When These Mountains Burn, by David Joy*****

David Joy writes some of the best Grit Lit published in the U.S. of A, and if you haven’t read him yet, it’s time to get started. This soaring, wrenching tale of addiction, community dysfunction, and miserable unrelenting poverty delivers some hard truths about the distribution of wealth in this country, and about the uneven way that justice plays out. Lucky me, I read it free and early; my thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It’s for sale today.

Ray Mathis is a big man with a big burden. His wife, Doris, has been dead for three years, but his grief hasn’t ebbed. A stoic man, he goes in and out of every day carrying out necessary tasks, but he feels as if his arm is missing, all the time. His companionship comes solely from his old hunting beagle, Tommy Two-Ton. His only child is Ricky, and although Ricky is in his forties, Ray still thinks of him as “the boy.” When the boy comes home, Ray is suffused with a sense of dread. Ricky is a hardcore addict, and all those stories you were told in junior high health class are true: a junkie has no loyalties and no shame great enough to override his need for the substance he’s come to crave. When he sees that Ricky is home for a visit, Ray’s first instinct is to check his few valuables that haven’t been stolen and pawned yet to see if they’ve vanished.

Is this all too familiar to some of you? Because it hit close to home for me.

Not long after he arrives, Ricky is gone again, and that’s not unusual; but later he gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know. The caller says that Ricky has failed to meet a payment and will die if Ray doesn’t pay up. Because Ricky has no shame, he has told them exactly how much is in his father’s savings account. And though he understands that it’s only going to postpone the inevitable, Ray pays up, but he tells the men that collect that he will be back for them if they ever sell to his son again. And when Ricky is back on opiates before he has even recovered from the savage beating administered by the dealer’s goons, Ray tells him, “I’ve thrown you ropes till my arms is give out, and I ain’t got no more to throw.”                 `               “            

Meanwhile, our second protagonist, Denny Rattler, a Cherokee burglar, is arrested and offered treatment for his own addiction, but he declines. It turns out that the very purest heroin is sold on the Cherokee Reservation, and so jurisdictional issues complicate law enforcement. Still worse, there are dirty cops right on the other side of the state line. Denny finds himself in the middle of it all.

One of the nastiest villains in literature is Walter Freeman, who goes by “Watty.” “I ain’t calling you that,” Ray tells him. “That’s the stupidest fucking name I ever heard.” Ray confronts Watty after his son’s death to deliver some “backwoods justice,” but Watty is entirely unmoved. He doesn’t even remember Ricky. He leaves the individual users to the minions beneath him. He tells the bereaved father, “Your son is small potatoes. They’re all small potatoes. It’s too much of a headache, dealing with junkies.”

It’s forest fire season in the Appalachian Mountains, and as the conflict between Ray and Watty, between Watty and local law enforcement, and among the addicts, law enforcement and Watty build, a conflagration begins on the reservation, encompassing the “Outlet Mall,” where drugs are sold.  The entire ordeal rises to a fever pitch that leaves me sitting forward, as if the outcome is just beyond my physical reach. At one point I am sure everyone will die, and I tell myself I’ll be okay as long as nothing happens to Tommy Two-Ton.

What Joy does with the conclusion is tremendously satisfying. When I reviewed his last book, I felt as if he had wimped out on the ending, but this time it’s rock solid. It isn’t predictable, yet there are no new people or facts introduced at the last minute to prevent us from foreseeing the outcome, either.

In fact, this may be his best book yet.

I’ll offer a final word about genre. This book is billed as Crime Fiction, and that’s not how I see it. I consider this novel to be gritty Southern Fiction at its finest. The fact that it happens to involve crime as an integral part of the story is almost beside the point. But call it what you will, this book is one of the year’s best, and you should get it and read it.

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.

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.

Robin, by Dave Itzkoff*****

robinWhere were you when you heard that Robin Williams had died?

I was so stunned and grieved at this loss that I honestly wondered if something was wrong with me. I had admired Williams since Mork “uncorked” in the late 1970s, and for decades I enjoyed his work, but after all, he was a complete stranger. I had never met him; why did my heart drop to my toes and stay there for a while when he left us? But as the internet exploded and friends also responded, I understood that it wasn’t just me. He was so raw, so vulnerable in so much of what he did on screen that he became, in a way unlike most entertainers, a part of who we were.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Williams grew up in a well-to-do family, an only child that didn’t learn he had half-brothers till adolescence. His invented characters began in private during childhood with his large collection of toy soldiers, for which he invented complex lives and scenarios; in middle school he began assuming the voices of invented characters as self-defense socially. From his school days all the way through his life, those that spent time with him personally or professionally said that he was unknowable, and he admitted in an interview that in many ways, he was “performing to avoid.”

But none of us knew that when he burst onto the airwaves; all we knew was that this actor was manic, hilarious, audacious, insightful, and unpredictable. Itzkoff deftly segues in and through each period in Williams’ life, through his marriages, parenthood, and friendships, and of course, through the enormous body of artistic work that he amassed over his lifetime. There are perceptive quotes by those that knew him, some wry, some surprisingly hostile, and many of them pithy, and it boggles the imagination to consider how many of these the author began with before he whittled them down to just the right size and number, to provide as complete an account as is possible without allowing the pace to flag.

Here is one favorite clip taken during Robin’s early career:

Some of my favorite sections of the book share behind-the-scenes vignettes from the Robin Williams movies I most enjoyed. One interesting anecdote concerns the making of Dead Poets Society. Disney deemed the title to be too risky; nobody wants to watch something dead, they figured, and so why not change the title to “The Amazing Mr. Keating”? Robin and other cast members laughed; the producers laughed; then they told the Disney people that production would stop immediately if such an attempt were made.

Although usually even well-known movie actors have to audition for Disney animation voice roles just like anyone else would, an exception of great proportions was made for Williams, and in fact, the role of the genie in Aladdin was written for him specifically. Try to imagine that movie without him. Impossible!

I tore voraciously through this absorbing biography of this truly brilliant performer, but as the end neared, the pace of my reading slowed, because I knew, more or less, how it would end. I would have liked the chance to change it, but nobody can do that. It’s a sad, rotten thing to see such a bright star fall so tragically.

Itzkoff’s sources are strong ones, and his tone is intimate without being prurient, affectionate but not fawning. I would read this biographer’s work again in a heartbeat.

Highly recommended.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, by Janet Peery*****

theexactnatureofourwrongsThe place is Amicus, Kansas; the Campbell family has come together to celebrate the birthday of their frail, ancient patriarch, Abel. Ultimately, though, their attention is drawn, unavoidably, to the youngest among them. Billy is a walking pharmacy, but he won’t be walking anywhere for much longer if something isn’t done.

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. If I had paid full retail price, it would have been worth every red cent. It had me at hello, and performed a miracle of sorts by rendering me temporarily speechless; I had to gather my thoughts and look at my notes before I could comment.

But back to the Campbells of Kansas. Everyone has known for some time about Billy’s dependency issues; he’s been riding the roller coaster of addiction for many years. Billy’s father wants to take a hard line with him, while his mother, Hattie, just wants to bring him home and tuck him into the guest bedroom. Brother Jesse objects, “He’s forty-fricking-seven, Mom.”

Elder daughter Doro, who is sixty and perhaps the only sane, normal person in the family, is concerned for her mother, who is past eighty and has already had a heart attack. Doro reminds her mother that “It’s Amicus. It’s your family. Where two’s company and three turns into an intervention.”

The setting of Amicus and the time period we see as we reach back into the family’s history is well rendered, but remains discreetly in the background as it should, not hijacking the story. The story itself is based on character, not just of any one person, but of the family itself. By the twenty percent mark I feel as if I have known these people all my life. The full range of emotion is in play as I immerse myself in this intimate novel, and there are many places that make me laugh out loud.

It isn’t too long before I can identify someone I know that is a Hattie, and someone that is a Billy. Given the widespread horror of opiate addiction, I will bet you a dollar that you know someone too.

But before the halfway mark is reached, a terrible sense of dread comes over me, an aha moment I would not wish on my worst enemy. I begin to sense that perhaps I am Hattie. And within a week of having read this epic story, my eldest child calls and tells me that he’s had a phone call from his younger sibling’s dealer, a man that flatly states, “I don’t want your brother on my conscience, man. I won’t sell to him anymore, but I’m telling you, there are plenty of others that do. You gotta do something, cause he’s out of control.”

Generally, I do not include personal notes in my reviews, because that’s not generally what the reader is looking for. But here I have chosen to do so because this problem is everywhere. In the case of Billy Campbell, there’s a complicating factor: Billy is HIV positive and has been since he was 21. And again, I suspect that for many others, such issues also blur the distinction between medical treatment of some sort, and addiction.

I hope that you can get this book and enjoy it for its sly humor, brilliant word-smithery, and unmatchable character development. It’s excellent fiction, just exactly right for a chilly autumn evening in your favorite chair or snuggled beneath the quilts. But for me, it is valuable as a wake-up call, and it will do the same for many other readers also—I have no doubt.

It’s the right story, at the right time.

Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love: One Couple’s Memoir, by Susan Stellin and Graham Macindoe****

ChancersI decided to read and review this title because I anticipated that it would be, by and large, a depiction and critique of the American prison system and Homeland Security. As it happens, that is really only a small part of this memoir, which focuses more on the couple’s relationship and the way that addiction warps and undermines trust and affection. Nevertheless, I found it really compelling, and so thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the opportunity to read and review free and ahead of the public in exchange for this honest review. The memoir will be available to the public June 7, 2016.
Susan met Graham at a beach getaway where they were two of the people sharing a large house over the course of a vacation. Later, when she needed an author photo done for a book she had written, she remembered that he was a photographer that had worked for the Guardian, and she called him to see if he was interested.
That’s when everything began.
The memoir was originally going to be Susan’s alone, but eventually it occurred to her that Graham could contribute a lot in sharing his experiences with addiction and the point of view from which he saw the world when he was in that condition.
Imagine using heroin because it is easier to hide than alcoholism. From the frying pan into the fire! And hide it he did through the first stages of their relationship. He did romance like nobody’s business and she tried to remain objective, but there’s nothing all that objective about falling in love. And so although he made some highly questionable decisions, it took her awhile to find out about the heroin, which he had told her was behind him. But the heroin wasn’t behind him, and neither was the crack. And before she knows it, she is drawn partially down his rabbit hole while keeping one foot in that of mainstream journalism. It’s a strange place to be.
This reviewer has never minced words about my dislike for cops in general and the punitive, demoralizing, racist, class-based system that is the so-called American Justice System; yet Macindoe didn’t earn much sympathy from me. His narrative is in turns puling, angry with no justification, whiny and full of self pity, up until the end when he has finally shucked the monkey from his back as he reaches his golden years.
Macindoe had climbed from his early impoverished years as a child of a Scottish miner to the middle class world of photo-journalism. He was in the USA by preference and because his son from an earlier marriage was here; thus it was hard to feel the kind of solidarity with him that automatically comes to me regarding Third World citizens that are in the US as the only means by which they can feed their families. He owned a brownstone in New York City and had published photos internationally, garnering praise and a certain level of renown. And so…seriously? Heroin?
It was Stellin that kept me turning the pages. Every time she decided to step back from the relationship I wanted to yank her into the nearest lady’s room and tell her one woman to another to lose this guy entirely. Even her former husband, now in a gay relationship, advised her to “cut bait”. And every time she decided she could offer him some assistance even though they were no longer romantically involved, every time she wondered what their relationship could be like if only he were off the smack, I wanted to howl. After all, the relationship might be interesting if one of them grew a second head or a third eye in the middle of the forehead, but what were the chances?
“Chancers” turns out to be a Scottish expression, and I will leave the reader to find out what it means.
I found this story had an addictive quality of its own, a romantic drama not unlike the soap operas that were the only adult voices I heard most days when I was a stay-at-home mother in the 1980’s. Graham was full of shit, I figured, but I still had to know what happened next.
In the course of hearing Susan and Graham’s story, I did learn a number of things about Homeland Security that I had not known before. Imagine feeling nostalgic for Riker’s Island because it was so much more compassionate than the one for potential deportees!
And so I have to say this is a good read, an ideal book to take on vacation and flop on the beach with; just don’t get so absorbed that you scorch your tender skin, because it’s mighty distracting regardless of what is happening around you.
Fascinating and recommended to those that like compelling memoirs or are interested in addiction issues and the US penal system.

MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, by Steve Knopper****

MJthegeniusofmichaeljacksonJackson was a musical prodigy whose talent was almost limitless. His brilliant career was derailed by scandal, and his final 50 city tour was aborted by his death the night before it was to commence. Knopper does the best job of objectively recounting Jackson’s life and death that I have seen so far. His portrait is intimate without being prurient. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Jackson was born in the 1950’s, a time when the race barrier kept Black performers from being seen by a general audience, with only the rarest exceptions. Black folks could play music for Black folks, and nobody else. The family was terribly poor, with eight or nine people crowded into a house better suited to three or four. They lived in Gary, a steel town in which Black poverty was more the rule than the exception. His father was a struggling musician until it became obvious that his sons had inherited his talent plus some. By the time Michael was five years old, he was the charismatic center of the Jackson Five, who soon were contracted to Motown, the center of African-American music in the USA.

Knopper explains how the family’s progression from a Motown act, where they were not allowed to actually play their own instruments on stage and could not use music they wrote themselves; to an independent family act, apart from one son who chose to remain with Motown; to the final day when Michael got himself an agent and a lawyer and set out on his own, divorcing his family so that he could have full control over a solo act. Until he was independent, iconic creations such as Thriller and Smooth Criminal would most likely never have been launched. And he recounts the family drama that ensued, with bodyguards pulling guns to discourage Michael’s angry brothers when they tried to force their way past the gates of his estate, shouting that he owed them money.

As a fan of excellent music and performance, I was sucked into the maelstrom produced by the press both during his life and afterward. It’s embarrassing to admit how completely I was played. For years I would not permit Jackson’s music to be played in my home because I thought he was a sick creep who used his fame to gain private, inappropriate contact with smooth-faced young boys. Somehow it escaped me that he had never been proved guilty in a court of law; on the one hand, it made sense to pay one family off in order to take the heat off his career, and Knopper documents the advice experienced, famous musicians gave Jackson to do whatever he had to do to shut that shit down so he could go back to focusing on music. But the press was merciless, and the payoff, which came too late to do damage control effectively, was portrayed as a tacit admission of guilt. And I bought it.

A few months after Jackson’s death, I was in a hotel room on vacation with my family, and my youngest son, who is Black, turned on the television, and there was the second round that Knopper documents, the round of memorial tributes that brought a lump to one’s throat as we saw Jackson’s miraculous career unspooled. He pioneered music videos in so many ways I had failed to appreciate, and he employed so many Black musicians that might never have had a steady job, while at the same time reaching out to Caucasian performers as well, creating a bridge between Black music and Caucasian sounds, transitioning from disco-like R and B to the “King of Pop”. I was horrified at the way I had misjudged him.

About a year ago, I read Michael Jackson’s memoir, Moonwalk, and while I took parts of it with a grain of salt, I also came to believe that the guy just didn’t know what was socially appropriate at times because he had never had a normal childhood. I was sold. Poor Michael.

Knopper has a more realistic take on all this. He certainly should; he used over 450 sources, and he wasn’t anybody’s mouthpiece. And so the truth turns out to be more complicated.

What left me somewhat stunned, in the end, was not the sex scandal, and it wasn’t the postmortem resurrection of Jackson as some sort of musical saint. Instead, I was absolutely floored at the number of people that worked for the guy, some of them for a lot of years, who he left without paychecks for weeks, then months on end. Jackson had a tremendous load of debt, was on the verge of bankruptcy and was saved only by his investment in song publishing, a piece of advice given him by friend Paul McCartney that he had followed through on. Yet he continued to buy one extreme luxury estate after another, holding residences he would likely never use again, shopping extravagantly (the example of taking a new friend shopping and telling him to do it “like this”, as he swept entire shelves of merchandise into his cart, astounded me) while leaving his employees, regular working folk with bills to pay for the most part, with no paychecks. There was money for shopping, but not for them, and some of them took him to court for it. It made me a bit sick. This man knew what it was like to be poor, and he knew what hunger was like, but as long as he didn’t have to see the people that he had betrayed, he could continue to play out the Peter Pan thread, irresponsibly trashing the lives of those he had told they could count on him, then leaving them with empty wallets and eviction notices.

Maybe you think I have over-shared. I have news; this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you have followed this review all the way to its conclusion, you will like this book. It is available for purchase October 20.

City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg*****

cityonfireLuminous, epic, and brilliantly scribed, City on Fire is the buzz book of the year. I would be hard pressed to find a story of greater genius published this century. Those that love literature have to read this book. It will be available to the public for purchase October 13.

I received my copy early from Knopf Doubleday Publishers and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. In doing so, I feel as if I struck oil.

The story, some 992 pages of it, is a complex story, and like an onion, the reader can decide how many layers of interpretation they wish to uncover. What the reader cannot do, however, is skim, or make the story make sense without reading it in its entirety. It is the thing that makes this story great that makes it complicated, and so those that lack the stamina for a book this length will probably not find it fulfilling. A college-ready literacy level is required in order to understand it.

First, the reader will want to know who committed the act of violence that sets so many things into motion, and how the planned escalation by her friends will unfold. But ultimately, the story is a much broader one, and its genius is in the way each character, even its most peripheral ones, is developed, usually within the same space that the setting is described, and how both of these things drive the plot forward rather than slowing it down. This reviewer came away with hundreds of flagged pages, eloquent quotes, and fifty notes to myself, most of which say exactly that; in fact, eventually I was too engrossed in the story to write a full note anymore, and began using “ch dev, setting” as a shorthand that meant, look! He’s done it again! And by the 80 percent mark, the author had so consistently developed so many characters that I began to ask myself who had not yet been included. Those I watched for were also developed by the conclusion.

In looking for a writer’s purpose, it’s easy to choose one part or another of a storyline and home in on that, and it’s particularly dangerous when the writer touches upon one’s own particular fond subject, or one’s own pet peeve.

In her memoir, Amy Tan remarks upon having stumbled upon a set of Cliff Notes for her own first novel, and discovering that she had intended as metaphor or message passages that actually, she had included for the sake of telling a good story. It’s a cautionary reminder here. If we want to know the author’s purpose and we aren’t sure, we should probably just ask him.

Yet the emphasis on the city, and the development of the characters, seems to point to one thing above all else: “I see you”. For though the author includes the diverse races, genders, ethnicities, and classes that make up a great cosmopolitan city, the story isn’t really about race, and it isn’t really about being gay or straight, and it isn’t really about the entitlement that comes of great wealth and capitalism unfettered, or anarchy and cataclysmic change, or cops, or the disabled, or addiction, or any of the story’s other facets. Rather, each is a foil to show the common humanity of all.

And at a time such as this one, with our social fabric strained and our political ideas polarized, it isn’t such a bad thing, I think, to have an author come forward and say, in a way far more compelling than anyone else has managed to do for decades, that we are all of us just people, after all. All of us will grow old or sick or both, and eventually die. All of us will grieve. Most of us will be injured, and we will forgive it to the extent that we are able. And if any of that sounds trite, it is only my own failing in this review rather than the author’s work, which is breathtaking in its scope and mesmerizing in its capacity to weave so many threads and perspectives into one intricate, flawless story.
If you read one great book this year, let this be it.

Mot, by Sarah Einstein*****

Einstein_Mot.inddSarah is forty, and she’s floundering. Her life’s work, like her mother’s, has been to try to make the world a better place, and so she works at a homeless shelter as its director. But things are falling apart there; whereas once upon a time most of the mentally ill homeless were passive, now meth and other addictions have created so much anger and violence that she isn’t even safe there. She’s been physically attacked three times, one of which was sexual, and her life has been threatened on an ongoing basis. Too often she is the only staff member present, and it’s getting scary out there.

Many thanks to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for the DRC. This title goes up for sale September 15.

In addition, her marriage, which was predicated upon a mutual dedication to social justice issues and the understanding that neither she nor her new husband would be around much because of the time and attention their work demanded, is coming undone as well. Her husband Scotti has at times sided with the population she is supposed to be managing at the shelter against her.

Think of it!

So maybe it isn’t so very strange that she has decided to load herself into her vehicle and drive 1400 miles to Texas to visit a homeless friend who has moved there. “Mot”, who used to be “Thomas”, is living in a beat-up car in a Walmart parking lot. And whereas most of us would regard her mission as either an immense personal sacrifice or even a little bit bizarre, the fact is that she needed to get away from West Virginia, that shelter (where she has given notice and is using up every possible minute of vacation time), and Scotti. She has rented a little cabin—the closest thing Mot will accept even temporarily in terms of living indoors—with two beds, one for herself, and one for him. And as the book opens, she is reflecting that even if he never shows up, a whole week in this primitive little yurt, all by herself, sounds positively wonderful.

Right away her spouse is ringing her cell to complain of how much inconvenience he is experiencing while she is gone. He sends unhappy e-mails constantly, but he also doesn’t want her to use her smart phone because that data costs money. So although she hasn’t explained to us yet about the state of her marriage, which should still be in its honeymoon phase but really, really isn’t, we start to get the picture.

Mot is a complicated fellow. Immediately, when she quotes him, I start asking myself whether this is schizophrenia, a dissociative disorder, both or neither? I’m not a professional by a long shot, but when a guy routinely refers to the other folks with whom he is sharing a body and that control his behavior, it’s pretty clear all is not well. And my jaw dropped on the floor later in the book when he commented, in a moment of total lucidity, that it was probably the latter.

Mot is a veteran, and Sarah’s documentation of the unconscionable way the USA treats its veterans is noteworthy. Advocates for veterans’ health care should be plugging this book all the time, everywhere.

Sarah’s time with Mot mixes with some odd bits of philosophy, most of them his, and so although plot wise there aren’t a lot of parallels, the overall flavor to this book is similar to that of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (I have never compared any other book to that book before, and don’t expect to!)

I should also add that I came to this galley after having read a couple of Pulitzer winners and some books by my favorite bestselling authors. I dove into Mot not because I thought it would be my favorite of the remaining DRC’s I had to review, but because I had snagged it right before it was due to be archived, and I felt an obligation to the author and the publisher. In other words, although it looked interesting, I didn’t expect to give it five stars. But the sum of the book is so much more than its parts, and to get it, you really just have to read it.

Highly recommended to anyone and everyone.