A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son Investigates His Trailblazing Mother’s Young Suicide by Jeremy Gavron

The legacy of a mother and her suicide reveals the story of both a woman and a social movement.

woman on the edge

Jeremy Gavron grew up with the faintest of impressions of his mother, who died when he was four years old, in 1965. He didn’t know that her death was a suicide until he was 16, and only decades later did he embark upon an exploration of her life and reasons for ending it. A Woman on the Edge of Time is a record of his examination and tentative conclusions.

Gavron’s mother, Hannah, is a tantalizing character. A talented, magnetic youth, she excelled in acting, equestrian sports and poetry; had an affair with the headmaster of her boarding school; married at 18; earned a doctorate in sociology while raising two young sons; and wrote a feminist text that would be published shortly after her death. In an echo of Sylvia Plath’s suicide two years earlier, she gassed herself in a flat just one street over from Plath’s. And, like Ted Hughes, Gavron’s father all but erased her presence from the lives of her two children.

In chasing this shadowy figure, Gavron corresponds and visits with Hannah’s friends, colleagues and family, and studies letters, diaries and photographs left behind. Along the way, the reader is exposed to English cultural history, particularly in Gavron’s investigations of Hannah’s book The Captive Wife, a qualitative study of young homebound mothers. As he concludes, there can be no thorough comprehension of a suicide or of a mother he doesn’t remember. A Woman on the Edge of Time ends with Gavron’s attempted “narrative verdict,” which though incomplete does offer him some closure.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 gurns.

The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Photos, essays and interviews with rank-and-file Black Panthers “complicate the Panther story in a good way.”

black panthers

With The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution, photojournalist Bryan Shih and historian Yohuru Williams seek to tell a nuanced story of the Black Panther Party, one different from the popular conception of gun-wielding “thugs,” chiefly male, in black leather jackets and Afros with the leadership–Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver–centered in Oakland, Calif.

In pursuit of the rank-and-file perspective, Shih photographs and interviews Panthers or former Panthers, male and female, whose narratives express pride, humility, trauma, frustration and hope. Accompanied by essays solicited from scholars, this collection tells a more complex and sympathetic story. While not uncritical, the authors do champion an interpretation that emphasizes love and service over violence, featuring, for example, party programs like Breakfast for Schoolchildren (in more cities than just Oakland), free busing and ambulance services, free health care clinics and more. Shih’s photographs are striking and expressive, capturing the “humanizing details” he sought.

The Black Panthers is not the complete story: for instance, the “deep misogyny and sexism within the rank and file and leadership” is mentioned but not really addressed. Perhaps there is no complete story–as proven here, the party was made up of diverse members, with varied goals and motivations. Shih and Williams’s objective to expose this multiplicity, and inspire a second look at an energetic but ill-fated cause, is achieved with this intelligent, unapologetic book.


This review originally ran in the September 16, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 humanizing details.

The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.


This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots on goal.

The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker

This vivid, immersive memoir describes an innocent childhood in a terrifying religion.

world in flames

The Worldwide Church of God taught that the Great Tribulation would begin in 1972 and end three years later in a river of fire from which only the Chosen Ones would be saved. Jerald Walker grew up with these teachings looming over his head. In 1975, at the predicted end of the world, he would be 11 years old. In The World in Flames, Walker relates his unusual upbringing in Chicago as the sixth child of blind African American parents, in the black wing of a church that preached segregation as well as fire and brimstone.

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue offering a glimpse of the adult Walker, the whole of this fantastical true story is told from a child’s disarming perspective. Jerry is six when his memoir opens in 1970, and his days are filled with fear. Preoccupied with the coming events and concern for a friend who is not Chosen, he struggles to navigate family secrets, severe corporal punishment and a religion based on threats. As narrator, Jerry is matter-of-fact and innocent about the improbability of his home life. This narrative voice renders an incredible story accessible. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail is Jerry’s guileless devotion to his church.

Walker (Street Shadows) recounts his growth from wide-eyed child to hapless teen, and finally to skeptic, with immediacy and feeling and without offering judgments. His personal history verges on the absurd, but his telling of it is earnest and unadorned, never sensational. The World in Flames is a difficult story simply and gracefully told.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 lines of scripture recited.

Harvard Review, number 46 (2014)

My resolution to read a lit journal every Tuesday has gone a little bumpily so far. It’s a busy life. But I try!

harvard-review-46The Harvard Review is one of the fatter lit journals I’ve got on the shelf, at 236 pages, so I took a survey of its contents rather than reading every word. I made sure not to miss any essays or visual art; and I read the longish short story (they’re calling it a novella) by Ann Pancake.

I started with the editor’s note at the front, which I appreciated for its brevity and content – Christina Thompson is not an editor who runs on to hear her own words. She noted the odd synchronicity of two essay submissions (both included in this issue) that visit the fish collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology; likewise two essays about psychoanalysis; the pleasure of publishing young writers; Pancake’s novella; and the departure of the Review‘s managing editor.

Among my favorite pieces was one of the ichthyological essays, “Remembering That Life” by Hannah Hindley, a braided essay circling the short life of a goldfish named Ishmael and a larger tragedy in the author’s world. I loved how widely it ranged, and yet how cohesive it finished. Next, Karen E. Bender’s “Two Entrances,” about her decades-long relationship with her psychoanalyst, sort of entranced me: it’s about that relationship and the services rendered, and about the questions we ask of relationships generally, I think. I enjoyed the window into Bender’s difficulties with anxiety as well as the interpersonal issues. I am always drawn to stories about people relating to people.

The partner piece to Bender’s, perhaps (though not intended as such by either writer), is Eli Mandel’s “Analysand,” also about his psychoanalysis, which however goes rather differently; the patient (or analysand) has a very different set of problems, related to how he expresses himself or recognizes himself, and that comes through in this written piece in a clever way.

Adam Fuss’s visual arts submissions, his ‘photograms,’ were intriguing to me, and I think came out the best of all the visual art in this issue (subjective!) in black-and-white. There were definitely some paintings that I think were probably poorly served by black-and-white; I wonder if the artists were aware… I am always on thin ice when considering visual arts, so, grains of salt. But I enjoyed studying Fuss’s work.

And finally, best for last: Ann Pancake’s long short story “In Such Light” was absolutely captivating, and my favorite of this issue (with Bender’s essay in second place). I’ve only heard of Ann Pancake recently, from my new writing friends at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her writing is solidly rooted in her place, which is West Virginia. This story follows Janie, who is struggling with the transition from high school to college, dissatisfied with her small-town life, and unsure about where to place her dreams. I love the details of life in her place, and the difficulties and rewards of her close relationship with mentally disabled Uncle Bobby. The story is tense throughout, and completely immersive; I felt like I was coming up for air at the end. What a talent.

Pancake’s story was perhaps the only thing I read (and I didn’t read the whole journal) that didn’t feel rooted in Harvard and its region. So one observation about the Harvard Review is that it has a moderate-to-strong regional focus, but not exclusively. That said, you may have to be Ann Pancake to break out of the East Coast thing.

Great reading, no question.


Rating: 8 themed pairs.

Maximum Shelf: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

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 7, 2016.


wangs vs the world

Jade Chang’s first novel, The Wangs vs. the World, is an accomplishment: sparkling characters, family dynamics, humor and despair set against global historic and economic forces, rendering the title entirely apt.

Charles Wang is a proud patriarch. He has three beautiful, talented children (though his son hasn’t slept with quite so many women yet as he should have, and his older daughter lives too far away), and has built a major financial empire in makeup manufacturing. He has the house in Bel-Air, the factories, the cars; his second wife has all the designer clothing, jewelry and handbags she ever wanted. He has a “sexy little cigarette speedboat painted with twenty-seven gallons of Suicide Blonde, his best-selling nail polish color–a perfect blue-toned red that set off the mahogany trim and bright white leather seats.”

Until he doesn’t.

In 2008, the Wang fortune evaporates, like so many others, due nearly as much to Charles’s hubris as to the economic climate of the time. In the face of this calamity (frequently referred to in his inner monologue as “the Failure”), Charles turns to an old legend: his family’s land in China, stolen by the Communists. This fable of luxury and excess was his birthright, and with the U.S.-based version collapsed, he determines to take his family back to the old country and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. And so a road trip ensues, with the patched-together family forming and reforming in various configurations cross-country.

Charles and his second wife, Barbra, depart the California home they no longer own in a powder-blue Mercedes station wagon nearly 30 years old, which luckily had been transferred into the nanny’s name, so it wasn’t repossessed with the other cars. They pick up stunned younger daughter Grace from her boarding school in Santa Barbara, then son Andrew from Phoenix, Ariz., where he’d been enrolled in college (working harder on his stand-up comedy routine than on his studies). The Wangs aim for the home of elder daughter Saina in the Catskills, where she struggles to regroup from her own personal trauma–and from there, for China. But on a southern detour, Andrew leaves the group for an older woman he meets at a New Orleans wedding.

The hilarity of filial antics on this road trip, “a troupe of Chinese Okies fleeing a New Age Dust Bowl,” forms a central part of this story. But the larger narrative involves Charles’s perception of the injustices done to the Wangs by history: Japan’s invasion of China, immigration through Taiwan, investment patterns in the U.S. The next generation of Wangs has taken an artistic turn: Saina is a fallen darling of the New York art world; Andrew aspires to be a comic, but relies perhaps too heavily on Asian jokes; and Grace surprises her elders with her fashion sense (and a promising blog on the topic). The Wangs vs. the World is about generational and cultural challenges, and not just that of the Chinese immigrant to the United States. It is more about family than money.

This is a stylish novel, fun to read. The Wangs sometime speak in a mashup of English and Chinese that Chang leaves untranslated, though adequately understandable in context. Charles has his own prejudices, including a bias against “the tropical joke of Taiwan” and “the poor, illiterate, ball-scratching half men from Canton and Fujian.” Each chapter shifts perspective, beginning with Charles the patriarch and cycling through outsider stepmother Barbra (whose further crime is to be not even Chinese, but Taiwanese), the three privileged but loving children, even the 1980 Mercedes.

Chang crafts her characters expertly, with nuance and precise details. In Charles’s mind, makeup “was artifice, and it was honesty. It was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy. Not money–wealth. The brilliant Aegean blues and slick wet reds and luscious blacks, the weighty packaging, with its satisfying smooth hinges and sound closures.” In packing to leave his dorm, Andrew prioritizes “his top five pairs of sneakers–original issue Infrared Air Max 90s, Maison Martin Margiela Replica 22s, Common Projects Achilles Mid, beat-up checkboard Vans, and a pair of never worn Air Jordan 4 Undefeateds.” Saina’s social life in the Catskills is populated by few but absorbing characters–including an old artist boyfriend and a new one who’s a farmer–who are among Chang’s finest sketches. Andrew’s economics professor offers an impassioned in-class explanation for the crash: “Every one of you ought to be furious because you are the unfortunate generation who will be graduating and trying to obtain jobs in a busted economy that we might well pack up and sell to the Chinese.” These details, and perfectly formed dialogue, make an already engrossing story positively glitter.

As a novel with momentum and magnetism, reaching across generations from China and Taiwan to high-society California and New York to New Orleans and the Catskills, with stops along the way, The Wangs vs. the World undertakes an ambitious range of material. Chang manages both this sweeping plot and backdrop, as well as the finer points of characterization and relationships, with ease. The result is hilarious and heartfelt, witty and wise, and a prodigious achievement for a first-time novelist.


Rating: 8 of dad’s old paisley Hermès bow ties from the eighties.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Chang.

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother ed. by Donald Sturrock

Forty years of letters from a beloved children’s author to his mother offer an intriguing, entertaining perspective on both the man and the world.

love from boy

Roald Dahl, renowned for both children’s classics and eerie adult short stories, wrote his first letter home from boarding school in 1925, when he was nine years old; Donald Sturrock (Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl) edits this collection of previously unpublished letters from Dahl to his mother. In Love from Boy, Sturrock’s minimal narrative appears alongside the epistolary bulk of the text, accompanied by a small selection of Dahl’s photographs and drawings.

Organized in seven chapters by phases of Dahl’s life, the correspondence tracks the growth of a beloved imagination and literary career. Over 40 years, Dahl evolves from funny prankster to crafty storyteller to a more serious and cynical mind, particularly following World War II. Dahl had a thoroughly interesting life even before he began writing in earnest: from English boarding schools to travel and corporate work in colonial Africa, hours logged as a Royal Air Force pilot, diplomatic work in the United States and collaboration with Walt Disney in Hollywood. But Love from Boy also provides a personal perspective on his eye for detail and the absurd, his predilection for pranks, his knack for characterization–“He’s a short man with a face like a field elderberry, and a moustache which closely resembles the African jungle. A voice like a frog…”–and his quirky preoccupation with personal hygiene, especially dental care. Love from Boy is both an endearing glimpse of a much-loved author and a sober view of mid-20th-century world events.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 tubes of Euthymol.
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