Category Archives: Student Contribution

Thomas Rosiello’s Book Review

american nations

The United States of Afghanistan?

By Thomas Rosiello

The recent War in Afghanistan was the longest war in U.S. history when it ended in December 2014. The treacherous and deadly conflict showed that what the world calls “Afghanistan” is not a nation with a shared culture and language, but is in fact a large and varied geographic area in which many different groups of people live, each group with its own culture and language. Many who had never heard the words before learned about the Pashtun, Uzbek, Turkmen, and other groups. Colin Woodward believes that the U.S. is similar to Afghanistan.  In his new book, American Nations, Woodward argues that there are 11 cultural regions that made and make up the United States, including Yankeedom, the Midlands, and the Far West.  Each is a distinct region with distinct ideas about religion, economics, and government. Historically, each of these regions lived peacefully and independently until governments looked to bring them together, and forced them to live with one another in a united government. Woodward explores how the conflicts between these regions shaped the United States and continue to do so today. He writes in his introduction, “our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation composed of the whole or part of 11 regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another.”

Woodward traces threads in the history around the American Revolution, the Civil War, and other geographical divides and explains that these political conflicts all stem from the rivalry created between different cultures. He goes on to argue that without these wars, the different cultures would not have worked together and become the country that is the U.S., and that these cultures explain and shape the political landscape of the United States today.

Woodward has an intriguing point, and proves his point well with facts and logical explanations. By the end of the book you are convinced he is right, and that his hypothesis is also right that the current Mexico-United States border will change significantly by the year 2100. The book is consistently interesting but not as consistently engaging for the reader. What is an excellent historical argument lacks the writing style or other approach to make the book fun to read. This is a good book about political science, the formation of the United States, and generally about how cultures live together. For fellow Hopkins students who have taken Atlantic Communities 1 & 2, you find a very interesting perspective on the information we learned during those classes. But do not expect a page-turner; it is an interesting read, but not a gripping one.

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Charlie Blair’s Book Review

sharp

Keep Your Demons on a Leash

By Charlie Blair

It’s common in today’s thrillers and mysteries that protagonists must “confront their demons” to reach their goals, but in Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects, her character is forced to utilize them. In Sharp Objects, a journalist tries to uncover the truth of two serial murders, but in order to do so she must fully face her own past for the first time. This produces a gripping page-turner of a novel that offers two points of suspense: piecing together the truth in the present, and discovering the unknown that took place decades before.

Camille Preaker has her demons, and she knows it. On her return from a stay at a psychiatric hospital, she resumes her job as a struggling journalist for the Chicago Daily Post. Her boss assigns her to cover what he believes could be a big break for the second-rate paper: a case down south concerning the murders of two preteen girls. However, this mourning town is Wind Gap, Missouri, which so happens to be Camille’s hometown; and, to be frank, she is not excited for the visit home.

Her arrival in Wind Gap gives Camille more than she signed up for, and she’s thrust into the stress of revisiting her strained family relationships, tensions with the detectives on the case, and the emotional burden that the case itself presents. As the case goes on and her time in Wind Gap lengthens, Camille finds herself torn between inhibitions and instincts. She knows about her issues that put her in the hospital, but she begins to feel that there’s more that she has repressed  seemingly beyond the point of retrieval. In order to uncover the truth about the two girls, she must recognize what she has so deeply buried in her own past.

In Sharp Objects, Flynn displays an incredible sense of control over a plotline. She knows what she wants to say – and she knows how she wants to say it. This book was increasingly difficult to put down as I went along. Flynn had moments of beautiful language, such as when she chose to describe Camille’s character while still retaining a weighty relevance to the story: “I could feel my thoughts blowing back on themselves, dirtied with old prejudices and too much insider knowledge.” Camille struggles with herself just as much as she does with the case at hand, playing a mental match of tug-of-war throughout the story between following her instincts and the limitations of her own inhibitions. This book is full of suspense as you try to solve, not one, but two mysteries, and it demands attention; for a debut novel, Flynn deserves it. She performs not only as an author but also as a master manipulator as she takes the reader for the ride of her design.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves a good psychological thriller or a slightly twisted protagonist, or who enjoyed Gone Girl. This probably isn’t suited for a squeamish audience, as it can be graphic or just plain uncomfortable at times… but then you’re probably not a psychological thriller fan, so take your pick: to read, or not to read Sharp Objects.

