Category Archives: Bookmark It

Bookmark It!: Sarah’s Key

By Matthew Knox

In Sarah’s Key (2008), readers follow Julia Jarmond, an American Journalist living in France. Early in the book we find out that that she is in the process of moving into a new apartment with her husband Bertrand and her daughter Zoe. The apartment once belonged to Bertrand’s Grandmother, who now lives in a nursing home.

Julia receives an assignment at work to investigate the infamous Vel d’ Hiv roundup that occurred in Paris during the summer of 1942, in preparation for the sixtieth anniversary. The roundup was part of an operation called Spring Breeze to reduce the number of Jews in Paris. Around 13,000 Jews were arrested over 2 days, including about 4,000 children. They were held for days in horrible conditions in a bicycle racing stadium, before being moved to one of three internment camps. Once there, most boarded trains to Auschwitz to never return.

Throughout the book, Julia’s story is paralleled with that of a Jewish girl named Sarah. Sarah is ten at the time of the Vel d’ Hiv roundup when her family is taken from their home. The parallel stories create a wonderful contrast between researcher and subject. As Julia continues her research, looking for memorials in the city and visiting the Drancy internment camp, the two stories collide in ways that Julia could never imagine.

When I read this book, I had just returned from a trip to France. The trip, and everything I did while there, was still very alive in my mind, as it still is now. This is a powerful book. I say that mostly because it takes a horrible event in history, one that many people do not know much about, and makes learning about it accessible. This is no dry history book. It will hold your attention with a story of survival and of revival. While in France, I visited the Drancy Internment Camp. I spent time wandering around the city looking for memorials of that terrible event. It was difficult. I became aware that the people of Paris do not know the extent of their country’s involvement in the Nazi regime.

This book brings an important event out into the open. It does so in a creative method and with wonderful storytelling.

Bookmark It!: Looking For Alaska

By Matthew Knox 

“Looking for Alaska” (2005) is about the journey of a teenage boy named Miles Halter. The book begins with Miles in the midst of switching schools. He is transferring to the Culver Creek Preparatory High school in Alabama, the same school that his father attended. Before leaving, his parents insist on throwing him a going-away party, to which only two people attend, neither of which Miles actually cares about. It makes his decision to move even easier.

One of Miles’ favorite things to do is memorize people’s last words. His favorites come from a man named Francois Rabelais, who said “I go to seek a Great Perhaps,” and with that the journey begins.

Once at school, Miles quickly becomes friends with his roommate Chip, who is also known as The Colonel for his unique ability to mastermind various pranks. The Colonel introduces Miles to his best friend Alaska and Miles is instantly drawn to her. She is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. She is also erratic, moody, overindulgent and in love with books.

We learn that she is in search of the answer to a complicated question. How does one escape the labyrinth of suffering? Alaska is so obviously crashing, an asteroid on an imminent course, that she can’t help but attract the likes of Miles. “Looking for Alaska” shows us that we fall in love with people that move faster than us even though we know we cannot keep up.

Miles is thrown into life at a boarding school and accepts it wholeheartedly. He begins to smoke and drink, breaking many other rules of the school with his friends. He has his first awkward sexual experience with a girl named Lara, who in the end just ends up being a friend. He is much too in love with Alaska for anyone else. Pranks are a way of life at Culver Creek and revenge for a good prank is guaranteed.

It seems at points that Miles has found his “Great Perhaps,” a central theme of the book. Over Thanksgiving break, he opts to stay on campus with Alaska, as she doesn’t like to go home for the holidays. They spend a night out by the football field drinking cheap wine and looking at the stars.

There comes a day where Miles’ “Great Perhaps” is taken away. Just as easily as it appeared, it leaves in a violent fashion. Miles struggles to make sense of the event. He develops an obsession in figuring out the mystery. For a while, The Colonel works with him but there comes a time where they both realize that some things just happen. It’s meant to be that way and spending our days on this earth trying to figure out why something happened in the past won’t get you anywhere.

“Looking for Alaska” tackles many philosophical questions. But they are not so obvious that understanding will be full after the first read. Under the basic story lies a current of anger, confusion and non-indulged optimism. This book is rare in its discoveries and the characters it uses to make them. I enjoyed reading this book the first time, and even more so the second.

It is a book that makes you think. What you think about most likely says something about you and how you look at the world. We can all use the moments of self-discovery that reading “Looking for Alaska” brings on.

Bookmark It: “Girl, Interrupted” Paints Honest Portrait of Mental Illness

Brayden Malley

“Was I crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is…  Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret.  It’s you or me amplified.”  This embodies the tone of Girl, Interrupted. Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical novel explores for an answer to the question:  what is crazy?

In 1967, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen found herself somehow in the esteemed McLean’s psychiatric hospital, to be treated for depression – following what doctors claim was a suicide attempt. Girl, Interrupted is her account of the two years she spent there. Kaysen’s novel takes the reader through the ups and downs and in betweens of inpatient psychiatric care.

“It’s a fairly accurate picture of me at eighteen, minus a few quirks… I’m tempted to try refuting it, but then I would be open to the further charges of “defensiveness” and “resistance”, she claims early on in the novel.  Kaysen makes it clear that while the world has stopped for her, interrupted her life, it continues to revolve just the same outside the hospital ward.

Throughout the novel, Kaysen’s medical documents from her stay at McLean accompany the story.  The reader visits the ward, psychiatrist’s office, bathtub and many other key places in the story of Kaysen’s lock-up; contemplating this concept of “crazy” throughout.  Kaysen includes letters, clinical notes, her admission form, nursing notes and progress notes which help to give her story a sense of objectivity. The account starts in a cold, almost frightening way; the first page is a copy of author Kaysen’s case record folder.

Girl, Interrupted is a fast paced, psych thriller, perfect for anyone interested in the topic of mental health.  Every psych major should pick up this short, yet powerful book, for a glance into what the mental health industry used to be like for those who were diagnosed and required treatment.  This juxtaposition of the clinical aspect of the story along with the personal, highlights exactly what this memoir aims to unveil; the darkness of mental illness has a face, a voice and it all is sometimes hidden behind labels and diagnoses.

Kaysen’s book explores many different diagnoses, particularly the controversial borderline personality disorder.  Susanna fights the doctor on her diagnosis throughout the whole book.  She constantly reaffirms, “I’m just sad!”  She explores her illness at its most intimate moments and often follows her breaks with reality with detached physician reports, giving the reader both inside and outside perspectives.

Kaysen’s story could cause readers’ to shed a few tears, but the author does a wonderful job meshing this in with humor, leaving the reading balanced and enjoyable throughout.  Her sociopathic character, Lisa, is sure to give a good laugh.  Lisa is in and out of the ward throughout the novel and slowly her and Susanna become good friends.  Once this occurs the nurses are in for it.  Susanna and Lisa’s antics lighten up an otherwise dark and twisty story of the youth of the sixties locked up in an institution.

Kaysen’s national bestseller is now accompanied by a major motion picture starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.  Other titles by Kaysen include “The Camera My Mother Gave Me,” “Asa, as I knew him,” “Far Afield,” and her most recent publication “Cambridge.”

Bookmark It!: The Sirens of Titan

by Sean Begin

After 55 years, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “The Sirens of Titan” remains not only one of my favorite Vonnegut works, but one of my favorite pieces of fiction–ever.

Combining elements of science fiction with his acerbic wit and deeply rooted beliefs on religion, humanity and society, Vonnegut crafts a darkly satirical piece about the true nature of our existence on Earth.

The novel focuses on several key characters, mainly 22nd-century America’s richest man, Malachi Constant. Malachi is the name of a Jewish prophet in the Hebrew Bible whose name is derived from the Hebrew word mal’akhi meaning “the messenger.”

The novel follows Constant as he is unwittingly dragged from Earth to Mars to participate in the Martian invasion of Earth; then from Mars to Venus, where he takes refuge with another survivor deep in the fractured crust of the solar system’s second planet; back to Earth, where he is ridiculed for everything wrong with humanity; and finally to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, where he meets the man responsible for his downfall and journey: Winston Niles Rumfoord.

Rumfoord is a wealthy man from Rhode Island who built a spaceship and traveled into the solar system where he gets trapped in what is called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum.

These spots exist throughout the universe as locations where any species existing in the universe (whose views of the universe can be wildly different yet still correct) can coexist.

Rumfoord and his dog Kazak have been traveling this infundibulum, both everywhere and nowhere all at once, with knowledge of both the past and the future.

It is stuck in this phenomenon that Rumfoord discovers the truth behind humanity’s existence: we are nothing more than a means of communication for a robot alien race known as the Tralfamadorians to one of their own left stranded on Titan, named Salo.

While “The Sirens of Titan” is only Vonnegut’s second work, it perhaps is one of the best examples of his satirical humor regarding religion and his disgust for the concept of God; or, at least, his disgust for humanity’s perversions of God.

In “Sirens,” Vonnegut explains that the Tralfamadorians have used something called the Universal Will to Become, which is the greatest form of energy in the universe and is what created the universe in the first place.

The Tralfamadorians have used the UWTB to manipulate human evolution in order to build a part necessary to repair Salo’s ship. Every action Rumfoord takes after entering the infundibulum was planned: from the building of the Martian army to Constant’s role in arriving at Titan.

In the end, human evolution and existence has occurred simply to bring to Salo a small, metal strip no bigger than a human forearm so Salo can deliver a message to the other side of the universe.

This highly inconsequential reason for humanity’s existence is the crux of Vonnegut’s argument, against not only religion but against humanity trying to find a reason to that eternal question: why are we here?

Vonnegut, through his satire and wit in “Sirens,” is mocking thousands of years of religious and philosophical instillations, pushing an idea that living without religion and God will lead to a unified human race–a truth seen in Vonnegut’s Church of God the Utterly Indifferent that is established in “Sirens” in the wake of the Earth-Mars war.

While “The Sirens of Titan” is Vonnegut’s second published novel, it is one of his best tales and is filled with examples of the dark satire that would come to dominate the writing of his career.


