to be married.  Here in Book 2, her life undergoes some vast changes, but she greets them with a calm acceptance as she pursues the cases that continue to be the focus of her life.  These cases continue to be ones that are sometimes complex and sometimes straightforward, but always with a very human and ethical twist.  There is a hint of danger and a hint of suspense, but always a great deal of heart.

What I love about the main character is that she is a beautiful feminist of the quietest and most subtle kind.  She supports other women in their pursuit of their careers (as she does in promoting her own secretary) and she sticks it to men in a discrete but very direct way to get her message across.  There are many times when feminists must beat the drums and rally the marches – I am not against that at all – but it is in these quiet moments, behind closed doors when one can really change the minds and hearts of the men who might be most resistant.  There are moments in this book that demonstrate that quite poignantly.

I think I have to move on from this series, but I will definitely return to it at some point.  It definitely gives me peace.

 

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

ladies detective agency

This is a book where writing is beautiful in its simplicity.  Mma Ramotswe is the first lady detective in Botswana, fulfilling both hers and her father’s dream of owning her own business successfully.  Although she is off to a precarious start, and has to take on occasionally less desirable cases (involving dogs, for example), she always uses her wise intuition and her cunning instincts to outsmart even the shadiest of characters.  And as we hear her cases unfold, we also get a taste of Africa, which is as rich an experience as the stories themselves.

Between the twists and turns of the story lines, the beautiful and colorful characters and the rich landscape in which the events unfold, this book is absolutely delightful.  I have seen it advertised for so many years and have not known what I’ve been missing all this time!  I now find myself wanting to read the other sequels to this to see what other adventures await.

I highly recommend this to all of you as well.  In this time of political distress, and when the news is so oppressively sad, this is a beautiful distraction.

 

Choke by Sian Beilock

choke

Why would an accomplished, experienced athlete competing for a spot in the Olympics suddenly flub an event?  Why would an A student who has aced all the practice SAT tests get a mediocre score when it really mattered?  That is, why do people choke?  This is what Dr. Beilock examines in the course of this fascinating summary of psychological research done by herself and others on this subject.

The book reviews what is happening when a person “chokes” both behaviorally and neurologically.  It appears that overthinking a situation can actually interfere with the automatic responses that training leads the body to perfect.  Once your attention is drawn to the specific mechanics of a behavior (kicking a soccer ball, playing a piano concerto), what would be done automatically very smoothly is now pulled apart and diverted by the brain’s other areas becoming involved.  Gradually, the book builds into suggesting what can be done to offset the possible risks of choking or remedies for people who have choked and need to get back onto a path of success.  Not surprisingly, these can include focusing on the goal, meditation, writing down one’s anxieties and worries just before a performance/test, and practicing (although this is a gross over-simplification of her findings).

What makes this book readable is the inclusion of many anecdotes.  Dr. Beilock uses both famous legends from sports history and stories from her own personal experiences from people she’s met through her work to enhance the narrative of the book.  This both engages and clarifies and makes the reading fun.  I found the psychological experiments remarkable and often surprising as well.

And for those of you who might be going on interviews sometime soon – well, there are tips for you, too.  And they are really not what you would expect!

A very interesting read for anyone interested in psychology or sports or really being successful when it counts!

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little life

This is one of those books that becomes insinuated into your DNA as you read it.  You find yourself thinking about the characters even when you’ve put the book down.  You find yourself worrying about what has been or what will be with them even at the oddest moments.

It is the story of 4 roommates and best friends at Yale who have stayed extremely close throughout the years after.  And while the author gives backstory to each of them, there is greatest focus on the most mysterious of them, Jude.  Even the others, JB, Malcolm and Willem do not know what Jude’s story is.  They know he does not have parents, and they know he does not wear short sleeves, and they know he does not want to speak about himself – but they respect his privacy and he loves them for not pushing him about this.  As the characters grow together, the reader cannot help but cry with them, laugh with them and really love each of them as if they are real.

As you can tell, I did love this book.  It should, however, come with a disclaimer – it is extremely disturbing in many parts.  Jude’s history is extraordinarily dark, and what he’s endured is horrific – and while details have been spared, the imaginings are quite vivid.  What you see, tragically, is the devastation that child abuse has on self esteem and self worth – and Jude’s whole life exemplifies this.

This is a very sad (and very long!) book, but, at least in my opinion, one worth reading.  The characters are beautiful and engaging, and when it ended I felt I almost had to say goodbye to new friends.