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.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison brings a keen perception and lyrical voice to the veiled but lasting effects of childhood trauma.

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Toni Morrison (Home), winner of a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize in Literature, satisfies her fans with a searing, lyrical story about the power of childhood trauma.

God Help the Child centers on a woman who has left behind the “dumb countryfied name” Lula Ann to become Bride, “with nothing anybody needs to say before or after that one memorable syllable,” a successful California career woman with her own cosmetics line but who wears no makeup. Her mother was a light-skinned, “high yellow” woman dismayed by and unable to love her blue-black daughter, but Bride grows up to repossess her skin tone and every other aspect of her beauty.

From a childhood marked by rejection and terrible crimes, Bride remakes herself as an object of attraction and a financial success, but as the novel opens, she faces dual blows: her mysterious live-in boyfriend, Booker, leaves, and a prisoner is paroled with whom she shares an old bond. God Help the Child reveals these complicated paths in alternating perspectives, most frequently Bride’s first-person voice but also that of her friend Brooklyn; her mother (who taught Lula Ann to call her Sweetness, rather than Mama or anything else that would tie them too closely together); the new parolee; and a child Bride meets along the way. Eventually, after several oblique glances, Booker himself comes fully into sight, but his perspective is told only in the third person, as Bride goes looking for answers and Lula Ann threatens to reemerge.

Even Morrison’s minor characters are complex, intriguing people deserving of closer inspection, and as Bride’s journey acquires a momentum of its own, the magnetism of her troubles pulls the reader along. She suffers the coldness of both her parents, a harrowing court case, an assault, a car accident and a fire; but it is the traumas of her childhood that most torment Bride, and, as becomes apparent, the same is true for Booker. In the end, healing comes in a surprising form.

Beautifully composed in a variety of distinct voices and covering a range of family concerns, God Help the Child employs a hint of magical realism and explores issues of race and women’s lives familiar to fans of Morrison’s fiction. The story of Bride’s life and trials is sensual, both delicate and strong, poetic and heavy with sex, love and pain, exemplifying a revered author’s unfailing talent.


This review originally ran in the April 20, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 earrings.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erika Swyler

Following Monday’s review of The Book of Speculation, here’s Erika Swyler: Writing, Binding and the Bath.


Erika Swyler is a graduate of New York University. Her short fiction has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Litro, Anderbo.com and elsewhere. Her writing is featured in the anthology Colonial Comics, and her work as a playwright has received note from the Jane Chambers Award. Born and raised on Long Island’s North Shore, Swyler learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She blogs and has a baking Tumblr, ieatbutter, with a following of 60,000. Swyler recently moved from Brooklyn back to her hometown, which inspired the setting of The Book of Speculation, her debut novel.
swylerYou presented your manuscript in a highly unusual way. How did that work, and what possessed you?

The plot hinges on the idea that a particular old book is such a fascinating object that it could consume someone’s life. It felt very important to create that experience for a person reading my manuscript. It was a simple thought: if they connected with the manuscript as an object, it would pave the way for connecting with the story. I had next to zero experience in bookmaking when I decided to bind and age the manuscripts. I might have balked if I’d known from the start how much of my life the project would devour.

Possessed is the right word. While revising, I spent months experimenting, testing stains and hunting down the right material for the cover. I tried other binding methods, but they were either too time intensive, or spectacular failures. Japanese stab stitching was fast, and a great way to make a binding stand out. Production took about a month and a half, with binding being the fastest part. Aging books takes time–drying time. It took two days for a book to cure after being rasped and stained, and another day for gilding. For the better part of a summer my dining room was a mess of drying paper, dust from abused tarot cards, rasps and gold ink. My friends thought I’d lost my mind. I probably had, to a degree, but I’d already sunk a good part of my life into writing the book and I felt it deserved every possible advantage I could give it. If nothing else came of it, I’d at least have an art object. I made 16 manuscripts in all. I held on to two copies.

What were the most and least fun parts of writing this book, or bookmaking?

The worst bookmaking moment was when my favorite drill bit snapped and took a piece of my thumb with it. That was an angry day in the dining room bookbindery. The most fun part? I got to make books! Waxing linen thread is really satisfying. It smells delicious and there’s a meditative quality to it. I also got to learn a new skill. I’m happiest when I’m learning.

Trying to evenly balance a dual narrative was the hardest part of writing. The easiest thing a reader can say about a dual narrative is that they prefer one part over the other. It was my mission to make sure that both narratives were treated equally. The whole story had to have a chance. I’d read the narratives together, then separately, then together, and then pull them apart once more. For every one read of a draft a writer might typically do, I’d read anywhere from two to four. The most fun part of writing it? Any scene involving terrible weather. There’s some truly awful weather in this book and it was always a joy to write. Bad weather allows you room for scenery chewing.

