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review 2017-04-12 20:37
Magdalene, by Marie Howe [poetry]
Magdalene: Poems - Marie Howe

I began reading Marie Howe when I was an undergrad taking my first poetry workshops. At first, I wasn't sure I liked her style, which is deceptively simple or plain. This was a contrast to many other poets I was introduced to at the same time, such as Mark Doty and Yusef Komunyakaa. But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with her aesthetic, and that first book of hers I read, What the Living Do, remains a favorite and a touchstone.

 

I now recognize and admire the delicate straightforwardness of Howe's language, which packs as much power as any formal poem or one with more verbal jujitsu. Her lines can be long, with lots of room between them or stanzas. They feel quiet, contemplative, so when there's a turn or revelation coming, it heightens the impact. I'm trying to explain her appeal, but part of it is that I can't. Or I could if I analyzed it to death, and I prefer letting the magic linger.

 

The poems' subjects range from desire to mental health, self-perception, spirituality, and motherhood. Though I don't read the book like one overarching narrative, it does feel like there's an arc; there's a fullness to that arc that somehow replicates the sensation of completing a big, fat novel. You have an idea of a life.

 

Here's a favorite:

 

How the Story Started

 

I was driven toward desire by desire.

believing that the fulfillment of that desire was an end.

There was no end.

 

Others might have looked into the future and seen

a shape inside the coming years --

a house, a child, a man who might be a help.

 

I saw his back bent over what he was working on,

the back of his neck, how he stood in his sneakers,

and wanted to eat him.

 

How could I see another person, I mean who he was--apart from me--

apart from that?

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-04-03 17:13
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

I've had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.

 

(Spoiler-free until the note.)

 

The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It's the sort of book that I'm not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).

 

The story is divided between protagonist Clay's perspective and Hannah's, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah's downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?

 

Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn't all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book's structure but not necessarily its execution.

 

(SPOILERS) I'm also disappointed in the revelation of Clay's role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a "good guy" in the reader's eyes since his is the point of view we're following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn't do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it's when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he's making Hannah's pain about him.

 

Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we're to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role--or won't acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there's a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders--but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)

 

Regardless of my concerns, I'm grateful there's a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I'm interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.

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review 2017-03-03 10:53
Tragedies that should be remembered and never repeated
Warnings Unheeded - Massad Ayoob,Andy Brown

Thanks to the author for providing me with a free copy of his book that I review as part of Rosie’s Books Review Team.

I am a psychiatrist and have worked in forensic psychiatry (looking after patients with a history of dangerous behaviour and, on occasions, criminal records) and therefore when I was approached by this writer about the book, my interest was twofold. Although I’m not currently working as a psychiatrist, I wanted to read the book to see what lessons there were to be learned, especially from the incident of mass shooting, as it was particularly relevant to the issues of mental health assessment and treatment. I was also interested, as a reader, a writer and a member of the public, in how the author would write about the incidents in a manner that would engage the readership. More than anything, I was interested in reading about his personal experience.

As a reader (not that I’m sure I can take my psychiatrist hat off that easily), the book intertwines both incidents, that coincided in the same setting, Fairchild Air Force Base, within a week period. We are given information about previous concerns about the flying acrobatics of Holland, whose antics had worried a number of people at the time, although in his case we don’t get to know much about the person (the information is more about those who reported concerns and the way those were ignored or minimised), and, in much more detail, about the past history and behaviours of Mellberg, that read as a catalogue of unheeded warnings and missed opportunities.

Concerns about Mellberg follow him from school, where he was a loner, suffered bullying, never made friends and showed some odd behaviour and continue when he joins the Air Force. He becomes paranoid, starts harassing his roommate and despite concerns and assessments, he is simply moved from one place to the next, and the mental health assessments are either intentionally ignored or missed. Later on, when somebody decides to take action, there is no evidence of follow-up or organised system to check what happens when somebody is discharged for mental health reasons (some changes ensue, thanks mostly to the efforts of Sue Brigham [the wife of Dr Brigham, one of Mellberg’s victims], after the fact) and readers can feel how the tension builds up to the point where it’s only a matter of time until a serious incident happens.

Brown, the author, shares his background and his career progression to that point, his interest in policing and security from a young age, and he happens to coincide in time and space with Mellberg, being the first to respond to the calls for assistance when Mellberg starts shooting, first the people he blames for his discharge from the air force, and later, anybody who crosses his path. Although we know what’s going to happen, and, in a way, Brown has always been preparing for something like this, the reality is no less shocking.

Brown’s description of events, what the victims did, and what he did is exemplary, and it shows his experience in crime scene investigation. We can clearly reconstruct what happened minute by minute (almost second by second). As the description is interspersed with witness statements and personal detail I didn’t find it excessive, although that might depend on what readers are used to (I know from personal experience of writing reports that accuracy and details are prime, but that’s not what readers of fiction are used to, for example). The book also includes photographs of the scenes of both incidents, diagrams of the sites, etc.

As I said above, although the reader gets the same sense of impending doom when reading about the dangerous and reckless flight manoeuvres Holland does, we don’t get to know much about Holland as a man, only about his experience flying. The issue of warnings not being acted upon is highlighted, but we don’t know if anything else might have been behind Holland’s behaviour, and we’re therefore less personally invested in the case. I must also confess to having little understanding of acrobatics and individual planes capabilities, so I found some of the details about that incident more difficult to follow and perhaps unnecessary for the general reader (the message is clear even if we don’t know exactly how the gs a fuselage can bear might be determined).

Brown’s own reaction to the shooting and his difficulties getting his PTSD acknowledged and treated form the latter part of the book, and they come to illustrate a side of these tragedies that is hardly ever commented upon or discussed in detail, as if sweeping things under a carpet and not talking about them would make them disappear. (As he notes, people don’t know how to react: they either joke about the incident or avoid talking about it completely). He honestly shares his struggle, how long it took him to understand what was happening to him, the less than helpful behaviours he engaged in, and his self-doubt and guilt feelings, not helped by the reluctance of the Air Force to share the information he requests. He had the added difficulty of being removed from service every time he tried to get help, something that he, understandingly, saw as a punishment. He eventually decided to leave active service to try and find peace of mind, but it was a lengthy and difficult process, that might vary from individual to individual. It is always helpful, though, to know that one is not alone and it is not just a matter of getting over it, and that’s why personal accounts are so important.

Brown offers conclusions and lessons on how to keep safe. Although I don’t necessarily agree with some of the comments (the right to bear arms and use them for self-defense is a very controversial subject and I currently live in a country where not even the police carry them regularly), I agree with the importance of being aware of the risks, with the need to be more sensitive to the mental health needs of the population, with the importance of providing follow-up and support to those who experience mental disorders and also the need to see human beings in a holistic way, rather than only treating their bodies and ignoring their minds.

This is an important book that should be read by people who work in law enforcement (either in the military or in a civil environment), provide security to organisations, and of course by psychologist and psychiatrists alike. It is not a book to read for entertainment, and it is definitely not a light read, but I would also recommend it to people who research the subject and/or are interested in real crime and PTSD. I wonder if a shorter version of the book, dealing specifically with the PTSD experience of the author might be useful to other survivors of trauma who might find the rest of the book too difficult to read.

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review 2017-02-16 16:28
Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet
Sweet Lamb of Heaven: A Novel - Lydia Millet

Hm. Hmmm. This is a difficult book to write about as it defies easy genre placement. It has notes of thriller, horror, SF/speculative fiction, and philosophy. I chose to shelve it under "literary fiction" because I don't see a conflict between the literary and genre elements.

 

Judging by the three-star average rating, most will either love or be confounded by and hate this novel. It took some warming up for me, and I have other quibbles about characterization and writing style. But when I finished the book, I wanted to jump back in and discuss it.

 

It's a novel of big (and politically relevant) ideas wrapped in a domestic thriller. The story centers on a mom and her young daughter. The mother, Anna, hears a voice. Not voices, one voice, and much of the novel's first quarter or third is spent characterizing this voice--what it is and isn't, if not why it is at all. Then, the voice stops. Anna is relieved but still puzzled. More importantly, she has to get away from her husband, who is revealing himself to be a sociopath. She sets out on her own with her daughter and shacks up at a motel in New England. Her husband doesn't care until he decides to run for a government office. He wants his estranged wife and kid around as political props. Anna resists but is threatened.

 

Interspersed with events are bits of research Anna has done on the voice--on language and communication across species, flora and fauna, on God and mental health, community and self-hood. She's found a small community at the isolated motel, and they contribute to her understanding. The closer she comes to making sense of things, the more danger she's in until matters reach a breaking point, not felt until she realizes just how much she's been manipulated.

 

Millet is posing some big questions and making assertions that ring especially true in our new extreme-right and digital environments. I haven't yet sorted through all the implications of the story, but I'm happy for the challenge.

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review 2017-01-13 18:12
The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan
The Association of Small Bombs: A Novel - Karan Mahajan

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

 

I finished this critically acclaimed book while away for the holidays and jotted down a list of likes/dislikes. Short story shorter, I liked it, but what a downer.

 

The synopsis from amazon:

 

When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.

I admired the novel's intricate structure as it shifts across time and multiple points of view. As a writer, I'm always greatly impressed by such a feat when it is accomplished smoothly and clearly. The different points of view also offer insight into how a victim might become a terrorist or sympathetic to one or his cause, how other victims may become advocates, how someone moderate in his faith might become an extremist, how a terrorist may walk away free and be disaffected even as he commits or aids in more acts of terror. In the case of these characters, often it's the personal or psychological rather than the political that provides the impetus for violent action. Refreshingly, this novel does not feel ideological.

 

The prose is also accomplished, and I liked that the author wrote to his best reader; he did not define or explain cultural or religious terms that may be unfamiliar to a white, atheist Westerner like me. I had no problem looking up information for myself.

 

Despite what I was drawn to in the novel's craft, I felt the characters were held at a remove, as if I were looking down on them from above. This prevented me from fully connecting with them and the novel as a whole. Without that connection, I finished the story with a feeling of, "Well, that happened." There was nothing to counterbalance the weight of events, not enough beauty to keep the novel from simply depressing me. At times the metaphor of the titular bombs was also heavy-handed.

 

I can see what critics admire in this work, but I left it feeling untouched.

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