Bookmark It! Ready Player One

By Sean Begin

For anyone connected to the world of video games, the concept of a completely immersive virtual gaming simulation has long been the subject of myth and dreams. In his novel “Ready Player One,” Ernest Cline makes that dream a reality in more ways than one.

The novel is centered on the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game, which uses virtual reality to completely immerse the user in a video game simulation. Set in the dystopian near future of 2044, in which a Great Recession has depleted most of the world’s resources, the OASIS has become, for many people, more important than the real world.

Created by genius video game designer James Halliday and his childhood best friend and businessman extraordinaire Ogden Morrow, the OASIS fuses Internet activities such as chat rooms and browsing with the full-fledged battles common in most online multiplayer games.

Upon his death, a video will from Halliday initiates what becomes known as the Hunt – a scavenger hunt for three keys and three matching gates that lead to a hidden Easter egg in the game. The first person to find the egg inherits the entirety of Halliday’s company and fortune.

A massive search begins in the OASIS but after five years, no one has found anything. Enter the story’s protagonist, eighteen-year-old Wade Watts, an orphan living in the “stacks” of Oklahoma City. These are literally stacks of old RVs piled up into towers for refugees to live in after they fled to the city.

Watts becomes the first person to locate the first key, thus initiating a wild and dangerous journey that sees him making allies with fellow egg hunters and enemies of the malicious Innovative Online industries, which seeks to find Halliday’s Easter egg in an effort to effectively take control of the Internet.

The clues left by Halliday to guide people on the Hunt comes in the form of personal diaries, titled “Anorak’s Almanac”. A child of the 1980s, Halliday bases all his clues and hints on obscure trivia from that decade. Everything, from early computers and fantasy games to music and movies of the 1980s, fuel Halliday’s obsession with the decade of his childhood.

Ironically, the Hunt causes a resurgence in everything 1980s. The fashion of the times comes back and music and movies of the decade suddenly find themselves at the top of the charts again.

Anyone with minimal knowledge of pop culture from not only the 1980s, but the 90s and early 2000s as well, will find Cline’s novel exciting. He writes with an excitement of someone who experienced the decade himself, having spent his formative teenage years in the 1980s.

Cline had already cemented himself in geek culture with his script of “Fanboys”, which Cline wrote in 1998 before the release of “Star Wars: Episode I” and follows five friends in their journey to see Episode I before their friend dies from cancer. The movie was eventually picked up by the Weinstein Company and released in 2009.

Cline’s affinity and love for the decade of the 80s comes through in his writing. For any self-proclaimed geek, the novel will prove to be an adventurous and exhilarating read. Cline is currently writing a screen play to adapt the novel into a movie, and has also announced plans for a second novel titled “Armada”.


Bookmark it! Little Brother

By Sean Begin

The advent of the Internet has vastly changed the way the world runs, for better or worse. The Internet allows large companies to maintain instant communication and effectively run their business. On the flip side, a clever or stubborn hacker can work their way into nearly any system in the world, from the security systems of those companies to phones and gaming consoles.

And with work from groups such as the digital rights non-profit group Electronic Frontier Foundation and, more recently, the high profile actions of members of the online Anonymous collective, Internet freedom and rights has come to the forefront.

Cory Doctorow’s novel “Little Brother” takes the concept of not only Internet rights but human rights in general and shows what happens when the a government agency decides they do not exist.

Set in a near future San Francisco, the novel follows seventeen year old hacker Marcus Yallow, who finds himself held against his will by the Department of Homeland Security following a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge.

Taken prisoner, blindfolded and gagged, Marcus, along with his friends, is dragged to an unknown destination, forced to undergo interrogations and endure horrible living conditions for several days.

After being released, Marcus, with the help of friends both new and old, decides it’s up to him to show what the DHS is really capable of to a city that has no clue. Through clever use of real life technology, as well as potential technology that hasn’t been fully realized (such as gait recognition cameras, which identify people by the way they walk) Marcus and his friends spend weeks waging an underground war against the DHS.

The novel is marketed as a young adult paperback, but handles issues important to people of all ages. Topics such as guilt, paranoia, loyalty and fear drive Marcus and his companions throughout the novel. Guilt keeps Marcus quiet about his kidnapping by the DHS but paranoia drives him to fight back.

Doctorow, who worked for the EFF, fills his novel with serious concepts about civil liberties, social activism, and digital rights that could be found in adult novels, let alone a book aimed at high school students.

Despite the heavy messages, “Little Brother,” through Marcus, does a fantastic job explaining concepts such as TOR (The Onion Router), cryptography, and Bayesian math in easy to understand terms, imparting knowledge to the reader that could be useful in the modern digital age.

In the end, “Little Brother” offers a unique look at issues that are just under the surface of real life. While Doctorow published the novel in 2008, the recent NSA spying scandal is a scarily similar situation that wouldn’t be out of place in Marcus’ world.

A follow up to “Little Brother,” titled “Homeland,” was published by Doctorow in February of this year, and follows Marcus and his friends once again.