Sunday, March 27, 2022

March 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews

Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

Think about using it yourselves!



A Tap on the Window by Linwood Barclay

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: When Cal Weaver stops at a red light on a rainy night while driving home, he ignores the bedraggled-looking teenage girl trying to hitch a ride - even when she starts tapping on his window. But as soon as he realises she's one of his son's classmates, he knows he can't really leave her, alone, on the street.

But nothing prepares him for the consequences of trying to help her out. The next morning he's gone from Good Samaritan to Murder Suspect, and with one girl dead and another missing, he's suddenly at the centre of a deadly puzzle that reaches right to the heart of the town - from its bullying police force to its strangely furtive mayor - and finally to one family's shocking secret.


My Review
: Not a bad read, though there's a serious TSTL issue running through the whole read...from the get-go, the teen girl who's murdered has no cellphone in the Teens? the ex-cop falls for a clear bait-and-switch? there's no instant suspicion about this particular guy's probable targeting due to what's happened to him (loss of his son to drug addiction)? The issues will either slam the cover on your read before p25/5%, or you'll think "okay, we're getting into a deeper North-by-Northwestesque entrapment plot" and have you settling the read-medium into your lap and moving on.

I'm in Camp 2.

This is very interesting from the standpoint of a reader whose interests are in psychological undercurrents and deeper reasons for evidently complex relationship problems. A family that has addiction ripping at its vitals is under stress constantly...but also causes stress far outside its immediate circle. The metaphysical gravity that Love represents is merely a feather pointing at the dark matter made up of Anger. The source of Anger in a family is always basal...but its influence is invisibly, inexorably warping the movement of every single thing the family resides among.

There's never a good answer to the question "Why?" Please believe me, the way Author Barclay reveals (most of) the "Why" we'd be just as happy not knowing. Paradoxically, there's just enough that doesn't quite add up to leave you, the reader, thinking, "...but...wait...what about...ah, heck with it." This is not my preferred ending to a thriller. It's a genre where, no matter how morally grey the situation and resolution are, Justice needs to prevail even if the law gets or remains broken (often again). So, not quite the read I signed up to experience. Get it at Amazon: non-affiliate link



Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Head peace officer Anya Savelova believed her people, living on a hostile planet in the ice-bound city of Novayarkha, were the last of humanity.

Until the day she learned they weren't.

When a starship from an Earth thought long dead appears in orbit over her world, Anya imagines an explosion of possible futures, offering her people the freedom to transcend the limiting environment of the planet they'd thought was their last refuge. In the starship's crew, Anya finds creativity, diversity, innovation-all things the colony has had to inhibit to survive.

Seeing her world through the eyes of the starship crew makes Anya look closer at her city's inconsistencies, oddities she's always been told to ignore. But the harder she pushes at the pieces that don't fit, the more her government perceives the strangers as a threat. There are secrets in Novayarkha, hiding in plain sight, that the strangers can't possibly understand-and Anya's drive to uncover them risks shredding the fragile web holding together everything she's ever known and loved.


My Review
: Modestly enjoyable; the author's not aiming for brain-bending novelty, and so delivers solid, competent storytelling.

The most interesting thing is the set-up: one group of colonists leave Earth in what they imagine are its last throes only to discover, as they consolidate their hold on a new world, that the planet and the people survived. These groups are under some significant stresses. What matters is how they decide to cohabit the iceball they're going to be sharing. And then there are the wild ones who don't want to be told what to do...what to do about them now that things are even more complicated?

Briskly told, basically familiar enough in its execution, the pages turn and the planet that Earth's disease of H. sapiens has spread to sets about killing some infectious issues, I mean colonists. There are excerpts from "founding documents" and archives of Earth history. That works well to add depth and color to Author Bonesteel's tale.

I spent pleasant, if only modestly thrilling, hours learning about the Novayarkha being born as three poles of conflict settle in for a future together. Sci-fi readers will enjoy it, women who like stories about the ethical dilemmas women in power consider existential threats and decide to skate close to the winds of Decency to survive.

Available from House Panther Press here.


Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In Underland, Robert Macfarlane delivers an epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself. Traveling through the dizzying expanse of geologic time—from prehistoric art in Norwegian sea caves, to the blue depths of the Greenland ice cap, to a deep-sunk "hiding place" where nuclear waste will be stored for 100,000 years to come—Underland takes us on an extraordinary journey into our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind.

Global in its geography and written with great lyricism, Underland speaks powerfully to our present moment. At once ancient and urgent, this is a book that will change the way you see the world.


My Review
: I don't think this is as wonderful as most of y'all do. It isn't awful, certainly, though I was heading in the "two-stars-get-it-away-from-me" direction at the end of Third Chamber (p248). I left it on my TBR pile for a couple years after the white-hooded guy with the film gets irradiated.

Part Three—Haunting (The North) was, unexpectedly, a much different reading experience. It's still too long, it's way too ornately wrought for its subject matter...Robert Mulvaney and his "haven't sailed the east (British) coast unless you've grounded" shtik almost got the book put down again...but there is a simple and essential heartbeat of passion for the planet that came through to me more clearly after the hauntings began.

(No, not ghosty-ghouly hauntings.)

I won't re-read it, and I doubt I'll knock over any little kids to grab the last copy of his latest, but the book ended up feeling like time well spent. As that was not the direction I was headed for over half the read, I think it's a minor miracle I kept going long enough to find that out.

Non-affiliate link to Amazon.


Who Will Comfort Toffle? by Tove Jansson

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A tale of Moomin Valley sees Toffle driven from his home by the frightening noises of the forest. Too shy, at first, to approach the many colourful Moomin characters he passes along the way, he gains confidence by discovering a scared and lonely Miffle who needs his help.

Toffle's quest to save Miffle from the dreadful Groke is an inspiring tale that every child (and many adults) are sure to identify with. In Scandinavia, this story by Tove Jansson is even more popular than her Moomin books; in over 40 years since it was published it has never once been out of print.

My Review: The inimitable Tove Jansson's beautiful art, her bracing message of the value to you of Helping, and it's never been out of print in 62 years. Absolutely wonderful little-kid version of "you won't know unless you try." I love Tove Jansson's art, and her words always seem to speak directly to my inner weirdo.

Now, go watch the musical version (subtitled in English and Spanish, as you prefer) from 1980. It, too, is an absolute joy.

A non-affiliate Amazon link to the hardcover edition will only set you back $16 or so.


The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream by Michael Wood

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A single volume history of China, offering a look into the past of the global superpower and its significance today.

Michael Wood has travelled the length and breadth of China producing a magisterial new book that combines a sweeping narrative of China's story with the stories of its people, the history of its landscape and commentary from his extensive travel journals. He begins with a look at China's prehistory--the early dynasties, the origins of the Chinese state, and the roots of Chinese culture in the teachings of Confucius. He looks at particular periods and themes that are being revaluated by historians now such as The Renaissance of the Song with its brilliant scientific discoveries. He offers a revaluation of the Qing Empire in the 18th century, just before the European impact, a time when China's rich and diverse culture was at its height. Wood takes a new look at the encounter with the West, the Opium Wars, clashes with the British and the extraordinarily rich debates in the late 19th century as to which path China should take to move forward into modernity.

Finally, he brings the story up to today by giving readers a clear, current account of China post 1949 complete with a more balanced view of Mao based on newly-opened archives. In the final chapter, Wood considers the provocative question of when, if ever, China will rule the world. Michael Wood's The Story of China answers that question and is the indispensable book about the most intriguing and powerful country amassing power on the world stage today.


My Review
: I got a DRC just as COVID hit and, in the mishegas of having it twice and wanting to make a review commensurate with the book's quality, have so far failed to get any review at all done. It really is a terrific job of work, just as writing almost a thousand pages goes. One expects Wood to be top-flight at research, given his forty-plus years of making and presenting TV shows about history (his In Search of the Dark Ages series easily being my favorites!) but the clarity and the wit of his sentence-by-sentence storytelling really brings his anecdotes alive.

NON-AFFILIATE Amazon link will take you to your Great-on-Kindle seller...enjoy this book, build up credits to get the next for cheap!


This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.
To my surprise, I did not Pearl Rule a single book in March 2022!

Saturday, March 26, 2022

THE CHARM OFFENSIVE, keeping struggles a fairy-tale world? Go on!


Atria Books
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to open up to the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.


My Review
: Reality TV isn't. I realize that's just the most startling thing you've ever read, but it is true. What it is, though, is made by real people and it features real people, with real emotions and feelings; they aren't dolls or puppets or robots. And while that's not something I expect most adults really need telling, intellectually, it's Somehow. (There will be, one day, a better vocabulary for these feelings-at-a-remove. I live for that day.)

But the thing that Author Cochrun did, in creating gorgeous OCD-having anxiety-experiencing Charlie, is something I think the world of reality TV, Romancelandia, and the entire entertainment world could do with a lot more of: She humanized the beautiful façades in a kind, supportive, and genuinely entertaining way. Her decision to make gawky, geeky Dev into a multifaceted man, her decision to have these two men, fractured and frantically trying to keep their heads above the dark, cold waters of mental illness's difficult times, find and learn about and accept each other is something still too rare. It is laudable, and the way she made it believable earns my admiration.

I can see a lot of eyes rolling at the idea of a gorgeously chiseled six-pack-sportin' tech millionaire having anxiety and OCD problems. Truth is many beautiful-looking people are beset by issues that onlookers don't think to wonder if they experience. The very idea is foreign..."if I only had money and/or looked like X I'd be happy all the time!"...but it honestly should shame us how much stock we put in that nonsense. People have problems. And when they're rich or beautiful or famous, they shouldn't. So when they do....

Brava, Author Cochrun, for slapping an ace on top of that tired old trick.

Then there's the Fun-Guy trope! Life of the party, always a laugh...he couldn't be depressed, he's got this great job and look at how many people he laughs his nights away with!...but the same logic applies. It's another good deed done to remind us that there's no one immune from the hurts of being alive. Putting the two of them together in this highly artificial, addicted-to-surfaces world was a great idea, and one that Author Cochrun pulled off with admirable aplomb.

What works well, works well. There's a minor plot-point left dangling, and there were two (2) foul, heinous, scum-dripping w-bombs. So there went that half-star. But there's no reason to go full-tilt ramming-speed mental when a medium-steam rom-com featuring two genuinely love-worthy, genuinely love-giving, thoroughly sweet men gets told in sentences like this:
Charlie hasn’t met many people like this—people who don’t make assumptions about you when they discover your brain doesn’t work like theirs; people who don’t judge you; people who simply stay with you and ask what they can do to help. People who trustingly hand you all of themselves in PDF form.
{He} curls into the fetal position inside the shower. This is what regret tastes like: regurgitated tequila and dirty cotton balls.
“It doesn’t have to be,” she says, “and you’re not obligated to figure it out, or come out, or explain yourself to anyone, ever. But also”—she drops her hands from their spectrum and tucks an arm around his shoulder—“labels can be nice sometimes. They can give us a language to understand ourselves and our hearts better. And they can help us find a community and develop a sense of belonging. I mean, if you didn’t have the correct label for your OCD, you wouldn’t be able to get the treatment you need, right?” {hear the Gospel of Saint Parisa, everybody!}
He pauses, and {his lover} explodes. “That’s such bullshit! There are so many people who have done actual terrible things who are actively working in tech! Mark Zuckerberg exists! And firing someone for having OCD—that’s got to be illegal."
"I don’t think happily ever after is something that happens to you...I think it’s something you choose to do for yourself.”

