Do we really have nothing to fear but fear itself? Perhaps—but, as the characters in Canadian writer Christie’s deftly written first novel instruct us, our worries, even though debilitating, may not be altogether groundless.
Cairo, Venice, London, Thunder Bay: Young Will, artist and reader, is everywhere and nowhere. His mother is certifiable: afraid of the Outside, afraid of people, afraid of animals, prisoner of the deep mood that Will calls the Black Lagoon, yet a willing traveler of the mind, the rooms in her close-walled home named for faraway places. As the novel opens, the boy is Outside, tentatively ascertaining that it will not kill him: “He was not riddled with arrows, his hair did not spring into flame, and his breath did not crush his lungs like spent grocery bags.” That doesn't mean he’s safe. Social anxiety disorder finds literary expression in Christie’s pages, which have all the bleakness of a Stephen King fright-night yarn but none of the inevitability; just when the story begins to resolve out of seeming hallucination, Christie conjures other tricks, writing both elegantly and with the innocence of a child (“they used to share bathwater but they stopped because of vaginas”). Will, his mother’s protector, is nothing but a casualty waiting to happen, whether gazing at the world from a rooftop or tiptoeing through the mouse turds and ant trails of their house; still, the greatest danger, as his mother fears, might just be that he finds out things he shouldn’t: “But now, given Will’s curious nature, he’d soon be retrieving painful morsels of her past like a terrier with a mouse in its jaws.” Reminiscent of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Christie’s fine novel is really a kind of spiritual cousin of Paul Harding’s Tinkers as a study of people who are in this world but not quite of it, whether ghosts from a grain-silo explosion or the people you see at the supermarket.
Dark, threatening, dislocating and altogether brilliant.
An engrossing first-person study of obsessive-compulsive disorder from within and without.
“An Ethiopian schoolgirl called Bira once ate a wall of her house,” writes acclaimed British Nature editor and writer Adam in the opening of his account of OCD. “She didn’t want to, but she found that to eat the wall was the only way to stop her thinking about it.” Bira, who had eaten over half a ton of mud bricks by the time she was 17 and finally sought medical attention, was found to have only “moderately-severe” OCD because she spent a mere two hours per day thinking about and then eating a wall of her house—the average OCD sufferer can spend six hours per day thinking odd thoughts and then four hours acting on them. What lends especial weight to Adam’s remarkable study of what psychiatrists consider the fourth most common mental disorder and the World Health Organization ranks as the 10th most disabling is Adam’s admission that he, too, suffers from OCD, having been plagued for over 20 years by an irrational fear of contracting AIDS. Far from being fastidiously punctual or a tad “anal” around the house, Adam demonstrates that OCD is a serious, crippling condition capable of rendering the daily life of the afflicted virtually unlivable. “OCD,” writes the author, “dissolves perspective. It magnifies small risks, warps probabilities and takes statistical chance as a prediction, not a sign of how unlikely things are.” Repeatedly transfixed by a bizarre thought, which turns into an obsession, the OCD sufferer cannot find relief until compulsively acting on that obsession. Adam delves deeply into OCD’s possible causes, its varieties—whether obsessed with contamination from dirt (Lady Macbeth) or disease (Howard Hughes), an irrational fear of harm or irrepressible need for symmetry (Samuel Johnson)—and treatments, breaking down this complex condition in easily accessible layman’s terms.
Well-researched, witty, honest and irreverent, Adam’s account proves as irresistible as his subject.
The long-hidden story of the ultimate convent scandal, masterfully retold.
Accessing archival files first opened to the public by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Wolf (Ecclesiastical History/Univ. of Muenster) pieces together a mid-1800s inquisition trial of incendiary proportions. Set in the Roman convent of Sant’Ambrogio, the author lays out a perfect storm of scandal, involving heresy, decades of abuse, webs of sexual misconduct and murder. The story begins with a twice-widowed princess who, fulfilling a lifelong goal, entered the convent in 1858. Within less than a year, she escaped, fearing for her life. Her testimony began an investigation that would uncover the secret world of Sant’Ambrogio. Wolf’s narrative centers on Vincenzo Leone Sallua, the investigating judge who systematically uncovered and presented his case. He discovered that the nuns of the convent were venerating their founder as a saint, even though she had been condemned and exiled by Rome. Worse, their young novice mistress, Maria Luisa, was being treated as a living saint, credited with miraculous powers. Further investigations revealed generational repetition of lesbian rituals and sexual abuses, affairs with priests, embezzling of funds and murders to hush up troublesome nuns. In the end, the accused were punished, the nuns dispersed, the building razed, and even the graves of certain nuns removed. Sant’Ambrogio was to be wiped from history, and nearly was so, for well over a century. Wolf has expertly recovered and retold this scandalous tale in all its gory, as well as bureaucratic, detail. He also provides readers with ample background to comprehend the geopolitical and ecclesiastical tapestry against which this drama played out. However, modern readers are left wondering what lessons this story has to teach today. Is the tale of Sant’Ambrogio simply a titillation of history, or does it speak to deeper issues of the church? Wolf is largely silent on that count.
The minutiae of everyday life turn sinister for two women in this taut, fraught tale.
In her sophomore novel, Lane (Alys, Always, 2012) alternates between the perspectives of Nina and Emma, two 40-something women who’ve taken different routes through motherhood. Both Nina and her second husband have teenage daughters from their first marriages, but except for a bit of adolescent surliness, the throes of child-rearing are well behind them. Nina can afford to dress with chic simplicity, to keep an elegant home and to avoid her father’s invitations to summer in the south of France. Ever since his wandering eye (and probable philandering) broke up his marriage to Nina’s mother, Nina has resented Paul. His attentions never settle on her, so why bother with the charade of a happy luncheon, much less a family vacation? Emma, on the other hand, is saddled with a demanding toddler and expecting another baby. She knows she ought to be a doting mother, but desperate words underscore her thoughts: “All this buttoning and unbuttoning.” She longs for respite from the endless laundry and meal production but knows they’ll have to rely on Ben’s paycheck until the kids are in school. After Nina finds and returns Emma’s wallet, which she oddly lost at the greengrocer’s shop, the women strike up an uneasy friendship. Emma sees in Nina the woman she wishes she could be: cultured and smartly dressed. What draws Nina to Emma is murkier. Nina, in fact, recognizes Emma, although Emma seems to have no memory of a past friendship. With chilling precision, Lane narrates the re-entwining of these two women’s lives through domestic details. Afternoon teas, disastrous shopping trips, cluttered homes and even well-populated playgrounds begin to seep with danger. And the net inexorably tightens.
Steinberg (Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City, 2011, etc.) weaves together the many personas of a man whose story is at once unique and an archetypal example of an all-too-large collective.
Asad Abdullahi is many things: refugee, entrepreneur, father, dreamer. In the beginning, though, his identity was simple: a happy child with loving parents living in a city he called his own. That city was Mogadishu, Somalia, and in 1991, Asad's idyllic family life was shattered due to their identity as members of the Daarood tribe. When violence against Daarood men became common, Asad’s father started sleeping away from home to keep the family safe. One morning, he simply didn’t return. Soon after, Asad's mother was murdered by militiamen. As his family and other Daarood refugees fled the violence and eventually their country, Asad was repeatedly separated from those he knew and loved. Upon his eventual arrival in Kenya, the ritual of leaving everything he knew behind became the norm. He created new, nontraditional family units, but he always separated himself from them because, as Steinberg writes, “he is a person with an enormous appetite for risk.” Asad’s adolescent years were marked by a pattern of being taken in and looked after just long enough for him to believe he could improve his life by moving on. So he moved continuously on and sometimes up, carrying the scars of failures and mistakes with him along the way. Steinberg's solid prose is perfect for the task of sharing Asad's history. He probes the darkest moments of his subject’s life without ever becoming maudlin, telling the story starkly and bluntly. He ably demonstrates to readers Asad's absolute refusal to give up while reminding them that, despite his tribulations, in many ways, his path was his own to form.
For truly capturing the power of dreams and the resilience of human nature, this book deserves a wide audience.
Fuller (Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, 2012, etc.) resumes her memories of growing up in Africa in this wry, forthright and captivating memoir.
This time, the focus is on the slow unraveling of her marriage to a man she thought would save her from her family’s madness and chaos. Except for her father’s insistence that his children bathe and dress formally for dinner—a gesture toward discipline that emerged nowhere else—Fuller’s childhood was as wild as the Zambian landscape. Her father made “absolute, capricious, and patriarchal” rules. Boredom, he announced, was “the worst possible sin.” Despite, or perhaps because of, his idiosyncrasies and contradictions, the author idolized him. Her mother, with a family history of mental instability, often succumbed to “long, solo voyages into her dark, grief-disturbed interior,” fueled by alcohol. Resembling her physically, Fuller feared that along with “all that Scottish passion,” she might inherit madness, as well: “how could I have skipped the place where her ingenuity and passion sat too close to insanity on the spiraling legacy of heritage?” Unsurprisingly, she married an adventurous, dependable man who she thought would provide stability and order. Her husband “was the perfect rescuer,” she writes, “and I the most relieved and grateful rescue victim.” After a few years in Africa, they moved to America, where living was easier (dependable electricity and running water, for example), unthreatened by political uprisings or rampaging elephants. They had children, but financial pressures, especially after 2008, and her own loneliness gradually took a toll: “Ours had contracted into a grocery-list relationship—finances, children, housekeeping.” To reclaim her life, she insisted on divorce.
Although her batty and unhinged relatives emerge more vividly than her taciturn husband, Fuller’s talent as a storyteller makes this memoir sing.
Award-winning journalist Hari’s multistrand examination of the war on drugs, spanning 100 years from inception to the present day.
Through a smattering of narratives, the author looks at the centennial of the war on drugs from the time it was legislated with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914. Blending sociology, history and reportage with novelistic detail, Hari uses the narratives of the first American drug czar Harry Anslinger, jazz singer and addict Billie Holiday, and drug-dealing gangster Arnold Rothstein as archetypes to point out how the war continually perpetuates itself with shocking intensity and contradiction. The author is a sharp judge of character, and he wisely notes that the underlying reason for drug prohibition was not an altruistic desire to protect people from harmful and addictive chemical substances but rather fear “that the blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people.” It certainly seems that the primary goal of the war was to repress minorities and solidify white dominance, and little has changed in the past 100 years. Racial discrimination continues to dominate discussions of the drug war’s effectiveness; a majority of nonviolent drug offenders are black, yet statistics show that drug use across races is equal. Alarming, though well-known statistics such as this are peppered throughout the many profiles Hari shares from his travels around the world to experience the repercussions of the drug war firsthand. While the author harangues the singularly negative consequences of drug prohibition, he discusses the case of Portugal, where all drugs have been decriminalized since 2001; there, the average drug use is now lower than any rate in Europe. It is one of the few glimmers of hope, alongside movements to legalize marijuana, in a worldwide war whose fight should not be against drugs but for humanity in general.
A compassionate and humane argument to overturn draconian drug policies.
New sources reveal the perilous journeys of fugitive slaves.
Prolific historian Foner (History/Columbia Univ.; The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, 2010, etc.), winner of the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Lincoln prizes, traces the convoluted trail known as the Underground Railroad in the roiling decades before the Civil War. Drawing on rich archival sources, including the papers of Sydney Howard Gay, a prominent New York abolitionist who scrupulously documented his cases, Foner uncovers the tireless, dangerous work of a handful of determined abolitionists and the quests of thousands of black men, women and children to achieve freedom. Slaves risked their lives to escape primarily due to physical violence, fear of being sold or broken promises of manumission. Many headed to Philadelphia, where Quakers and freed blacks hid them, gave them money and sent them on their way North. In Canada, Foner writes, they found “greater safety and more civil and political rights—including serving on juries, testifying in court, and voting—than what existed in most of the United States.” Although a “pervasive antislavery atmosphere” prevailed in Syracuse, the atmosphere in New York City was far different. In the 18th century, slave auctions regularly had taken place at a Wall Street market, and ownership of slaves by New Yorkers was common. Even by the mid-19th century, New York was called “ ‘a poor neglected city’ when it came to abolitionism”; pro-Southern businessmen eagerly upheld fugitive slave laws, cooperating with slave owners intent on retrieving their human property. “You don’t know, you can’t…,” wrote Gay to a Boston abolitionist, “just what my position is….You are surrounded by a people growing in anti-slavery; I by a people who hate it.”
Foner brings to life fraught decades of contention, brutality and amazing acts of moral courage.
Desperate to find lives more fulfilling than her own, a lonely London commuter imagines the story of a couple she’s only glimpsed through the train window in Hawkins’ chilling, assured debut, in which the line between truth and lie constantly shifts like the rocking of a train.
Rachel Watson—a divorced, miserable alcoholic who’s still desperately in love with her ex-husband, Tom—rides the same train every day into London for her dead-end job, one she unsurprisingly loses after one too many drunken outbursts. Continuing her daily commute to keep up appearances with her roommate, Rachel always pays special attention to a couple, whom she dubs “Jess and Jason,” who live a seemingly idyllic life in a house near her own former home. When she sees a momentary act of infidelity, followed soon after by news that Jess—whose real name is Megan Hipwell—has disappeared, Rachel is compelled to share her secret knowledge, becoming enmeshed in the police investigation, which centers on Megan’s husband, Scott. Further complicating matters is the fact that the night Megan vanished, Rachel has a hazy memory of drunkenly stumbling past the Hipwell home and seeing something she can’t quite recall. Hawkins seamlessly moves among Rachel’s present-day story as the investigation into Megan’s disappearance widens, Megan’s own life leading up to her disappearance, and snippets about Anna, the woman for whom Tom left Rachel.
Even the most astute readers will be in for a shock as Hawkins slowly unspools the facts, exposing the harsh realities of love and obsession’s inescapable links to violence.