Maximum Shelf: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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 September 15, 2021.


Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a scintillating, eye-opening story of family, legacies, and political and individual struggles, set in contemporary New York City and Puerto Rico. Readers will be entirely captured by Olga and her family, friends and associates as this spellbinding narrative twists, turns and unfolds over the years and miles. Gonzalez’s stunning first novel feels far more expansive than its not-quite-400 pages.

Olga Isabel Acevedo, Brooklyn-born child of Puerto Rican parents, is an ambitious, status-conscious wedding planner to New York City’s upper echelon. “Using a traditional American metric for measuring success,” she is winning: she left the family home for a fancy New England college, has her own business and enjoys a certain amount of fame via glossy magazine and television appearances. She has a large, close-knit family still based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but with several holes in it: her loving and beloved father, once a proud political activist and member of the Young Lords, now dead from drug addiction and AIDS; her late grandmother who raised her; and most troublingly, Olga’s mother, Blanca, a militant radical who left the family when Olga was not quite 13. “Achieving liberation will require sacrifice,” Blanca wrote to her young daughter. Olga’s involuntary sacrifice in service of Puerto Rican liberation was to give up her mother to the cause.

Crucially, Olga still has her older brother, Prieto, with whom she is very close. If Olga is a star as wedding planner to Manhattan’s upper crust, Prieto is a supernova, the handsome, popular young congressman representing their neighborhood in Washington: “He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel…. Olga herself had never learned this linguistic mezcla that her brother had perfected; this ability to be all facets of herself at once. She always had to choose which Olga she would be in any given situation, in any given moment.”

However well her career is going, Olga feels a void. Blanca writes to her frequently (via go-betweens, from an undisclosed location) to excoriate Olga for pursuing the meaningless, superficial goals of white society rather than working toward liberation for la raza. Prieto, apparently fighting the good fight (if only, their mother writes to him in turn, from inside a broken system), has his own demons and secrets as well.

The plot of Olga Dies Dreaming sees several delicate balances begin to upset. Olga’s surface-level achievements show cracks as she questions what she’s actually working toward. She meets a man she may truly like, which exposes a weakness: her people skills, so polished at work, don’t hold up to a situation with real stakes. Prieto’s carefully maintained façade falters, one of his secret insecurities threatened. When Puerto Rico is gutted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, Olga takes a few hits herself. Can she navigate a romantic relationship? Will her brother withstand the latest storm in his private life–and is their bond up to the challenge? Perhaps most significantly: what does Olga have to gain–or lose–if her long-absent mother chooses these turbulent times to make a reappearance?

The masterful Olga Dies Dreaming roams far and wide, encompassing the most obnoxiously petty, overindulged weddings of the 1% and the dire straits of rural Puerto Ricans lacking clean drinking water, food or electricity. Such range could get unwieldy in less capable hands, but Gonzalez has a firm grasp of her plot threads. With lively, clever prose and adept political commentary, this novel asks questions about race and assimilation, about government corruption and capitalism, about gentrification and family duty. Olga, Prieto, their aunts and uncles and cousins, Olga’s work associates, casual sexual partners and her new bae: likeable, appalling and everything in between, these characters sparkle with authentic detail. While this is Olga’s story, the point of view does sometimes shift to offer Prieto’s perspective and a few others. Readers (uncomfortably) get inside the head of a deeply unpleasant man of great privilege, for example–aptly named Dick–as well as that of our heroine. Gonzalez is also expert with setting, as her novel travels from the peculiarly organized hoarder apartment of Olga’s love interest to an impressively high-tech rebel compound in the Puerto Rican jungle, an opulent Easthampton beach house and more.

From Blanca’s mysterious and blistering missives come political and ideological rhetoric and intellectual challenges. Olga was named for Olga Garriga, activist for Puerto Rican nationalism, but also hanging over her is the story of Olga from poet Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” who “died waiting dreaming and hating.” These are the extreme options she’s been offered: Blanca’s rigid revolutionary ideal or the unattainable, swank American dream. Instead, in the end, Olga must chart her own path to a third option, one where she might finally find peace.

This novel positively glitters with truth, wit, humor, pathos, trauma, love and pain. Gonzalez’s narrative operates with consummate skill on the level of the individual, the family and the political system. There is much to learn and ponder here about colonialism, corruption and policy. And on a more personal level, Olga casts a spell that will linger with readers long after these pages are closed. Olga Dies Dreaming is simply unforgettable.


Rating: 10 songs.

Come back Monday for my interview with Gonzalez.

I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Richard Antoine White

After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Richard Antoine White’s memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing “the plumage of red seats,” then flashes back to the narrator’s childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he’ll hold throughout this memoir. “I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero,” he writes. “I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible.”

White recounts how he survived his mother’s addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. He was lucky to find family in more senses than the biological, and lucky to find the trumpet (in fourth grade) and, later, the tuba. He journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, “a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time.”

White writes passionately about his studies and relationships, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: “The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked.” I’m Possible is both a life story and a series of character sketches; White conveys his love for his biological mother and then for the couple who raised him, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and his many friends, mentors and students shine as well. (Look for a cameo by “a skinny upperclassman with a raspy voice named Tupac Shakur, who schooled me.”) White’s message is tirelessly uplifting: he is no genius, he insists, “although I do possess a profound belief in what is possible and a deep gratitude for how I came to be here,” and he reliably credits those who helped him along the way.

This is a story of perseverance, hard work and a little luck; of love of music and the importance of community and both built and biological families. White also comments throughout on the role of racism in his experience and in that of so many in the United States. His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Cup Noodles.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

This is Bessel van der Kolk’s treatise on the physical manifestations of trauma, and the enormous implications of trauma on our society. The Body Keeps the Score is for a mainstream audience, not a scientific one, but van der Kolk (a psychiatrist) does take the time to teach neuroanatomy and brain function – to a greater extent than this reader needed, so that I let some of it flow by, but no criticism there.

Van der Kolk also maintains a narrative voice throughout that I appreciate: he is always a character in the story of (re)discovering and studying trauma and seeking treatments for it. He begins with veterans returning from Vietnam, when he began work as a psychiatrist at the Boston VA in 1978. He then introduces us to the children he’s worked with who live with trauma of many kinds, and the adult survivors of childhood trauma; these adults, he shows, suffer differently than those who encounter trauma in adulthood (car crashes, violence, natural disasters) (and are different again from military vets). Throughout the book, he outlines what we know about how each of these groups’ brains operate, including the different between the rational and emotional parts of the brain. He moves us through time, outlining research studies and how we’ve learned what we know about trauma and its manifestations in mind and body. He points out that the words ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘gut-wrenching’ are not entirely metaphoric. Emotions, and reactions to trauma, play out physically. He also makes clear that traumatized people actually reexperience their traumas: that until the brain can integrate these events as memory, they remain present, and can take over the individuals’ present. Those suffering from these flashbacks are truly living their trauma again.

Van der Kolk feels strongly that developmental trauma, which takes place in childhood, is a “hidden epidemic” that exacts enormous costs on society, even just purely in the monetary sense (sufferers “end up filling our jails, our welfare rolls, and our medical clinics”). When he gives presentations on trauma and treatment, he writes, “participants sometimes ask me to leave out the politics and confine myself to talking about neuroscience and therapy. I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail.” I didn’t find the book very political at all, in fact, but maybe I just don’t think it’s radical to suggest we devote public resources to universal health care – including mental health care – and extend a little compassion and shared responsibility to others, especially kids, who are essentially defenseless. He notes that the trendier discussions of trauma tend to focus on military vets and survivors of splashy, violent single events, while the more everyday (child abuse, intimate partner violence, rape) don’t get as much attention, although they affect many more people.

He also devotes a healthy chunk of the book to treatment options, written (he says) both for trauma survivors and for their therapists. These include talk therapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), yoga, rhythmic movement and theatre, neurofeedback (as from Bewilderment, in fact!), and more. “Communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized.” Van der Kolk stresses the importance of language throughout. (And I love the idea of Shakespeare in the Courts!) He does not love medication for trauma survivors; drugs can mask or deaden symptoms, but don’t address the root of the problem or begin to help the patient integrate trauma into memory, so as soon as they go off the meds, they’ll be in just the same position again. He also does not love the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which persists in excluding a diagnosis for Developmental Trauma Disorder despite decades of research and statistics and the support of expert practitioners. He includes as an appendix “Consensus Proposed Criteria for Developmental Trauma Disorder,” the inclusion of which in DSM would enable clearer diagnoses, better funding for research, insurance coverage, and more.

I find The Body Keeps the Score to be a very thorough explanation of extreme trauma, how it works on its sufferers, and what we might be doing about it – as individuals and as a society. It is coherent, credible, compassionate and evidence-based, and accessible to a regular sort of reader, like me. (Again, I let some of the hard science go by.) I think this is a book for everyone, especially the traumatized among us and those who love them – in other words, considering the prevalence of trauma in our world, everyone. I found it interesting reading, if sometimes dense, and sometimes difficult to read – I took this one a little slower than usual, but it was worth all my time. Recommended.


Rating: 7 drawings.

For a much more in-depth summary and review, check out this excellent article from Brain Pickings.

Lee Child shorts: “Public Transportation” and “Wet with Rain” (audio)

“Public Transportation” was available from Audible as a standalone short (originally from the collection Phoenix Noir), and “Wet with Rain” comes from Exit Wounds: Nineteen Tales of Mystery from the Modern Masters of Crime. They were, I think, 13 and 28 minutes respectively, give or take. Just a few quick indulgences during a drive to the next county to my local bike shop.

Classic Child, so not much to report here, but in the best ways. “Public Transportation” offers a surprise twist and no serial characters. A cop is talking with a journalist about an old unsolved murder case; we get a fairly quick summary of the crime, the investigation (in hindsight, botched), and the problematic conclusion eventually settled on by the police department. “Wet with Rain” is also Reacher-free, but slightly more involved. We get a little less context, but eventually understand that two Americans with a certain agency have traveled to Ireland to run a secret operation, about which information is doled out slowly and out of order, so that we’re still putting things together even as they happen. Each of these stories represents a sort of puzzle – for the reader and for the players involved. Only one has a quick punch of a surprise; the other is more of a slow burn. And, again, neither involves our hero Reacher. But each serves as a good example of Child’s skill with intrigue, detail, and apparently effortless storytelling (which actually may be the hardest kind), as well as a certain dark side of human nature. I enjoyed both as quick jaunts, and would love to have access to more of the same: quick, punchy stories by authors I know I love. My lifestyle doesn’t support longer audiobooks these days. Look for more podcast reviews to come, I guess…

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, trans. by Adrian Nathan West

Wide-ranging, mystical, crazed and inspired, this singular novel explores theoretical physics through a series of weird, engrossing human stories.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is an astonishing historical novel of physics, war, human weakness and quantum physics. In a lovely translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, the fictionalized histories of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and more come alive to disquiet and intrigue readers.

The book opens with Hermann Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine and the suicides of many Nazi leaders by cyanide in the final months of World War II. It gets only a little less grim from there. But even with such bleak subject matter, Labatut’s imaginative evocations of disturbed minds from the rarified ranks of mathematics and physics are thoroughly captivating and strangely lovely, joining science with mysticism in surprising ways. “In the deepest substrate of all things, physics had not found the solid, unassailable reality Schrödinger and Einstein had dreamt of, ruled over by a rational God pulling the threads of the world, but a domain of wonders and rarities, borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.”

