In the Spider’s Web by Jerome Gold

Striking, deeply honest, and sensitively told, this novel based in real life considers juvenile prisons and all its dramas.

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Jerome Gold calls In the Spider’s Web a “nonfiction novel.” In it, he depicts the routines and characters of a prison for juveniles, centering on one young woman in particular. All the events really happened and are drawn from his years working as a rehabilitation counselor at the institution he calls Ash Meadow–some supporting characters are composites, but all the major players are real people; names except his own, places, and some other details are changed to shield identities. As might be expected, the stories Gold relates are often disturbing, but they are beautifully told from a sober and compassionate perspective.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on April 28, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 8 points.

A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson

A celebration of biology and the joy of discovery–and a reminder to tread lightly.

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Dave Goulson follows A Sting in the Tale, about his years studying bumblebees, with A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm. In 2003, Goulson purchased a 33-acre property with a decaying farmhouse and barn, and turned it into a private nature reserve; here he describes the multitude of wildlife he shares those acres with. His goal is to celebrate the wonder of the natural world–especially insects, which make up roughly two-thirds of known life on Earth.

Goulson charmingly depicts the mating practices of dance flies and the many butterfly species he sees on his daily run, and elucidates the habits of the famously cannibalistic female mantis with added knowledge gained through his own studies. A Buzz in the Meadow is both a descriptive work and a call to arms, a reminder that all species are precious and necessary, even the tiny ones. Goulson repeatedly states that conservationists should look beyond large and charismatic creatures like whales and tigers; he perhaps overstates that “the extinction of the giant panda… would not have any knock-on consequences. There would perhaps be a tiny bit more bamboo in a forest in China,” but his point is well taken–that insects make up the majority of life and play an outsized role in the interconnectivity of biological systems worldwide. Goulson’s tone is personal, even humorously self-effacing, but clearly expert. A Buzz in the Meadow accessibly presents natural science and gracefully offers an earnest wake-up call to conservation.


This review originally ran in the April 28, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 dormice.

Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder

The exertions of rowing crew under Title IX, as a means to overcoming one woman’s demons.

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Ginny Gilder made her way from a privileged Upper East Side life in New York City to Yale University in 1975, in the early years of Title IX, which legislated equal educational opportunities for both men and women in all areas, including athletics. Ginny had never been an athlete; her family instead emphasized business success and keeping up appearances. But she was drawn to the grace, beauty and seeming effortlessness of rowing, and against the coach’s instincts, joined the Yale crew. The story she tells in Course Correction of collegiate competition, gender discrimination, the long road to the Olympics and personal growth, also yields Ginny’s eventual healing from the emotional traumas of a well-concealed family history.

In four sections titled Catch, Drive, Release and Recovery–the four parts of a well-executed rowing stroke–Gilder details the corresponding segments of her life. Rowing captures her passion; she drives herself through injuries and health problems to an eventual Olympic medal; she learns to let go; she forms a successful family of her own, despite a damaged past.

Gilder’s prose is earnest, heartfelt, expressive and clearly strongly felt. Her narrative will appeal to sports fans and readers dedicated to memoirs of pain and redemption. Course Correction touches on the injustices that Title IX was designed to correct (including a memorable scene involving a nude protest), and portrays a painful, affecting and impressive athletic career. But it is centrally a story of one woman’s lengthy and hard-won coming-of-age and coming home.


This review originally ran in the April 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 ankle bracelets.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Moving, charming, delicately lovely, this memoir of a husband’s death offers solace and even joy.

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Poet Elizabeth Alexander (Crave Radiance; the 2009 Inaugural Poem) was enjoying a loving, creative, exultant and full life with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and their two sons, when Ficre died suddenly. The Light of the World is her record of that man–a husband and father, an artist, activist and chef–and of Alexander’s grief and gratitude for the years she shared with him and the love and family they made.

This astonishing and naturally poetic memoir of love and loss is vivid and abundant with sensory detail and bright color. Alexander includes recipes–Ficre’s, and those that comforted her after his death; gives evocative descriptions of his paintings and the food and music they both loved; counts his scars; and recounts her dreams of him. But The Light of the World is not a dream itself: Alexander is lucid and absolutely present. Perhaps to ward off the end it threatens, the story she sets out to tell starts, and starts again, and starts again: at their respective mothers’ pregnancies; at Ficre’s 50th birthday, the week of his death; when they met at a coffee shop in 1996. Alexander then resolutely travels through the tragic center of her story and into the life that follows, when her family of four becomes “a three-legged table,” as she phrased it in her first poem afterwards. In this tender, perceptive portrayal, Ficre comes alive again: an Eritrean native, a peace-lover born into war, a painter also accomplished in photography, collage and sculpture, an eager reader fluent in seven languages and who “could say hello and thank you in literally dozens of other[s],” an activist and member of African, African-American and global communities. “Your life is just like a foreign film!” a friend rightly exclaims, and Alexander’s is just the voice to portray his broadly informed, musical, painterly existence.

Short chapters and language of unrivalled beauty ease a sad story, and Alexander and her sons do make a joyful noise in the end. She feels that she carries “a Santa’s sack of gifts” of Ficre’s thoughts and impressions that belong to her alone; she celebrates the time they had. Their shared dreams, scars, meals, songs, dances, history and family are fittingly and exquisitely honored here.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 red lentils.

Teaser Tuesdays: Going Driftless by Stephen J. Lyons

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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I love that there is always something new to learn. In today’s read, I learned about a unique Midwestern region called “the Driftless” that I was unaware of. And how about this rather profound quotation from a local resident.

I ask him if, after forty years in the same place, anything still surprises him.

“Constantly. For one thing, you’re kind of surprised when trees you planted die of old age.”

Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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My teaser today from A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm is actually a footnote, outside the main text; but I felt it was too profound not to share.

Sadly, funding for taxonomic work such as describing new species has shrivelled in recent decades, so such specialists are now hard to find. Soon there may be no experts left in many fields, so there will be no one to go to for help if you suspect you have discovered a species new to science.

It’s a sad world.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

A dramatically told history of murder, madness and urban growing pains.

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In The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Roseanne Montillo (The Lady and Her Monsters) concentrates on a gripping era of Boston’s history. In the late 1800s, a series of seemingly unrelated events are her focus: the Great Fire of 1872, which broke out despite the efforts of a fire chief who saw dangers parallel to Chicago’s Great Fire the previous year; the literary work of Herman Melville, who was increasingly fascinated by the concept of insanity; and, at the heart of this book, the crimes and incarceration of a boy named Jesse Harding Pomeroy.

Montillo follows Pomeroy’s childhood, his early crimes of torture against younger boys and the murders of two small children for which he would be convicted, in a burned-out city struggling with modernization and increasing class divisions. Throughout the investigation and trial, Pomeroy exhibits characteristics that would later have termed him a psychopath, and his lawyers’ attempt to plead insanity is part of the early establishment of precedent in such cases. Meanwhile, Melville experiments in his literature with the labels of monomania and moral insanity, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes applies his medical expertise to the possible role of sensational dime novels in Pomeroy’s crimes, and weighs in on the question of executing the boy, who was 14 years old at the time of his conviction. Using detailed research, Montillo braids together these cross-disciplinary subjects–urban development and class, fire and murder, the definition of insanity and the standards of judicial punishment–into a story that has the momentum of a thriller.


This review originally ran in the March 31, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 piles of ashes.
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