Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

Another one hit way out of the park by Liz. I no longer remember what she said, but I think it involved some superlatives; I bought the book and finally got around to it and now have some superlatives of my own. It was just early April when I read this book, but I’m confident stating this will be the best book I read all year.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is one sort of book I love, in that it involves several threads woven together. In her prologue, Lulu Miller pits our most precious loves against the force of a capitalized Chaos. “Chaos will crack them from the outside–with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet–or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories…” Etc. Then we first meet David Starr Jordan, as Miller did. He was a taxonomist specializing in fish. An earthquake destroyed his collection of thousands of specimens, dashing them in their glass jars to the ground, separating them from their identifying tags. To which he responded by hand-stitching tag to fish specimen, and starting over. Miller is entranced by this “attack on Chaos.” She struggles herself with the forces that tend to defeat us, and wonders of Jordan: “Who are you?… A cautionary tale? Or a model of how to be?

From here we accompany Miller on her study of Jordan – his life and his thoughts – in search of a model for how to be, how to live with joy and be indefatigable in the face of all frustrations, all forms of Chaos. Why Fish Don’t Exist is thus partly a biography of Jordan and a layperson’s introduction to fish taxonomy and its principles. (The title is not a joke. There are existential arguments and philosophies to be discovered, too.) It’s also part memoir, as we get to know Miller better, the demons she’s faced and the tools she’s used to try to mend herself. Her father is a delightedly nihilistic scientist, with some parallels to Jordan, which is of course fascinating. The book is perhaps most of all an inquiry into Miller’s original concern: how to live and not despair, not choose to die, in such an overwhelmingly imperfect world as this one.

Miller’s writing style is colorful, phantasmagoric, impassioned, with high highs and low lows. She sees beauty and desolation in the world, and describes them evocatively. Among Jordan’s discoveries are

A small lantern fish with glowing spots, “which had risen from the deeps in a storm.” A tiny, rainbow-scaled fish that was found inside the belly of a hake, which was found inside the belly of an albacore. A crimson fish with yellow stripes that they nicknamed “the Spanish flag.”

The only fish he ever named after himself, “breathtaking, absolutely, but frightening, too, in the way of an M.C. Escher drawing.” “Its fins look like dragon wings, serrated and sharp.”

Without ruining too much of the story, I will say that Jordan, like all our heroes, is not purely heroic. He turns out to be in fact profoundly problematic, as our heroes tend to, and so Miller must wrestle with that, too. Chaos again. His methods are ruthless –

He began inventing more aggressive techniques for capturing fish. Blowing them out of the water with dynamite, hammering them out of coral, and perhaps most ingenious, for the “myriads of little fishes” that hid inside the tiny cracks in tide pools: poison.

and he’s harder on people than he is on fish. In more than a few ways I won’t give away here he will disturb our modern sensibilities. He disappoints us, as he disappoints Miller – horribly – but her own perspective never disappoints.

Illustrations by Kate Samworth open each chapter and advance their contents; these lovely black-and-whites resemble woodcuts (if that’s not in fact what they are) and will be part of what makes this book memorable for me. I think Samworth deserved to have her name on the book’s cover.

Transcendent. Best book of the year. Wrecked me, but in the best way. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.


Rating: 10 holotypes.

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

What is Odysseus, in the end – the hero whose final act of vengeful violence is compared, by means of another memorable simile, to a bard stringing his lyre – but the poet of his own life?

This is the first book I read in 2022, and I feel sure it will make the year’s best-of list, so that’s an excellent start. Another happy synchronicity: I bought this book based off a review I read, but find that Mendelsohn is also the author of a book I’ve had on my shelf for a few years, from a grad school reading list I never got to: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. After this read, that one just moved up the list.

