November 2, 2007 archive

Veronika Decides To Die – Book Review

On November 11, 1997, Veronika decided that the moment to kill herself had – at last! – arrived. She carefully cleaned the room that she rented in a convent, turned off the heat, brushed her teeth, and lay down. – From Veronika Decides to Die, page 1-

Simply written with prose that is almost dreamlike in its quality, Veronika Decides to Die explores life in the face of death, the meaning of insanity, and the importance of following one’s dreams.

Veronika, a young woman, finds herself in a mental institution in Slovenia after a failed suicide attempt. Told she has only days to live because of the overdose’s damage to her heart, Veronika begins to re-evaluate her life. The characters Veronika meets provide the catalyst for her self-reflection: Zedka, the depressed housewife; Mari, the lawyer who gave up her dreams for panic attacks; and Eduard, a schizophrenic artist who has spent his life denying love. Dr. Igor, the administrator of the mental hospital plays a pivotal role in this philosophical novel and his  theories of insanity are used  to question the idea of normalcy.

“I’m trying to study so-called normal human behavior. A lot of doctors before me have done similar studies and reached the conclusion that normality is merely a matter of consensus; that is, a lot of people think something is right, and so that thing becomes right.” -From Veronika Decides to Die, page 166-

While I was reading this book, I began to think about the children and adults with Autism who I have had the privilege of working with…at a seminar several years ago a Speech Pathologist told the story of a young boy with Autism. Whenever he would flap his hands around his face,  the boy’s mother would caution him, “Stop that. Don’t you want to be normal?” And the boy would agree, yes normalcy was what he wanted. One day the Speech Pathologist asked the boy, “Do you know what normal is?” And the boy confidently replied, “Sure. It’s a setting on the dryer.”  I laughed when I heard this story because it was an example of how words like ‘normal’ only have meaning within the context of an individual’s unique experience. Paulo Coelho makes this same argument in Veronika Decides to Die. Sanity is only defined by universal experiences – those individuals who are different or unique or view the world solely from their own perspective are often labeled “not normal” or “crazy.”

Coelho’s message in this novel seems to be one of following one’s dreams, going against the norm, living life to its fullest. As the character Mari explains:

“When I was still a young lawyer, I read some poems by an English poet, and something he said impressed me greatly: ‘Be like the fountain that overflows, not like the cistern that merely contains.’ -From Veronika Decides to Die, page 198-

As each character comes face to face with his or her own mortality, they are forced to look back on their lives and explore their failed dreams. They also ponder God and faith.

God was there, and yet people believed they still had to go on looking, because it seemed too simple to accept that life was an act of faith. -From Veronika Decides to Die, page 149-

This is the second Paulo Coelho novel I have read. Coelho has a unique voice and style – philosophical and dreamlike. His stories are written like fables, with messages about life, God and faith as the over-riding themes. I enjoyed Veronika Decides to Die because it made me think of my own dreams and life path.


Middlesex – Book Review

I feel a direct line extending from that girl with her knees steepled beneath the hotel blankets to this person writing now in an Aeron chair. Hers  was the duty to live out a mythical life in the actual world, mine to tell about it now. -From Middlesex, page 424-

Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, Middlesex, is a rich family saga spanning three generations and takes the reader from Greece to Detroit on a whirlwind ride of rich, original language and spot on characterization. The story of Calliope Stephanides – an American born intersex individual with strong Greek heritage – is narrated by Cal…Calliope’s adult male counterpart.

Middlesex is a tragic story which is comically portrayed using Greek mythology. Eugenides is a talented writer – his vivid descriptions are filled with the lush sensations of life. The characters who people this wonderful novel are fully developed; their flaws and imperfections revealed even through the names they are given: The Object (Calliope’s teenage love interest), Chapter Eleven (Cal’s brother), and a vast array of other characters based on mythical stories.  Even the title of the book is steeped in symbolism.

Middlesex! Did anybody ever live in a house as strange? As sci-fi? As futuristic and outdated at the same time? A house that was more like communism, better in theory than reality? -From Middlesex, page 258-

The novel is essentially two stories: the history of a Greek family who carries a recessive gene; and the coming of age story of the main character – Calliope. At times it was easy to forget that this huge novel was written by a man. Eugenides wonderful insight into the thoughts of an awkward, self-conscious teenage girl is finely illustrated in this scene in the locker room after a field hockey game:

In front of me girls were entering and exiting the showers. The flashes of nakedness were like shouts going off. A year or so earlier these same girls had been porcelain figurines, gingerly dipping their toes into the disinfectant basin at the public pool. Now they were magnificent creatures. Moving through the humid air, I felt like a snorkeler. On I came, kicking my heavy, padded legs and gaping through the goalie mask at the fantastic underwater life all around me. Sea anemones sprouted from between my classmates’ legs. They came in all colors, black, brown, electric yellow, vivid red. higher up, their breasts bobbed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink. Everything was waving int he current, feeding on microscopic plankton, growing bigger by the minute. The shy, plump girls were like sea lions, lurking in the depths. -From Middlesex, page 297-

The novel is an exploration of immigration and the split loyalties that immigrants face. Eugenides parallels this theme with that of identity in general using the pain of adolescence and the confusion of sexual identity as spring boards to delve into the human psyche.

Middlesex is a vividly imaginative novel – epic in its scope and sensitively wrought. It is well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.

Highly recommended.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)