After the chirpy, wayward and ultimately for this reader—who set it aside a few chapters in—unreadable Frog Music, Emma Donoghue returns with the subdAfter the chirpy, wayward and ultimately for this reader—who set it aside a few chapters in—unreadable Frog Music, Emma Donoghue returns with the subdued and haunting The Wonder. A master of complex characters, Donoghue renders several out of the bogs and peats of central Ireland to craft a tragedy, a love story, a morality play.
The Wonder is set seven years after the end of Ireland's Great Famine. Lib Wright, an English nurse who served in Crimea under the superlative "Miss N." (Florence Nightingale), is barely aware that the famine occurred-her time on a different battlefield and the complete marginalization of the Irish by the British contribute to her ignorance, as baffling as it seems to us now. But she has been called to Ireland for a two-week assignment: to tend to a young girl who has reportedly not eaten a bite for four months, claiming divine intervention as her sustenance. Lib is certain she is being fed on the sly by her doting parents and devotes herself to exposing the fraud.
The result is a thriller of the slow-burning variety. Donoghue allows for silence, and it the space she does not fill with words that takes the reader deeper into the tension and darkness, wondering less about the "how" and more the "why"? Is Anna O'Donnell an angel, a miracle in flesh and blood or a little girl being systematically tortured by superstition and ignorance? The child's own devotion to her faith is eerie and sad, and in just a matter of days after Lib's arrival, shocking. She deteriorates quickly, arriving at death's door while Lib scrambles to unravel ethics, morality, and the medical mystery.
The high drama, gothic reveal and breathless climax read too much like a movie script, something Donoghue has had enormous success pursuing with her bestselling Room and its megawatt film adaptation, but The Wonder is still a satisfying read with brilliantly-drawn characters and an elegant, sure hand with historical accuracy and engagement.
I rarely purchase books. I don't have the budget or the space; I'm not a collector of things. But every rare once in a while I come across a book so lI rarely purchase books. I don't have the budget or the space; I'm not a collector of things. But every rare once in a while I come across a book so lovely and profound, one that speaks directly to the writer and poet in me, I know it is one I must have one my shelves. Landmarks is just such a book.
A collection of essays and reflections on place as well as a series of glossaries of geography, geology, topography, weather and all other possible aspects of the natural world, Landmarks is a gorgeous reminder of what it means to breathe and exist completely in the world, the ineffability of the seasons, the immensity of nature, the healing and generous gift of open space.
The wordsmith in me is completely enamored of Robert Macfarlane's ode to language and land. The language of place. His desire, by naming all the things, by refusing to lose the myriad ways cultures have sought to identify the natural phenomena that surrounds them, is to "sing the world back into being." No more noble pursuit, with our natural world in such a state of crisis. We need more voices raised in Earth's song. ...more
"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," stated First Lady Michelle Obama at this year's Democratic National Convention. Her wor"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," stated First Lady Michelle Obama at this year's Democratic National Convention. Her words seemed to come as a surprise to many, those who had either forgotten or had never known that black hands enslaved by white masters built the iconic edifice of our democracy.
As we come to the end of an extraordinary eight years of the nation's first President of color while witnessing the continued systemic racism that pervades every corner of our collective American culture, as we engage in open, honest dialogue about white privilege, how black lives matter, and denounce the wretched anti-immigrant language spewed by politicians and political candidates, we must also acknowledge and work to overcome the continued ignorance of our nation's darkest and ugliest history- a history that has led us inexorably to the painful circumstance of contemporary racism.
In his breathtaking novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead demonstrates the earth-shattering power of an artistic voice to carry the legacy of the past into our now . He takes what we know to be true, but breaks free from the confines of history to create a brilliant work of fiction.
Cora is a young woman enslaved on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, like her mother and grandmother before her. She is the voice, the eyes, ears and body by which the reader witnesses and suffers the brutality of slavery- the rape and beatings, the whippings, torture and murder of the men and women who make up her community, however transitory and temporary it is. Cora “had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.”
Cora's mother escaped years earlier, leaving her young daughter—a betrayal and an abandonment that burns deep in Cora's heart. Knowing the horrors that await a captured runaway slave, escape is only a fantasy, until Cora meets Caesar, a new arrival on the plantation. Caesar tells her about about the free north where he once lived and the way out of their imprisonment, by way of an underground railroad. He convinces her to flee, and we as readers are led from the nightmare of plantation life to the heart-stopping tension of escape.
The Underground Railroad takes on a hallucinatory affect, as Whitehead makes literal the metaphorical network of safe houses that ran from the southern United States north into Canada in the 19th century. In reality, it was neither underground nor a railroad, but in this author's vibrant and vital imagination, the underground railroad is an almost faerie tale-like system, complete with stations and conductors hidden just beneath the scorched earth of slavery.
Chapters of Cora and Caesar's escape alternate with the stories of other characters in the world they are fleeing, most notably the slave hunter in pursuit, Ridgeway. Ridgeway tracked but never found Cora's mother, Mabel, and this failure drives him to pursue Cora from state to state in a near-frenzy of diabolical hatred and determination.
The surreal nature of the narrative makes the reality of slavery even more present and vivid. It is hard to grasp, and yet essential that we do, our recent history and how it continues to shape our present. Colson Whitehead has written a bold and terrible, beautiful and mythic novel that will hold you from the opening pages and not release you, even after you come to its end. Highly recommended. ...more
There are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm TexaThere are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm Texan embrace of Brené Brown's brand of social psychology at other times of my life and being turned off by its fierceness, volume and confidence. I may have looked askance at the cult of Brené Brown, with legions of devotees who discovered her through her TED talk gone viral, read her previous works, taken her Oprah-endorsed self-actualization workshops, or listened to her CD series on vulnerability and shame. Rising Strong is in fact my first encounter with Brené Brown's work. It was pressed into the hand of the person who gave it to me as a gift last Christmas, the bookstore clerk assuring him it was a life-changing read, and now I will be the one to press it into everyone else's hands.
So yes, let's just get it out there: the subtitled theme of Rising Strong, this triumvirate of Reckoning-Rumble-Revolution is schticky and looks like pop-psychology gone wild. It will likely turn off others who rely exclusively on data and peer-reviewed research to support social science theory and prescriptive methodology.
What I came to love about Brown's narrative is the marriage of research and inspiration, her ability to take grounded theory and apply it to art-the art of emotion, the art of knowledge, the art of faith.
What is this book about exactly? It's about surviving hurt, acknowledging shame, embracing vulnerability, learning how to tell our stories, and getting back up to do it all over again, with courage and determination.
The emphasis on personal narrative touched me deeply. As a writer, I believe we are wired for story and my greatest healing has come by turning to the page, not only in telling my own stories, as I do when spilling my guts in my journal, or constructing a personal essay that is meant to reveal more universal truths, but in creating fictional worlds with characters who are born of my heart, my emotions, and in a tangential way, my experiences. So Brown's insistence that we use the physical act of writing out our narratives as a way to achieve truth and emotional release resonates deeply. Only in writing our stories can we examine what's real and what isn't, when we've conflated nostalgia with memory, when our memories have failed us and we fill in the gaps with drama or denial, where there is room for change or a different way of looking at the past that has shaped us.
There are too many components of this book that touched me, made me nod or tear up with recognition, made me turn to my partner and read aloud. Just too many. Here are a few: The destructive nature of comparative suffering. The phenomenon of "chandeliering", when we've packed down hurt so tightly that a seemingly innocuous comment can send us straight up to the chandelier with an emotional reaction well out of proportion to the situation. The need to sustain our creative souls. The idea that everyone is simply doing the best they can and recalibrating your responses accordingly. Creating boundaries to access compassion. Courage is contagious. Hope as a learning process, not a fly-by emotion. Embracing regret as a path toward empathy and how trauma leads to shame, and unacknowledged shame prevents us from being vulnerable.
Although I found many of the anecdotes that led to the development of theories and the concrete plans for personal engagement a bit trite, the approach to change Brown offers—like both hands extended to lift the reader up—is ripe and right, with practical, actionable guidance.
A tender, beautifully rendered narrative that captures the voice and perspective of a vulnerable child with intelligence and clarity. Leon is nine, thA tender, beautifully rendered narrative that captures the voice and perspective of a vulnerable child with intelligence and clarity. Leon is nine, the son of Carol, a broken young white woman, and a disappeared West Indies man. He is also a doting and careful big brother to baby Jake, stepping into the role of caregiver as his mother slides into catatonia.
After Carol has a mental breakdown, brought on by drugs, prostitution, and the massive weight of poverty, Leon and Jake are placed in foster care. Jake—cuddly, white (Leon and Jake share a mother, but have different fathers)—is easily adopted. Leon, heartbroken, must navigate the world alone.
But the beauty of this lovely and loving novel is the hope Kit de Waal offers. Resilience and human kindness are recurring themes, even if those humans who extend a hand are deeply flawed. Despite being caught up in an overburdened social service system, Leon is lifted by the warm embrace of his foster mother, Maureen and her crusty sister Sylvia, and by the gentle instruction of Tufty, a West Indies man who gardens at a public allotment, and his rival, Mr. Devlin. de Waal maintains a taut thread of tension that shadows the story in wobbly dread, and I won't relieve that tension here, but ultimately this novel shines with redemption.
Set against the backdrop of Britain in the early 80s, when Irish republican hunger strikes and the police brutality against people of color sparked riots, My Name is Leon is also in intensely political book. The reader sees this world through Leon's eyes, a child who is a keen observer of things he doesn't understand but works diligently to sort out.
Gentle, intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate, this novel was a joy to read. Highly recommended. ...more
In these final days of domestic squabbling on the political stage, where integrity and intelligence count for nothing yet the stakes are impossibly hiIn these final days of domestic squabbling on the political stage, where integrity and intelligence count for nothing yet the stakes are impossibly high, it was a relief to sink into Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's fictional domestic soup–warm and satisfying, harmless entertainment.
The Nest opens with made-for-the-big-screen prologue in which the novel's antihero, Leo Plumb, speeds away from a Long Island wedding with a woman not his wife, in a Porsche he doesn't own, coke up his nose and his recent stint in rehab a fading memory. The fade to black tragedy sets up the novel's central story question: how will the four adult Plumb children survive the loss of their inheritance?
All things being equal, none of us should care. The four Plumbs—Leo, Bea, Jack and Melody—are spoiled, whiny, over-educated, underachieving New Yorkers with more privilege and time than common sense and depth. Leo's multimedia company has failed, along with his marriage and his moral compass. Bea has been working on the same novel of a couple of decades, her once shining literary star now gathering dust. Jack is skilled at duping his lover but not so much at keeping his antiques business afloat. And Melody, though a loving wife and mother, seems to have no other vocation in life beyond tracking her teenage twin daughters via a creepy GPS app on her mobile phone.
Fortunately, D'Aprix Sweeney's sparkling prose, brilliant cast of secondary characters, and a lovingly rendered New York elevate this domestic drama from eye-rolling slapstick satire to a thoroughly engaging read. It is highly polished, predictable, and ultimately a bit saccharine—Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks cheerful, with a bit of Aaron Sorkin acerbic wit and toothy dialogue thrown in (yes, it's all quite cinematic and certain to be a Netflix or HBO original series sometime soon)—but sometimes, particularly at times like these, you just want to be entertained. ...more
... addiction is not a sin or a choice. But it's not a chronic, progressive brain disease like Alzheimer's either. Instead, addiction is developmenta
... addiction is not a sin or a choice. But it's not a chronic, progressive brain disease like Alzheimer's either. Instead, addiction is developmental disorder—a problem involving timing and learning, more similar to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia than it is to mumps or cancer.
The phone rang during a station identification break. Caller ID was enough. I answered, saying, "I know. I'm listening. My mind is blown." It was early July and journalist-advocate Maia Szalavitz was being interviewed by Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air. The next day I went to my local bookstore to order Unbroken Brain. It was backordered. Weeks. When it finally did arrive last week, I carved out time each afternoon to read, writing notes in my journal, in the book, sharing the parts that made me gasp or tear up with my partner, who has struggled with addiction since pre-adolescence.
