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Merle

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays - Esmé Weijun Wang

Although this book seems well-loved overall, it wasn’t my favorite. It’s a collection of personal essays (which, in this case, is quite different from a memoir) by an Asian-American woman with schizoaffective disorder, largely about different aspects of the way her illness has affected her life. On their own, I think these essays are good: well-written, often weaving together multiple strands that at first seem unrelated, and reflective when it comes to the author’s experience of her serious mental illness.

But together, the collection feels like less than the sum of its parts. They don’t quite come together into a whole, and I didn’t come away feeling like I had a good understanding of the author’s lived experience overall, in the way that one hopefully does after reading a memoir. Some essays have a very narrow focus – like how viewing a particular movie in the theater caused her to lose touch with reality a bit – but the larger problem is that they often come across as detached and academic. In writing about her trauma, for instance, the author will digress to give us an entire paragraph on which books lay out the proper techniques for EMDR therapy, where one can purchase them, and for how much.

In the final paragraphs of an essay about being hospitalized, Wang writes, “I maintain, years later, that not one of my three involuntary hospitalizations helped me. I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas.” This was startling to read, not because of the sentiment – unfortunately, this experience of hospitalization is typical of the personal accounts I’ve read – but because the essay itself is rather mild and detached, doing nothing to lead the reader to the conclusion that the author ultimately draws. By this point, readers ought to have felt the trauma of these experiences themselves, rather than being surprised by her feelings at the end.

In the end, not a book I’d discourage you from reading if you’re really interested, but also not the best I’ve read on the subject. If you want to read a memoir about living with schizophrenia, try The Center Cannot Hold first.

Let's Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Let's Tell This Story Properly - Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I thought Kintu was fantastic, so was looking forward to this short story collection. Which, as it turned out, is good, but not quite as good as I was hoping. Though admittedly, I read it soon after three great collections, which set a high bar for short stories.

The first seven stories, just over half the book, follow Ugandan immigrants in Manchester, mostly in the present day, though one story is set in the 1950s. These stories, while interesting, are rather dreary, very much about social issues and always commenting on The Ugandan Immigrant Experience, to the point that the commentary started to feel like a crutch; can’t the human stories stand on their own without having to be representative? Most of these stories probably are strong enough to stand on their own, though they feel a little relentless in their dreariness.

But the last five stories, set in Uganda and generally dealing with returnees from Britain, are a breath of fresh air; while social issues are still central, these stories bring a lightness, openness and warmth missing from the first half of the collection. And the second half just keeps getting better as it goes; the title story and “Love Made in Manchester” are on fire.

Overall, an interesting collection of well-written stories that discuss various issues affecting Ugandans moving between home and England. I like it when short stories leave a bit more to ponder than these do, when the characters are a bit more memorable, but there are some really interesting situations here, and some fun and creativity (such as the story from the point-of-view of a dog). It is worth a read, though I think this author may excel more at novels than short stories.

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth - Sarah Smarsh

This book is poverty memoir, family saga and nonfiction piece rolled into one. The family memoir is interesting and enjoyable. The nonfiction aspect, though, is hamstrung by the author’s refusal to cite her sources. And the whole book is jumbled together, jumping from one topic to the next without taking the time to fully consider and develop ideas or draw important distinctions.

Sarah Smarsh grew up poor in rural Kansas. On her mom’s side, she came from several generations of high-crisis poverty: women who dropped out of school young, had babies as teenagers with the wrong men, and were constantly on the move, escaping from one bad situation into another. Smarsh got lucky in that before her birth, her grandmother married a stable farmer; when her parents’ lives were too chaotic, she moved in with her grandparents at the farm, and her grandfather and father loved and cared for her, unlike many of the men in her female relatives’ lives. But the farm was always poor despite the family’s hard work; everyone had to struggle to make ends meet, and in working hard to get through school and escape her family’s way of life, Smarsh had to struggle against everything her family knew, remaking herself into a person they hardly recognized.

Smarsh's writing is good, the stories compelling, and Smarsh delves into the emotional effects of her own life and her family’s lives, while also discussing the bigger picture and the trends in America. She does a great job of empathizing with her family members and portraying them fairly and sympathetically, even when their issues and their actions were hurtful to her. At the same time, the subject is all jumbled: each (long) chapter has a broad theme, and while her story of her own life is mostly chronological, within each chapter she’ll tell various excerpts of the lives of her mother, father, grandmother, and sometimes even great- and great-great-grandparents, and then intersperse it with historical information and political opinions. While perhaps less artistic, I think the family saga would have made a lot more sense in chronological order, rather than telling different bits of the same person’s life story in different places scattered all throughout the book.

And the broader nonfiction aspect also leaves something to be desired. The author includes no citations, nor even a list of the works that had the greatest influence on this one; she notes only at the beginning that “Points on United States and world history, politics, public policy, and other matters beyond the private experience are based on news stories, studies, and books I deemed accurate and reliable in my capacity as a journalist. They are conveyed with my perspective.” Oh, come on. Journalism isn’t supposed to be taken on faith; you tell us where you got your information, and then we can evaluate it. And this is a shame also for those interested in delving further into some of the topics discussed.