There's just no reason not to get this book, sink into it, and let the beauty of its fantasy world soothe crappy, warlike reality's wrinkles and creases right out of your face to be replaced by smiles.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

SEE, SOLVE, SCALE: How Anyone Can Turn an Unsolved Problem into a Breakthrough Success...exactly what it says, it is

SEE, SOLVE, SCALE: How Anyone Can Turn an Unsolved Problem into a Breakthrough Success

St. Martin's Press
$28.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Inspired by Brown University’s beloved course—The Entrepreneurial Process—Danny Warshay’s See, Solve, Scale is a proven and paradigm-shifting method to unlocking the power of entrepreneurship.

The Entrepreneurial Process, one of Brown University’s highest-rated courses, has empowered thousands of students to start their own ventures. You might assume these ventures started because the founders were born entrepreneurs. You might assume that these folks had technical or finance degrees, or worked at fancy consulting firms, or had some other specialized knowledge. Yet that isn’t the case. Entrepreneurship is not a spirit or a gift. It is a process that anyone can learn, and that anyone can use to turn a problem into a solution with impact.

In See, Solve, Scale, Danny Warshay, the creator of the Entrepreneurial Process course and founding Executive Director of Brown’s Center for Entrepreneurship, shares the same set of tools with aspiring entrepreneurs around the world. He overturns the common misconception that entrepreneurship is a hard-wired trait or the sole province of high-flying MBAs, and provides a proven method to identify consequential problems and an accessible process anyone can learn, master, and apply to solve them.

Combining real-world experience backed by surprising research-based insights, See, Solve, Scale guides the reader through forming a successful startup team and through the three steps of the process: find and validate a problem, develop an initial small-scale solution, and scale a long-term solution. It also details eleven common errors of judgment that entrepreneurs make when they rely on their intuition and provides instruction for how to avoid them.

Leveraging Warshay’s own entrepreneurship successes and his 15 years of experience teaching liberal arts students, See, Solve, Scale debunks common myths about entrepreneurship and empowers everyone, especially those who other entrepreneurship books have ignored and left behind. Its lasting message: Anyone can take a world-changing idea from conception to breakthrough entrepreneurial success.


My Review
: The best, measured by their own success metrics, entrepreneurs are the same kind of people who become cultural anthropologists. They are more interested in what you have to say than in putting forth their own ideas. They are deeply curious about things, lots of things, and like asking questions designed to elicit explanations not simply answers. They like building on those explanations, fixing those unfulfilled needs, by getting the needy in contact with needed commodity.

This is a radical departure from the existing models of entrepreneurship. These focus on the item to be sold and thus focus on salesmanship, on taking A Widget and getting together the right talents and teams to make it. Think Shark Tank. It's a hit-and-miss depends on selling selling selling, on creating a need where none might've been before.

Warshay says the best results come from starting at the end of the traditional process: Identifying the need that a widget satisfies. He requires his students to form teams, which is already a huge lesson in observing, asking questions, and solving issues; the teams must then identify an issue (See) that they can imagine a way to improve, to add value to (Solve), and then create a structure to both implement the solution and make it replicable for others (Scale).

So, you know what it says, now you can go do it, right?

The value Warshay adds in his course at Brown University, of course, is access to his extensive knowledge base in person and the presence of other motivated and creative people on one's own level. The book is a great way to pick up many ideas, and Warshay is as generous with his experience as he is with his expertise. The case analysis of failures is as valuable as the rah-rah of support and cheerleading. (I contend it's actually more valuable, but I'm a cynical old party.) What Warshay's written version of the course has over the lived experience of it is, one: cost...a $30-ish book purchase is a lot less than a Brown University course...two: time, as in "read in your own." Some of us aren't great at sprints like a class represents. Some of us aren't able to thrive in the distracting atmosphere of competing ideas and purposes. A book is a great way to determine for one's self if a technique will work for us, our own special needs and conditions of life.

There are, inevitabaly, downsides to reading a book about a dynamic thing like developing one's innate entrepreneurial methodology. Those multivarious points of view? Distracting, perhaps; but urgently needed to avoid making the echo-chamber error. (Look at the great failures in History, eg: Napoleon, Hitler; they heard no dissent, brooked no argument; they Were Right. A faster road to failure I do not know of.) And let's not forget that other people have other social networks. The social aspect of entrepreneurship isn't to be underestimated. There need to be converts and believers to get any action from plan to performance, no matter how many or few, no matter what is needed from them or required of them.

