Friday, September 30, 2016

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

Have you ever looked at a painting and had your imagination so captured by its beauty and depth that the brushstrokes disappeared and you felt a part of something real? Like a true artist, Scott Stambach pulls off a similar feat in his stellar debut, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, making you feel as if a voyeur, a silent fellow inmate (for it seems more prison than hospital) or comrade to our eponymous hero, equally trapped within the cold white walls of the only home he's ever known.

From the publisher: “Seventeen-year-old Ivan Isaenko is a life-long resident of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. For the most part, every day is exactly the same for Ivan, which is why he turns everything into a game, manipulating people and events around him for his own amusement. Until Polina arrives. She steals his books. She challenges his routine. The nurses like her. She is exquisite. Soon, he cannot help being drawn to her and the two forge a romance that is tenuous and beautiful and everything they never dared dream of. Before, he survived by being utterly detached from things and people. Now, Ivan wants something more: Ivan wants Polina to live.”

I loved this book. Touted as The Fault in Our Stars meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ivan’s tale of woe, love and hope is imbued with his irrepressible wit, wisdom and cynicism. Written as if a found memoir or journal, Ivan’s early humble confession quickly ensnares our heart and imagination; “I need to share this place with you, Reader. I need to share my friends who I would never admit were friends. I need to share with you my beloved, whom I would never admit I loved. For if I don’t document our world right now…we will risk fading into the foam of history without mention.” With a host of wonderfully three-dimensional, nuanced and complex characters, the author effortlessly it seems gives the tale the gravitas and believability, as well as palpable emotion, you’d expect from a real memoir instead of a work of fiction.

“I’m seventeen years old, approximately male, and I live in an asylum for mutant children.” Ivan and his ‘friends’ are products of the Chernobyl disaster (though never directly named), bearing the physical burdens caused by the carelessness of men. Ivan describes himself as hideous with a crippling phobia of reflective surfaces; he only has one arm and the hand attached to it 2 fingers and a thumb, and the ‘rest of his appendages are short, asymmetrical nubs that wiggle with fantastic effort.’ Yet his mind and wit are all there and then some, both a blessing and a curse, for he’s fully-cognizant of his limitations and deprivations unlike his fellow residents. Ivan's intellect is fully developed thanks to reading all the Russian literary greats. The books, kindness, and in-depth conversations on a multitude of subjects are thanks to his nurse and pseudo-mother, Nurse Natalya. By contrast, Polina (Juliet to his Romeo) doesn’t belong; beautiful, able-bodied, and cheeky. Polina wasn’t just his equal, she was his greater. Newly arrived at the hospital, Ivan sees her as an interloper, an enigma, even a nemesis, but slowly friendship and camaraderie become love, and start us on our sad tale for Polina is dying.

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is a memorable love story where the heartache is a known fact from the tale’s onset; a constant blip in the not-too-distant horizon to which we draw ever closer with every page. Nonetheless, readers quickly find that death and sorrow are but an infinitesimal part of this heartwarming, heart-wrenching and poignant tale. Intelligent, funny, and uncompromisingly honest, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is a must-read novel that ensures our narrator and hero that not through statues or great deeds, but through simple words on a page, he and his beloved will live forever.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Sound of Silence

Prepare to have your world rocked. I heard this version of The Sound of Silence by heavy metal band Disturbed this weekend, and what can I say? Goosebumps. I love Simon and Garfunkel, but this will forever be my favorite version of this song.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

With Malice

In today’s social media crazed world where gossip is news, drama sells, and every Tom, Dick and Harry posts or tweets their views as if experts, the court of public opinion rules and the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty seems to have become a thing of the past. Eileen Cook’s YA thriller, With Malice, highlights the truth that in part nowadays “it doesn’t matter what’s true – what matters is what people believe.” Inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox trial, this engaging thriller keeps you guessing until the very end.

From the publisher: “Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron's senior trip to Italy was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. And then the accident happened. Waking up in a hospital room, her leg in a cast, stitches in her face, and a big blank canvas where the last 6 weeks should be, Jill comes to discover she was involved in a fatal accident in her travels abroad. She was jetted home by her affluent father in order to receive quality care. Care that includes a lawyer. And a press team. Because maybe the accident...wasn't an accident. Wondering not just what happened but what she did, Jill tries to piece together the events of the past six weeks before she loses her thin hold on her once-perfect life.”

With Malice was a relatively tame thriller insofar as action and adrenaline, but a no less enjoyable read for its more character-driven focus. Jill is a less than reliable narrator due to her traumatic brain injury and amnesia, a key factor that makes for some captivating reading, as you question her every thought and sense of self. Interspersed between chapters of Jill’s narrative, the author has shrewdly added police transcripts, Facebook comments, text messages and blog posts that offer numerous points of view and give the reader an array of perceived truths to parse through, making an already nebulous situation all the more murky and adding to the tale’s suspense.

