Saturday, June 18, 2016

Break Every String -- Poetry by Joshua Michael Stewart



In his new book, Break Every String, Joshua Michael Stewart rides shotgun on a trip through the back roads of a small town called Everywhere.  Imagine him sitting there, unfolding an old, worn map of the region—so old that it feels like chamois—and featuring all the tired places encompassed there.  He may point to a lake, a school, abandoned wells, and homes stuffed with stories.  In his own measured pace, he’ll tell you about those places and why their significance goes far beyond the map could ever show.  This isn’t topography or simple street intersections, this map is a history of a person, a family, and pain.

Stewart doesn’t overshare. He’s subtle with his explanations, and doesn’t quite tell you the whole story. He leaves you with more questions than answers.  But the search, the listening, is the treasure of these poems. Epic stories are told, spanning several poems. And then there are simple phrases, stunning in what they reveal.

A blackbird in crosshairs, singing.

For example, the women of this town, this history.  They are tender, murderous, hateful, or simply invisible.  A brother is alluded to many times, Frank, and his story is told in broken shards that perfectly represents his jagged life.  Frank fights addiction, a broken family, a stint in jail—all working as parallels with the life of the man Stewart describes.  It’s not necessarily autobiographical, but rather a complex amalgamation of character studies.  You never quite know the whole story.

A large part of Stewart’s poems feature letters from mother to son, keeping him posted about the “other” brother. The inference is clear: the other son occupies her thoughts; the broken bird getting more attention than the one in flight with wings aloft.  The pain this inflicts is never mentioned only surmised.  And one that finds our narrator at a loss with his own worth.

            You haven’t had the blues
            Until your mother drunk-dials
            Your number at two o’clock
            In the afternoon and leaves
            A message for your brother
            Who’s been dead since 2007.

Coltrane and Brubeck serve as tonics in this town that maybe should be called Nowhere.  A place where Stewart asks, “What’s the narrative in a still life or a landscape?”

Some moments are universal but no less profound:

            When someone leaves
            Your life, you’re left with a story
            You’ll fetch from your minds library

            When sleep eludes you and you sit
            In the quiet of the kitchen, surrounded
            By the dark and empty rooms of self.

And at times, the contemplation takes a troubled, introspective turn:

            I’m not interested in last words,
            But in final thoughts. Do you love
            The most the one you think of last?

The most intense poem of the collection hits me hard each time I read it. I actually have it pinned to a wallI Wanted to Be a Blue Jay or Wear a Flowered Apron tears me up.  It’s almost the perfect poem, except that I don’t want to accept that the perfect poem has already been written. Much like Ginsberg’s Supermarket in California, it has so much dimension and depth that one could get lost in all the allusions and meanings, as well as get smacked by the simple reality of the words.  Take it straight or read something into it: in either case, it’s brilliant.
poet Joshua Michael Stewart
In it, the unknown narrator reflects on a previous suicide attempt, many years before.  He finds himself in the woods near his home,

            Blue jays flew in and out of the pines.
            I delighted at their squawking—thought of tenement 
            women
            Airing laundry on fire escapes. 
            I wanted to climb the branches for the same reason.

But then, he remembers his father, the things that the flawed man did for the flawed son that were absolutely perfect.  And he waits to be found by that same man. One who he now shares a meal with, realizing what it must have been like for his father to set out the long-ago morning, looking for a son and not knowing what he would find.

            …he takes us back
            To that morning behind the shed, looking at me
            As if I’m a jig-saw puzzle and he’s lost the picture.
            I didn’t take into account that he’d blame himself,
            That, with or without death, guilt would haunt him.

            …nothing rests between us except for our folded 
            hands.


Stewart’s poems reference jazz as a poultice to old-fashioned heartbreak.  Springsteen gets a nod as does many cultural references unique to rural places that time has left behind. Is it Everywhere? Is it Nowhere? That part of the map is rubbed out.  No matter, the reality is it's Anytown.

Special thanks to Hedgerow Books for the Review Copy.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

GUILTY OF GENOCIDE: Radovan Karadžić, The Butcher's Trail by Julian Borger

After five years of legal fighting, the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague has convicted Radovan Karadžić of 10 of the 11 war crimes he was charged with.  He got a 40 year sentence.

Wait. What?  Forty years? For the massacre of somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 men and boys in his efforts to ethnically cleanse the Balkans?  Sure, he'll die in prison. But even a token sentencing of 6,000 years of prison would feel more appropriate.

You won't find this on CNN today, or much of anywhere. The Guardian carried the article below, but it was one of the few outlets that did. The media has a short-term memory problem.

 The Guardian's article on Radovan Karadzic today (link)



Today is hugely significant, as it took five years and the research of thousands and testimony of hundreds to both catch him and convict him.  People who knew better than to forget the horrors he imposed on humankind kept the investigation moving forward.

The story of his manhunt is found in Julian Borger's new book, The Butcher's Trail: The Secret History of the Balkan Manhunt for Europe's Most-Wanted War Criminals.  Borger works for the Guardian as well, and lends his gravitas to the novel-like story of the investigation of three of the worst war criminals in our time.  Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Karadzic all participated in the brutality unforgotten by citizens of the the region.

Milosevic's lawyer was quoted in the book, "I thought [to] myself that Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic should all have committed suicide. They would have gone into history. Thousands of people died for them, and if you are sending people's children to their death, you should know how to leave yourself" (Borger 223).

A startling fact was relayed in the foreword: "Two civilians were killed for every three soldiers who died in battle. The whole conflict was characterized by random brutality.  Psychopaths were made masters of the life and death or their former neighbors" (Borger xxv).

From the Guardian, source beneath:----------------------------------



Number of dead or disappeared by ethnicity in the 1992-95 Bosnian war
Dead or disappeared, thousands

Bosniaks
Serbs
Croats
Other ethnicities
0
10
20
30
40
50
60



Guardian graphic | Source: Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo------------------------------

Milosevic died in his cell during the proceedings, and Mladic is yet to be tried.  

Borger's book is imminently readable, but the horrors it contains are hard to take. Most of the time  he focuses not on the actual violent acts but instead the spy chase to catch these men, the secret intelligence gathering, and the operatives who put themselves at risk to try and right the wrongs of Yugoslavia's past. It might make a good film were it not so horrifyingly true.
 
author Julian Borger

I remember one account (not from this book): these brutal men would order a family executed because one of their men had gone missing. Everyone was buried up to their necks in the ground in a small grouping, still alive. The dirt and mud were pressed around them: there was no escape.  How long they lived is unknown before their defenseless heads were attacked by animals and vermin. What kind of conversation does one have with their child in that situation, when death is imminent? How would they look into each other's eyes as the time passed?  Can a worse death be imagined?

Borger's book was just released in January and is one way to honor victims by not forgetting what happened these not-so-many years past.  So while CNN is talking Trump or Kardashian, the real news is the conviction of this hideous man. I didn't want to show his picture but it's the only one I could find where he looks scared. Scared is good.  This was when he was actually sentenced today. 


Special thanks to Jessica Greer of Other Press for the Advance Review Copy.

Those who follow my blog know that my heart is somewhat attached to this area of Europe. An excellent book about the history of Croatia was written by Tony Fabijancic in his book, Croatia: Travels in an Undiscovered Country. Fabijancic also wrote Bosnia: In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip. Both shed enlightenment on the loveliness of most ofthe people alternating with the horror of genocide committed by others.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Best of 2015: my little list

BEST OF 2015;

This year was tough. I was reading a wider variety of books related to school and work and less fiction.  But the books I chose for this list were ones that I didn't just like, but that knocked me out entirely.  Beyond great fiction, they have the added element of making one think.  Like a self-help book wrapped up in a great story.

My best books of 2015:  Outside of Eyrie and Bettyville, my absolute favorites, the rest are in no particular order.

Bettyville by George Hodgman:



This memoir speaks to so many levels of my life.  Maybe it's a personal connection, or just a great memoir inspired by an amazing woman. When she died earlier this year, I wept.  She was badass and tender in a subtle way. George Hodgman manages to bring out all her dimensions in a funny and emotional life story.  It is not just a picture of her and her history, but of community and friendship and the perils of caregiving. Hodgman combines heart with brutal honesty.  This is the book I recommend to everyone.

Eyrie by Tim Winton:

It's weird to fall in love with a fictional character. But this angst-filled and lost man is read as someone you just want to care for and love.  He's lost in a world determined to shut him out because of an industrial cover-up.  His relationships with family and old friends determine the man he has become.  He's awful, selfish, sweet, and totally lost.  Endearing is an understatement.

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance by Jonathan Evison:

Evison writes about an intriguing woman, and leaves you a little lost when you realize how he plays with your emotions so simply by his fantastic writing.  She's sad. Lonely. She's evil. Intolerable. Tortured. Sweet again.  The push and pull between one's hopes and one's realities makes this hard to put down, especially as nothing is predictable.  And despite her often-strange and sometimes irritating persona, he doesn't take the cheap shot to simply make her a joke.

http://www.theblacksheepdances.com/2015/09/this-is-your-life-harriet-chance-by.html



Burning Down George Orwell's House by Andrew Ervin:


A literary fiction title filled with humor and wisdom: an intriguing combination.   Seeing the production of whisky with all its varieties as a metaphor for one's life is brilliant.  Especially great if you are into Orwell himself, as the research and anecdotes are fascinating.

http://www.theblacksheepdances.com/2015/05/burning-down-george-orwells-house-by.html


The Point of Vanishing by Howard Axelrod:


Perhaps it is a personal dream of mine, but Axelrod takes a personal tragedy and chooses to embrace a life alone to rediscover his own identity and to create a life outside the boundaries of his upwardly-mobile path to success.  Painful, honest, brilliant. Review forthcoming.