There's a major disconnect for me in Warshay's insistence, at the very beginning of the book, that no pre-existing resources are needed for entrepreneurs to begin their journey. I contend that these social networks and the luxury of time to spend developing their skills are resources, and the glibness to sell others on a vision isn't exactly something everyone just *has*. The book does the work of developing whatever innate abilities one has a disservice by not acknowledging it as a precious resource, and one that not everyone possesses.

Since, however, the book and the course it's based on exist as a means of doing that developing, I suppose it's simply so basal to the ability to benefit from it that Warshay doesn't feel it needs belaboring.

One thing Warshay addresses (but doesn't belabor, either) is that the contents of the book can be applied within existing businesses or organizations. This strikes me as something that is supremely valuable in the post-COVID economy. One's role in an existing business might not be the same now as it was three years ago. What better moment to introduce something major and unexpected than this one? And this is the resource that can make that vague idea you've had since 1999 a reality at last.

A business doesn't need two people with the same ideas. So be the one with a new idea. Read this book, apply its precepts, and survive the layoffs. Or read this book, realize your idea is workable but can't be done while wage-slaving, and find the path to the door. It's never the wrong time to bet on yourself and your own creativity.

Parents with college undergrads or recent graduates could do a lot worse than give them a copy of this book (graduation season being close upon us); those with younger kids, high-schoolers let's say, could do worse than let them in on the way professors, later on bosses, will be looking at them and the yardsticks those seniors will use to measure them.

If there's been an employment gap in your life, this $30 might be more than you can splash out...but the library can, and will, help out there! This isn't some self-published marvy by a distinctly second-rank creator. This is a major-publisher product, well made and vetted by generations of successful and satisfied students. If it's not already on the library's acquisitions list, recommend the purchase to them. No one can know about every single book that's coming out. Who knows but what you might find yourself wreathed in glory for suggesting something that will help many.

The overall point I'm making is: Read it; try it out; and don't wait any longer to make a move to get your vision made manifest.

Monday, March 21, 2022

ALREADY TOAST: Caregiving and Burnout in America, "startling, hard-hitting story of a family medical disaster made worse by cultural insensitivities to caregivers.”

ALREADY TOAST: Caregiving and Burnout in America

Beacon Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The story of one woman’s struggle to care for her seriously ill husband—and a revealing look at the role unpaid family caregivers play in a society that fails to provide them with structural support.

Already Toast shows how all-consuming caregiving can be, how difficult it is to find support, and how the social and literary narratives that have long locked women into providing emotional labor also keep them in unpaid caregiving roles. When Kate Washington and her husband, Brad, learned that he had cancer, they were a young couple: professionals with ascending careers, parents to two small children. Brad’s diagnosis stripped those identities away: he became a patient and she his caregiver.

Brad’s cancer quickly turned aggressive, necessitating a stem-cell transplant that triggered a massive infection, robbing him of his eyesight and nearly of his life. Kate acted as his full-time aide to keep him alive, coordinating his treatments, making doctors’ appointments, calling insurance companies, filling dozens of prescriptions, cleaning commodes, administering IV drugs. She became so burned out that, when she took an online quiz on caregiver self-care, her result cheerily declared: “You’re already toast!”

Through it all, she felt profoundly alone, but, as she later learned, she was in fact one of millions: an invisible army of family caregivers working every day in America, their unpaid labor keeping our troubled healthcare system afloat. Because our culture both romanticizes and erases the realities of care work, few caregivers have shared their stories publicly.

As the baby-boom generation ages, the number of family caregivers will continue to grow. Readable, relatable, timely, and often raw, Already Toast—with its clear call for paying and supporting family caregivers—is a crucial intervention in that conversation, bringing together personal experience with deep research to give voice to those tasked with the overlooked, vital work of caring for the seriously ill.


