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,, or  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.

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 seemed stale quite fast.  Authors also tried to up the shock value with each book in what inevitably was 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 as torture with his own urine.  Yes, you read that right.  Branding, dismembering, burning skin: ho hum. It becomes so common, 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 wonderful 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 I noted was that 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 whole bunch of women hanging from cattle hooks, disemboweled, and violated.  In fact, the only real comment the author makes about the men in the novel is a strange obsession with their mustaches, commenting on nearly every single one.  And they are 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, is that 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 na├»ve that you want to smack them yourself. It is 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 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, 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:

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.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

The writing in this is so subtle. While it's a family drama, it reads like a mystery because the author holds her cards to her chest and doesn't reveal everything all at once. We know that two teenagers have died but the circumstances are shrouded in mystery.

Add to that the cultural differences: an Egyptian family living in suburbia that is essentially exiled after the deaths. Their Muslim faith is in tatters because their new country and the hostility from the deaths has made them outcasts. I doubt many Americans realize the harsh treatment and degree of extra scrutiny a Muslim family has to deal with everyday, much less after a tragedy. I enjoyed hearing about their traditions regarding faith and hope.

What I find most intriguing was the grandmother who comes from Alexandria to visit. I want one of her at my house. She's so comforting, wise, and calm. I think every house should have one! At one point she makes an Egyptian pastry --shoreik -- that is traditional to eat in remembrance of the lost. Others find it annoying that she makes a huge amount to take to the cemetery and then shares with everyone she meets. That was kindness and loveliness combined...true comfort food.
shoreik or shoreek

The father, Samir, annoyed me to no end. I know his type of man and he's so insecure that he feels he must impress people but ends up embarrassing his family. He cannot see his flaws. To me he was the antagonist in the story, even though the real antagonist seems to be mental illness. Nagla, the mother, seemed most real to me as she grasped with the loss of a child and the loss of her comfort in the US.

Yes, mental illness is an issue but it is brought into the story later. Hidden, like it is in many families. And that is the key to the story. The author never goes off on a tangent to become a psychologist to explain it away, she just explains how others are affected. I hate when authors try and psycho-babble their way through the plot as if to enlighten the reader. Most readers are well aware. Instead, hearing how day after day the other family members coped was far more intriguing.

Newly released August 11, 2015.

Advance Review Copy provided by Viking via Amazon Vine.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World by Tracy Slater (memoir)

This memoir took me awhile to get interested in. Reviewing a memoir is always tough, as you really don't want to appear to say, "I didn't like the book, your life is dull".  So I tend to be a bit more forgiving in reading one because they are putting themselves out there for all to see (and review!).

As it begins, Tracy has an ideal Boston life, surviving her family drama but in style: writing, teaching, shoe purchasing.  She has friends, a home, and all is well.  At this point, in her descriptions I found her a little annoying, condescending almost, just in her tone.  I'm not sure what set off that alarm in me but I hit a point where I thought, "Should I bother continuing?"

Yes, I needed to. Because in an impeccable work of writing, she manages to show us how she changes once she starts her new job.  This job involves working as a sort of business liaison/etiquette expert for Asian businessmen on the brink of going global. They already know English, but the particular social cues and protocols still need some working out.  In a dull classroom, she tries to explain the differences in conversational approaches and other things that are so different in the US from Asia.

She immediately falls for Toru, a Japanese businessman, and he is similarly smitten with her. Their relationship starts fast and grows exponentially.  The art of this is we see her transform in her words: just simple word choices and phrases are different from the pre-trip Tracy.  So instead of her describing herself as having changed, we see it evolving already without being told.  I was really impressed with this: usually you have the memoir writer explaining their transition verbally.  She doesn't.  The explanation is visible as she simply talks about who she and Toru have become.

