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.

A Street Cat Named Bob, and How He Saved My Life, by James Bowen *****

AstreetcatnamedbobHow does a young man from a middle income family end up sleeping on the streets in a cardboard box, addicted to heroin?

Answer: it happens all the time. It’s closer than you think.

James Bowen does a really fine job relating, in this lovely little memoir, how it happened to him, and the role Bob, a street cat who adopted him, had in pulling him off of Methodone and toward recovery and a life in mainstream Britain.

Here’s the disclosure: I won this book through the Goodreads.com giveaways. I say this on the fifth day of my new blog with a kind of nostalgia, since this was the first book I got free in exchange for a review; it’s been just over a year since then. The review to follow is the one I originally wrote for him back then.

James Bowen’s memoir smacked me upside the head by showing me a bias I did not know I had. First, I assumed this might be poorly written, and successful in England for the content and novelty of its subject matter rather than any attendant writing skill. When I saw the elegantly simple text, the well-crafted pacing, the deftness with which the writer weaves his life’s narrative in and out of the tale about himself and his cat, I started to look for a co-author or an “as told to”. In short, I did not really believe that someone who had (as he put it) “fallen between the cracks” of society would have the skill to write this book.

Slap my Marxist mouth! I am appalled by the social Darwinist that was lurking in the shadows of my own character, and I thank Bowen for casting that particular demon out by the dumpster, where it belongs.

Bowen has a few really brilliantly descriptive passages here, but he is not a master wordsmith. What works is the continuity of the story without any pauses for maudlin self pity. What amazes and strikes deeply, at least for me, is the way he continues for an astonishingly long period of time to assume that the cat will not want to stay with him. He has taken it in, but assumes that the streets will do better for this critter than he ever could. Time and again, he offers the cat the opportunity to run away and reject him, even after he has spent nearly all of his hard-earned money gained as a street musician on veterinary care, food, and wow, even a microchip (which my own little beagle does not have). Bob has the character to stick around, though, and eventually, in a truly marvelous moment, when a well-to-do woman offers Bowen a thousand pounds for his cat, he in turn asks her the price of her youngest child.

Sometimes people who have seen life’s dark underside commit terrible crimes and take a passive voice in discussing them later. They didn’t do something, but rather, it happened. A recent headline in my home city blared that a killer had apologized for his crimes, but when I read the article, the “apology” turned out to be, “I am so very sorry for the things that happened.” Though Bowen is surely no killer, I was watching for it. I’ve worked with youngsters who have been in and around the juvenile “justice” system here in the States. They get good at distancing themselves from their own wrongdoing, seeing it as tragic but inevitable, and adults do it too. But Bowen does not do that and does not go there. Anything he did, was something he did. If it was wrong, he owns that too. It gives his writing integrity that those who feel terribly sorry for themselves cannot impart.

So here it is. This book is terrific, and you should buy it and read it. When I entered the giveaway, I signed an agreement that this review could be used for marketing purposes by the author and his agents. I wasn’t required to write it, though, and if you’ve read my other reviews, you know I never pull punches. This one was well earned, by the way the man pulled himself out of the abyss, for himself and for his kitty, and for the way he tells the story.

Good job, Bowen.

S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. by Ruben Castaneda *****

sstreetrisingThis book is remarkable, and I am not the tiniest bit surprised that its writer has won multiple awards. He began life as a journalist, and in part, that’s what this is about. It is a memoir at least four times over. Seamlessly, Castaneda weaves the history of S Street, a formerly down-and-out part of Washington, DC that holds deep personal meaning for him; his own personal story ; the history of local police and in particular, the use of gratuitous violence and what happens to those who try to shut that shit down; and also the memoir of a local street ministry and after school program linked to S Street and the area’s revival. It is braided together evenly and I cannot find a flaw in it (and I am picky). At the end, he ties the whole thing together and puts a bow on it, and my jaw dropped. Did he just do that? Yes, he did!

Many thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA for the DRC.

My initial thought was that it takes titanium cojones to not only write about the DC crack epidemic while being addicted to it (as well as alcohol), and THEN to come out and write a risky but much lauded magazine article about his own journey doing same, and his subsequent recovery (sixteen years, at the time this was written), and then, after all of that, to write a book about it.

But it’s not just about guts. There are multiple essential messages he wants us to receive, and his strong word-smithery and pacing make it easy to keep turning the pages. The narrative is smooth as glass, transitions so natural they are hard to find. Twice I went back to the opening pages to make sure this was actually nonfiction, because it bears the crafting of a well-paced thriller. And it is highlighted by the journalistic integrity of the writer in what he recognizes is a dying craft: the investigative newspaper reporter.

Looking through the pages of my own city’s less-than-laudable local press as well as TV news coverage, I see two types of journalists, for the greater part. One is the phone-it-in writer. Typically, it is an article about a corporation or organization and the subject of the piece has really done the writing. It shows up as news without anybody double checking the self-aggrandizement done by the firm in question. Easy story.

The other is the heartless story-at-all-costs. Castaneda confesses to being an adrenaline junkie, and the reader must recognize that to keep the hours a journalist keeps for the salary provided, there would have to be a secondary payoff, that of satisfaction. But I do see journalists who go too far, the ones who will approach a mother whose babies have perished in a fire moments before, stick a microphone in her face, and bark, “Tell us how you are feeling at this time, ma’am.” Our author has a couple of sticky ethical decisions he has to make, decisions of integrity versus alpha-journalistic behavior, and he comes down more often than not on the side of the angels, and at least once, he does so at great cost to his career. This is really admirable.

I have read over 200 memoirs, and yet there has never been one like this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.