My Review
: There's a slightly dystopian feel to reading this book. It's as though all the parts that were deemed too dark for fictional post-apocalyptic nightmares during the editorial process were snipped out then dumped into this tale. I mean, reading about a young wife and mother whose entire life was redefined by her fit young husband's horrific, aggressive cancer's near-success in driving him into the grave as she worked and raised their kids and managed his increasingly horrific treatments, all while fighting their insurance and medical providers? That's a bridge too far! It's too painful, it's too appalling!
Graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) is a confusing, uniquely modern ailment, like the inverse of rejection in a solid organ transplant. If you were to need and get a kidney donated from someone, for instance, there’s a good chance your immune system would identify it as a foreign body and attack it. Thus, organ transplant recipients are given immune suppressants. In a stem cell (or bone marrow) transplant, sometimes the new immune system (the graft), in its unfamiliar environment, looks around and sees the entire body around it (the host) as foreign. It then, in unscientific terms, freaks the fuck out. GvHD can pop up in the liver, skin, gut, eyes, and plenty of other spots; its attacks, as with many autoimmune responses, often seem random.9 The possibility of GvHD—which is termed “acute” when it arises within the first 100 days of transplant and “chronic” when it continues in the longer post-transplant period—is why stem cell transplant patients are kept on immunosuppressant medications even though the effectiveness of the transplant at fighting the cancer depends on the immune response. The medical team has a delicate balance to maintain: just enough immune response to keep the cancer from returning but not so much that GvHD gets out of control.

Yet it's completely factual.
On one bad day I ran into {her husband's} nurse coordinator from the Cancer Center in the elevator. I told her about how bad Brad seemed, and how much pain he was in, and how hard it was to watch. “The good news,” she said with gentle compassion, “is that he won’t remember much of it.” She was right; he doesn’t, at least not the worst of it. But I do. Part of the onus of caregiving is carrying memory.

But, as insurance-company "care managers" will constantly remind you, "your family will be there for you! After all, you'd do it for them." Newsflash: No, they aren't; and, knowing what I know, I would never, ever do this again.

The love of my life died of AIDS thirty years ago this May. I was in Kate's shoes, sans legal rights, as his bizarre diseases racked up their tolls on him...trying to find answers at that time wasn't the impossible task it was a decade earlier, but it wasn't easy and it's amazing to me how many people will ghost you when you're most in need of support.
I needed a human connection of some kind in order to face the next frightening day, which felt like a closing trap. So I called a suicide hotline—the thing we tell all people experiencing despair to do. There’s help out there, we’re assured. I called, nervous. The voice at the other end of the hotline asked if I was actively suicidal. I said I wasn’t planning anything right then but I was in despair. She asked if she could place me on hold to continue talking with someone in more serious crisis. I thanked her and hung up.


What chafed the most was not the private demands from my husband, but the public, official ones from nurses, doctors, and therapists, many of whom seemed to discount my personhood in any other realm than as a caregiver. I wanted them to recognize my humanity. I felt, on every level, unseen in my life, even as I was holding together the lives of four people. The longer I acted as a caregiver, the angrier I found myself at that erasure.

Oh yes...that rang a bell. The eternal demands, the unceasing needs, the fact that one simply needs...lunch. A shower. A half hour alone.
Burnout kills empathy and makes worse caregivers of all of us who suffer from it. More than that, it made me a worse person: less kind, less patient, less fun to be around. Being so depleted made me miserable and being miserable made me, frankly, a bitch. The trouble is that if you’re burned out you can’t take care of yourself very effectively, either. I was coping as best I could: going to the gym, trying to get enough sleep, maintaining a few supportive friendships—at least by text and online. But during the summer of 2016, often the only solution I found for my burnout was to leave home at every opportunity.

I was so very deep into caregiving that I cared not at all. And so was Kate. So are so many, so are the ones who (unlike Kate) can't pay for help and can't rely on's a vicious and unforgiving system of "health"care" because it's neither interested in anyone's heath nor in the smallest degree caring.
For many caregivers, their duties end only with the death of their beloved, a fact that necessarily comes with loss and grief and sometimes a guilty, perhaps half-smothered relief.


