Book Reviews

Fish — A Graphic Novel Review

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Fish! With legs!!

FishFish by Peter Kielland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was given Fish as the next step up in my using graphic novels as part of my reading rehab. A traumatic brain injury — a concussion type — had stolen my ability to read books. I remained literate, just couldn’t read. It’s a too-common problem unaddressed by health care professionals who think the band-aid solution is just fine. It’s not. In discussions with a psychology professor, we thought graphic novels may help my ability to see, conceptualize, and follow a plot. Take the text out and maybe my brain can process ideas. The first one worked well, so on to this one!

Uh, well . . .

Fish was bizarre!

I began each weekly reading session, recalling out loud what I’d read so far. I read four, five, or six pages, recalling each page out loud at the end of it. I tried to motivate myself to handwrite a summary at some point during the week. And I struggled to understand what the heck was happening; then as I began to understand the what, I continued to flail at understanding why and what it all meant. It revealed to me (because health care people taking care of my brain aren’t working with me on this, so it’s just me myself and I figuring this whole thing out) that I have trouble building up the picture of a story not because it’s presented in text but because my brain can’t do it, period. This also means I can’t understand concepts that have depth to them. And Fish ain’t a superficial, silly story about a fish with legs that ends up in a city! Each scene means something. The sequence of the scenes is probably important. Being able to not only recall but also to tie the scenes and dream sequences together, to be able to remember a scene from early on and tie it to something much further on in the book, is necessary to “see” the big picture and understand a concept being built up.

But as I worked at reading four pages at a time, then eventually six pages — always reading to the edge of my fatigue — little bits of what the author meant by the dream sequence of Calvary and other scenes began to populate the big blank in my mind, like filling in a jigsaw puzzle. Mid-October, it was still difficult for me to see the point of the story, the story arc, and the plot. But after a break during most of November while I wrote a novel, I returned to it in November’s last weekend and surprised myself by how much I recalled and how I suddenly understood concepts I hadn’t before. Boggled!

Being able to understand the theme somewhat abruptly changed the book in my mind from being a chore I had to slog through to being slightly curious to see what would happen to Fish next.

The following weekend, as I reread the previous four pages I’d read then read the last five pages of the book, much more of that jigsaw puzzle filled in. I still don’t have a solid feeling of the book. It’s like seeing the author’s ideas through blackened glass with pieces cleared here and there, but it’s enough for me to feel pretty good about my reading progress and to sense the author was making some rather pointed comments.

As for the book . . . it’s strange and disturbing. I’m not a fan of that kind of drawing style. I admit that I could have benefitted from discussing it with someone, in the way that using a new word in conversation three times helps one understand and remember the word. Those kinds of discussions as I progressed through the book may have made me appreciate Fish’s story more. But, again, to be honest, the drawing style kind of repelled me. Only as I’ve digested the book, gotten away from seeing the pictures so that the character of Fish emerges stronger, do I feel sorry for Fish while admiring how he reveals the people around him.

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Book Reviews

Brain Storm — A Review

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Brain Storm. Poetical. Physical. Brain injury brought into movement. So vivid that from the first scene, it triggers before capturing you into the story of a young woman, Kate, who suffered a stroke, underwent a life-saving operation, and is left with a brain injury.

A simple set on the stark black stage greets us: chairs, tables, four old-fashioned hospital screens on wheels. Four actresses play Kate and her friend, Kate’s grannie, spirits, actors, the usual hospital suspects, and most intriguingly, the painfully slow movements of the health care system. The set and the actresses interplay in continual moves that confine, open, block, obstruct, remember, arrest, emote, accept.

I hadn’t remembered what the story was about; I figured it would be a straight telling of a person with brain injury. It was, and it wasn’t. Poetical movements and rising and falling sound evoked lying confined and alone in the horrifying beat of the MRI. Elegant dances of arms and fingers, of balletic pushing down on Kate’s arm evoked the vision tests, hearing tests, strength tests we in the audience with brain injury had undergone too many times in cold doctors’ offices. They triggered several of us from BIST who were attending a special relaxed performance. It was relaxed in that people could leave for the bathroom and return if they needed to and the sound and light cues were dialled down. In other words, they made the 56-minute play enjoyable for an audience of people with short attention spans, sensory overload, and bad memories. A rare gift.

The café scene was particularly memorable for the audience. When Kate’s friend began to speak gibberish, I almost gasped. I hadn’t known this happened to other people with brain injury too. One moment your friend is speaking English, the next their words are gibberish, and you don’t know how long that will last. You only hope it’ll end soon! Mere words don’t convey that experience; the play brought it into the spotlight. As Kate struggles to comprehend her friend, we the audience experience her internal dizziness, her sensory overload, her brain’s inability to process language, and her horror at what is happening in what is supposed to be a relaxed get-together over tea with her friend.

My only quibble was the first transition from what was happening to Kate in the now to Kate returning in memory to a time with her grandmother. It was awhile before I understood what her grandmother was doing and that the scene was a memory. I also found the transition from “reality” to the play within the play hard to follow. But I absolutely loved the spiritual questions about mind and brain and the lines about art being surgery. I’m going to be chewing on that idea for a bit.

Before my brain injury, I attended Stratford, operas in Toronto and New York, musicals, small theatrical productions, mega productions, and even a 17th century play. With its superb acting, its innovative use of movement to simulate health care, its creative sound effects, and its excellent writing and talented direction, Brain Storm belongs in that echelon of the best plays I’ve seen in my lifetime. Lucid Ludic — the cast of Hayley Carr, Maïza Dubhé, Alexandra Montagnese, and Shayna Virginillo as Kate under the direction of Taliesin McEnaney — deserved the sustained applause at the end of the play. Thank you to BIST (Brain Injury Society of Toronto) and PIA Law for sponsoring members’ afternoon out to see Brain Storm. My mother and I are so glad we went!

The last performance for Fringe Toronto 2017 is at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, near Queen and Bathurst, on Saturday, July 15 at 7:00 pm. Go see it.


Book Reviews

Concussion: The Movie Starring Will Smith

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As I mentioned last week, I went to see a movie: Concussion.

I couldn’t remember what it was about nor did I bother looking it up. So I had no idea what to expect when it began.

I liked it. The camera angles, the use of music, the juxtaposition of beauty hiding violence, the suspense in a microscope all made for a movie that should have gotten an Oscar nod. Will Smith did a passable Nigerian accent, but he inhabited so well this doctor, showed his character and confusion and drive and dreams.

But Concussion only just began to tell the story of concussions. It didn’t go backwards to show the story of concussion itself, only the final damage to our brains.

I came away wound up and angry and very, very sad.

Sad

Watching the football players, alone, afraid, not knowing themselves, not understanding what was going on, yet blamed, abandoned, attacked, sedated for acting like people with a brain injury and for seeking help and compassion. I know what that’s like. What separates me from them is the world doesn’t know me, I have the background to understand, and I have the background to challenge medical authority. I am capable of being my own advocate. They were not. Most are not. It’s not their fault – no one should need a fucking neuroscience degree to recover from a brain injury.

No one should be left alone after receiving concussions, after having their brain damaged.

It’s a disgrace that their only advocate was a pathologist.

Wound Up

A man who speaks for the dead was the only one advocating for these football players and, by extension, us. Kind of metaphorical because a brain injury does kill off who you were.

I hate it. As one person muttered, all our lives have been ruined. And we get blamed for it – and for not joining the blamers in denying it.

As I said, the movie wound me up.

Anger

What angered me is the labelling of their neuronal damage as a disease. It’s not a fucking disease.

Disease: “a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury

It is repetitive untreated brain injury.

Why is this so difficult for the medical profession to understand? Did they nap during anatomy and physiology courses and miss the pretty pictures of the inside of our skulls? Did they never think: a soft organ like the brain slamming into the sharp edges of the skull’s bony interior is going to lead to some pretty awful ripping and tearing? I did. I saw that and thought: what the fuck, God? That’s one terrible design flaw!

Who knew God would get me for that! Ahem.

Another thing: the medical doctors and surgeons all know that if you don’t cast or pin a bone, if you don’t repair damaged organs, the body will heal itself but the leg will be misshapen, the organ never quite right, and over time these warps will lead to pain and deteriorating function.

So what makes the brain so special that it will somehow avoid these problems, all on its own?

This when only recently the medical profession woke up to the fact that the brain can regenerate itself, albeit at frozen molasses speed. Yet they never thought: if it can’t heal itself, we should heal it?

I object to the term “chronic traumatic encephalopathy”. It is not a disease. It is repetitive, untreated, unhealed brain injury.

The former term lets the medical profession off the hook for not treating us. The latter term puts the onus firmly on where it belongs: doctors who will not actively treat a person with concussion in order to stimulate healing and a return to society.

The former term makes it sound like a mystery that needs investigating, so let’s put dollars toward studying what happens when you don’t treat a concussion. The latter term makes it plain what it is and would enforce putting research dollars into how to treat the injury and education dollars towards disseminating knowledge about the good diagnostic and treatment tools that already exist. But physicians need to use them, and OHIP and hospitals need to pay for them instead of requiring me to fight to get treatment every single effing month and to pay for it out of my own pocket.

Concussion: go see it.

The first part of the story it tells, the part it doesn’t talk about much, is why I’m updating my book Concussion Is Brain Injury. It’s why I’m putting my ego on the line and crowdfunding my book update through PubLaunch in concert with Iguana Books – I no longer have the funds to edit and market it (publishers rarely market books for authors now), but I’m angry enough about my situation, about the situation so many are in, quietly suffering and struggling through on their own that I feel somehow I need to update my book with the pieces I’ve kept hidden up till now. And to update it with new hope for recovery.

Book Reviews

Review: Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories

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Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories: A Hercule Poirot Collection with Foreword by Charles Todd
Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories: A Hercule Poirot Collection with Foreword by Charles Todd by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A lot of these I’d read before because they are published in other books of hers. For that reason, if you haven’t read Christie’s short stories featuring Poirot, then this is a good book or ebook to read. But if you have, you’ll be flipping through the book a lot…unless you’ve read her shorts once a long time ago or like to reread familiar stories over and over.

The one interesting addition to familiar material is seeing where they were originally published. And there were a few stories I hadn’t read before and enjoyed getting to know.

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Book Reviews

Review: Aban’s Accension

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Aban's Accension
Aban’s Accension by Shireen Jeejeebhoy
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

After talking to fellow indie writers on Twitter, I posted Aban’s Accension on Wattpad for feedback. The response was overwhelming, and I was particularly affected by readers who shared how Aban’s story affected them. I’m pleased to say that by the end of 2013, it is professionally edited and out in paperback, ePub, and Kindle.

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Book Reviews

Review: Crime Machine

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Crime Machine
Crime Machine by Giles Blunt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s been awhile since the last book came out in the Cardinal series, and I wanted to see what happened to him after those tragic events when I saw Crime Machine ebook in the library. But I must say: Blunt has quite the gruesome imagination. I wondered at one point if I wanted to continue reading Crime Machine. I did because I wanted to see the “why” of the events, to see what would happen to the characters in jeopardy, and to see how long it would take Cardinal to solve the crime. In the end, the motivation for the murder(s) was explained; yet it kind of felt…strange, like it wasn’t quite plausible. I suppose that was maybe because the original event was not explained satisfactorily. In the context of the plot, it couldn’t be, tis true that, and so it’s up to the reader to decide, to think it through. But as vivid as my imagination can get, I wasn’t able to make it make sense. And frankly, maybe I wasn’t in the right head space in the context of my own life. Perhaps if I was reading it on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I’d have come at it from a different perspective and thus be more open to thinking through the motivation. In any case, I’m not sure if I want to continue reading this series, even if I do love the Canadian context and settings. I’ll think on it!

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Book Reviews

Review: Death of a Dude

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Death of a Dude
Death of a Dude by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Boy, is this ever a different kind of Nero Wolfe book. There’s no brownstone, barely any fine cooking, no orchids, and most amazing of all, Wolfe is out and about. The book is set in Montana, so Wolfe having to travel is a given. But it’s fun to read how Wolfe conducts himself and copes with this unexpected turn of events.

Archie Goodwin really comes into his own here, and we get a deeper glimpse into his private life than we normally would. A thoroughly enjoyable read for Goodwin fans like me.

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Book Reviews

Review: The Brass Verdict

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The Brass Verdict
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m pretty sure I read this book already, but I enjoyed reading it again. I like how Connelly brings in the protagonist of his other series and creates tension in the reader to see when the lawyer will figure out the cop, how much longer it will take the lawyer than the reader.

This series is good escapist fare. I’ve placed a hold on the next book in the series at the library already.

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Book Reviews

Review: Blind Descent

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Blind Descent
Blind Descent by Nevada Barr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anna Pigeon is always beaten up so much, one would think she’d be permanently concussed, bruised, and broken. But she’s made in the style of 1970s’ male TV action heroes: gets a lickin and keeps on bouncing back up, albeit limping.

I like this series for its sticking to one viewpoint, not bouncing around between villain and heroine, which I find takes me right out of the story. I also like the slightly anti-social heroine, and the way she sets about solving a mystery or two. And I particularly like how this series introduces the reader to a different park and a different environment in every book in the series. In this one, it’s caves. I got a bit lost in the details, but I certainly had no trouble envisioning the darkness and claustrophobia of the caves Barr describes.

Publishers do this anti-reader thing of not supplying series in order or all of the published books to date, starting from the beginning, to libraries. Very annoying. And so since I wanted to read another Anna Pigeon book, I had to skip two in the series as the Toronto Public Library didn’t have them in stock in their ebook collection. It’s not so bad skipping a book or two in a series like Poirot by Agatha Christie, but Nevada Barr doesn’t keep her heroine static; Anna Pigeon grows and matures and changes throughout the series. Miss a book, and you miss a part of her life. Luckily, I seemed to have missed only one small thread of her story, and it didn’t impede my thorough enjoyment of another adventure in Anna’s life.

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