The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser; introduction by Catherine Venable Moore

Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead was originally published as a poem cycle in her 1938 collection U.S. 1. It was unearthed, if you will, by Catherine Venable Moore, and republished in a new edition in 2018 with Moore’s introduction. (Disclosure: Moore was a visiting faculty member in my MFA program when I was a student there; I have met her, very briefly.) That introduction is lengthy, occupying fully half the pages of this book, which I hadn’t realized in advance; that is to say, while Rukeyser’s poetry is its raison d’etre, Moore’s essay is indispensable to the reading experience I’m reviewing here. That essay was published in Oxford American (a magazine I adore) in 2016, in its entirety – I did a pretty close page-by-page spot check, and if the two versions differ, it’s by words or punctuation marks, not paragraphs. (OA actually offers more images, too.) You can read Moore’s work here, and you absolutely should (I write, at the risk of unselling a copy of this book; but you will still want Rukeyser’s poems!).

The subject is the years-long industrial disaster at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Miners were tasked with both tunnel construction and the mining of silica, a convenient byproduct of the tunneling; they worked without protective equipment and inhaled quantities of silica, which caused silicosis (as it was known at the time it would), of which they died by the hundreds. Most of the miners were migratory Black Southerners housed in temporary work camps. The death toll is still unknown.

Rukeyser, a young lefty poet/journalist, traveled to West Virginia to document these events in 1936, as the last of the miners testified before a congressional committee even as they coughed and died. She was accompanied by a photographer friend (whose photographs, but two, were lost). The Book of the Dead was Rukeyser’s result: documentary, poetry, journalism, testament. Moore’s essay places this and much more information in context so that the reader is ready to appreciate Rukeyser’s poems when they come. Recall that I am infinitely more at home with essays than with poetry, but I found Moore’s work to be very moving, beautifully done, and informative. I found the poems more challenging, and I would not have gotten as much out of them without Moore’s help. Perhaps my favorite was the title poem, which is also available online at The Poetry Foundation, for whom I am grateful.

I’m very glad I spent a day immersed in this story, certainly an important one in our national and regional history. This was a bit of homework before, hopefully, visiting the recently dedicated memorial myself. I am very glad that Moore did the work of getting these poems and this story out into the world again.


Rating: 8 hills of glass.

Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them by Max Cutler, Kevin Conley

This shocking study by the creator of the podcast Cults recounts and dissects the leaders, followers and histories of 10 extreme cults.

“Everyone wants to believe in something or someone: a higher ideal, a god on earth, a voice from heaven…. When this appetite for belief combines with the need to belong, great things can happen…. But what about those rare moments when the dark side of human nature takes hold?” The shocking Cults, based on the Parcast podcast of the same name, surveys some of the most famous and disturbing examples of small, extremist, ill-fated sects. Parcast founder Max Cutler is joined by Kevin Conley (Stud; The Full Burn) in writing this roundup of frighteningly charismatic leaders and their followers.

Ten chapters cover 10 cults chosen for their impacts on the world’s imagination, beginning (naturally) with Charles Manson and his “family.” Cutler’s focus is both narrative, detailing the story of the leader’s upbringing and the cult’s rise and fall, and also probing: Cults is interested in motivations and, to the extent possible, diagnoses. “With so many cult leaders who died suddenly or violently, any diagnosis of psychological disturbance is purely speculative,” but the temptation is strong. “Cult leaders make such good case studies: because the gruesome facts of their biographies are both widely known and easy to connect to a psychological disorder.” Cults are labeled in the table of contents by the root cause Cutler has identified for each leader’s actions. According to this system, Manson was motivated by shame, as was Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, whose Narcosatanists were responsible for at least 16 deaths in Mexico in the 1980s.

Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple was driven by exploitation, taking advantage of his followers financially and sexually until the deaths of 908 Americans (including Jones) in what was called “Jonestown” in Guyana. Likewise exploitative was the bizarre Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose ashrams in India and then Oregon supported his desire for both nitrous oxide and Rolls Royces (he owned 93 at one point), and who laced Oregonian salad bars with salmonella in a bid for local political control. Pathological lying, megalomania, sadism, escape and denial of reality cover the remaining cults: Claude Vorilhon’s Raëlism, Roch Thériault’s Ant Hill Kids, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, Keith Raniere’s NXIVM, Credonia Mwerinde’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate. Manipulative, self-aggrandizing, compelling and lacking in empathy, these characters (in every sense) are by turns laughable, inexplicably strange and chillingly, brutally cruel. Not for the faint of heart but absolutely for the true-crime junkie, Cults is packed with details and unafraid to posit theories to explain these superlatively weird and scary stories.


This review originally ran in the April 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 mixtures containing applesauce.

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.

Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do by Tracy Dawson

Humorous profiles of more than 30 women in history who broke gender barriers offer righteous inspiration.

In 2013, television writer and actor Tracy Dawson was passed over for a job writing shows because they didn’t have any “female needs.” Naturally infuriated, she became interested in women over the centuries whose opportunities and options have been limited by their sex. From this curiosity is born Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do, in which Dawson profiles several dozen women from the 1400s BCE through the present. In a pithy, one-liner-laden style, she brings these remarkable and little-known histories to light with comedic flair.

Some of the women are classics: Joan of Arc, Kathrine Switzer and a chapter’s worth of once-anonymous literary figures who are now household names (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, George Sand). But the majority are more obscure: Maria Toorpakai, professional squash player born in 1990 who defied the ultra-conservative norms of her region of Pakistan when she disguised herself as a boy to play sports; Hannah Snell, who served as a Royal Marine in the 1750s; Ellen Craft, who fled slavery in 1848 disguised as a white male slaveowner. A teenaged Dorothy Lawrence, rejected as war correspondent in World War I, took herself to the front by boat, bicycle and soldier’s garb. The 1890s entertainer and male impersonator Florence Hines, 1941 comic book creator Tarpé Mills and 1980s miner and entrepreneur Pili Hussein are among these diverse, colorful stories. Others are antiheroes, like witch-pricker Christian Caddell or all-around scoundrel Catalina de Erauso. Dawson is careful to point out that her focus is on “women who dressed as men to gain access and opportunity, not on gender identity,” since the latter is notoriously difficult to parse from a historical perspective, particularly since many of the women she profiles have left scant records. Their motivations vary as widely as other aspects of their identities and stories, but each of these women pushed boundaries in ways that remain inspirational for Dawson and her readers today.

Let Me Be Frank is peppered with punchy jokes in an informal, conversational tone that suits Dawson’s background in television. Joan of Arc is compared to Beyoncé; U.K.-born Annie Hindle’s stage name is received with “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Dawson delivers these historical profiles, born of research, in a lighthearted voice. Tina Berning’s portraits evoke the women’s personalities and literally color the narratives. The result is an easy-to-read, eye-opening look at female bravery amid the sexism and misogyny throughout history; it is funny and rousing and proud.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 clusters of tanzanite.

Fire on the Mountain by John N. Maclean

This is the 18th book I’ve read this year, and easily the most affecting.

I try not to lead with what somebody’s dad did before them, respecting (for example) Joe Hill’s desire to live outside of Stephen King’s considerable shadow, but this one is just too close to its forebear. John N. Maclean is the son of Norman Maclean, who wrote the absolutely earthshattering 1992 book Young Men and Fire about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 and the tragic deaths of thirteen wildland firefighters there. This book, Fire on the Mountain (1999), does a similar job of rumination on a markedly similar event, the 1994 South Canyon fire, and the deaths of fourteen wildland firefighters. The two events and the two books are too parallel for me to avoid noting this context up front.

Fire on the Mountain is riveting, suspenseful even though the reader knows the outcome from the start. It is better (or worse, if you like) than a horror novel in its pervasive sense of foreboding and doom.

The realization came to Cuoco that the front would strike with almost no warning. Half the fires in western Colorado could explode, and if someone didn’t warn firefighters, they could be caught in harm’s way.

At minutes past noon the main front provided the final confirmation, sweeping into Grand Junction with sudden winds just as the lightning storm had four days earlier. For Cuoco this was ‘an adrenaline-pushing, severe weather condition,’ the same as a tornado warning.

Because this is nonfiction – these are real lives lost – it carries a little extra weight. And there’s just something about fire and, I submit, wildland fire in particular, and the special bravery (or foolhardiness?) and undeniable toughness of the firefighters who venture against it… something especially elemental, romantic, compelling. It makes for fine literature and tempts us to neverending consideration. Maclean’s writing focuses on those elemental forces at work, both natural and human ones. This is in part an investigative work, an attempt to figure out what happened out there – what went wrong, what might have been preventable, and who (if anyone) might be to blame. There were investigations into the South Canyon fire, and attempts to assign blame, and Maclean is hesitant to crucify anyone, but he does wind up trying to correct the record, easing blame in certain quarters (the firefighters themselves) and offer a little more in others (management staff and agencies). He doesn’t get judgmental til the final pages (and even then I don’t mean this as a criticism; he’s here, after all, to make a judgment), at which point it felt perhaps a little jarring to slide into that tone. But he also made good arguments throughout – by the time Maclean begins to assign blame, his points are well proven.

It is a difficult book to read, emotionally, and yet so propulsive that it was hard to turn away from, too. There was one night in particular when I had to force myself to put it down and get to bed before midnight (on a school night!), knowing that that would be best for me (as reader as well as teacher) and for my impression of the book.

I’m deeply impressed and moved. I will say, though, that it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Young Men and Fire, at least for me and according to my memory of that earlier book (which I read nearly ten years ago). The first I recall having more zoomed-out, existential-philosophy-level meditation to it. The religious imagery of the stations of the cross and the relentless focus on the firefighters’ final moments lent it a mythic quality. (You will rarely find me praising a book for its religious imagery.) There was something magical there. This book is excellent; but it remains a little closer to earth, as a work of thoughtful investigative journalism and compassionate remembrance of lives lost. I had forgotten, though, that Young Men and Fire was published posthumously, with John Maclean’s involvement, so that’s an interesting point.

Hard to read, but so worth it.


Rating: 8 steps.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

This classicist’s reconsideration of famous Greek myths from various female perspectives combines cultural and literary criticism, humor and wit.

Classicist Natalie Haynes (The Furies; A Thousand Ships) brings her prodigious expertise to Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, a thorough consideration of the perspectives, reputations and visibility of some of ancient Greece’s most famous female characters. The title refers to the first correction Haynes offers: rather than the mythic Pandora’s box, Pandora in the original Greek opened a jar, which is only the first of several misconceptions. Not that there will ever be an authoritative version: even Homer, Haynes reminds us, drew on earlier sources. Myths “operate in at least two timelines: the one in which they are ostensibly set, and the one in which any particular version is written,” and Haynes has a firm grasp of numerous iterations. In her capable hands, Pandora and others appear as multifaceted, complex characters, even across conflicting accounts. Best of all, despite its impressive depth of research, Pandora’s Jar is never dry, and frequently great fun.

After the opening chapter’s title character, Haynes introduces readers to Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and finally Penelope. Readers unfamiliar with their stories are guided through the relevant versions. These myths involve traumas of marriage, motherhood, rape and betrayal; their themes are serious and unforgiving. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the misogyny and erasure that Pandora, the Amazons, Eurydice and others have experienced have surprisingly modern origins. “Not for the first time, we see that an accurate translation has been sacrificed in the pursuit of making women less alarming (and less impressive) in English than they were in Greek.” Among Haynes’s subjects, “some have been painted as villains (Clytemnestra, Medea), some as victims (Eurydice, Penelope), some have been literally monstered (Medusa),” but each contains depths: “Medusa is–and always has been–the monster who would save us.”

Haynes’s authorial voice is remarkable: expressive, nuanced, impassioned. Her tone is absolutely accessible, even conversational, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Haynes (also a stand-up comic) is as well versed in the modern world and its concerns as in the ancients. The book opens with 1981’s Clash of the Titans, and refers to Beyonce and Wonder Woman with the same ease and mastery as it does Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Aristotle, Aeschylus and many more ancients and more recent writers. Haynes’s assessments of the visual arts (from ancient pottery through Renaissance paintings to modern television and movies) offer another dimension in this meticulous study.

The classics are as relevant, subversive and entertaining as ever in this brilliant piece of work. Clever, moving, expert, Pandora’s Jar is a gem, equally for the serious fan or scholar of Greek myth, for the feminist or for the reader simply absorbed by fine storytelling across time and geography.


This review originally ran in the January 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gazes.

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.

The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums by Amy Leach

Amy Leach’s signature playful style, joyful humor and wise questioning of the universe delight and fascinate in these 23 essays, her second such collection.

With The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums, Amy Leach (Things That Are) takes her readers on a playful, rigorous, mind-bending romp through human nature, the natural world, spirituality and more. Her perfectly singular voice sings the most surprising notes in an imaginative blend of silliness and seriousness.

This sophomore collection of 23 essays opens with its title offering, in which the narrator welcomes all 20 quintillion animals to the Everybody Ensemble. How will they be arranged and organized? What songs will they perform? Leach glories in lists of the unlikely, the weird and the underappreciated: “speckled and plain, perfect and imperfect, indigo-feathered, green-skinned, orange-toed, squashed of face, cracked of shell, miniature of heart, young as ducklings, old as hills, everybody raise your sweet and scrapey, bangy, twangy, sundry, snorty voices.” This embrace of enormous, diverse multiplicity serves as appropriate introduction to an ecstatic exploration of “everybodyism.”

Leach employs a huge range of rhetorical devices while retaining a sense of whimsy and plain fun. Her genius perhaps shows best in her selection of the singular, startlingly unexpected detail. Adept as she is at wordplay, Leach’s writing goes much deeper than that, wondering and speculating at larger questions. In “The Wanderer,” she considers how to critique the extravaganza show called Earth, “already in production for five million years now” but unfinished. The artist of this show has strengths (facility and versatility), but “imagination unchecked can result in a mishmash.” If only “we could just establish the genre, whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy or romance or what,” we could make sense of the effort. Don’t be misled by her joyful absurdity or wit with words: Leach is deadly serious in her questioning of the cosmos, Earth’s composer and whether “even with all the troubles of our time, maybe it can still be fun to be a frog.”

“O Latitudo” ponders the imagined choice of a supervolcano: to erupt or to self-suppress, “consequently composing a gassy, burpy, muddy Ode to Joy.” “In Lieu of a Walrus” offers a list of writers to whom one might turn when the first-choice interlocuter is unavailable, including Hafiz, Ovid and God. “Green Man” honors the mesquite tree, loved by few, who has been given “the freedom to dig his own disputable way.” “Beasts in the Margins” considers the more incongruous illustrations of 14th-century books of psalms: “Who let the monsters into the psalter?” These and other essays range widely in subject matter but accrue to a meaningful whole. Leach is smart, effervescent, earnest and funny. Her voice is perfectly unmistakable, her themes expansive; her prose glitters. The Everybody Ensemble is a revelation.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 extracommercial tigers.

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.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

This is Bessel van der Kolk’s treatise on the physical manifestations of trauma, and the enormous implications of trauma on our society. The Body Keeps the Score is for a mainstream audience, not a scientific one, but van der Kolk (a psychiatrist) does take the time to teach neuroanatomy and brain function – to a greater extent than this reader needed, so that I let some of it flow by, but no criticism there.

Van der Kolk also maintains a narrative voice throughout that I appreciate: he is always a character in the story of (re)discovering and studying trauma and seeking treatments for it. He begins with veterans returning from Vietnam, when he began work as a psychiatrist at the Boston VA in 1978. He then introduces us to the children he’s worked with who live with trauma of many kinds, and the adult survivors of childhood trauma; these adults, he shows, suffer differently than those who encounter trauma in adulthood (car crashes, violence, natural disasters) (and are different again from military vets). Throughout the book, he outlines what we know about how each of these groups’ brains operate, including the different between the rational and emotional parts of the brain. He moves us through time, outlining research studies and how we’ve learned what we know about trauma and its manifestations in mind and body. He points out that the words ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘gut-wrenching’ are not entirely metaphoric. Emotions, and reactions to trauma, play out physically. He also makes clear that traumatized people actually reexperience their traumas: that until the brain can integrate these events as memory, they remain present, and can take over the individuals’ present. Those suffering from these flashbacks are truly living their trauma again.

Van der Kolk feels strongly that developmental trauma, which takes place in childhood, is a “hidden epidemic” that exacts enormous costs on society, even just purely in the monetary sense (sufferers “end up filling our jails, our welfare rolls, and our medical clinics”). When he gives presentations on trauma and treatment, he writes, “participants sometimes ask me to leave out the politics and confine myself to talking about neuroscience and therapy. I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail.” I didn’t find the book very political at all, in fact, but maybe I just don’t think it’s radical to suggest we devote public resources to universal health care – including mental health care – and extend a little compassion and shared responsibility to others, especially kids, who are essentially defenseless. He notes that the trendier discussions of trauma tend to focus on military vets and survivors of splashy, violent single events, while the more everyday (child abuse, intimate partner violence, rape) don’t get as much attention, although they affect many more people.

He also devotes a healthy chunk of the book to treatment options, written (he says) both for trauma survivors and for their therapists. These include talk therapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), yoga, rhythmic movement and theatre, neurofeedback (as from Bewilderment, in fact!), and more. “Communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized.” Van der Kolk stresses the importance of language throughout. (And I love the idea of Shakespeare in the Courts!) He does not love medication for trauma survivors; drugs can mask or deaden symptoms, but don’t address the root of the problem or begin to help the patient integrate trauma into memory, so as soon as they go off the meds, they’ll be in just the same position again. He also does not love the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which persists in excluding a diagnosis for Developmental Trauma Disorder despite decades of research and statistics and the support of expert practitioners. He includes as an appendix “Consensus Proposed Criteria for Developmental Trauma Disorder,” the inclusion of which in DSM would enable clearer diagnoses, better funding for research, insurance coverage, and more.

I find The Body Keeps the Score to be a very thorough explanation of extreme trauma, how it works on its sufferers, and what we might be doing about it – as individuals and as a society. It is coherent, credible, compassionate and evidence-based, and accessible to a regular sort of reader, like me. (Again, I let some of the hard science go by.) I think this is a book for everyone, especially the traumatized among us and those who love them – in other words, considering the prevalence of trauma in our world, everyone. I found it interesting reading, if sometimes dense, and sometimes difficult to read – I took this one a little slower than usual, but it was worth all my time. Recommended.


Rating: 7 drawings.

For a much more in-depth summary and review, check out this excellent article from Brain Pickings.

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