LeVar Burton Reads

A new podcast, kids: new to me, although coming up on two years old now. I live in a van now (as you may recall), and although my drive time varies from day to day and week to week, I am always looking out for new listening material. (I am also totally loaded up with audiobooks, podcasts, and music; I guess I’m looking for new listening material like I’m looking for new books to read. Sigh.)

LeVar Burton Reads was an obvious choice, at least for those of us who grew up with Reading Rainbow – which, with over twenty years on the air, many of us did. This is the voice and performance we love applied to short fiction for adults, hand-picked by the man and storyteller himself.

I’ve only just begun, with six episodes under my belt. So far, I’d especially recommend Daisy Johnson’s “The Lighthouse Keeper” – that’s Daisy Johnson of Everything Under, and recognizably so.

Also so far, there is perhaps an emphasis on sci fi and fantasy, but he promises an assortment to come, and I believe him. Do come with me… Just take a look, it’s in a book

On Being 40(ish) ed. by Lindsey Mead

These collected essays about the milestone 4-0 remind readers to laugh, cry and hope.

In On Being 40(ish), 15 women muse on what being 40 years old–give or take–means in their lives. This anthology, edited by freelance writer Lindsey Mead, offers diverse viewpoints and concerns but as a whole aims to inspire. As Mead writes in her introduction, “These are not reflections on the dying of the light, but rather a full-throated celebration of what it means to be an adult woman at this moment in history.”

The contents are varied, including celebrations, uncertainties and elegies. Some writers mourn losses, some rejoice at new beginnings; some are concerned with the existential, some more lightheartedly concerned with changing appearances. Lee Woodruff writes about her mother’s 40th birthday, her own and what she hopes to pass down to her own daughters. Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes about time, which “happens no matter what you’re doing with it.” The quickness with which years pass is a theme across these essays, as is the victory involved in aging: “by forty, we know who we are,” Jill Kargman writes. “When we are young, we are diluted versions of ourselves. We become balsamic reductions as we age–our very best parts distilled and clarified.”

Allison Winn Scotch writes about accepting the unexpected when a devastating injury interrupts plans for a trip to Mexico. She closes: “I worried that my injury would upend everything. It turns out that it did.” And that’s a happy ending.

On Being 40(ish) is mostly about happy endings; or the ongoingness of life–its not ending at all, not yet. This is an anthology for women of all ages and all perspectives.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 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: 6 rainbow suspenders.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence ed. by Michele Filgate

Diverse writers answer the title’s prompt with essays that are cutting, furious, delicate, generous and everything in between.

Literary Hub contributing editor Michele Filgate thought she was writing an essay about her stepfather’s abuse, but it turned out she was really writing about the relationship with her mother that allowed such abuse to continue. After years of work, her essay was eventually published by Longreads under the title “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.” Readers and writers responded strongly, and Filgate’s piece now leads this astonishing anthology.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence follows that essay with a breathtaking range of responses. Filgate writes, “Mothers are idealized as protectors: a person who is caring and giving and who builds a person up rather than knocking them down. But very few of us can say that our mothers check all of these boxes. In many ways, a mother is set up to fail.” And while many of the essayists featured here reproach mothers who have hurt them, there are also apologies, confessions and unsolved mysteries. These essays bring many perspectives and deal in self-awareness, too.

In “Thesmophoria,” Melissa Febos considers her close relationship with her psychotherapist mother by recalling myths, chiefly that of Persephone and Demeter. “We often love the things that abduct us.” Brandon Taylor wrestles with the pain his mother has caused: “It’s strange, really, that to grasp that which has hurt you, you must trust it not to hurt you when you let it inhabit you”–or when you write about it.

Alexander Chee hides the abuse he’s suffered from his mother because of the tragedy they’ve endured together: “This is how we got each other through.” Dylan Landis seeks to understand her mother better through an old apartment building, and a possible former lover. Amid the layered traumas of race, nation and gender, Kiese Laymon asks his mother: “Can we please get better at loving each other in America?” Carmen Maria Machado finds her own conflicted feelings about parenthood linked to her mother’s harsh treatment. And Andr√© Aciman considers his deaf mother’s language, separate from words, and what it taught him.

Leslie Jamison closes the anthology with an essay exploring her mother through the eyes of an outsider to the family unit: her mother’s first husband’s unpublished novel about their marriage. It is a fitting conclusion, with that surprise perspective and a careful, loving attention to the woman who came before the mother.

These collected essays are variously rich, tender, angry, despairing and clinical. The result, greater than the sum of parts, is part paean and part denunciation, intelligent, heartfelt and wise. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a shrewd, glinting collection of beauty and pain: a gift for mothers and their children.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 myths.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I so enjoyed seeing Colson Whitehead speak at TSU almost a year ago – it seems a little strange it’s taken me this long to get to this one!

The Underground Railroad is compelling, a story with momentum and imagination. I had forgotten that the underground railroad would turn out, in this book, as a literal railroad that runs underground: that was a fun surprise to experience. “Fun” is not precisely the right word for this book, though. It’s about slavery and the quest for freedom; there is little here that is light or fun.

The protagonist is Cora, a young enslaved woman who makes a run for it with a young man, Caesar, who she doesn’t know very well. It begins with a little prefacing history, of Cora’s grandmother and mother before her. Her mother escaped the Georgia plantation where she and Cora were born, never to be seen again. The ghost of that woman hangs over Cora’s decisions and her feelings about those around her.

Cora travels, with and without Caesar, through several states via the underground rails. We see the details of various stations on the railroad: this one beautified and furnished, this one bare, a statement about the hard work required to dig survival out of rock and earth. Cora asks, who built the railroad? And the response: “Who built anything in this country?”

Cora will continue to wonder about the hidden hands who contribute to the quest for a better life, even as that life eludes her in her travels. This is not particularly a story of redemption or of happily-ever-after. Each time Cora survives a brutal and shocking turn of events, she loses those she cares about, and cynically revises her hopes: how stupid (she thinks) she was to think it could get better. The places she gets to know along the way could be viewed as archetypes (remember from Whitehead’s talk that I heard something like this idea): the place where no Black person is suffered to live, where the streets are lined with hanging corpses; the place where life appears secure only on the surface; the place where all can contribute according to their abilities. These steps along the way are instructive. But the book does not necessarily end on a hopeful note.

There’s a bit here of something I watch out for in books like this, historical fiction featuring ordinary or marginalized people: Cora perhaps holds a bit more far-reaching wisdom of the world than someone with her life experience might be expected to have. For example, she observes slave labor replaced by cheap Irish immigrant labor, and muses that as the Irish supply runs out or goes out of fashion, another poor country will send its emigrants to form the next wave. This speculation about the poor countries of the world seems like a lot for a woman who’s lived her life on a Georgia plantation to come up with. It’s a clear temptation, especially with benefit of hindsight, to invest one’s apparently “ordinary” characters with special knowledge and wisdom.

I appreciated the range of characters. Most of the book is told from Cora’s perspective, but short interspersed chapters come from the points of view of secondary characters, including racist white ones. I imagine those chapters in particular might have been hard to right, but also interesting to write, and they enrich the book by complicating things. Not that the evil slavecatcher gets much sympathy; but hearing his inner thoughts makes him more real, more believable, and therefore more frightening. Complication, in literature, is always good.

I believe I expected this book to be magical realism, and I’m not entirely sure that’s my impression after reading it. There’s nothing here (that I noticed) that couldn’t happen in our real and non-magical world. The literal underground railroad would be a feat of engineering and supplies, but not strictly impossible. The good and bad luck (if we can call it that) Cora and others face certainly seems fantastical, but is in line with the well-documented true stories of enslaved people. That said, it was a vibrant, rich way of telling the story of slavery and struggle: one we’ve heard/read before but clearly aren’t done with. The railroad part was fascinating, nicely told. The characters were always intriguing. I think pacing may be the great feat of this book: I scarcely was able to look away once I was in it. Thank you, Colson Whitehead.


Rating: 7 stations.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs

Where a failing writer, ill-conceived for-profit education and the American political divide come together, the result is both funny and feeling.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs (The Art of Waiting) is a hilarious, pitiable, thoughtful first novel not to be missed. A rare combination of silliness and poignancy, with momentum and compassion, this is a story for every reader, but especially for struggling writers.

Marianne is desperately underemployed and about to lose her apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and her poetry manuscript has been long stalled. Eric, her best friend and ex-fiancé, has an annoyingly good job teaching overseas, as he works to complete the second novel in his two-book contract. When he calls from the United Arab Emirates with a business offer, Marianne wants to say no, but she has no other option.

Eric has inherited an aging motel on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and wants to realize an old college joke of Marianne’s: a low-residency writing school for Christian writers. Marianne, a liberal atheist, soon finds herself in business with Eric, his venture capitalist brother, Mark, and their silent partner, great-aunt Frances. Ensconced in the crumbling motel with occasional hurricanes passing through, Marianne doesn’t precisely want to fleece the applicants sending in embarrassing manuscripts, but she certainly could use the money.

What follows is part hilarity: Marianne and Eric flub their Bible references and flirt with hooking back up; the earnest students have no idea how a writing workshop is supposed to work; and the down-and-out instructors (all the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch can attract, or afford) prove eccentrically dysfunctional in various ways. It’s part pathos: as real as Marianne’s struggle to complete her own manuscript is the troubled calling of Janine, poet, home economics teacher, mother of two, who writes about Terri Schiavo. Mark lands a big investor that specializes in for-profit education for the Christian market, but their intervention quickly upsets everyone involved. Marianne finds herself, against all odds, rooting for her students–those right-wing nuts she once laughed at. As the biggest storm of the year approaches the ramshackle Ranch, she’ll have to make a stand.

Boggs’s gifts are many. The Gulf‘s plot is inspired, even accounting for the arguable overabundance of novels about MFA program shenanigans. Perhaps the greatest genius is in her characters: Marianne, Eric, the writing instructor who can’t remember anyone’s name, the hotelier next door, Janine and the former R&B superstar now banking on an autobiographical novel to make his comeback. Each of these is perfectly developed and flawed just enough to be lovable, if hapless. The book hums along with fitting momentum, so that when the storm hits, the reader is entirely invested in this well-meaning but ill-fated crew. Redemption is a risky ambition, especially with inspirational writing, but Boggs pulls it off with The Gulf‘s denouement. This is a novel of keen comedy, insight and empathy.


This review originally ran in the March 8, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 applications.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Recommended by a few friends. I find this one holds a few solid truths, but maybe didn’t need to be book-length.

Good lessons: Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and many more) argues that anyone trying to do a good or great thing, whether it’s art, activism, or entrepreneurship, faces Resistance. (His capitalization.) Resistance can be a guide: when we feel Resistance, it means we should push in that direction; that’s where we’re meant to go, where we want on some level to go. (He points out that where there is Resistance, there is love – meaning our love or passion for the pursuit in question.) Fear is a sign of Resistance. We must undertake that which we fear. That’s Book One.

Book Two covers how to combat Resistance: by Turning Pro. This means treating our art, or whatever it is, as our day job. Treating it as our day job. (He is chiefly concerned with art, as his title suggests, and most chiefly with writing, because that’s what he knows.) In other words: take your work seriously (butt in chair, no excuses, etc.).