An Odyssey is a memoir focusing on a father/son relationship and a journey, both a literal one and the figurative path to greater understanding facilitated by a yet more famous Odyssey. Daniel Mendelsohn’s father Jay is eighty-one years old the spring he asks his son Dan if he can sit in on his undergraduate seminar course on Homer’s Odyssey. Dan says yes, and together with a small group of college freshmen, father and son explore a work of classic literature and, as Dan sees it, their own relationship. Just after the course ends, they go together on a Mediterranean cruise that follows Odysseus’s presumed route home from the Trojan War. A year later, Jay would be dead.

I bought this book because I read a lovely review of it (which I now cannot find. I thought it was Shelf Awareness but apparently not), but then it sat on my shelf for some time, I think because the concept sounded a little precious, a little pat. And it could have been, in the wrong hands, but Daniel Mendelsohn was the right writer for this story, and I’m so glad. For one, he has a deep expertise in Homer and indeed in the classics – as I briefly (in high school) aspired to do, he learned Greek and Latin sufficient to read Homer, Ovid and Virgil (etc.) in their original forms, just for a start. He is the kind of thoughtful, introspective student of relationships and families that I most appreciate as a writer. He has the nuance to handle such a premise – father and son study the Odyssey and take a trip together – with the subtlety it needs. Talk about a book matched to its reader: Homer, parent/child relationships, contemplative memoir… and a focus on teaching. The result is a beautiful book that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Here are a few lines that made me pause.

I was going to read Greek, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the elaborately unspooling Histories of Herodotus, the tragedies constructed as beautifully as clocks, as implacably as traps…

How lovely – and makes me think of Amy Leach’s “Pea Madness.”

And so ring composition, which might at first glance appear to be a digression, reveals itself as an efficient means for a story to embrace the past and the present and sometimes even the future – since some ‘rings’ can loop forward, anticipating events that place after the conclusion of the main story. In this way a single narrative, even a single moment, can contain a character’s entire biography.

A single moment containing a character’s entire biography feels like why I read and write.

About competing literary interpretations,

Whatever else it may mean, the fact that both of these hostile camps could make use of the same examples to prove diametrically opposed interpretations suggests a truth about how all of us read and interpret literary texts – one that is, possibly, rooted in the mysteries of human nature itself. Where some people see chaos and incoherence, others will find sense and symmetry and wholeness.

Following a half-page discussion of the etymology of a certain word that I care about,

In time, this wistful word nostos, rooted so deeply in the Odyssey‘s themes, was eventually combined with another word in Greek’s vast vocabulary of pain, algos, to give us an elegantly simply way to talk about the bittersweet feeling we sometimes have for a special kind of troubling longing. Literally this word means ‘the pain associated with longing for home,’ but as we know, ‘home,’ particularly as we get older, can be a time as well as a place. The word is ‘nostalgia.’

This takes me immediately to a Jason Isbell song (forgive the whiplash), “Something to Love,” and the line “don’t quite recognize the world that you call home.” Naturally, this is a song about art and creativity, and it is sung in the voice of a parent speaking to his child. The idea that two people a generation apart – parent and child – necessarily come from different worlds, because of the way the world changes over time, has been a powerful one for me in the last decade or so.

Here’s another passage that gets to the heart of some of (again) my own thinking about parents.

If only they knew the real him, I thought. Glancing around at the others as they listened to Daddy, at the charmed smiles on Brendan’s and Ksenia’s faces, and then back at his face, relaxed and open, mellow with reminiscence, a face so different from the one he so often presented, at least to his family, I wondered suddenly whether there might be people, strangers he had met on business trips, say, bellhops or stewardesses or conference attendees, to whom he showed only this kindly face, and who, therefore, would be as astonished by the expression of contempt that we knew so well as we were by the rare glimpses of the other, softer side. How many sides did my father actually have, I asked myself, and which was the ‘real’ one? Perhaps this expansive and charming person, so different from the crabbed and coiled man whom only a month or two earlier, I ruefully thought, my Odyssey students had come to know, this song-singing old gentleman who could be so affable and entertaining with total strangers on a ship in the middle of the sea, was the person my father had always been meant to be. Or, perhaps, had always been, although only with those others, the bellhops and stewardesses. Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents; but why? ‘Who really knows his own begetting?’ Telemachus bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.

