The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

An artist reflects in a variety of ways on the end of her writer husband’s life.

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Tom Lubbock was an art critic for the Independent and the father of an 18-month-old boy, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008. In The Iceberg, his wife, Marion Coutts, a versatile and prolific artist and writer, recalls his final years. The resulting memoir is musing, lyrical, ambling and sometimes digressive. The range of emotions she expresses is startling and real.

Coutts begins with “a diagnosis that has the status of an event” as she introduces her husband and their son, Ev. Tom works with words and concepts, meticulously and thoughtfully constructing the writings that are his livelihood and passion. When he has a seizure, a tumor is discovered in the speech and language part of his brain: Tom and Marion must reinvent communication. They practice and make lists: of names of friends, of ideas for outings, of opposing word pairs (big/small, light/heavy). They play a game of yes/no questions when Tom has something to discuss: Is it about your work? Is it about us? Is it food or clothing? These coping mechanisms are an interesting intellectual exercise, but are also central to this family’s experiences. Coutts writes: “I have lost the second consciousness that powers mine. Lost my sounding board, my echo, my check, my stop and finisher. I am down to one.”

The Iceberg neatly captures the events of diagnosis and death, with a stark attention to what comes in between, and little reference to the rest of life. Tom’s medical conditions are described with varying levels of detail, as Coutts often has only a vague understanding of them. Her encounters with the British National Health Service are frequently frustrating. These physical realities are less than central, however. The Iceberg is a forthright emotional account, often celebratory, even exultant: Tom especially often finds joy late in his life. Of course, Coutts is also destitute, bereft, undone. Such feelings alternate with a cerebral, even detached perspective. These jarring intersections are at the center of her story. She writes unflinchingly of her short temper with Ev, and occasionally with Tom; she relates both anguish and resolve, resignation and anger, often with a striking sense of remove. “There is going to be destruction: the obliteration of a person, his intellect, his experience and his agency. I am to watch it. This is my part.” Or of sitting at his deathbed: “I love being in position here. It is perfectly correct.”

Coutts’s prose is layered, textured, dense with meaning and interjected with brief e-mails to loved ones about Tom’s status along the way. As a consideration of art, life, death and love, the full impact of The Iceberg is deeply moving and intelligent, a worthy elegy.


This review originally ran in the January 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 words.

Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir by Susanne Antonetta

Body Toxic is a striking book, both in the story it has to tell and in the manner in which it’s told. I am impressed, and challenged. It’s complicated.

body toxicSusanne Antonetta grew up in New Jersey, in the Pine Barrens region, a bogland unique in several senses: culturally isolated, and environmentally contaminated on a shocking, unimaginable scale. She and other members of her family have suffered from a list of medical complaints: asthma, endometriosis, a double uterus, growths on the liver, allergies, tumors and cysts, sterility, seizures, manic depression, various cancers; an extremely rare quadruple pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. The families she is descended from include Italian immigrants and those from Barbados, who nevertheless self-identify as English. Both sides of her family exhibit a predilection for silence, non-communication or the glossing over of undesirable details. The legacies Antonetta has inherited, then, are many and complex: cultural (in terms of countries of origin, and the culture of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and immediate family cultures), environmental and medical (oh, the prodigious and horrifying list), and psychological (mental illness and perspective on the world). Oh, and Susanne Antonetta is not her real name, but an “alter ego”: “I’ve used five or six different pseudonyms in my life. The name I’m using now is not my name but the name of a recovered female relative, a lost woman, and as a recovered woman she’s just a skeleton that must be fleshed out by the same process of fantasizing and filling in that I resist.” Indeed, identity – multiple identities, our attempts to define ourselves and others’ attempts to define us – is another theme throughout.

And that is the complexity of this book, that so much is going on. The story is itself obviously gripping, and brimming with evocative and provocative anecdote. Indeed, Antonetta tells us, “I wrote a piece about the miscarriage and an editor sent it back, calling it ‘raw.’ He suggested I lose the death or the multiple pregnancy, or both… The poem of this body is a bad poem, trite.” The enormous irony, of course, being that she can’t “lose” the death or the multiple pregnancy, or countless other maladies, complaints. All this material aside, though, Body Toxic shines entirely for another reason too: the writing is bold and nuanced, presses and pulls back, reflecting a little the manic depression (or, these days, bipolar disorder) that also waxes and wanes throughout Antonetta’s story. It is, of course, poetic: the author is an acclaimed poet as well, under the name Suzanne Paola.

There are so many threads. Business and government disposed of chemical and radiation waste in Antonetta’s childhood beaches and bogs, through a combination of ignorant, unethical and criminal irresponsibility. (Thus Rachel Carson is named by comparison.) Antonetta’s extended family makes a series of decisions about how to live in this environment, in which they were underinformed but also trusting, stubborn, or willfully ignored the signs. (They mostly still won’t talk about the negative effects.) The family incubates a sexist tradition, favoring the eldest, male grandchild, repeatedly reminding Antonetta explicitly and implicitly of her “place.” She explores her identity as woman: “I spent a lot of my eleventh and twelfth years pining for my menstruation to begin. I can’t remember why”; and later in her inability to reproduce, and what this means for the family at large. (When her family visits relatives back in the Italian community of her father’s origin, his cousin tells him, “You have big children, but I have grandchildren.” There is an implied failure there, which Antonetta ascribes to environmental poisoning, but the family seems to ascribe to Antonetta herself.) There is the fallibility of memory, a theme so common to memoir but one I never tire of, because it – like memory – is different in each interpretation: each memoirist has something new to say. In this case, Antonetta did a lot of drugs, presumably compounding the muddiness of some of her early memories; luckily she was an avid journaler, which allows her to interrogate those documents, artifacts of a young woman she barely knows, itself an interesting and fruitful technique. And then there are all those identities. I love the idea of her father constantly referencing “my daughter” when speaking to her: she finally lets his declarations about that daughter stand, having realized that her father’s daughter is a different person from herself.

I could keep going. This was the challenge and the allure of this book, and the reason I will not quickly forget it: many threads, many layers, told in an ever-evolving voice, ebbing and flowing. The meandering structure made me work to pull it all together, but it was worth it.

I am taking a writing class from the author (under another name, that of the poet, Suzanne Paola) in the coming months, which is why I came to this book in the first place, and now I am both more excited than ever, and intimidated. I recommend Body Toxic for a reading experience to get lost in; for a richly fertile field of topics for discussion with family, book clubs, community groups; for the study of craft; and for the story it (quite disturbingly) tells about the New Jersey Pine Barrens, immigrant experiences, and one woman’s outlandish life.


Rating: 8 newspaper clippings.

Maximum Shelf: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 2, 2015.


home is burningDan Marshall’s life was pretty heavy on privilege. A self-described spoiled white kid with money, he grew up in Salt Lake City and then graduated from UC Berkeley, and was busy enjoying his first real job in Los Angeles and his first real girlfriend, Abby. His family–mom, dad and four siblings–wasn’t perfect, but they were happy, loving and shared a strong if quirky sense of humor, based on fart jokes and four-letter words. His mother had had “terminal” cancer well managed for nearly 15 years. Then came the phone call, while Dan was on vacation with Abby, announcing that his capable, marathon-running father had been diagnosed with something called ALS.

ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a terminal neurodegenerative disease that kills off motor neurons, eventually depriving the person affected of the ability to move his own limbs, eat, speak, and breathe. Dan was slow to accept the gravity of the diagnosis, but under pressure from the family, after several months, he takes a leave of absence from his job to move home at age 25 to help out around the house. Home Is Burning is his memoir of caring for two terminally ill parents at once while dealing with a houseful of rowdy siblings with problems of their own. His story is unavoidably terribly sad, but peppered with sex, drugs both prescribed and recreational, copious foul language, lots of alcohol, and deep and abiding love, the Marshall family saga is surprisingly sweet and funny as well.

Although Dan describes them as spoiled and rich, the Marshalls have had their fair share of misfortunes, from mother Debi’s cancer diagnosis and years of chemotherapy treatments to cerebral palsy and Asperger’s syndrome among the children. The eldest sibling, Tiffany, who took over some parenting duties as a teenager when Debi was sick, had become an overachiever apparently teetering at the edge of a nervous breakdown. Greg was a successful college student in Chicago, enjoying his freedom after finally coming out of the closet. Still in high school were Chelsea, a socially awkward ballerina and serious student, and Michelle, a budding alcoholic in a disturbing relationship with her soccer coach. Dan was the second child, and the last to move back to Salt Lake City for their father Bob’s remaining time, which would more likely be measured in months than years.

Dan lingered in the denial stage of the grief process. With the whole family, he’d watched Bob run his last marathon in Boston, in a time nearly twice that which he’d run to qualify. But when Dan moves home, he is dismayed to see how much his father has already deteriorated. With Tiffany living nearby but on her own, “the little girls” still in high school, and Debi inconveniently faced with her toughest round of chemo treatments yet, the bulk of Bob’s caregiving duties falls to Dan and Greg. Together they help him bathe and use the bathroom as he loses the use of his arms. They feed him through his gastrointestinal tube, and take him for walks in a wheelchair as his legs lose their strength. They hook him up periodically to his BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) machine, which helps push air through his lungs. Bob chooses to delay his tracheotomy surgery–which would attach him to a respirator for the rest of his days, and quite possibly end his ability to speak–to attend his own mother’s funeral; but the ill-advised delay ends with a rush to the hospital when his breathing fails, and the procedure takes place under emergency conditions. Happily, Bob retains his speech.

For all Dan and Greg’s love and good intentions, their caregiving is sometimes alarmingly poor: Bob is dropped on the floor, his respirator tubes cracked and broken. He might be considered lucky to survive his family’s care. The household begins to fall apart: Michelle passes out in her own vomit with increasing frequency as the cats pee all over their three-story home, which has been pulled apart by construction to install an elevator and widen doorways. Dan begins drinking more heavily; Abby breaks up with him; Greg takes a full-time job, putting more pressure on Dan; Debi’s behavior grows ever more erratic, with the mental effects of her chemotherapy, her distress at losing her husband, and a new addiction to pain pills. Dan’s outlook and storytelling throughout these mounting stressors is singular. He is remarkably candid about his frustrations and resentments: he loves his father enormously, calling him his buddy, his pal, his road map through life, and describing the effortless quality time shared and advice given–but he is angry to have his own social freedoms curtailed.

The tone of Dan’s writing in this painful period, however, is astonishingly funny, loving, even lighthearted. As he moves back and forth between agony, grief and anger, he displays a fun-loving, off-color, morbid sense of humor and an almost apologetically sweet expression of love for his entire imperfect family and especially their hero, their rock, Bob. Dan interjects his narrative with fantasies in which Debi’s hair grows back, Chelsea doesn’t giggle inappropriately at looming death, Michelle doesn’t marry her soccer coach, Bob stands up and takes himself to the toilet and goes for a good long run in the mountains.

Many stories have been written about terminal illnesses, degrading deaths, and families in grief; but the loving portraits painted here of outrageous and colorful characters joking in the face of ugliness may be unique. As Bob approaches his final chapter, readers will certainly cry, but they will laugh as well. Home Is Burning is a strangely packaged gift: love and pain, death and life, sex jokes, fart jokes and plenty of booze make up an extraordinarily heartwarming love letter from “a sad dude with a big heart who really loves his dad.” In its sad ending there is unlikely joy.


Rating: 9 brimming glasses of wine.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Marshall.

Wondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea

A woman’s thoughtful account of life after her husband’s traumatic brain injury.

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When Sonya Lea’s husband, Richard, had surgery to treat his rare appendiceal cancer, they knew there were risks. But they had not considered that Richard would wake up with no memory of his 23 years of marriage and two young adult children, or of his own personality and past. Sonya considers their shared history and difficult recovery in her memoir, Wondering Who You Are.

The details of Richard’s medical story are inarguably painful but often sweet. Sonya’s changed husband is empathetic, guileless and highly motivated to learn. Alternating chapters cover the trauma of his surgery and aftermath, and the story of their teenage romance and decades of marriage, until the timelines merge into one: Sonya’s quest for the husband she lost and her eventual acceptance of the one she’s found. This powerful, gut-wrenching narrative negotiates spirituality, hope and despair, sexual experimentation and a dedicated caregiver’s tireless research and advocacy. Sonya and Richard’s family story wanders geographically as well, from Kentucky to Ontario, Banff, Memphis, Seattle, California, France, India and more. Through assorted, arduous adventures, they learn again to rely on one another, to persist and to accept.

Sonya Lea is a fascinating narrator, by turns vulnerable and fierce, patient and maddened, always devoted. Her writing is contemplative and lovely, and contains just enough scientific detail. The result is a lyrical, intensely candid meditation on memory, identity and the stories we create for ourselves–and a love letter to both the new and old versions of Richard.


This review originally ran in the July 28, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 journal entries.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): first bit

haroldI can’t help but share with you my early reflections on this delightful tale – before I know everything. It will be interesting to see how my perspective or feelings change later on. Here, I’m about 1/3 of the way through.

What an oddly charming, quirky story. Harold Fry has retired from his 45-year career working quietly for a brewery (although he is a teetotaler) and now stays home with his wife Maureen. She cleans – constantly – and criticizes him, and he mows the lawn. He does not speak with their only son, David. One morning he gets a letter from an old friend, a former coworker named Queenie. She is writing from a hospice to say goodbye: she has cancer. Harold jots a quick note to say “sorry about that, old girl” or similar, and although he feels its insufficiency, sets off right then to post it from the box at the end of the road.

But when Harold gets to the end of the road, he can’t quite mail his letter, because it is of course a sadly inappropriate thing to do for Queenie; so he keeps walking. He tells himself he’ll mail it from the next postbox; and he does this at a great number of boxes, before he stops in at a garage for a snack. The girl there shows him how to heat up a hamburger in a microwave, which amazes him (“it even had gherkins!” he will later report to Maureen) and tells him the inspirational story of her aunt who had cancer: the girl willed her to get better, because if you believe (she tells Harold) you can do anything.

It is not too long after this conversation that Harold decides he will walk to visit Queenie at the hospice facility, and commands her to live until he gets there. It’s not clear how far this walk will be – someone he encounters guesses it might be 500 miles, but at any rate it’s very far, and he’s wearing his yacht shoes and as Maureen is quick to point out, he’s never walked further than to the car. He is, in fact, endeavoring to walk the length of England.

I hope you see what an endearingly strange story this is. Harold himself is poignantly, almost painfully shy and insecure; he’s not accustomed to being around people, and as he and Maureen each note separately in the opening pages, “it was not like Harold to make a snap decision.” There’s a lot we still don’t know. I suspect that there was an event in Harold and Maureen’s marriage where things soured suddenly, decisively; if I’m right, that information is clearly being withheld. Their son David won’t visit, and he and Harold don’t speak; if there is a reason other than general teenage impatience with his parents (and he is no longer a teen, so…) then likewise we haven’t learned it yet. And I can see plainly that Harold’s history with Queenie has a story to it – and presumably their parting of ways, and their failure to keep in touch? Oh – and I wonder if Harold has always been a non-drinker, or if there is some traumatic history that has led to his sobriety. There is a line in which Maureen worries about him being in a pub… I just wonder. These are the informational nuggets I am being teased with at present. Harold’s childhood is just beginning to unfold, so I think I can see Joyce’s strategy of allowing these things to be dragged out of her story sooo…. slooowly… and I like it.

Narrator Jim Broadbent has an excellent ear for Harold’s voice (sort of ponderous) and the pacing required for this humor to play properly; I approve heartily.

Stay tuned!

The Handoff: A Memoir of Two Guys, Sports, and Friendship by John “JT the Brick” Tournour

An earnest remembrance of a friend and the wisdom he passed on to a sports talk radio anchor.

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After a fun-filled, full-speed youth as president of his fraternity and, later, working as a professional cold-calling stockbroker, John Tournour finds his true calling: sports talk radio. He starts out as a listener calling in, then gets his own show but has to pay for airtime, gradually working his way up until one day he gets a fateful call. Andrew Ashwood mentors John, now known on the air as “JT the Brick,” through an ascending career, and they become the closest of friends. When Andrew is diagnosed with cancer, JT naturally gets the call to be his chemo buddy and “main go-to guy.”

Though The Handoff begins with JT’s childhood, we know from the beginning that Andrew will be its focal point. JT failed to take notes on Andrew’s every word in those final months, realizing only in hindsight that he was not only modeling how to live–and how to die–but also sharing all his life lessons, on and off the air.

JT may be macho and manly–this is smack-talk sports radio, after all–but he is heartfelt and emotional in relating his love for Andrew and his appreciation of everything his friend had to offer. Although sports radio is JT’s passion and the background for his friendship with Andrew, his readers need not know or even much care about sports (or radio) to empathize. The Handoff is a memoir of life and loss, but foremost of friendship.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the August 23, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 callers.

did not finish: Gold by Chris Cleave (audio)

You might recognize Chris Cleave’s name from the significant success of his 2009 bestseller, Little Bee. I did not read that one. But his new book, Gold, appealed to me: for starters and most obviously, it stars two female Olympic track cyclists. This is a rather obscure sport (particularly in the US) that I have competed in. Also it came recommended to me personally. Of course I was going to give it a go.

Hm. I wanted to like this book, for its subject matter if for nothing else. But there are two flaws in that thinking: first, subject matter alone rarely makes for an enjoyable read. Just because a book is about baseball won’t necessarily do it for a baseball player or fan. Secondly, as it turns out, I was too close to this sport. I’m sure Cleave did some research – he had some terms and concepts down, certainly – but he made several errors of inaccuracy that I believe are due to track cycling’s obscurity, and the public’s low awareness. These errors will go unnoticed by a large percentage of the average readership. In this respect I’m far from the ideal reader: I’m so close to the sport that I spot the errors and to me they are egregious. They rankled.

Unfortunately that’s not all that bothered me about this book. I found the characters to be a little one-dimensional (all good, all bad) and unbelievable. Really, the Olympic gold medalist is also model-gorgeous and could make a living posing for photographs?? Come on. (Okay, I guess there’s always Lolo Jones…) And the dialog was stiff, too. Particularly the parent-child dialog: every conversation was a heart-to-heart. I don’t think children really open up and get earnest and profound every time they talk to their parents (at any age). It didn’t feel real, because there were no mundane moments. And here’s the final kicker, fair warning to any who may be sensitive to such things: there is a (fairly central) little girl with cancer. That was a bit much for me personally, considering that I work full-time at a cancer hospital and therefore see enough of this. Just a personal reaction.

I made it a little better than halfway through this book, which sort of surprises me. I was certainly frustrated, annoyed, exasperated with it much earlier than that: in fact, I can pinpoint it for you. I was impatient with the first chapter’s interactions between Zoe and her coach, Tom; but I was really annoyed for the first time on page 11, when Jack relates that Zoe has won her first sprint and he has to get off the phone because her second is starting. The second ride of gold-medal round sprints should follow the first by more than an hour; putting them right back-to-back like that is completely unrealistic and was the first sign that the reality of track cycling would not be taken too seriously in this book.

But I made it past halfway. Why? I’m not sure. I was hoping it would get better? I cared what happened to the characters? But I didn’t, really; I’ve walked away not knowing the outcome of OH so many dramas, and that’s okay. Cleave failed to make me invest in his characters because he failed to make them fully human.

I didn’t read Little Bee; maybe it’s better than this. But Gold didn’t work for me at all.


Minor redemptive points: Emilia Fox’s audio narration was fine. And the only character I liked, related to, felt was human, was the coach. Some of his moments of self-doubt and retrospection felt real. More people like Tom in my fiction, please.

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