Reviews

THE GOD GROOVE: A BLUES JOURNEY TO FAITH

By David Ritz

256 pp. Howard Books. 2019.

 

At seventy-five, David Ritz, a prolific, bestselling ghostwriter and author of over fifty books, penned his memoir as a tribute to his music legend subjects and their influence on his own slow blooming religious awakening. With chapters unnumbered but named—"Brother Ray [Charles]" and "The Queen [Aretha Franklin]," for example—The God Groove is a swift and sparkling, impressionistic read of bad-dad narratives and devout religiosity. Aretha spins a happy fairytale from her early traumas. Janet Jackson sees her father's many faults and a singular blessing. Marvin Gaye never escapes and is shot dead by his father. So how does this painfully common motif lead so many (and the author) to cleave to God? Why trade patriarchies and expect differently? Why pray more when we could parent better? Alongside his dedicated and creative career, Ritz stumbles through marital infidelities, habitual marijuana use, and Freudian therapy. Finally, he succeeds in twelve-step programs and rises anew in a home-based church led by Reverend Mable John, a former Raelette for Ray Charles. Baptized at sixty, Ritz finds in Jesus, as I see it, not a new patriarchy but an enduring matriarchal grace. He writes, "I loved the notion of grace: that we don't earn God's love; we are gifted God's love. I loved radical forgiveness. But mainly, I loved the name Jesus. I love Jesus" (229). The author loves Jesus, leaves Judaism, reconciles with his bully father, . . . and is a loving parent to his twin daughters. —Lisa Thaler, 8 December 2019

THE SOUTH SIDE

A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation

By Natalie Y. Moore

272 pp. Picador. Reprint ed. 2017, first published in 2016.

 

Journalist and third-generation South Sider Natalie Moore illuminates Chicago's legacy of black greatness and shameful segregation—from Haitian fur trader Jean Baptiste Point DuSable's founding of Chicago, ca. 1779, to the  race riot of 1919 and the Daley Democratic machine based on "loyalty and job rewards" (187). "We discovered it, we should govern it" (191) avers a 1983 campaign flyer for Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. Moore's well researched urban history The South Side focuses on housing and education. The Robert Taylor Homes opened in 1962 and the last of its 28 towers was torn down in 2006, dispersing a community (90). But newer mixed-income buildings and Section 8 housing vouchers is not integration. In 2015, "more than half of the black population in Chicago live[d] in only 20 of the city's 77 communities." (1) The author writes, "Integration is about the proximity of power and resources" (114-5). And the South Side has struggled without access to either. Moore, the South Side reporter for WBEZ, laments how the media can distort perceptions and even create trauma. She also offers hope—polling activists, educators, health advocates, and social theorists. Proposals and programs include a domestic Marshall Plan, restorative justice, job training, free housing to select institutions, changes in zoning, and alliances between communities known as Sister Neighborhoods. As a teen, I saw Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. The local legend wrote, "Our South Side is a place apart. Each piece of our living is a protest." —Lisa Thaler, 20 December 2019

BEFORE AND AFTER THE BOOK DEAL

A Writer's Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book

By Courtney Maum

384 pp. Catapult. 2020.

 

Before and After the Book Deal offers practical advice for the first-time author on the craft and skill of writing and publishing in America. In a lighthearted, conversational tone (and sometimes using off-color language), novelist Courtney Maum confirms the adage "the secret to great writing is revision" (20), and maps out the rest—engaging with the writing world, negotiating contracts, giving book talks, managing finances, and more. She and fellow industry insiders share metrics, such as typical print runs (an independent publisher for a debut with decent buzz is "two thousand to ten thousand" [210]), Amazon sales rankings (a fifty-five hundred to ten thousand ranking means the author is selling "twenty-five books a day" [215]), and an optimistic estimate of the proportion of film/TV optioned books that actually get made ("10 percent" [240]). Maum gives rules of thumb for vague argot, such as "national bestseller" ("appear[s] on two or more national lists such as The Washington Post. . . " [219]). Duotrope.com, one of many online resources cited, maintains listings of agents, a database of which magazines publish what when, and templates such as a submission tracker. The book's final section "Readying the Gangplank" is a chorus of literary voices, from Tobias Carroll, get a "Square Reader" (335) to Etaf Rum, "[W]riting a book . . . changes you for the better. . ." (347). Maum says that a hardcover debut receives about six weeks' attention before the market "move[s] on" (285). A mere blink of an eye relative to an author's toil. Ready, set, edit. Then, go. —Lisa Thaler, 31 May 2020