Growing a New Tail by Lisa . Taylor


This collection of short stories paints pictures of women, men, children and neighborhoods in a way that is brutally honest and entirely sympathetic. The characters she paints are the invisible members of society that face momentous battles all alone, with no fanfare for their successes nor tears for their losses.  Review forthcoming.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke:
This memoir details O'Rourke's last year with her mother who died of cancer.  Rather than focus on the pain and ugliness, O'Rourke's book is a celebration of an amazing woman and also a portrait of a family in loss and confusion.  It made me cry as I read it with thoughts of my own mother.  It is honest without a saccharine sweet ending.

Shader by Daniel Nester:



This memoir hit me like a rock. All of my teenage years distilled into one book. Memories of songs, trends, and the confusion of adolescence all boiled down into one honest portrayal of a suburban family facing divorce, poverty, and New Jersey.  Certain scenes are like snapshots of teenage memories that are apparently universal. One winces as they remember.

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld:


Suspenseful is the only way to describe this non-linear fictional title that is frightening on so many levels.  Childhood pain and abuse coupled with the aftereffects of a life chosen to be lived alone.  The protagonist is a tough woman with secrets that are never fully revealed.  You will not put this down.

http://www.theblacksheepdances.com/2015/01/all-birds-singing-by-evie-wyld.html

Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski:



Horse racing in Saratoga Springs takes on a sinister air as winners and losers are not defined by winning.  At the same time, an urban black man has to make a difficult decision based on the bad judgment of others.  Wisniewski combines both storylines together for a fast-paced and intriguing examination of greed and betrayal.

http://www.theblacksheepdances.com/2015/01/watch-me-go-new-fiction-from-mark.html

POETRY:

Ada Limon's Bright Dead Things is poetry for anyone with heart.  Her pictures translated into verse are as easy to envision as a photograph. Brilliant, subtle, simple.  Review forthcoming.


New discoveries for 2015: 

Patrick Modiano's work was given to me by means of three novels. All are fantastic, moody and deep. I didn't pick a favorite as they are too complex to distill that way. Discomfiting is a bitter description.  

For television, check out the BBC's crime show, River, as well as Peaky Blinders and Call the Midwife.






Monday, November 30, 2015

After the Circus by Patrick Modiano -fiction in translation-Mark Polizzotti translator

Previously published in the New York Journal of Books, November 30, 2015
http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/after-circus
Review by Amy Henry



With age usually comes wisdom, and when waxing nostalgic, one usually sees the significance of youthful events in a new and understanding light. However, for our protagonist in Patrick Modiano’s new novel, After the Circus, it appears that even the passage of time has left him confused about the time when he was just reaching adulthood, alone in Paris.
author Patrick Modiano

Modiano’s writing is minimal in the extreme: He doesn’t share pages of descriptions of landscape or weather or clothing styles or significant architecture of the city of lights. Even night and day are hardly distinguished. The main character Jean is hardly described at all in terms of appearance or mannerisms. His new companion, Gisele, is noted tangibly only by the mention of her raincoat and skirt and sweater. Beyond that, nearly every supporting character is without distinguishing marks.
Perhaps the minimalism is to focus on the story’s plot, which also is quite minimal. A tight story arc gives the novel its focus, and it’s entirely intentional. Modiano’s lack of specificity creates a fog or haze over the city of Paris as its characters move and act below. And writing as he does from the viewpoint of an older man looking back, the lapses in memory (from choice or age) are entirely appropriate.
While lacking much description, he does give the novel a mood. A sense of foreboding that is at odds with the simplicity of many early scenes. The mood pervades, however, as day and night and meal after meal in nameless restaurants demonstrates the couple’s idle and unfocused path. Dark streets are traversed repeatedly, lending a sort of symbolism to their future.
translator Mark Polizzotti

Of note is Modiano’s little trick for springing unexpected revelations on the reader. For example, on their first night together, Jean roles over in the bed they were sleeping in.  At first the reader is led to believe they shared it platonically. But he notes that she is nude beneath her raincoat. And the story proceeds. As a reader, the reaction is, “Wait! What was that? Were they intimate and thus she was nude? Did she remove her clothes to sleep? Or, (more significantly) had she been nude underneath her raincoat all day long? During the police questioning?” It’s a small detail that impacts the story a great deal, and Modiano doesn’t feel obligated to explain.  As the novel progresses, you begin to wonder if Jean even knows that answer.
The plot itself is simple: a young man, newly freed from parental control is living temporarily on his own (with an oft-missing caretaker) after his parents move to Switzerland. He’s under age and bored. We first meet him being questioned by the police because his name was found in a suspicious address book. He has no answers for their ambiguous questions. After he leaves, a woman enters and is similarly questioned, but out of his earshot. When she leaves, he meets up with her at a café, and after she asks the dangerous question, “Will you do me a favor?” they somehow become inseparable, based on their shared police experience and nothing more.
She’s slightly older but appears years wiser and often takes notice of his naiveté with merely a look or a long pause. Silent mostly, they spend the next few days sharing his old apartment, walking the dog, and eating out quietly. Their conversations are minimal and one can’t help but wonder where their attraction lies. 
Soon, she introduces him to some friends, older businessmen, and Jean admires the attention they show him. He feels they are benevolent and ready to assist his exciting new future. Jean’s sense of self-absorption is noticeable, perhaps from his sheltered youth, convincing him everyone is looking out for his best interests. 
Again, the reader feels exasperation, wanting him to realize more has to be going on around him. Older Jean, looking back, expresses this: “If I could go back in time and return to that room, I would change the bulb. But in brighter light, the whole thing might well dissolve.”
Gisele shields him from any ugliness (often leaving him in the car with the dog), and now in love, they decide to move to Rome after one last favor for her friends. So kind her friends are! They’ve provided them with cash for the move and even that car! Again, just for a brief favor. Jean only begins to sense, as they pack for Rome, that something may be amiss. It’d be a good time for his parents to advise him, yet they’re gone. The question then jars the reader: Why exactly did his parents move in the first place? 
Time is a tricky player in this novel: Jean lives and makes decisions in present time, his older self is observing backward in memory, and then older Jean actually returns to the places and haunts that clouded his mind so many years ago. Clarity is never fully attained, lost in that same fog and mist that romanticized Paris and served to confuse young Jean years before.

Published by Yale University Press
A Margellos World Letters title

Sunday, October 18, 2015

All the Things We Never Knew by Sheila Hamilton (memoir, mental health)

First published in the NY Journal of Books
October 18, 2015

Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness
Review by Amy Henry

Sheila Hamilton and her daughter Sophie suffered unimaginably and yet found their way to wholeness again. Both were entirely upended by the behavior and suicide of their husband and father, David. What they endured is unspeakable. Not having a safe base for living in an already conflicted world truly tests the human spirit.
Not only did David commit suicide, there was a protracted hunt for his body after he left the city behind with his intentions fairly clear to those who knew him. It was winter, and his family couldn’t help but imagine him out in the cold, alone. Eventually he was found, and it was said he finally discovered his peace after he killed himself; however, that peace wasn’t extant for his wife and daughter: Not only did he not leave a note, but he left them heavily in debt.
This family deserves empathy and understanding, but parts of this memoir are very difficult to understand. Not to underestimate someone’s pain, but questions arise as to the premise of the book and the idea that he was dead “within six weeks of a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder.” Formal is the key word here, because it’s clear from the onset that David was suffering from a mental disorder for a very long time.
It’s important to note that Sheila Hamilton is a noted radio and TV personality in the Portland area, highly successful in a cutthroat business. From childhood to the height of her career, she was successful precisely because she knew people and reflected a sweet and happy personality that her fans found relatable. She is a smart cookie.
Therefore, reading her describe her courtship and early marriage to David is terribly confusing. From their initial meeting at a coffee shop, David seemed too good to be true. He had some quirks, which is something all of us have to own up to. But their relationship was fraught with periods of unusual behavior on his part. Long disappearances, secretiveness, and constant personal disorganization despite a successful business were troubling events. Interactions with his own father were not of the warm and fuzzy nature.
It wasn’t long before he was cheating on her (she found out) and even taking his child on his rendezvous with women. Asking one of the child-care providers on a date was less than shocking. He had a penchant for escapism. At times, as well, he would become extremely irate and irrational over the noise of cars on a distant street. It’s clear he was troubled, and reading it makes you wonder why his family did not seek help sooner. 
This is why the premise of his sickness being discovered “only six weeks” before his death is inaccurate: His family was enduring his pain along with him for much longer. Years. This presentation adds a certain scare tactic to the memoir, as it asks readers to consider mental issues as something that can come on rapidly, without warning. Yet the details shared are themselves revealing as to how long he suffered and how some forms of intervention may have helped. 
Hamilton is from a large family in Utah, and has no doubt spent time with hundreds of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances in her life. She had to know what rational behavior was and what wasn’t. How could Hamilton, given her knowledge of people, not see it? She cannot be blamed in any way, of course, as David was the one who was sick and put her through countless incidents of infidelity and pain. Was it the stigma of mental health problems that made it difficult to broach the subject or was she in denial, given his tremendous talent and charm?
Sheila Hamilton -Portland's pride
She clearly had a close relationship with her daughter and was able to provide stability and certain life luxuries that may have made it easier for Sophie to endure what may have seemed odd in her young mind. Perhaps focusing on Sophie helped Hamilton avoid the more painful thoughts of David and her helplessness in dealing with him.
In any case, Hamilton ends most of the chapters with an informative page on mental health statistics and traits so that readers may see what she didn’t. One of them, entitled “The Escape Theory of Suicide” is especially interesting. In it, one psychologist noted that “most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives” but created “unreasonable standards for happiness.” This statistic is prefaced with the shocking detail that men commit four out of every five suicides in the U.S.
The memoir ends with numerous resources for those with questions to investigate. The array of organizations designed to help different sorts of people with varying sorts of mental health issues is a positive step in helping to decrease the horrific statistics. Hamilton is a brave woman to come forward with her story and potentially help other families.
Special thanks to Seal Press for the Review Copy. 
 If someone you know is suffering from behavior you may think is troubling, contact your local mental health resources or MentalHealth.gov, NAMI.org, or SAMHSA.gov.  Each provides an easy anonymous means to get help and have questions answered.  Also, never forget the power of meeting with a regular family physician to rule out medical problems. Pursue any means to get help for your loved ones before it is too late.  Don't let the stigma or embarrassment hold you back.
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Monday, October 12, 2015

Quicksand by Steve Toltz (fiction)

First Published in the New York Journal of Books
October 12, 2015


He’s the last person you’d want to sit by on a bus. As a brother-in-law, he’d probably make you poke forks in your eyes at the family picnic. Probably the most self-absorbed and offensive character you’ll meet…so, why is he so appealing?

This is Aldo and he’s the gyre this novel seems to revolve around, dizzy and disjointed in a way filled with seriously witty lines and repellent acts. Aldo and Liam are long-time friends who’ve grown into adults left with little to take pride in, and a history of disappointment. Having both lost sisters to early deaths, they share a bond that makes you think that you’re headed for a poignant tale of friendship. Poignant, yes.  Wildly unpredictable?  That too.

At times it appears that the purpose of Aldo is a mirror to discover the nature of Liam, a fascinating character on his own. Liam is a writer who is so interested in authenticity for his characters that he attends the police academy to research police procedure. When his novel dies soon after, he ends up becoming a policeman to make his living. The irony of painful reality versus dreams.
research can be dangerous

When the story begins Aldo is in a wheelchair, and the two are bored in a bar in Australia. Regret swarms them. Liam’s police uniform chafes him mentally, and Aldo is bent on offending everyone. Liam decides that Aldo is his lost muse, and decides to return to writing: “to write about you is to troubleshoot the human spirit.”

For Aldo, a middle-class kid who is not graced with any advantages, life is a brutal game of catch-as-catch-can. Early in his teens he’s falsely accused of rape, and it alters his personality forever.  “Always democratic in his alliances, now he became friends with everybody…It was as if by surrounding himself with people, he was building airtight alibis for every minute he passed on earth.” His personality becomes a jarring combination of moral superiority and immoral and illegal business practices. Fond of himself, he assumes others loathe him.

Schemes abound, such as his idea to start a B&B&B (Brothel, Bed & Breakfast), as well as developing restaurants and films. Without much forethought, he reels in investors but delivers nothing. He becomes a legend in their region, a loser that seems to have a group of successful acquaintances who help bail him out, enabling him to continue to delude himself, when they aren’t beating him up. And there’s always Liam to come to the rescue.

But in his misery and joblessness, he has all the great lines. Of a stiff-mannered sketch artist, he said “he looked like he would have to be loved intravenously”. Of himself, he says he is “a sleeper angel waiting to be activated”. His acerbic presence in the first half of the novel is delightful.

Here’s where the narrative gets complicated. In a completely non-linear way, tossing most conventions aside, Toltz gets experimental. We are forced into leaving the storytelling for a long-winded section about Aldo’s fate. He’s facing trial and we have yet to understand what caused his disability. 

When he was a wise-ass blowhard with intriguing thoughts and observations, he was a sympathetic character. We liked him more than he liked himself (which was a lot!). His efforts to get the upper hand on his body are epic: he attempts surfing even if it means dragging his paralyzed body across the sand. But once the trial begins, and he’s given free rein to explain his life in his own voice (up to now we’ve had Liam narrating), he is simply a blowhard. 
Aldo's secret beach?


He tells astonishing stories and it’s clear that madness is a factor weighing into the outcome. Scenes in court seem like hallucinations. His reality is one of a hypnotic attraction to desperate women, suicidal (yet considerate) people, and a host of other repellent and obnoxious images.

Awkward dialogue take the place of much needed exposition and it becomes a confusing tangle of allegations, and the introspective ravings of a bore. This section, “The Madness of the Muse”, lives up to its title.

All said, the novel features tremendous wit and a juicy repartee with the two men. Liam is intriguing as a foil to Aldo: a straight man to his comedy.  By the conclusion, seeing that Aldo’s long-term influence on Liam actually makes Liam a better man is an irresistible concept.
This is not Aldo.  It's author Steve Toltz.



