Friday, September 19, 2014

Bald New World

In the prologue of Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu, the thirty-six-year-old protagonist, Nicholas Guan, recalls that he woke up one day when he was eleven and found that his hair had inexplicably fallen out.  His parents are away, but he finds his older sister, Kelly, sobbing on the floor of the bathroom; she has also lost her hair, and he can't help but stare at her scalp, "an oddly-shaped oval with protrusions jutting out".  When Kelly runs out of the apartment, Nick follows and tries to find her.  He doesn't see his sister, but he discovers a startling new reality: everyone has lost their hair.

"Instead, a sea of bald people confronted me--everyone on the street had lost their hair. There was a frenzied madness in their eyes, confusion causing many of them to walk in a daze. "
~ Bald New World, Peter Tieryas Liu

No, this is not a bad dream.  This is beginning of Peter Tieras Liu's new, short dystopian novel, Bald New World, published in 2014.  Having read his collection of short stories, Watering Heaven (2012), I was eager to read his new book, even though it took me a long time to act on that eagerness.

"Hair is the most precious luxury in the world."
~ Bald New World, Peter Tieryas Liu

Like Brave New World
(1932) by Aldous Huxley,  Bald New World is also dystopian science fiction.  It's set in the future, after the Great Baldification.

"I don't want to blame everything bad that happened on the Great Baldification as it came to be known.  But it was the beginning of a lot of social change in the world."
~ Bald New World, Peter Tieryas Liu 

The changes include much higher divorce and unemployment rates, as well as constant warfare.  The main character, Nicholas, has survived an abusive, impoverished childhood, and is recovering from a divorce from Linda, the love of his life.  Nick is in the army, and works in the media department because of his passion for photography.  He also works as a cinematographer for his army friend, filmmaker Larry Chao (who's featured in some of the stories in the author's earlier work, Watering Heaven), who has inherited a wig factory from his father and is now super rich.

Nick considers Larry to be his best friend, his "family".  They live in a hairless world which is seething with danger, and life is sometimes a brutal battle for survival.  Nick struggles to know what's really going on; as a reader, I experienced some of that confusion and ambiguity as well.  As things went from bad to worse in the story, I wanted Nick to discover that he was just having a bad dream.

Bald New World is not for the faint of heart.  It's fast-paced, dizzying, unsettling, and violent at times.  It's  also humorous and clever.  Some of the characters are named after famous authors, such as Kafka, Beauvoir, Voltaire, and Austen.  Although dystopian fiction is not my usual reading choice, I found this book to be entertaining and exciting.  I was captivated by the ideas and events in this "bald new world", and I rooted for Nick's survival (I also liked good-natured Larry).

Warning:  Reading this book may entice you to grab your favorite bottles of shampoo and conditioner, head for the shower, and give thanks for the hair on your head.

Special thanks to Peter for sending me a copy of his new book to review.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My LIfe in a Nutshell

Author Tanya J. Peterson does not shy away from difficult subjects in her books.  Having read two earlier, impressive books by Tanya J. Peterson, Losing Elizabeth (2012) and Leave of Absence (2013), I wanted to also read her new novel, which has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, My Life in a Nutshell, published in 2014.  Dedicated to the millions of people worldwide who live with anxiety disorders, My Life in a Nutshell, like Leave of Absence, is a novel about the debilitating effects of untreated mental illness.   

"I'm trapped.  My chest constricts even more, and I'm suffocating.  I feel like I can't get enough oxygen, and my lungs spasm again in a loud cough.  Now that I've started coughing fully, I can't stop."
~ My Life in a Nutshell, Tanya J. Peterson

My Life in a Nutshell is written in the first person from the point of view of Brian Cunningham, a school custodian who suffers from severe anxiety and frequent panic attacks.  Tanya J. Peterson paints an astonishing, realistic picture of thirty-seven-year old Brian, who's mourning the recent loss of his dog, Oscar.  The author presents his thoughts in a believable and often heartbreaking manner.  Depressed and full of self-loathing, Brian dreads interaction with people, and avoids it as much as possible.  In spite of his feelings, he cares a lot about his work, and he genuinely wants to help others.  On the first day of the new school year, he discovers Abigail Harris, a seven-year-old foster child who's been abused and who now lives with her aunt and uncle, hiding behind his cleaning cart in the mechanical room at school.  After he helps her put on her shoes, she asks Brian if she can live with him.  This chance meeting is the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. 

If I had to describe this book in one word, I'd choose the word intense.  Through the thoughts of the protagonist, I felt as if I were experiencing the chronic, agonizing anxiety and panic attacks that afflict Brian.  My Life in a Nutshell is powerful, incredibly real and compelling.  I felt immediate empathy for Brian and Abigail as I read this book.  Both characters are quite likable, and it made sense that their friendship would help them.

From the first chapter, I was hooked by this book.  Brian's story convincingly depicts mental illness, and I was swiftly drawn into his world.  He's a wonderful, caring person, yet he calls himself an idiot in the first line of the book; he loathes himself.  It is heartbreaking.  I wanted to find out why Brian felt the way he did about himself (readers do not learn about what happened in his life or its aftermath until much later in the book).  He's led a socially isolated life, is very uncomfortable in social settings, and has only one friend, the day custodian, Roger.  Although Brian suffers from extreme anxiety and struggles on a daily basis, he's a good and kind person, and he's also quite intelligent, and particularly sensitive to the needs of Abigail.  Brian knows he needs to deal with his recurring, troublesome anxiety, but he has a hard time getting that help, for numerous reasons.  Very reluctantly, Brian goes to a counseling appointment that his mother has set up with Dr. Beth Greene. The first appointment is not easy for him, but he does realize that the counseling will help him to cope.

As Brian and Abigail form an attachment to each other, they help each other, and the story is ultimately about friendship and love, and trust and hope, which all contribute to mental health.  My Life in a Nutshell highlights the value and importance of mental health.  It shows that purpose and positive social interaction contribute to mental health, and that counseling may help, in many instances.  Brian's thoughts are a major part of this story, which make you think about your own self-dialogue: are you mostly positive or negative?  Are your thoughts obsessive, or healthy?  In a more general sense, the book compels us to be less judgmental of others, and more understanding.  It reminds us not to evaluate others solely (and negatively) on the basis of occupation ("dumb" janitor, "lazy" housewife, etc.); get to know people--you might be surprised!  My Life in a Nutshell is a wonderful and hopeful book that I'm honored to have read.  Although often overlooked, mental health is an extremely important facet of overall health.

Warm thanks to author Tanya J. Peterson, who writes sensitively and beautifully about a challenging subject, for inviting me to participate in her book tour and for sending me a copy of her book.  For more reviews of this book, please visit the other stops on the My Life in a Nutshell book tour.

Thanks for reading!  Your comments are welcomed.


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