How much of this story is rooted in history?

I did a good amount of research, particularly for the 1790s portion. I really wanted to know how circus came to America, and what it looked like before P.T. Barnum cast his shadow. I found this little window of time shortly after the Revolutionary War where circus was just beginning to pop up. It was the perfect space to let Peabody and his menagerie breathe. I also think when you’re playing with the fantastic, it’s helpful to have grounding elements. The Wallendas, Philip Astley, the Joneses, John Bill Ricketts and Mr. Spinacuta are actual figures in circus history. That said, Peabody and his menagerie are entirely imaginary.

Librarians are awesome, aren’t they?

Yes! Librarians are flat-out wonderful. Nothing’s better than a person who doesn’t bat an eye when peppered with questions about curse tablets, circus accidents, tide tables, and if there’s any way around a paywall on an article. I may have done that to several librarians. Yes, I know, search engines. Search engines are like opening a fire hydrant. Librarians are far better at helping you find what you’re after, even when you don’t quite know what that is.

You’re from Long Island. What of your childhood is in Simon’s?

Napawset is a shameless amalgam of small towns where grew up. It’s an interesting place that makes you desperate to leave it, while simultaneously wondering why anyone would ever want to go. As for Simon’s childhood, I spent a good deal of mine on the beach with my sister. Thankfully, our relationship is better than Simon and Enola’s. We played on the rocks, cooked out on the beach and made ourselves nuisances to the adults around us–like kids. Also, when you grow up on a shore, there’s always this odd need to check on the water, to see what it’s up to. I think my gift to Simon was that the water was always up to something.

Where does an idea like this come from? Was it born to you whole, or were you working to flesh it out all the way through?

The idea is rooted in that moment we’ve all had when we stare at our families and think, “Where did you people come from?” That’s Simon’s narrative, this very practical question. His story also came from wondering about the houses that actually are sliding into the Long Island Sound, who lives in them, and how they got to that point. It was something I had to work out because it began with questions more than characters. The 1790s portion came to me almost fully formed, in about thirty seconds, while taking a bath. I saw Peabody, Amos, Evangeline, the entire menagerie, and how it connected to Simon all at once. It was a seriously great bath.


This interview originally ran on April 15, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 15, 2015.


book of speculation

Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, opens on a precipice: Simon Watson’s house teeters, ready to tumble into the sea. “The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.”

Simon is precariously employed as a librarian, and thus lacks the funds to shore up his family home, from which his family is gone: his mother drowned, his father dead from grief, and his sister, Enola, departed, making her life with a traveling carnival. These days, Simon’s community is composed largely of the next-door neighbor, Frank, a longtime friend of Simon’s parents; and Frank’s daughter, Alice, a library colleague and a reliable constant in Simon’s life.

Enola rarely visits, but happens to be on her way home just when Simon receives a strangely apt package in the mail: an antiquarian book dealer, a stranger, has sent him a very old book which he believes has ties to Simon’s family history. The bookseller, Martin Churchwarry, bought it as part of a lot at auction, purely on speculation. It is the log book of Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles, a traveling circus in the 1790s, and contains the name of Simon’s grandmother. A librarian with archival experience, Simon is ready to treasure this unexpected gift on several levels, but puzzled by the family connection. Still, it draws him in, and by the time Enola arrives, he is thoroughly absorbed. She is unimpressed with his studies, while her obsession with her own tarot cards seems to be growing.

Simon reads and researches the names he encounters in Peabody’s book, calling into service his librarian friends and Martin Churchwarry himself, with whom a strangely easy friendship is established. These efforts yield a disturbing pattern. Simon already knew his mother was a “mermaid”: she could hold her breath for many minutes at a time, a trick she taught to her children. This skill notwithstanding, she drowned herself on a 24th of July. Simon did not know, however, that she came from a line of circus-performing mermaids, all drawn to the water, and that they all died by drowning on the 24th of July. In mid-July, as Enola, acting strangely, returns to their home by the sea, Simon fears that time is running out if he hopes to solve this puzzle and save his sister.

Meanwhile, the events of the past simultaneously engage the reader, as chapters alternate between Simon’s time and that of Peabody’s menagerie. A mystical Russian tarot card reader, an avuncular business-minded circus boss and other colorful characters populate the parallel thread of The Book of Speculation. But in Peabody’s world, it is Amos, a mute bastard who plays the “Wild Boy,” who will most capture the reader’s imagination and compassion.