In the final pages, Aldo asks Liam about that book he was writing. Liam’s response: “It’s been hard...Really hard. I mean, I’ve been working around the clock to get down an accurate cross-section of your traumas, but it’s difficult to make an underdeveloped person into a well-rounded character. I think I’ve accurately depicted how you’re critical of others yet despairing of your own unceasing self-regard, and how you don’t think so much as secrete thought…The thing is, I want to make you real. Tangible.”

Review copy courtesy of Simon and Schuster. 
Released 9/15/15.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter (fiction)

Years ago I was obsessed with more general titles of mass fiction, particularly crime and detective novels. I didn't realize there was better reading to be found.  I admit that Jeffrey Deaver and Patricia Cornwell were favorites.  And while there is nothing wrong with mass market fiction, it quickly felt stale.  Most of these authors also tried to up the shock value within each book in what inevitably was made into a series.  With life being hard, I realized I didn’t want to read such depressing and at times depraved reading.  That’s when I focused on lesser known authors and titles, with a draw towards translated fiction.



However, recently I was sent an ARC of Pretty Girls, a book that promised a deep mystery about a serial killer. I don’t know why, but I fell for it. One lazy afternoon, I curled up with it.  At first, the premise was intriguing.  A father of a missing daughter is writing a long letter to her, to let her know what she missed while absent. Not knowing whether she was dead or alive, he persisted.  From that we see the rest of the family and how they reacted to the loss. Two remaining daughters go in different directions, forever marked from the loss and the constant wondering about her whereabouts.

The sisters, Claire and Lydia, are as different as possible. One tough and able, moving forward despite addiction issues and violence.  The other, simply checking out of life to let her amazing husband make all decisions for her and spending her time as a socialite. Both women still seethe with rage but keep it hidden.

Now, stop if you are wary of spoilers. I won’t be too specific, but I will try and explain why this is one of the most appalling books I’ve ever read. Instead of giving up, I had to continue reading to see if it was truly as awful as I imagined.  It was.

After Claire’s husband dies, her life unravels quickly, and it’s discovered that her husband was not as he seemed.  She handles this by falling apart, finally reaching out to her distant sister Lydia (found urinating on his grave) to help her figure out what to do. From here the novel dissolves into a violence-soaked whodunit wherein both sisters fight and argue while at the same time trying to solve the problem and see if they can find their lost sister too.  Improbability becomes the underlying theme.

Claire is an especially bizarre character: smart but without a shred of emotion (except tennis-invoked rage).  She’s benign and boring, and her existence is pinned to her outrageous beauty. She’s unsympathetic and spoiled. Her beauty is mentioned endlessly, as Lydia's chubby body is as well.  I'll get back to this, it's important!

What ensues next is an urgently-paced effort to find the killer, one who rapes women with machetes and uses waterboarding with his own urine as torture.  Yes, you read that right.  Branding, dismembering, burning skin: ho hum. It becomes so common, in nearly every page, that one stops being shocked.  And that’s what disturbed me the most.  I felt sick, like I was contributing to such violence just by reading this.  Was it giving potential serial killers ideas?  Was this misogyny intended to make us reflect on the 'wonderfu'l sisterhood that tries to rid the planet of the monster? Or reflect simply on horrifying images?

Did the female author find it necessary to use this to fuel our interest?  To show that women are most often the victims of violent crime? Maybe she had a message, but it’s lost in the violence itself.
One thing especially stood out: nearly all the women in the story face such brutality. They are graphically described by their body parts, what happens to them, and inventive ways to torture them. They are literally in pieces.  Unlike anything you think you’ve seen on Forensic Files or any number of horror films. And they are categorized with generic labels: either beautiful, or fat, or well-dressed, or frumpy, or rich, or poor. No further explanation or revelation. Labels.  From a female author, that was a surprise.

And yet, the men. The men in the story remain fully functional.  Their bodies are not chipped away at. They are not described in such helpless positions with no way of escape.  They remain whole, despite a literally countless women hanging from cattle hooks, disemboweled, and violated.  In fact, the only real comment the author makes about the men in the novel is her strange obsession with their mustaches, commenting significantly on every single one.  The men are also not given superficial labels.

Of course, this “mystery” is of the “no one can be trusted” variety and yet very little makes it where you care. As it appears, beyond the suspension of disbelief,  everyone is a criminal.  It’s too vast a conspiracy with little explanation for how it began.  Events in the first part are never tied to latter parts. Motive is what appears to be lacking.

The author then tries to solve it and tie it up in a few last improbable chapters that are actually laughable.  The sisters try and save each in other in a last ditch effort at unity but are so dazzlingly naïve that you want to smack them yourself. It was a tiny bit refreshing that the problem is solved by two women rather than the inevitable bored male detective who usually comes in to save the day. But that's not enough to salvage this gory mess.

