Monday, August 26, 2019

Loving, Loss, and Living On

The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and MourningThe Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Litt Woon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sweetly meandering memoir of loss and living. Litt Woon met her husband in Norway, where she had come from Malaysia to study anthropology. They got married, she stayed in Norway, and they had a lovely marriage as anthropologist and architect until one day with no warning her husband Eiolf fell dead as soon as he walked into work.
This is not a memoir about grief, however—it’s a memoir about moving through grief, that metaphorical forest where we get lost between life and death. Long went through the trauma of losing a spouse, dealing with details, joining a grief group, wondering how to go on. One day she decided to do on her own something Eoilf and she had talked about, checking out the course, “Mushrooms for Beginners.” Norway is huge on forest foraging, and expert volunteers check mushroom harvests for edibility for foragers right outside the forest.
She didn’t realize she was finding her way back to life until she was already on the path, her appetite awakened with novelty and sensation after months in the grey lands of grieving.
What is most fascinating to me is seeing the world of grief and the world of mushrooms through a different cultural lens: Long is Malaysian by birth culture, embedded in Norwegian culture, not at all American. Whether due to culture, personality, or training as an anthropologist, Long has an ability to give us detached and caring insight into her journey of losing the love of her life and then discovering the passion of an avocation.
You don’t have to be grieving or a mushroom geek to enjoy the book—people interested in nature, science, and other cultures will find points of interest. And of course we have all experienced loss in some way, to be able to connect with the story. There will definitely be too many mushroom details for some folks—I give you permission to skim; the other parts of the book and pleasure of reading how much joy Eiolf left behind is inspiring.

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Love and War Are Red and Blue, But Which Is Who?

This Is How You Lose the Time WarThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of all the science fictiony fairytale endtimes books, I place This is How You Lose the Time War at the top with Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty. Time War reads like a mashup of Good Omens, Griffin and Sabine, and ST Next Generation, told in the voices of Mahmoud Darwish and Thomas Harris.
What it has in common with Beauty is the time travel element; what differs is the generational voice. Tepper’s book was published in 1991 and is grounded in history and community; Time War is current, ungrounded in the cloud of chaos physics, a paso doble of the I and Thou of humanity’s love affair with itself danced through parallel universes.
Beauty is a faceted gem, a perfect story; Time War is a work of art, a mind worm.

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Thursday, August 8, 2019

How Are We Supposed To Go On Living?

A Heart in a Body in the WorldA Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few life-changing events that happen for everyone, but the added elements of tragedy and trauma change one's world in ways like no other. We don't know the details of Annabelle's tragedy—though we have good guesses—for quite a while. Teenager Annabelle is running from Seattle to Washington, D. C., trying to outrun her grief. I picked up the book thinking that it might give me insight into why people do these runs for a cause; it did. The story is told in the present tense as she runs; we learn through flashbacks about why Annabelle feels so guilty and powerless.
She's at the local hamburger joint and her PTSD is triggered and she starts running until she gets to the next town, with no intent and no plan; running means she's doing something, even if it's crazy. She just starts running, because she does track and that's her thing. Her family ends up supporting her decision and her grandpa follows along in his RV; Annabelle's family provide the perspective and comic relief necessary in a book that deals with dark material.
This is a young adult novel that gives a glimpse into the mind of a contemporary young woman in high school. The hormone-driven angst and bounce between hope and despair of adolescence is further exacerbated in our modern world, where nowadays even suburban and rural schools are fenced like prisons and predators stalk the halls (though that has always happened). Annabelle learns a lot on her journey, and is finally able to come to terms with the fact that her life will never be the same.
Interactions with her grandpa and people they meet along the way balance the grueling days of running and bleeding and Annabelle's circular thoughts, widening her world. Even though precious opportunities have been lost, love still surrounds her, and Annabelle finds the strength and resolve to reach out and live in hope again.
And I found out that people do this kind of thing because even when you feel powerless, you need to do something. Recommended.

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Monday, August 5, 2019

Human Nature

SpringSpring by Ali Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Testament, indictment, plea? It's amazing how a British author writing about European refugee camps depicts the situation in America's detention centers described today. It's either a plot of the left or right or a description of human nature. The book opens with horrid Twitter ranting, an irrepressible muddy stream of consciousness description of media influence in the modern world; once you get past that, if you can, there's the story of Richard, a filmmaker who's grieving the loss of a friend, a muse; he's also grieving his youth and lost chances. There's Brit, who works in that place, that "detention center", a person just trying to get by. There's the story of how their stories intersect, an adventure. There's a mysterious young girl who seems to achieve miracles by speaking truth to power. There's mystery, hope, despair, resolution. There's a lot of buttons pushed in your internal psyche, as the author intends. Smith forces you to deal with the fact that the conditions that created World War II are even more active in the current world. And the unavoidable realization that if you look at history with open eyes and heart, the majority of us are the descendants of victims, persecutors, survivors, and collaborators. What choices will we make in our lives, whose descendants will judge us? Who are we, in our choices, in our souls? Just ordinary people, trying to get by.
(*I received an advance copy from Norton for review; much gratitude and consternation followed, as you've just read.)

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Music for the Heart

Ellie and the HarpmakerEllie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ellie and the Harpmaker is just the kind of sweet and quirky British novel I adore, highlighting both the beautiful and the grit of real life, airbrushed a bit. Ellie is a closet creative who needs some joy in her life, and one day she meets Dan, who lives in the hills of Exmoor and builds harps. Dan loves to make harps. He names them. Dan is a very noticing and precise sort of person, only not the kind of noticing and precision that most people expect. He's not very interested in money, for instance; his sister manages his business for him. He's interested in wood and pebbles and in making harps. Celtic harps, not orchestra harps. Ellie admires a harp made from cherrywood; learning to play is one of her heart's desires, and Dan gives her the harp as a present, so she can learn to play. He tells Ellie his girlfriend can teach her, she's a professional harpist. But when Ellie gets home, her husband convinces her it's a wacko idea and she should return it. Dan has a problem with the idea of returning a gift; it's her harp, but she can leave it with him and take lessons at the barn, he suggests. Ellie is unsure of herself, but desperate for beauty and light in her life. From this desire, change and consequence fall like dominoes.
The tale is told in chapters that alternate voices, one Dan's and the other Ellie's. This is good, because it helps you understand from different points of view the rest of the motivations and actions that create quite a fine mess, soap opera style, before Ellie earns her happy ending. What is Dan's girlfriend hiding from him (other than the fact that she might not be his girlfriend anymore)?Just how controlling is Ellie's husband, and how much does she contribute to her own unhappiness? Does Ellie eventually learn to play the harp? Can Dan expand his interests to trains? These questions and more are answered in this beautifully written, noticing book. I enjoyed reading about the different resonances of wood, harp construction, and the simplicity of Dan very much. Highly recommended, especially for book clubs—so much to discuss!
Thanks to Netgalley and Berkley for an electronic galley to review.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

21st Century Talk Therapy

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives RevealedMaybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

Lori Gottlieb has done a great job of opening up the therapy room from both sides in memoir about a therapist getting therapy while seeing her own patients, being helped while helping others. Gottlieb writes the Dear Therapist column for The Atlantic magazine, so she's no stranger to writing for the general public. That journalistic experience helps the book flow quickly and easily; it's tender, funny, and tearful—everything you want in good stories. How do you give advice when your own life isn't going so well? The book answers that question, while engaging our hearts in the stories of ordinary people who could be our neighbors and relatives: a self-absorbed producer, a newlywed who's terminal, a woman who's always picking the wrong guys, a senior who thinks life isn't really much worth living anymore. Her own search for a therapist is catalyzed by her fiancé breaking up with her. These are some of the situations in life that can turn into problems, a minicosm of human experience.
It's a cliché in the coaching and counseling world that being vulnerable, i.e., honest, is the key to changing your life, and Gottlieb demonstrates this interpersonal truth gently and kindly, but clearly, even as she tells us about her own therapy. It's hard to turn that gaze inward in self-reflection; that's why Gottlieb herself gets help. She shows us that objectivity doesn't have to be cold, it can be kind. Some people haven't known a lot of kindness, and need that modeled. She shows us that other cliché, we're all alike under the skin: in the privacy of our own minds, we sometimes let rage and confusion take over—but we're also capable of great insight and compassion.
Maybe we should talk to someone when we need to be vulnerable with ourselves; maybe through the mirror of another's eyes we can see more kindly (this is, indeed, generally the case). Maybe we can talk to friends or family, maybe we can't. Gottlieb shows us that a therapist with the right training can help speed our recovery from emotional crisis, and she shows us what to look for. This has been one of my favorite books of the year, reminding me of the compassion and goodness in human hearts.

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Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sweet and satisfying as a slice of pie

Midnight at the Blackbird CafeMidnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 What a treasure for readers who love books about magical food. (Yes, it's a genre!) Heather Webber brings us a tale of broken hearts and broken families, magical birds and pies, and the healing power of love. In the town of Wicklow, Alabama, blackbirds sing at midnight in the backyard of the Blackbird Café. They are a part of Anna Kate’s heritage, but she doesn’t know that much about it—she’s had only snatches of time with her grandma, and never in Wicklow. Anna Kate’s mom left when she was pregnant with Anna Kate, and never set foot in the town again. She died, and now so has Anna Kate’s grandma; Anna Kate has to run her family heritage, the Blackbird Café, through the summer. Her grandma hoped that time would be enough to reveal all.
And it is. Family secrets and scandals, birding groups, lost souls, and small town kindnesses all have their turn in the spotlight. And of course there’s a love story or two. Will definitely appeal to fans of Sarah Addison Allen with its stubborn charm.
There aren’t blackbirds in the pie, just blackberries, by the way. The Blackbird Café gets its name from those European blackbirds that sing at midnight in the backyard. Even though European blackbirds aren’t nocturnal, or native to the Americas. I’ll leave you to discover their special magic and meaning.
Webber delivers a story that’s as sweet and satisfying as pie, with room for magical sequels.

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