The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

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More instances of unrequited love are added to the mix so that, in the end,  it’s a merry-go-round of people sighing over people looking the other way. 

I didn’t think this book would be so much fun, let’s face it, Russian Literature is heavy but Viv Groskop had me laughing about her own Russian experience. In search of her roots, trust me this changes the meaning Viv excavated from literature and Russia itself, Viv takes us on a ride through the minds of the great authors and you don’t have to throw yourself on the train tracks to relate. There were interesting tidbits, where inspiration bubbled up for say Leo Tolstoy or Ivan Turgenev and how many of the authors struggled with their own hypocrisy. Then there is Gogol and his neurotic tendencies, you shouldn’t laugh, but how can you not? We are only human, and just as contrary as the greats.

What of Viv, herself a fool for love, unrequited? Who hasn’t walked the empty rooms of such love? Baying at the moon, why… why don’t you love me? Well, the Russian’s have your back. Just join the ranks of all those star-gazing fools sighing over the object of their affections who are sighing over someone else, who probably doesn’t love them back either. Oh it’s a cold, cruel world!

One could overdose on all the moralizing, and yet the very characters we’re meant to avoid becoming, they make us love. Am I a hedgehog or a fox? Am I both? (you have to read)  Let the women not be discounted either, for their own greatness, how many people write for survival, how many write when it could very well be your death? I can’t even memorize this post, and I doubt I could find ten people to keep something I’ve written safe in their own heads.

Viv is frank about her own life, her search for identity by hitching on the Russian wagon, and when she finally solves the mystery of her family’s ethnicity I couldn’t suppress a laugh because it has the ingredients for a classic story itself… really, doesn’t it just figure, what a character Viv is! I loved it, loved her voice, her drama, her humor  and you don’t have to like Russian literature, you can avoid it, fear it, embrace it and still come away from this book having a giggle. Trust me, there are serious moments, of course there are, some downright heartbreaking, no wonder these authors wrote masterpieces, their own lives were fresh hell at times. You can’t get more morbid or down in the dumps than the characters these men created, well maybe you can, the world can be a pretty ugly place. But like Viv tells us, ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.’

Publication Date: October 23, 2018

Abrams Press

 

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Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw

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Without understanding, we risk dehumanizing others, writing off human beings simply because we don’t comprehend them.

That is a loaded sentence and Evil is a strange beast, one we can’t ever contain because it’s slippery. The face of evil changes with time, what is evil today may be the norm tomorrow. One thing this book will do is make you squirm, because when discussing evil we remove ourselves from the equation until someone points out that ignorance is no excuse either. Oh yes, you and me too. Think about consumerism, all those things we just have to have on the backs of the broken. I have such a disgust for child abusers, but the truth is, Shaw raises solid arguments on why dehumanizing anyone actually hurts us all in the end. How can we learn and create a safe environment if we really don’t understand the why of it all? How can we understand the why of anything if we rush to label a person or thing evil? End of story, you’re nothing like me, you’re evil! Nothing else to see here, we’ve decided it’s just evil. I realize that is a huge mistake.

Someone thinks you are evil too, be it for your religious beliefs or lack thereof, maybe even the country you live in, or your sexual preferences. Julia Shaw’s book can start some very interesting conversations and you can bet not everyone is going to agree. This is not for the light reader, the subject is very heavy. You are not meant to feel sorry for people who are attracted to children or animals, to most of us this is beyond vile, repulsive but it doesn’t change that such people exist and struggle with these ‘urges’. Do you see what I mean, this is a tough read! It’s hard to review, because these are subjects we find downright abhorrent and, admittedly, evil. Like a dead rotting thing, we do not want to acknowledge it’s there, bury it, let someone else deal with it. Tell me though, what about people who have evil thoughts but never act on them? Or their forbidden urges? How do we help them, prevent these thoughts from escalating into acts? Can we?  What a slippery slope!

This book will challenge your notions of bad and good, much in the same way age blurs that line. As children, we are reared on stories teaching us morality, many meant to keep us in line or safe, to make sure we become upstanding citizens. As we age, life kicks us, we struggle, we make mistakes because we are human and flawed. We all want to be understood, forgiven our mistakes, and yet if someone’s darkest deed is out in the open, it’s less easy to move on because it’s all we can see, an ever-present stain. Not everything should be forgiven, we have laws for a reason, but we must understand or we gain nothing. In all fairness though, often some criminals do prove that they shouldn’t be trusted and commit the same crimes over and over. What about that?

Regarding our impressions based on looks (someone looks evil, weird, creepy) it is true we are biased. Surely someone who is beautiful, well-kempt, and  eloquent gains the trust of many, and often to our detriment. Our visual perception is deeply flawed, just as much as we trust beauty we are put off by those with unusual deformities, unfairly so. I agree with the idea that people often feel someone must deserve their suffering, we see it every day. This made me wonder… if someone looks ‘creepy’ to everyone they meet, they would certainly be treated suspiciously,  it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to imagine it affects their interactions and sours them socially. Why not, I would certainly be sick and tired of people myself always having an adverse reaction to me based on looks I had no choice in. On the flip side, I thought the same is true for those with stunning looks who do have depth and maybe have a hard time knowing who genuinely likes them as a person, rather than wanting them based on their beauty alone. Between the two though, people often stumble over themselves to help attrractive people. I refuse to touch on mental illness and the disgusting lack of understanding the whole world over, it’s such a mess even in our ‘modern age’. People are downright terrified of mental illness, it’s no wonder with popular culture and films, the mentally ill, if you believe Hollywood, are all serial killers. People are downright uncomfortable the moment they hear whisper of ‘mental illness’, much of that is due to ignorance, poor education as a whole on the subject. See, this book leads to stray thoughts. Back to evil…

Mob mentality is a beast, it certainly seems that cruelty (evil)  is easier for human beings if others are chanting alongside you. We also can be downright disgusting if there is anonymity to hide behind. Is that not evil? I have a hard time reading about the differences in cultures. My beloved uncle was an anthropologist and there were many conversations about the places he traveled, the shocking (to my American sensibilities) social norms he witnessed, many I would and do consider evil and I am adamant in my refusal to change my mind even at the risk of hypocrisy. That’s okay, I am human but I will listen at least, to your side.

Back to looks again, I agree we are biased in our judgements based on looks but I also believe in gut instincts. Personally, when I’ve ignored mine, it was a mistake. I think we have these gut reactions for a reason more often than not. Then again, I have met just as many ‘beautiful people’ that gave me a bad feeling. So there. The fact is, I would be the first to define someone as evil if they victimized my loved ones. It’s a different conversation when you experience it firsthand, I know this book isn’t about the victims, but it’s my personal feeling. I understand what Shaw is saying, and why it’s important but I don’t have to like it.

This is a provocative book. I will say, much as Shaw does, thoughts are one thing acting on them another. I hope we do someday have a way to intervene and help those with ‘unnatural urges’ (please, don’t bombard me with messages about what defines unnatural, we will be here for eternity and I mean murdering people, abuse, molestation, anything that victimizes another). I realize we victimize each other in small ways, but somehow taking someone’s life isn’t as bad as say, snapping at your child. Let’s face it, call it evil or not there are extremes that have to be measured or else society falls apart. We do need to continue studying the nature of evil, because that nature is in us all. Thank God there are others invested in this science, because for me, it would be too hard. I leave it to the experts.

An uneasy read, but I think it will give you a lot to talk about. It was hard for me to review!

Publication Date: February 27, 2019

Abrams Press

 

Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia by Foxfire Fund Inc Phil Hudgins and Foxfire Student Jessica Phillips

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They thrived by making do, and when change came, they drew on their basic wit and common sense to adapt rather than simply surrender to it.

I’ve never had the pleasure of reading Foxifire books, but when I saw this for grabs on Netgalley, I had to read it. I am fascinated by all things Appalachia, it’s such a shame that their culture is changing so much, as all things must. What better way to preserve the history and stories than in a collection of interviews? Several of the people have since passed away but not without leaving an indelible impression. Stories of bootlegging, hunting, water dowsing, and ‘where the music dwells.’ I have a particular fondness for the section on arts and herbs in the story of Eve Miranda, Medicine Woman. It’s an art form understating herbs, plants, root knowledge and all its healing properties. What a wonderful inheritance to pass down the family line, and there is something endearing about a woman who shares the knowledge she has gathered. I would read a book just about her. Following her tale is the Hayes Boys story, the gatherers of wild ginseng. Maybe not everyone finds plants to be adventurous but they can be!

There is humor in the interview with “Privologist” Mary Frazier Long. Having grown up in Southern Appalachia  she lived in a time where she had to use the outhouses. The funniest tidbit to me is, ‘You knew not to go see certain people at certain times, ” Long recalled “because that’s when they were in the outhouse. You could look out and see when they were going.”  I think the majority of us have grown up with indoor plumbing, so it is a curious thing to imagine.

Music too is deeply rooted in the heart of Appalachia. I admittedly never knew so many songs were taken from classic ballads and folk songs from the Appalachian Mountains and made popular by artists like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. I did, however, love to sing a song with my cousin by The Kingston Trio titled “Tom Dooley” and knew it was a ballad based on the murder of Laura Foster. Why were we singing it in the 90’s? Likely found the record in my grandmother’s stash. Gospel, Bluegrass, there is a heavy influence coming from the Appalachian Mountains most people don’t realize.

Yes, many of the folks in the interviews are now elders, the remaining witnesses of a time that is slipping from our fingers. A rich source of history, folklore, and knowledge that isn’t easily obtained. They are the sort of folks you’d love to spend an evening with as they regale you with tales from their lives. Some of that living has been hard scrabble or dangerous. If you’re curious about mountain living, this is for you.

It’s an enjoyable collection, which has made me curious about the Foxfire books as it became a way of sharing food recipes, traditions, and life on the mountains. It’s a wonderful way to preserve history and reminisce, with the start of the collection aptly titled “The Way It Was.”

Publication Date: August 18, 2018

Knopf Doubleday Publishing

Anchor

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

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Of course, Sandra’s skill at making others feel secure also eliminates a whole host of threats to herself and optimizes her ability to move forward with her work and with her life, because Sandra is a virtuoso at survival.

This is the sort of true life story that makes me ashamed of all the things I get depressed thinking of or complain about in my life, that seem so much bigger than me at the moment. Sandra is a virtuoso at survival, without a doubt. Reading about her early years as a little boy was one of the most disturbing cruelties I have ever read, and it doesn’t really get easier as she navigates the rest of her life. This book gave me pause, I chewed over so many misconceptions so many of us have about the transgender community. Imagine the struggle in someone Sandra’s age, when it was far more brutal to be anything that deviated from the ‘norm’, when it was criminal. Sure, we’ve come further… sort of.

How does the human spirit survive so many cruelties? Is it any wonder she put up a protective shield? Yet, Sandra in her career is the most compassionate person in dealing with the hoarding, the filth so many of us would be shocked by. She has a delicacy few can master, and while this book certainly touches on trauma cleaning, death and decay the true trauma is what Sandra has endured and continues to endure. None of the mountains of trash or excrement nor human blood disturbed me half as much as the inhumanity Sandra has been victim to or witnessed.

She has been many people, lived many lives and maybe her memories are distorted because she’s had to abandon her old selves to stay afloat. A son first, starved for food and affection, a loyal brother despite any reason he should be, a hopeful father just trying to be ‘normal’, trying to escape the true self dying to be freed, a drag queen, a prostitute, a victim, a trophy wife and a businesswoman! Yes, Sandra Pankhurst brings order to chaos, but it’s her humanity that makes her so highly regarded in her field. How is it she isn’t poisoned by all the rot she’s been exposed to, that’s been forced on and in her? Or maybe she is, maybe her inability to get deeply close to any one person is the poison’s lasting effect. Still, she is an amazing woman who rather than turning her horrifying experiences into hatred for others, found a way to lift those so many others turn their backs on, and rises to the challenge that defeats so many of us.

I thought about her children and first wife, as we readers have the leisure to do when it’s a stranger’s life we can pass judgement on, and I wondered what the options were. What if Sandra stayed and pretended her entire life? What if times were different and she could have remained a presence? How can we know what is the right choice? Certainly she had her wild times, many can see it as escaping the responsibility her ex was left to shoulder alone, but then… but then… the horrors of trying to embrace the female inside of her, who would call any of what she endured easy? Escape? She was a caged thing for such a long time, blame the times if you will, or the brutal abuses by her parents (and can you really call them parents), call her selfish or an abomination(because some will) but never imagine being Sandra was ‘easy’.  What does it say about us as human beings when we force those who are different to crawl for a living, that when they need help, they are viewed as less than human?

My heart was bleeding for Sandra, but also for those who tried to love her. She tried to be normal, create a family and hurt others in the process, but she is a wound herself. It’s a strange thing, to be so strong for others, for strangers and so distant to those who you’ve brought into this world, distant from a husband you love, if not desire… This is the only way she can live in her skin, this is how Sandra found her true self and it cost her far more than a pound of flesh.

I felt compassion for her clients, seen through Sandra’s eyes how can the reader not see that really, take away the garbage and it’s all about fears, which we all have. Take into account mental health, who of us can truly say our minds are without their own pitfalls? It’s easy to look at people who are all alone, look down on the “crazy person” living with rats, sleeping on garbage, and dehumanize them, not imagine there has been some trauma that altered the trajectory of their life. To have compassion means you aren’t as removed from the state they are in as you tell yourself and that’s a scary thought. The same could be said for the horror of living inside a body that is a prison, I cannot even fathom the pain of it, reading this book is just a taste. I can step away and move along with my life, so I’ll never fully comprehend what such a life encompasses. We think we’re so far from tragedy, ruin, but life is nothing if not a lottery. It could always be you.