While some may take issue with the use of amnesia as a plot device I found it to be pure genius on the author’s part, as it added such a suspenseful dynamic to the mystery. Angel or vixen, victim or villain, the truth of Jill depends on each person’s perception and adds another facet to the mystery given her own self-doubts. As Jill struggles through her recovery, both she and the reader labor with the question of how you grasp the truth when even your memories can’t be trusted? Are we editors of our own memories and truths, unable or unwilling to believe that we are the kind of person capable of unspeakable evil?

With Malice was a twisty and satisfying read with a compelling mystery, which on a more thought-provoking note raises the question of the link between truth and memory and our sense of self, and what remains of both when memory is lost.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Better Late Than Never

This post title could not be more apropos, as it pertains to both the title of the show about which I want to rave, ooh and aah, and heap well-deserved praise on and also the very poor timing of my share, since next Tuesday is its season finale (boo!).

Better Late Than Never on NBC is a reality-travel show featuring the epic adventure of a lifetime undertaken by four American icons: Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz from Happy Days), George Foreman (Olympic gold medalist and world champion boxer), Terry Bradshaw (Hall of Fame NFL quarterback) and William Shatner (aka Captain Kirk from Star Trek), and last but not least, comedian Jeff Dye, their gopher, tour guide and all-around comportment sensei as they travel the exotic sights of Asia. Let me tell you that while enjoying the beauty of Asia is cool, it is the incredible camaraderie, friendship and fish out of water hilarity captured on screen between these crotchety, yet lovable old farts that makes it worth its weight in gold. From eating some unexpected (to say the least) delicacies at a hole in the wall joint in Tokyo, to visiting a geisha house and samurai school in Kyoto, to nearly causing an international incident in Korea, you will be utterly charmed and enchanted by this unlikely bunch of travel buddies.

I love this show and I just know you will too. Honestly, this is easily the best show on TV right now and if you don’t agree, well, you’re just nuts. No really, it’s OK if you disagree with me; I can’t force you to be right, but do yourself a favor and hit up OnDemand, Hulu, NBC or wherever else you can find it. You will laugh like there’s no tomorrow, you’ll laugh like nobody’s watching; heck, you’ll laugh so hard, tears will run down your leg. (A little too much? Well, you get the idea. It's HILARIOUS!)

PS. On the off chance (like one in a million, Lotto winning odds chance) that NBC reads this post, please, please, please let there be a Season 2! I'm not ready to kiss my five new favorite men goodbye just yet; not with so much more of the world left which they can conquer.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

Humor is subjective; an art, not a science and one in which a joke that has me ROFL, makes you frown instead. It's a "you like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto"-type a thing, much like what I think will be reader's reception to The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer. Schumer's brand of humor, bold and more than a little naughty, undoubtedly inspires a wide-ranging spectrum of sentiment from fans and non-fans alike, from hate to love to somewhere in between, so her collection of essays (not a memoir) on subjects as varied as her dad, being a stand-up comic, new money, and being an introvert, to name a few, will do the same.

As I said, the book isn't a memoir, as Schumer is quick to point out from the get-go, “I’ll write one of those when I’m ninety” she says, adding that at 35 she’s not memoir-worthy. I'll confess that other than a hilarious YouTube clip of her on Ellen where she mocked the size of her arms ("Like in LA, my arms register as legs.") and an equally funny appearance on the Golden Globes, I didn't know much about Amy Schumer before reading this book. I've never seen her stand-up or her movie Trainwreck, and since I don't have cable (I can hear your gasp from here), I've never seen her comedy show. So, with that said, what did The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo teach me? Well, Schumer adores her siblings, loves her dad who is battling MS, has a complicated yet loving relationship with her mom, loves her success and everything it entails including celebrity, fame, and money, is in an ever-evolving relationship with wine (or booze in general), and most importantly, for Amy no topic or four-letter word is taboo.

While personally I'm not much of a cusser, I'm not offended by it in comedy and I must admit my funny-bone can be easily tickled (and was in this book) by a well-placed four letter word or other form of potty or juvenile humor, but others might feel otherwise. My issue with the book wasn't the NSFW topics or language, it was that many of the essays or chapters just weren't THAT funny. The only chapter in which she made me literally laugh out loud was the one titled "dad." Poopy pants does it for me I guess. A smaller gripe with the book is that Schumer gets a little preachy on serious subjects such as gun control and body-shaming of women, and though I get they're important to her, given the construct of the book and the topics for the other essays (such as "An Open Letter to My Vagina" and "Times It's Okay for a Man to Not Make a Woman Come During Sex") these conversations seemed a little out of place in this book.

Long story short, if you're looking for a laugh out loud read this isn’t quite it. Books have a way of revealing hidden truths about authors though, hidden nuggets of insight they might not have even wanted to share and The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo does just that. Despite her plans to the contrary, Schumer’s debut is really more memoir than comedy book and more than chuckles it offers real insight into the person behind the public persona, like her or not.