On teaching:

It was from Fred that I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way – because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death – good teaching is like good parenting.

This feels like a revelation but also something I recognize because I already understood it. It gets at why passion and excitement make for good teaching. And there’s a profundity to the idea that teaching is about what lives on beyond us. Although shortly after, he’ll make the point that teachers never know who they will reach with which lesson, because these things take years to reveal themselves; just as our own teachers rarely know who they have reached. I think again of Mrs. Smith, who introduced me in high school to Homer and Hemingway.

These moments go on and on. I love a book that offers both lovely lines and thought-provoking ideas.

The only critique I’d make of this exquisite work is some minimizing or simplification of women, especially by contrast to another recent read, Natalie Haynes’s excellent Pandora’s Jar, which was one of the best books I read in 2021, and helped inspire this read. (I regret that my weird reading-and-review schedule has reversed the order in which they appear here.) Haynes set out to address the roles and reputations of women in the Greek myths, and Mendelsohn concerns himself with fathers and sons, so, fair enough. But there were a few moments where I felt Mendelsohn missed a chance to see certain issues of gender, such that it felt like an oversight to me. It’s up for debate, of course, what agency Odysseus gets for his affairs with Calypso and Circe and his flirtations with Nausicaa and others (as opposed to the-gods-made-him-do-it), but to credit his “allegiance to his wife… withstand[ing] the seductive attentions of various goddesses and nymphs” seems a bit rich. I missed a more nuanced treatment of gender relations, both in Homer and in Mendelsohn’s own life. But perhaps this is unfair, considering his stated focus on male relationships.

I’ll be thinking about An Odyssey for a while.


Rating: 9 doors.

I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Richard Antoine White

After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Richard Antoine White’s memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing “the plumage of red seats,” then flashes back to the narrator’s childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he’ll hold throughout this memoir. “I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero,” he writes. “I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible.”

White recounts how he survived his mother’s addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. He was lucky to find family in more senses than the biological, and lucky to find the trumpet (in fourth grade) and, later, the tuba. He journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, “a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time.”

White writes passionately about his studies and relationships, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: “The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked.” I’m Possible is both a life story and a series of character sketches; White conveys his love for his biological mother and then for the couple who raised him, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and his many friends, mentors and students shine as well. (Look for a cameo by “a skinny upperclassman with a raspy voice named Tupac Shakur, who schooled me.”) White’s message is tirelessly uplifting: he is no genius, he insists, “although I do possess a profound belief in what is possible and a deep gratitude for how I came to be here,” and he reliably credits those who helped him along the way.

This is a story of perseverance, hard work and a little luck; of love of music and the importance of community and both built and biological families. White also comments throughout on the role of racism in his experience and in that of so many in the United States. His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Cup Noodles.

Maximum Shelf: Kin by Shawna Kay Rodenberg

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 February 17, 2021.


Shawna Kay Rodenberg’s harrowing memoir Kin leads the reader backward and forward in time and across an American landscape of trauma and healing. With a persistent focus on family and home, Rodenberg documents a process of learning and personal growth that is both unique and universal.

Kin opens in 2017, as the author guides CBS reporters though her native eastern Kentucky. They seek to crack open what they see as Trump country, and Rodenberg hopes to complicate that story. The backdrop is “my family’s mountain, the mountain where my grandfather mined coal, where my father was reared with great love and brutality, where I picked my grandmother’s strawberries and my grandfather’s roses… the mountain on which my family sought refuge after leaving The Body, an end-times wilderness community, cloistered in the woods of northern Minnesota, that my father joined when he was red-eyed and mad with fear, following his tour of duty in Vietnam.” The narrative then moves back in time to Rodenberg’s childhood in Grand Marais, Minn., and the purposeful deprivations of The Body.

