One Life by David Lida

A Mexican national facing the death penalty and the investigator who hopes to save her become hopelessly entwined.

one life

In journalist David Lida’s first novel, One Life, two lives are featured, although only one is apparently threatened.

Richard is a mitigation specialist. A gringo based in Mexico City, he investigates the backgrounds of Mexican nationals accused of capital offenses in the United States, hoping to dig up enough ugliness and trauma for the courts to consider a lesser sentence–like life without parole. Esperanza came to south Louisiana for the rumored bounty of well-paid jobs cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina. She now faces the death penalty for killing her infant daughter. Richard has always maintained walls between the tragedies he studies professionally and his own life; he is expert at enjoying what he thinks of as stolen moments of happiness. But as he learns about Esperanza’s background, living in a dusty village to the rough side of Ciudad Juarez, her stoicism and mystery destroy his detached calm.

One Life‘s perspective shifts between a third-person view of Esperanza’s life and Richard’s first-person voice, speaking from a murky future. The reader therefore knows more than either protagonist, although the novel’s central secret is reserved for the final pages. Neither a mystery nor a thriller, this story is briskly paced but not rushed: there is time for Richard to mull the emotional holes in his own life, and for Esperanza and secondary characters to consider and reconsider their limited options. Poignant and exquisitely detailed, One Life brings nuance and a personal voice to a deeply tragic story.

This review originally ran in the October 21, 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 cans of Coke.

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

This fascinating history of New York’s famous public hospital provides a microcosm of national and worldwide medical history.


Bellevue is one of the oldest and most famous names in United States hospitals, known for housing violent criminals and mental health patients, the homeless and sufferers of rare and exotic diseases. The incredible, multi-layered history told by David Oshinsky in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital covers medical and general history both national and global. This thorough narrative is wide-ranging and endlessly gripping.

The institution began in 1736 as an almshouse, where the indigent were housed and given rudimentary medical care. From these earliest days, “Bel-Vue” had a reputation for dealing with society’s unwanted. And as Oshinsky shows, in its many incarnations, this reputation is intact. The flipside is that this public hospital has always attracted service-minded professionals pursuing innovation. Before modern considerations of medical ethics, this often meant experimenting on Bellevue’s impoverished patients and their diverse range of ailments: in exchange for charity medical aid, the thinking went, they offered themselves for clinical trials–as painful and medieval as they could be at times. Nevertheless, the hospital became central over the years in battling the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, the “Great Influenza” of the 1910s, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the September 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy. Bellevue would see hospitals shift from being considered a last resort, only for those too poor to afford a private doctor’s home visits, to becoming the best medical care available (the development of anesthesia, germ theory and infection control being crucial).

The hospital has enjoyed affiliations with several medical schools, among the U.S.’s earliest and best, including its continuing relationship with New York University. NYU students get training in a premier teaching hospital that still treats an enormous and diverse patient population, while Bellevue gets talented, passionate residents and interns, many of whom remain and make their careers there. The history of Bellevue reflects social struggles, as women, Jews and African Americans gradually gained access to the medical profession, and anti-immigrant vitriol was aimed in turn at Irish, Italian and Jewish populations, among others, as waves of struggling immigrants contributed to Bellevue’s patient population. Bellevue successfully treated New York’s sole Ebola patient in 2014. Its tenuous funding situation (mostly public, and always under attack), high standards of care and public service mission continue.

Bellevue’s beauty and staggering scope lies in these historic, social and interdisciplinary connections. William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath, Charlie Mingus and Lead Belly passed through Bellevue’s history; its physicians have traveled the world and played roles in the scientific advances that have shaped modern medicine. Bellevue hosted the invention of forensic medicine, and major developments in medical photography, child psychiatry and AIDS treatments. Oshinsky (Pulitzer Prize-winner for Polio: An American Story) generally adheres to an impersonal, journalistic style, but his moving portrayal can’t hide his admiration for this longstanding institution. Bellevue is that rare, page-turning history: engaging, smart, clearly written and of broad general interest.

This review originally ran in the October 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 five-gallon containers of fuel.

Fourth Genre, volume 18, number 1 (spring 2016)


I began this issue of Fourth Genre feeling a little underwhelmed. But I finished impressed, and intrigued. My personal reactions to these essays ranged widely. Some of them just let me down. I read a prizewinning essay that struck me as more interesting in its clever format than in its content; and I felt the same about several of the essays that followed. I gave up on an essay that felt increasingly weighted down by academic, philosophical wordiness. I was frustrated by another that characterized travelers as trying in vain to make themselves more interesting: this writer recommends “an hour-long excursion to the public library” and the purchasing of souvenirs “in your own living room, never having changed out of your pajamas” over real-world experiences. Now, I heartily recommend visiting your public library regularly. But I felt that this writer missed an important point, that some of of us have profound experiences by visiting in person places outside of our daily geographic routine. Of course, this is merely a personal reaction, as they all are.

Some left me a little ambivalent. “Recapitulation Theory” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson struck me. I’m not sure it holds together as a whole for me; but at many points throughout I was fascinated (and not least by the narrator’s role as librarian). The contributor bios indicate that this is part of a larger project, which makes perfect sense. I appreciated the tortoise trivia, and the emotion, in Lawrence Lenhart’s “Too Slow Is How That Tortoise Go: A Carapace in 37 Parts”; but I regretted the on-the-page formatting of text wrapped around carapaces and scutes. I found it distracting – it made reading more challenging – and didn’t feel it added anything that more traditional block formatting of graphics wouldn’t have accomplished.

On the other hand, I found some gems. “Sixteen Forecasts” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade was another playfully formatted essay but one I enjoyed more. And I am intrigued by the two authors: how did they put this together? I want to know. “Light” by Kathryn U. Hulings is a powerfully feeling narrative about the trauma of a suffering, self-destructive loved one. Mimi Dixon’s “Anesthesia” is, again, a more traditionally formatted essay but one with more to say. Rachael Perry’s “The Sand Dunes: An Elegy” is scarcely a page long, but deeply lovely and evocative. Jane Bernstein’s “The Incident in My Park” is an electric, disturbing story – that is, a narrative. Not that it’s done entirely straightforwardly. There are time jumps; there is musing. But perhaps what I’m finding here is a preference for narratives (a la Creative Nonfiction). With “Brother Sammy,” Deborah Thompson is a little more subtle in building the narrative that frames her reflections, but in this lovely, short essay, she made me think, and this was another successful piece for me.

And then came the highlights of the journal, beginning with “Animalis: References for a Body, One Winter” by Katherine E. Standefer. She uses a decidedly nontraditional format, something I quibbled with earlier in the journal; but this one worked so cleanly for me. I was aware of the form (footnotes, in this case, and with the relationships between source and note often unclear), but it didn’t get in the way of what I was reading: a personal history in snippets, engrossing and moving throughout. And then! “Animalis” is followed by Standefer’s essay about the essay, “Breaking the Body: On the Writing of ‘Animalis’.” This was the perfect choice for a piece about the piece, both because of its unusual form and because of the story of how it came to be: in a word, slowly. I was captivated! And the loveliness of her lines crosses over to the craft piece, in which she writes

The reference list of our bodies? It is both broken and gorgeous. The shards, glinting light, became the essay’s wrestle.


I learned that an unruly essay, controlled by the reins of voice, will hold its readers and deliver them somewhere new.

Things continued to solidify for me, to make sense and to make enjoyable reading, as the journal proceeded with craft essays. After Standefer’s essay and commentary came Lina M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas with “The Peach Orchard” and “On ‘The Peach Orchard’,” which totally drew me in as well: she writes about La Violencia in Colombia in very complex ways using several narratives. I was impressed, and her commentary was equally engrossing. Dawn S. Davies writes “Disquiet and the Lyric Essay” in which we learn a lot about the writer (voice!) as well as consider some questions about what makes an essay ‘lyric.’ The book reviews that follow struck me more as responses to books than reviews of them (although I enjoyed the playful review of Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy). In an “Inter-Review” with Wendy S. Walters (in which they discuss each other’s new books), Michael Martone says he

think(s) of publishing as more like political organizing than the gatekeeping of taste and promoting something as “good” or “bad.”

which I found an interesting thought.

All in all, I found immersion in this lit journal a thought-provoking, sometimes frustrating, somewhat challenging reading experience. It’s yielded more reading: I have a play, a song, an essay and a blog post now queued up from references in this issue. I enjoyed some of the writing very much, and some of it wasn’t for me; but that’s the world, and that’s okay. It seems that Fourth Genre appreciates nontraditional formats almost for their own sake, and I’m not sure my tastes run in quite the same way, but there is much here to like. I’ll keep my eyes open.

Rating: 7 hermit crabs.

Make Me by Lee Child

make-meWhen my grandmother was visiting Bellingham, in the final days of my residence there, we took a walk through the new location of the local indy bookstore. I was excited at the prospect of having time to choose a book to read on our big drive south, a book just for me and just for fun; so I bought myself a paperback copy of Lee Child’s latest. I read this book in a day and a half, in Durango, Colorado and on the road from there to Santa Fe. It was a deeply pleasurable time.

It’s been a while since I read any Lee Child, and Reacher was just as I remembered him. The formula is perhaps getting a little see-through at this point; but I love it no less.

Reacher gets off the train in the little town of Mother’s Rest, in the middle of nowhere. (I suspect Mother’s Rest is in Kansas, although it is never stated, and it is, of course, a fictional place.) When he steps off the train, he is greeted by a woman clearly waiting for someone, and disappointed Reacher isn’t that someone. He’s really just curious about the name of the town, though none of the locals can or will explain it to him. Instead, he finds them oddly surly, even antagonistic. What’s going on in Mother’s Rest? And what happened to the man Reacher was mistaken for at the train depot?

The locals are up to something, of course, and of course Reacher is the man to figure out what. Following the formula, he teams up with an attractive and highly competent woman, beats up on the baddies, and untangles the plot. He is at once a do-gooder, motivated to defend the world’s innocents, and an isolationist, apt to keep moving unless dragged into things by outside forces–like the bad guys trying to mess with him. The tagline for this novel’s title: “But as always, Reacher’s rule is: If you want me to stop, you’re going to have to make me.”

Like I said, the formula is clear to me. But this fast-paced, involved and involving, smart plot; Reacher’s big, handsome, smart (if a little fantastic) superhero powers; and the detailed, fully-formed world of Mother’s Rest are totally compelling. I scarcely put this book down, and was so sorry when it was over. On the other hand: in my paperback copy, Make Me was followed by a Reacher short story “Small Wars,” and then by an excerpt from the next Reacher novel, Night School, due for publication just next month. Lee Child really knows what he’s doing, cranking them out like this, and keeping us teased along the way. And, happily, the quality does not decline. My fandom is again confirmed.

To review: more of the same Reacher, except different in its particulars, so Child’s fans are never bored. You could start here or anywhere in the series, as they all jump around in time. But beware that once you start, you may not want to stop.

Rating: 8 hogs.

The Mighty Currawongs by Brian Doyle

With Brian Doyle’s reliable good humor, this collection reveres human efforts and love in situations both moving and laughable.

mighty currawongs

The Mighty Currawongs and Other Stories by Brian Doyle (Martin Marten) roams broadly in subject matter, but always offers joyful, whimsical wordplay and an abiding love for life’s absurd and profound moments. These short stories–almost all under 10 pages–deal specifically with human experiences and relationships, rather than embracing the wider natural world of Doyle’s novels, but the same voice and fanciful tone appear clearly.

A Boston basketball league plays through hilarity and scuffles, and finds a player who deepens the game. A likable archbishop loses his faith; a grandfather teaches his grandson to play chess; a tailor offers a young newspaperman sartorial and other advice. Through these everyday incidents, Doyle’s approach to the world is poignant (as in a veteran’s memories of the Vietnam War) but steadfastly hopeful. Indeed, the only criticism of his work might be for his unrelenting optimism, expressed by consistently likable, essentially good characters. But with his mastery of language and eye for detail, Doyle’s characters always feel authentic, and their ups and downs are realistically proportioned. His gift for finding the sublime in even the small and dirty details is alive and gleaming in this short story collection.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the September 30, 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 halves of the door.

Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, trans. by Anthea Bell

This clever, stylish novel in translation follows a German man’s quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village.

cabo de gata

In this slim, unassuming novel, Eugen Ruge (In Times of Fading Light) experiments with form and style, setting a plot of quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village. Cabo de Gata is almost minimalist in its events, but expert detail fills out a story larger than its circumstances. In Anthea Bell’s translation from the German, the unnamed narrator’s voice suits him perfectly.

In Berlin in the years just after the Wall came down, Ruge’s narrator feels stuck. He has a good-enough if meaningless job; his ex-girlfriend calls only to ask him to help care for her daughter; he suspects the punks in the ground-floor apartment stole his bicycle. He sees the rest of his life rolling out in front of him in mind-numbing routine, doomed “like the undead” to empty repetition. And so he leaves.

Indecision about where to travel pleases rather than alarms him: he seeks the unknown, “for the sake of experiment,” because he is also an aspiring novelist. He chiefly wants someplace quiet and warm, and so flees to Cabo de Gata, a town in Andalusia promised by the travel guides to offer “a breath of Africa.” The nearly abandoned fishing village turns out surprisingly to be terribly cold, the inhabitants gruff and standoffish; his writing comes out bitter. He is a curious, contradictory character, perhaps not entirely reliable: he is not superstitious, he announces, and then proceeds to find signs in hermit crabs and his dead mother in a stray cat. Intermittently obsessive, he fills his days as much with invented tasks and rules as he does with writing the intended novel.

It may sound absurdist, but Ruge’s quietly affecting story is more understated than it is bizarre. The narrator has his quirks, such as a fondness for humming “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Jimi Hendrix taught it to me in his famous appearance at Woodstock”). But he is essentially involved in a search both existential and humdrum: where to go from here.

The narrator tells his story from a distance, from a much later time in which he hints that he has been very successful, and he pointedly chooses not to consult notes or check his facts (“I could Google it,” he writes, but he doesn’t). This meta-view offers another layer for the discerning reader to dissect. On the surface the odd story of a troubled man haunting a Spanish ghost town, Cabo de Gata also poses questions about life’s directions and perspectives.

This review originally ran in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 candles.

Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke (audio)

Disclosure: James Lee Burke has said some nice things about me. I appreciate that, deeply. But he couldn’t buy my good review that way. Not all of his books are equally excellent. This one is excellent.

jesus-out-to-seaOn our drive south, Husband and I listened to this collection of James Lee Burke short stories on audio. I found it deeply powerful. The stories range widely: geographically, they are set in Gulf Coast south Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Montana. In time, they are set in the 1940s and 50s through 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Protagonists are oil rig workers, children, jazz musicians and retired professors of literature and creative writing. What they all have in common, though–characters and stories both–is their focus on society’s outcasts and castaways, the downtrodden and unlucky, the poor; and on the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women). In other words: classic James Lee Burke.

The opening story, “Winter Light,” stars a retired academic who opposes hunters and doesn’t let them on his land. His refusal to back down in this and other just causes* precipitates ugly events. “The Village” is a short, stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative by a military man involved in a massacre in Vietnam. Its style, if not its tone, is different enough from the Burke I know to startle me; I am impressed. “The Night Johnny Ace Died” tracks musicians through love triangles and organized crime in 1950s Louisiana. “Water People” sees base conflicts and suppressed traumas among Gulf Coast oil drill workers in the same era. “Texas City, 1947” references a real-life major catastrophe of that year (look it up), but that big event is only one piece of a puzzle starring an abused child and a number of sad and sordid crimes, as well as a sympathetic nun who (sadly) Husband didn’t find terribly realistic. My impression from hearing these stories read aloud is that this was one of the longer ones. If that’s incorrect, at least it was one of the more impactful for me, and contained lots of familiar geographic markers.

“Mist” featured a young woman attending AA meetings and trying to be sober. Her past traumas include the death of her husband in Iraq and events during Hurricane Katrina that go unnamed for most of the story. I suppose this is a personal reaction, but I found the particular uglinesses of this story harder than most of the others. But beautifully done, and not exploitative.

“A Season of Regret” reprises the opening story: a different retired academic on his own chunk of land makes a stand for a different set of just issues. I enjoyed the new version of a familiar concept. These are two different characters and two different sets of challenges, but the emotional tone is the same. Next come a trio of stories told by the same narrator, a child named Charlie growing up in 1950s Houston. These have their higher and lower moments in terms of holding interest, but I found the characters–Charlie, his best friend Nick, Charlie’s father, and the family of neighborhood bullies–compelling. And there’s nothing like hearing the specific history of my hometown extracted and mulled upon in its details: it feels like coming home.

The final, titular story is the clear tour de force of this collection, in my opinion. “Jesus Out to Sea” is narrated by a man from New Orleans, who grew up on Magazine Street with two best friends who were brothers. The three go to Vietnam; one is broken by the experience and ends up a gangster; the narrator and the other brother become modestly accomplished jazz musicians who decline into hard drug use before the gangster helps them get clean. The story culminates with a storm that need not be named. While Burke’s writing throughout this collection is as lyrical, startling and shockingly beautiful as ever, this story showcases those talents the best, in its repeated use of bougainvilleas as the blood of Christ, or the blood of any of us, among other things. This story is music and poetry and oh, the tragedy. I admit to being especially affected by Katrina stories. But this one evokes all the unnecessary pain and wrongness of it, as well as the simple natural forces that those of us from hurricane country are familiar with, and the ways in which this storm was different. As we listened to “Jesus Out to Sea,” Husband was driving south across Utah, and we missed a turn by 20 miles or so because our navigator (ahem) was so distracted. It’s powerful stuff, this.

Sharing a book with Husband is a rare treat for me, so I want to give voice to some of his reactions. Overall, he gave this collection a 7, and complained of abrupt endings that didn’t wrap everything up neatly: he wanted to understand clearly what happened to everybody, which is a privilege not always afforded. He wanted a little more justice, to see revenge gained. But we know we don’t always get that from Burke.

He loved the nostalgia of hearing about places and cultural and historical markers we know intimately, though, and I have long found this to be one of the easiest ways to win a reader’s heart: shared landmarks, especially geographic ones (at least for those of us tied to place), and especially little-known ones, so we feel like we’re in on a secret. The classic example in this case was the Alabama Ice House, where young Charlie goes to fetch his dad home for dinner in the 1950s, and where they sometimes get hot dogs: Husband said, “they still serve hot dogs there!” excitedly, and I shared his enthusiasm for a place we know and love. For Husband (not for me), one young protagonist’s experiences in Catholic school also rang a bell.

Husband struggled to find certain details of some stories realistic. But my reaction was very different. I guess I’m more inclined to trust Burke to know better than I do how some things work; or to trust that some unrevealed detail could explain the unlikely event. In the case of a famous gangster showing an interest in learning yo-yo tricks from a couple of kids–maybe I was just too charmed by the whimsical and oh-so-human oddity to complain. Husband did praise the descriptions and scenes overall, said he could visualize what was described; and I think what he’s referring to is the fullness of sensory detail, the evocation of fully-formed worlds.

I also want to mention the repeated images and phrases that showed up in this collection. Several characters, when startled or distracted, looked as if flashbulbs had just gone off in their faces. Several suffer from noises in their heads that recall the thropping of helicopter blades or the banging of people trapped in their attics in rising water. Husband noticed these, too, and again we had different reactions. I have the impression that some of these come from a Burke habit, a way of seeing and describing things. Others–the thropping of the helicopter in a troubled character’s head–I think might serve as a wise and artful linking device. These stories are held together in several ways: the attention they pay to underclasses and injustices, a way of looking at the world, and a sense of the Louisiana Gulf Coast as the center of a personal world. They are also held together by poetry, bloody bougainvilleas, the smell of fish spawning, and torment; and if that torment recurs as a series of thumping sounds, it only helps us follow Burke’s special genius.

Rating: 8 bougainvilleas.

*For the record, whatever your position on hunting, I think this character has a right to control his own property.

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