Then too, the author – who apparently has political ambitions – seems eager to speak for poverty as a whole, even while noting that her young life as a poor farmer is so unusual in today’s America that many of the friends she made later assumed it was a lifestyle that no longer existed. Her family is resourceful and even self-sufficient in ways that are rare today: they produce at least some of their own food; they build and repair their own houses. Smarsh’s family carries a lot of social problems – lots of drinking and partying, teen pregnancy, violent or absent fathers, constantly moving from one place to another and changing schools – but she also inherited a connection to the land and a trove of practical skills and knowledge that I think distinguishes her from most poor Americans. She’s really discussing two different types of poverty here – that of her mother’s family and that of her grandfather – but never acknowledges the distinction, nor that many people in poverty have an experience unlike either of these.

I generally enjoyed reading this book; I liked the author’s voice, in spite of her addressing the book to an imaginary daughter, and I found her and her family’s stories interesting and compelling. But I don’t like authors expecting me to take their arguments on faith, and I found the nonfiction aspects shallow.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome - Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Edith Wharton

Despite the author’s literary skill, I didn't think much of this novella. In its brief page count, it chronicles the tragedy of Ethan Frome, a struggling young farmer hastily married to a cousin who constantly insists upon her unspecified ailments; while yearning for a better life, Ethan falls hard for his wife’s penniless young cousin, Mattie, who has joined them as a sort of servant.

There is merit here: the clear but artful language and descriptions of the New England countryside (where it is apparently always winter); the nuanced portrayals of everyday events and the characters’ emotional states; a story that moves relatively quickly and builds emotion as it goes. I suspect it’s a rare reader who doesn’t have an emotional reaction to the book, which is short enough and compelling enough to read in a single sitting.

But for many readers – myself included – the predominant emotional reaction is likely to be frustration. This is the second Wharton I’ve read, and both books follow characters who refuse to take available options to solve their problems, and finally conclude (or appear to conclude) that death is the only answer. These books are apparently meant to demonstrate how society limits the individual’s choices. But, to put it rather crudely, I think what this book really demonstrates is how being a pussy limits Ethan’s choices. Why doesn’t he stand up to his wife? Why doesn’t he abandon the farm to his creditors, go to the nearest city and get a job? Why does he feel he could only leave if he could afford to get to California, at a time when new immigrants were arriving and surviving on the East Coast every day? It’s hard for me to feel for a character whose real problem seems to be that he doesn’t have the spine to stand up for himself and the woman he claims to love. Mattie’s problems are somewhat more legitimate, but the story is told so much from Ethan’s perspective that we don’t quite know her; I was left wondering whether she in fact loved Ethan, or just saw him as her only protector; even she might not know the difference.

The other thing that rubs me the wrong way is Wharton’s introduction, in which she explains that the story is short because her poor rural characters are “simple” people with simple emotions: “but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate.” This is so condescending and lacking in empathy that I wonder how qualified she really is to write about these characters. Just because someone is poor, half-educated and hasn’t been raised to consider their emotions worthy of analysis and discussion, doesn’t mean they don’t have complicated emotions, or that their life isn’t a long and complicated saga. This book is short because all of the set-up happens before it starts, leaving us to follow the characters only for some quick rising action up to the climax, and then we skip a couple of decades and get all the denouement in a quick retrospective. From a literary standpoint this works well. But the shortness and simplicity comes not from the fact that the characters are incapable of experiencing more, but because Wharton is incapable of imagining them doing so.

I don’t regret reading this: it’s short, well-known and an interesting story. But I definitely wouldn't recommend assigning it to teenagers; even as an adult, it’s a little hard to sympathize with these characters. And let’s keep in mind that while Wharton – without the benefit of today’s social science – fell for the common human fallacy of believing that members of out-groups have emotions less meaningful and complex than our own, we shouldn’t do the same.

In Sorcery's Shadow by Paul Stoller

In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger - Paul Stoller, Cheryl Olkes

An anthropologist’s memoir of apprenticing himself to various sorcerers in Niger in the 1970s and 80s, this book has great material to work with, but is written in a rather dry, academic style. I had the sense the author spends all his reading time immersed in academic works and perhaps hadn’t actually read a popular memoir, though he clearly did his best to make it accessible by including lots of dialogue and breaking it down into short chapters. There are some storytelling infelicities, like when a major character finally steps over the line near the end, and only then does the author suddenly list all of the major warning signs that had apparently been there all along.

 

Perhaps my larger issue with the book, though, is that while the author talks a big game in the introduction about this bold move he’s making by putting himself in the narrative at all when he’s supposed to be a scientist, the book is at a rather awkward place halfway between being about him and about the Songhay sorcerers. His life outside of his five trips to the country is a complete blank, such that it’s startling when on the last trip he brings his wife and it turns out people had been asking after her all along; we never knew he was married. But the book doesn’t delve quite as deeply into the lives of the people he meets as I’d like either – what ever happened to the first family of the sorcerer who was imprisoned for 20 years starting when he was 60? And while the author loses his skepticism about Songhay sorcery, he is still supposed to be engaging in academic inquiry and not just some New Agey experience, so I would’ve appreciated it if, for instance, instead of just giving anecdotes of a few people whose problems the sorcerers supposedly solved, he’d put this in context – what percentage of clients saw their problems quickly resolved?

 

All that said, it’s an interesting book to read – the author seems to have been as immersed in Songhay society as an outsider could be, and he meets some interesting people and definitely provides a window into the country and its landscape and culture. He doesn’t seem to think about his supposedly supernatural experiences very critically, but it was interesting to read about the world of Songhay sorcerers all the same.

Después de las Bombas by Arturo Arias

Después De Las Bombas - Arturo Arias

I can’t say this is an objectively bad book, but I can say I really disliked reading it. It’s an absurdist version of Guatemalan history from the 1950s through 1970s, told through the eyes of a boy named Maximo as he grows toward adulthood. This passage toward the end, as Maximo begins to explore his own writing, seems to encapsulate its philosophy (translation is mine):

“I’ll exaggerate. I’ll lie. Chingolo says that to be understood one must lie. It’s another way of getting inside someone. Begin lying fast and furiously and they’ll start to hear me. Lies are sacred, Amarena.”

The mid-19th century was a turbulent, bloody time in Guatemala, and this book is full of brutal, gruesome scenes and imagery, but in a way that seems over-the-top, disconnected from real historical events: there’s a guillotine set up in the capital’s hippodrome to execute losing jockeys; a wealthy couple kills two servants for their attraction to one another and displays their body parts; leaders of a prostitutes’ strike are executed in the manner of Aztec sacrifices, their hearts cut out with obsidian knives before throngs of people in a stadium while the American ambassador, who demanded vengeance for the death of some official, looks on approvingly. Knowing little about Guatemalan history, some of these incidents were easier for me to understand in terms of the author’s message than others. Overall though, it shouldn’t be taken literally, which for those of us unfamiliar with the place and time covered, is disorienting.

Curiously, I did a bit of online research to try to map some of these fictional events onto actual ones, and my key takeaway was that English-language sources tend to portray this period of Guatemala’s history as one of racial terror, i.e., massacres of the Mayan population. This book, on the other hand, portrays it as a period of political terror: a succession of dictatorships masquerading as democracies, the streets ruled by thuggish forces who rape and murder at will, school forever cancelled due to one political disruption or another (in what I assume is another exaggeration, Maximo “graduates” high school without ever attending a day of class; each year, school is cancelled and the students promoted anyway). I am not quite sure how to view the discrepancies between these two versions: Americans glossing over their own country’s role in overturning democratic governments unfriendly to American interests? The author glossing over genocide carried out by, I think, his own racial group? Or perhaps it’s just that this book is mostly set before the genocide really picked up, in 70s and 80s, but that ethnic cleansing naturally tends to overshadow what came before it? As with much of this book, I was left with more questions than answers.

But overall, it’s a difficult book to read, both in the way it’s put together – lack of quotation marks and speaker attributions, sudden jumps in time between paragraphs with no section breaks, etc. – and in its horrific subject matter: not a chapter passes without something gruesome and terrible, whether it’s decomposing bodies littering the streets or the lengthy and graphic rape scene midway through the book that results in permanent disfigurement for one of the victims. I can’t speak to the merits of this book for those more familiar with the time period discussed, but I’m really just glad to be done with it.

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water - Michael Dorris

Next time I’m tempted to wax poetic about how great fiction editing used to be, or to worry that a poorly conceived new release is evidence of the profession’s demise, I’ll remind myself of this book. This distinctively 80s mess of unrealized potential and terrible editing choices.

This is a family saga, beginning in Seattle with a biracial teenager, Rayona, whose mother, Christine, suddenly decides they are going back to Montana, to the reservation where Christine grew up. The first large chunk of the book is told from Rayona’s point-of-view, the second, slightly larger chunk from Christine’s, and then a small segment at the end comes from the family matriarch, Ida.

The first mistake is that it’s all told in the first person. It goes almost without saying that all three voices sound the same; first-time novelists love to do multiple narrators and they always turn out this way. But here this is more than a literary criticism; the voice is so jarringly wrong for both Rayona and Christine – who together narrate 80% of the book – that it distanced me from their characters. For fifteen-year-old Rayona – apparently a cautious, sensitive girl – it’s far too detached, ironic, world-weary, mature. And for Christine too – heedless, self-deluding, emotional – it’s too detached, too self-aware. Only for Ida, who really is a tough, bitter, independent, too-old-for-your-shit type, does it work. It took me quite awhile to realize that this disconnect between character and voice was what was throwing me out of their stories. But in the end I think I only got to know Rayona or Christine when not in their heads.

The second mistake is the pacing. At 372 pages, the book is on the longer side for realistic fiction, and it has enough plot for maybe half those pages. Mostly Dorris disguises the lack of forward momentum with – or perhaps loses it in – overly detailed but ultimately unimportant scenes. And the lack of focus, the unnecessary words and scenes, corrode the story both on a macro level and a scene-by-scene one. A five-page scene details Christine’s buying a membership in a video rental club. Meanwhile, Christine’s entire 153-page POV section contains only 10 pages at the end that don’t overlap with Rayona’s; overwhelmingly, this middle chunk is spent rehashing things we already know or could infer from Rayona’s section. And Rayona’s section, too, spends a lot of time developing her relationships with minor characters and settings which then never appear again. I seriously considered quitting the novel in the middle.

But here’s an example so that you can judge for yourself. In this scene, Christine is finally alone with her former nemesis – her brother’s best friend – just after the brother’s funeral:

“The waitress arrived to take our order, and I paid her my full attention. She must have been sixty-five, but all the same she gave Dayton the once-over while she waited for us to decide. Dayton had a Montanaburger with fries, and I had the meatloaf plate with a tossed salad on the side.

“What kind of dressing you want with that, hon?” She peered at me from above her black and rhinestone glasses frames.

“What do you have?”

“French, Thousand Island, Green Goddess, and Creamy Italian,” she recited.

“Italian,” I said, like a city girl who knew her way around.

“I need a à la carte Italian,” she called across the serving counter into the kitchen, and tacked the page with our orders on a metal wheel, though we were the only ones eating. The cook spun it to see what to fix.

Red and green holiday tinsel still lined the doors and a string of colored lights framed the mirror behind the bar. The waitress moved from table to empty table, sashaying her hips as she straightened the ketchup bottles. She had a high bouffant the color of washed-out lace, exactly like the angel hair that swirled beneath the artificial tree with gold ornaments that was balanced on a table at the end of the room. She was decorated too. Over her beige turtleneck she wore a black felt bolero with MERRY and CHRISTMAS written in green glitter on either side, and around her neck hung a pendant made from a Bic lighter in a gold lamé case. It swung like a charm between her low breasts.”


Look, I don’t care about this diner or waitress that we’ll never see again. I’m here for the interaction between Christine and Dayton – which winds up getting less page time than the exhaustive description of the restaurant and its menu.

The third mistake is the ending, and there too, Dorris’s writing is tripped up by lack of proportion – by which I mean, a failure to allocate the most space, and the most important space, to the parts of the story that are important, while compressing the minor details into smaller and less prominent segments. There isn’t really an ending here. Rayona’s and Christine’s sections end at seemingly random points, and then Ida’s section turns out to be entirely backstory, ending when Christine was an adolescent, and neither giving Ida’s viewpoint on the subsequent bitter conflict between the two women, nor providing any resolution in the present.

But there’s one aspect of the ending that was particularly curious to me: both Rayona’s and Ida’s sections end on a discussion of Christine’s adolescent religious disenchantment, which doesn’t seem to be important to Christine herself at all. At most, this episode supplies a simplistic answer to the question “why is Christine a party girl?”, which isn’t a question I expect to be at the forefront of any reader’s mind.

The questions the novel does raise, and then never answers, in order of importance as I saw it: What does Rayona’s future hold? Where will she live, what sort of understanding will she reach with the other major characters, will she break gender barriers in rodeo, will she ever return those blasted videotapes? Why is Ida so bad at showing her love? Will Christine ever accept responsibility for what she did to Lee? Were Lee and Dayton a couple?

(show spoiler)

I wound up wondering if perhaps Dorris gave this episode such prominent billing because he intended the novel to be a critique of religion, or at least of Christian outsiders on reservations – but that doesn’t really fit the rest of the novel. The priests, while of questionable morality, are minor characters who act to facilitate decisions other people have already made, rather than driving the action themselves.

In the end, the frustration never paid off. There was potential in the characters and plot and settings, and that kept me reading. But ultimately, like the title itself, this book consists of too many words with too little meaning (the raft, while visited, is never particularly important). I wouldn’t recommend it.

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks

Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe - Inara Verzemnieks

This is a lovely multigenerational memoir. The author is the daughter and granddaughter of Latvian refugees who fled their home country at the end of WWII, and she returns to Latvia after her the death of the grandmother who raised her to learn more about the country and her family’s stories. Much of the book traces the lives of her grandmother – raised on a farm she would forever idealize, before going to school, moving to the city, and ultimately fleeing across war-torn Europe with her two young children, not knowing whether her conscripted husband was dead or alive – and her grandmother’s younger sister, who was trapped on the farm by the war, then deported to Siberia with her family, to finally return and pick up the pieces all over again. Separated for fifty years, the sisters both seemed to envy the other: Ausma envies the glamorous older sister who got away, while Livija, who finally lands in Tacoma, lives in the past, clinging to the Latvian community in exile and raising her granddaughter in its traditions.

It’s a lovely, thoughtful, atmospheric and emotionally rich memoir, and quite comprehensive for its length, with diversions into Latvian history recent and remote and even geological, but always centered on the family and the countryside they both love intensely and often want or need to escape. The artsiness of the writing style was a bit of a stumbling block for me in the beginning – this is definitely an MFA memoir – but by the end I felt the literary style helps distinguish the book. And I appreciated the author’s reckoning with complex topics, such as how those men, including her own grandfather, who were conscripted into the Latvian Legion – meaning they were fighting for the Nazis, but against the Soviets – should be judged. I felt throughout that the author was searching for truth and comfortable with nuance. And of course, I was especially thrilled to find a high-quality book about Latvia, a country rarely featured in literature. I recommend it.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride - Yangsze Choo

I had a lot of fun with this book, a plot-driven historical fantasy novel whose fantastical elements are based on Chinese conceptions of the afterlife. Admittedly, I found part one (of four) a little tedious: this segment is more historical fiction than fantasy, and doesn’t play as much to Choo’s strengths – which are plot and imagination – than the remainder of the book. Once it gets going though, it’s a great adventure, and I really enjoyed reading a fantasy based on non-European mythology. Readers should be aware that, as with most historical fantasy, it shouldn’t be taken literally as a guide to anyone’s belief system: Choo explains in the afterword that she meshed together various strains of thought and invented elements of her own. But it was still a lot of fun to see certain cultural practices, like burning paper objects for the dead, made real and carried to their logical conclusions. And meanwhile it’s a lively and accessible adventure that should appeal to a lot of western readers who might be intimidated by books from other cultures.

That said, it can come across as a little too explanatory sometimes – while set in 1890s Malaysia (and its associated afterworld), it’s clearly pitched at a western audience. The characters are not particularly complex or unique, and the writing style is perfectly functional but not notable for its own sake. But as a lighthearted, fun historical fantasy, it’s great, and I’d definitely be interested in reading more from this author.

Colonised People by Grace Mera Molisa

Colonised People: poems - Grace Mera Molisa

I feel a little guilty for making this my world books challenge book for Vanuatu; it’s only 30 pages long (really 21 if you’re only including the actual text, not the front material, introduction and author bio). That said for challenge purposes I’m defining “book” as anything independently bound as a book, which this is. I don’t feel guilty for giving it a low rating, because I can only honestly evaluate books from my own experience, not what I imagine the perspective of readers from some other demographic and whom I’ve never met might possibly be.

This is a political collection of poems and a couple of charts about the status of women in Vanuatu in 1987, seven years after the island nation’s independence. It’s an important topic, and I think there’s a certain rhythm to Molisa’s very straightforward and easy-to-read poems, but it largely consists of discussions about abstract concepts like “freedom” and “democracy.” (The title comes from the author’s argument that Ni-Vanuatu women remained colonized because society accepted men’s authority over them.) There’s also some discussion of domestic violence in Vanuatu, which unfortunately sounds a lot like domestic violence everywhere else, and some charts showing men’s vs. women’s workforce participation. It’s interesting, but I guess I would have liked more depth. Or perhaps political poetry is a form of rhetoric that can really only appeal to people already familiar with the problems addressed. Either way, not a book I think many readers would want to go out of their way to find, though a very quick read if you do.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

This is one of those books that give popular nonfiction a bad name. Which is unfortunate, because what could be better than books that both educate and entertain? But Outliers embodies everything that people who sneer at the genre are talking about: its conclusions are both obvious and simplistic, its writing persuasive but glib. It’s easy to see why Gladwell is a popular author: he’s a good storyteller, his writing accessible and entertaining. But this book is so riddled with oversimplified conclusions and strange contradictions that it should be read for entertainment, perhaps for gaining a little bit of knowledge on a few very specific subjects, but not to be taken too seriously.

Gladwell wants to examine why some people are wildly successful, and his basic thesis is pretty obvious: the most successful people benefit from advantages beyond their own talent. The first half of the book sticks mostly to this point, examining the advantages wildly successful people have had: much of it boils down to opportunities to hone their skills, though timing is also important. People who come of age in a favorable economy do better in their careers (no surprise there), while for skills where children are sorted into the gifted and the not at a young age, then given different levels of training, being born shortly after the cutoff date (and thus several months older than most of the competitors) confers a major advantage. The discussion of the effect of cutoff dates on hockey players (who are sorted at age 9 or 10) and on academics (with “gifted” classes often beginning in elementary school) is perhaps the best portion of the book, though Gladwell neglects to consider the psychological impacts of being classified gifted or not at a young age; it seems to me that even if kids aren’t separated out young, knowing you’re ahead of or behind your peers would affect your confidence.

The book takes an abrupt turn in the second half, to talk about cultural legacies: for instance, feuds used to be common in Appalachia due to an “honor culture,” while planes piloted by people from cultures with a high level of deference for authority used to crash more often, until people finally figured this out and started training flight crews to speak up when they saw danger. Interesting stuff, but only sort of related to the first half. Gladwell talks a lot about his theory that Asians are better at math because their ancestors farmed rice paddies, which is really hard work, and gave birth to a culture that values hard work. There may be something to this, but I suspect it’s a lot more complicated than that; check out Little Soldiers for an in-depth comparison between the Chinese and American school systems. The most startling thing about all this, though, is that Gladwell never asks why, if Asian cultures are so much better at hard work, and hard work is what leads to great success, why are all of his “outliers” Americans or Brits and not Chinese or Japanese? Why wasn’t the Internet invented in China, if Chinese rice-paddy culture is so perfect for math skills?

And the book is this way throughout, its analysis incomplete (and its outliers all white men). Gladwell coins the idea of the “10,000-hour rule” here – the notion that to become great at something, you have to practice for this magical number of hours. (He actually refers to this number as “magic” multiple times, despite the fact that the authors of the key study he relied on disagree with his analysis, pointing out that 10,000 hours was the average amount of practice put in by the best students at an elite music school, not a magic threshold between average and world-class. Gladwell, not the scientists, coined the idea of a 10,000-hour rule.) He talks at length about a study of violinists showing an apparently direct, linear correlation between hours practiced and skill, but that’s only one very specific talent (and those best violin students were merely expected to succeed, not yet embarked on their careers). Anyone who’s ever attended school knows that some people are just better at certain skills than others of similar backgrounds, even if nobody practices beyond their homework. And even Gladwell doesn’t quite seem to take his idea, that the number of hours practiced is all that matters, seriously. Within the same chapter he says, of the Beatles, “Lennon and McCartney had a musical gift of the sort that comes along once in a generation.” Wait, what? I thought this was a chapter about how it’s all about hours of practice, in a book that’s all about how the world is full of people whose talents are never realized because they didn’t get that lucky break. Huh.

There’s plenty of other intellectual shortcuts too. Gladwell says a couple of times that hockey players born in the latter half of the year “might as well not show up for tryouts at all” when they make up 30% of the teams – too low, obviously, but this hardly spells doom for the most talented. He conflates families who teach their kids how to work with the system and navigate institutions (as opposed to poorer families, which tend to impart the idea that the world happens to you and authority is always an antagonist) with families who hyper-schedule their kids, and then suggests that a hyper-scheduled childhood leads to success, despite the fact that this is a very recent phenomenon and generations of successful people have managed to do without it. (Current research even suggests that unstructured time is crucial for developing creativity and independence.) It’s clear why he makes this mistake, since hyper-scheduling is so common in today's middle- and upper-class families that, at least in the study he examines, it occurred in all the families who taught their kids effective self-advocacy. But these are two totally different parenting choices. He even refers a couple of times to the importance of having books in the home for children to read “if they’re bored,” a sad assumption from an author – that reading is a last-resort activity (of course, the schools and families he praises leave no time for it anyway).

I could go on, but plenty of others have reviewed this book already. Yes, the book has some interesting ideas and yes, it’s easy to read, but Gladwell is an intellectual lightweight. I wouldn’t recommend this one . . . unless, of course, you’re bored.

1491 by Charles Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus - Charles C. Mann

This is an important book. The author compiles historical and archaeological research to provide a history of the Americas before (and shortly after) the arrival of Europeans. And it’s a legit history, in ways I didn’t realize were even lacking in my previous acquaintance with early American history before reading the book. Compared to most other parts of the world, we know relatively little about the early Americas, but there’s a lot more information available than is generally taught to the public, and so much of what we do know tends to be couched in these dismissive frameworks where native Americans are some sort of separate species of people, barbarians or noble savages or quasi-mythological beings, depending on your persuasion, all political structures consisting of “tribes” and their “chiefs” no matter how large the groups or sophisticated their political organization, everyone “living lightly on the land” and “in tune with nature” and so on. We know there were actual empires in Mexico and the Andes, and yet we reduce them to barbarians drinking out of skulls or performing human sacrifice (see: the worthless “documentaries,” always shot at night in red and black, that my teachers showed in middle school). We don’t stop to ask about all the trappings of civilization that empires tend to have, or that cultures tend to develop on their way to becoming empires: what sort of political and economic systems did they have? What kinds of technology and writing systems were developed? What about poetry and philosophy? Who were the leaders, innovators and thinkers, and what were their ideas?

 

Much of the achievement of this book, then, is writing a history of the Americas in the same way one writes a history of European or Asian cultures, and in fact, Mann uses numerous helpful comparisons between similar practices in different cultures, stripping away the mythology of native America that gets in the way of viewing people as people. It isn’t nearly as complete as histories about anywhere in Eurasia, and reading this book drives home the magnitude of how much history and culture has been lost, but there is a ton of information and detail here that I’d never encountered before. Some of Mann’s broad points no longer quite seem like “new revelations”: I think it’s fairly well-known among educated people at this point that the more hospitable parts of the Americas were heavily populated upon European arrival, then overwhelmingly reduced by disease. But other theses were still new to me: the extent of the land management carried out throughout North and South America, for instance, from regular burning of forests to maintain a particular ecological balance, to the Mayan engineering of potable water by paving over toxic elements in the Yucatan’s swamps with limestone, to the human-created fertile soil in the Amazon that now covers between a few thousand square miles and 10% of the basin, depending on whose estimates you believe.

 

So I found this to be a really fascinating, enlightening book, told in an engaging style, though I do have a few caveats. The book spends a lot of time on drama amongst scientists, which at first I found out of place, though by the end I realized the importance of including it: our learning about history is by no means finished, and readers who know how the sausage is made are perhaps better qualified to analyze scientific differences of opinion in the future. The book also jumps around a fair bit, organized by very broad topics and then returning to discuss the same cultures in different segments; it’s best read when you have time to engage with it and flip back to earlier sections to refresh your memory. The section on the Amazon seems less complete and persuasive than the others. And the author’s obvious desire to turn the information in this book into an ecological lesson, or some kind of rebuke to the environmental movement (hah! The Americas were never pristine after all!) seems forced and unhelpful: the fact that native Americans engaged in more active stewardship and cultivation than previously supposed doesn’t make the idea of destroying everything for temporary economic gain any better. But this is a small part of the book, perhaps tacked on because the author felt like he was supposed to impart a lesson.

 

Overall though, I think this is a fantastic book despite those few caveats, because it is so eye-opening, a great, accessible source of information that will probably be new to most of its readers, and because it represents a shift in popular thought about North and South American history. It is thorough, well-sourced and engaging, and I definitely recommend it.

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness - Elyn R. Saks

This seems to be the schizophrenia memoir, and it comes as no surprise that it’s written by a very accomplished, successful person: going public with an account of one’s psychosis and delusions could be career-ending for many people, but when you’re a tenured professor at a prestigious law school, with a stack of degrees and publications, you can basically do what you want. Still, it’s a gutsy thing to publish.

This is a chronological account of the author’s life from childhood up to probably her 50s, though the bulk of it takes place while she’s doing her graduate and law studies, which is when the schizophrenia really sets in. Fortunately for her, she’s in England on a Marshall scholarship when she’s first hospitalized, in an environment where patients’ personhood and wishes are respected – unfortunately, a sharp contrast to her hospitalization during law school back in the States, which is harrowing, as these stories tend to be. She is a tough lady though, and a strong sense of purpose in her studies and her work – as well as a few close friendships and a lot of psychoanalysis – gets her through.

I was surprised that Freudian psychoanalysis could actually do somebody with a serious mental illness much good, but it makes sense that having one-on-one time 4-5 times a week with someone who would listen nonjudgmentally to all her bizarre thoughts would help. She does eventually wind up having to be on medication long-term, and her discussion of all the reasons she resists this is really interesting. She doesn’t want to be “dependent on drugs,” the side effects of the antipsychotics available at the time were quite bad (including the risk of permanent, very visible nerve damage for those who took them long-term), but she also doesn’t want to view herself as damaged enough to need this. It doesn’t make logical sense and yet this seems to be a thing with the most stigmatized illnesses, that people often view taking medication for them as a symbolic capitulation, as if acknowledging the disease enough to treat it means turning over control of their lives to it.

Overall this is definitely an interesting memoir, though not a particularly artistic one; it’s told in a straightforward, chronological manner, albeit with a lot of dialogue that is probably not exact. Given how much the author has studied mental illness, I would have liked to see her broaden the scope of the book a little more, comment on how her experience of schizophrenia compares to that of others. That said, it works well as is, it’s accessible and engaging, and it’s a great window into a dreaded disease that’s generally discussed as if people who have it are incapable of contributing to the conversation themselves. Saks is living proof that people with schizophrenia are as capable as anyone else of living a full life, under the right circumstances: despite grave prognoses early on, and various crises along the way, she has a great career, is happily married and has a lot of strong friendships. At any rate, this is an eye-opening book and I recommend it.

Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Night At the Fiestas: Stories - Kirstin Valdez Quade

This is an intense literary short story collection, consisting of 10 stories mostly set in New Mexico, many but not all featuring Hispanic characters. The author does an excellent job with character, each of the protagonists seeming as real as a character in a good novel, drawn with specific traits that bring them to life as individuals. And the scene-setting is great too; the stories are immersive, with well-chosen details that bring them to life in the mind’s eye without interfering with the pace of the plot. And they are compelling, each one different.

The stories are on the darker side, often featuring broken families, domestic violence (typically off-screen), or just protagonists who feel alone in the world. My two global complaints are that the endings are often a little bit weak – Valdez Quade seems to struggle most with the last paragraph or two of a story – and that a few stories prominently feature secondary characters whose behavior doesn’t quite make sense. Short stories are made for ambiguity, and there’s plenty of that here – I wish I’d read it with someone else, to be able to discuss it, which is a sign of a good short story – but it needs to be calculated precisely.

But now for the stories (and I’d be interested to hear others’ interpretations):

“Nemecia”: The first story starts out strong, featuring a young girl growing up in the early 20th century looking up to her mysterious older cousin. It peters out toward the end, though.

“Mojave Rats”: This is a perfectly fine story about a blended family living (temporarily; the mother depends on it) in an RV park in the Mojave Desert. It spends a little too much time in the protagonist’s head though, and ends on a realization rather than an event; I can see why few reviewers mention it.

“The Five Wounds”: Seems to be the overall favorite of the collection, and it’s very strong: this story of a deadbeat father’s attempt at redemption through a violent religious ritual (one apparently actually carried out by the Penitentes in New Mexico) features a big, dramatic, culturally-specific set piece, and is well-crafted and intense.

“Night at the Fiestas”: On the one hand, I really enjoyed this story of a teenage girl who wants her life to be a drama, and encounters a moral dilemma on her way to the Fiestas de Santa Fe; it’s also an intense and well-crafted story. But the actions of the man on the bus didn’t make a lot of sense to me. How could he just forget the large amount of cash he was carrying, and why didn’t he try harder to retrieve it?

“The Guesthouse”: The dynamics of what feels like an archetypical broken middle-America family seem entirely believable here, but this story’s set piece – involving a boa constrictor – was a little over-the-top for me, and the story ends abruptly on an act of violence without letting us see the consequences.

“Family Reunion”: This is a great story about an 11-year-old who feels like an extra wheel in her blended family and an outcast as a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City. The friend’s mother’s behavior didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it’s an emotionally intense story that left me disturbed by just how alone this kid is.

“Jubilee”: This one is also great: a college student from a poor background intends to shame her father’s landowner boss with her reverse snobbery at a fancy party, but mostly reveals her own clumsiness and insecurities.

“Ordinary Sins”: The setting of this story is interesting, featuring the dynamics of a Catholic parish where the long-term, kindhearted but timid local priest is perhaps to be supplanted by a stern young Nigerian newcomer. But it spends a little too much time in the head of its protagonist, a pregnant young parish employee, as she overthinks a situation she encounters, and the end felt a little obligatory.

“Canute Commands the Tides”: This is an accomplished but disturbing story, about a retiree who, feeling a lack of purpose and connection in her life, befriends the woman she’s hired to help unpack and clean up her new house, only to encounter violence from the cleaning lady’s son. This story made me uncomfortable in part because of the violence (which is starker here than in any other story), and in part because several readers seem to have taken it as a parable about naïve white do-gooders. Certainly reaching out to others can result in being hurt yourself, but I think cautioning people against kindness and generosity is a pretty anti-social message; I also think the story isn’t actually that simplistic, that Margaret is more lonely than meddling and just has bad luck in the family she encounters.

“The Manzanos”: Like most readers, I didn’t think much of the final story. Its lack of plot is a weakness, but its larger problem is being told in the first person, present tense from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old with poor academic skills . . . whose “voice” nevertheless is that of a 30-something well-educated writer in both form and content. It’s jarring and not believable in the least. Presumably this was one of the author’s early stories.

Overall though, this collection really engaged me; it features well-developed protagonists and settings and engaging plots, and gave me a lot to think about. I look forward to seeing what this author does next; she is relatively young but well on her way to being a fantastic writer.

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie

An African in Greenland - A. Alvarez, James Kirkup, Tété-Michel Kpomassie

This is the travelogue of a young man from Togo who determined at age 16 that he would go to Greenland, then spent the next 8 years working his way there. A quarter of the way through the book, he arrives, and spends the next 15 months traveling gradually further and further north, living with the Inuit, learning their methods of hunting and fishing, and adopting their way of life. His time in Greenland apparently took place in 1965-66, and the culture he found certainly bore the stamp of Danish colonial rulers (well-insulated turf dwellings almost entirely replaced with inferior wooden houses; people living in southern cities had largely given up hunting and depended on government handouts), but in many other ways it still seems quite unique. Families sleeping all together in a single bed with their children and visitors; hunting in kayaks and with dog sleds; packs of huskies that sometimes serve as food themselves when provisions are tight, but which also sometimes attack and eat humans; constant visiting from one home to another, with people wandering right into each other’s houses; butchering animals indoors and eating the meat raw, the children all winding up with blood in their hair; a complete lack of sexual jealousy or concern for fidelity, including in some places ritual “swinging”; it’s a colorful picture Kpomassie paints here. I couldn’t help wondering if his depictions of both Togo and Greenland were deliberately “exotic” to appeal to a European readership with little knowledge of other lands, though a quick online search turned up no evidence of this book having been debunked so far.

That said, it’s definitely an interesting account, allowing readers to armchair-travel to a far-flung place with a unique character. For all Kpomassie seems to love Greenland, it’s a warts-and-all depiction that probably won’t inspire many to follow his footsteps in person; this book isn’t for the squeamish, whether it’s describing the butchering and eating of raw meat, or canine and human bodily functions and sexual behavior. But it is well-written, closely-observed and engaging.

My biggest criticism is that the author’s inner life is oddly lacking, which contributes to the comparison to a fairy tale: there’s little sense of how Kpomassie thinks or feels about much of anything, especially after arriving in Greenland. He writes about his journey as if it were easy: working his way through West Africa and Europe, everywhere he goes he finds a job that allows him to support himself and save money, learns the language easily, finds people willing to take him in where he needs them, and generally gives the impression of being untouched by circumstance, of nothing truly bad ever happening. Perhaps I’m just too used to reading books about dire circumstances myself. But I couldn’t help wondering about the deeper story of his journey and what he did with his life afterwards.

I also have to comment on the bizarrely worthless introduction. The mysterious “A. Alvarez” is an awfully careless reader: stating multiple times, for instance, that Kpomassie spends an entire winter with his final host family, while he tells us quite specifically that he stayed there from July 3 until around September 22, when he took the last boat out before the pack ice set in. Alvarez also seems to seriously misread the python cult episode in Togo, claiming that the head priestess demanded Kpomassie as a devotee in exchange for healing, while actually, his father paid for the healing separately, and the request that he also become a priest was based on his personal qualities and considered an honor by his family. Why the publisher would even include this careless waste of ink in the book is beyond me.

Overall, an interesting and unusual book, and one I generally enjoyed while reading it, though I wasn’t always drawn to pick it up. Certainly worth a read for the armchair traveler.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries - Terese Marie Mailhot

I don’t feel that I can rate this short, not-quite-chronological memoir. It’s certainly well-written, and deals with a lot of heavy topics, but this sparse, symbolic, stylized form of writing isn’t one that quite works for me. Entire stories are distilled into a single paragraph or even sentence, and so much of the way the author sees the world is figurative. Major elements are skipped over entirely: the author spends much of the book lamenting an intense relationship with a man who doesn’t seem to respect or care about her very much, who brings out the worst in her and whom she believes doesn’t understand her. And then suddenly, he’s her husband, and apparently remains so, in what seems like a terrible choice based on everything she’s written here, though it’s so brief it can hardly be the complete story. At the same time, it’s really great, polished writing, and highly re-readable. Those who enjoy very literary memoirs will probably eat this up. Others might be left confused or nonplussed.