A Canadian writer visits her older sister, a concert pianist who's just attempted suicide, in this masterful, original investigation into love, loss and survival.
“She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” Yolandi Von Riesen says of her sister, Elfrieda. Toews (Irma Voth, 2011, etc.) moves between Winnipeg, Toronto, and a small town founded by Mennonite immigrants who survived Bolshevik massacres, where the intellectual, free-spirited Von Riesen family doesn’t share the elders' disapproval of “overt symbols of hope and individual signature pieces.” Yoli looks back over time, realizing that the sisters' bond is strengthened by their painful memories. The girls' father baffles neighbors by supporting Elf's creative passions and campaigning to run a library. His suicide and absence from their adulthood make him even more important to his daughters as their paths diverge. Elf travels around Europe, emptying herself into Rachmaninoff performances; Yoli writes books about a rodeo heroine, feeling aimless and failed. Elf’s husband appreciates her singular sensitivity as a performer, but this capacity for vulnerability dangerously underpins her many breakdowns and longstanding depression. Yoli’s men are transient, leaving her with two children. Toews conveys family cycles of crisis and intermittent calm through recurring events and behaviors: Elf and her father both suffer from depression; Yoli and her mother face tragedy with wry humor and absurdist behavior; and two sisters experience parallel losses. Crisp chapter endings, like staccato musical notes, anchor the plot’s pacing. Elf’s determination to end her suffering by dying takes the form of a drumbeat of requests for Yoli to help her commit suicide. Readers yearn for more time with this complex, radiant woman who fiercely loves her family but cannot love herself.
“Sadness is what holds our bones in place,” Yoli thinks. Toews deepens our understanding of the pain found in Coleridge's poetry, which is the source of the book’s title.
A moving novel about knowledge, self-awareness and the power of words, set in the purgatory of prison. This young man's life demands our attention and refuses to let go.
Simon Austen is serving life imprisonment for the murder of his girlfriend in a fit of uncontrollable rage. It's Margaret Thatcher's 1980s England, but he is lost in time, attending sessions with institutional psychiatrists who might be able to help him gain parole. He learns to read with the aid of a prison volunteer and writes letters for his fellow inmates to lawyers, mothers and lovers, considering it his job. He also writes his version of his life story, tattooing his body with the words others have called him in spite and hate: “ARROGANT,” “WEIRDO,” “BASTARD,” “COLD,” “MURDERER.” Then “COURAGEOUS,” inspired by Bernadette "Bernie" Nightingale, a counselor he fantasizes about and works with to enter an experimental program that may move his parole forward. Page writes fiercely, drawing a fine portrait of a man who lives daily, routinely, fragilely in an environment that can erupt in violence at any time. It does, in a powerful scene where Simon is gang-beaten, has bleach poured down his throat, and is sent to a hospital, where all we've learned about him is dramatically, but tenderly, unsettled. Vic is his roommate in the prison hospital and an unforgettable character as he transforms into Charlotte, disrupting Simon’s view of life's predictability and moving him to a greater understanding. Charlotte is freed, figuratively and literally, but writes letters and visits Simon, giving him strength and a vision of life outside the cement and steel of incarceration and the confinement of his own history. The words that are inked over Simon’s body are simply prologue to the next chapter of his life.
Page doesn't sentimentalize the cruelty of life in a prison system but manages to transcend it through Simon, who writes his own story in tattoo ink and letters. This powerful novel is simply an epiphany.
One of America’s most gifted novelists projects dark and daring speculations upon the incredible-but-true 19th-century story of a child piano prodigy who was blind, autistic and a slave.
In the waning years of antebellum slavery, a rapidly fracturing America was introduced to a stunning musical phenomenon: Thomas Wiggins, a young black slave from Georgia known only as “Blind Tom,” who “sounded out” his first piano composition at age 5 and, five years later, was famous enough to play before President James Buchanan at the White House. What made Tom even more remarkable was that he was both blind and autistic, thus compounding audiences’ astonishment at his extraordinary ability to not only perform classical works, but to spontaneously weave startling variations on American folk ditties into original musical tapestries. Because most of the details of Wiggins' story have been lost to history, there are many blank, enigmatic spaces to fill. Chicago-born Allen (Holding Pattern, 2008, etc.) assumes the imaginative writer’s task of improvising shape and depth where elusive or missing facts should be. What results from his effort is an absorbing, haunting narrative that begins a year after the Civil War ends when Tom, a teenager, and his white guardian, Eliza Bethune, arrive in a nameless northern city (presumably New York), where they are contacted by a black man who intends to reunite Tom with his newly liberated mother. The story rebounds back to Tom’s childhood, during which he struggles to feel his surroundings despite his compromised senses and finds his only warmth (literally) beneath the piano belonging to Eliza’s slaveholding family. Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life who, in seeking to understand or exploit Tom’s unholy gifts, are both transformed and transfixed by his inscrutable, resolutely self-contained personality.
If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.
Frank chronicles the difficult adjustments of a gay family formed by tragedy in her compelling follow-up to Crybaby Butch (2004).
As the novel opens, Matthew Greene, a self-described “normal, young, shallow queen,” is on a plane to Tel Aviv with his devastated partner, Daniel Rosen, whose twin brother, Joel, and sister-in-law, Ilana, have just been killed by a suicide bomber. It’s been four years since Matt fled the New York City whirl of drugs and casual sex to move in with the older, more sober Daniel in Northampton, Massachusetts, and both men are still slightly stunned by their opposites-attract relationship. The news that Joel and Ilana named Daniel guardian of 5-year-old Gal and baby Noam appalls her parents, devout Holocaust survivors, nor are the secular, American elder Rosens very happy about their grandchildren being raised by Matt, whom they don’t really like. But the real problems, once Gal and Noam are settled in Northampton, stem from the overwhelming grief that makes Daniel a virtual specter in his new family. He’s emotionally distant and critical of Matt’s more relaxed parenting style; their conflicts are exacerbated by the volatile Gal, understandably given to acting out in the wake of hideous loss and traumatic relocation to a new nation, culture and language. It seems quite possible the men’s relationship will not survive these stresses, which Frank explores in depth and without reassuring sentimentality. She also excels at the social backdrops for her characters’ drama, from the fraught political climate in Israel (Daniel and Matt are both left-wing proponents of the peace process) to the cozy, gossipy world of gay and lesbian life in Northampton. Daniel isn’t always very likable, but his disabling sorrow and controlling ways are believable impediments to his love for Matt and make it all the more moving to watch them work through to reconciliation.
Strong storytelling driven by emotionally complex characters: first-rate commercial fiction.
Freelance journalist and author Stark (Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games, 2012) has both fully researched her subject and poured out her heart in this blend of history, science and memoir.
As the family tree in the book’s front shows, cancer, and the threat of cancer, has plagued the author’s family for generations. When she underwent genetic testing and learned that she had inherited her mother’s BRCA1 mutation, which greatly raises the risks of both breast and ovarian cancers, Stark was well-aware of its significance. After coping with the hassles of close monitoring, she made the tough decision to have a preventative double mastectomy while still in her 20s. The story of that decision and all that follows from it is enough to make a book in itself, but the author goes much further. She provides a capsule history of breast surgery, from the pre-anesthesia days through William Halsted’s now-outdated radical mastectomy to today’s less disfiguring procedures, and she profiles geneticist Mary-Claire King, whose work led to the identification of the BRCA genes. In her discussion of the controversial issue of gene patenting, Stark presents all sides of the argument. Most impressive, she tells her personal story with considerable frankness and flashes of humor. The weekend before her breast-removal surgery, she and her husband threw a “goodbye to boobs” party for their closest friends. That lighthearted moment is followed by less sunny ones as Stark was forced to adjust to her new body and face the questions of whether to bear children and possibly pass on the gene mutation and deciding when to have her threatened ovaries removed. The book is a must-read for women questioning whether to be tested for the BRCA mutations and for women considering their options after testing positive.
A gutsy, deeply revealing account that more than fulfills the promise of the subtitle.
Science journalist Vince chronicles a two-year journey around the globe to evaluate warnings that we face an ecological tipping point.
“Deserts are spreading…forests are dying and being logged….Wildlife is being hunted and dying because of habitat loss,” writes the author, who also notes that we currently use 30 percent more natural resources per year “than the planet can replenish.” Geologists are calling this the Anthropocene epoch due to “the changes humans are making to the biosphere.” As the author acknowledges, we are the first species “to knowingly reshape the living Earth's biology and chemistry. We have become the masters of our planet and integral to the destiny of life on Earth.” Despite this dim picture, the author found grounds for optimism on her travels. Vince takes the hopeful view that we will act in a timely fashion to “preserve nature or master its tricks artificially.” In China and India, she chronicles government efforts to address atmospheric pollution and looming water shortages. Her main interest, however, is the inventiveness of people at the local level dealing with these problems. Vince believes that they are ushering in “an extraordinary new human age…creating artificial glaciers to irrigate their crops, building artificial coral reefs to shore up islands, and artificial trees to clean the air.” The author was most impressed by the cumulative effect of small changes in heretofore-inaccessible mountain regions that now generate electricity using microhydropower; these areas have also gained access to the Internet and improved sanitation. She discusses the work of “[h]ydrologists in Peru [who are] building tunnels to drain an Andean glacial lake” as a way to control disastrous flooding. On a smaller scale in the Indian village of Ladakh, a local engineer is leading a project to convert mountain wastewater into a series of man-made miniglaciers connected to irrigation canals. Everywhere she traveled, Vince continued to see great promise in human creativity.
A well-documented, upbeat alternative to doom-and-gloom prognostications.
A journalist’s account of growing up between cultures and learning to embrace both her ethnic and bisexual identities.
Former ColorLines magazine executive editor Hernández (co-editor: Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism, 2002) was raised as the first-generation American child of a working-class Colombian mother and Cuban father. For her, “everything real”—from family conversations to the observations of her beloved aunts to favorite TV shows—happened in Spanish. However, her family wanted their daughter to achieve more in life than they could, so learning English “to become white” and Americanized became the goal they impressed upon their daughter. Yet as Hernández came to understand, learning a language that was hers by nationality but not by ethnicity meant growing away from her family and adopting the attitude that she had “no history, no past, no culture.” The break was not easy; so much from her colorful dual heritage formed the bedrock of her identity. In her parents’ world, saints performed miracles, and cups of water could carry messages between the living and the dead. In that world, too, women married (or avoided) certain kinds of men. As Hernández grew into adulthood and sexuality, she fulfilled her parents’ desire to find a “gringo” boyfriend. At the same time, she discovered a desire for lesbian and transgender women. Her family castigated Hernández for her bisexuality but also lauded their daughter for finding middle-class success as a New York Times reporter. Striving to be true to herself as a queer (rather than queer and whitewashed) Latina, she eventually took a chance writing for a social justice magazine in San Francisco. Warm and thoughtful, Hernández writes with cleareyed compassion about living, and redefining success, at the intersection of social, ethnic and racial difference.
Personal storytelling at its most authentic and heartfelt.
Crais (History and African Studies/Emory University; co-editor: Poverty, War, and Violence in South Africa, 2011, etc.) suffers from chronic childhood amnesia, a condition that leaves him bereft of memories of his youngest years. “I am a contradiction,” he writes. “I am a historian who can’t remember.” This form of amnesia results from early childhood trauma—in the author’s case, his mother’s attempt to drown him in a bathtub when he was 3 after her husband abandoned her and their five children; and her attempted suicide a few years later. These two violent episodes punctuated a devastating youth. Crais lived for years with his alcoholic mother in a roach-infested apartment, hungry and neglected; from time to time, he was shunted among relatives. In his attempt to revive that period, the author decided to apply a historian’s methodology, interviewing his mother and sisters, examining photographs and public records, and visiting old neighborhoods. What he found unnerved him. “The past is a mess,” he writes, “a bloody terrible mess of infinite horror”: mental illness, suicide, alcoholism and poverty. He felt “dirty,” he admits, “not only from prying into the lives of others but by association—too close to a chasm of tragedies from which I want to escape but seem instead to be falling into.” Along with historical research, Crais turned to neuroscience to help him understand his own identity. “Trauma obliterates time,” he writes. “Trauma trips up the elaborate choreography of being….” Sadly Crais’ siblings have become casualties of the family’s history, living “in despair, with broken marriages, depression, abusive relationships, and substance abuse.” Yet the author has managed not only to survive, but to thrive.
This memoir of anguish and struggle is a story of remarkable strength and unlikely, inexplicable resilience.
A nonpolemical, engaging study of a once-thriving Indian nation of the American heartland whose origins and demise tell us much about ourselves.
Along the Missouri River in North Dakota, the Mandan people flourished in the warming period between ice ages, circa A.D. 1000, drawn to the alluvial richness of the river as well as the bison hunting ranges of the Western grasslands. In her thorough mosaic of Mandan history and culture, Fenn (Western American History/Univ. of Colorado; Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82, 2001, etc.) writes that these were an immensely adaptable people, migrating upstream when weather patterns changed, mastering the cultivation of corn and other edibles and the art of trade, often in competition with other horticulturalist tribes nearby, like the Arikara and Lakota. Elaborate Mandan defense fortifications indicated a vulnerability to attack, perhaps by the fierce, nomadic Sioux. Mandan homes were sturdy and numerous, solid earthen lodges built by the women, who also cultivated the fields, dried the meat and tanned the hides, revealing a strong maternal society where the husbands and the children were shared by sisters in one house due to the scarcity of men, perhaps due to mortality from war and hunting. At the time of the Spanish conquistadors, Fenn estimates there were 12,000 Mandans in the upper Missouri River; it was “teeming with people.” Gradually, contact with outsiders beginning in the 17th century and continuing with the famous interaction with Louis and Clark’s expedition up the Missouri in 1804 led to Mandan decimation by disease as well as by the Norwegian rat, which devoured their corn stored in cache pits. In addition to her comprehensive narrative, Fenn intersperses throughout the narrative many helpful maps and poignant drawings by George Catlin and others.
An excellent contribution to the truth telling of the American Indian story.
It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does.
Where most memoirs have more of a novelistic, chronological continuity, Fiddleback senior nonfiction editor Nelson structures this book as a series of autobiographical essays, most of which could stand on their own; they are the nonfiction equivalent of a series of interconnected short stories. That form perfectly suits her story of a family in which “the roles have been pre-prescribed, written into our DNA.” The father will die young after long absences in jail or rehab or another relapse after a short stretch of sobriety. The mother will also self-medicate as she tries to sustain the illusion of family, one that is always falling apart. The son will inherit “the dead father’s legacy, this disease,” and is often missing and feared dead. The older sister will write this memoir after studying abroad, falling in love, earning her MFA in creative writing, teaching college, publishing in a number of highly regarded journals and maintaining a facade that masks her genetic code: “We are an imperfect people, full of contradictions. Do as I say, not as I do. That sort of thing. Outsiders see me as the most put together, but I harbor a secret: I am just better at faking it. I make it through the day.” Yet some days have been a whole lot tougher to make it through, to sustain a sense of “my real life, the one outside the theater of my brother’s addiction.” As it does in the cycles of recovery and relapse, prison and release, chronology jumbles, and verb tenses shift. The book’s excellent centerpiece, “A Second of Startling Regret,” unravels the family dynamic and illuminates the “self-sabotaging brain.” Even the occasional misstep into writerly precocity—“There is something heroic about fishermen—all that faith in the dark”—can’t compromise the author’s unflinching honesty and her story’s power.
Will chopping down 33,000 trees in Worcester, Massachusetts, save other forests from the destructive Asian longhorned beetle?
Scientists are trying to answer that question as they battle an invasion that probably began 20 years ago in this central Massachusetts city that sits near the wild, natural forests that stretch north to Maine and beyond. Burns, who began her investigations as a resident of the affected area concerned about losing the trees around her, provides a clear, evenhanded description of this difficult issue. For now, chopping down trees and chipping their wood is the only known way to eradicate the pest. But it takes 30 years for new trees to mature. Is it worth it? The author provides solid background for her readers to ponder this question. Chapter by chapter she introduces the arresting-looking beetle, the trees that host it (more than a dozen species are vulnerable), the team of scientists and foresters working in Worcester, and research efforts in a nearby small forest. She presents data available so far and looks ahead to the likelihood of success in the larger battle across the country. Her narrative is framed by the experience of a teen who saw his favorite forest area cut and has watched it regrow. It’s enhanced by Harasimowicz’s clear photographs.
A splendid example of science controversy in everyday life.
(author’s note, resources, glossary, bibliography and acknowledgements, index)
In a bleak tale, simply and eloquently told, five girls form a Vancouver street gang.
Tired of turning tricks for the Vipers, teenage Mac decides to start the Black Roses and recruits her friend Mercy. Three more join them: Kayos, a rich girl famous in their elementary school for “[a]lways beating the shit out of people for no reason,” Sly Girl, a 13-year-old who has been clean for six weeks but knows her way around the drug scene, and Z, a graffiti artist ostracized by her family as much for her sexual orientation as for preferring street art over a traditional career path. Together, the Black Roses become a family of sorts, looking out for each other as they sell drugs, steal cars, defend their territory and cover their mistakes. Brutal acts committed both against and by the gang are described in graphic sensory detail—most intensely in a scene in which the girls kidnap and torture two boys who have sexually assaulted one of their crew. Each girl narrates a share of the short chapters in her own distinct voice (Z’s is especially idiosyncratic, a sort of Joycean textspeak), and a few chapters are told in the lyrical, evocative voice of Vancouver itself. The result is a tight, grim portrait with deep empathy for characters capable of horrific deeds.
Both gripping and moving, for those who can stomach the violence.
Sulky metal head boy meets artsy gamer girl. Awkward teenage love ensues.
When Lesh’s and Svetlana’s worlds collide—literally—in Saint Paul, Minn., it precipitates a time-honored culture clash wherein magic happens, but that’s where predictability ends. In a first-person narration that alternates between the boy in black and the girl dungeon master, Brezenoff conjures a wry, wise and deeply sympathetic portrait of the exquisite, excruciating thrill of falling in love. What might easily have been a stale retread feels fresh and lively in Brezenoff’s hands; he weaves multiple perspectives (school life, game life, dream life) together in threads that tangle into an inevitable knot, with startling consequences. The realistic dialogue, internal and otherwise, captures the uncomfortably iterative process of adolescent self-discovery as Lesh and Svetlana struggle to figure out who they are and what they stand for. The typical obstacles to true love (tempting teen sirens, parents who just don’t understand) are handily and gently overcome, and a subplot involving a jealous suitor peters out unexpectedly early. The juxtaposition of live, real-time role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons against the detached anonymity of MMORPGs, plus a playfully thoughtful exploration of gender identity and politics, gives the novel depth and heart that will appeal to audiences beyond the gaming set.
This is not the teen love story you’ve read a thousand times before.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
New girl Erica falls in with the wrong crowd in an exploration of racial tension in St. Louis.
In the wake of her parents’ separation, Erica finds herself in a new city and new school. After showing off her skills with the camera her estranged father gave as a parting gift, Erica wins the attention of a boxing club called the TKOs and the affection of their leader, Kalvin. The TKOs play the horrific “Knockout Game,” in which kids assault total strangers with a single punch for no reason other than the adrenaline rush. Erica is enamored by the TKOs and their worldview, but as things get real, Erica makes moves to get out. The results are thrilling. At every fork in the road, Erica makes the wrong decision, but surprisingly, this only makes her more endearing. The book’s second half, detailing Erica’s struggles to escape the TKOs and Kalvin’s tightening grip, is even stronger than the beginning; it’s where the author’s meaty ideas and exciting action sequences blend together perfectly. Kalvin may seem like every parent’s worst nightmare for their daughter, but the author draws him with a complexity that helps illustrate the larger themes being explored. Neri’s main concern is the “post-racial” urban landscape, raising many talking points while letting readers come to their own conclusions.
Harsh and relentless, a tough but worthy read.
Four lively adopted boys, two dads and a grouchy new neighbor star in this modern family comedy.
Trying new things, dealing with difficult choices, and the joys and frustrations of life in a large family are all pieces of this humorous tale. Changing points of view in each chapter track each boy’s particular issues as the third-person narrative chronicles the school year. Readers who get past the slow beginning will end up fully engaged with these characters and wanting more. Soccer-playing sixth-grader Sam stars in the school musical. Fourth-grader Jax can’t find a way to connect with their unfriendly neighbor for an interview for a school report—and he’s losing his best friend. Eli has chosen to spend his fourth-grade year at a school for academically gifted children that supports his talents but offers few physical outlets or social rewards. And who can believe in the existence of 6-year-old Frog’s new friend when he’s accompanied to kindergarten by an invisible cheetah? This book is notable for its matter-of-fact depiction of an atypical family, the same-sex couple and their ethnically diverse children—two white, one African-American, one adopted from India. The boys are very different from one another but closely tied with warm family bonds. Their banter is realistic, and the disorder of their everyday lives, convincing.