Despite the obvious value of {caregiving} there is no remuneration for most American caregivers. The time spent helping a family member is typically uncompensated by public programs or insurance, though there are states with programs offering caregivers economic support. Some families arrange to pay a family member by pooling resources. But our healthcare system and government programs do little, and in most cases nothing, to support caregivers.

There is nothing, not one single thing, that I read in this book that did not feel as though it had been ripped out of my brain and splashed onto Kate Washington's computer screen in the mixed gall and bile of my outrage at the horrors of this "system" and the sheer overwhelm of the few who try, really try, to offer helping hands to those drowning in their pain. She clearly understands things now that aren't very fun to know about yourself...where one's limits are, how hard it is to be there, really be there for children...and has come to terms with them. She exists in a new reality. Kate Washington is a different human being now than she was before Brad, her husband, got cancer and became a chronically ill patient.
At times, feelings of profound loneliness within the marriage have brought me to the brink of ending it. A lot of things kept me from leaving: the thought of our girls, deep senses of guilt and responsibility, the thought of how hard people (even readers of this book, I imagined) would judge me, and—a painful truth—the presentiment that a separation or divorce would just be another hard project of emotional and logistical work I’d have to do.


We’ve both had to compromise our approaches to emotional labor and mental load in attempts to build a newly equitable marriage. The results have been mixed. I still feel put upon a lot of the time; Brad still feels defensive and like he’s trying his best a lot of the time. Maybe he is. Maybe I need to lower my expectations some more. Some days are fine. But other days I don’t know how much lower my expectations can get.

I encourage anyone who has not faced the worst health crises imaginable to read this book. I encourage you to see, from the inside, how much your fellow human beings are being asked to do. Then I hope I won't need to encourage you to do something, anything, to improve life for these suffering souls, be it spending time or giving money or even haunting GoFundMe and its siblings to do more than the nothing most people do.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

THE OTHER DR. GILMER, unnerving murder with serious mental health implications

THE OTHER DR. GILMER: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice

Ballantine Books
$28.00 hardcover, available now

A 2022 New York Public Library Best Adult book!

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A rural physician learns that a former doctor at his clinic committed a shocking crime, leading him to uncover an undiagnosed mental health crisis in our broken prison system—a powerful true story expanding on one of the most popular This American Life episodes of all time.

When family physician Dr. Benjamin Gilmer began working at the Cane Creek clinic in rural North Carolina, he was following in the footsteps of a man with the same last name. His predecessor, Dr. Vince Gilmer, was beloved by his patients and community—right up until the shocking moment when he strangled his ailing father and then returned to the clinic for a regular day of work after the murder. He'd been in prison for nearly a decade by the time Benjamin arrived, but Vince's patients would still tell Benjamin they couldn't believe the other Dr. Gilmer was capable of such violence. The more Benjamin looked into Vince's case, the more he knew that something was wrong.

Vince knew, too. He complained from the time he was arrested of his SSRI brain, referring to withdrawal from his anti-depressant medication. When Benjamin visited Vince in prison, he met a man who was obviously fighting his own mind, constantly twitching and veering off into nonsensical tangents. Enlisting This American Life journalist Sarah Koenig, Benjamin resolved to get Vince the help he needed. But time and again, the pair would come up against a prison system that cared little about the mental health of its inmates—despite an estimated one third of them suffering from an untreated mental illness.

In The Other Dr. Gilmer, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer tells of how a caring man was overcome by a perfect storm of rare health conditions, leading to an unimaginable crime. Rather than get treatment, Vince Gilmer was sentenced to life in prison—a life made all the worse by his untrustworthy brain and prison and government officials who dismissed his situation. A large percentage of imprisoned Americans are suffering from mental illness when they commit their crimes and continue to suffer, untreated, in prison. In a country with the highest incarceration rates in the world, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer argues that some crimes need to be healed rather than punished.


My Review
: The carceral economy that makes corporations wealthy is evil.

