The Gathering by Anne Enright

The GatheringNot a cheery novel. The narrator is one of twelve children in an Irish family and her closest brother has just died of suicide. There is not much of a plot, more a description of the world of the family and their interconnections and reactions, their loving and hating. It is painful and often unpleasant, with detailed mentions of bodies and touch and aging. There are also, though, wonderful moments of writing – worth the reading. “Even my mother eats with a sudden greed, as if remembering how to do it.”

The progress of the book is through the days surrounding the funeral of the brother (“the gathering”) and of recollections of family history and secrets that may have led to his alcoholism and suicide.

It is very well-written, but a bit hard to get through.

Reviewed by Sue D.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryThis is the second novel by the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and, like in that book, the plot depends on supernatural occurrences. Twin sisters inherit an apartment near Highgate Cemetery in London from the twin sister of their mother, with the stipulation that they must live in it for one year and their mother may not enter. I was interested in these characters and enjoyed the writing up until the appearance of the first ghost. The writing continued to be good and I enjoyed the various inhabitants of the London apartment building that was the center of life for the deceased aunt (ghost) and, increasingly, of the twins. I did find the plot a little complicated with spirits and people, and a little thin as well, but it was worth the read for the novelty and for the characters.

Reviewed by Sue D.

Cooked by Michael Pollan

CookedI’ve been fascinated by Michael Pollan’s books about food (The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma were my favorites.) Here is another, this one about how we, meaning humans, have prepared food. He divides the book into sections by what element is used in cooking — fire, as in barbeque, water, as in soups and stews, air, as in bread baking, and earth, as in fermented foods like pickles, cheese, and home brews.

He includes chemistry, history, and cultural viewpoints. I particularly like reading about his “field trips” to visit experts in the various types of cooking. You’ll have to wait in line for this one, but it’s worth it. It may even tempt you with the recipes included to try some of the techniques at home.

Reviewed by Sue D.

What are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry

What are people forWendell Berry is such a marvelous writer. His writing style is clear and very personal and his care for the natural world is evident in everything he writes. I checked this book out when I wanted to see what he had written about the biography of Ned Cobb (“All God’s Dangers” – previously reviewed). I found that and other essays, all thoughtful and mostly of interest to me. A theme here is the place of the writer in the world. I especially enjoyed “Style and Grace” about Hemingway’s and Norman Maclean’s writings about rivers. (I love Norman Maclean and enjoyed reading Berry’s observations.)

This is another wonderful collection of Wendell Berry’s careful considerations of nature and culture and meaning.

Reviewed by Sue D.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michel Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayIf you are a fan of old-time comic books, this book will call to you. It follows the lives of two cousins, who share a room as teens when one is sent from Prague to live with family in Brooklyn. One is a storyteller, the other a magician, and they combine their talents to create a comic book hero, “the Escapist,” who they sell to publishers and continue to create — Sammy writing and Joe drawing the pages.

This is a very long and involving story with many details of the period and of the early comics industry. We see the descriptions of comic villains change with the times. Joe wants to bring his family to America. There are difficulties. Joe falls in love. Sammy comes to terms with his attraction to men. There are many complications.

We want to know what happens to these people.

This is a long, well-written book with careful language. (Occasionally he used an unfamiliar word that, when I looked it up, was described by referring to this author.)

Reviewed by Sue D.

All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten

All God's DangersDespite the apparent title and author, this is the autobiography of Ned Cobb, an Alabama sharecropper born in 1885. This man (called “Nate Shaw” in the book) describes his long life in well-remembered incidents through the years. His tale was recorded by Rosengarten, who met Cobb a graduate student, in 1969.

This is a true American oral history, full of daily life and following the cadences of speech of their time and place. Cobb was illiterate all his life, but was a successful man, and active in trying to better the world for his own family and other blacks in the society where he found himself. He describes injustices small and mighty, and he joined the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in 1931. When sheriffs came to seize a friend’s land, he was attacked and arrested after having tried to stop them. He spent 13 years in prison.

Full of the details of work and family and mules and raising cotton in the South in Jim Crow times, this book is a long walk through an era with an uneducated but very intelligent and observant and morally upright man.

I think it is people like this who have kept the history of our culture, remembering well in their own stories of their own lives.

Reviewed by Sue D.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun HomeAlison Bechdel has created a graphic novel about her own life growing up, focusing on the family’s funeral home business and comparing her father’s closeted homosexuality with her own lesbian identity. Time is not linear in this account, rather emotional and literary themes lead us through the book. Really, so much is about the father – his obsessive nature, his concern with presentation and appearance, including constantly improving and restoring their Victorian home. He was also a high school English teacher and there are literary allusions throughout. A complicated, interesting book, full of the wonderful drawings and world view of this artist.

Reviewed by Sue D.

“Can’t We Talk About Something More PLEASANT?” by Roz Chast

Roz ChastThis is quite a book. It is the illustrated account of the author’s parents final years of life, complete with pictures of their belongings and descriptions of their physical complaints. She had no siblings and did not live with her parents. They were older. They had lived in the same apartment in Brooklyn for many, many years.

This is Chast’s wonderful, slightly askance view of her parents’ lives and idiosyncrasies, full of detail and humor and a feeling of an overwhelming world. It is very intimate, with examples from her mother’s dementia and many pictures (including some photos) of the various objects that were “saved” by her thrifty parents. It ends with drawings Chast made of her mother as she was dying.

This is a wonderful book.

Reviewed by Sue D.

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Are you My MotherSubtitled “a comic drama,” this is an unusual book. In graphic novel form, the author examines her own relationships with her mother and her lovers in the light of psychoanalytic theory. There are quotations from her past journals, bits of the writings of Donald Winnicott and others, and many dialogues with her mother. This is very personal stuff. The drawing is wonderful and, considering the complexity of the issues involved, the story is well-laid out, using Winnicott’s ideas of child development to integrate her own experience. Fascinating, though not really light reading – even with the “comic” art.

Reviewed by Sue D.

Grain Brain by David Perlmutter

Grain BrainGrain Brain is another book about gluten and carbohydrates, this one about effects on the brain and nervous system by an MD who has spent his life’s practice working with neurological problems. Many studies are quoted and the biological pathways are carefully described, and, though I felt like I understood it as I was reading, it was difficult to keep a clear view of just how all of this worked. In short, it is not as simplistically written as some books of its kind.

It also has suggestions for a healthier life and improved brain function using diet changes and some supplements, with a regimen that is not as extreme as some “paleo” diets. I found it useful and encouraging.

Reviewed by Sue D.