Book Three is concerned with what Pressfield calls angels, or we might call the Muse, or inspiration. It argues that certain strategies may be undertaken to make way for the Muse, to invite her in and make her feel comfortable. He quotes that common line from Somerset Maugham (?): “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Actually he quotes this line in Book Two, but I think it fits in Book Three just as well. They build on each other, being, you know, all one book.

These are all good points, but even at just 165 pages and loads of white space, I think they could have been made a bit more succinctly. There are some instructive anecdotes: the Maugham quotation (which is likely misattributed), the winds of Aeolus (lesson about not stopping before the finish line), Henry Fonda’s fear (lesson: we all have it always), and a fun one about how great Lance Armstrong is (this book was published before his accomplishments were so besmirched). But there are also some instances of what I’ll call cuteness. “The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing.” “If you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Theresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing…” I don’t know. There’s a thin line, perhaps, between useful examples and cutesiness. Personally, I feel it’s crossed here.

If this all sounds a little self-helpy, it did to me too. And the back cover’s a dead giveaway.

In the best self-helpy traditions, Pressfield calls upon God to back him up. “If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.” Again as a purely personal reaction, no thank you to the God stuff.

To be clear, I found myself turning Resistant to this book as early as Book One. Pressfield asks that we banish “trouble” from our lives, which seems to include the troubles of others (there’s a separate heading for self-dramatization, but they are clearly linked), which feels a little like cutting off the loved ones who need our support now and again; he’s against support, too. He allows that depression and anxiety “may” be real, but the other disorders were created by a marketing department. This is not a man you need in your personal life, friends. He “may” be a bit toxic.

There are good points here, to be sure. But the packaging was not precisely to my taste. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 5 troubles to be avoided.

The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle

This memoir about living off the grid and tech-free in County Galway will inspire, connect and slow down the most impatient of readers, and that is a very good thing.

Mark Boyle was The Moneyless Man in his memoir of that title, about the first of three years he spent living without money. The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology covers another first year: Boyle has now made the shift to a life without modern technology in County Galway, Ireland. What is modern technology? Obviously, definitions are complicated, but for Boyle his new way of living means hauling his own water; fishing, foraging and gardening for his food; making his own beer and wine; and traveling by bicycle, by hitchhiking and on foot. (He beats himself up about monofilament fishing line but, within the book’s timeline, has not yet found an alternative.)

Organized as the diary of a year in its four seasons, The Way Home is a thoughtful study, often wise but always questioning and seeking. With frequent references to Edward Abbey, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Robert Macfarlane, Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau and others, Boyle places himself in a grand tradition of intellectual naturalists and thinkers. He also makes repeated forays (both literally and in imagination and research) to Great Blasket Island, an unusually literary place where a technology-free lifestyle only recently ended. He aims to query every decision, investigate its outcomes: while writing this book using a pencil, he stops to consider the making of that tool–its wood and graphite and paint, the extraction of these materials and the transportation of the workers who made it. Boyle, stymied by the ecological impact of such a simple technology as a pencil, is a former vegan who now eats fish and venison. He is a man willing to rethink his outlook.

Boyle has a sense of humor as well as a deep sensitivity to the needs of people as well as the planet and its ecosystems. “Rome,” he reflects, “wasn’t demolished in a day,” as he gardens with the (plastic) tools available and plans for the future. His writing style is pensive and unhurried. His lifestyle is in many ways “slow,” as in slow food and slow transportation, and he observes that writing by hand after a longtime addiction to computers has slowed his thought processes, for the better. “Just as carpenters always recommend measuring twice and cutting once, I’ve begun thinking twice and writing once.”

The result is a deeply appealing examination of nearly all aspects of modern human life, by a thorough, careful, concerned narrator. Readers already considering various forms of disconnection from modern technologies–in favor of a reconnection with local plants, animals, soil and people–will be goaded and inspired. Those less attracted to composting their own feces will nonetheless be entranced by Boyle’s unusual lifestyle, and perhaps moved a little closer to the earth.


This review originally ran in the March 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scythe blades.
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