The theories Szalavitz's posits in Unbroken Brain (and to those reviewers who criticize her lack of empirical data and research citations, you apparently missed the THIRTY-FOUR pages of Notes in the index, printed in 6-point font) are the result of thirty years spent researching and writing about addiction. Woven into this distillation of addiction and treatment is the author's own experience with heroin and cocaine abuse as a young woman in the 1980s that nearly ended her life more than once.
Unbroken Brain is an examination and take-down of current theories and approaches to addiction, from the lack of moral fiber and addictive personality character disorder that is at the heart of the 12-step program treatment approach (which decades of research has debunked—there is no "addictive personality" type) to the notion that addiction is a disease like cancer over which the person with addiction has no choice or control. And regardless of our supposed empathy for the "victims" of a disease, we—as family members, partners, and a legislative and judicial system—regard substance abuse as a sin and criminalize the behaviors, punishing the person instead of providing treatment. What we do know is that it is possible to identify children at risk of developing self-destructive habits and intervene with positive coping mechanisms at an early age, providing individuals with learning tools long before "rehab" becomes necessary.
By accepting addictive behaviors as development disabilities and learning disorders, Szalavitz (and really, the neuroscientists, psychologists, addiction therapists, social psychologists, and psychiatrists behind the research she presents), demonstrates how we can begin to focus on the causes, not the symptoms. We can advocate for humane, empathetic treatment that will allow people with addiction to find new ways to cope, replacing destructive addictions with healthy behaviors. Addiction is learned behavior and can be unlearned.
Addiction is a result of complex genetic, environmental and developmental factors and therefore there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment, but Szalavitz makes a strong and data-supported case for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as well as the HARM reduction methods used to keep addicts safe from HIV and AIDS by providing sterile needles, the decriminalization of drug use—which places an emphasis on treatment instead of punishment—and using 12-step methods as support but not treatment, as has been the default for decades. She also details what enabling is, and what it isn't, and shows that tough love and punishment only serve to tear down what few reserves people with addiction have. Compassion, consistency, love, and support work in service of behavioral change. Threats and ultimatums and shame do not.
Unbroken Brain goes broad and deep into all aspects of addiction, from causes to treatment, from neuroscience that includes epigenetics and neurodiversity, to the very political nature of the American criminalization of addiction, which is fueled by Jim Crow racism and social stigma. Yet Szalavitz writes in an inclusive, generous, conversational style, threading her own narrative in with each chapter. Her life becomes the beacon we follow to ground us in this journey of new understanding.
“With addiction, the vast majority of people do recover,” Szalavitz says. “And that’s a really important thing for people to realize. The reason I called the book Unbroken Brain is that your brain isn’t broken. You’ve learned something that is problematic.”
Highly recommended for anyone who deals with addiction or has a person with addiction or an associated mental disorder such as depression, obsessive-compulsion, manic-depression, or a learning disorder in their lives. I found it to be a release from despair and a source of hope. ...more
A lovely, empathetic novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma and California. With a gently lyrical style, Karen Halvorsen Schreck takes us along the jourA lovely, empathetic novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma and California. With a gently lyrical style, Karen Halvorsen Schreck takes us along the journey of healing, redemption, and self-discovery of a young widow, Ruth, as she finds her way in an America coated with dust and fear.
Ruth makes her way to a university in southern California, her new life provided for by the grace of a full scholarship at a time when higher education for women usually a gateway into marriage. For Ruth, it is a gateway to the reality that others may face difficulties at least as devastating as her own grief. Schreck opens her character and her readers to the terrible history of repatriation of Mexican nationals and in this story, the very present reality of our current political culture is thrown into heartrending relief. We project the same irrational fear and anger against "the other" today as Ruth's America did eighty years ago.
A delightful, illuminating read. My thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of Broken Ground for review. ...more
This first novel by short-story author, essayist and publisher Midge Raymond chills with deftly foreshadowed doom and warms with slow-burning passion.This first novel by short-story author, essayist and publisher Midge Raymond chills with deftly foreshadowed doom and warms with slow-burning passion.
Deb Gardner, a biologist who prefers polar isolation and penguins to warmer climes and the company of humans, spends part of the year at a research station in Antarctica, studying effects of climate change and other human intrusions on penguin habitat. Ironically, it is ecotourism that affords her the opportunity to study her beloved flightless fowl. Raymond uses Deb's ethical conundrum to educate the reader on the pressure this amateur exploration of the South Pole puts on such a vulnerable ecosystem. We're killing it with love.
The love story between Deb and Keller Sullivan, a lawyer-turned-nature guide, is at the heart of the novel and propels the plot toward its cinematic catastrophe. The chapters career back and forth between the recent past and and the hours before an impending disaster; the tension remains high as we race to learn the fate of a sinking cruise ship.
The author captures the singular, desolate and desperate beauty of Antarctica with beautiful prose, mirroring the fragile and unpredictable nature of human relationships. My Last Continent is a gorgeous portrait of Antarctica, a deeply-moving cautionary tale of human invasion in this most fragile and hostile of environments; a love story and a disaster-drama written with intelligence, compassion, and skill.
Highly recommended and impossible to put down. ...more
Edna O'Brien's novels were once censored in her native Ireland. The graphic nature of her subject matter—the violent, shameful, behind-closed-doors reEdna O'Brien's novels were once censored in her native Ireland. The graphic nature of her subject matter—the violent, shameful, behind-closed-doors reality of Irish rural and religious life—have shocked and scandalized since her fiction debut, The Country Girls in 1960. Now eighty-five, she continues to challenge our notions of innocence and guilt, of sex and desire, of politics and prose. The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years, is classic O'Brien: terrible and beautiful, unsentimental and transcendent.
There has always been something otherworldly, a little faerie tale-ish, about O'Brien's writing—a blend of lilting lyricism and fabulist style—that often distances the reader from the immediacy of the tragic worlds she portrays, like a layer of moss softening the blows from the hammerhead of her pen. In this instance she places us, as she often does, in the petty intimacy of an Irish village, a sodden, lush, secret place that both shelters and punishes its inhabitants with religion and tradition and family.
Fidelma is married to a man more than twenty years her senior and, as her husband becomes an old man in the grips of early dementia, she is choked by regret and loneliness. Longing for both children and passion, Fidelma wanders alone through the green fields and forests outside the western Ireland village of Cloonoila, fighting her body's yearnings. Thus, she is an easy mark for the town's newest resident, the mysterious Vladimir Dragan, a self-proclaimed healer and sex therapist. Vlad, with his long white hair, his black cloak and white gloves, and thick, seductive accent, seems a Gothic caricature. Fidelma is not the only Cloonoila resident to be caught in Dr. Dragan's spell: several nearly-comedic encounters, including the massage given to Sister Bonaventure, elevate Vlad to near-mystical regard by the villagers.
Then Fidelma becomes pregnant and the novel's murky, dreamy undertone takes a desperate, wretched turn toward verisimilitude. Let this serve as a trigger warning for those who cannot read graphic violence, particularly against women (a warning which should accompany nearly any O'Brien novel). Doctor Vlad is in fact a Serbian warlord known as “the beast of Bosnia,” accused of torture and genocide against Bosnian Croats and Muslims. The novel leaves the seemingly safe surrounds of rural Ireland and crash-lands in London, where Fidelma serves as a window into the world of exploited migrant workers. We travel with her into the Kent countryside, in search of refuge and redemption, and finally to The Hague and a war crimes tribunal, in search of justice.
Based on the hunt for the leader of the Serb Republic in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, who was captured in 2008 after thirteen years in hiding, The Little Red Chairs—like Lidia Yuknavitch's 2015 The Small Backs of Children—shows us the ancillary victims of war, the lives destroyed beyond the battlefields. She also explores themes of guilt and complicity, our unwitting acceptance of others' lies because we are so desperate to ignore our own truths. O'Brien smashes once again this notion of a charming Ireland knitted together by legend and rain with a hammer of reality ripped from headlines. Fidelma—at first a hapless victim—becomes a witness to others' suffering, as O'Brien herself has often done as a writer, finding redemption and courage in the raw humanity around her.
Gorgeously written, in bold prose that breaks all rules of conventional fiction writing, O'Brien's seventeenth novel shows a writer, now in her ninth decade, at her most fierce and powerful. I am in awe. ...more