The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet by Kim Adrian

A remarkable memoir, organized as a glossary of terms, that is part detective story, investigating a mother’s mental illness.


The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a memoir with an unusual structure to match its ever-shifting reality. “I’ve wanted to tell this story for as long as I can remember wanting anything at all,” writes Kim Adrian (Sock): the story of her mentally ill mother, how she got this way and what Adrian can or should do about it.

Linda, Adrian’s mother, has been diagnosed with a long list of ailments: borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, bipolar, psychosis, paranoia and more. Adrian’s father is an alcoholic; his memories, his assertions that Linda wasn’t always this crazy, “not like she is now,” can’t be trusted, because “he’d been drunk the whole time.” Adrian’s sister has few memories from their childhood. In constructing this narrative, then, she relies entirely on her own memory. But the trouble with remembering the truth of what happened is that Linda’s lies, manipulations and her own troubles with reality created a wildly shifting experience for her oldest daughter. If Linda retold a story, the very truth of it changed for Adrian. Reconstructing the past now is therefore a fraught undertaking.

This troubled and troubling attempt to reorganize a life is organized alphabetically, beginning with an anecdote titled “Abecedarian” about an unexplained event in grade school, and ending not with “Zigzag” (Linda weaving down a city sidewalk), but with the entries under “&.” “Until the mid-nineteenth century, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet,” and for Adrian it offers inclusivity, “a verbal umbrella” under which she is both mother and daughter, both happy and sad.

This structure, the glossary, would feel contrived or awkward in less capable hands. The narrative of Adrian’s childhood through her own motherhood and healthy, loving family life is told more-or-less chronologically, but in fragments, whose alphabetized titles emphasize the narrator’s reliance on words, on the power of storytelling to restructure her experiences, perhaps to fix something. The glossary’s entries are anecdotes, descriptions of family photographs or simple definitions. “Domesticity: A kind of faith, in my experience.” Deceptively simple fragments add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Adrian’s story is often horrifying. Both of her parents were violent; her mother’s emotional and verbal abuse is ongoing and perhaps more shocking still. The older woman’s circumstances, bouts of homelessness and hospitalization, and the younger woman’s inability to extricate herself from the cycle of abuse, can be difficult to read. But, see “Hope: The ‘only way of knowing a person,’ said Walter Benjamin, is to love them without it.”

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a feat on many levels. Adrian tells a harrowing story, surprisingly redeemed by her own sweet family, but in many ways also continuing. She gives it meaning without having answers to all the questions she still asks herself. Her work as glossator is astonishing and inventive. Her glossary is strangely gripping, with a momentum pulling the reader in and through. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. Memoir readers should not miss this singular offering.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nutcrackers.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This retelling of the Trojan War by one of the women on the side of defeat is essential, and essentially human.

The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War told by the victors, and by men. At long last, another perspective is offered, in Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was queen of a city near Troy and, after it fell to the Greeks, she was given as prize of honor to Achilles. After Apollo compelled him to forfeit a concubine, Agamemnon took Briseis for his own. This indignity inspires Achilles’s famous sulk, which begins the Iliad.

In the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, The Silence of the Girls is a much-needed retelling. Where men sing of honor and glory, women experience a different war. They are controlled by men: by their fathers and husbands, and then by their captors. Briseis is beautiful and royal; she hates her new status as concubine, but sees the far worse treatment of the “common women” who sleep under the Greeks’ huts, with their dogs, and are used by any man who pleases. She is clever and gives nuanced portraits of many characters in the Greek encampment below Troy’s walls. She is proud, angered by the indignities of slavery. One of the book’s themes is the question of authorship: she knows that it is Achilles’s story that the world will hear, but she searches for her own within narratives of men and war.

Strong, beautiful Achilles is cold, but stops short of cruelty. Gentle Patroclus eventually befriends Briseis. Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Nestor are profiled; but equally important are the other slave women. Briseis has friends, allies and antagonists among them, but always considers their struggles. For example, Ajax’s concubine is one of several women who recommend pregnancy above all other strategies. Briseis does not love her captors. But one of her revelations involves how the Trojans will survive, in the end: the sons of the Greeks will remember the Trojan lullabies their captive mothers sang to them.

The Silence of the Girls, like the classic it’s modeled on, is an epic. Briseis’s uncertain situation brings tension and momentum. At just 300 pages, this novel feels much bigger than it is, but is never heavy. Even with the atrocities, violence and loss it portrays, the protagonist’s thoughtful, compassionate point of view emphasizes humanity. It would be too much to say she weighs both sides of an issue evenly; she is loyal to her family and angry with her captors, but she also sees the tragedy in ranks of young Greek boys killed.

This mature, reflective narrative manages the cataloging of Homer’s telling (how many tripods offered, how many bowls of wine mixed), but with a grace and an interest in individual people that is fresh and novel. Barker uses metaphor and animal imagery deftly. Her prose flows easily, like storytelling between friends. It’s an absolute pleasure to read for any devoted fan of the Iliad, but equally accessible to those new to the Trojan story; indeed, The Silence of the Girls might make the perfect entry.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 waves.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg (Find Me) opens her second novel, The Third Hotel, in an atmospheric Havana. Clare has traveled from her home in upstate New York to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema. She is a sales rep in elevator technologies, but her husband was a film critic, specializing in horror. Clare has come alone on this trip intended for the two of them, and it is here, in this jumbled city of many faces, that she sees her husband again, navigating Havana with ease, “like he had not been struck by a car and killed in the United States of America some five weeks ago.”

The Third Hotel is part ghost story, part realistic portrayal of grief, part psychological thriller. What exactly Clare sees and experiences is up for debate. Her character appears on the outside to be ultra-normal: a boring salesperson with a suitcase packed neatly with toiletries for her work-related travels, and a content if distant marriage. But as the story develops, we see the fractures and skews in perspective. In the opening scene, Clare is removed from a conference reception for licking a mural. She shows a passion for both travel and silence, especially when they can be combined: “In a hotel room her favorite thing in all the world was to switch off every light and everything that made a sound–TV, phone, air conditioner, faucets–and sit naked on the polyester comforter and count the breaths as they left her body.”

This slightly tilted version of reality is told in perfectly realistic fashion, tempting the reader to simply accept each new development as it comes. While the novel’s action takes place in Cuba, flashbacks reveal details of Clare’s marriage and life in New York, her travels in the Midwest (she has a special love for Nebraska) and her upbringing in Florida: her parents were hotelkeepers, which puts her interest in travel into a new light. Further revelations hint at explanations for what is off-kilter in this story–chiefly, her husband’s impossible return from the dead–but in the end, The Third Hotel leaves much to the reader’s imagination or interpretation.

Van den Berg’s clean, descriptive prose brings full images and sensory detail to life without drawing attention to the writing. The shapeshifting city of Havana is a riveting character in itself, and contributes greatly to the atmosphere. The Third Hotel explores the oddities of travel and relationships; silence and noise; and the effects of past trauma. Like Clare, it is an engrossing, thought-provoking enigma.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 breaths.

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

A concise, friendly, illustrated guide to gender-neutral pronouns written by a likable pair of friends.

The coauthors of A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns are friends. Archie Bongiovanni identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns; Tristan Jimerson (he/him) knew them before they came out as nonbinary, so Bongiovanni asked him to help communicate with a mainstream population who might have trouble with the concept. Bongiovanni and Jimerson make a jolly, jokey team in this graphic how-to manual, with Bongiovanni’s illustrations, but despite their often playful tone, they take this topic seriously. They agree that being told one’s pronouns don’t matter is “basically telling you that you don’t matter.”

A Quick & Easy Guide addresses what a pronoun is; why people might want to use gender-neutral pronouns; how to ask for and give one’s pronouns; how to change one’s language and how to handle mistakes; and how to integrate these lessons into professional and retail settings. It’s written both for a general readership that may be confused by they/them pronouns, and (in a special section by Bongiovanni) for nonbinary folks. It even includes sample scripts and signs to post in places of business.

This is a short, easy-to-read, affordable guide, because the authors hope it will be widely distributed and handed out on the street. It meets its goals neatly: just the facts, but in a friendly, approachable tone, enhanced by the true friendship of its authors. A Quick & Easy Guide is for everyone, because as Bongiovanni and Jimerson point out, we encounter nonbinary folks every day, whether we know it or not.


This review originally ran in the July 10, 2018 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: 7 arrows of good intent.

The Shades by Evgenia Citkowitz


Note: I am away for my residency period at school for two weeks or so. This is a previously scheduled post. I will respond to comments, but not as quickly as usual. Thanks for your patience, and thanks as always for stopping by.


In this atmospheric story, a grieving family splits, each suffering more or less alone, until a stranger comes to visit their mysterious old house and throws them off-balance even more.

Evgenia Citkowitz’s first novel (following a short story debut, Ether) is a captivating, mysterious story of family, love and grief. The Shades centers on Catherine and Michael, a year after their teenaged daughter, Rachel, died in a car wreck. Their son, Rowan, insisted on going away to boarding school immediately after losing his sister.

Catherine has withdrawn to the country, to the apartment in a subdivided manor where she and Michael had hoped to retire. She lets the mail pile up, doesn’t answer the phone and neglects her previously successful London art gallery. Meanwhile, Michael continues to work and live in the city, where he fails to find comfort in architecture–his passion–and tries to reconcile himself to his troubled marriage: “their lives ran parallel but never together or intersecting.”

The estate where Catherine has retreated is a focal point–this historic house whose design elements enchant her husband, but whose empty rooms, with both children gone, haunt her. When a young woman shows up at the door saying she used to live there, Catherine grasps at her like a drowning woman. In this potential for new friendship, she clearly sees a lifeline. But this visitor, whom Catherine calls simply “the girl,” may not be what she seems.

Catherine’s career as a tastemaker in the fine arts, and Michael’s in architecture and real estate, provide just a few of the many threads that combine for this story’s rich tapestry. The history of Catherine’s family (her father’s art, her mother’s instability); Rachel’s burgeoning romance, revealed only after her death; Michael’s courtship of the ever-aloof Catherine; Rowan’s attempts to carve out an identity for himself apart from his family: these are significant supports to Citkowitz’s plot. Strangely, that plot, involving the mystery girl and a flash-forward opening to the book that is not resolved until the final pages, is less sharply executed, less beguiling than the details that render this family so realistically. The meticulous portrayal of characters, the flaws and struggles in their relationships and a gloomy, atmospheric tone are the greatest accomplishments of The Shades.

A subtle plot element involves the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus tries to bring his beloved wife back across the River Styx following her death, but fails because he does not follow Hades’ instructions. Foreshadowed briefly by an opera at which Michael and Catherine’s romance began to bloom, this myth offers a lens for interpreting their grief, and the damage it will wreak on their family. Readers with a careful eye or a familiarity with mythology will recognize this thread; the rest will be none the poorer for having missed it in a novel rich with pathos and agony, but also simple humanity: love, loss, grief, hope and deceit.


This review originally ran in the June 8, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lilting rhomboids.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

This study of rising sea levels puts both science and poetry to work in honoring human and non-human coastal communities across the United States.

Journalist Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is science, poetry and personal witness, concerned with human and more-than-human communities. It is a reckoning with the ugly reality of climate change, with numbers and predictions becoming grimmer each year. It is a poetic meditation on the nature of change, on how people can make peace with a changing world and our agency in it. And it is an impassioned consideration of the injustices humans perpetrate on one another, and on the non-human world.

Rush saw firsthand the reality of rising sea levels in inland Bangladesh, when a boy named Faharul showed her his dying mustard greens, their veins filling with salt. It took her years to follow that story to the U.S. communities she visited in researching and writing this book. In Rhode Island, Louisiana, Maine, Florida, New York, Oregon and California, Rush interviews local residents, observes local flora and fauna and questions scientists. She studies climate change and the rise of sea levels globally, but particularly in wetland ecosystems.

Rush’s concerns begin with plants and animals: salt marsh harvest mouse, roseate spoonbill, Caspian tern, rufous hummingbird, red knot, black tupelo. But she quickly extrapolates them to tell a human story, too, about the people threatened alongside greater egret and cypress, and about her own struggle to navigate hope and action within despair. “I have a hard time separating excavation from elegy.” The loss of islands on Louisiana’s coast means the loss of Native communities there, and to understand that loss, one must recognize that those communities were formed by relocated tribes of Chitimacha, Biloxi, Choctaw and Acadian people pushed out of their original homes all over the continent. This is but one example of the vulnerable populations most at risk and least assisted by social supports.

Appealingly, Rush puts her research and writing to work alongside the perspectives of coastal residents: interwoven chapters are told in other voices. She makes allusions to the story of Noah and his ark, and to Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, seeking the right reference point. Striking black-and-white photographs from Rush’s travels add another gorgeous, elegiac layer to the narrative she helps to construct. Finally, an alliterative organizational structure stemming from wetland botanical structures makes this a book to be admired on many levels.

Rising is in some ways a difficult read. Its subjects are sobering and saddening, and survivors of flood events may be re-traumatized by some descriptions. The human-on-human crimes Rush documents include both discriminatory lending practices and sexual assault. These are important subjects to consider, regardless of the pain they may cause, but Rising has more to offer: pulsing, gleaming prose and a stubborn search for, if not hope, then peace in the face of disaster.


This review originally ran in the May 24, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 10 rampikes.

(Yes, that good, even though it made me terribly depressed too.)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori

A quirky novel about a convenience-store clerk who seems to be the ideal employee.

In the opening pages of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is in her element, at work in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. She knows what the displays need, how properly to promote the day’s featured item, when the cold drinks need replenishing; she reads her customers expertly: “Instantly I deduce that he will use electronic money.” She is a valued employee and good at her job. The mingled beeps, dings, rustles and clacks of the convenience store form a “sound that ceaselessly caresses [her] eardrums.”

Few situations in Keiko’s life have been so easy. In primary school, she often responded to the world in ways others thought wrong: offering to cook and eat a dead bird on the playground, applying a shovel to the skull of a classmate in order to break up a fight. She wasn’t a violent child; these just seemed like practical strategies. She couldn’t understand why the teachers at school got upset. Life presented a series of puzzles she could not decipher, until the day she went to work at the Smile Mart. The convenience store offers Keiko a uniform, a series of set lines to be spoken to customers and a manual for staff behavior. She copies her coworkers’ choices in clothing and cosmetics, mimics their speech patterns and facial movements, and learns to play the part. She’s never felt so successful: no one notices that she’s different anymore. “Here in the convenience store we’re not men and women. We’re all store workers.” And so she has been a store worker for 18 years.

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut, is a compelling novel about conformity in society, and the baffling rules applied in work and life. Murata’s protagonist is likable, if a bit baffling herself. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation feels just right for the slightly off-kilter reality of this thought-provoking story: Keiko’s first-person narrative is earnest, if continually challenged, in attempting to decode the world around her.

Keiko is attuned to the ways people act, speak and move; she suspects they are all imitating each other, just as she is imitating them. She studies these behaviors to lower her own profile, but remains honestly unclear why careers, marriage and children are desirable goals. When a new employee comes along who also has trouble fitting in–but who hasn’t mastered the act as much as Keiko has–she is intrigued. Tired of everyone questioning her lack of a husband or a “real job,” Keiko takes a risk. But it may cost her the carefully constructed mask she’s learned to wear.

This brief, brisk novel is an engrossing adventure into an unusual mind. Is it a subversive, satiric criticism of societal norms? Is it a surrealist take on extreme workplace culture? Or simply the perspective of a woman wired a little bit differently? Murata holds the reader rapt, wondering what Keiko will do next. Convenience Store Woman is for all kinds of readers, for anyone who’s ever questioned the status quo.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rice balls.
%d bloggers like this: