The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart by Brian Doyle

I am back again with another Doyle, different this time but totally recognizably him.

Here are the classic Doyle elements of celebration and beauty, but amid so much pain and loss… and I have to admit, the loss of Doyle himself felt very present for me here. I continue to feel it as a significant loss to this world, both because we will get no more of his transcendent writing, and because he just seems to be the most beautiful, loving, joyful, talented person, and we don’t have enough of those; it still hurts me that we’ve lost him. And that was right under the surface of all of these essays for me, in a way that was less true of Chicago, because that book was fiction rather than nonfiction, and also because it is not quite so explicitly about life and death in the way that The Wet Engine is, so the pain was closer to the surface for me, if that tracks.

The wet engine is the heart, often but not always the human heart, and the reason Doyle focuses here is that one heart that is important to him is in danger. His son Liam (age nine at the time of writing) was born with three chambers in his heart rather than four. He had to have several open-heart surgeries when he was an infant, and so his father learned about how hearts work and he got to know some cardiologists and surgeons. And because this father was Brian Doyle, he also did some meditating on the metaphoric meanings of heart, on all the language we use (heartbreak, heartsick, hearts swelling and leaping and failing, hearts held in hands and worn on sleeves), and on mysticism and miracle and mystery and magic. He also does research: Liam’s doctor, Dr. Dave, is profiled in considerable detail, as is Dr. Dave’s wife, Linda, and his mother, Hope. (It is through Hope that we find ourselves in an internment camp – really, a concentration camp – for Japanese Americans during World War II, in Topaz, Utah. Hope was interned there as a teenager with her family for nearly three years; she graduated from high school there. “No, I am not bitter, she says. No. Bitter is no place to be. But I do not forget.”) Shorter profiles explore other doctors and pioneers in medicine and cardiology from around the world, from the early days of the science through the present (like Dr. Dave’s colleague Hagop Hovaguimian, who can never stop working because too many people need his help). The people who people this book come not only from throughout history but from all over the world, which is frequently fun and which reinforces the feeling of enormous scope that Doyle achieves. “The doctor to my left is from Australia. He speaks Australian, a smiling sunny language which takes me a minute to get the pace and rhythm of, but then we get along swell…”

The Wet Engine is a collection of linked essays that explore these and other topics: the humans involved with hearts and their stories; the nature and power of stories; the language and metaphor and soul of the heart, and its place in our mythologies; the science of the hearts of humans and other species; Liam’s own life story, and Doyle’s navigation of it as Liam’s father. Everywhere of course is Doyle’s distinctive voice and style, made up of long lists and emotional appeals and exuberance and vulnerability. There is also God here, and my regular readers know I don’t spend a lot of time reading about God, but Doyle can get away with anything: the tone of reverence is entirely appropriate here, and his explorations (“God is not a person. God is not an idea. God is the engine. God is the beat. We are distracted by the word God…”) I can easily follow. (Also I am reminded of Amy Leach.) And I appreciate that Doyle doesn’t choose just one religious or spiritual angle of approach, but that he’s interested in holiness in a multitude of traditions.

I think what I love most about this book is that it feels like it includes all the disciplines of study. There is theology, and hard science – medicine, zoology, even botany – history, social justice, the arts – music, and his own literary genius, including some superlative descriptive work and expressions of gratitude and pain. I’m pretty interested in interdisciplinarity these days, and I’m assigning my students readings that do this work, including a short passage from The Wet Engine. (Synchronicity: I’d just given them a Joseph Mitchell essay called “Goodbye, Shirley Temple,” and then read that Hope was interned at that camp with Shirley Temple’s gardener. What?? The world is a mystery.) And all of this in Doyle’s own wild style.

I cried a lot, but it’s such a beautiful, instructive book. At scarcely over 100 pages, it is one that would bear lots of study. Again I rave.


Special recognition to Matt Ferrence for making me aware of this book a few years ago, when he assigned “Joyas Volardores,” the sixth essay, for an MFA residency. That one still stands out. Thanks, Matt.


Rating: 9 knobby knees.

Chicago by Brian Doyle (audio)

On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that rough and burly city in the middle of America, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake.

This novel is everything I love best about Doyle: joy and celebration even where there is tragedy and pain; minutia and multitudes; exuberance and multiplicity… but where I am accustomed to seeing these elements applied to natural settings (even when peopled), here we have it in an urban setting, which I found surprising. But not disappointing: I’m originally a city girl (even if I have an affinity for greener spaces), and I really appreciated the celebration of the urban here. (Also, Chicago is a setting I have encountered in a lot of fiction lately, and I appreciated having it shown to me again from yet another angle. It’s beginning to feel familiar.)