The biggest problem to meet them isn't their affection, but the division of society's lifestyles between her home place and his.  Knowing they are in this for the long haul, she has to imagine if she can leave her beloved Boston or if he should move with her.  It's not as simple as thinking "love conquers all".  There is more than geographical change: the culture change is much greater.  Japanese society often (not always) features women that are more passive and submissive than the upper-class, college-educated independent academic that Tracy is.  They are well-educated too, but the social niceties are more subtle- less forthrightness, less group activities, and even a way of keeping their eyes downcast in submission.  I could see how huge this variance would be for me, and I'm a mild person. Many women I know would be about as welcome as Godzilla with their American manners and abrupt and forceful personalities.

Fortunately, Tracy and Toru are willing to try and work it out.  Give and take. All those self-help book advice mantras are suddenly put in play.  Can they find a way to honor his family and retain her love of American culture? All or nothing?

As I read this, I wish it had pictures. Toru sounds so handsome, and Tracy (I saw her picture) is lovely.  I'd like to see them together.  So few memoirs feature pictures!   In any case, I really enjoyed exploring the ups and downs of their relationship. At one point, as they're sleeping, she realizes for once she can relax and simply "be".  That's something hard to find, that everyone wants.  Someone with whom they can "be".

And for emphasis, I have to repeat that the way she writes is so compelling regarding the personal transformation in her beliefs and attitudes. I can't wait to see if she writes more: I'd like to see her do this with a character and show us (not tell) how they change and grow.  It's a beautiful skill and one I don't notice often in a memoir.  The last few I've read were overbearing in their author's explaining themselves, as if they were defensive and being interviewed on Dr. Phil. This one flows much more naturally and more intensely simply by her use of events and actions rather than exposition.

Review copy provided to Amazon Vine
by GP Putnam's Sons, and releases today, June 30, 2015.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Bastards by Mary Anna King (memoir)

This is the year of the memoir. Really.  I've never noticed so many.  A few I started to get bored with, as they seemed like a lot of navel gazing.    (Except Bettyville by George Hodgman. GO READ BETTYVILLE!!!!!)

Now I knew from the back blurb this wasn't a happy story (the title was a clue too).  What I didn't know was how a memoir could take such a breathtaking pace from sadness to tragedy and back without feeling overwrought.  Mary Anna King tells her story with no pity: she just tells it like it happened, and there was a great deal that happened. From a child's perspective, and without a child's knowledge of how things are supposed to be (only perhaps an intuition), her and her siblings deal with loss after loss. Indignity, shame, addiction, and loneliness.  In the world they live in, pretty much the bad side of various towns in what would be considered the projects, most of the neighbor kids shared similar lives. Mothers with feathered hair and Journey playing solidly placed this in the 1980s.

But the kids:  That they went on to play and forge loyalties and simply exist is a testament to how tough these kids were.  I hate it when people say children are resilient, as it seems a cop-out to excuse unforgivable actions, and because my studies in childhood trauma disagree with that notion.  But these children truly are, even if their lives are forever marked.  They will deal with this childhood forever, no matter how much therapy or blocking out they can attain.

I had tremendous pain for the mother, a foster youth who ended up marrying early and having too many kids way too soon.  She was still a child and had no role model to teach her how to live.  I had no such feeling for Mary's father, a man who seemed devoid of compassion and responsibility.  But Mary, Jacob, and Rebecca earned my admiration for how they existed dependent on each other as there was no one else. They intuitively knew that they could be taken into the juvenile protection system at any time, and so were cautious and watched each other's back. At the same time, they resisted any charity thrown their way as they still were trying to develop self-respect.

The writing is crisp and spare: nothing embellished to enhance the horror.  Simple details reveal far more.  There's even a mini-script for an imagined play that Mary imagines between her parents, and she casts Michael Keaton and Sally Field in the three page script.  An unusual little bit, but a creative offshoot that was not pretentious or overdone.  It's also very fast: I couldn't put it down because so much was happening on every page.

The themes of family and poverty run throughout, as in many memoirs, but the finding of lost siblings is a different dimension. No spoilers, but these children had a bigger family than imagined.

And then there's Mimi, stepmother supreme. I would hope that I would be Mimi if in such a situation.  A composed classy woman who survived the Depression and knew what struggle was.  Sure, she had some big flaws, but the first part of the book I found her to be possibly the one thing that kept these kids going. Until they moved to Oklahoma with her.  I didn't want to be Mimi anymore.

 There's so much to say, and so much to admire, but as this author becomes known, I can't wait to read something fictional from her to see if that pace and spare style continues.

Special thanks to Amazon for sending this Review Copy.
Review by Amy Henry.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Oliver de la Paz Reading Challenge 2015: here's my list

His idea, his rules. Sounds like a good kick to start reading this summer.  His website is

The Oliver De La Paz
Summer Reading Challenge Rules:
1) Pick 15 books that you would like to finish this summer--any genre, any size. This list doesn't have to be at 15 right from the start. It will grow as the summer continues.
2) Of the 15 books, designate 3 that you recommend to co-participants. (After you've read them, of course).
3) Of the 15 books, 3 of the books must be from recommendations by other participants.
4) Post your 15 book list somewhere with a link so that co-participants can link you on their webpages, tumblr pages, or blogs.
5) Hold yourself accountable by posting commentary about a book you've just read. Commentary can also take the form of something creative or artistic.
6) The Challenge Ends August 31st. Have fun.

My list of 12 (with the intention of picking three from other lists):

Master and the Margarita-Bulgakov    (for an online salon)

Zombie Wars - Hemon

Fishbowl - Somer

Kitchens of the Great Midwest - Stradal ****disappointing, a bit unrealistic for me to relate to

The Good Shufu - Slater**** really good memoir

The Eye Stone - Tiraboschi

Blackbird - Tom Wright

Imperium - Kracht

Bright Dead Things - Limon

Watchmen - Moore (for a class)

Bastards - King  ****excellent memoir, heartbreaking but worthwhile

Bootstrapper - Link

Monday, May 4, 2015

Burning Down George Orwell's House by Andrew Ervin

Review by Amy Henry

I think everyone has held the “cottage by the sea” dream aloft in our imagination, thinking at times it to be the ideal solution for when life gets messy or our decisions turn out to be disasters.  I can see my cottage so clearly that I wonder where I saw it; what gave me the definite image of the white shutters on the gray siding, the crisp brick chimney placed just so? Climbing roses tumbling down around a small fence, with the ubiquitous Adirondack chair (painted bright turquoise) facing a lovely calm bay? Was it described in a book?  A dubious Hallmark movie? 

Or, maybe… was it in an advertisement?  Someone selling paint? Easy-Gro plants?  Detergent?  You may find yourself questioning the origin of your dream cottage (admit it…you have one, if not by the sea, by a lake) when you get submerged in Andrew Ervin’s new novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House.

Isle of Jura
Sure, we know that such a fantasy, were it to happen, would be full of inconveniences. It would be completely worth going without electricity, internet, and Amazon just to be able to think and get away from other humans.  And this is the plan that Ray Welter makes a reality when he heads to the island of Jura, just off the Scottish mainland, fleeing both a failing marriage and a dubious job decision as an advertising executive at the cutting-edge firm, Logos. Cutting off all ties to his life, he packs a few books and sets out to find the time and space to think.

“Ray wanted to know again, to be able to delineate right and wrong in an un-deconstructed world of certainty. He wanted to feel the security of binary opposition. Good and bad.”

To be sure, Ray’s cottage is far different from ours in its providence: it was once the home of George Orwell, writer of one of the most readable books on the required reading list of any high school. I studied 1984 in 1984, and everyone in our age bracket immediately understood the significance of Doublespeak and Big Brother.  It seemed extreme, but possible. In the thirty years since, it isn't inevitable, it simply is.

Getting a cold and bumpy start, Welter finds that many inconveniences are eased by drinking whisky and napping. Lots of whisky.  In fact, it appears to be the only thing that keeps Jura functional, and the good stuff is distilled right on the island. The rain is endless, and the few residents he meets are an odd and cantankerous bunch that makes me fear Gerard Butler may be as bizarre and scary as them.  That thought alone should garner a dram of whisky.