Labatut’s narrative travels in time and space, covering the development of pesticides, chemical weapons and Prussian blue pigment; painting, literature and opera; the existential angst of particle and quantum physics; eroticism and fever dreams. A young Heisenberg interrupts Schrödinger’s lecture to argue about the nature of subatomic particles. Later the reader sees Heisenberg feverish, ill, madly dreaming of spectral lines and harmonically bound electrons while reading Goethe’s poems inspired by the Persian mystic Hafez. Schrödinger also raves, theorizing and obsessing over the adolescent daughter of his physician. Lesser-known scientific figures include Karl Schwarzschild, the soldier who first exactly solved Einstein’s equation of general relativity and died shortly after; Shinichi Mochizuki, who revolutionized mathematics and then withdrew from the field; Alexander Grothendieck, who fled society to live as a hermit and also gave up mathematics entirely; and the seventh duc de Broglie, a “timid prince” whose Nobel Prize did not help him stomach the infighting among scholars of theoretical physics. These are the figures and the stories that have shaped major advances in science in the modern era; they also verge on insanity.

This astonishing novel blends forms: lyrical, inventive and also rooted in history, concerned with the overlaps of genius and madness, innovation and destruction. “The physicist–like the poet–should not describe the facts of the world, but rather generate metaphors and mental connections…. That aspect of nature required a completely new language,” writes Labatut, and likewise he offers a new way of writing about science and history. The vision of reality painted by When We Cease to Understand the World is terrifying but finely wrought, and will live long in readers’ minds.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cats.

did not finish: Horns by Joe Hill (audio)

Horns is a horror novel by Joe Hill, son of the horror novel empire of the world, and author of Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2. So I had high hopes, and indeed was moving along smoothly enough, feeling engaged and interested, until about the halfway point of this audiobook’s 14 hours.

This is the story of Iggy Perrish, who wakes up at the beginning of the book with dim memories of the night before, and horns growing out of his temples. His (apparently perfect) girlfriend was brutally raped and murdered a year prior, and although Ig was never proven guilty or innocent, his community assumes his guilt; this, on top of his loss, has quite ruined his life. When the newly horned Ig encounters anyone at all, they go into a sort of trance of perfect honesty, mindlessly confessing their worst desires and asking his permission to act them out. He’s become sort of everyone’s personal demon. Then the story flashes back to when he first met the late girlfriend, ten years previous, when they were just kids; and occasionally forward, to later in their relationship; and back to the horned present, where adult Ig tries to figure out what to do with his horns and unwanted magical powers, and solve the mystery of his girlfriend’s murder.

This was intriguing, if often awful. It’s a horror novel. And I have a taste for the occasional horror novel, as evidenced by previous Hill and King novels I’ve enjoyed; I certainly have a high tolerance for graphic violence and horrific acts in fiction, as evidenced by the fiction I love by Connelly, Child, James Lee Burke and others. I was okay with Ig’s sad story right up until a scene involving a decapitated snake, bullying, and a nasty nickname. It’s weird what will turn me off. (I’ve noticed before that it’s often cruelty to animals.) But there was a moment, listening to this book, and hearing the bleating of the bullies, when I just really didn’t want to hear any more. So I turned it off.

Fred Berman’s narration was a solid performance, I guess, which is to say often off-putting in the way that this scene was off-putting – as Hill intended? I know that sounds like faint praise. Berman does different voices and accents that I found effective; the effect was not pleasant. I wonder if I would have tolerated this book better on the page.

No accounting for what works for me. I thought I had a stronger stomach for the awful than this! But Hill wins this round? Or loses? As ever, your mileage may vary.


Rating: think I’ll skip this one and leave it at ‘DNF.’

Maximum Shelf: in the words of Richard Powers

Following Monday’s review of Bewilderment, here’s Richard Powers: ‘Homesick for a Place They Never Knew.’


Richard Powers’s novels include The Echo Maker (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2006) and The Overstory (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2019). His work often explores the connections between human lives, the natural world, science and technology. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, among many others, and he has taught at Stanford University and the University of Illinois. Bewilderment (coming from Norton on September 21) is his 13th novel.

Powers wrote a special “Note from the Author” for the advanced reader copies of Bewilderment that explores the meaning of his novel’s title and inspiration, reprinted here.

A Note from the Author

Richard Powers (photo: Dean D. Dixon)

I read the classic “Flowers for Algernon” in sixth grade, when I was eleven years old. Written the year I was born, the story lit up my imagination and settled into that permanent place children reserve for those fables that capture the mystery of life.

In my early sixties, when I came across an account of a remarkable new therapeutic technique called decoded neurofeedback, Daniel Keyes’s story returned to me, every bit as vivid as it had been half a century earlier. “Algernon” told of a cognitively challenged man who is granted intelligence far beyond ordinary human limits. Decoded neurofeedback raised the prospect of a similar fable. Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify emotional intelligence? What might we humans learn to become?

Children possess enormous emotional intelligence, but adult illogic can defeat it. While finishing my previous novel, The Overstory, I kept reading accounts of the toll our growing environmental catastrophe is taking on the young. A new word, solastalgia, seemed to take hold overnight. I began to see how we were raising a generation of troubled kids born homesick for a place they never knew. And we adults were relying more and more on a single response for treating the epidemic ravaging our children’s mental health: medication.

All children are natural scientists. At the same time, they’re also pantheists who know that God is crawling over every inch of the backyard. I had a fierce niece who loved butterflies, and for a long time couldn’t stop drawing them. I had a deeply affectionate nephew who talked to “critters,” but who flew into violent rages at the stupidity of humans. The little girl managed to grow into an accomplished and mostly happy young adult. The little boy did not. Could another kind of emotional therapy have made a difference?

Bewilderment was, in part, my way of remembering those two, along with so many other troubled children whom I loved without being able to reassure. The reward of writing this story lay in the daily chance to recover my own childhood joy in the endless replenishment of the living world. The word bewilder means to perplex or confuse. But in its origin, it also means to head back into wildness. A childlike love for our wild, entangled home is the only thing large enough to cure what is wrong with us. As Thoreau puts it, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard Powers. Bewilderment to be published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. September 21, 2021.


This author’s note originally ran on August 23, 2021 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: Bewilderment by Richard Powers

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 August 23, 2021.


Bewilderment by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Powers (The Echo Maker; Orfeo; The Overstory) is a novel of great pain and empathy. Focusing on a nuclear family but also concerned with ecological collapse and the possibilities of distant space, this is a heart-wrenching story with an important message to convey.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist: he writes programs to explore, hypothetically, distant planets that may host life. His work is at the nexus of science, coding and imagination. But readers meet him first in a still more important role: that of single parent to Robin, who is just turning nine. Robin is a special child: artistic, caring, intelligent. “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD,” but Theo resolutely resists the push to medicate him. Bewilderment begins with father and son in the Smoky Mountains on a camping trip, intended as alternative therapy following yet another outburst at school. It helps Robin immensely, but the larger world awaits. “The cars, the asphalt, the sign listing all the regulations: after a night in the woods, the trailhead parking lot felt like death. I did my best not to show Robin. He was probably protecting me, too.” Robin will not tolerate lies. But how can Theo tell the truth about just how vicious our world really is?

Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother, is absent. Aly was a tireless animal rights lawyer-activist, fierce and indomitable and loving; both man and boy are daily devastated by her loss, which readers slowly piece together: a car accident, swerving to avoid an opossum. “I didn’t know how to be a parent. Most of what I did, I remembered from what she used to do.” The novel is told in Theo’s first-person voice, in constant interaction with Robin; but Aly is ever present, too, as a voice in Theo’s head and to whom he turns for advice. On leaving the Smokies, he appeals to her: “We’re fine together, in the woods. But I’m afraid to take him home.”

Indeed, back in Madison, Wisc., Robin struggles at school and Theo, trying to care for him, falls behind at work. Planetary exploration and the sciences in general are underfunded and under attack by a government administration that blusters and crows on social media. Theo’s research partner refers to Robin as “the boy.” The school pushes harder to medicate him. Many evenings, Theo and Robin travel together in imagination to distant, dreamed-up planets that just might support life. These interludes are gorgeously rendered demonstrations of love and inventiveness. But the real world continues to rattle.

Another colleague makes an unusual offer. Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, allows patients, or “trainees,” to mimic the moods of “target” subjects using real-time, AI-mediated feedback: emotional training via carefully monitored neural states. At nine, Robin is an unusually young subject, but he also has a unique opportunity. Before her death, his mother Aly allowed her own neural activity to be recorded. Now the precocious, troubled, earnest Robin has access to her mental state.

Theo and Robin share an appreciation for the Daniel Keyes story “Flowers for Algernon,” and its implications are not lost in Robin’s own unprecedented experience. Theo continues to agonize over his parenting, life on Earth and life in the beyond: “Decoded Neurofeedback was changing [Robin], as surely as Ritalin would have. But then, everything on Earth was changing him.” Robin sees enormous improvement in his ability to handle his rages and his blues, enjoying learning widely about the natural world, with a switch to home-schooling. He shows an uncanny harmony with and knowledge of his mother’s mind, enough to unnerve his father. But there will come a reckoning. Theo and Robin live in a recognizable version of the contemporary United States, beset by climate disasters, political upheaval and hate, wildfires, ignorance. Even as Robin makes his way as an increasingly well-adjusted young activist, bad news bombards their family from all sides, until disaster strikes. Bewilderment circles back to the Smoky Mountains for a gut-wrenching finish in the same place where it began. “From behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-spattered past.”

Powers deserves his reputation as a consummately talented writer. His careful, lyrical prose conveys precisely the intended emotion and tone at the right time, and weaves meanings and significances in complex layers. This superlative novel invites readers to meditate on the natural world, human and animal rights, the potentialities of deep space, the role of science and technology in human societies, the challenges of modern childhood and more. “Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.” Robin is a delightful character, a bright, sincere, intense child, lovable and challenging. Theo is deeply sympathetic in his dual tendencies toward far-thinking astrobiology and the care of his child (“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood”), and in his fear that he will fail his son. Powers pulls no punches: he portrays a brutal world that will damage Robin, Theo and all humanity in profound and irreparable ways. Bewilderment is a beautifully told story, but one that hurts, too.


Rating: 8 opossums.

Come back Friday for a follow-up in Powers’s own words.

Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Coming of age from an oddball Irish country family in the chaos and snobbery of Dublin’s Trinity College has never been so sweet, funny, moody and real.

Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is a novel that keeps readers guessing, a madcap family drama and coming-of-age saga for Debbie, who has grown up on a dairy farm outside Dublin in an eccentric household. “My uncle Billy lives in a caravan in a field at the back of my house,” it begins. Billy is a bit of a drunk with an unusual interest in constellations and Greek mythology; he keeps the farm running and is devoted to his niece. His sister, Maeve, Debbie’s mother, is less stable. She considers herself a writer and a prophet, fanatically recording and interpreting her dreams. Maeve’s much younger lover, James, “was stitched into his John Deere overalls when he came out of the womb and was born into a family without any land.”

Debbie is now off to Trinity College as a commuter student to study English, but she is deeply self-conscious and without city skills; she spends “half the day scoping out toilets to squat in and take a break” and cry. Her first friend on campus is Xanthe, a young woman of greater experience and privilege but, to Debbie’s surprise, with problems of her own as well. The idea that everyone is suffering something, even unseen, is not a new one, but it is refreshingly presented by this cast of wonky, wonderful, traumatized characters in a chaotic, beautiful, flawed world.

Debbie’s first-person narrative is self-deprecating and endearingly messy. Her life is constantly off-kilter, one wrench thrown after another, and this quality could be too much, but Nealon’s earnestly wacky protagonist pulls it off. Sometimes life is too much, but Billy will have another pint and Maeve will take to her bed and Debbie will muddle through–at least until tragedy strikes. An Irish country farm (with side trips to Dublin and to a dubious beach house) provides backdrop to an unlikely list of themes: mental illness, social awkwardness, art, class, guilt and different kinds of love.

The title offers layers of meaning: a little fun at the expense of millennials like Debbie? A fascinating shape worthy of study and analogous to the stars Billy so loves? Something precious, unique, ephemeral? Snowflake is that sort of novel: twisty-turning, multifaceted, smart, funny even when it is at its most serious. Nealon’s debut shows an expert eye for detail and pitch, and an appreciation for the absurd, the profound and the ridiculous–especially when they converge.


This review originally ran in the August 20, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 pink dressing gowns.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

It was such a treat to return to the revelatory writing of Brit Bennett with this one – I read The Vanishing Half first but this one was earlier, her debut. The two novels definitely feel like they come from the same hand; The Vanishing Half spanned generations, while this one covers only two decades or so, but still feels expansive, because of the narrative voice (more on that in a minute), and both zoom out to accommodate cross-country travels, so that their scope is large. Both deal with a defined but largish cast of characters and decidedly big issues. In under 300 pages, The Mothers gives the impression of being about capital-L Life in a way that is powerful and well done.

The narrative perspective in this novel is unusual. For good chunks of the text it feels like close third-person, meaning the pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘he’ but the reader has intimate knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of the character highlighted at any given time. But occasionally we get a first person plural perspective: the pronoun ‘we,’ which is rare in fiction. Much is said of the rarity of the second person (‘you’), but I think we see more of that than we do ‘we.’ It made me think immediately of “Appalachian Swan Song,” the opening short story in Jon Corcoran’s collection The Rope Swing, which I love and have taught twice now. In Corcoran’s story, the ‘we’ is not quite defined; my students and I discuss it and feel that it’s the townspeople, or the town itself, the community, in some way. It’s a story very much about place, and the town or some representative(s) of it get to speak. In The Mothers, the ‘we’ gets better defined, although not right at first. ‘We’ are the Mothers of the Upper Room Chapel in Oceanside, California, where the story is most solidly set. These Mothers are the church’s elder women, and they offer nosiness, wisdom, and a long view; they are a Greek chorus of sorts. I really appreciate the effect.

I love the different ways the title works, too. These Mothers who tell the story are an obvious reference point; the book is about motherhood in many other ways, too. Our chief protagonist is Nadia Turner, who we meet at 17, when her mother has just killed herself in rather spectacular fashion (gunshot to the head). She has gotten pregnant with the help of the pastor’s son Luke (that’s the pastor of Upper Room), and had an abortion just before going off to college in Michigan. The couple’s relationship, such as it was, did not survive the abortion, but each remains caught up in the other without knowing it’s mutual. That same fateful summer, Nadia becomes friends with a girl her age named Aubrey. Aubrey is also motherless but by different means: she lives with her older sister, because their mother was guilty of some severe mistreatment (trying to avoid spoilers here). The girls understand early that motherlessness is part of their bond. “Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt they didn’t know their mothers. Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” Nadia’s choice not to become a mother at 17 will affect her life, and Luke’s, and Aubrey’s, for years to come. Nadia wonders about her mother’s choice to keep her own accidental teenaged pregnancy. Imagining a world in which she, Nadia, hadn’t been born, and her mother hadn’t turned to suicide: “Where her life ended, her mother’s life began.” You see the layers of significance around “the mothers.”

The novel mostly follows Nadia, but we get to spend time with Aubrey and Luke as well. The community that surrounds them, in Oceanside and at Upper Room, are of secondary importance. It’s a story about family ties and secrets (“After a secret’s been told, everyone becomes a prophet”) and obviously motherhood but much more besides. Race is a background issue – these characters are Black but that’s a simple fact and not The Point of the book. The quietly reset default in that is one I value and I’m trying to mix a little more of it into my reading.

This is a writer I’ll follow anywhere. I hope there are many more to come.


Rating: 9 crab bites.
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