I have a hard time saying anything new or intelligent about Doyle’s writing, which I love so much. This novel spans just a year and change, which is the length of our protagonist/narrator’s residence in the titular city, although he is clear – from a distance of years – that he’s never loved any other city so well. A good chunk of the action takes place in the apartment building where he lives, and all the significant characters live there. This is less our narrator’s story, in fact, than it is the story of the building’s occupants and of the city itself. Those occupants include: the man who’d invented children’s propeller hats; two young women from Arkansas who work in advertising; an Armenian librettist; two hermit brothers; four dapper businessmen; a retired movie actress; a man who had once raised cheetahs; a Trinidadian cricket player; Mrs. Manfredi, who makes transcendent empanadas; a Scottish tailor and a detective; and old Mr. McGinty, who never loses when he bets on the horses. Even more central are Mr. Pawlowsky, the loveable maintenance man (retired from the Navy and a great fan of Abraham Lincoln); an even bigger fan of Lincoln’s, the wise and knowing dog Edward (who lives with Mr. Pawlowsky although no one could say either “owned” the other); and Miss Elminides, Greek heiress and owner of the building, artistic and benevolent and mysterious. This list already has the flavor of Doyle in it: wide-ranging, delightfully detailed, wondrous, mostly real but a little bit magical.

In Third Coast Review, Susannah Pratt writes, “To the extent that Chicago is a three hundred-page love letter to the city… it is fair to ask whether the book is a worthwhile read for those without firsthand knowledge of it. I am the wrong person to ask…” (she’s from there), but here I am, the right person to ask! (I’ve been in Chicago just once, for a professional conference, and saw almost none of it.) I loved this book. It’s not especially plot-heavy. Events certainly happen, most importantly to the narrator, Mr. Pawlowsky, Edward, and Miss Elminides; but if I were to detail them as plot the book would feel a little thin. No, rather this is a series of character sketches, with the city of Chicago as important a character as any; and it is a list, in joyous Doyle fashion, of the kinds of people who are in the world and the kinds of things that happen to them, both surprising and everyday (which are often the same things), and it is a celebration that these things and people are in the world. I don’t know what else to tell you.

Here are some of my favorite lines and passages, because that’s the best way to know what Doyle is up to.

You cannot edit your life, and even if I was today offered the chance to never meet her, and so not leave the city I loved, I would decline, for life is a verb, life swerves and lurches no matter how cautious and careful your driving, and I would not be who I am, surrounded by those I love most in this world, had I not left Chicago when I did.

You cannot edit your life. We can’t go backwards, only forwards. Life is a verb? Well, it is decidedly a noun, whose verb form is to live, but I will accept this from Doyle (who likes to say that lots of words are verbs, actually).

I have wandered through and marveled at many cities since my years in Chicago–cities all over the world, from the ancient seethe of Rome to the glinting brio of Sydney; cities on the shoulders of mountains, cities by the lip of the sea; so very many cities astraddle rivers, or camped for centuries where two rivers meet; cities looming out of the flat plains like huge shards of light and glass, cities insisting on themselves amid inhospitable deserts, cities huddled defiant and disgruntled against endless ice and snow, cities wrapped like long urban shawls around the curving shores of bays; and each of these cities had a flavor and a character all its own, formed of more than merely locale and climate, and the accident of its original economic or military excuse.

What lover of cities could resist this long exultant sentence?

I decided not to reproduce a lovely bit where the detective calls a certain baseball game for a gathered group of neighbors, but it actually made me cry, around 100 pages in.

And then there is a poem which is read aloud by a teacher to her classroom of students. I have searched for this poem online and can’t find it in the world outside this novel, so I think it’s Doyle’s own work, although his fictional teacher character attributes it within that fictional world (to an unnamed poet) – if anyone knows differently, please correct me.

The day that I turned thirty was a wintry
Day with summer and apples and hawks
In it and I realized that every day was an
Epic birthday if you think about it so I’m
Thirty today and ten and ninety and love
Finds me and there is a mink in the creek
And everything is happening all the time
Including backwards and we had best be
Attentive which I will try to be every hour
Henceforth and you too and let us burble
To each other about what we see, cousins
And sisters and brothers as we all are yes

Summers and apples and hawks in it.

This audiobook is delightfully performed by Wayne Mitchell, and I love the voices he does – like Mr. Pawlowsky, whose S’s are generally Sh’s, so that the ‘city’ is always the ‘shitty,’ which never ceased to amuse me. I was lost in this novel the entire time. But that said, I need it in print form too, because there were too many wonderful lines that I didn’t grasp as well as I’d liked. This is one I’ll definitely read again.

