Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Review: Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment

From Goodreads:
When thirty-eight-year-old Ian Thorson died from dehydration and dysentery on a remote Arizona mountaintop in 2012, The New York Timesreported the story under the headline: "Mysterious Buddhist Retreat in the Desert Ends in a Grisly Death." Scott Carney, a journalist and anthropologist who lived in India for six years, was struck by how Thorson’s death echoed other incidents that reflected the little-talked-about connection between intensive meditation and mental instability.
Using these tragedies as a springboard, Carney explores how those who go to extremes to achieve divine revelations—and undertake it in illusory ways—can tangle with madness. He also delves into the unorthodox interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism that attracted Thorson and the bizarre teachings of its chief evangelists: Thorson’s wife, Lama Christie McNally, and her previous husband, Geshe Michael Roach, the supreme spiritual leader of Diamond Mountain University, where Thorson died.
Carney unravels how the cultlike practices of McNally and Roach and the questionable circumstances surrounding Thorson’s death illuminate a uniquely American tendency to mix and match eastern religious traditions like LEGO pieces in a quest to reach an enlightened, perfected state, no matter the cost.
Aided by Thorson’s private papers, along with cutting-edge neurological research that reveals the profound impact of intensive meditation on the brain and stories of miracles and black magic, sexualized rituals, and tantric rites from former Diamond Mountain acolytes, A Death on Diamond Mountain is a gripping work of investigative journalism that reveals how the path to enlightenment can be riddled with danger.
Last year I read and reviewed Carney's The Red Market about trade in humans and their various body parts.  It was great, but I think this is the book that has cemented him as a must-read author for me.  His reporting style here is very similar to Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.  He takes on a specific case of an inexcusable death and uses it to examine the entirety of Tibetan Buddhism, focusing in on one particular guru and the cult that sprung up around him.  It's incredibly detailed and accessible to all readers, including those who are unfamiliar with the concepts of Buddhism.  As detailed as he is with his explanations of the religion, its history, and its practices, he also manages to keep the pace active and the reader involved in the story.

My one other note about the writing is that it's obvious that Carney has done his research and spoken to a variety of sources.  In addition to references, he includes detailed notes on each chapter describing who he spoke to and where the information came from.  It's incredibly helpful from a documentation standpoint, and also serves to provide an interested reader with a jumping off point for further study.

Entertainment Value
Cults in general fascinate me, but all of the cults I've read about have largely centered around a Judeo-Christian worldview (Jim Jones, who started as a church, the FLDS church, etc).  I was thrilled to have a chance to see a cult that centers around something so completely different, but that works in the same ways.  I couldn't believe how such disparate religions could become cult followings so similarly. At the same time, it made sense, particularly when paired with Carney's observation that cults tend to form in any religion when mystical experiences take precedence over religious traditions.

I thoroughly enjoyed my read of this book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in cults, Tibetan Buddhism, religious extremism, or even true crime.  Carney is an author who is now officially on my radar and who I'll be watching for in the future.

Thanks to Roshe and Gotham Books for providing me with a copy to review.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New Pintrest!

I posted a week or so ago with a list of all the best places you can find me on social media.  I decided after thinking about it to go ahead and devote a Pintrest page to books only.  So from now on, if you're looking for me on Pintrest, you can find me at:

I'd love to follow your bookish boards as well - if we're not already friends, let's make it happen!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth, Erika Eichenseer, and Maria Tatar

From Goodreads:
With this volume, the holy trinity of fairy tales - the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen - becomes a quartet. In the 1850s, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth traversed the forests, lowlands, and mountains of northern Bavaria to record fairy tales, gaining the admiration of even the Brothers Grimm. Most of Schönwerth's work was lost - until a few years ago, when thirty boxes of manu­scripts were uncovered in a German municipal archive.

Now, for the first time, Schönwerth's lost fairy tales are available in English. Violent, dark, and full of action, and upending the relationship between damsels in distress and their dragon-slaying heroes, these more than seventy stories bring us closer than ever to the unadorned oral tradition in which fairy tales are rooted, revolutionizing our understanding of a hallowed genre.
When the blurb says "unadorned", they truly mean "unadorned".  I've seen others critique this aspect of the stories, but honestly it's what stood out as authentic to me.  I loved reading these as simple tales, exactly as they would have been told to Schonwerth, without the years of embellishment and "prettying up" that has gone into many updated stories of Grimm, Anderson, and Perrault.  Schonwerth's work is a straight from the source, unfiltered by repetition version of the traditional stories that were told in Bavaria (now Germany).  I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to read something fresh and new in tone, even if there is some overlap with traditional fairy tales.

Entertainment Value
I'm a huge fan of fairy tales, so of course I thoroughly enjoyed this collection.  As I mentioned above, it does contain some overlap with the stories of the Brothers Grimm and Perrault, but Schonwerth's voice is obviously unique from theirs and the stories contain unique adjustments.  There are also a multitude of new stories, many of which are dark and bloody, which is exactly how I like my fairy tales.  I'm also very intrigued by the idea of oral histories and stories and legends that are passed down from person to person.  Reading this collection felt like having a window into the oral history of Eastern Europe.

I certainly recommend this one to fans of history, particularly in Eastern Europe, as well as to fans of traditional fairy tales.  I'm not sure it's for those who are expecting Disney-esque versions of fairy tales in a form that is formal or eloquent.  The value of these lies in the history and oral tradition and readers should enter the book from that perspective.

Thank you to Andrea at Penguin for providing me with a copy to review!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Audiobook Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

From Goodreads:
One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four year old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.

Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined her team. He asked Susannah to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history.

With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer.
Very well-done.  Calahan's experience as a journalist surely provided her with the means necessary to write exactly the kind of in-depth story I appreciate.  She uses videos, notes her family took, and interviews with doctors and those who were present to reconstruct the story of her month of psychosis as completely as possible.  If you've read this blog before, you know I love a good reference, and I appreciated that in her memoir Cahalan took the time to share with the reader where her information came from.

Entertainment Value
Again, I feel like the book greatly benefited from Cahalan's experience as a journalist.  It reads easily and is straightforward, and tells a story that is so compelling you can't help but keep reading (or listening in my case).  I think just the premise - that a healthy young woman could so suddenly be brought into the depths of mental illness by an infection - is fascinating, but the way Cahalan tells the story is also remarkable.  She manages to connect to the reader on an emotional level while also maintaining the distance of a journalist, which I found remarkable.

Very well done.  I have no complaints and found the reader pleasant to listen to.

This is great for fans of memoir, psychology, or medical mystery.  It reads like a novel, and is improved for knowing that it's a true story.  I highly recommend it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: How to Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

From Goodreads:
While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives.
The writing here is the perfect combination, for me anyway, of memoir and literature.  We've got details about the author's life and how she has changed and the things that are important to her and we have the ways that the books she read throughout her life impacted her.  And on top of that, she's going back through with a critical eye to the benefits and potential issues created by those books.  They're largely classics, but she's got some light and fun romances in there too.  I added a ton of books to my TBR, which is just what I like from books about books.  I think she did a great job of combining literary criticism with personal preference and her own life experiences.

Entertainment Value
Again, I added almost every book mentioned to my TBR list, even those I've read before.  It made me anxious to reread some of my favorites with a more critical eye.  It's a quick read and certainly engaging - I didn't want to put it down.  If you're a huge fan of book lists, you're going to love reading this one.

The perfect choice for fans of books about books, particularly if you're a woman, as the book does tend to focus more on the feminist aspects of reading and literature.  I think those who enjoy memoir will also find something to love here, as Ellis delves into her personal experiences in romance, education, and religion throughout the book.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Review: An Uncomplicated Life by Paul Daugherty

From Goodreads:
A father's exhilarating and funny love letter to his daughter with Down syndrome whose vibrant and infectious approach to life has something to teach all of us about how we can better live our own.

Jillian Daugherty was born with Down syndrome. The day they brought her home from the hospital, her parents, Paul and Kerry, were flooded with worry and uncertainty, but also overwhelming love, which they channeled to "the job of building the better Jillian." While their daughter had special needs, they refused to allow her to grow up needy--"Expect, Don't Accept" became their mantra. Little did they know how ready Jillian was to meet their challenge.

Paul tells stories from Jillian's mischievous childhood and moves to her early adulthood, tracing her journey to find happiness and purpose in her adult life, sharing endearing anecdotes as well as stories about her inspiring triumphs. Having graduated from high school and college, Jillian now works to support herself, and has met the love of her life and her husband-to-be, Ryan.

In An Uncomplicated Life, the parent learns as much about life from the child as the child does from the parent. Through her unmitigated love for others, her sparkling charisma, and her boundless capacity for joy, Jillian has inspired those around her to live better and more fully. The day Jillian was born, Paul says, was the last bad day. As he lovingly writes, "Jillian is a soul map of our best intentions"--a model of grace, boundless joy, and love for all of us.
The author is a sport writer for a newspaper, and, in this case, I think his background in journalism serves him well.  He tells his daughter's story thoughtfully and with feeling, but he avoids being overly saccharine or emotional, which could easily happen in this kind of memoir.  I was also impressed with the way that his writing reflected his goals for his daughter's life: he and his wife decided from her birth that she would be treated like other children as much as possible.  In the book, he doesn't make his daughter out to be an icon or a saint - he portrays her as she is, with faults and foibles and makes her a human being.  He also acknowledges his own shortcomings and the shortcomings of others in a practical way that doesn't feel like pandering or martyrdom.

Entertainment Value
Of course I fell in love with Jillian.  Who wouldn't?  She's so determined and devoted to everything and her lively and happy spirit radiates off the pages.  It was an absolutely joy to read and a book where I could really enjoy the "everydayness" of the author's experiences which are so different from mine.  I loved reading little snippets and stories of their life and seeing Jillian grow into womanhood.  It's pleasure reading at it's best.

I think this book will have a pretty wide audience.  I recommend it to fans of memoir, fans of uplifting stories with happy endings, and those with an interest in the developmentally disabled.  I'd also recommend it to those who have no experience with anyone who is disabled, as it will certainly education and provoke compassion in readers.  My mom works with developmentally disabled adults and I know this is one she'll also appreciate and enjoy - I can't wait to pass it on to her.

Thanks to TLC for including me on the tour!  Click here for a full list of tour stops.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lenten Reading: After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles by Bryan Litfin

From Goodreads:
What happened to all those biblical figures once the Bible was finished?We've all heard it said: "According to early church tradition Peter was crucified upside down," or "Paul went to Spain." Did Thomas found the Indian church? Or did Mary live in Ephesus? Were the twelve disciples all eventually martyred?

Where do these ancient traditions come from, and how historically reliable are they? What is meant by the term "early church tradition?" After Actsopens up the world of the Bible-right after it was written. Follow along with New Testament scholar, Dr. Bryan Litfin as he explores the facts, myths, legends, archaeology, and questions of what happened in those most early days of Christianity.
As always, in non-fiction, including religious non-fiction, I look for an author who has done his research and cited his sources.  In this case, I have absolutely no complaints.  Every assumption made in the book is thoroughly sourced and readers are pointed towards these sources explicitly, including a short description of how to locate more difficult to find ancient sources.  I love a good footnote, too, and this one does not disappoint.  The information itself is fascinating, and the writing is superb.

Entertainment Value
Obviously, this is a case where an interest in the subject matter is going to be necessary in order to enjoy the book.  Personally, I found the book to be engrossing.  Because of my years (and years and years) of Christian education, sometimes I get a bit smug with my knowledge of the Bible.  I was pleased to find that there was so much more to be learned from other ancient sources about what happened in the lives of the Apostles after the Bible ends.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the background and historical information on the writers of the gospels and how they actually experienced Christ and came to write His story.

This is a crucial read for anyone with a knowledge of the Bible, but without a firm grasp on church history.  It provides information on a level accessible to the general reader, but backed with sources and citations for further study that would benefit a more academically inclined reader as well.  I learned so much, which is the highest praise I can give any book, and is especially meaningful when it involves my faith.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!