And of course, everyone lives happily ever after.

I’m off mystery novels like this now for a good long time, if not forever.  A violent world surrounds us, so sinking into this sewer of ugliness is not going to make anyone feel good. Except perhaps a serial killer who is bored and looking to up his game  (for which this may serve as a "how to" manual).  It’s that awful.  I don’t know how popular this author is, probably very, but in my small little voice I have to say what she’s written is as disturbing and hateful and as misogynistic as anyone could be accused of being.  She’s not done a service for women by creating characters that solve crime and empowering them. Instead,, she’s created women that are eternal victims, who even in their victory are disappointing and weak.  That itself is a crime.  

The author's last name? Slaughter.  Go figure that one out.  If it's a pseudonym, I can't imagine a more apt one.

Thanks, but no thanks, to Century Publishers for the Review Copy.

This novel releases September 29, 2015.

If you are in fact desirous of some good suspense novels that aren't this gory, I'd recommend a look at The Devotion of Suspect X by Higashino, any of the Benjamin Black "Quirke" series, Klausen by Maier, The News Where You Are by O'Flynn, or any of the other titles listed under the Fiction tab above, or leave a comment if you wish.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Super Better by Jane McGonigal (game theory, games for mental and physical improvement)

Originally published in the New York Journal of Books, September 14, 2015. 
 Releases September 15, 2015.


Super Better: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient—Powered by the Science of Games by Jane McGonigal

By Amy Henry

Jane McGonigal has been acclaimed for decades for her theories in gaming and the value of games in relation to positive psychology and problem solving; however, it wasn’t until 2009, when she suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that she created the concept of Super Better.

Super Better is a very personal method of transforming the depression and anxiety related to injury into a successful mode for coping and actually getting better.
She goes from plain Jane to “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” a new identity used as “a way to start feeling heroic and determined instead of hopeless.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is examined in detail throughout the book, as she shows that there is a positive component, an alternative, called post-traumatic growth. In this she seeks to show how one can not only recover from TBI but also become better than ever before for the experience.

Her core strategy, or the rules of the SuperBetter game, are seven touchstones for each player to achieve. They are achieved simultaneously, not as individual steps. She does encourage one to start with the simplest, but ultimately wants her readers to focus on interacting with all seven features of the program. The first is “Challenge yourself,” and this is the most dramatic of the set: many injured or depressed people don’t feel up to another challenge than the one they are already battling. Instead, she shows how challenge is possible, necessary, and rewarding.

She starts with quests, some so simple as to seem silly; however, willingness to try these simple tasks is a way of opening up the mind to new achievements. And it’s the mind that controls much of the pain experiences and anxiety issues that trouble the entire person.

The book is filled with anecdotal evidence as well as serious scholarly references. For example, she discusses burn patients, who suffer excruciating pain when their wounds are cleansed. Yet a virtual reality game, set in a snow filled environment, was given to some patients to play during the process. Their focus on the game and the impression of the snow enabled a reduction in pain so great that some didn’t realize their wounds were being cleaned while they played. Why does it work? The mind was intensely distracted, and the benefits were enormous:

“In order to prevent pain signals from turning into a conscious awareness of pain, patients need to swing their spotlight of attention somewhere else—and keep it there.”

In this, it’s cognitive focus that provides the needed distraction to focus pain somewhere else. And much of this is as simple as playing a game of Tetris. Tetris, the old-school video game, employs a simple but fast paced strategy of matching tiles in specific ways. Created in 1984, it still commands huge benefits when one is discussing cognitive focus. More traditional games like Scrabble, crosswords, or puzzles simply don’t offer the speed and required attention to become sufficiently distracted. So McGonigal encourages readers to focus on digital games with color and speed to divert attention.

Some of the applications of such gaming benefits are still evolving to be used for maximum benefit. In one case, Oxford scientists found that people exposed to a horrific situation that would likely result in them suffering PTSD could alter that eventuality by playing Tetris within six hours of seeing or being involved in the triggering situation. 

Fascinating, yes. But in real life how does one predict a situation of such staggering proportions? And then, how would one possibly be able to ensure a Tetris game would be on hand? Further, would a victim even be willing (or able) to dispel their shock and pick up a video game? The benefits are intriguing, but the application is still impractical.

McGonigal also addresses the many stories in the media about how bad video games are and how they distance people from real life. She clarifies this by asking why people are playing these games for hours:

“If you typically play games to escape your real life—that is, to ignore your problems, to block unpleasant emotions, or to avoid confronting stressful situations—you will have a very difficult time translating your game skills to real life.”