I know I’m just raving. The brief version of this review is: it’s like everything Doyle writes, wonderful and whimsical, but about a city instead of a forest or an ocean or a town this time, which is also awesome. You should read it.


Rating: 9 rooftops.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I picked this book up blind, not knowing what was inside, and it was a roller coaster. Often painful and uncomfortable, but often delightful and hilarious. I love the protagonist and her fierce best friend; I struggled with the difficult subject matter. I think it’s a very fine work of fiction, with the added appeal of social issues we need to be thinking about. I encourage you to stop reading now and go buy this book. If you need more convincing, keep reading.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman in Philadelphia. She’s part of a foursome of friends who take care of each other, and this is where the book opens, at Shaunie’s birthday party. Emira is also getting a little nervous about that big question of what she’s going to do with herself; with her life; for money. Soon she’ll get dropped by her parents’ health insurance, and she has a college degree but nothing that really calls to her in a professional career sort of way. (I am deeply empathetic. This was me at 25, and in some ways it’s me now.) She works part-time as a transcriptionist and part-time as a babysitter for a wealthy white family. She is completely crazy about the three-year-old daughter she cares for there, and she’s really good at her job.

The opening ‘inciting incident’ is this: Emira is pulled away from Shaunie’s birthday party when her employer, Mrs. Chamberlain, calls and asks her for help. It’s not exactly a babysitting time of night, but the cops are about to show up to the Chamberlains’ house (just a little disturbance), and they’d like the three-year-old, Briar, not to be there. Emira takes the child to a nearby grocery store to browse. She’s getting paid double, and Mrs. Chamberlain doesn’t mind at all that Emira’s not dressed for childcare. Well, can you guess? The store security questions why this young Black woman has a little white girl with her. They harass and eventually hold her until Mr. Chamberlain arrives. It’s a scene. Somebody films it, although Emira begs him not to share the video.

The evening ends with Emira walking away, ostensibly unharmed. “This was a video about racism that you could watch without seeing any blood or ruining the rest of your day.” But of course it has lasting repercussions for Emira, and for a few people in her circle.

I’ve only given away the first few pages of the novel. The rest of it shifts between the POVs of Emira and Mrs. Chamberlain, and Emira continues as Briar’s babysitter. Her distress over her place in the world – financially, professionally – grows. She gets a boyfriend, a situation that is both pleasing and a source of further angst (as boyfriends are). Her friends are awesome, but as they get promotions and better apartments, there’s a certain distance. Emira is still crazy about Briar, who is a frantic talker, a little nervous, not particularly girly or ladylike, and who adores Mira in turn. Mrs. Chamberlain is… a lot. It’s unflattering to describe her: hung up on appearances, insecure, adrift in a new place (recently moved to Philly from NYC, and she clearly feels that Philadelphia is NOT cool). She has a business and a brand, but she’s losing her grip on it. She’s not a likeable person; but she is a realistic one. I can’t like her, but I can sympathize, here and there. And then there’s a character from Mrs. Chamberlain’s past who complicates things considerably.

This is a story, on one level, about race. Emira’s just trying to live her life, and leave the night at the grocery store behind, but the world throws a lot of barriers at a young Black woman. A handful of ‘white saviors’ get in her way with their ostensibly well-meaning but thoroughly obnoxious interferences. It’s also about ‘the anxiety of affluence,’ and the intersections of race with class, and societal expectations. (A certain Black character plays a passable version of white savior, herself.) This is why I say the story is often painful and uncomfortable: these forces in our world are uncomfortable, and that’s why this book is important. But as a novel, make no mistake: this is not an earnest, humorless political take. It tackles serious subjects, but it also knows how to have a good time. I smiled as often as I squirmed.

Kiley Reid is a hell of a writer; the writing, as I sometimes say, disappears; I was right there with Mrs. Chamberlain and Emira in turn. Dialog is snappy. The nastiness and self-deception is too real. Mrs. Chamberlain (Alix) commits various microaggressions (as well as some regular macroaggressions), but to encounter them told through her own POV is extra creepy.

[Mrs. Chamberlain] knew Emira had gone to college. She knew Emira had majored in English. But sometimes… Alix was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction. There was no reason for Emira to be unfamiliar with this word. And there was no reason for Alix to be impressed. Alix completely knew these things, but only when she reminded herself to stop thinking them in the first place.

A powerful, realistic story, and one we should be paying attention to, also crafted as a masterful work of fiction: this book is highly recommended and Kiley Reid is one to watch. I agree with the back-of-book blurb that calls Such a Fun Age “written so confidently it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel.”


Rating: 9 bags of groceries.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura

World of Wonders is a lovely, thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun,” Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they center–peacock, comb jelly, narwhal, dancing frog–with a few exceptions, such as the expressively named “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS.” The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil’s attentive study and yes, wonder, but the author’s own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet’s ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her personal story.

Fireflies, touch-me-nots and flamingoes offer her a way to talk about being a brown girl in a white man’s world, growing up in the era of Stranger Danger and feeling disjointed between continents. A young Aimee is asked to draw an animal for a class assignment in Phoenix, Ariz. She responds with a resplendent peacock, India’s national bird, but is chastised and asked for an American bird. Her bald eagle wins a prize but causes her shame. Fumi Nakamura’s accompanying illustrations are whimsical and warm–who doesn’t love an axolotl’s smile?–and sweetly complement Nezhukumatathil’s prose.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl’s smile and what to do “if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup.” When it goes boom, “the cassowary is still trying to tell us something.” “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth–perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?” Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pale berries growing in spite of the dark.

Original Short Stories, volume 1 by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve reviewed a few stories from this volume in the past, but only after years have I finished reading the whole thing. It’s odd to know Maupassant as a literary figure but to have read so little of him. (I taught his story “The Necklace” this past year, but otherwise, these collected stories are the bulk of what I know of his work.) As a general impression, I appreciate his knack for description, and I see what Hemingway admired* and learned from**. The simple, strong statements, including judgments couched as description, felt familiar. I frequently found the stories to be vicious, though, and often rather gratuitously so. Sometimes this brutality felt like justice (“Mademoiselle Fifi”), but often it felt a little senseless. I frequently missed the final ironic turn for which “The Necklace” is so known.

The first four stories I’ve reviewed here pleased me more than the final eight; or maybe it’s that they began to run together. They certainly share subject matter as well as style. Maybe it’s not the moment for Maupassant in my life, or maybe I’ll keep my eyes open for a different collection.


*Hem’s recommendation is actually to read “all the good de Maupassant.” Whatever that means.

**He also thinks he surpassed Maupassant in the end, so there you are.


Rating: 6 expensive oil paintings.

author interview: Isabel Wilkerson

Following my review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, here’s Isabel Wilkerson: A Portal to Understanding.


Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1994 for her work as Chicago bureau chief for the New York Times, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2016. Her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, among many other awards. She has taught at Princeton, Emory and Boston Universities and has lectured widely. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was published by Random House on August 11.

You very naturally and quickly inserted material related to the pandemic in this book. How do you handle that kind of lightness on your toes?

photo: Joe Henson

This book is so far-ranging: three continents, three cultures, the manifestations of the artificial hierarchies that caused so much tragedy in all three. The breadth and the scope of the research was just overwhelming. To build this story meant going into so many different aspects of life, to show how it affects all of us to one degree or another as we find ourselves entrapped in a caste system that we did not ask to be in. I was constantly adding, down to the wire. And then Covid-19 became an ever-present reality in the lives of Americans, and I had to figure out where it could go. It’s been an extraordinary experience, just from a publishing standpoint, to have everyone working on this book spread out all over, trying to put together something this complicated, in addition to all the other projects that anyone who was working on this book was doing. It’s a miracle. That it could come together at all is a testament to what can happen when people are dedicated and committed.

What’s interesting is that it was already in there, because the book opens with a pathogen, and that was just a prescient–almost a premonition. There’s something about how the mind works and intuition acts. A thesis of the book is that caste is so ever-present, an invisible powerful force in society and in all of our lives, that anything that happens somehow has a connection to caste.

This book involves such rich use of metaphor, in a serious piece of heavily researched nonfiction.

I think in metaphor. I’m primarily a narrative writer; narrative nonfiction is where I’m happiest, is the natural expression of my ideas. I find that I’m most at home in telling a story, and a metaphor is a story. It’s making that connection, it’s a way of reaching a reader through the most natural means that I know. I don’t know of any other way.

American caste is both a novel concept and an instantly recognizable one. How does this book tread new ground?

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of six million African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South for the north and west over the course of much of the 20th century. Some would describe that as the story of a response to what many people would call racism. However, that word does not appear in Warmth, not in the text. It might be in the title of an article that I refer to–that book has 100 pages of notes–but that’s not a term I use, because I don’t think that it’s sufficient to describe the phenomenon that undergirds interactions and structures of power in the United States. That doesn’t mean racism does not exist, but I did not feel that it was the most applicable or accurate way to describe what people were fleeing, or what they met in the places that they fled to.

This book is a continuation of the perspective I took with Warmth. I think that using the word caste requires us as Americans to think differently. It automatically expands our sense of what we think we know. It’s an uncommon word to apply to ourselves, so it gets you thinking in a way that words we’re accustomed to using can blur. Because it’s not a word that we’re accustomed to using, it’s not judgmental, doesn’t feel as if it’s an accusation, doesn’t automatically incite shame or blame or guilt. Not only is it accurate, but it is a portal to understanding. That’s how I connect with the word as a writer.

Historically speaking, caste has on occasion been applied to the United States. Charles Sumner had used the word; Martin Luther King had used the word. Where people have looked deeply at the structures that we have inherited throughout American history, they have often come back to this word. But there’s been nothing that dives deeply into what that actually means. This was an attempt to do that, and to go to the original caste system that would come to mind most readily, which would be India, and that of the short-lived, terrifying Third Reich, and the interconnectedness of those two and that of our own country.

Then there are the pillars, which I came to as a result of going deeply into the topic: what had been written before; the Laws of Manu, which is the code for the Indian caste system; the Nuremburg Laws; and, of course, the aspect of all this that I knew best, the Jim Crow laws in our own country. I researched them ever more deeply in order to emerge with what I have described as the eight pillars of caste.

I read scores of books from multiple cultures. I collated and pulled together the histories and the ways of enforcing these caste systems into a more easily digestible rendering in one place.

At what point did you see the book take shape?

This has been simmering within me for a long time. Warmth was a precursor. It’s about the Great Migration, but it’s really about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it, and the caste system that they were forced to flee. That’s one reason why Warmth has remained so constant a presence in all the ups and downs we’ve seen since it came out. There’s still been a hunger for it that defies the presumed topics, because the topic is so much bigger than the Migration itself.

I heard a side note on the news about anthrax emerging from the permafrost in Siberia in July of 2016. I didn’t know what I might do, but I knew it was something. That was the beginning of this book. Who knew that by the time I would complete it, we would be in a global pandemic that would shut down humanity in its tracks. I didn’t know at that moment I would write a book about caste, but that was the beginning of an understanding that this was big. The planet was in peril, humanity was in peril, and this was a seemingly small example that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, but it spoke to me strongly. Every passing month, every passing year after that, it became more urgent. It was a progression toward this book.

First the pandemic, and then the responses to George Floyd’s murder, mark this book’s entry to the world. It feels very timely, but also timeless.

Whenever I write, I seek to be timeless, and focus on the history. We keep seeing the repeat of the history that we’re not paying attention to or don’t know well enough. These events are shocking, but not surprising if you know the country’s history. I go back to one of the many metaphors in the book, the old house: I’m essentially coming in as the inspector of the building and saying, these are the weak points that need attention. If you know your house, then you know what is wrong with it and you will seek to fix those things. If you don’t know, you can’t fix them. If you have no interest in knowing, you absolutely are not going to be able to fix those things.

Without transcending the artificial boundaries between us, without seeing the humanity in one another, we will continue to hurt each other. What we’ve seen recently has been brewing and simmering for 400 years. It rises and it falls, accelerates and slows, but it always comes back, because we’re not dealing with the essential structures that have created the system we live in. Until those systems are addressed, it will continue.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

In this winning debut, an arranged marriage exposes a young woman to unimagined riches and a tantalizing taste of freedom, with unexpected consequences.

Afi lives in a humble home in the Ghanaian city of Ho with her mother. Since Afi’s father died, they are beholden to local businesswoman “Aunty” Ganyo for their jobs, their home and basic necessities like flour. So when Afi’s marriage is arranged to Aunty’s son Eli, she knows it is an honor, although she feels some trepidation at marrying a man she does not really know. “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.” And so her new life begins inauspiciously in Peace Adzo Medie’s arresting first novel, His Only Wife.

Afi’s task, according to the powerful Ganyo family, is to win her new husband away from “the woman” with whom he’s already had a child, who is perceived to have stolen him away from his family. Afi resents being a pawn, but for her own reasons wishes to build a life of true love and commitment with Eli, whom she finds handsome and kind. She is out of her comfort zone, however, when she is installed in a luxury apartment in Accra, surrounded by food, clothing and modern conveniences she’s never known–with Eli still absent.

The young woman’s story unfolds in the first person, as Afi deals with an unfamiliar world and competing bids for her loyalty. Her mother and her new mother-in-law Aunty pressure her to appease and obey Eli. She makes a new friend, mistress to Eli’s brother, who recommends greater independence. While His Only Wife is on its surface the story of Afi and Eli’s marriage, at another level it’s more concerned with Afi’s development as an individual. Over time, in the big city and with more financial freedom, she will grow and learn more not only about her chosen career in fashion but about herself.

Medie gives Afi a voice that winningly combines insecurity, wisdom and dignity. Fashion and food contribute to a cultural backdrop. Accra is a cosmopolitan city, while Afi’s life in Ho was marked by privation and the importance of social and filial hierarchies. The dramas of Afi’s marriage and various family conflicts offer an entertaining plot rich with humor, but it is the story of the strong woman in a challenging and changing world that will capture readers’ hearts. His Only Wife is a memorable novel of personal growth and choosing one’s own destiny.


This review originally ran in the August 6, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 bowls of akple.

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Vicky came to give him a kiss and, right as she was about to, turned to one side and sneezed into her elbow.

Maybe one day people wouldn’t even remember when everyone had started doing it like that, instead of covering their noses with their hands. It takes a serious scare for some gestures to take hold but then they end up like scars that seem to have been there all along.

So, the first headline about this book is its eerie relevance to our Covid present (original publication date 2013; in English: 2016).

The Transmigration of Bodies is part of a loose trilogy with Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World. I have read them years apart and a little out of order, so, grain of salt; but it seems their connections are about setting, theme and style, rather than serial characters. Each is absorbing, atmospheric and brief. Someday I’d love to read them again in publication order back-to-back, but that day will not come in the fall of 2020 (so help us all).

In an unnamed Mexican city, a plague has swept through. The streets are mostly empty but for military checkpoints. The mystery illness transmits through respiration; some people wear masks, others take a politicized (or macho) stance by not wearing them. (It was entirely creepy to randomly open this book in August of 2020, let me tell you.) Our protagonist is a man called the Redeemer – the story is told in close third person from his perspective. His job in this rather apocalyptic setting is to handle an exchange of bodies. A young man called Romeo Fonseca has apparently been kidnapped by the Castro family, while the Fonsecas in turn are holding Baby Girl Castro. Both Romeo and Baby Girl have died in the custody of the opposing family, but the Redeemer (with the help of his nurse friend, Vicky) finds that each died of the plague and not by violence. Still, the trading-back of the bodies is a fraught moment, what with the longstanding enmity between the Fonsecas and the Castros, complicated by grief and the general mistrust of the plague-times. (Along the way, the Redeemer will discover the origins of the families’ feud.)

At his home, in between his work for the Fonsecas, the Redeemer is involved in some sexual escapades with a neighbor. I found these interludes a little gratuitous; I’m not sure exactly what they add to the whole, although they’re consistent with the femme fatale of the hard-boiled detective genre.

More sobriquets are used in this story than names: the Redeemer, Dolphin, the Mennonite, Baby Girl, the Unruly, Three Times Blonde. Epithets lend the feeling of mythology, of these people being as much symbol as individual, although they are individuals. The emptied (and militarized) streets of a usually-busy city spook me, the reader, as much as they do the Redeemer. While there are plot twists, this feels like a novel of character studies and atmosphere more than a novel of plot. Backstory and development of individual characters – Vicky, Neeyanderthal, Romeo, the Unruly, and the Redeemer himself – and the Redeemer’s philosophies are the highlights, for me. Yuri Herrera’s writing is a place to get lost in, rather than a story.

I love the sentence-level writing style, for which credit is due both to Herrera and translator Lisa Dillman. She retains the rhythms and patterns, and some usages, of the Spanish language; she coins words and phrases (grimreapery, drunkaneers) which I assume mirror Herrera’s coinages. (I loved hearing him talk about Dillman’s translation work when he visited my MFA program a few years ago. Herrera speaks very serviceable English, but he appreciates Dillman’s different take on his work.)

In the other two books, I noted themes having to do with borders and transition. I found less of that here, although now that I go looking, it’s right there in the title: the transmigration, or crossing over into death. I felt this book was more about trust and distrust, and the transactional nature of trust, as when the two families must rely on their hired fixers to assess a need for revenge. Some similarities have been drawn to Romeo and Juliet. Although there is no romantic connection between the families’ children, they do share a longstanding feud that is perhaps somewhat resolved with shared grief.

Another fascinating novel from Yuri Herrera – who, I’ve just seen, has a new work of nonfiction out; I ordered it immediately. I think these novels are excellent studies in translated literature and in the novella form – worlds to get lost in.


Rating: 7 condoms.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

On South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, local enforcer Virgil Wounded Horse is faced with a challenging and personal case.


David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s first novel, Winter Counts, is a gripping story of crime investigation set on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is cynical. He can’t imagine not living on the rez, but he’s more than skeptical of Indian spirituality and ritual, and doesn’t feel very connected to his people; his memories of being bullied in school are too fresh. Now that both his parents and his sister are dead, he doesn’t have much family to feel loyal to–but he is devoted to his orphaned nephew, Nathan, now a teenager who shares his home.

Virgil makes his living as a private enforcer. Tribal police have very limited powers, and the feds don’t bother with much on the reservation short of murder, so the Lakota often resort to hiring someone like Virgil to deliver vigilante justice. Now he gets to beat up his former bullies, and earn a few bucks doing so. It’s not necessarily work to take pride in, though, especially in the eyes of his ex-girlfriend’s politically powerful family. So Virgil is surprised when her father, a tribal council member, asks for his help. And he’s even more surprised when the case brings Marie back into his life.

It seems a local small-time pot dealer might be moving up into dealing heroin on the reservation. And when Nathan accidentally overdoses, it all becomes very real, with high stakes. Virgil will end up traveling all over the rez and down to Denver to try to track this latest crime wave. The scope of the case quickly grows beyond this private enforcer’s comfort zone, and he has a renewed romance to manage, while trying to keep Nathan safe at the same time. Out-of-town gangs, heavy hitters and hard drugs challenge Virgil’s skills. To keep all these threads together, he may need to reconnect with his Native roots, after all.

While Weiden’s prose is serviceable, his sympathetic characters and gripping plot keep readers engaged. Action and suspense are special strengths, and Weiden, himself a member of the Lakota nation, brings valuable perspective to the lives and experiences of his characters. The setting of Winter Counts offers an important and overlooked glimpse at the particular challenges faced by Native Americans, especially concerning crime and justice. But make no mistake: at the heart of this crime novel is a fight for the future of Rosebud Reservation and the lives of Virgil, Nathan, Marie and many more for whom this place is home. Tightly paced, compelling, realistic and deeply felt, Winter Counts offers a fresh take on the crime thriller.


This review originally ran in the July 30, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 glasses of Shasta.

That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us by Erin Moore

Disclosure: I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book. (It was published in 2015 but I am just now getting to it. Sorry!)


Well, this was an interesting one. Maybe it’s a good time to post a quick reminder about the reviews that post here at the blog. These days they come in two types: reposts from Shelf Awareness, and blog originals. The former are written (in theory) objectively, with comments on what might be appealing about a given book, perhaps for a given audience or perhaps generally. The latter, the blog originals, are subjective and personal. This is one of the latter.

I struggled with this book from almost the first page. The subject matter is of interest to me; but the narrator’s tone and personality grated. I was motivated to keep reading because I appreciated the content, but I found myself often taking issue or silently arguing or feeling a little wrinkled. How much of this is about me and how much about the book? Generally a little of both. I found Moore’s narrative voice a little cute, trying for a humor that didn’t suit me personally, and sometimes too quick to make a jab that I didn’t feel was warranted. This may play more pleasingly to other ears, so as always, feel free to judge for yourself.

Part of my problem definitely came from the ease with which Moore feels comfortable making broad statements. “Many Americans consider peanut butter a perfectly reasonable breakfast food” – what?? “Surprisingly, the concept of the all-you-can-drink brunch was not invented by the English” – funny, I’m not the least bit surprised. It feels like a very American concept to me. “Americans often speak of exercise in terms that other cultures reserve for their spiritual practices,” including ‘guru’ for personal trainers, being ‘religious’ about exercise, and classes or instructors having ‘cultlike’ followings. I’d say all three of these terms get used for many nonreligious walks of life, including but by no means especially exercise. Americans avoid outdoor exercise because of our “extreme weather”? First of all, this is a HUGE country; generalizing about weather seems a losing battle. Secondly, what is the UK’s (stereotyped) weather famous for? Not pleasant to be outside in, right? So it must be something different – like the English attitude toward weather. (To be fair, Moore gets there. But that statement about “extreme weather” still made me squawk.) “You might struggle to find an American who hasn’t eaten pie for breakfast” surprised me as much as the peanut butter thing. Unless I’m forgetting, you’ve found one. I guess breakfast is a personal issue.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that I am not ‘Americans’ but one American, and you can’t please us all. Moore acknowledges in her introduction that it is difficult to generalize about a place as large and diverse as the United States or the United Kingdom. I might be a reader especially sensitive to this challenge, as I’ve spent so much of my own headspace and writing on just this issue: that a place like Houston or even a little town like Buckhannon, West Virginia is too diverse to sum up in a phrase. It’s sort of a tenet of my personal religion that you can’t generalize place. Again, Moore acknowledges this. But then she goes on to do it anyway – which, to be fair, you’d have to attempt to write a book about “Britishisms, Americanisms, and what English says about us.” I do think it might be more smoothly pulled off with different phrasing (perhaps people from the American South “tend to” assume rather than saying they just do), or with a little more recognition of exceptions. But these strategies would interfere with Moore’s jokey tone.

I am interested to note that this book feels surprisingly dated despite being published in early 2015 (written in 2014 – still refers to some late 2014 events as being in the future). But then, it’s been a momentous few years in the U.S. For one thing, Moore’s jokes about Donald Trump, he of The Apprentice and the Miss USA pageant? Not funny today. Certain remarks about the general financial wellbeing of the average American feel a little off now* (but that’s the trouble with “the average American”!). And Moore’s observation that ‘bespoke’ is not a commercial term on this side of the Atlantic I’m going to say is just no longer true, if indeed it was in 2014. I see advertisements for bespoke everything.

I’m curious as to when Moore – an American now living in England – made her move overseas. I feel like it matters, how long she’s been there. Her confusion about the way ‘partner’ is used over there – for romantic life partners of all genders, not just same-sex ones, and for married and nonmarried couples alike – is familiar to me (as someone who’s only lived in the U.S.), but I figured that one out in… late high school? in Texas, so I wonder if that was an issue of simple timing.

Approaching another personal pet peeve: Moore relies on the (U.S.) red states/blue states binary which I feel is misleading and outdated and unnecessarily divisive, when an urban/nonurban binary would make a little more sense, but in fact (did I mention) every place includes a little bit of everybody. In the 2016 presidential election, Texas’s electoral votes went for Trump. We showed up as a red state. But to throw the entire state under that bus is to disregard the 3,877,868 popular votes that were cast for Clinton in Texas (not to mention the other non-Trump ones – he won 52% of our popular vote). I’m a bit prickly on the red state/blue state myth, myself – it only works in the electoral college.

But here’s my favorite gripe of the whole book. Discussing sweet vs. unsweet tea (another U.S. regionalism),

a Southerner will find, to her horror, that Dixie Crystals do not melt in tea that is already cold, but sink forlornly to the bottom of the glass. For some Southerners, this is the extent of their science education.

As my friend Liz points out, the first statement is actually untrue; a spoon and a little stirring will melt that sugar for you. But that second sentence? Is a cheap shot, and pretty unfair; plays on unflattering stereotypes; shows the narrator to be rather mean-spirited; and serves as a fine example of the kind of humor that hopes to carry this book.

Even with all these critiques, I kept reading, and I appreciated learning a few things (particularly about food, knightings and whatnot, and a few terms – I had never heard ‘Crimbo’). Note that my complaints are about how Americans are portrayed – I don’t think of myself as a prideful nationalist by any stretch, but I bristle at any large group being pigeonholed, and I know Americans much better (being one myself) than I know the Brits or the English. I’m curious to know if a Brit would find themself equally prickled. I’ve sent the book on to a British friend, so here’s hoping he comes through with his own reactions – and we’ll see if I’ve been unreasonable by comparison! (I hope he’s not reading this so he keeps a fresh outlook.)

I wound up feeling like the work of That’s Not English was as much as about making sense of (drawing conclusions about) the differences between American and British cultures as it was about language. Language (and other habits) was used as an entry point (and as chapter headings), but the generalizations made were often much broader than which phrase we all use and what we mean by ‘quite.’ For example, the chapter ‘Fortnight’ recognizes that the Brits use that term and the Americans don’t. That’s the sum of its linguistic observation; the rest is about how differently we vacation. (Danger! Generalizing a nation’s vacation behaviors would seem to lump all socioeconomic classes together…) Perhaps that’s at the heart of my problem with the book. I can’t help but think of the excellent Talk on the Wild Side as a counterexample. That book’s scope was admittedly different, but I felt it was a lot more responsible in the conclusions it drew. I also remember fondly Eats, Shoots & Leaves, whose author wrote a foreword for this book. But I read that one quite a while ago and can’t write intelligently about it now.

There is definitely some good content here, and possibly a different reader (more lighthearted; happier with stereotype as humor) will love it. I seem to be taking things too seriously, although I’m not sure I should apologize for that. I’d be curious to hear an alternate opinion.


Rating: 5 misunderstandings.

*Final note to say that at least in my pre-pub copy, this book contains no footnotes, endnotes, or other record of sources used. There is a Selected Bibliography for further reading, but no citation for where Moore gets this or that fact. As I often questioned hers (and as I am that kind of reader – sorry), I regretted this omission. Maybe there were notes in the final copy, but they’re not mentioned here as TK.

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