On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

Hill Women, by Cassie Chambers*****

Cassie Chambers was born and raised in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States. With the determination handed down to her by her mother and grandmother, she attended Ivy League schools and became a practicing attorney. This memoir is her story as well as a defense of the women from her homeland, a manifesto opposing stereotypes and misconceptions. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It will be available to the public January 7, 2020.

Eastern Kentucky is in the heart of Appalachian Mountains, and its residents are stereotypically called hillbillies by outsiders. As a scholar whose childhood was rooted there, Chambers is in a unique position to share the culture’s nuances and strengths. She was raised by parents that had to save up to buy her a set of Old Maid cards from Walmart; going out to dinner, which happened Sundays, meant a single Happy Meal at McDonald’s shared three ways. But her mother’s determination to graduate college drove home the value of an education, and when Cassie had the opportunity to spend the last two years of high school at a boarding school for high achieving students, she leapt and her family supported her.

Chambers’ narrative is intimate and deeply absorbing. She weaves her own story into the larger story of Appalachian women: their culture, their history, their strengths and the challenges they face. She discusses the difficulty of receiving public services in an area that is spread out among hills and hollers, devoid of transit and low on personal transportation, and that has no government buildings to speak of; she also describes the pride that sometimes prevents its residents from accepting help for which they are qualified. She has a bottomless well of riveting anecdotes that illustrate the sense of community and willingness to lend assistance to neighbors in need even when those offering help have nothing extra to give; the Justice system often fails those that need protection from domestic abuse, as well as those addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she discusses remedies, including Jeanette’s Law, which reverses Kentucky’s absurd legal requirement that victims of domestic abuse must provide the spouses that they are divorcing with an attorney at their own expense. This was one of Chambers’ most important projects. Another is having expungement fees waived for low income residents, an especially urgent matter since in Kentucky, felons aren’t allowed to vote. Democracy is sidelined when class and race become obstacles to participation in civic life.

But the most memorable tidbits are the more personal stories, for example that of her Aunt Ruth, who married late in life. Before they were wed, Aunt Ruth had a conversation with Sonny, her husband-to-be, in which she explained to him carefully that if he ever hit her, she would be forced to kill him, in his sleep if necessary, using a large claw hammer, and so if this was likely to be a problem then the wedding should be canceled. (It wasn’t.)

The best memoirs combine a social issue or political problem with a personal story told by a top-drawer storyteller, and Hill Women succeeds richly in both regards. I recommend this book to women everywhere, and to those that love them.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Guest House for Young Widows, by Azadeh Moaveni**

Those of us in the United States don’t have much of a window on the women of ISIS, and I thought this title might help me understand them better. In some ways this proves true, but in the end, I couldn’t finish this book and I can’t recommend it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for letting me read it free and early.

Here’s a quote that provides a thesis:

Many of these women were trying, in a twisted way, to achieve dignity and freedom through an embrace of a politics that ended up violating both…The political fractures from which [ISIS] arose have not been fixed. History has shown that unless conditions genuinely change, a new insurgency always arises from the ashes of an old one.

Moaveni shares the case studies of individual women that have been drawn to the Islamic State. Although the organization provides its women with a measure of security and protection, promoting higher education—in the service of the organization, of course—and sometimes furnishing jobs, it draws not only women that are desperate for food and shelter, but also women from comfortable middle class backgrounds. Once they are in, they find it difficult to leave. Moaveni demonstrates myriad ways in which women provide essential support for ISIS.

There are three things that I liked about this book. The research is well done; the women discussed here provide the reader with individual stories and therefore humanize them; and she acknowledges the disparity between mainstream Islamic belief and ISIS.

On the other hand, despite disclaimers within the narrative, I was overcome by a crawly sensation when I realized that the author’s overall purpose is to rationalize the choices made by women within Islamic State. She says they are relatable; I am appalled and unpersuaded.

Those that dislike a dictatorial regime should indeed advocate for a better system. How great a risk each person is willing to assume is of course an individual decision. But there is nothing that justifies or mitigates the atrocities visited on innocent people by this dreadful pseudo-religion. 

When push comes to shove, the only real dilemma for me is whether to provide one star or two in review. The second star is reluctantly assigned on the basis of the writer’s solid research; yet the ideas within it are entirely abhorrent.

Never, never, and never.

When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.

Waisted, by Randy Susan Meyers*****

Randy Susan Meyers wrote The Murderer’s Daughters and The Widow of Wall Street. Her new novel, Waisted is a fiercely feminist story that skewers the weight loss industry and a society that “treats fat people like out-of-control horrors” and the war against women with its “intersectionality of misogyny, fat shaming, [and] faux health concerns.”  Thanks go to Atria and Net Galley for the review copy. You should read this book.

Alice married Clancy when she was “break-up skinny,” not knowing that he isn’t attracted to any woman that isn’t thin. Daphne is tormented by her 108 pound mother, whose toxic monitoring and obsession with Daphne’s eating have nearly driven her daughter over the edge.  Alice and Daphne meet at Privation,  a live-in weight loss program in rural Vermont. They and five other women sign on because they are promised rapid weight loss free of charge, with the caveat that they must agree to be filmed 24 hours a day for a documentary. The program is not only extreme; it is cruel and dangerous.

“Welcome to hell, ladies, where we recognize that life is unfair, and you pay the price for every action you take…You’ve eaten your way through pain, through loss, through happiness, and just for the plain pleasure of crunching calories between your teeth. Not one of you knows how to live with privation. So you landed here. The last stop.”

The women don’t know that there are no doctors here, or that they are part of a nasty experiment to see what women will tolerate in order to become thinner, even when it is obvious that such a program cannot be sustained. Each time one or another of them considers decamping, there’s a weigh-in that shows them to be even lighter than they were earlier in the week, and with dreams of a new, sleek, lovable body ever nearer realization, they persevere.

The readers that will relate to this story best are also the ones that will have a hard time getting through the first half of it. Meyers drives home so many uncomfortable truths that overweight women like me have trained ourselves not to think about most of the time because they are painful. Do it anyway. It’s high time someone wrote this book.

Apart from its very real underpinnings, the story is far-fetched and features an unlikely outcome, but that doesn’t matter. A more nuanced or realistic version would fail to deliver the message in as brilliant a fashion.

This is urgent, angry, and at times darkly funny prose. It will be available Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Highly recommended.

Nanaville, by Anna Quindlen*****

Author Anna Quindlen is queen of all things warm and wise, and so it’s not surprising that her ode to grandmothering  hits just the right note.  I was lucky and read it free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it would have been worth the purchase price had it come down to it. This friendly little book is available to the public now.

Quindlen’s memoir can double as a primer for her peers that are new grandparents also, but that’s not where its greatest strength is found. The most resonant aspect is that common chord, the eloquence with which she gives voice to our common experience. It makes me feel as if she and I are sitting together with our baby pictures—the grandbabies and our children that created them—and as she speaks, I am saying, “I know, right?” I chuckle as she recounts trends in the advice given by experts to new parents:  when our first babies were born, we were told to put them to bed on their stomachs so they wouldn’t spit up and choke to death on it; then later children slept on their sides, which seems like a safe bet either way, but babies don’t stay on their sides very long; and now babies are supposed to be safer on their backs. And she voices so well the pride we feel when an adult that we have parented turns into a wonderful parent in his own right. And I nod in agreement as she says of her toddler grandson, “No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many, many years.”

Quindlen speaks well to the ambivalent moments as well, to the need to hold our tongues when we want to offer advice that hasn’t been requested; at the same time, there’s the relief that comes of not being in charge of all the big decisions.  And I echo the outrage that she feels when some ignorant asshole suggests that our biracial grandchild is not part of our blood and bones. (A jerk in Baby Gap wants to know where she got him; she replies that she found him at Whole Foods.)

Unequivocally joyful is the legacy grandchildren present. “I am building a memory out of spare parts…someday that memory will be all that’s left of me.”

And then, there are the books:

“’In the great green room…’

“’Mouse,’ Arthur says.

“’There is a mouse,’ I say…falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.”

Go ahead. Read it with dry eyes. I dare you.

Quindlen is writing for her peers. If you aren’t a grandparent and don’t expect to become one anytime soon (or perhaps at all,) then this memoir will probably not be a magical experience for you. But the title and book jacket make it clear exactly where she is going, and I am delighted to go with her.

Highly recommended to grandparents, and to those on the cusp.

Such Good Work, by Johannes Lichtman****

I was invited to read this debut novel by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, but when I first saw it in my inbox, I recoiled. Another addiction memoir! Another chance to live through someone else’s excruciating nightmare! But then I read a few early reviews—they didn’t bear the numbed courtesy of an obligatory write-up.  And then my own sense of courtesy tipped me over the edge. I was, after all, invited. Did I not want to be invited anymore? Of course I should read it.

The story is Lichtman’s own written as autofiction, and his unusual writing style drew me in. I was surprised to see how quickly I went through it. At the outset, he is teaching creative writing and is crestfallen to find that a student he has championed has plagiarized her work for him, and not only is his anecdote written with great humor, it is immediately familiar to me, and most likely will be to all English teachers.  We want to believe; we want to be supportive. And once in awhile, someone younger than ourselves comes along and manipulates the hell out of us. It is a humbling experience.

Jonas is half American, half Swede, and he finds that to get off of opiates and opiods, he needs to be in Sweden, where street drugs are much harder to procure.  He is enrolled in a graduate program in Malmo, but finds his time is primarily consumed by the refugee crisis as he volunteers to teach in a language school. Young men from the Middle East come by the thousands, and he is proud that Sweden doesn’t close its border, doesn’t set a cap to the number of immigrants it will welcome. At the same time, the Swedish government has some double standards where race is concerned; the Roma people that set up an encampment are quickly swept away. Then the nightclub bombing in Paris provides officials with an excuse to shut it all down; it’s a tremendous blow to the refugees and to those that want to help them.

At times I fear for this writer, because he seems to have no filters with which to protect his own heart as he hurls himself into his volunteer work; he wants to make a difference so desperately.  Many years ago I saw a short film that showed a Bambi-like deer grazing in a forest, and then the massive foot of Godzilla smashes it like a bug, and in his ragged, hungry quest for social justice, the author reminds me of that deer. Social justice work requires sacrifice to be sure, but a little care toward one’s own mental health is also essential. Lichtman’s master’s thesis focuses on a Swedish writer that ultimately succumbs to despair, turning on the car and closing the garage door, and I found myself urging this author to have a care, lest the same happen to him, a danger he refers to himself in the narrative. (From the acknowledgements at the end, I see that he appears to have emerged in one piece, at least so far.)

The stories of the refugee boys are searing ones. A young man told of walking through Iran, followed by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark on his way to Sweden. The whole journey was done on foot. So many families were dead that the boys’ tutors learned it was sometimes better not to inquire too deeply about those left behind. At one point, Jonas decides to become a mentor to one person, but things go amiss and he ruefully recalls his own role as that of “clumsy Samaritan.”

Lichtman’s prose is gently philosophical in a style that is slightly reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though in no way derivative. His perceptive commentary regarding the events that unfold around him, along with the lessons he learns about himself, is witty and absorbing. Along the way I picked up a little knowledge about Swedish culture and society that I didn’t have before.

The title has sharp edges.

Recommended to those interested in Swedish culture, the refugee crisis, and addiction issues, as well as to anyone that just enjoys a good memoir.

The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader.