Review by E. Kirshe
Scribe by Alyson Hagy is a fascinating and quick read yet at just under 160 pages this novel packs a lot of story. Hagy’s writing is beautiful, stylistically as the whole book comes off as poetic as well as having that practicality that lets the reader feel like they are really in the landscape of the novel.
“Outside, the air was layered with the scents of cooling bark and leaves. The sun flared behind the hill where the Hopkins house lay in ruins, nothing left to scratch the sky but its four stout chimneys. Persimmons. The sunset was the color of persimmons.”
And what a strange location it is- set in a harsh dystopian landscape of a post-war, post-pandemic Appalachia the decimated population relies on bartering and brute force to survive.
The unnamed main character trades in words, writing letters for people who seem to think the act can vindicate or more importantly offer them absolution. She’s been living in peace on her family’s lands for years; alliances are kept in place both with the local overseer Billy Kingery and with the group of migrants she allows to live on her land, the Uninvited, a group which seems to almost worship her late sister. When she agrees to write and deliver a letter, something of a confession, for a mysterious man named Hendricks a devastating series of events unfold. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
In Sound: A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found, Bella Bathurst explores what is lost besides sound when we go deaf late in life. A journalistic curiosity coupled with personal experience make this a nuanced look at hearing across a wide range of subjects. She covers not just deafness and the way society treats the deaf, but a look at the mechanics and meaning of sound itself.
Bathurst was working as a journalist when she began to lose her hearing. She noticed that her interview skills suffered when she couldn’t hear subjects as clearly. Worse, she began to isolate herself from friends, unwilling to go out to noisy clubs or restaurants where she’d spend the night struggling to understand a few words. She writes heartbreakingly about her own depression: “I also made the discovery that there’s more than one way to kill yourself. There’s the active way, where you go out to seek death. […] Or there’s the passive way, where you just stand there on the threshold holding the door open.” (117).
However, miraculously, Bathurst regained her hearing after 12 years. Her experience as someone on both sides of hearing loss give her a unique perspective on the subject. Being able to hear again after over a decade of deafness made her appreciate sound. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
Who knew mushrooms could be so fascinating?
In The Beauty of the Death Cap, Nikonor, the eccentric narrator, states, “I have always preferred the company of trees and mushrooms to that of my fellow humans.” That is the gist of the book. With a wry sense of humor, Nikonor takes us on a rolling journey through his life in mushrooms. He is obsessed with fungi, and has made them his life’s work. The people he meets are another story.
Author Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze gives us a Nabokovian narrator in Nikonor. The prose is gorgeous, with lines shifting back and forth between French and English that verge on poetry (“Encore que . . . suddenly I am seized with doubt!”). He slowly unveils a narrative, distracted along the way by tangents on everything from mushrooms to Charles Baudelaire’s missed calling as a nature poet, all with a surprisingly sharp sense of humor and a pretentious air. He speaks of death and murder as coldly and carelessly as if he were talking about picking a mushroom, musing things like, “I am a lone wolf by nature. I made the mistake of taking on a partner only once, and the attempt ended in an abject failure—one from which my associate did not recover.” Continue reading
In this delightfully tongue-in-cheek volume, Lezlie Lowe gives us a deep look into human history from an unexpected angle: the elimination of waste. She covers just about every aspect of public toilets you can think of, centered around access – who gets to use them, and who doesn’t.
Access is especially bad for women, Lowe points out, because the overwhelmingly male designers do not take women’s biology into account. Just one of the frustrating facts Lowe delves into is the fact that biologically, women take longer to urinate and need to urinate more frequently on average than men; yet public toilets often have twice as much accommodation for men as for women.
Throughout the book, Lowe covers every population that public toilets fail – people with disabilities, inflammatory bowel disease, the LGBT community, people of color, and the homeless. The lowdown: public toilets fail us because they are mostly designed by young, straight, white, abled men. Continue reading
Review by Shane Meyer
“Ice Storm,” one of twelve short stories in Laura Valeri’s collection The Dead Still Here, is a catalog of defeat and despair: two dead daughters (one a victim of cancer, the other of the Iraq War); their parents’ dried-up marriage (Ellie, a work-a-holic, and Duke, an alcoholic); physical and mental disfigurement by war (Duke’s brothers scarred by service in Vietnam and Korea); and the loss of religious faith or even a belief in “goodness.” 9/11 plays a role too. Duke, desperate to escape his toxic circumstances, chases a good feeling to his detriment. “Ice Storm” is a template for the bulk of the stories in the collection for its use of the themes of domestic relationships scarred by loss and the role of the dead in sealing fate.
Another theme is the failure of romantic love. In “Prophecy” the protagonist, Angela, can’t seem to shake her half-interested sex partner, Sean. She goes to a santera who tells her that she’s doomed to this fate. Valeri attributes the infallibility of the prediction to Angela’s unpopularity in high school, her unattractiveness and—despite her professional success—her unshakeable belief that she can woo Sean. In the end, she nearly succeeds but sees her hopes quickly and cruelly dashed: Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
Wednesday Martin paints a grim picture in Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong, and How the New Science Can Set Us Free. She posits that in much of the world, female sexuality has been hemmed in, due to a seemingly innocent cause: agriculture. As early hunter-gatherers, women roamed freely and the practice of multiple sex partners was common. But with the advent of the plough came the myths about female sexuality and gender roles we are taught today: that women are naturally domestic, frail, and monogamous.
The premise is one you might be familiar with – it’s been well-researched, as the NY Times noted. However, Martin infuses the subject with new energy, her own personal perspective, and a modern update, bringing recent developments like vaginal “rejuvenation” into the mix to show just how much gender roles have stayed the same. She discusses modern day adultery through the lens of two anonymous women she interviewed, Annika and Rebecca. One had an affair, and one didn’t, but both came to regret their choices for different reasons. Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
Were you ever asked that old ice-breaker question: if you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would it be? When Sabrina Nielson arrives to her 30th birthday dinner she finds her five picks sitting around the table. Though it’s more or less what I expected, Rebecca Serle’s take on this premise is very well executed and sensitively written.
The Dinner List is bittersweet with moments of levity and heartbreak throughout. It’s a one-night-only therapy session for Sabrina as she navigates her most important past relationships: Robert, the (now deceased) father who abandoned her; Jessica, her somewhat estranged best friend (and her traditional birthday dinner companion); and Tobias, the on-and-off-again boyfriend of basically a decade, for closure and healing. All of this is mediated by her old college professor Conrad, and also, Audrey Hepburn.
The Dinner List mainly digs into Sabrina’s relationship with Tobias, who she still regards as the great love of her life. Occasionally Serle serves up some funny moments, general relationship advice, and all with a bit of magical realism. The Dinner List pulls you through relationships, very human fatal flaws, and explains why those five people made Sabrina’s list- essentially answering who shapes a person’s life.
Review by Tess Tabak
A quick yes or no question: Does someone calling themselves a “community architect” make you want to punch things?
If yes, this is not the book for you.
Before anyone accuses me of being cynical, let me say that I wanted to like this book. I actually enjoy reading self help / new agey stuff. But I want them to either tell me something I didn’t know, or at least tell me something I did know in a new way. Most of the information in Radha Agrawal’s Belong: Find Your People, Create Community, and Live a More Connected Life is fairly common knowledge (don’t we all know by now that Facebook is not a substitute for in-person contact?). The exercises feel half-assed – at one point she says, “If you need ideas, Google it.” The amount of doodles and blank journal pages in the book make me think that Agrawal came up about 25% short on the page count, and they went with filler instead of more content.
Worse than that, Agrawal clearly has never experienced, and does not have a deep understanding of, what it truly means to feel alone and friendless. Good for her, but reading this book from such a state is akin to a guide on the Heimlich maneuver that begins, “First, take a deep breath.” What is someone truly friendless supposed to do with advice like “make sure you get 5 hugs a day”? Continue reading
Review by Mary Rose MacDonald
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, released in 2008, laments a societal loss of “attention” in the information age. Interpersonal relationships are increasingly impersonal between people tethered to their Blackberrys, iPods, PDAs, cell phones, etc. Author Maggie Johnson warns of a “Coming Dark Age” wherein “we are plunging into a culture of mistrust, skimming, and a perilous melding of man and machine.”
Ten years later, the second edition is enjoying an updated title, Distracted: Reclaiming Our Focus in a World of Lost Attention. Her language of reclamation and revolution, a taking back of “what one app developer calls our ‘cognitive liberty,’” is refreshing as she cites recent public outcry over mass data breaches, and of popular endeavors to “detox” from devices and digital living. She cultivates a new sense of agency. Dark Age or not, we can constructively grapple with the challenges of the frenetic technological age. Continue reading