Rodenberg’s upbringing in this strict religious sect gives her a cultural background that will make it hard for her to fit in later, and she suffers more than one form of abuse within The Body, including her father’s recurrent rages. “Instead of following in alcoholic, workaholic footsteps, he made religion his primary vice, religion that was unconventional, ecstatic, even perhaps rebellious–and virtually militaristic, which must have felt familiar.” The family eventually moves back to the secular world, to Ohio, to Kentucky and finally to the mountain of family origin. The austere, often angry influences of The Body will follow them.

This memoir recounts family stories, some from Rodenberg’s memories, some passed down. She writes of each of her parents’ childhoods, and of her aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbors. She recounts the history of her hometown, Seco, Ky., a former coal-mining camp. Kin begins well before the traumatic story of Shawna’s birth, “bruised-ass-backward into a world of chaos.” The chronology is disjointed, jumping back and forth, shifting timelines as well as locations, which can be disorienting for the reader, but that effect feels true to the narrator’s experience: Kentucky exerts a strong pull even in Minnesota, and pains felt by generations past are ever present.

At each stage, Rodenberg struggles with the meaning and shape of love and caring, and the confusing truth that those who love us most can hurt us most. Religion will continue to play a large role in her life, complicated by her father’s movements to and away from a strict adherence to The Body’s teachings. She will continue to wrestle with sex and the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse, through her troubled first attempt at college and beyond. Kin closes with Rodenberg on the cusp of pregnancy and marriage, but hints at what is to come: “I wish I could tell [that earlier version of myself] she had come to the beginning, not the end.”

Rodenberg’s prose is graceful and effortless, vulnerable and raw, beautifully descriptive without drawing attention to itself. She emphasizes character of place, from coal country where women “kept the food covered and draped cribs with quilts to keep the dust off their babies” to “town-sized time capsules, stoppered and sealed…. Barns sank beneath fields of kudzu and the roofs of old houses bowed in the middle like the backs of the ancient, singular mares that waited outside to be fed and put away.”

While Kin is first and centrally a memoir of family, it is also about Appalachia, about histories more complicated than the opening scene’s reporters care to see. It is ultimately about forgiveness, understanding and love. Rodenberg seeks an emotional reconciliation with her parents, especially the father she has butted heads with all her life. Of that battle, “even now, writing about it fills me with worry that I might be inadvertently reengaging, and that is why talking about it, why telling was and still is the hardest thing…. This is what it means to come from people who have been broken and exploited, they see the world in sides, theirs and the other, and disloyalty is the gravest offense, the blasphemy of the mountains.” In a world of just two sides, it might be an act of rebellion to both love someone and hold them responsible.

As narrator, Rodenberg is intelligent and insightful. As character, she is resourceful, scrappy, defiant, brave and exposed. Her memoir is heart-rending and hard-won. “I didn’t know when I started writing this book that it would become my own book of Revelations, rife with warning and promise, an account of my own and other apocalypses that created me, end times that predated me but shaped me as surely as if I’d lived through them myself.” That sense of regional and filial legacy defines Kin, a work of nuance that complicates received narratives in all the best ways.


Rating: 7 skirts.

Come back Monday for my interview with Rodenberg.

Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

I had not thought of Gary Paulsen in years, until I saw the Shelf Awareness review of this new book. (Hat tip to my colleague Jen Forbus for that review.) Paulsen might have been the first author I really fixated on; I remember setting out to own all his books, and while I didn’t get very far (maybe six or eight of them), I’m pretty sure I wrote “Julie’s Gary Paulsen library” or some such inside the cover of each one, and had them set up on their own little shelf. Early signs of something, there. My favorite was Hatchet, of course, and its sequel; and I vividly remember a scene from the beginning of another book where the narrator watches a… chipmunk? eating another creature, blood down its front… what book was that?

Anyway – when I saw that he’s returned with a memoir of his own childhood, I was sold. And let me tell you. This book had me entranced from the opening lines. I wept.

Gone to the Woods has an innocence and a simplicity built into its writing style and the value system, I think, of its narrator. This makes it accessible to younger readers, but not at all to them alone. I think this is a memoir for everyone. Paulsen tells his story in the third person, calling his protagonist only ‘the boy,’ although the name ‘Gary’ is used once or twice by other characters. This helps to give the boy an elemental quality, like he’s sort of an archetypal boy, although his story is very specific. When the book opens, he is five years old, living in Chicago with his mother in 1944. She has a factory job, and coming from a small farm in northern Minnesota, is “not even remotely prepared to resist the temptations of the big city.” She lives in the bars and does not parent her small son, who she’s trained to perform for the men who try to win her favor. Grandmother hears of this lifestyle and is “critical, then concerned, and finally… past horrified and well into scandalized.” Her solution colors the boy’s method of problem-solving for life: “If it doesn’t work Here, go over There.”

The first adventure of the book, then, is the five-year-old boy’s solo journey by train from Chicago to International Falls, Minnesota. This takes several days and involves a train absolutely jam-packed with severely injured soldiers, smelling of and oozing pain and death, so that the boy is physically ill from it all – because didn’t I say, his father, who he’s never met, is a soldier off in the war. The boy becomes stuck in a train toilet, among other things, and observes out the train window the woods that will become his sanctuary. By the time he arrives at his aunt and uncle’s farm he is wrung out with exhaustion, trauma, and confusion. But the farm will be a perfect place for him, the first place he feels he belongs, is valued, is taught. He’s given his own room and bed. It’s lovely. Then it’s taken away from him.

I’ll stop summarizing here. The boy’s upbringing is one trauma after another, including a few years on the streets of American-occupied Manila, and a continuing absence of parental concern. I appreciate that the narrator is slow to judge his parents, and I think it would have been easy (narratively speaking) to be ugly about the mother’s drinking and many boyfriends, for example, but neither the young boy nor the adult man who writes these lines takes that easy road. (At least until the teenager’s perspective, at which point he thinks of both parents as vipers. But this is about the damage they do to him, rather than some puritanical judgment of mom’s moral choices.) He is an unjudgmental creature in general. Paulsen is wonderfully good at the innocent child’s perspective, elements of which are present in the teenager too.

Trauma after trauma, but with a few bright points, like the aunt and uncle in the Minnesota woods, and a saintly librarian when he is thirteen years old who makes him a gift of notebook and pencil, for whom this book might be considered a gift in return. And the woods and rivers and streams, which are always a bright point. From age five, the boy learns that the woods will allow him to take care of himself, even when he lives in a city again, keeping to the alleys and nights to avoid bullies, and escaping to the stream where he can fish for food or shoot squirrels and rabbits when his parents fail to provide for him. Even in Manila, a city of a certain sort of trauma (truly, the violence and death this child witnesses by his sixth birthday is unfathomable), he finds beauty and human kindness.

At times the events were hard for me to take in, and I wondered if younger readers were really the right audience for this. But on reflection, I think Paulsen offers just enough. I think children might take away what they need from this book – I’m no proponent of censoring life’s pains from kids – and it’s the adult mind and perspective that makes it even harder to read, if that makes sense.

The story is harrowing but also lovely, always riveting, and an important testimonial from a generation that we will eventually lose access to. It is excruciatingly beautiful in how it’s told. The immediacy of traveling with the boy is heart-rending and direct. I can’t imagine how this book could be improved upon.


Rating: 10 willow branches.

A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears by Bjorn Dihle

A lifelong Alaskan inspires awe with his beautifully written, expert portrait of the grizzly bear.

Bjorn Dihle was born and raised in the outdoors of Alaska, where he has worked for years as a brown (or grizzly) bear viewing guide. A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears is his lovely, thoughtful study on the relationship between humans and this evocative, storied species.

“There have been times I almost hated bears,” he writes. “Like most feelings of hostility, mine were rooted in fear. Yet, there is no place I love more than grizzly country, and no animal has intrigued and challenged me more than the bear.” Moving around in time, Dihle tells his own stories of encounters, from the first brown bear he ever saw–a carcass in a salmon stream when the author was four or five years old–through early trailside meetings and learning how to relate to bears, into his career seeking them out, especially on Alaska’s Admiralty Island. “There’s no way to make bears safe,” Dihle acknowledges, which is surely part of their appeal. But there are measures, such as Larry Aumiller’s “concept of habituation, which he defined as taking away the fight-or-flight response in a bear, that’s key for developing trust between our two species.”

A Shape in the Dark is an appealing, accessible memoir and a history of the interplay of bears and humans in the American West. Dihle intersperses his own and his friends’ bear encounters with those of Grizzly Adams and Teddy Roosevelt, outlining the evolution of attitudes and policy toward grizzlies. In considering the writings of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, he reviews the history of wilderness thinking beyond bears, with a ruminative style and personal perspective. He writes of famous and less famous maulings, the complexities of bear hunting, the role of grizzly bears in native cultures and the impact of climate change on Alaska and its greatest predator.

Dihle’s title hints at something elemental about our fears and the way he handles them: “After a while, much like our ancestors who’d built fires to keep away the monsters, I opened my laptop and stared at the lit-up screen, hoping the words would come.” As his subtitle suggests, Dihle deals with life and death in balanced proportions, portraying the deaths of bears and humans with similar reverence.

Quiet, meditative, wise, well informed, A Shape in the Dark is memoir, history and philosophy in one: “everything leaves a trail, whether it’s imprinted in the land, in the narratives we tell, or even in our blood.” Dihle’s love for his subject is contagious and beautifully conveyed.


This review originally ran in the February 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 wigeons.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to follow Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half. (I always loved that name.) I did not read her first book, by the same name, but I love the blog. This is her second.

Solutions and Other Problems is brilliant. Brosh is so vulnerable, honest, willing to share, and hilarious. Her openness is disarming and I think healthy both for her and for her readers who are comforted by knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. And some of what she has to share is raw and painful. But also, she makes me laugh harder than almost anything, ever. I mean I laughed until I cried, gasping, couldn’t breathe, peed on myself. I was oxygen-deprived; she nearly killed me, I laughed so hard. (The funniest bits, for me, are anything about pets, and the chapter about the car stereo system and the smartphone trying to boss her around.) I would love to be able to spend a few minutes every day laughing this hard. I guess I need to re-follow her blog.

This is a graphic work – as in graphic novel, but nonfiction. A graphic memoir-in-essays, if you will; it’s not linear, but a sampling of experiences that have been especially funny or painful or moving. Because she jumps around so much and generally gets a little silly (in all the best ways), I thought it was neatly appropriate that (as noted by a brief “Explanation” following chapter 1) Brosh’s chapters are numbered but there is no chapter four. “Because sometimes things don’t go like they should,” she explains, and because she’s exercising a little power here, and we should be grateful she didn’t take it further than she did. It’s a random little bit of ridiculousness; but it’s also expressive of the kind of fun and angst I think she excels at.

Brosh’s illustrations are also a little ridiculous, fanciful, hilarious, and distinctive. I love them. She explains the world as she experiences it, in part, through fictional monsters and fantasies. Her drawings capture the mystery and awkwardness of life in a way that feels precisely right. (And I think she has dogs down pat.) (The Oatmeal‘s pretty good at this too.)

At one point she notes,

Experiencing real loneliness for the first time is like realizing the only thing you’ve ever loved is your home planet after migrating to the moon.

and I think that’s just perfect. I recognize this feeling. I had to migrate to the moon to find out just how place mattered to me.

I find Allie Brosh’s work comforting, as well as so funny that it leaves me a little breathless and wrung out. I recommend her so strongly, and I guess I need to go back and find the first book now too. Thanks, Liz, for the recommendation.


Rating: 9 sneakponies.

Maximum Shelf: Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story: Remaking a Life From Scratch by Erin French

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 November 30, 2020.


Erin French grew up in rural Maine, in the outdoors and in her father’s diner, where she began helping out in the kitchen at age 12. After a few years at college, she returned home to Maine, and faced challenges including young single motherhood; a difficult marriage and more difficult divorce; opening and then losing her first small restaurant; addiction and recovery. Eventually French moved back to her hometown of Freedom, where she would start again with her wildly successful The Lost Kitchen. These travels, pitfalls and victories she recounts in Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch. Renovation and redemption–of spaces and of herself–are central to her story.

This memoir begins mid-scene, with the nine-months-pregnant narrator, age 21, on break from a 16-hour shift at the family diner. The opening showcases the detailed, richly sensory food writing that permeates these pages, then flashes back, to describe French first entering the diner at age five; observing her father’s love for his work, his drinking and his limited ability to show love for his family; working in the kitchen and dreaming of escape. Finding Freedom centers around food, from childhood in the diner to young motherhood, when French supported herself with a small business baking cakes, cookies and pies, working retail in a cooking supply store and for a catering company. French picks up skills and ideas along the way and builds confidence until she is able to open a supper club and then the first The Lost Kitchen on the Maine coast. By this time, she has also picked up a husband, Tom, who turns out to be a heavy drinker, controlling and eventually abusive. From her problems with depression and anxiety, and the excruciating hard work and long days of restaurant work, she picks up prescriptions for Xanax, Ambien, Klonopin and more. This chapter of French’s story ends in rehab, with Tom seizing custody of her child and shuttering The Lost Kitchen, including “every whisk, every spoon, every spatula, and knife.”

But the cook (French resists the title “chef,” having no culinary degree or formal training) is scrappy, hard-working and resourceful. She adopts a dog, moves into a cabin without electricity or running water, fights for custody of her son and gets back into the kitchen. She first converts a dilapidated Airstream into a food truck for roving outdoor fine dining events on farms, in orchards and fields. And then another opportunity shows itself: the old mill in Freedom is finally gutted and renovated into the perfect, romantic setting for a small but picturesque dining room. The Lost Kitchen is reborn. Within a few short seasons, its limited reservations must be filled by postal lottery, more than 20,000 postcards “pouring in as though it were the North Pole.”

The spaces French occupies are lovingly built and restored. The first The Lost Kitchen is housed in a former bank building, a three-story gothic flatiron she describes in tender, glowing terms: “One by one I folded back the old wooden shutters and flung open the tall windows, letting light into spaces that had been dark for so long…. The place was dripping with character, with its hardwood floors, high ceilings, thick period molding, and doors with frosted glass and heavy hardware.” Its owners choose to take a chance on renting to French after a personal meeting and homemade meal. This process repeats with The Lost Kitchen’s reincarnation in Freedom: “The quiet rumors had been spreading around town about the old mill’s restoration, the same way they had about me.” In between, French must clean out and redecorate the cabin she lives in post-rehab on her parents’ land, and the Airstream trailer she uses to get on her cooking feet again. As the book closes, she has just purchased an old fixer-upper farmhouse “the color of strawberries.”

French excels in describing her passion for cooking and for pleasing people via food; she’s at her best detailing the foods themselves, and her mouth-watering writing is the heart of this memoir: “Hard-boiled quail eggs as bar snacks that you could peel-n-eat and dunk in a dust of celery salt.” “Fresh-from-the-fryer nutmeg-laced doughnuts.” “Fried chicken. Served cold, crispy, and juicy…. We could just hold it up in the air as the boat screamed through the waves to catch a bit of salty breeze before devouring it to the bone.”

Cooking and baking, flower arranging, the fine art of plating and the writing of this memoir contribute to a profile of a woman driven to create beauty even out of pain. The narrator’s voice is vulnerable, her trauma is real and visceral but, by the end, this is a delicious, feel-good redemption tale.


Rating: 6 nasturtiums.

Come back Friday for my interview with French.

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.
%d bloggers like this: