Review: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I have been putting off reading The Kite Runner for many years now. One: it seemed like a really long book. Two: I knew it would make me cry. I like books that bring out raw emotions in readers, but I have to tread lightly where my feelings are concerned. Sometimes, if the storyline hits a specific nerve, I can fall into an emotional cavern that lasts for days. I am lucky in that I have wonderful students who wouldn’t stop recommending this book to me.

“Why? Why haven’t you read it yet? You have to read it, Miss!”

Finally, I succumbed to their pleas, and I’m so glad I did.

The Kite Runner takes you on a journey not just through Afghanistan, but through your own heart. We learn about the friendship–the brotherhood–of Amir and Hassan. They are both young boys at the beginning of the story: Amir is the son of a wealthy businessman whereas Hassan is the son of Ali, the servant of the household. Hassan and Ali are both very loyal, and Amir’s father (or Baba, as he calls his father) takes very good care of them. Hassan is so devoted to his masters that when Amir asks for something, Hassan will often respond with, “For you, a thousand times over.” Little do we know, however, that this will eventually lead to a heart-rending chasm that forms between the two boys.

Fast forward many years later when Amir and Baba flee to California in an effort to escape the Soviet invasion. Baba finds it difficult to assimilate into society; he was a great man in Afghanistan, one who was revered for his generosity and kindness. Now, he works as a gas station attendant while Amir goes to school. At this point, Amir has not heard from or seen Hassan in years, something that he is both glad for and ashamed of. Amir’s secret–the one that created the division between himself and Hassan–is locked so deep inside of him, he suffers from insomnia and bouts of depression. Eventually, he graduates from college and marries another Afghani immigrant named Soraya. He settles into his life as a husband and novelist until he receives a phone call from Rahim Khan, Baba’s closest friend. Rahim is dying; he asks Amir to come back to the region: “Come. There is a way to be good again” (192).

From this point on, Amir is forced to face his past. He is made to look upon his mistakes, mistakes he made as a young boy, and make it right. Make it “good again.” The final part of the novel is filled with unexpected events; any loose ends are neatly tied up in a profound bow. I stayed up until 3am to finish reading this book. I cried and cried and cried. It was awful. It was beautiful. It was touching. It was reprehensible. It was life. The lives of Amir and Hassan are forever together, forever apart.

My favourite lines are from page 359, which I dog-eared in the middle of the night: “I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

I cannot say enough good things about this book. Now I understand why my students wanted me to read it. Thank you.

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Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and other concerns) by Mindy Kaling

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Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

I am loathe to admit I’ve never watched an episode of “The Mindy Project.”

Additionally, I’ve never seen an episode of “The Office.”

I confess: my life can be devoid of certain cultural phenomena.

However…

One thing my life will always have plenty of is access to good books. Classic books. Books that make me stay up late at night. Books that turn me into an animal with a cavernous appetite, devouring every word on the page.

Not sure if Mindy Kaling’s book falls under this category, but I laughed the entire time I was reading it. I even snorted at some points.

Snorted.

Heh heh…I am laughing just thinking about it.

Mindy Kaling is a cultural phenomenon herself, one that I am happy to get to know better. In her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling describes her life growing up in America as a daughter to immigrant parents. Her geeky, fun-loving side is revealed at a young age through her love for romantic comedies and “Saturday Night Live.” This ultimately leads her to study playwriting at Dartmouth College. After graduation, she co-writes a play about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, appropriately entitled Matt & Ben. This is a huge (surprise) hit and helps pave the way for her to become a writer on “The Office.” From there…well, we know what happens from there.

[ed. note: in case you don’t know, she writes, produces, and stars in “The Mindy Project.” Duh!]

What I loved about this book is that she writes like she is already your BFF. She is genuine in her disclosures and honest about her feelings. Even if you don’t know who Mindy Kaling is, you will definitely want to get to know her after reading this book. She is the cute, funny, and nerdy friend we all want to have (and secretly want to be).

Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

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The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maughum

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

In my last review, I mentioned that I sometimes choose a book because it is a prize winner. There is also another way I choose books: via recommendations. This particular recommendation came from a student named Ada. Let me give you a bit of back-story first…

I have a class library full of various titles and genres. My students are encouraged to pleasure read at the beginning of every class for about 15 minutes (sometimes more!). Students can check these books out with me; I have an app on my phone where I can scan the barcode and keep track of who has which book.

A few weeks ago, Ada–a first year IB student–came up to me wanting to check out The Painted Veil. I had heard of Somerset Maugham, but I had never read anything by him, so I couldn’t even enthusiastically talk to her about this book. As it turns out, I didn’t have to. Ada brought the book back in two days, stating, “It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.”

Well, that was good enough for me.

I took it home that night and started reading. In retrospect, it reminds me a bit of Madame Bovary, but with likeable characters.The story is set mainly in Hong Kong during the 1920’s. Just like in Bovary, the main character (in this case, a young beauty named Kitty) marries an odd but educated man named Walter, only to begin an affair with a more influential man, Charles, soon after. Once Walter finds out, he gives her an ultimatum, one that forces her to see Charles for what he really is: an arrogant, self-centred, and manipulative man.

The book is less about the affair and more about self-discovery. Kitty soon learns the deep satisfaction of altruism when she volunteers at a convent, looking after orphaned and abandoned children. She learns that Walter is not the cold and indifferent man he appears to be to her; he is warm, affectionate, and caring. He is considered a hero because of the work he does as a bacteriologist, struggling to find a cure for the horrible cholera epidemic that has ravaged this remote part of China.

The Painted Veil provides the reader with an intimate look at the marriage between Kitty and Walter. Emotional, inspirational, and at times infuriating, this novel has the reader hoping for an affable reconciliation up until the very end.

Review: Euphoria by Lily King

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Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King

Sometimes I select a book not because of its cover, not because it was a gift, and not because it is “required reading” for one of my classes. Sometimes, I select a book strictly because it is a prize winner.

Yes, I can be superficial with my book selection.

Euphoria by Lily King, does not disappoint. In 2014, it received the following awards:

  • Kirkus Prize for Fiction
  • New England Book Award for Fiction
  • New York Times Book Review, 10 Best Books of 2014
  • Time, Top 10 Fiction Books of 2014
  • NPR, Best Books of 2014
  • Washington Post, Top 50 Fiction Books of 2014
  • Amazon, 100 Best Books of 2014 (#16)
  • Publishers Weekly, Best Fiction Books of 2014
  • Oprah.com, 15 Must-Reads
  • Indie Next List, June 2014

This book is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (winner to be announced in March, 2015).

Now, onto the storyline…

Euphoria is a story about three anthropologists in the 1930’s attempting to live with–and study–tribes living along the Sepik River in the Territory of New Guinea. Initially, I thought it would be similar to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but thankfully, it was not. (note: now that I’m older, I can appreciate Conrad’s story, but as a 3rd year English Lit student at uni, I found it tedious and more than a little bit scary).

The lives of Bankson, Nell, and Fen are intertwined not just because of the passion for their work, but also because of the physical passion that arises from such close proximity to one another. Your heart aches for Nell and Bankson to be together in the end, but you know that the arrogant Fen will somehow get in the way.

Nell’s character is based loosely on the real-life anthropologist, Margaret Mead, whose revolutionary work with tribes in the South Pacific paved the way for the way we view and study different human cultures and societies. King creates these flawed, tragic, yet intense characters who use science to understand and learn more about these tribes. What they don’t realise is that through their interactions with these people, they are learning so much about themselves. I found this particular quote especially satisfying:

“You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense. You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words. Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away. You then rely on their words, and words aren’t always the most reliable thing.”

Indeed. The characters are forced to communicate with the tribes in ways that are not necessarily language-based. Ironically, they also learn to communicate with each other in the same way.

Lily King has written a gripping novel in Euphoria. If you are looking for adventure, you’ve got it here. If you want romance, yup, it’s here. If you are interested in the science of studying humans, well, it’s definitely here. I hate to use the idiom “there is something for everyone,” but it kind of fits with this book. Perhaps you need to look beyond the words to understand.

Review: Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

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Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

This is probably one of the most clever books I’ve read in a long time. Literature + Social Media = So Much Epicosity!!

Mallory Ortberg has taken characters from a long line of literature and has them texting plot points to each other. She begins with Greek Mythology stories such as Medea, Achilles, and King Midas, to classics like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (of course!), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. She even includes texts from more contemporary characters in books by J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Cormac McCarthy. Each text exchange I read made me giggle like a young school girl (a very well-read young school girl!) To give you an example of what I mean, here is an excerpt from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where Plato is texting his older brother, Glaucon:

I read this book every morning when I was running on the treadmill and I finished it in about three days. This is on my must-read list. If you love literature (I do!) and social media (yes, please!) then I highly recommend this book to you.

Note: I’m still laughing at the conversation between Hamlet (so emo) and his mother, Gertrude (so clueless).

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

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“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

I believe that some things come into your life when you really need them. Sometimes it will be a new acquaintance; other times it will be an object, like a book.

This particular time, it was Haruki Murakami’s 2008 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Before I provide you with my review, I need to provide you with the back story.

Over the winter break, my classroom library got messed up. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but when I came back to school that first week of January, my books were all over the place. I was more than a little annoyed, as you can imagine. As I was re-piling, re-arranging, and re-shelving my books, I came across Murakami’s little gem. The title alone was enough to get me excited. You see, I recently signed up for the 2,015 in 2015. This is a virtual race where you pledge to run 2,015 miles between January 1st and December 31st, 2015. I put together a small team (shout out to Hannah, Courtney, Sez, and Duane!) who will be running with me. As we are all teachers living in different parts of the world, our team name is “Teach Globally, Run Locally.” Each of us will be running approximately 650km (about 403 miles) over the course of this year.

At first it seemed daunting when I saw that number. “How am I going to fit 650km into my already-busy life?” But then I found Murakami’s book, and I knew that it could be done.

Murakami is also a runner. His specialty is long-distance. He trains by running for at least an hour a day. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. This 66-year-old man runs longer than I do (I opt for 4km every morning during the week, plus longer runs on the weekends). But it’s not just his views on running that have inspired me; it’s the way he connects his running-thoughts to normal life.

He begins his book with a forward that mentions the brother of a fellow runner. This brother has a mantra that he repeats to himself as he runs: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. This can be applied to so many areas of our lives. Yes, we will experience pain, both physical and emotional, but what we do with that pain is within our control. Do we opt to make ourselves suffer, or do we overcome the suffering and move on? The choice is ours.

This isn’t just a book for runners; this is a book for the everyman (sidebar: this is not a sexist term; rather, it is a literary term meaning “an ordinary individual”). When Murakami talks about running, he is also talking about the journeys we take in life. We don’t always “stroll off into the sunset with the theme song from Rocky blaring in the background.” Sometimes, “when we need a clear-cut solution, the person who knocks at our door is…a messenger bearing bad news” and we realise that the messenger has been sent by the boss: Reality (Murakami 144). We need to be prepared for things that don’t necessarily turn out the way we hope. We need to understand that life isn’t always about winning the race or finishing the race.

Sometimes, it’s just about entering the race and running forward.

Review: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

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Remember this?

Remember this?

I am pretty sure everyone–EVERYONE–has had a moment (or two or ten) when they have desperately tried to remember something. Maybe it was something simple like a grocery list or where you left your keys. Maybe it was a little more difficult like which exit to take to get to the stadium or the name of that new restaurant you wanted to try. Or maybe it was something complex like trying to remember important dates for your French History exam or memorising Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for your English Literature class. Whatever the case may be, we have all been in a position where we have cursed our memory for not doing what it was supposed to do: recall information.

In Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, he looks deeply into the world of competitive memorisation (I’ll bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing). He talks to various US Memory Champions as well as World Memory Champions. Yes. There are people in the world whose hobby it is to memorise things. Decks of cards, random lists of numbers, reams of poetry, stacks of headshots. You name it, they will memorise it. There are many different methods to solid memorisation; in fact, most of the people Foer spoke with follow at least one method. More surprisingly, most of these memory mavens contend that anyone can do it. You don’t have to be a savant or have a photographic memory (which is argued in the book). What you do need is time, focus, and the willingness to train your brain.

After interviewing various experts who are involved in the science behind memorisation, Foer decides to give it a go himself. With memory mentor Ed Cooke behind him (Cooke has been an active participant in the World Memory Championships since 2003), Foer practices some of the memory techniques he has learned in order to compete in the USA Memory Championship in 2006. He spends hours at a time honing his skills, wearing noise-cancelling headphones and safety goggles with the lenses painted black (this helps him focus). His dedication is commendable.

I won’t detail here the memorisation methods utilised by Foer, Cooke, and others; rather, I’d like you to read the book for yourself. It’s not just about the various procedures involved in memorisation; it’s also about the history of memorisation and how society as we know it has developed as a result.

I think this book is perfect for my IB students as it will give them some insight on how to function more efficiently when it comes to memorising facts and details for any of their HL and SL classes (think formulas and definitions). It’s not enough to just read your notes over and over again. There is a trick to help make it easier, and Foer outlines these tricks in detail.

If any of my students are reading this review (and they should be!), I have a copy of Moonwalking with Einstein in my class library. Stop by and sign it out. I don’t think you will be disappointed. Plus, you will learn the significance of the title. That alone should be incentive enough!