The Angel and the Assassin (Random House/Ballantine, 2020) is a scientific odyssey of recent discoveries about a tiny cell, called microglia, with an outsized mission, to govern brain health; the research pioneers at the helm (Beth Stevens, Li-Huei Tsai, et al.); and stoic patients. With prodigious scholarship and clear, compassionate writing, author and science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa traces the decade's findings: The brain is not immune-privileged, as believed, but an immune organ. Microglia are immune cells, functioning as the brain's white blood cells. In homeostasis, microglia are alert protectors that swee­­­p away dead cells and prune synapses—the "angel" of the book title. When relentlessly triggered, microglia can lose their supple attunement and go rogue; hence, the "assassin" of the title. Triggers may be any inflammatory stressor—injury, infection, environmental toxin, early adverse experiences—and notably, maladaptive, such as perceived emotional threats that can trigger the stress immune response (think fight/flight/freeze) from social media shaming. Overzealous microglia can, when overwhelmed, engorge on synapses and spew an inflammatory cocktail that can cause neuroinflammation and neurological disease. Think circuitry disorder, not chemical imbalance; synaptic babble, not serotonin deficiency. Errant microglia are implicated in many conditions that are neuroinflammatory (Alzheimer's), neurodegenerative (Parkinson's), and neurodevelopmental (mood disorders) (63). Offering a lifeline, Nakazawa describes several promising potential therapies, such as fasting-mimicking diets (ProLon FMD) and hallucinogenics (ketamine). Neuroengineering tools ("brain hacks") couple brain maps of how well regions of the brain fire (qEEG, quantitative electroencephalogram) with neurofeedback that entrains and modulates brain waves (TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation). On the research horizon are techniques to diagnose overreactive microglia at onset and to customize targeted treatments. In Nakazawa's able hands, the landscape is precise and the shore is within view. —Lisa Thaler, 8 February 2020

THE ART OF DIPLOMACY

Strengthening the Canada-U.S. Relationship in Times of Uncertainty

By Bruce Heyman and Vicki Heyman

288 pp. Simon & Schuster. 2019.

 

The Art of Diplomacy is a memoir by Bruce Heyman, the former U.S. Ambassador to Canada (2014–2017), and his wife, Vicki, of their experiences across "the longest border of peace on earth" (Barack Obama, address to the Canadian Parliament, 2016; 238). Full disclosure: In the mid-nineties, the Heymans commissioned me to research and write their family history (Enduring Legacies, 1998), and then, shortly before Bruce's appointment, to amplify my research on the family branch that had immigrated to Canada in 1910 and 1911 (1 Family, 1 Border, 100 Years, 2013). Forebears' voices are ever present as the couple arrives in Ottawa and puts down roots. Vicki plants a vegetable garden and builds an apiary at Lornado, the official residence. With her chief of staff, Vicki establishes Contemporary Conversations, a series of discussions with American artists (Theaster Gates, Kiki Smith et al.) at the National Gallery of Canada. Bruce attends to policy matters, including the Keystone XL pipeline proposal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, encourages trade, and protects American interests—guided by Canada's and America's shared, "core values [of] respect and cooperation" (Justin Trudeau, U.S. state dinner, 2016; 190). Bruce and Vicki travel widely to meet and listen to and forge friendships with fisherman in Halifax and restauranteurs in Toronto, Inuit elders and Supreme Court Justice Rosie Abella, and three generations of Trudeaus, among countless others. Following the election of Donald Trump and back in America, in 2017, Bruce and Vicki participate in their first protest: the Women's March. The Heymans never lose sight of from whence they came nor how high we can climb as a collective, a hive. The Art of Diplomacy is authentic, loving, inclusive, inspiring, and most of all, optimistic. May they continue their path as citizen ambassadors of the enduring legacy of tikkun olam (repairing the world). —Lisa Thaler, 30 May 2019

THE INTUITIVE WARRIOR

Lessons from a Navy SEAL on Unleashing Your Hidden Potential

By Michael Jaco

193 pp. Synergy Books. 2010.

 

For over thirty years, from Panama to Iraq, as a Navy SEAL and private security contractor, Michael Jaco helped shape history. He learned that a key factor of the elite warrior's technical virtuosity is intuition—a teachable skill accessible to everyone. The Intuitive Warrior, part memoir and part how-to, shares his personal experiences of being under extreme duress and techniques he used to expand consciousness that deescalated tension and averted disaster. Jaco exhorts team cohesion and coherence, as in the critical skill of wordless communication (aka telepathy) in Close Quarter Combat (CQC). He suggests disciplines that yoke body and mind, such as tai chi, and practices that activate the alpha brain state to increase peripheral awareness (necessary in multi-fighting with dispersed enemies). He counsels individual responsibility, especially for our thoughts and words, citing quantum physics and neurolinguistic programming (NLP). Jaco discusses adopting a more holistic view of Eastern and Western cultures, wedding the visual to the verbal, the spontaneous to the sequential, and pays homage to lost civilizations and esoterica. In conclusion, the South Carolina native and career serviceman makes a plea to end war, advocating a "new system of exchange that is intuitively based on what humanity decides is best [and requiring] the cooperation of the masses" (156). We are tethered, as the current Covid-19 pandemic is reminding us. We each have the capacity and the duty to protect ourselves and others. Jaco's latest mission is to show how a stronger intuition can bridge the divide and bring peace. —Lisa Thaler, 5 April 2020

After a seven-year hiatus, Pema Chödrön, an American-born nun of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and author, has released a new book of spiritual teachings. Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World (Shambhala, 2019) offers antidotes to polarization in our culture and alienation within ourselves, tools to awaken the heart and mind (bodhichitta) on behalf of all sentient beings. The recurring theme of the anecdotes and instruction is to feel raw emotions and counter our aversive tendencies. Perhaps the best known technique of the bodhisattva (one on the path) is tonglen, where we breathe in others' suffering and send out comfort and ease. Additional tools to build healing bridges are to universalize experiences (repeat "just like me"); maintain open awareness (see without labelling or "imput[ing] meaning"); and embrace impermanence (notice the beginning, middle, and end of experiences). The practices gently and slowly coax us towards our challenge and learning zone, and over time, we can increase our tolerance and capacity for difficult feelings, cultivate a different outlook, and deepen our sense of interconnectedness. Of course, the irony of going against type is that we awaken and see that we all are as we have always been: basically good. Until then, "proceed sanely and humanely" (146). —Lisa Thaler, 30 January 2020

A longtime stand-up comedian and early podcaster (WTF, est. 2009), Marc Maron self-describes as "a conversationalist" (not an interviewer), and claims to "need to be heard and seen . . . . to know I exist" (3). Both his minimal prep work and maximal engagement are impressive. Culled from over a thousand WTF conversations and left undated (Barack Obama taped in the original garage in 2015), Maron's latest book Waiting for the Punch (with Brendan McDonald, Flatiron, 2018) is arranged topically (e.g., growing up, addiction, failure, sexuality, parenting) with multiple guests. Wanda Sykes, Sir Ian McClellan, and RuPaul are standouts. Many snippets admit defeat followed by an awakening, and hence, the book's subtitle "words to live by" might better be "words to return by." Marc Maron is the original comeback kid, most eloquent in each topic's preamble. The trending mantra is: It's their fault, but my responsibility. —Lisa Thaler, 22 October 2019

Bess Williamson, a historian of design and material culture, covers a lot of ground in this lucid and nimble stomp through the history, politics, and culture of disability and design. Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design (NYU Press, 2019) is a story of the shifting perspectives by and about those with disabilities and their evolving presence and participation in society. Her references are many and far-flung, from the standardized and thus, often ill-fitting prosthetic limbs of returning World War II disabled veterans, in chapter 1, to the wardrobe of bespoke prosthetic legs modeled by athlete and activist Aimee Mullins in Matthew Barney's The Cremaster Cycle (2003), in the final chapter. Williamson analyzes iterations of legislation (i.e., ANSI 117.1–1961, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), and the foot-dragging on compliance and the backlashes that have fueled the conversation. In addition to deep research, voluminous footnotes, and a bibliography, Williamson uses fresh metrics, such as comparing the number of manuals on ergonomics in library collections. (Henry Dreyfuss's The Measure of Man of 1950 beats out Niels Diffrient's Humanscale of 1974.) Alas, this book's title is ironic or at least, aspirational. Williamson avers that "designing an accessible America—still a vision left unfulfilled—requires embedding design in systems that can support rights and equality in ways that go beyond the material." (214) She builds a ramp for readers to consider our responsibility towards usability and inclusion. —Lisa Thaler, 9 May 2019

Growing up, no matter the misfortune, I heard, "Kids bounce back." As if by reflex. But do they? In Childhood Disrupted (Atria Books, reprint ed. 2016), science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa explores how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) alter the developing brain's chemistry, leading to neuroinflammation and autoimmunity and related ailments in adulthood. According to ACE research, 64 percent of adults had experienced one of ten childhood traumas (e.g., parental addiction, absence, abuse); 40 percent, two or more (xv). For the child, unable to fight or flee, freeze becomes the default defense to chronic, unpredictable, toxic stress (CUTS). In Nakazawa's clear case studies, patients silenced by CUTS, once labeled too sensitive or subjected to gross neglect, etc., find their voice. For example, whether a mother overreacts or underreacts, the message is "Mommy can't help me" (121). Nakazawa's research and reporting are rigorous. "Allostatic load" (61), coined by the late endocrinologist Bruce S. McEwen, refers to the amount of trauma over one's lifetime and its cumulative effects. The "theory of the good wobble" (63) is based on the benefit of mild stressors, as studied by psychology professor Mark D. Seery. Almost half of the book addresses recovery through professionally guided treatments, such as somatic experiencing, and personal practices, such as forgiveness. Nakazawa concludes with fourteen parenting strategies (my favorite is the swift apology). Parenting well, versus poorly, also changes the child's brain, and is the key to helping kids bounce back. Presumptive reflex? No. Cultivated resilience. —Lisa Thaler, 21 January 2020

Journalist Paul Tough is the Howard Zinn of early childhood education. In Whatever It Takes (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), Tough situates locally The Moynihan Report (1965), T. Berry Brazelton's zero-to-three movement (1977), The Bell Curve (1994), and more, in the Harlem classroom envisioned by Geoffrey Canada. A South Bronx native, educator, and activist, Canada determines 1) the skills children need to succeed (the experience of language is key), 2) the broad-based resources to develop those skills (from cognitive to cultural), and 3) how early to intervene (in utero). Then he builds that school, including a Baby College for expectant parents and afterschool enrichment programs for teens, in a poor, struggling, and underserved urban community. Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy Charter Schools are open to all, and students are chosen by lottery (current enrollment is about thirteen thousand). Canada proves that yes, ability matters, and it's teachable (190). In 2009, on statewide tests, HCZ third graders had increased their scores to 97 percent at or above grade-level in reading and 100 percent in math (279). President Obama sought to take the program national, and the first education grants for Promise Neighborhoods were made in 2010. HCZ students continue to excel, with 97 percent accepted to college in 2017 and 861 currently in college. Scaling up the biblical precept "whoever saves one life, it is as if he saves the entire world," Canada aspires to save all children. —Lisa Thaler, 5 November 2019

The Alphabet versus the Goddess (Penguin Compass, 1999) is a sweeping historical re-write of, well, writing. Author Leonard Shlain posits that the advent of the alphabet—not the Sumerian wedged cuneiform or the Egyptian pictographic hieroglyph, but the symbolic Proto-sinaitic alphabet—changed global cultures. The decalogue of Mount Sinai brought monotheism, a moral code, and the first literacy test (aka bar mitzvah). The attendant cost of alphabet literacy, at least temporarily, was patriarchy, misogyny, and a "distrust of images" (428). Shlain, a vascular surgeon, offers a neuro-anatomical explanation, a physical reason why men compartmentalize and women multi-task. The left lobe (the masculine side) leans linear, sequential, reductionist, analytical, and abstract; and the right (feminine), holistic, simultaneous, and concrete. Alphabet literacy reinforces "left hemispheric modes . . . at the expense of right" (viii). Ergo, Shlain explores the process of literacy, not the content of its library. For example, we comprehend horizontal script (such as an English-language book) temporally, and vertical script (and layouts, such as a menu) spatially. In conclusion, Shlain foretells a détente with screen culture, whereby computer use (interactive, two-handed, iconographic) balances the playing field—at least between the brain's two teams. But I wonder how he would explain the less cooperative aspects of our internet age, such as cybercrime, computer addiction, and online anti-social behavior. And two decades post-publication, how would he parse virtual reality and other wearable technologies? —Lisa Thaler, 21 August 2019

Remember the childhood retort to a taunt, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me"? And yet, we all can recite unkind words from the distant past, lobbed at us and by us, that sting today. Our character and our culture are partially shaped by these stories. In the foreword to Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (PuddleDancer Press, 3d ed., 2013), Deepak Chopra says, "All stories lead to conflict" (xv). Author and psychotherapist Marshall B. Rosenberg deconstructs our war of words, thoughts, and gestures, and offers a tool for compassionate connection. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is the ability to express ourselves honestly and to receive empathically. The method is to 1) observe without evaluation, 2) express feelings, 3) acknowledge needs, and 4) make a request. The frame is basic: "When I see X, I feel Y because I need Z. Would you be willing to A?," but defining the variables can be messy. Citing examples from the counselor's office to the family carpool and quoting a varied cast including Dag Hammarskjöld and Buddy Hackett, Rosenberg demonstrates how to untangle observations from judgments; distinguish feelings, emotions, and sensations from thoughts; interpret negative messages as someone's needs or values not being met; reflect back statements to increase comprehension; use protective, versus punitive, force when warranted; and much more. NVC requires mindful presence and is a practice that can enhance clarity and foster peace on the playground and off. —Lisa Thaler, 11 July 2019

ALL JOKES ASIDE

Standup Comedy Is a Phunny Business

By Raymond Lambert with Chris Bournea

Foreword by Chris Gardner

240 pp. Agate Bolden. 2016.

 

"As a black man, you must work twice as hard for twice as long for half as much" (41), author Raymond Lambert's father taught him. Lambert heeded many mentors, read voraciously, earned degrees, worked on Wall Street, nurtured relationships, stayed out of trouble, and along the way, built All Jokes Aside (Chicago, 1991–1998) into "the place to see headlining standup comedians of color with national reputations" (147). Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey, Mo'Nique, and dozens more killed it at Lambert and partner James Alexander's club. All Jokes Aside, the book, operates on four levels: it is a family legacy, a love letter to the black community, a history of the comedy industry, and a sea of pearls for the aspiring entrepreneur. With a front-row seat, the reader watches Lambert navigate economic booms and busts and Chicago politics; innovate (using audience scorecards); and learn by trial-and-error (fining comedians who disregard the cue to end their set). Without any spoilers (such as, the 2012 documentary or the Starz network position), the through line is excellence. Full disclosure: The author and I could have crossed paths in Atlanta—he arrived at Morehouse as I was leaving for Sarah Lawrence. Decades later, we finally did meet—as neighbors in Chicago. Culturally specific, morally courageous, and impeccably tailored, All Jokes Aside: Standup Comedy Is a Phunny Business is a deeply satisfying read ripe for a curtain-call. —Lisa Thaler, 27 June 2019

MOTHER TERESA

An Authorized Biography

By Kathryn Spink

368 pp. HarperOne. Rev. ed. 2011, first published in 1990.

 

Her intention was simple: Do small things with great love. Mother Teresa (née Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, b. 1910 in Skopje then Kosova region, of Albanian parentage, d. 1997 Kolkata) offered "the experience of love and compassion to those in the image of Christ"—especially sick and abandoned children. To fulfill her calling, the young nun insisted on living among the "poorest of the poor," first in Kolkata in 1929. Criticized for giving fish to the poor instead of teaching them how to fish, Mother Teresa countered that she helps those without the strength to even lift the rod. Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1987, she said, "[L]et us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love. . . ." In her faith in the healing power of small acts, Mother Teresa was truly subversive. The impact is obvious. As of 2010, "5,029 sisters (both active and contemplative) [were] serving in 766 houses in 21 countries." Countless others tasted fish. —Lisa Thaler, 24 January 2019

PAUL KLEE PEDAGOGICAL SKETCHBOOK

Bauhausbücher 2 (1925)

By Lars Müller (author) and Paul Klee (artist)

56 pp. Lars Müller Publishers. 2019.

 

An archival treasure, Paul Klee Pedagogical Sketchbook is a reprint and English translation of the second in a series of fourteen bound essays by select Bauhaus masters on the New Design philosophy. From 1920 until 1931, Paul Klee led workshops at the Weimar State Bauhaus. Originally published in 1925, Klee's sketchbook of 43 items (arranged in four sections: the line and its structure; the line and its dimensions; earth, water, and air; and symbols of form in motion) explains the principles of drawing. Image and text are given equal weight; both are supple and clear, succinct and spare. Less attuned visually, I was giddy to comprehend the lesson "linearity is replaced by planarity" (#3)—as if an optical illusion. Fifty-four books were planned, but National Socialism happened. In 1931, Klee was expelled from a teaching post in Dusseldorf. He died in Switzerland in 1940. —Lisa Thaler, 18 October 2019

WAIT, IT GETS WORSE

Love, Death, and My Transformation from Control Freak to Human Being

By Lydia Slaby

276 pp. Disruption Books. 2019.

 

At age thirty-three, Chicago attorney Lydia Slaby developed a grapefruit-sized tumor "strangling a huge vein attached to [her] heart" (14). Diagnosis: "diffuse large B-cell lymphoma involving the mediastinum Stage II" (31). And so begins this lucid and harrowing odyssey of medical crisis and mayhem. Familiar with the genre having edited scores of healing stories, I anticipated the narrative arc, but not Lydia's exceptional resources. That is, the crisis is particular but the cure is holistic. And Lydia is young, intelligent, inquisitive, well schooled, and a gifted writer. She has a large and devoted network of family, friends, and colleagues; a lucrative, satisfying legal career with health benefits; and access to quality care at a leading teaching hospital. The finale is brief, and her perspective of recovery is fresh. The history of medicine and cancer care is a volley between a systemic model (Hippocrates's four humors, Claudius Galen's black bile, Sidney Farber's chemotherapy blasts) and an isolated model (cancer as a solid mass requiring radical surgery). Cancer isn't one-dimensional, and neither is our responsibility. Lydia addresses her body, mind, emotions, spirit, and energy—and heals. She writes that her new job is "to be hyperaware of what is happening, to adapt to the circumstances, and to respond in the kindest and most effective way possible" (253). In other words, listen to your heart lest it screams louder. —Lisa Thaler, 21 November 2019

THE LANGUAGE OF THINGS

Understanding the World of Desirable Things

By Deyan Sudjic

208 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. 2009.

 

The director of London's Design Museum since 2006, Sudjic takes the reader on a whirlwind, global tour of product design. In five thought-provoking essays, he explores how design informs life and life informs design through the cultural lenses of language, archetypes, luxury, fashion, and art. He traces the genealogy of George Carwardine's Anglepoise of 1932, how the lamp with its exposed springs and hinges begat Richard Sapper's sleek, sculptural Tizio of 1972. He dissects the uniform's purpose to intimidate, the inverse proportion of utility and status, and much more. Even as lines blur between art and design—to wit, Marc Newson's Lockheed Lounge brought $968,000 at Sotheby's in 2006—the designer has not strayed from his roots as a problem-solver. And it is in this capacity that, I submit, the designer holds the key to our future. Clean, safe, sane, kind, and beautiful. —Lisa Thaler, 16 April 2019

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE

By Lucy Grealy

256 pp. Mariner Books. Reprint ed. 2013, first published in 1994.

 

At age nine, Lucy Grealy, a Dublin-born, Spring Valley, New York-raised tomboy, had a playground accident (a forceful blow to the jaw), followed by a dental cyst and Ewing's sarcoma. Lucy was left disfigured (her jaw having been removed), and toted up almost thirty operations in the next eighteen years. Autobiography of a Face recounts, in elegant prose, Lucy's relationship with her face and the world's averted gaze. The book is as excruciating as it is clear-headed. Children rely on elders to help them make sense of their universe, and the adults in Lucy's room often seem inept. "Stop looking so morbid." There's "no need to cry." Really? Teachable moments continue to arrive and fade away. Lucy eats alone in the middle-school counselor's office, instead of amidst the bad boys lording over the lunchroom. To Lucy, her classmates' jeers and her siblings' politesse share the same root: I am ugly. Once in college (Sarah Lawrence, class of 1985), the adults in the room rose to the occasion and Lucy's face is no longer an "obstacle" (206). "I felt acceptance" (195). Lucy ultimately found healing when she chose to "stop looking" (221) and "stop caring" (175) about her mien. I (Sarah Lawrence, class of 1984) used to see Lucy arrive at Bates, the cafeteria on campus, as I was finishing my meal. She went on to study at Iowa Writers' Workshop, taught at Bennington and other colleges, and published widely. Lucy Grealy died at age thirty-nine, in 2002. —Lisa Thaler, 4 August 2019

SO BIG

A Novel

By Edna Ferber

286 pp. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. Reissued 2018, first published in 1924.

 

In high school, our only text for lit class was a collection of abridged novels. Each story seemed to take place in a small town with a high illiteracy rate and a rickety boardinghouse, and townsfolk with an annoying dialect and an animosity for the outsider. So Big's Selina Peake and her father, a gambler, live in a Chicago boardinghouse. He dies. She becomes a schoolteacher in the nearby Dutch farming community High Prairie, marries Pervus DeJong (a high-functioning illiterate, widower, and farmer), and has a son Dirk (nicknamed So Big). The comparison between my school novellas and this 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction ends there. Ferber's language sparkles: Selina coils her hair before "the swimmy little mirror" (29) and her dog Pom is "a mongrel whose tail bore no relation to his head" (115). Ferber's protagonist has an artist's singularity of purpose and verve. In other words, Selina is thoroughly modern. She sees beauty and possibility where others cannot—those constrained by ancestry and wedded to habit and drudgery—and raises her son in her image. Dirk shuns the family legacy (farming), but then abandons his passion (architecture) for security and status (bond sales). His told-you-so moment arrives in the form of Dallas O'Mara, the artist commissioned to design an advert for his firm. "There was something splendid, something impressive, something magnificent about her absorption, her indifference to appearance. . . Her nose was shiny. Dirk hadn't seen a girl with a shiny nose in years" (228). From the nose of a free spirit to the tail of a mutt, So Big is a refreshing take on nature and beauty and freedom and the imperative to follow one's heart. —Lisa Thaler, 30 March 2019

Please reload

© 2018 by Lisa Thaler. Created with Wix.com

Privacy Policy. When you send a message through the contact form, as part of this process, we collect personal information you give us, such as your name and email address. Your personal information will be used for the specific reasons of your query only. We do not sell, rent, or otherwise share any personal information. We do not track or collect personal information of site visitors; however, we are hosted on the Wix.com platform. Wix.com provides us with the online platform that allows us to present our services to site visitors. Your data may be stored through Wix.com's data storage, database, and the general Wix.com applications. They store your data on secure servers behind a firewall. Third-party services, such as Google Analytics offered through the Wix App Market, placing cookies or utilizing other tracking technologies through Wix's services, may have their own policies regarding how they collect and store information. We reserve the right to modify this privacy policy at any time. Changes and clarifications will take effect upon posting to the website. If you have any questions, please contact Wix.com or Lisa Thaler at lisa@lisaathaler.com.