Cygnet by Season Butler

An island of elderly separatists and one teenaged girl face essential human angst in this remarkable debut novel.

Cygnet is a powerful, poignant, smart debut novel by Season Butler. Her protagonist, known only as Kid, lives on an island otherwise populated entirely by elderly separatists. Ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire, Swan Island’s inhabitants call themselves Swans, and they want nothing to do with the rest of the world, which they call the Bad Place. Seventeen-year-old Kid has no business there, but her parents abandoned her with her grandmother, who has since died. Now she works part time for one of the residents, digitizing and editing photographs, home videos and the woman’s children’s diaries: “I’ve given her real breasts, grateful children, a husband whose eyes never wandered…. I’ll be up here forever, fixing Mrs. Tyburn’s memory.” She spends her lunch breaks with an Alzheimer’s patient, who has no memories to fix.

Swan Island is slowly crumbling into the sea, with Kid’s grandmother’s house set to go first: her backyard shrinks by the day, and Kid hates and fears the ocean, its relentless “waves that never tire of the same old dance moves. The cliff and the ocean, a mosh pit of two.” The Swans are always going on about how you can view the sea from anywhere on their island; she doesn’t see the appeal. With few exceptions, the Swans are cruelly frank about their displeasure at her presence, her very existence. She is desperate for her parents to return for her, but over the course of the story, the reader understands how unlikely this is. Memories and flashbacks touch briefly on their drug addiction and neglect, and hint at past traumas.

Cygnet covers a brief period of time on Swan, in Kid’s first-person voice. Her thoughts are true to those of an unhappy teenager: “I’m such an idiot” is a refrain; she disparages her own strange stream of consciousness. The prose style ranges widely from this (realistic) awkwardness to inspired lyricism. For such a young person, Kid has a surprisingly clear and sympathetic view of the Swans, appreciates their beauty and their choice to segregate from the Bad Place. She wishes her choices were so clear. On her 18th birthday, she bakes herself a birthday cake, using her mother’s remembered instructions; it comes out with a “perfect crumb” but she finds she’s no longer hungry: “I… take it outside, plate and all, and throw it off the stupid cliff.”

At the intersection of teen angst and sobering end-of-life realities, Cygnet contains some powerfully depressing material. But Kid’s disarming voice and unlikely will to push forward save this novel from doom and gloom. Kid and the Swans have more in common than they think–age and youth being more alike than either perhaps accepts–and Butler’s conception of this particular world-within-a-world is easy to lose oneself in. With the house literally falling out from under her, Kid will have to face her own future, create it for herself. By the end, this feels like a situation we all have in common.


This review originally ran in the May 23, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nickels.

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

This thoroughly researched examination of the domestic violence epidemic is chilling but deeply important and surprisingly accessible.


Journalist Rachel Louise Snyder used to think of domestic violence as “an unfortunate fate for the unlucky few,” a hardwiring gone wrong. But then an acquaintance offered a new perspective: that this is a social epidemic, one it is possible to prevent. No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us is the product of copious, immersive research, an investigation into a universal and insidious violence and what can be done about it.

Snyder presents her findings in three parts, ordered as “The End,” “The Beginning” and finally “The Middle.” That is, she first studies what intimate partner violence looks like at its conclusion: homicide and regrets that various systems (judicial, law enforcement, advocacy, etc.) couldn’t do more. Next, she investigates the beginning of such violence. Abusers often come from abusive home environments and, along with their victims, grow up in a society that values stoicism, control and violence in men, submissiveness and emotional labor in women. “The Middle” examines how services are provided to victims of domestic violence, and what changes should be considered.

No Visible Bruises sounds like an appallingly dark read, and it’s true that the content is deeply disturbing. But by focusing on case studies–individuals’ stories–Snyder returns humanity to the horrifying larger issue. These cases (including familicides, or murders of entire families, as well as homicides, private terrorism and abuse of all stripes) are indeed awful stories, but told with such compassion and curiosity, they turn out remarkably accessible.

In repeatedly facing the stereotypes and assumptions she brought to her research topic, Snyder gains credibility with her reader. She applies extra attention to breaking down those myths she once believed: for example, that “if things were bad enough, victims would just leave.” Her years of research and immersion in the subject–riding along with law enforcement, shadowing advocates and interviewing survivors, families and abusers alike–lend her further authority. Snyder holds concern for abusers as well as their victims. She spends time with men involved in prevention campaigns, former abusers working to reset patterns and forge new ways to relate. She comes to see that shelters are not the answer, even while noting how much good they’ve done since the early days of recognizing domestic violence.

Perhaps most importantly, she gives context to the apparently senseless horror, placing domestic violence in relationship to issues of economics, education, employment, the criminal justice system and other, more “public” types of violence. The result is an impressive body of knowledge about domestic violence in the United State: what it looks like, its terrifying prevalence, what works and what doesn’t in trying to stem the tide. No Visible Bruises speaks with urgency about solving a problem that, however invisible, affects us all.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 calls.

Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road by Kathleen Morton, Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose

Beautiful photos, enthusiastic essays and handy tips portray vanlife as desirable and attainable.

Kathleen Morton, Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose are partners at the blog Vanlife Diaries, a community of and for nomadic types, where they promote relevant nonprofit organizations and meetups and other events, and vanlifers share their stories. A few years and a few hundred thousand followers later, Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road is available as a beautiful collection of photographs and essays, tips and tricks, celebrating this way of life and offering inspiration to those setting out.

Contents are organized by motivation to travel: for family, for love, for art, for nature and so on. Each section includes an essay by a featured vandweller, with helpful how-to pieces slotted throughout: guides to cooking in small spaces, traveling with pets, finding wifi and other finer points of life on the road. More than 200 accompanying photographs feature van set-ups and their human, canine and other inhabitants in breathtaking natural settings around the world. Even readers who thought they were immune to wanderlust can’t help but be swept away by such stunning images. And the more serious consumer of vanlife literature will be impressed by the balance of these impressive images with the kind of gritty, realistic details that rarely accompany Instagram versions of the trending lifestyle.

Vanlife Diaries is for anyone who’s ever considered nomadism as a means to reduce their carbon footprint, pursue nontraditional work or simply live more slowly and simply. With practical advice and inspirational full-color photos, this book has something to offer readers at every stage of the journey.


This review originally ran in the April 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 cast-iron skillets.

Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love by Naomi Wolf

**Please see the bottom of this post for why this book will not be published after all…**


Naomi Wolf examines poetry as social resistance and its ability to free its readers and its writers, the origins of homophobia and the battle against censorship in this gripping and vital history.

With Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, Naomi Wolf tackles the history of legislation against homosexuality in the United Kingdom through the poetry, essays and life of a man her readers have probably never heard of: John Addington Symonds. This book harnesses the electric power of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the righteous energy of first-wave feminism and the terror of criminalized identities, in a style accessible to general readers. As the fight for LGBTQ rights continues, this book is as relevant as it is compelling.

Symonds (1840-1893) had the bad luck to come of age as a gay man just as Great Britain’s legal system turned against men who loved men. He was a writer in a time of obscenity laws. And despite the grave danger–sodomy for a time was punishable by death–he kept writing. “This is one reason why Symonds’s story, in the context of the history of censorship and the history of homosexuality, is so remarkable. The man just would not be silenced.” On top of copious publications, Symonds left behind a trove of “secret poems,” and a memoir that would not be published until nearly 130 years after his death.

While Symonds is not Wolf’s central subject, he provides inspiration and continuity for a larger story, and his life provides the book’s timeline. It opens with Symonds’s youth and the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass. Then it follows London’s war against literal filth (human excrement in the streets, cholera, typhus) and the invention of the crime of obscenity (framed in parallel to that other filth, with its infectious properties), legislation of female bodies and what Wolf calls the laboratory of empire: Britain tried out increasingly stringent policies in its colonies before bringing them home. Wolf maps out the relationship between feminists’ campaigns for marital and property rights and the new idea that male-male love was “disgusting” or “unnatural”: “When women targeted the sexually abusive practices of heterosexual men, the outcome was a backlash by the heterosexual male establishment,” or distraction techniques directed at gay men.

Meanwhile, writers and artists sought each other out clandestinely, using coded language and referring to the ancient Greeks, as censorship laws “had an immediate dampening effect on literature.” Finally, Wolf tracks what she sees as a generational progression: Whitman influencing Symonds and then Oscar Wilde, who served two years’ hard labor for “gross indecency.” The book ends with Symonds’s death and his legacy, the writings he published in his lifetime and those he left behind for a future society ready to receive them.

Wolf’s style is easy to read, and her research is authoritative: this book is in part adapted from more academic work on the subject, and some of the most captivating scenes involve primary sources in the archives. Outrages is not only an important history with lessons for the present, but also an engagingly told story. The instructive life of Symonds is for any reader who cares about history, civil rights or the power of poetry.


This review originally ran in the May 17, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 notations to OMIT.

…and, speaking of omissions! Between my review of this book and its publication, there has been some uproar. I decided to post this review as it originally ran, and then to include a few links for your further reading.

“Naomi Wolf’s Outrages Postponed, Recalled” (from Shelf Awareness)

“Naomi Wolf’s Career of Blunders Continues in ‘Outrages’” (from The New York Times)

As it turns out, this book will not be available anytime soon.

In a nutshell, Wolf was first caught in a simple error (live on BBC radio: you can listen here) that played an important role in her book; but as the Times writer goes on to say (quite a bit more vehemently than the BBC radio host, historian Matthew Sweet), Wolf has a history of playing fast and loose with the facts.

I’m taking this in as you are, folks. What a wild ride. Vigilance on all our parts; and it’s good to read the adjacent articles as they come out, especially if you’re going to allow a book to shape your worldview…

Author interview: Michele Filgate

Following my review of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, here’s Michele Filgate: One of the Most Important Things Writing Can Do.


Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She teaches creative nonfiction for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Catapult and Stanford Continuing Studies, and is the founder of the Red Ink literary series. Filgate is an M.F.A. student at New York University, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence is available from Simon & Schuster.

photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

You spent more than a decade working on the essay for Longreads that was the seed for this book.

I started writing this essay when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, and I really thought I was writing about my stepfather abusing me. It took me many years to realize that what I was actually trying to write about was the fracture that abuse caused in my relationship with my mother. When you experience something traumatic, it can take many years to unpack. I finally had this breakthrough that the piece was really about my mother. I went to the Tin House summer workshop one year, where I studied with Jo Ann Beard, who is one of my biggest influences as a writer. Her instruction and my classmates in that workshop really helped me figure out how to put this piece together and how to make it work.

The essay came out in Longreads in October 2017, right when the Weinstein story broke and the #metoo movement took off. It was kind of wild to have the most painful thing I’ve ever written published right at a moment in our culture when we were revealing these stories that people had kept hidden for so long. It was a relief to feel like I was not alone.

How did it feel to publish such personal details?

It was terrifying at first. I did not tell my mom about the essay because our relationship was already so complicated. I didn’t want to hurt my mom; that was never my intention. And people who read the essay have told me they can read the love and longing, more than anger. It’s not about anger. It’s about wanting to have a relationship with my mom that I don’t have.

It was really scary to release this story that I’d been carrying with me for so many years in print. I felt nauseated, terrified, sad, anxious, all of those negative emotions… but as I kept hearing from strangers who read the piece–who had similar stories to tell–a funny thing happened. I started to feel a sense of relief, of unburdening myself. By putting this story out there I was able to help other people feel less alone, which I think is one of the most important things writing can do.

How did the anthology happen?

So many people responded to the title of my essay, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” that it just felt right to put together an anthology. Everyone–no matter how close they are with their mother, or if they’ve never even met their mother, or their mother is no longer alive–has something that they can’t talk about with their mother. I’d already been thinking of doing an anthology. Because of the essay going viral and having the response it did–it was shared by Lidia Yuknavitch, Anne Lamott, Rebecca Solnit, so many writers I admire on social media–I felt like, okay, there’s momentum here. I think this is a book.

Before I got a book deal, I reached out to writers I admire and asked them if they’d be willing to contribute original essays. Everything I’ve been doing in my career so far has led up to this point. I was an indy bookseller for many years; I ran events at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., McNally Jackson in Manhattan and Community Bookstore in Brooklyn; and then, after I left bookselling, I joined the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I’ve been a voracious reader and literary citizen for many years, and I have my own literary series, Red Ink, that’s dedicated to women writers. This was the kind of work I’d already been doing, making these connections, and so it was wonderful to be able to put together a book featuring so many writers I really respect.

What did you learn in the process of collecting, editing and organizing these essays?

It felt like such a privilege to be able to work with some of my favorite writers. I learned that this topic is not an easy one for anyone. Some writers I’d originally signed up for the book had to drop out. And some people realized they weren’t ready to write about their moms. It made me feel less alone, because this is a sensitive topic for so many people. That was kind of eye-opening to me. I’m not the only one who finds this a tricky thing to do. It was interesting to me that it’s even tricky for people who are close with their mothers. How do you capture someone you are so close to, and make it interesting for other people?

Is this a book with a cause?

Definitely, yes. If this can inspire people to have conversations with their moms that they haven’t been able to have, then I will feel like this book is worth it. And it’s already happened with one of the contributors in this book. Nayomi Munaweera wrote a piece about growing up with a mentally ill mother, and she sent it to her mom, and told her it was going to be coming out in a book. Her mother wrote back such a wonderful e-mail that we ended up including it as the postscript. So after her essay in the book is this really beautiful e-mail from her mom that demonstrates her love and how proud she is of Nayomi for writing this piece.

That right there is the cause for this book: breaking the silence, as the subtitle suggests. Silence can be toxic. I think this book will help a lot of people learn how to have those conversations in their own lives, or feel less alone.


This interview originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey

This funny, wise, well-researched study sits at the intersection of biography of Orwell’s life, literary criticism of 1984 and social commentary on literature’s role in life.

Dorian Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) takes a close look at an ubiquitous classic with The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel was a sensation and a controversy when it was published in 1949; again as the year 1984 approached and passed; again in recent years, and at every time in between. Lynskey sets out to examine its ancestry in utopian and dystopian literatures, in Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and wartime Great Britain, and the political and cultural responses it’s drawn.

Lynskey spends much time contextualizing outside material: he devotes whole chapters to the literary works of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, his relationships with other writers and his personal and professional history necessarily figure as background material in Part One of The Ministry of Truth.

Part Two covers the world’s reaction to 1984, all the way through the election of the Unites States’ 45th president. In 1984, the novel surfaced not only in documentaries and articles, but also in a comedy sketch by Steve Martin and Jeff Goldblum, in carpet advertisements, on Cheers and in Charlie Brown–Lynskey writes that it “had mutated from a novel into a meme.” He refers to Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Postman and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. He covers some of the books’ various interpretations: Atwood features as the “most prominent advocate” of the Appendix Theory, which asserts that 1984‘s Appendix, covering Newspeak from a date apparently far beyond 1984, “is a text within the world of the novel, with an unidentified author,” thereby offering a decisive reading.

This wide-ranging and thorough study requires a careful and patient reader. Even one familiar with both Orwell’s work and early communist and socialist histories will need to read closely. Lynskey offers his own appendix: a chapter-by-chapter précis of 1984, which is recommended for everyone. The requisite attention will be well rewarded, as The Ministry of Truth is not only enthralling and research-rich, but often laugh-out-loud funny. When 1984‘s American publishers wrote to J. Edgar Hoover hoping for a back-cover endorsement, Lynskey writes, “Hoover declined the request and instead opened a file on Orwell.” Lynskey’s voice is impassioned and self-aware, and he has an eye for the absurd (as any student of Orwell’s should).

Among Lynskey’s conclusions is that 1984 is “a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” Too often it has been mistaken for a prophecy (and critics then argue about how successful it has been in that regard), rather than understood as Orwell intended: to offer a possible future as motivation to work against that possibility. Lynskey argues that such persistent and diverse misreadings are possible because the novel leaves room to become essentially whatever the reader wants it to be, or most fears. This is part of why 1984 remains as forceful and compelling as ever. The Ministry of Truth is a necessary guide.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lies.

Lanny by Max Porter

This novel about family, the power of the woods and the creative spirit, centered on a special young boy, will charm any reader.

Following his decorated first novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter again takes his reader into a weird and magical world with Lanny. Similarly short, lyric and mysterious, this touching story is partner but not sequel.

Lanny’s mum and dad have moved to a village not far from London, “fewer than fifty redbrick cottages, a pub, a church.” Lanny’s dad commutes into the city while his mum works on writing her murder thriller. Lanny goes to school and plays in the woods, singing, fairy-like and joyful; he is “young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key,” “stinking of pine trees and other nice things.” He “says strange and wonderful things, mumblings, puzzling things for a child to say.” There is also an old man in the village named Pete, an artist who works with natural materials and was once famous in London. He describes himself as a “miserable solitary bastard” but is actually caring and sensitive; he becomes the closest friend Lanny’s family has in town.

And then there is Dead Papa Toothwort, a legend and an enigma, tied up in trees and leaves and related to the green men carved in old churches in this part of the world. When the book opens, he is waking “from his standing nap an acre wide.” As a force, it is unclear whether Dead Papa Toothwort is good or evil; he is associated with death as well as seasonal renewal. “He wants to kill things, so he sings… his grin takes a sticky hour.” “He loves it when a lamb gets stuck being born.” And he is obsessed with Lanny.

The whole village, in a way, revolves around Lanny–especially after misfortune strikes. His dad feels overwhelmed by his son’s specialness (“What or who is supposed to manage and regulate Lanny and his gifts? Oh f*ck, it’s us”); his needs are simpler, related to work, food and sex. The boy’s mum is closer to Lanny’s dreamworld, “the type of person who is that little bit more akin to the weather than most.” After agreeing to give him art lessons, Pete finds a surprising new friend in the young boy. The rest of the human population follows this preoccupation–and always there is Dead Papa Toothwort, listening.

What begins as a sweet revolution of three adult lives (mum, dad, Pete) around the boy turns sinister in the novel’s second of three parts; resolution comes in the third. Often a stream-of-consciousness style leaves the reader a bit off-kilter, but this is suited to Lanny’s dreamlike setting: trust in the story will be rewarded. Porter’s prose is undeniably gorgeous. “Mile-wide slabs of rain romp across the valley… palette-knife smears of bad weather rush past.” These elements in combination are every bit as imaginative, compelling and magical as Lanny himself.


This review originally ran in the April 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mutterings.
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