Saturday, September 28, 2013


by Paul Harding  

Random House     2013
256 pages      Fiction

Enon by Paul Harding is a painful, existential journey through grief. Written in the first person, it has been called a "tone poem" by one reviewer, and a surreal, apocalyptic odyssey by another. Clearly, Harding has charted new ground with his second novel. Enon is haunting to read and it continues to haunt long after you have set it down.

Charlie Crosby is a small town man, the grandson of the narrator of Harding's Pulitzer Prize winning Tinkers. He is the town handyman--landscaper and house painter--husband, and father of 13-year-old Kate. We barely know his wife Susan, and do not meet Kate in reality because she is killed in a car-bike accident in the book's first scene. All we know of Kate is in the imaginings about her in Charlie's mind. 

So much of Charlie is invested in Kate that when he loses her, his whole world falls apart, and for the year following her death, he wallows around in a grief so profound that it seems he will never recover. When Susan leaves him, he has no one for support. His entire being is consumed with remembrances of Kate, his childhood, and Enon, his home village that has been a part of history since the 1600s.  As he descends into an alcoholic and drug-induced blur, those elements become so confused in his brain that he can't separate one from the other. All of his hallucinations include Kate. He roams the village and the surrounding fields and lake at night and often sleeps behind Kate's grave in the village cemetery. He covers the mirrors in his dirt-encrusted house so that he won't have to look at himself. In his few moments of clarity, he realizes what he is doing to himself, but he is incapable of keeping himself from this long, torturous route to suicide. 

The writing is breathtaking: "I was ravenous for my child and took to gorging myself in the boneyard, hoping that she might possible meet me halfway, or just beyond, one night, if only for an instant--step back into her own bare feet, onto the wet grass or fallen leaves or snowy ground of the living Enon, so that we could share just one last human word." 

I know from experience the many ways in which grief manifests itself. I particularly remember an acquaintance whose husband died abruptly leaving her with four children. She locked herself in her bedroom for about six weeks during which time her children were left in the care of the oldest daughter. When my husband died not too long after that, I had learned enough from my acquaintance's experience that I remained fully present for my children, most likely at the expense of my own grief. Additionally, it is obvious that the grief of losing a child is far worse than the grief of losing a spouse, a sibling, or a parent. The grief envelopes Charlie because he has no one else. He is utterly alone. 

No one knows how they will respond to profound grief. We comfort ourselves by saying, "Well, I wouldn't act that way." We try to learn from the experiences of others. And, no two experiences of grief are quite the same. The experience of Charlie's grief in Enon is unique to Charlie, but we learn from him, none the less.

Paul Harding says of his writing: "Basically, what I want to do with my reader is break your heart and blow your mind." Enon is not for the faint of heart. It steals your soul. 

Working It Out by Abby Rike is a memoir of grief after losing her husband and two children in a automobile accident. I am intrigued by the premise of the new book The Returned by Jason Mott which explores what happens when dead loved ones actually do return to their families. It's on my Kindle but I haven't read it yet.
A good review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Raising My Rainbow

by Lori Duron
Broadway Books     2013
288 pages     Memoir

Lori Duron is the mother of two boys, Chase and C.J. Chase is a boy's boy and C.J. loves princesses and Barbie dolls. At first Duron and her husband were a bit freaked out by the way in which toddler C.J. embraced all things girlie. Luckily for C.J., Duron already had experience with this because her brother was a bit gender-creative, as she calls the phenomenon. The couple tried to figure out a strategy for dealing with this child who was an anomaly in a gender-specific world.  Eventually she started a blog to try to connect with other mothers having the same experience. In the blog, she explores LGBTQ resources, speaks to psychologists and teachers, and compares notes with her blog-sphere friends. The blog, called Raising My Rainbow, has now become a book, which was published last week. The book doesn't read like blog postings, but more like a memoir of three years in the life of their family. It is interesting and enlightening, but more importantly, it shows how far our society has come when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Twenty years ago, a book like this would not have been possible.

I read Raising My Rainbow from the other end of the age spectrum. I am the mother of a gay man who just turned 40. As I was reading Raising My Rainbow, I wracked my brain to remember his "gender creative" characteristics. Here is what I remember: when he was two years old, he choreographed the entire 1812 Overture and made the same dance moves every time the music played. Gender-creative, perhaps, but I took it to mean that he was tremendously musical. 

When he was about 10 or eleven, my son wanted dance lessons because he was planning a career in musical theater. He took two years of lessons and then landed the role of John in the community theater production of Peter Pan. A dream realized. Later, he became the drum major of the high school marching band and had leads in high school and university musicals. The dance lessons led him to all of those things. 

Gender-creative, I suppose. I always thought it was just Matthew being Matthew.

As a parent, I have always believed that it is necessary to follow the lead of your child when it comes to interests and activities--to not force activities on your child. Each child is unique. In about 6th grade, Matthew said, "You know, I don't want to play soccer anymore." What he wanted to do was to be a hockey fan, so for several years, he went to all the university hockey games. When he was 10, he became a big fan of the Miss America Pageant, because a family friend spent a year as Miss Michigan, and he became an expert on all things Miss America. Now he is a fan of his university's basketball team, and he knows the music of all the divas of the musical theatre. His hobby is to DJ, and he performs for fundraisers and occasional gigs for dance parties. Matthew being Matthew.

The most important part of parenting is to create self-confident, independent children who can carve out their own place in the world. In that regard, raising Matthew was successful. He is very accomplished in his chosen career, nationally and internationally known in his field, and is well-respected in his community. He is charming company and a caring, loving son.

It is necessary to  our society that we have these gender-creative individuals. If not for them, we would not have many of our dress and costume designers, musicians, actors, women athletes, hair dressers, and on and on. They greatly add to the richness of our society.

More than anything, Raising My Rainbow is an affirmation that parenting is no easy task.
Mothers will like Duron's take on parenting, the humor with which she faces daily life, and the seriousness with which she tackles bullying and other major parenting issues. She speaks of the "fluidity and flexibility of gender." What she has learned is a lesson for all parents; there is no mold for children. Each child is a unique creation. Duron's C.J. is just being C.J.

Interview with Lori Duron and Jennifer Finney Boylan in Psychology Today:

The Raising My Rainbow Blog:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

by Ramez Naam
University Press of New England     2012
352 pages     Nonfiction

In April I was sent the book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. It looked interesting, so my husband and I decided to make it our morning read. It has taken us until now to finish it, and it was definitely worth the time that we spent. We learned so much.

Naam, who is patently optimistic, outlines for his readers the plight the world seems to be in, with all the finite resources becoming used up. Then, he lifts his readers up to the heights of possibility when he says, "Our only limit, for the foreseeable future, is our collective intelligence in innovating, and in putting in place the systems that guide our collective behavior."

His message is that we have solved major problems with innovation in the past, and there still seems to be an abundance of innovation available to solve our current major problems. Shortly after we began reading Naam's book, my husband attended a lecture presented by several university professors. He came home disheartened because they were preaching doom and gloom. They indicated to the audience that unless we cut back on our use of natural resources, we would soon be out of all the resources available to us and life as we know it would be over. No creative solutions were offered.

Naam has a different focus. He says that in the recent past, we were able to figure out ways to fix the ozone layer and to eliminate the use of CFCs in the environment. It follows that we will most likely be able to conquer the other ills of the environment. He discusses genetic engineering of food, fish farming, and other aspects of the need to finding food to feed the world.
He also makes a case for a renewal of nuclear energy. I was fascinated by the concept of a very small nuclear plant that would power a house or an apartment building or a neighborhood. He says, "Sometimes, new technology, even though it looks different or frightening, is exactly what we need to embrace in order to survive and thrive."

I began to look at several things differently as I read the book--particularly wind and solar energy. In Pentwater, Michigan, where we vacation, there has been a raging debate over putting up windmills to generate power from the winds of Lake Michigan. First, there was a proposal to put the windmills in the lake. People objected because they could be seen from the shore and no one wanted to look at the windmills from one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States. The compromise was that they were put in farm fields about one-half mile away from the shore and the cottages. Now, people are complaining because they think that in ten years or so, the windmills will rust out and will become eyesores. 
At first I agreed with those who objected to the windmills, but as I read Naam's book, I began to see that those windmills are part of the process of creating energy from wind and solar, the infinite resources.  When innovation moves beyond windmills, the companies that own the windmills can take them down and replace them with something newer and more innovative.

All in all, we learned a great deal from reading The Infinite Resource. My husband liked it for two reasons: one because it is positive when there is so much negative information about the finiteness of the planet. Additionally, it had a lot of statistics in it, and my husband loves statistics. The book isn't too technical, however, for the layperson--namely me. Naam helped me form opinions about renewable energy when I previously had no informed thoughts. Naam says that we can take two paths: one that decides that we are causing harm to our planet and then setting out to solving the problems. On the other path, we deny the damage we are doing, and we belatedly realize we have made a bad mistake. Of course, he advocates the dynamic pathway forward. "The human mind is the ultimate source of wealth. . .If we make the right choices to empower human minds and encourage innovation, to steer innovation toward the solutions to our planet's problems, and to embrace the fruits that it offers, then the future will be one of almost unimaginable health, wealth, and well-being."

Here is a very good video of Naam lecturing for the Microsoft Research Bureau. If you don't have time to read the book, the lecture can fill in for you.
Here are two very good reviews:
A review in The World future Review:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Round House

by Louise Erdrich
Harper     2012
317 pages     Fiction.

This is a book about the rape of Joe's mother and the way thirteen-year-old Joe helps his father find the rapist and bring him to justice. At its heart, it is a very sad story.

But before you put the thought of reading The Round House aside because you "don't want to read a sad book," let me say that this book is subtly profound, that it deals with difficult topics compellingly, and that the protagonist and narrator, Joe, is a 13-year-old detective "par excellence." The book has it all--a page-turning plot, some extremely humorous moments, and a moral dilemma that causes the reader to ponder the meaning of justice long after the book is done.

Many of Erdrich's books are set on an Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota. Erdrich, herself, is Ojibwa. This is territory that most of us know little about, and Erdrich teaches us about life on the reservation without didacticism. The NPR reviewer says the Erdrich has "created for us the keenly made story of a peculiar history, in an out of the way part of our continent, that touches on the hearts and souls of us all." The theme of this particular book is violence against Native American women and the rule of law on the reservation and how it collides with federal and state law. The plot is interwoven with fascinating characters, scenes of daily reservation life, a pow wow, and an old grandpa telling Ojibwa legends. Teenage boys snack on fry bread, grandmas tell bawdy stories, and a loving family deals with personal tragedy.

Joe is a vivid character as are his buddies and their families. When his mother, Geraldine, is raped, Joe is forced to grow up in unanticipated ways. Bazil, Joe's father, is a tribal judge, and he includes Joe in his detective work. By telling Joe about the rape, he puts a layer of maturity on the boy, which Joe then passes on to his friends, particularly Cappy his best friend. The boys bike madly all over the reservation as they solve the crime--mostly behind the backs of their parents. Some of their sleuthing is humorous; some is extremely dangerous. Their concept of justice is immature, like their years, but the ramifications of the justice they exact follows Joe into adulthood. (He is narrating the story as an adult--a tribal judge like his father.)

The novel's subplots are as fascinating as the detective story. It is evident by the way Erdrich weaves the stories together that we are putty in the hands of a master storyteller. Sometimes, I had to stop reading just to come up for air--it was so intense that I couldn't read any further. Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House, and it is well deserved. The illustration in the New York Times review very aptly conveys the intensity of the novel.

Familial love is one of the themes of The Round House.  Bazil loves Geraldine and is extremely patient with her suffering following the rape. By his loving example, he shows Joe how a woman should be treated, rather than the way his mother was treated. Bazil is similar in many ways to Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, and the reader has the same warm feeling toward him that we have to Atticus. He is a just man caught in a very unjust situation. 

I liked the way the reviewer in the Washington Times began his piece about The Round House. "Novelists who can create vivid, plausible, living characters are rare, but novelists who also can create a believable world and a compelling story for those characters are blessed. Louise Erdrich is blessed."

Erdrich says in an interview that she wrote the last paragraph of the book after she had written about half of the book. After she wrote the last paragraph, she put her head in her hands and wept. I did the same. 

The family always stopped for ice cream on their way home from a trip, but on the last trip in The Round House they did not stop. "We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going." The "sweep of sorrow" that assails the reader's heart in this poignant coming of age story goes on long after the book is finished. Indeed, the very last sentence of the book, "We just kept going," is a small affirmation that life goes on, people survive tragedy, and hope is ever present in the human soul.

The NPR review, which by the way gives a good summary of the book:

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Welcome Home Mama & Boris

by Carey Neesley and Michael Levin
 Readers Digest,     2013
223 pages      Memoir

I was at loose ends today when I picked up Welcome Home Mama and Boris. And my heart was immediately warmed as I became engrossed in this story of dogs, love, grief, and redemption. 

Peter Neesley was serving in Iraq when he found and befriended a mother dog and her pups. Caring for the dogs brought meaning to his tour of duty, and he planned to bring them home with him when he came home. Tragically, he died in his sleep on Christmas morning in 2007 in Baghdad. His sister, Carey, with whom he was very close, made it her mission to bring the two remaining dogs home as a memorial to her brother. This memoir details her efforts and her success in bringing Mama and her pup Boris back to Michigan from Iraq.

Carey describes her bond with her brother with great depth of emotion, and we are touched by the grief, pain and confusion she felt at his death.  She immediately decided that the dogs must come home, and much of the book describes the steps she and her family took to achieve that goal. Of course, they had to fight the bureaucracy every step of the way, but they also had some wonderful things happen because of the media attention they gained by telling their heartwarming story . The story was covered in all the major media outlets including NPR.  
She also mentions the help Senator Carl Levin and the Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm gave them, as well as a nonprofit that helps soldiers bring their dogs home.

I tutor many Middle Eastern students, particularly Saudi Arabians, and they tell me that there are stray dogs all over the Middle East. Very few people in the Middle East have dogs as pets. Some of my clients are afraid of dogs, primarily because they have so little experience with them. Of course American soldiers will latch on to those dogs; it is a touch of home, and it is very easy to see why they want to bring the dogs home with them. 

Welcome Home Mama and Boris is a touching memoir. It is the kind of book that Readers Digest does particularly well. I can see my teenaged granddaughters really loving it, and I will give it to them to read. I suggest that readers watch the trailer which can be found on YouTube here. Also, there is a nice review of the book in the Huntington WV News. The book is being released this week.

A nice review in the Huntington News: