Tag Archives: Student Review

Spencer Sherk’s Book Review


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.

Margie Lewis’ Book Review

every day

It’s “Complicated”

By Margie Lewis

Can you love someone whose appearance changes everyday? A different gender, a different eye color, a different height, a different family, a different school, sometimes a different town, and different talents, everyday those descriptions change. Can you imagine someone who jumps from body to body never having long-term friends, a long-term family, or a long-term home? What if you fell in love with someone’s soul? How would you handle it? David Levithan takes the reader on a journey through the difficulty of love and the exceptional experience of being in love.

In Everyday by David Levithan the character A, who to others seems to be a soul but to me a human, jumps from body to body. For sixteen years, A’s soul enters another body for a day. He accesses his or her memories to live his or her normal routine life. Plays his or her sport for a day, goes to his or her school for a day, and loves his or her family for one day. One day, A spends 24 hours in this 16 year olds body, Jason. Jason is a typical cranky teenager. He doesn’t speak much to his parents; he does decent in school, and to A doesn’t seem to care about anything. From accessing Jason’s mind, he realizes he has a girlfriend named Rhiannon. He learns that Jason is a jerk. He rarely pays any attention to Rhiannon’s insightful thoughts and her impeccable details.  When A comes in contact with Rhiannon he realizes her perfection. He acts like a charming boyfriend rather than an emotionless one. A, also known as Justin for the day, takes Rhiannon to the beach for a romantic date. For the first time in A’s life, he feels something for Rhiannon, strong feelings like love. For the next few days, A disrupts whosever body he is in. He finds multiple excuses to spy on Rhiannon at her school. I know it sounds creepy but I think it also sounds cute. One courageous day, A, in the body of a teenage girl finds Rhiannon and tells her everything, about his condition, how he feels about her, how he wants to see where their relationship goes. Rhiannon strangely believes him and together they build a relationship. How can their relationship work when A is in a different body every single day? Nonetheless A runs in many obstacles through out the book but one in particular causes him to question his identity as a being.

David Levithan exemplifies the complications of every teenage relationship. But he specifies that this one is actually “complicated.” Brushing over the topics of the importance of appearance in relationships, understanding the significance of mutual feelings, and discussing the journey of defining who one really is. But mostly, it is about A defining who he really is. “It would be too easy to say that I feel invisible. Instead, I feel painfully visible, and entirely ignored.”

Zenon Holowaty’s Book Review

something wicked

A Book a Bit Backwards

By Zenon Holowaty

All authors strive to add a certain sense of realism to their writing that will enthrall the reader. It’s popular to write violent finales that raise the stakes because you’re never sure if the characters are going to make it to the next page. Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling have established what a good, modern fantasy has to be: a group of kids trapped in a violent world they’re merely trying to survive. Half a century ago, Ray Bradbury established his own fantasy. Bradbury merely introduced strange events into the average lives of two kids, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway.

Will and Jim live in a picturesque town based on Ray Bradbury’s hometown, Waukegan. They spend their days firmly in the joys of childhood, but time runs differently for everyone in town. Jim is described as being aware and mature in his observations to the point that he has truly lived more than people his age.  In contrast, Will is childishly self-involved. Every adult mourns a loss of youth. Suddenly though, bizarre things begin to intrude, especially with the arrival of a circus train.

Bradbury has written every aspect into the theme of a fear of aging, and this theme perfectly ties everything, fantastic and realistic, together. The character motives connect as bits of their life are shown in this context; a scene of Holloway up at three am, or other characters pondering their lives in the dark of the night. The strongest aspect is the language, though. This book reads poetically and vividly: “There was a thing in Dad’s voice, up, down, easy as a hand winging soft in the air like a white bird describing flight patterns, made the ear want to follow and the mind’s eye to see.” This book remains one of the most quotable things I’ve ever read because of how succinctly Bradbury captures everyday life as if he were writing a Rockwell painting. The conflict addresses whether a way to relive those years existed and what could happen if it got into the wrong hands.

The book flips between cynical adult life with Will’s father, Jim’s mother, even their school teacher, all haunted by very real tragedies: alienation from a child because of aging, the deaths of her children, a fear of wasted youth. Shuffled in are the starkly contrasting adventures of kids, youngsters chosen as the subject of fantasy for their youthful, anything-can-happen nature: where the discover wonders and magic all the time. This changing focus is clever, but every audience this book has at some point will get lost: children won’t be interested in depressed adults, and adults will be caught off guard by how hokey some of the plot can be, like the teacher’s panic in a mirror maze, screaming in fear at seeing her younger self upset.

The ending of this book makes it a perfect feel good story.  Everything starts out so bizarre, but after whipping into a full-fledged finale, all loose ends are tied off and the ending is wholesome in a way that completes the picture and puts a blanket of calm, self-acceptance over the characters. After such a long journey through a series of strange and disturbing events, the story ends in a way that’s so right, and so natural.

Dory Warner’s Book Review


A Series of Many, Many, Many Unfortunate Events

By Dory Warner      

I am a faithful and unashamed fan of the increasingly popular “angsty teen” genre of books that seem to be taking up more and more space in the Young Adult sections at book stores. Catalyst is Laurie Halse Anderson’s admirable attempt at embodying such popular youth adult books. The story centers around high school senior Kate, who spends her time divided between being “Good Kate” and “Bad Kate.” Akin to A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Catalyst takes the reader from one misfortune to the next. In fact, Anderson switches from rejection to death to insomnia so fast that I often felt unsure who I should be sympathizing with.

Kate is introduced as both Good Kate: “Rev. Jack Malone’s girl, isn’t she sweet, she helps so much with the house,” and Bad Kate: “daughter of no one, she’s such a bitch, thinks she’s all that, prays with her eyes open.” Anderson creates this two-sided character to represent a realistic teen. Kate is a science-obsessed overachiever, whose decision to apply solely to MIT seems to the be the overriding cause of her insomnia. About a third of the way through the book, Kate’s life becomes intertwined with Teri Litch, “the ugly girl, the one who smells funny,” when Teri is forced to move in with Kate’s family.

Although Anderson does accurately capture the constant moodiness and unpredictability that is present in all teens, she seems to have been carried away with challenging herself to see how many misfortunes she could pack into Catalyst. Anderson jumps right into the story, barely pausing to introduce the characters to the reader. The only two characters who we get to see develop are Teri and Kate herself, leaving us with about a dozen undeveloped characters.

The climax of the book, essentially the “biggest misfortune,” I would have to say is the death of Teri’s brother Mitch, when it is revealed that Mitch is in fact Teri’s son, after Teri was raped by her father. It was at this point in reading Catalyst that I began to wonder if Anderson was ever going to slow down the plot and let the catastrophe properly run its course. I must admit that Anderson did allow an adequate amount of time after Mitch’s death before tossing in the next unfortunate event, although at that point the idea that any one group of people could be so unlucky in a matter of weeks does border on ludicrous.

In Speak, Anderson’s much acclaimed book, she succeeds in introducing the reader to the world of teens who are trying to find themselves, and the problems they encounter along the way. Catalyst, however, seems to be a collection of the misfortunes perhaps Anderson thought of while writing Speak, but did not have room to include. If you are a reader looking for a happy tale of success about a teen, this would not be the book for you. That said, if you are looking for a dark and complicated book about the life of a teen, well, you might be better off picking up a copy of Speak.

Michael Leone’ Book Review

other wes

Too Good For its Own Good

Michael Leone

One transformed into a Rhodes scholar, the other, into a convicted murderer.  In his autobiographical analysis, Wes Moore attempts to answer how.  Bearing the same name as the other Wes Moore, he discovered a multitude of similarities between their lives. But, while he carefully intertwines their parallel stories to discover a universal truth about decision-making, the content of his stories are so intriguing that he often leaves his reader frustrated and wanting more.  But this criticism is not one that can be simply fixed; there is no superfluous text that should be replaced because his language is clear and concise.  He tells it as it happened without a remarkable story telling ability, but the content of the stories are beyond captivating.  How else could he make us fall in love with a drug dealing convicted murderer?

The parallel chapters in this book really help establish the similarities between their parallel lives.  Each character ran into trouble with family, drugs and police at a very young age.  Wes Moore structures his book so that each character deals with similar adverse conditions in consecutive chapters.  Their reactions to the situations must therefore distinguish their futures from the each other.  When Wes Moore spoke to our school he told us “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.  The tragedy is that my story could have been his,” it was undoubtedly deep, but it sounded too much like a slogan of movie.  However, after reading the book, I realized how profound this statement truly was.  He never directly states or proves this, but conveys it throughout the structure of the entire book.  At one point, when the other Wes Moore checked himself into rehab it seemed as if everything is going right.  For the first time in his life, a happy ending seemed possible.  He finally found a passion: a job he could actually pursue.  But, a few pages later, he disappointed the reader by reverting to baking drugs with no explication.  This could not have been more crushing, especially after considering how the author Wes Moore was able to turn his life around in the previous chapter.

Wes Moore does an excellent job telling these stories; he includes all necessary information and omits the unnecessary.  When I met him, it was clear that he knew a lot more about the subject than he included in his book and that he had many more stories.  And as a reader, I think his conscious withholding worked very nicely to his advantage.  Although I felt indignant when he would suddenly end a story because I was so eager to learn what happened, his doing this demonstrated his mastery of pathos.  Even though the outcome of the book is never kept a secret, he is still able to trigger such strong reactions through the crafting of the book.  The layering of the two stories makes the success stories seem much more improbable, and therefore sweeter, and subsequent failures even more devastating.

Evan Carlson’s Book Review

tenth of dec

Windows into the Mind

Evan Carlson

“What? Alison? Raped? Killed? Oh God. Raped and killed while I innocently made my railroad town, sitting cross-legged and unaware on the floor like a tiny little–” thinks young Kyle Boot as he witnesses the kidnapping of his neighbor Alison Pope in “Victory Lap”, the first of Saunders’ short stories. This tale, one of the most captivating in the anthology, is told from three different perspectives: that of Kyle, a heroic adolescent suffering from Tourette Syndrome, of Alison, a young playful ballet dancer, and that of her kidnapper. Narration in “Victory Lap” switches abruptly between these three perspectives, revealing each character’s thoughts during the abduction. Kyle, adored by his family and singled out as different by classmates, is faced with a decision between following the anti-interventionist advice that his parents have given him since birth and saving the life of Alison, a girl for whom he has affection. This story, a contemporary David versus Goliath, simultaneously provides insight into the minds of a kidnapper and a young boy with a neurological disorder.

In each of his tales, Saunders plunges us into the minds of his characters, revealing the story’s background and plot through their thoughts. “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, features a father’s journal recounting the story of his family, struggling to make ends meet in an affluent neighborhood of the future. It is a tale of materialism, luck and human compassion that all readers can identify with.

Saunders’ fantastic storytelling ability leads us to connect with his characters and experience what they experience as if we were present. His stories are so vivid and lifelike that we feel as if they are unfolding right before our eyes. In “Home”, a disoriented veteran in a deteriorated mental state struggles to reintegrate into society after having spent years away at war. We, the readers, are able to experience this ex-soldier’s disorientation for ourselves when he describes unrecognizable material goods from the future for sale at a gas station market.

Every story in the anthology is a fascinating study of human nature explored through the perspective of a character that thinks and functions differently. Saunders displays the inner workings of his characters’ minds, carefully enveloped in intriguing plots of kidnapping, suicide and reintegration into society. His style of placing us in the midst of his characters’ thoughts does, however, inevitably lead to some confusion, especially as he jumps unannounced from the mind of one character to another. Whether or not you enjoy character studies, you will surely find yourself lost in the excitement of Saunders’ truly remarkable Tenth of December.

Bennett Amador’s Book Review

Seeking Love in America

By Bennett Amador

Women from the early 1900s came to Buddha in the AtticJapan to live with unknown already chosen spouses. These hopeful “women” were as young as 11, and as old as 31. The author, Julie Otsuka, describes their journey with unrivaled prose, written in a poetic fashion. She is the author of When The Emperor was Divine, a book about the American-Japanese in World War II. Both books are written in similar style; Otsuka writes plainly and concisely but her words leave a strong sentiment. She does not focus on the individual but rather the collection of women. To make her point she writes in the 1st person plural. One might think the stories would become detached or lacking individuality, but she overcomes this by occasionally telling anecdotes in the 1st person singular. The minimalist tack is effective and thought provoking, particularly because so much can be inferred by her words.

Julie Otsuka’s first book The Buddha in the Attic is considered a prequel to “When the Emperor was Divine”. Otsuka’s distinct writing style is evident in both novels.  The focal point is the Japanese-Americans’ lives affected in WWII. She refers to specific characters of the book as “the boy” or “white dog.” The effect is that the reader connects to “the woman” and “the boy,” while at the same time facilitating the realization that the war affected many Japanese-Americans. She utilizes a similar strategy in The Buddha in the Attic by maintaining the focus on the group of Japanese women coming to the U.S.

The book opens on a boat that is transporting the Japanese women from their homeland to America. Otsuka is not verbose in the first chapter as shown in the first sentence “on the boat we were mostly virgins.” The Japanese women are portrayed as innocent, full of hope, nervousness, worry “would we be laughed at?” traits not omnipresent throughout the group but also not unique to a single woman. Chapter one primarily sets the scene for the book by explaining the disappointment the woman felt when reaching the shores of California: “…we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were twenty years old…. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” This quote typifies the spirit of these women throughout the book because they are constantly faced with the harsh reality that they are not equals. World War II only further exacerbates this reality when they are sent away solely on the crime of being Japanese.

“The Buddha in the Attic” highlights the somewhat lesser known, unpopular actions carried out by Americans during World War II. The second chapter “First night,” conveys more horrors: “They took us by surprise, for some of us had not been told by our mothers exactly what it was that this night would entail. “ Each chapter advances the women’s lives “Babies,” “The Children,” “The Last Day” and with each chapter the characters evolve to develop an understanding, “they did not want us as neighbors in their valleys. They did not want us as friends.” The women slowly progress and repetition in their daily activities eventually leads to normalcy. That comfort found in normalcy is only shattered come wartime.

Otsuka writes repetitively to emphasize certain points. For example, when talking about the “picture brides” opinions on American women: “We loved them. We hated them. We wanted to be them.” The language is simple and certain parallels can be drawn to Ernest Hemingway. While reading the novel the reader feels a large sense of sympathy for these women and this is perhaps Otsuka’s greatest gift.

Otsuka writes simply, so that teens can read it and understand it, Adults will appreciate the book for its poetic style and historical underpinnings. We truly feel for these women and hope their lives positively change, however, knowing in the back of our minds, they are doomed.

David Baumann’s Book Review

Alone With Your Thoughts

By David Baumann

Anyone who has spent a legitimate length of Train Dreamstime alone knows how the mind can wander. When there’s no one to talk to, the mind can begin to form an inner monologue that you never knew existed. You can find peace and clarity in times by yourself, just as you many find anxiety and strife. It’s hard to even reach a place of such isolation in today’s world. Technology keeps us always connected, often preventing us from a true feeling of being alone in the world. These moments of inner peace can help many people reach important decisions in life, but just as easy, too much thought can lead to confusion of the surrounding world.

If you have never experienced this state of mind in your everyday life, the next best thing may be reading Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. The novel follows the life of Robert Grainier, an all American woodsman, as he lives his life in the rural northwest of early 20th century America. The third person narrator often delves deeply into the inner thoughts of Grainier as he loses his family to a tragic forest fire, and proceeds to live a life of isolation in a reclusive log cabin. Grainer travels around the area for work, befriends multiple animals, and recalls his past family and life. Maintaining what little optimism he has, “he lives a long life, owns one acre of property, has one lover, one wagon, two horses, and the train tracks that surround him.”

Reading this book brings you into the rigid northwest world of a working class America. Johnson creates a vivid landscape filled with looming forests and small blue-collar towns. The landscape sounds beautiful and luscious, yet provides an unforgiving harshness to many moments in the book. Grainier inhabits and embodies this world as he undergoes many changes. With his family tragically lost, his mind contemplates the spirits of the dead and his place as a community “hermit”. He has visions of legendary folk tales about wolves, and begins to howl late at night. Spending such long periods of isolation in the woods takes its toll on his mind. His surroundings become a character in itself, sending him messages and hallucinations of perceived importance. His mind often brings him to thoughts that make you question his sanity, yet never do you question if what he thinks is real. Everything is genuine with Grainier, his love, his fears, and his life. It’s easy to comprehend everything he experiences, even if you begin to question the actual authenticity of the events. No matter how insane his actions, his thoughts and emotion remain true.

Train Dreams remains pretty straightforward (despite some interesting encounters with wolves). It’s an honest representation of a simple man who copes with losing everything. The novel stands at a short 114 pages, yet feels much longer. It manages to span an entire lifetime with timely flashbacks and looks ahead. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to experience a truthful representation of the “man in the woods”. Denis Johnson beautifully creates the life and death of a simple man in a complex state of mind. Train Dreams is a quick read, but well worthy of a long discussion.