Publication Date: April 10, 2018

St. Martin’s Press

 

The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens

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These dead refused to stay in their tombs and insisted on climbing out and stalking back to their towns and villages, night after night, to attack the living. But what was the background to these stories?

Death comes to us all, and it would seem ghostly beings do as well, regardless of what country you live in or what time period. Ghosts certainly seem to be a tie that binds, be it harbingers of pending doom, terrorizing haunts, revenants bent on revenge- why is it that there are so many encounters and stories about something that ‘doesn’t exist’ and that science denies. This book is a fascinating look at the history of ghosts. Was it true that the English Reformation and religious reform did away with all our ‘haints’? Spirits kept appearing, they continued to walk the nights despite the cleanliness of religion. Maybe ghosts were simply optical illusions? How did witchcraft and ingrained habits and beliefs come into sightings and stories of ghosts? Maybe it’s madness of one’s mind? What does purgatory have to do with any of this?

Are ghosts simply ‘refugees from the after-life’? I like that, refugees from the afterlife! It wasn’t just uneducated peasants that told tales, were visited by apparitions and passed around ghostly tales. The middle class and upper crust were just as enthralled by the subject. If literature is any proof, certainly much was written and in fact, still lines our shelves today. How many ghostly themed reality shows can you count? Let’s not forget our fascination with shows about mediums talking to ‘ghosts’ that aren’t supposed to exist. Remember all that table tapping, the seances fine ladies took part in during the Victorian age?

Ghosts, it seems, even entered the political arena, art, church… is there anywhere they don’t ‘haunt’ us? Susan Owens has written a well researched work, be you a believer or skeptic, there is meat for anyone to chew on. Ghosts have evolved with our changing world, look at us now using meters and special instruments to capture that other realm. Are they real, simply a product of our own minds (some guilty)? Will we ever truly know? The walk through our cultural history of ghosts is fascinating and strange. Just in time for Halloween.

Publication Date: October 3, 2017

Abrams

Tate Publishing

 

 

 

 

Killing Rasputin The Murder That Ended The Russian Empire by Margarita Nelipa

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“Aristocrats viewed Rasputin as engaging and modest, traits that allowed him to mix amongst them. Despite his clothing and unusual appearance, it was his sincerity that appealed to them. His pragmatic thoughts became wisdom, which contrasted with the esoteric mysticism that pervaded high society. The problems stemmed from rumors that spoke of Rasputin’s divine gift of healing and prophesizing.   Those supposed qualities made him immensely popular.”

Those very qualities later became questionable and it wasn’t long before he was seen as vulgar, beneath the very people who first were enthralled by Rasputin. That he was a character is partially due to myths, rumors and the mysteries surrounding his life, as well as his death. I’ve always had an interest in the doomed Romanov family and the man that they welcomed into their bosom. A wandering msytic, self-proclaimed holy man, healer, or was he a dirty, ignorant peasant not fit to lick the boots of high society? It depends on which books you read, whose stories you believe. Here, Margarita Nelipa skips speculation and studies sold evidence. From his humble beginnings to befriending  Emperor Nicholas II and his family, the murder of Rasputin and the ever changing tumult history and revolution that followed, this book explores it all. Who wanted Rasputin dead? Who didn’t?

How fast his fall, media campaigns against him, exposing him as a charlatan, questioning his belief in natural remedies. Of course Rasputin was a part of a political storm, simply being a part of high society during a hot time in Russia’s history. With lies circling about Rasputin’s sexual ‘exploits’ as noted in this book, the Empress too was smeared. Gossip, however whispered, can be the downfall of many. The truth was that the young Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich was better when Rasputin was near, and what mother, desperate to keep her child healthy and of this earth wouldn’t have faith in his presence?

Taking fabrications and using common sense and logic to find truth, much of what was said to damage Rasputin were impossibilities, simply for his station in life. Unfortunately Rasputin wasn’t one to challenge the falsities written about him, being a holy man. Maybe he wasn’t all the amazing, colorful, wild things he has been accused or praised (depending who you ask) of being, but he has held our fascination for over a century.

Which version is to be believed of his murder? Who masterminded the crime? What brought these conspirators together? Was Rasputin lured to his death, believing he was meeting with Nikolai II’s niece? With accounts, eye witnesses, Nelipa finds the holes and shares them with the reader. What did the British have to do with anything? Did they really believe Rasputin was an ‘evil influence’ on Russia and it’s people? As stated in the book, “Once the Russians eliminated Rasputin, they allegedly steered back onto the correct (British) course and continued fighting the war.” Who murdered him is known, but what were the triggers?

The people were turning on the emperor, as were the aristocrats, feeling the rupture between the dynasty and the Russian people could be laid at Rasputin’s peasant feet. They believed it was Rasputin that was guiding them, and he had to go. All of this is well known, but not everyone is aware of why Alexandra Fyodorovna was vastly different from other aristocrats. Already there were criticisms aimed at her, for enjoying her motherly duties, more consumed by love for her children than the social scene, surely her bond with Rasputin fed the fire. The sad diary entries shared throughout this book are nothing short of heartbreaking.

Rasputin was an outsider, many felt he weaseled his way in, bending the ear of the family in ways others of higher station never could. That in itself is enough to feed hate. It’s a fantastic gathering of material that sheds light on the life and death of Rasputin, and the influence he had on history. Sorting through the murky depths of lies and truth, it is an eye opening read. Certainly the fiction of Rasputin was far more interesting than the reality, but you cannot dispute facts. I always believed him to be a monk, a mystic, a psychic- I have heard everything, but this book lays much of it to rest. He wasn’t the depraved sex craved monster some have painted him, he was despised by the wealthy, the prominent and who can fight the powers that be when they so chose to turn on you? No one then and likely no one now. Time is a funny thing, truth has a way of crawling out of the dark tunnels of the past but not without the attention, blood, sweat and tears of writers like Margarita Nelipa. I am not an expert on Russian history but this book has changed the things I thought I knew about Rasputin.

Available Now

WildBlue Press

 

 

 

 

The Secret Life of the Mind How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides by Mariano Sigman

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“So different social experiences result in completely distinct brains. A caress, a word, an image- every life experience leaves a trace in the brain. “

Interesting to think that our social lives do leave traces on our brains, changing how we react, think, feel. It all matters, even the things our brains leave out, discard. This book is full of fascinating information about our minds, that glorious brain. From earlier studies about babies and the changing science behind new studies that greatly change what we thought was true, to the beauty of bilingual upbringings and how it alters the brain, everything within this book is of importance to every human being. The studies into what is good, bad, fair and unfair really express that some things could be innate. How do newborns recognize intentions so soon? How is morality formed?

Bias is a funny beast, and none of us are without it. As we are told in this book, just look at history. What about love? How much is scientific, it is pheromones alone? Not so fast. What about our decisions? How often are our choices based on instinct, and what exactly is instinct? Is it supernatural, is it our brain working faster, always a step ahead of our body? What about our beliefs in opposition with the reality we exist in? Why do we remain steadfast in our beliefs, be they positive or negative, regardless of evidence contrary to said belief? Is it our brain?

Why do we forgot horrible pain, ‘selective forgetting’, as mothers do after childbirth? Was Freud really Working in the Dark, just what is consciousness? And while I can tickle you, why can’t I tickle myself? How does our brain take in visual stimulus? I find this sentence very loaded. “In some sense, then, dreams and schizophrenia have similarities, since they both revolve around not recognizing the authorship of our own creations.” It’s an interesting comparison. We need to understand our brain, it’s as vast and mysterious as outer space. A study on a woman after a car crash, thought to be an in vegetative state brings forth provocative questions about the bigger choices to be made. How do we know someone isn’t still ‘in there’ and just can’t communicate in the usual way? What if readings show the brain is active? What does any of it mean? How much more do we have to learn? How will this effect those thought to be in vegetative states and the future decisions to be made on their behalf?

Why is sleep necessary? Is it possible to learn while sleeping? Is sleep’s only purpose to cleanse, and repair? Interesting to think our brain is still highly active when we sleep, and that during the day, “our brain frequently unmoors from reality and creates its own thoughts. We often spend a large part of the day talking to ourselves.”  All of this much like night dreaming but we are awake! Personally, I have always wondered about lucid dreaming, often doing so myself, usually when I am about to do something wonderful and realize I am dreaming, my dream tends to fall apart from there and up, and out of sleep- I awake. Comes in handy for bad dreams though!

How do substances affect us? Are the more ‘harmless’ substances really safe for the young? Read on about the experiments into cannabis. This book is one of the most informative works I have read, and I have some questions now about this gelatinous computer I carry in my noggin. Do I have the questions? Wait, is it my BRAIN with all the questions, and can the brain respond truthfully about itself? I am talking in circles. It’s crucial to understand our bodies, and the brain appears to still be the control center so why wouldn’t you be curious?

Fascinating journey into the mind/brain… the self.

Publication Date: June 27, 2017

Little, Brown and Company