Yes, gaming to escape is not beneficial. But if one is choosing to “play with purpose” as a form of quality family time, or to learn a new skill, or to relax after a rough day, then gaming can be a positive force. Viable applications are discussed throughout, mostly in cases of pain management. And specific Challenges, such as the Ninja Challenge, can aid any person in altering their minds, bodies, and relationships.

While McGonigal starts with her personal recovery story, she completes the book with a positive scope that widens out the possibility of anyone becoming SuperBetter via her tactics.


Special thanks to Penguin Press
 and Elizabeth Calamari for the Advance Review Copy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison (fiction)

Originally posted in the New York Journal of Books, September 10, 2015

This is Your Life was a popular television show in the 1960s and 1970s, an early reality show that delighted many audiences. Each episode introduced an unsuspecting guest to their past through previous friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. But who is it who decided which people were important or at least significant in our lives?
It’s with this format that Jonathan Evison examines the life story of an elderly widow in This is Your Life, Harriet Chance. Starting at age zero up to seventy-eight, we see the truth and consequences of Harriet’s tumultuous life. As Evison speaks to his protagonist directly, he reminds her that life is like “a pinball, pitching and careening, rebounding off anything it makes contact with.” Harriet is going to be forced to examine past choices that make up her identity and discover what she thought was an option was never even a choice.
As the story begins, Harriet is ambivalent about taking an unexpected cruise to Alaska, a gift from her late husband. His ghost visits her, making her children believe she’s losing her mind. They try to ban her from taking the trip, but she’s determined to go, even if it means going alone. While the random appearances of her late husband continues onboard, as if he’s trying to tell her something, all she’s getting are memories of how unpleasant he was, leaving her to wonder why she misses him so much in the first place.
Bernard is a blue-collar worker who catches Harriet’s eye, despite her being a society girl. It seems muscles can say more than trust funds. They marry quickly, and soon two children join them. The years slip by with Harriet increasingly conscious of how much she gave up for that idealized nuclear family. Then there’s the fact that after the initial thrill of Bernard’s manly persona fades, she’s left with a cranky old man:
“Conversing with Bernard reminds you of talking to your golden retriever. . . . A tilt of the head, a wag of a tail, a snarl—it’s about all you can reasonably expect.”
With these details, Evison takes Harriet back and forth through flashbacks that reveal how modern she was for her time, and how events from the past shape her beyond what she’s willing to admit. At age twenty-five, he asks her:
“Have you released your independence at long last? Have you finally stopped tracking the progress of that other incarnation of yourself. . . . Or have you simply lowered your standards?”
Ouch. Is that what is troubling her, that other self that may have taken a different and better course? One that wouldn’t involve changing her husband’s diapers or watching her daughter steal from her purse? Was there ever a choice?
Before the ship has left the dock, Harriet gets the shock of her life, and it’s not just her dead husband climbing over the railing. She’s shaken by a sudden revelation that knocks her flat, and coping with that can only involve a great deal of wine. Suddenly, Harriet isn’t exactly who she seemed just pages earlier.
Evison teases out the details by flashbacks, reminding Harriet directly that maybe she is not the only one with disappointments. This changeup sets the tone for her cruise off kilter, and she finds it difficult to recover. It doesn’t help that a sudden visitor joins her for the remainder of the trip. The pinball flippers are snapping wildly now. Her future has become a game of chance, and one can only hope Harriet doesn’t end up down the drain or tilting out.
The novel itself is intriguing. Of the frequent flashbacks, Evison handles these well, portraying a lifetime in relatively few chapters. And he shines at describing the awkward moments of life, the minutiae that can trouble us—fat ankles, visits to rest homes, the nature of boxed wine—and shows how these reveal more about us than any autobiography. He suggests our identity isn’t made of grand gestures but how we handle the irritating little things in our life when no one is looking.
The way Evison (the author) handles the direct observations and questioning of Harriet (his character) at the beginning seems fresh and innovative, but becomes a bit tiresome after many chapters. Sometimes the way he speaks to her is annoying:
“Ring-a-ding-ding, it’s your thirtieth birthday, Harriet Chance, let the party begin!”  
“So c’mon, birthday girl, turn that frown upside down, and start counting your blessings!”
Another troublesome part of the novel is Bernard’s visits to his after-life handler. Is this heaven? Hell? Maybe it’s purgatory. In any case, Bernard is in trouble for contacting Harriet. But the purpose of these interruptions are never really clear.
author Jonathan Evison
That said, the questions Harriet faces are universal and all the more compelling for this reason. Would knowing the outcome of our potential life choices make life happier? Or would we be immobilized with hesitation? Do choices really exist? As in his previous novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Evison demonstrates a gift for dissecting past and present, and revealing the hope we all have not just to win, but to stay in the game.
- See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/your-life#sthash.M2rIERMJ.dpuf

Released 9/8/15 from Algonquin Books.
Review copy provided by the New York Journal of Books.
Special thanks to Brooke Czuka at Algonquin Books.