While intending to study Orwell and get a sense of what inspired his most original and frightening vision of the future, Welter offends nearly everyone in his journey, until he’s finally alone at the cottage (more like a palace but I've committed myself to a cottage).  And then, with the dream a complete reality, and the nasty world behind him, and the cottage fire going, Welter is surprised to find himself a bit lost, maybe even bored.  Having time to think may not be in his best interests:

“As long as Ray could remember, since he was a little kid running amok in the endless rows of corn, his mind had contained partitioned rooms he knew not to enter; in them were countless self-perceptions better left un-thought about and which generated moods that later in life –particularly after his career at Logos took off – his personal safety required him to avoid. But left by himself for days on end, half-dozing next to a dying fire, with the large amounts of whisky unable to fight off the constant din of the rain, he couldn't help himself from picking open those locks and peering inside.”

Strange parallels of his life twist into irony that is Orwellian.  The first week there, he feels watched, as if every movement is being observed by a nefarious unknown.  And while he wanted to observe that gorgeous and refreshing seascape, the rain blots out any vision: he’s blind to what he’s looking for. Death pays a visit too, as he’s being gifted with disemboweled animals on his porch, attributed quite simply to one of the islander’s being a werewolf. 

As werewolves go, this one is pretty wise. He tells Welter, “remember that the difference between myth and reality isn’t quite as distinct here on Jura as you might believe.” This dichotomy plays out in both the scenery and his interactions with the island’s residents in scenes that are often tense but sometimes very funny. 

Welter’s study of Orwell is distracted by an abused young woman (of the jailbait variety) and her villainous father who hates all intruders into what he considers the old and traditional life Jura holds (tourists be damned). Change is feared by all on the island, but Welter comes with the mindset of an advertiser, where change is encouraged and necessary to remain profitable, and thus to exist. Strange neighbors, endless sheep, torture by bagpipe, and the arduous terrain keeps him from ever finding a comfort zone, and this is probably the point that Ervin is directing us towards. 
Andrew Ervin

This is most telling in a particularly revelatory tour of the Jura distillery, where Welter learns that the process of aging whiskey to perfection has a distinct subtext of living life to the full, in the present:

“The size of the cask and the location, that’s how every malt gets its distinct flavors. And from the geographical location of the distillery and the tiniest variations of coastline and altitude too.”

Whiskey as metaphor.  Of course.  The collision between stasis and change form a battle that goes beyond the novel.  It reels in Welter’s reflections from his time on Jura to his pre-Jura meltdown, even to the times of his childhood where Ervin sneaks in some tiny details that are revealing later.  It extends across economic, geographic, and family connections and surprises with an unexpected lightness rather than despondence. 

Well-paced, I had a hard time putting it down to attend to real life. It also occurred to me to check my Jura coffee maker to see if there was a whiskey dispenser I hadn't noticed (there isn't).  You will get thirsty, and if you can muster up a fire in a fireplace, you'll be set.  

Releases today, May 5, 2015.

Special thanks to Soho Books for the Review Copy.

Fun fact: how much is a dram? In other words, how are Ervin's characters able to remain standing with all this whiskey?  According to, it's about 1/8 of a fluid ounce, give or take 8 ounces or so, depending on your location and mood:

"For personal use, a dram is just the right amount of whisky that you feel comfortable with at a given moment. The size of a dram can be further specified with descriptors ranging from wee over healthy to stiff. Depending on the disposition, mood of the day as well as level of inebriation of the pourer, these specifications may show a tendency to converge at the stiff end of the scale."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sea of Storms by Stuart B. Schwartz (Hurricanes in Caribbean)

A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina

Hurricanes have the power to fascinate us, as do earthquakes and tornadoes, in their total power and seeming randomness (and in a small way to an epically bad final episode of Dexter).  Every hurricane season takes a toll on some region of the US or elsewhere, and while the news reports can be disturbing and frightening, it’s in the handling of these natural disasters that political policy, social attitudes, and scientific ignorance is most seen and least commented upon.

Stuart B. Schwartz has created a history of Hurricanes in the region that seems them the most…the Caribbean.  Scores have occurred that usually stay above the midline of South America and further up the East Coast of the US, centering mainly on the Caribbean from Mexico to the Bahamas and other islands. When my parents lived in Belize, I heard stories of people tying themselves into palm trees to survive the occasional hurricane. I didn’t believe it, but apparently, it’s not a rare plan when you are faced with a mighty storm, flooding, and no shelter.

Schwartz begins with one of the earliest recorded hurricanes and the written histories available from it, and goes on to explore the scientific basis for the cause of them.  Sailors often could tell when something was awry, but how that knowledge was dispersed was unlikely to help many people.  Starting with this hurricane in Veracruz, he weaves together the human and scientific elements that inevitably alter our history.

The first storm described was one that hit Veracruz in 1552, one described by the author as a “sixteenth-century Katrina”. The aftermath led many to conclude it was God’s punishment that led to such devastation: “they were set in a social, political, and conceptual frame that made an understanding of this catastrophe a moment for reflection on human sin and moral failure as the cause of God’s anger” (3). Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, increasing in every century since, this opinion is still widely shared and proposed as the reason for modern day hurricanes and similar storms.

Since hurricanes were not well-known meteorological behavior in many climates, when information about them reached Europe and other Northern regions, many of the details were converted into object lessons regarding good and evil.  It took a great deal of time for research into changes in weather, ocean conditions, and even animal behavior to be undertaken to prevent such disasters.

One chapter discusses early European forays into the Caribbean, with a somewhat ironic tale of two enemies whose fate was determined by such weather.  Columbus’ enemy Francisco de Bobadilla was the investigator who chained up Columbus and returned him to Spain with a very unfavorable report.  Years later, they meet again in Santo Domingo, where Bobadilla is heading out with a fleet of gold.  One of those ships held gold that belonged to Columbus that was being carried to Seville. Columbus warned both him and the governor that a huge storm was coming, but neither wanted advice from him.  He was even refused entry into the port. So Columbus found a small port to shelter in temporarily, and held out during the storm, while the others headed out.

Unfortunately for them, the prophecy of Columbus, who used his experience with observation of weather changes and water behavior, came true. Only the ship carrying Columbus’ gold survived. The rest, some twenty six boats, went down in the storm.  Sadly, five hundred plus sailors and the remaining gold sank.  Columbus may have felt vindicated, but he then suffered rumors of being “in concert with the Devil and that he had actually called down the storm upon his enemy” (11).  I’m not a big fan of Columbus, but wow. Major burn.

When scientists set about trying to predict and prevent hurricanes, their ideas ranged from ridiculous to somewhat on target, but always at a cost.

Whatever the scientific value of such attempts at weather modification, these hurricane projects and those to increase or decrease rainfall were always politically controversial, since changing the course of a hurricane or changing areas of rainfall might save one area from injury, but place another in danger. Fidel Castro claimed the United States was carrying out environmental warfare by trying to divert rainfall from Cuba to ruin its agriculture (274).

Interestingly, it was Castro as a leader who was the one most interested in responding successfully to the next hurricane, Flora, where “all of the institutions of the regime were mobilized for the relief effort – militias, the army…the Red Cross and police “(288). He interacted with victims and played a visible role in the country by seeking out more information about the storms and relief available. This was in sharp contrast to the nearby regions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,hit brutally and where the dictator Duvalier appeared to care not at all by the damage or his people’s losses.

Throughout the centuries since the hurricane in Veracruz, the responses are strangely the same.  Not all take advantage of warnings given (which are not always clear), and when the damage is done, blame is given to the people themselves for abandoning God or living a lifestyle deserving of such disaster. An example of this, outrageous as it is, is Hurricane Katrina.  The failures on so many levels is sobering and obscene.