Katie Sargent’s Book Review

suspended

Clouded Judgment

By Katie Sargent

A suspended sentence is defined as a judge’s delaying the sentence of a person found guilty in order to allow said defendant to spend a period of time on probation. In this situation, the evidence has been gathered, the verdict decreed, and yet something holds the judge back from definitely convicting the guilty man. Something restrains him from that final measure: perhaps the lack of a clear image within his own mind – as if the case is an unfocused photograph. In his writing in Suspended Sentences, originally published in French, Patrick Modiano exudes the feeling of a judge not entirely convinced on his own judging. An autobiographical-esque collection of hazy memories and fragmented ideas, Suspended Sentences is like a dream.

It is a novel with moments of sparkling clarity; moments when the sun seems to pierce through Modiano’s foggy subconscious and render his mind open to his readers. Yet the majority of the piece, a series of three short stories, gives the reader the idea that although Modiano recalls his young life in Paris, he has not yet decided how he feels about it. In the first of the short stories, Afterimage, Modiano spends several months cataloging the entire inventory of an ornery aging photographer, simply because the man once took a picture of him and his girlfriend in a café. In the second story, Suspended Sentences, he tells the story of his unusual childhood raised by four women. The third features a disconcerting stranger Modiano meets on the street.

It is perhaps the sense of mystery in Modiano’s work that most intrigued me. I never seemed to learn quite enough about him or the people in his life from the memories he provided in his stories. Ideas were half-formed, convictions seldom made, and the narrator barely included dialogue in which he shared his thoughts. At one point, as he describes a television show in which an old friend appears, he states, “nothing remained except the fading echoes in my memory”: no inner reflection, no outward response. At times it was frustrating, but ‘suspended sentences’ was certainly an apt title for this book. Because while I am certain Modiano identifies with his memories (to include them in a memoir, how could he not?), I commend him on his ability to remove all emotion from the telling of them. He does not condemn those that were cruel to him in his young life, or portray them as villains to be dragged in the dirt for tainting his childhood memories.

No, with Suspended Sentences, Modiano provides the characters of his young life with a probation period. Likely he has passed judgment, but he does not force the judgment on his readers, readers who have no doubt come across similar experiences. This was a cleansing read: it reminded me of the ability of every human not to reserve initial judgment – being only human, after all – but to reserve oneself: to retain emotions until ideas are fully formed, and not as the fog in Modiano’s Paris.

Read if you like: descriptions of rainy French cities, photography, a breather

Don’t read if you don’t like: sad smiles, (initially) unfulfilling endings

Stephanie Gidicsin’s Book Review

hell's corner

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Abominable Book about a Bomb

By Stephanie G.

In post-9/11 America the threat of terrorism is omnipresent, a storm cloud thrusting a shadow on even the brightest days. Security is tighter than ever before in airports, public events, and wherever a significant public figure is concerned. Undoubtedly, the most protected individual in the country is the President. His security detail is, in fact, one of the best in the world. With a theoretically gripping scenario in which a bomb blows up across the street from the White House, David Baldacci examines the potential repercussions of such a serious breach of that world-renowned security. As Oliver Stone, a former secret agent/sniper who once went by the name John Carr, seeks answers to the many mysteries behind this incident and the many cover-up assassinations that follow, Baldacci scrutinizes the bureaucracy and factionalism within the U.S. government. Time and time again, Stone is rendered unable to prevent more deaths simply because certain leaders are unwilling to risk their political standings by sharing information with a washed-up assassin who has a somewhat disreputable history. Along the way, alliances with foreign nations – Great Britain especially – are called into question as well, since the attack is originally believed to target the Prime Minister, who is on a visit from the U.K.

As Stone and his partner from Britain’s MI-6, Mary Chapman, inch towards discovering the perpetrators, the danger increases. More and more people fall victim to the stealthy force working against the government. However, we are not left in much suspense. After a short time we realize a pattern wherein every time Chapman and Stone appear to discover an answer, they are soon proved wrong and someone else dies. For a mystery novel, the suspense factor is most definitely lacking.

In addition, Baldacci tries to take on too many storylines at once in Corner. A plethora of suspects are scrutinized and a multitude of theories emerge, to the point where names and ideas blur together. Even the main characters require further description, which might be found in the previous works in this series. However, we wouldn’t know there are preceding volumes by looking at this book. Nowhere on the cover or in the description is the Camel Club series mentioned, but as it turns out Hell’s Corner is its fifth installment. Oliver Stone himself is underdeveloped; somehow he draws conclusions from thin air. When everyone else is baffled, he magically knows the answer. The only explanation we receive into the working of his mind happens when he asserts that, “I think of the highly unlikely, then push it to the practically impossible, and often find I arrive at the truth.” Thus, only a bare minimum of information is revealed. While such a premise is good in theory – who doesn’t love a hero who will always save the day? – Baldacci’s lack of investigation into the way Stone’s mind works makes the character unrealistic.

If one is hoping for a riveting tale of suspense involving espionage, top government secrets, and detective work, look elsewhere. (I would recommend Transfer of Power by Vince Flynn.) With every chapter in Hell’s Corner, I struggled to remain interested even though I cherish books involving all of those elements. Baldacci reveals very little of such intriguing topics. In the end, he only exposes the fact that his status as a serial writer is taking its toll. Handfuls of grammar mistakes point to a writer under too much pressure to produce anything, as opposed to something valuable. With over 27 novels translated into 45 languages in 80-plus countries around the world, Baldacci can’t be expected to write earth-shattering works every time. Here, he appears to write simply for the sake of adding to his impressive statistics, not to add to his rave reviews.

Spencer Sherk’s Book Review

subliminal

You Have No Control

By Spencer Sherk

You probably think that you know yourself pretty well. Sure, you may sometimes find that your close friends or family members seem to know you freakishly well, but in the end of the day, you are the expert on you. In Subliminal, Dr. Leonard Mlodinow sets out on a mission to convince you otherwise, and be warned, he is incredibly convincing. In the wake of breakthroughs made in the field of neuroscience during last two centuries, our previously accepted, and instinctually accepted perceptions of how our minds work have been completely dismissed. Recent findings using BMRI technology have revealed the enormous role that our unconscious plays in dictating our behavior, and this has lead psychologists and scientists to a pretty disconcerting conclusion: We have much less control than we think.

After reading just the first few pages of the book, any reader will immediately feel the effect that the vast knowledge, and the incredible enthusiasm of the author has on the text. Mlodinow incorporates elements from his various past works including everything from his collaboration with Stephen Hawking on The Grand Design to his work on the children’s book, The Kids of Einstein Elementary. Mlodinow’s personal life plays a surprisingly large role in the book as Mlodinow applies principles concerning how the unconscious works to his relationship with his mother. Mlodinow’s mother is a holocaust survivor, and Mlodinow makes the case that her past experiences have left huge impressions on her unconscious of which she is unaware. For example Mlodinow presents us with the true story of how his mother called his roommate and accused him of murder when she was unable to reach her then 24 year old son one day. To the casual observer, his mother was exhibiting the traits of a complete nut-job, but Mlodinow defends her actions as being perfectly normal considering the effects that her past experiences have had on her unconscious. Mlodinow’s mother had been affected in a way that most of us cannot sympathize with. As Mlodinow explains, her reality had been turned upside-down in an instant, her entire family; her mother, her father, and her sister, were all killed overnight, and thus her unconscious openly accepts the possibility of immediate tragedy as a likely reality. When Mlodinow confronts her with this however, she denies that a subliminal force has altered her unconscious, and she even asserts that the two things have anything to do with each other and she firmly believes that her actions were attributed only to mundane sources. Mlodinow includes many examples of the subliminal at work like this one, and they serve well to demonstrate otherwise abstract concepts in a scene that makes such concepts both engrossing and easy to visualize.

In short, this book is a sweeping review of key psychological research exemplified by an interesting array of supporting evidence regarding perception, decision-making, and the influence that others have on our behavior. Mlodinow reinforces the strength of his assertion that the unconscious affects everything by including both field studies, and everyday examples which vary so enormously, and at first seem so unrelated that by the time you reach the end of the book, you will feel that he has shown how the unconscious affects quite literally everything. The evidence he presents against the power that your conscious mind has in your everyday decision making will likely anger everyone from wine connoisseurs to the run of the mill walmart shopper.

Mlodinow writes a book that is of formal, yet still easy to read style. The book’s transitions are very useful and efficient in making Subliminal read smoothly and fast-paced as if it were a novel. Each section ends with both a summary of the ideas discussed, as well as an ending paragraph or two that introduce the next topic and how it relates to the grand scheme of things. While one might think this writing formula would result in basic, tasteless writing, the summary-preview-review flows naturally and never seems forced. Mlodinow’s attention to flow enhances the readability and, ultimately, the usefulness of his book.

Although the idea that you’re affected more by subliminal forces which affect your unconscious than you are by rational motives at first seems ominous, Mlodinow surprisingly ends by saying that the unconscious is not something to be feared, but rather something to be acknowledged and embraced. Mlodinow speaks to the effectiveness of the unconscious’ ability simplify life, citing thousands of years of evolution which have favored the unconscious as proof of its usefulness. He says that the unconscious has massive potential for good if it is conditioned and practiced like a muscle.“The unconscious is at its best when it helps us create a positive and fond sense of self, a feeling of power and control in a world full of powers far greater than the merely human.” Mlodinow’s final, optimistic conclusion leaves readers feeling both knowledgeable and enlightened upon finishing his book. If you are at all interested in psychology, neuroscience, or even economics, Subliminal is incredibly informative, and definitely for you. And even if you currently have no interest in the aforementioned fields, this book is such an interesting, enjoyable read that it might just inspire you to delve deeper into the world of psychology.

Andrew Barber’s Book Review

yellow birds

Far from our Shores: A Modern-Day Coming of Age Story

By Andrew Barber

The Iraqi war has been responsible for over 4000 US Military deaths since 2003, not to mention countless permanent injuries, both physical and psychological. In his first novel, The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers draws from his experiences in the U.S. Army to create a vivid and insightful story about two young American men trying their best to survive in the Iraq War.

The protagonist and narrator of the book is Private John Bartle, a 21-year old born and raised in rural Virginia. Bartle opens the story on a rooftop in Iraq, describing the environment and lifestyle challenges as an American soldier during the war; soldiers frequently find themselves under heavy fire as they fight to control the city of Al Tafar.

From chapter to chapter, the author transitions to different locations and time periods seamlessly. Early on, the reader learns that back in 2003, Bartle foolishly had made a promise to the mother of his friend, Daniel Murphy, right before he and “Murph” were deployed. He promised Daniel’s mother that he would keep Daniel safe and bring him home, even though the wartime cliché of promising to come back alive, let alone bring another man back alive—is not a truly tenable reality.

Soon after, the reader learns that Bartle is not able to live up to his promise. However, Bartle mentions Murph’s death without elaboration, and the reader is left with more questions than answers until later in the book. Bartle ultimately describes his friend’s death, the heartbreaking decision that he and his Sergeant were forced to make, and the events that followed.

Throughout the book, Powers repeats a process of describing Bartle’s life during and after the war, going into great detail of how he felt and what was going through his mind. This nonlinear narrative style is similar to the nature of war, as it is chaotic and doesn’t follow a straight path; it is an experience defined by long periods of each soldier’s reflection, punctuated by brief, intense spurts of in-the-moment violent action, and later, episodes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But Powers writes his narrator’s expression most eloquently once he is home—beyond the fog of war. An example of his vivid description is shown in the following passage, describing his life back in Richmond after the war: “I looked over the railing down onto the old stone piers of earlier iterations of the bridge where earlier iterations of aimless walkers must have seen some kind of sight like this…and maybe seeing a small wavy outline of themselves reflected down below, with all that space around, thinking there was just so much damn space to be in that it hurt.” The rhetoric of this passage is due, in part, to Bartle’s own utter “aimless[ness].” He is reaching out, symbolically, to other “wavy outline[s]” of men; he is trying to escape his hurt, his feeling of loneliness, by displacing hurt into others.

Overall, The Yellow Birds is an extremely well written and thoughtful account of the impact of war through the eyes of young men who were wholly unprepared for the work, experiences, decisions, and pain they would face. Their experiences are accessible to young people everywhere, most of whom have a wealth of other choices but who may not appreciate their good fortune. Because the Iraqi conflict may be invisible to many people in the United States, and too often it is someone else’s relative coming home in a pine box, the writer’s plain and graphic language serves to remind us of the physical and psychological devastation of war, even when that war is waged far from our shores.

Olivia Hodel’s Book Review

every day

The True Meaning of Identity

By Olivia Hodel

Have you ever wished to be someone different? Or wondered what it would be like to be another person?

David Levithan explores the reality of such a situation in his new book Every Day. The main character, a 16-year-old by the name of A, experiences each day in a different person’s body (for purposes of clarity I will refer to A in the masculine). The only thing A knows about how the “body switching” works is that he always inhabits the lives of boys and girls his age. On the opening page of his novel, Levithan describes A’s situation, noting that it is not the physical structure of the body that is hard to get used to, rather “it’s the life, the context of the body, that can be hard to grasp.”

Immediately after describing his situation, A wakes up one morning in the body of a boy named Justin. A uses what he calls “accessing” in order to find out his name, normal activities, class schedule, and route to school. All of the other emotions are left up to A to decide as he runs the body for the day. When Justin gets to school, his girlfriend begins talking to him. A knows that this girl is Justin’s girlfriend, but he can tell by her body language that Justin does not treat her well. Up until now, A has never allowed his thoughts to influence the body’s life, but the girl, Rhiannon, strikes A so vividly that he cannot help himself. He meets Rhiannon later in the day at lunchtime and they leave school to go to the beach. Both A and Rhiannon have an amazing day as they sit by the water and talk for hours. To the reader, this feels like a first date for A and Rhiannon, but A is faced with the reality that tomorrow he will be a completely different person. And A falls in love.

As the story goes on, A has to face the fact that he has no true identity in a way that he has never had to before. A begins messing up the lives of the people he inhabits as he goes back to find Rhiannon, though she has no idea that Justin was not really Justin that day on the beach. Suspicion begins to emerge when A does not get home in time for midnight one night and leaves the body he was in on the side of a road. But does love conquer all of these difficulties?

Levithan does a remarkable job at transforming such a peculiar life into one that the reader can relate to. He brilliantly captures all aspects of adolescence and growing up. While this novel is a love story, Levithan teaches adolescents very valuable lessons. One of my favorites was a brief moment when Levithan seemed to expose his own thoughts:

“I am a drifter, and as lonely as that can be, it is also remarkably freeing. I will never define myself in terms of anyone else…I can view everyone as pieces of a whole, and focus on the whole, not the pieces. I have learned to observe, far better than most people observe. I am not blinded by the past or motivated by the future. I focus on the present because that is where I am destined to live.”

Every Day is an inspiring novel in which our perception of reality, ironically, becomes clearer.