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Category Archives: Book Reviews

{Review} The Storytelling Animal, or Why Stories Get to Us.

The Storytelling Animal, earthbound oracle

I had long wanted to read The Storytelling Animal, since the idea that story is hardwired into us really spoke to me.

Why Story Matters.

I’m not new to this concept- when I was in graduate school for Expressive Arts Therapy, we talked a lot about how humans are meaning making creatures. We seek meaning like moths who want to hug lightbulbs. Sometimes it warms us up, but sometimes it kills us.

Ok, maybe it doesn’t kill us, but it can change the way we see our lives, and it can prevent us from taking risks. If we’ve got a story running in our heads that we can’t handle things, or if -for example- we’re women and have been trained to be timid then we can shut ourselves down before we even start.

I know all of this, but I wanted to read this book because I wanted to know why story impacts us so deeply in the first place. Why is it that I read a book and then when I finish it, I have to go cry in the shower because it’s over? Why am I crying over breakfast today having just finished Downton Abbey last night and hating that I’ll never see a new plot line with those characters again? What is it about story that does this to me?

Ok, granted, I might be a bit more invested than other people are in this area, and therefore more impacted, but no one seems to be entirely immune from story. Even people watching sports have a narrative of who the players are, what matters to them, how they’ve been performing over the season and what that means to them. It’s a battlefield epic.

Enter Jonathan Gottschall.

At the very least, I was consoled that I am not alone in being wooed by story the way I am:

“Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.” -Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal.

The book dives in to the topic of story and how people are impacted in it. I would say that, in the end, I could have stood for even more diving. I certainly felt well educated in the impact of story- that it serves as a cultural glue and communicates social norms more effectively than any lecturing from parents or authorities ever could.

I was also vindicated to learn that science, along with experience, shows that non-fiction does not hit us as deeply as fiction does.

“When we read nonfiction, we read it with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.” -Jonathan Gottschall

This absolutely rings true for me, although creative nonfiction may bridge that divide effectively. There are many memoirs that have felt enough like novels that I am sucked completely down into the abyss with them. But on the whole it is fiction that causes me to depart from my current surroundings and float away to somewhere else…

One thing I have read more and more frequently is how much reading fiction can impact someone’s level of empathy. And Gottschall does discuss the fact that the unconscious mind doesn’t do the best job of differentiating between what is actually happening to us, and what’s in the mind alone. This felt like the strongest argument why I feel a huge loss when I finish a book or a really good show, and the characters are suddenly gone, like friends who have moved far away and forget to write.

Our minds go through the story with the characters as if we are really with them. As if it’s just as real as our waking life.

Perhaps this is the way we are truly storytelling animals- that our animal senses as the impact of imagination haven’t been separated from what we know to be real and what is simply in a book or inside a story. I hope we never do entirely separate them. If we learn to enjoy this ability we have, rather than using it to conjure up the worst possible outcome and then live it over and over in our heads when it hasn’t even happened yet- who hasn’t done that, after all?- we can use this power to relate to people more deeply. We can read stories about people in different circumstances, even fantasy or science fiction novels in entirely different worlds, or historical novels in different times.

We are left to wonder, reading these books, “What would I do if I were in the same situation?”

And I believe asking this question, again and again, makes us better people.

Instead of settling with a stagnant sense of who we are and who we’ll always be, the Storytelling Animal can escape the current world and see who we’d be somewhere else. Perhaps we’ll even do a better job in our lives now because of it.

I like to think I have.

Have you read The Storytelling Animal? If so, please do share your thoughts below, email me, or share on the FB page. Have you read any books that make you a more empathetic person? I’d love to hear about those as well. Thanks in advance for the recommendations!

{Review} Getting Over a Book: A Little Life

getting over a book, a little life, hanya yanagihara

I finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara last week and I haven’t been ready to write about it yet. Honestly, I haven’t been able to write anything since I finished it.

Getting Over a Book.

I really wasn’t ready for it to be over. We all know when we start books that they will end eventually, but sometimes it still takes me by surprise when the last page comes and I have to say goodbye to the characters inside.

This was a whole new level. And to be fair- this is not an easy book. People who get triggered may get triggered by this. It does no shy away from the difficult parts of the character’s story. But the thing about it that kept me there was how little judgement I felt in the story that was being told. The characters were so honest and there was such a chance to feel redemption and love after living through horror.

Anyone who has come in contact with me, including the checkout guy at Vroman’s has had this book waved in their face with me yelling that they must read it right now. I’m nuts about books, but I’m not usually this nuts.

I started with an eBook copy from the library on my Kindle and about 300 pages in, the thought of having to return it horrified me, so I hit Vroman’s and bought the copy in the picture above. I ran through the store to get to the fiction section and I guess I looked fairly intense, since a man stocking books followed me and asked,

“What are you looking for with such focus?”

I held it up and told him I couldn’t bear not having a physical copy. I think he’ll read it. I’ve got two friends reading it now once I told them.

“I think this might be the best thing I’ve ever read.”

That’s a tricky position to be in. They might hate it. It is rough at parts. I don’t want to traumatize people- I know at least one person who had to put it down and couldn’t finish. Thankfully, it wasn’t read on my recommendation, but I get it.

I’m worried now. Worried that there won’t be anything to compare to this. I find a book this good every few years, but even among that select group, this one stands above. It makes me think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk when people ask her if she’s afraid her best writing is behind her. Granted, I don’t have nearly the pressure on me with reading that I would with writing, but I do wonder- will I ever read anything I love as much again?

I think this is the wrong question to be asking. I know there is no way to answer it. What I need to focus on is how reading gave me this experience.

How amazing it is that a bundle of paper with words on it can completely shake our world, isn’t it?

Of course, like a little kid I keep looking at my bookshelf and saying “Again, Again!” I want to be picked up and spun upside down again.

Getting over a book is hard, but it isn’t possible without moving on. There’s only one answer for it… read something new.

If you’ve read something wonderful recently or even not so recently, please do share about it in the comments below. Or drop me an email. caroline [at] book-dr [dot] com. Let’s keep the passion for reading going…


{Pre-Review} A Little Life. This Book Climbs Inside Your Head…

A little life Hanya Yanagihara

I keep having these plans to get up at 6am and write reviews for all of you. I hit snooze once at 6am, I won’t lie. But I get up. I even brought my laptop upstairs so I could write in our sunny sitting room with the dog.

But then I pick up A Little Life, and all that goes away.

I am learning all the rules I have inside my head lately- that I can only review a book once I have finished reading it. That I have to review the books I have read recently before I can write about the one I am reading now.

Who says? Apparently I do, but I am fighting that urge today. I haven’t written a thing all week because all I want to think about is Hanya Yanagihara’s book, A Little Life.

I wake up, and I want to read it. I sneak off to lunch with it at work. Sometimes I fantasize about bringing my Kindle to the bathroom at work for a reading tryst. What would people say? (**UPDATE: as of Thursday afternoon I have not yet taken the Kindle to the bathroom. But I have thought about it several times.)

As a reader, don’t you live for these books? The ones that take over completely. The ones that insist that you read them rather than do anything else. I am so grateful this one is long. I get some time with a book that’s over 700 pages. I’m barely a third of the way in and I just want to eat it alive. And, at the same time, I don’t want it to end.

It’s so rare to have a book of that heft just float by. Granted, having it out of the library on Kindle helps since hauling around the hardback or even the paperback edition that just came out would be a workout. I might want to have the physical book in the house anyway. But right now, I’m glad to be able to sneak it with me in my purse.

This is my pre-review. My appetizer of the book as it stands 200 pages in. The characters are so real, and the story so rich, even though it’s just about four guys and their lives as they move from their 20s into their 30s. The beauty of the writing is that in being about something that could be so trivial, it’s really about being human. I may sound like a lunatic, but it’s going in the next 52 Books eBook. I know that even at this stage.

Please tell me. Share in the comments or on FB or email me. I’m going to need a consolation book when this one ends.

{Review} Go On the Road with Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem Life on the Road

I’m going to start with the most astonishing thing I learned in this book:

Gloria Steinem doesn’t drive. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked at a New Yorker not driving, but one who’s managed to spend much of her life on the road? It’s pretty extraordinary.

Still, with that reveal out of the way, I can say it doesn’t slow down her pace or her insight one bit. In many ways, it seems to have added more. The second on what Steinem learned from taxi drivers or anyone else she got rides with is worth reading all by itself.

But the major element of this book that got me was her passion for how she spends her life. I could feel the pulsing current of feeling that takes her back out on the road over and over again. And in many ways, this was a much more relatable book than Kerouac’s On The Road for me, maybe because of the feminist element but I think also because Gloria Steinem’s travels are about connecting with people much more than running away.

Had 52 Books to Change Your Life still been in process, this book would have made the cut. The amount of dignity that Steinem brings to the topic of inequality, both in terms of race and gender- and class in many ways- is so uplifting. There is no flinching from the unfairness that she found, but she also focuses on what has happened to make things better.

If you’re feeling a little flattened by life, or like there isn’t anything you can do to make any difference, or that you just can’t take the pressure on you anymore, this book will help. For people who need support and have had to go it alone forever, this is a great book for you. The stories of women coming together and taking care of each other are priceless.

And it isn’t just serious. There are funny moments, too. And if you need a reason to take a trip, I dare you not to jump in the car after this one is over. Thankfully, I had a road trip planned already when I finished the book, but just writing about it now makes me want to pack up and go again.

I’m discussing this book in my book club next weekend, so I may have more thoughts to add then. Until then, let me know what you thought in the comments or on FB.

{Review} What happens After You

After You Jojo Moyes

Sequels are dangerous.

We all know this. Beverly Hills Cop–amazing. Beverly Hills Cop 2–still pretty great. Beverly Hills Cop 3… Let’s not go there. Don’t even get me started on the Matrix disasters. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone.

But even so, when a book really yanks my heart out and I feel like I have experienced something with those characters, I miss them when it’s over. It’s hard to give up that world. I have been known to change my style of dress erratically once I finish a book, trying to make the world of the story continue. Same with films. And audiobooks have even made me change my accent after a long drive. I really fall in.

So when I heard that Jojo Moyes was revisiting the world of Me Before You, I was optimistic. But cautiously so. I did want to know what happened to Louisa. I did want to know where everyone had ended up. Moyes is good with characters. I have wondered about most of those from her books, but Louisa from Me Before You was the one who ended her story at the beginning of a new one.

If you have not yet read Me Before You, this is where the spoilers start. (Go read it right now and come back):

I think one of the reasons this works as a sequel is that losing someone you love is as much about the time you knew them as it is about the time after they are gone.

When I was in college, one of my dearest friends drowned suddenly in an accident. He was a daredevil, much like Will’s character was before his accident. He was a mountain biker who once biked through a Baltimore blizzard to come stay at my house because he was stir crazy. The day before he was meant to graduate college, after a number of days of rain, he took his dogs to walk around a large reservoir to get some air. Partway around, the banks gave way and he fell into the water. He wasn’t a swimmer and the overflowing level pulled him under a rock. His dog tried to pull him out, but she wasn’t strong enough.

I was twenty, and this was the first time I lost someone my own age. This was a friend I had talked with deeply and freely, much like Louisa did with Will. I was lucky, and there were other people who I felt safe sharing with, but there are parts of you that are hard to keep going without the friend that brings them out.

When I opened this book, I hoped it wouldn’t be an easy story. That Lou wouldn’t be married to a French man, living the good life, thinking kindly and distantly of Will. I just wouldn’t buy it. And thankfully, this is not that book.

It’s not perfect, but I still couldn’t put it down. Moyes knows how to write characters that you care about. She doesn’t coddle them, but she doesn’t smack them so far down that they’re unwilling to try anymore either. And in this way, reading her books helps me think differently about my own life.

I won’t give any plot away from this book since there is really nothing I hate more than knowing the story of a book before reading it. But I will say that I think you’ll be glad you read it, if you did. There are elements in it that weren’t present in the first book. It isn’t a rehashing. The previous book is a jumping off point for a new story. Would this book be as big a blockbuster on its own? I doubt it. But when you love characters so much, why wouldn’t you want to visit with them again.

This was the perfect cozy winter read. I got up an hour early and read in bed in the morning to find out what happened next. It made me laugh and it did make me tear up. What more could I ask? Maybe that Jojo Moyes considers a sequel to this sequel? I’m willing to risk it. I think she can be trusted to keep the story on track.

And my friend? I still think about him all the time. When someone says a word he loved to use in a way that annoyed me, when I see something he would have loved. But still, like Lou, I’m grateful for the impact he had. And I can still imagine what he would have thought or done and it helps. Books like this are wonderful because they help, too.


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