Thursday, May 28, 2020


In 1980, the author, a psychiatrist at the Boston VA clinic, submitted a grant to examine the effect of PTSD on veterans, and the first line of the grant rejection read: "It has never been shown that PTSD is relevant to the mission of the Veterans Administration." (!!!) When it comes to understanding trauma, we've come a long way. This (nonfiction) book reflects on the history of trauma studies and describes contemporary neuroscience and treatments. It has a lot to offer both writers (with respect to developing backstory for characters) and the general reader--not least of which is understanding some of what's going on in our brains (Broca's area, which controls language, and the amygdala and PFC) with current levels of stress. This book also took me back to my dissertation days, when I would often get the academic version of eye-roll from people when I tried to explain (probably poorly) that I was writing about trauma as an explanatory narrative that began with Victorian railway crashes. To my quiet delight, this author opines that trauma studies began with the work of medical men such as John Erichsen writing about railway disaster victims in the 1870s in England. Well-written and accessible.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Mary Beth Keane, ASK AGAIN, YES

A beautifully written novel about two families who are next door neighbors in a small town outside NYC. Both fathers are policemen; but otherwise the families are very different. This book touches on mental illness, alcoholism, denial, dysfunction, young (clueless) love, mature love, parenthood, aging, and forgiveness. I read this immediately after Ann Patchett's THE DUTCH HOUSE and found similarities in themes and tone, in the shifts between scenes and synopsis (the books both cover decades), and the wonderful quality of writing. These are not plot-driven page-turners. They are nuanced explorations of how individuals and families evolve and get stuck, err and atone. As usual, I like to share a few lines that suggest the quality of writing: "They were apart long enough to know the shape of each other's absence." "Francis smiled but there was no light in it." And my favorite (maybe because it expresses the theme of how memories change, which is at the core of my own most recent novel) "They'd both learned that a memory is a fact that's been dyed and trimmed and rinsed so many times that it comes out looking almost unrecognizable to anyone else who was in that room, anyone else who was standing on the grass beneath that telephone pole." Recommended for fans of Ann Patchett, Celeste Ng, and Anne Tyler.

Saturday, May 9, 2020


This is my favorite of Ann Patchett's books. It's a book to savor, with writing that sings and soars. I won't explain the plot as it would reduce this story to a series of events in a dysfunctional family--and that's not the point. The two main characters--the narrator Danny and his bold, hurting sister Maeve--are a pair united against the world who, despite their closeness, still hold different memories of events. As an adult, Danny repeats the mistake of his father at times--for example, marrying a woman and then buying a house for her that she doesn't want. But he grows wise and thoughtful, and his reflections on his sister and their past suggest the sort of psychological layering and evolution that are pure pleasure to behold in a novel. Masterful. Highly recommend.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Tommy Orange, THERE THERE

A powerfully written book about the Native American (or Native Indian, both terms are used) experience in Oakland, California. Because it is told from the POV of many characters, sometimes in first-person, sometimes in third-person, it portrays collectively the systemic effects of alcoholism, addiction, violence, and brutal historical loss. I found myself bracing for the train wreck that happens despite best intentions. The writing is often poetic, spare, lovely. Words taken out of context are never as powerful, but here are a few of my favorite lines: "A breeze came in and it felt like my arms and back were being scraped by it"; "it was something Dene had seen in his mom's eyes, something that looked like remembering and dreading at once"; "He was twelve. It was November, so it was easy to find Indians on TV"; "But inside every kind of sound lurked a sadness. In the quiet between your parents, after a fight they both managed to lose." Highly recommend.