The strengths of Swyler’s novel are many. The atmosphere of storm-tossed Long Island, with a house that threatens to dive into the sea, is at once fully, realistically wrought and fanciful: Is there a curse? Simon pursues the secrets of his family as his life literally falls apart around him, floor, ceiling, foundation and memories crumbling. Likewise, Peabody’s peripatetic enterprise evokes the promised “magic and miracles,” as well as more prosaic hazards. Each chapter is in itself a small departure into a fantastic, engrossing world. Imagery of woods and animals, small towns and family dynamics are finely drawn; everywhere is the water that frames both stories, from the Long Island Sound that menaces Simon’s home and those he loves to the rivers and streams alongside which Peabody travels. Indeed, if this story has a soundtrack, it is the gurgling waters that promise both succor and ruin to the mermaids’ line.

The Book of Speculation is driven both by character and by plot, as the reader aches for the vulnerable Wild Boy in Peabody’s circus and roots for the crooked romances of Simon’s time, and wonders, as the story develops, whom to trust. To round out an eccentric cast, Enola brings home a boyfriend from the circus who is covered in tattoos and possesses an electrifying special talent, and Simon explores new ground with Alice, the girl next door. Each of the men and women from both timelines proves multi-faceted and compelling. The overall effect is captivating, as Swyler’s delightful, mesmerizing prose keeps the story tripping playfully along through both light and dark moments. As Simon pursues the loose ends and they tie oddly together, Swyler keeps the pressure and the pacing on, as her characters struggle to make connections.

The meandering plot offers many charms: likable, quirky librarians; circus menageries and freak shows; love stories; tarot cards and trickery; mysticism; family secrets; and prickly sibling love–all accompanied by the author’s illustrations. [Swyler also painstakingly hand-bound, gilded and aged her manuscript submissions, in imitation of the old book in her story.] In short, The Book of Speculation, like the book at its center, promises to grasp the reader with a supernatural force and not let go.


Rating: 8 horseshoe crabs.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Swyler.

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Family dynamics after a diagnosis of Huntington’s disease, exquisitely portrayed with poignancy and tenderness.

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In her fourth novel, Inside the O’Briens, Lisa Genova (Still Alice) introduces a traditional Irish Catholic family who have to cope with a neurological disease.

Over several years, Joe O’Brien, a proud, hardworking Boston cop, has been increasingly irritable and quick to anger, and has trouble concentrating on his paperwork. He starts stumbling and dropping things; there are murmurs of drink or drugs. When they finally see a doctor, the O’Briens learn about Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative disease that over the course of 10 to 20 years will rob Joe of his ability to move, speak and eat on his own. It’s been causing his short temper and confusion. And there’s a 50-50 chance that each of his children has it.

Each of these young adults has a decision to make: they can be tested for the gene marker that predicts Huntington’s or they can live with uncertainty. The eldest has been trying to conceive; a baby would be at risk, too.

Sympathetic, absorbing, multifaceted characters compel the reader’s compassion. While Genova’s background in neuroscience allows her to portray medical issues accurately, the heart of the O’Briens’ story is human: how each member of the family copes with the news of Joe’s pending mortality; whether each child chooses to be tested; how knowing or not knowing guides how they live their lives. Their insular Irish Catholic community is likewise evoked with sensitivity and precision.

Poignant and painful, warm and redemptive, Inside the O’Briens displays Genova’s established strengths in bringing neuroscience to the lay reader, and portraying the power of love.


This review originally ran in the April 14, 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: 8 sippy cups.

Martin Marten by Brian Doyle

A lyrical ode to all the inhabitants of the world, fun-loving and deathly serious as nature.

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Fourteen-year-old Dave is one of the protagonists of Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten. He lives with his delightful, precocious six-year-old sister Maria and his wise, funny parents in a cabin on an Oregon mountain. Dave prefers to call the mountain Wy’east, which is the name given it by the people who lived there for thousands of years, rather than Hood, “which is what some guy from another country called it.”

Also in his adolescence on Wy’east in the same season that Dave enters high school and tries out for the cross-country team is Martin, who likewise is exploring his world, venturing farther from home and contemplating separation from his mother, and who will discover the females of his species around the same time that Dave does. A marten is a small, brownish mustelid with a diverse diet and a large territory, and Martin is as individual an example of his species as Dave is of his.

Doyle (Mink River) follows the coming-of-age of these two young males, and to varying degrees examines the lives and struggles of other inhabitants of Wy’east. These include the woman who runs the general store, Dave’s family and his best friend Moon, a schoolteacher and the dog who adopts him, a massive elk, an elderly bear and a retired horse, and each of their stories is deep and rich with humor and wisdom. The result is a lushly textured, loving, sensitive and whimsical symposium of trees, insects, birds and beasts.


This review originally ran in the April 14, 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: 10 tomatoes.
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