First, despite Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was gutted after the election of George W. Bush. Bush’s campaign manager called it “an oversized entitlement program” and its level of preparedness was diminished (entitlement being the code word for helping the poor).  After all, after 9/11 there were less funds allotted to it, and then it came under the direction of Homeland Security with a focus more on “anti-terrorist activities”.  Good intentions may have led to very poor decisions, but it appears there was a more sinister attitude in play.  One journalist, Eric Holderman, is quoted in the book as warning via the Washington Post that “hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, fires and flu were destined to be a national concern on a weekly or daily basis.  They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them” (318).

He makes a valid point.  Reducing protection across the board in case of a natural disaster weakens the US as a whole, as a terrorist act garners more of a reaction. And never can this been seen more than in Hurricane Katrina.  When it occurred, I was on a rafting trip in Northern California.  Away from news, even radio, for a week, made coming home to the disaster seem as if Armageddon had arrived in New Orleans.  For many, it might as well have been.

New Orleans reeling from a hurricane is no surprise. First, the location. Dangerous levees, a low ground point in comparison to Lake Ponchartrain, and the levels of the Mississippi all contribute to a region surrounded by water (so much so that graves are raised on concrete platforms in the city cemeteries rather than in the ground).  In addition, about a quarter of the city lived below the poverty line, and was 67% African American. This demographic was not considered politically valuable and thus efforts to help Louisiana were largely pushed aside, despite credible warnings.
We can all picture the Superdome and its intense overcrowding, but less known is the more insidious wrongs that took place:

Doctors were turned away from aiding victims because they did not have state licenses; buses were not mobilized [for evacuation] because they lacked air-conditioning or toilets; bus drivers were not allowed to serve until they had the required sexual harassment training; the governor’s request for national aid was delayed for five days because it had not been made in writing (324).

It’s hard not to quote this entire chapter as it is so shocking.  I had no idea that FEMA tried to suppress photos of the dead or of those trapped on roofs or hanging on to flimsy floating boards.  Were they worried about bad PR? Food was not provided to Superdome evacuees.  While 80% of the city had been evacuated, those that remained were blamed in the press for not leaving in a timely way, despite that many of these were the poor and elderly that did not have the means to escape (remember the lack of buses?).  The fact that not ALL could escape was already predicted by expert projection made no difference:  no plan was implemented to change that, so this television visibility “drove home a message of social and racial inequalities”. 

Now, all of this is tragic, and yet many people still feel that the situation was impossible to prevent and thus impossible to prepare for. Yet, attitudes of leaders and TV buffoons illuminate a further, racially biased attitude that had to contribute to the disaster, either in beliefs about it or towards its victims.  While you may have the TV pundits say dumb things, like Bill O’Reilly, who “suggested that those who had not evacuated were drug addicts unwilling to leave their suppliers”, it’s more troubling when the political leadership in the US and especially that region (people in a position to change and improve policy) also speak ignorantly of the disaster.  Robert Baker, a Baton Rouge congressman, stated “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”  Rick Santorum (fun to google him), a Republican candidate for President, felt that those who didn’t evacuate should be penalized.  As if they weren’t already by the sub-human conditions.

Additionally, many TV outlets emphasized and exaggerated the occurrences of crime and looting. In fact, many of the looters were taking only food, milk, toilet paper and bread. 

And of course, there were the interpreters, such as many ministers who suggested, just like in Veracruz centuries before, that an angry God was in punishment mode. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, “said in his reelection campaign that God had punished New Orleans for the war in Iraq”.  Such blame was attributed widely in many circles, namely Republican and Fundamental.
As Schwartz states so elegantly near the end of the book, “Providentialism was, as it has usually been, employed to support existing political convictions rather than as a catalyst for new interpretations or changes of heart (335)”.

The book concludes with an overview of Hurricane Sandy and the political clout that was banked upon in the aftermath, as well as the unnecessary damage and suffering to New Jersey residents.

There is no sense of this being a complete downer, but more an example of how attitudes (religious, secular, and political) often ignore the scientific basis for how things occur, and even avoid learning more about what science can tell us about hurricanes and other natural disasters.  Much of the science behind hurricanes is discussed in the book, and knowledge of such is possible, not so much to prevent but to prepare.

Hurricane season starts June 1, 2015.

Review copy provided by Princeton University Press.