That's my bias, right there; I make no apologies for it, and if your opinion is otherwise, this review will make you angry and upset, and feel (correctly) that you are being shamed and blamed for your absence of empathy and decency. Doubled if you claim to follow a religion.

A man with Huntington's disease, who was sexually abused by his parent, is serving a life sentence in prison for murdering that parent. Here is what the incarcerated man said to the author, when asked what he wanted this book to show the world when it was written:
Before I left the prison that day in 2018, I asked Vince to tell me the most important things he wanted this book to say. This is what he said:
Prison is torture.
Sexual abuse changes you forever.
We are all at the mercy of our brains.
Listening is healing

Dr. Vince Gilmer will, it is almost certain, die in prison. There is no cure, or really any treatment, for Huntington's disease. His entire lifetime of service as a family physician in a poor area counted for nothing when weighed against the awful crime of strangling his abuser.

That's the nature of the system. For-profit prisons need prisoners; mental-health services cost a lot of money but make no one any profits. Guess which one we-the-people fund, generously? Mental health services can't guarantee good outcomes, some people can't be helped (Vince Gilmer, for example), so spending taxpayer money on the off-chance that this specific person who has committed a violent crime might be able to benefit? What a waste...there are corporations whose bottom lines could get fatter if he's jammed into jail.

As a result of untreated intergenerational trauma, exacerbated by a fatal degenerative neurological disease likely inherited from the parent who abused Vince Gilmer in childhood, he will die alone, in misery, in a corporate profit center. At the very least his life should end in a cold, uncaring corporate medical-profit center. (There is, at long last, some glimmer of hope for those crushed by medical debts; tiny, inadequate steps towards economic justice are better than the great race backwards occurring on so many fronts.)

If you've read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row and enjoyed it, you're in the target demographic for the book. If you're thinking "oh pew! this is too hard, too much, too unhappy" then you *should* read it...because your empathy circuits need a bit of exercise. If you're sure peope who commit murder belong in jail, what on Earth are you doing here in the first place?!

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

SLASH AND BURN, art born of the eternal agonies of civil war

(tr. Julia Sanches)
And Other Stories (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Through war and its aftermaths, a woman fights to keep her daughters safe.

As a girl she sees her village sacked and her beloved father and brothers flee. Her life in danger, she joins the rebellion in the hills, where her comrades force her to give up the baby she conceives. Years later, having outlived countless men, she leaves to find her lost daughter, travelling across the Atlantic with meagre resources. She returns to a community riven with distrust, fear and hypocrisy in the wake the revolution.

Hernández’ narrators have the level gaze of ordinary women reckoning with extraordinary hardship. Denouncing the ruthless machismo of combat with quiet intelligence, Slash and Burn creates a suspenseful, slow-burning revelation of rural life in the aftermath of political trauma.


My Review
: I think you'll get the real gestalt of this read, of this review and possibly...just possibly...this story, if we listen to Author Horacio Castellanos Moya (my review of his book, Senselessness, will give you a feel for his own emotional-overload storytelling chops) praise Author Hernández:
“Claudia Hernández is one of the most groundbreaking short story writers from Central America, with a way of approaching the story that is closer to Virgilio Piñera or Felisberto Hernández than to the realist tradition. Her five story collections prove this. Now, with her first novel, Claudia Hernández takes on a new challenge: telling the recent history of El Salvador through three generations of women scarred by civil war, poverty and emigration. A pulsating feminine universe, full of strength and courage, in permanent wait of the violence that surrounds it. An intense and moving novel, and a very revealing way of storytelling that will captivate the reader.”

Castellanos Moya links Author Hernández to men marginalized by their poverty, and sexual natures, whose immense talents were never appreciated in their lifetimes. They were foundational figures in the creation of a magical realist Latinoamericano fiction, famously and fully developed in the hands of Julio Cortázar and García Márquez. That's some heady company Castellanos Moya puts Author Hernández in...and not without reason.

But let me be clear: This read is not a spoon-fed milk-toast cinch. I know a number of people found Anna Burns's name-free labels of her characters in her 2018 Booker-winning novel of civil war, Milkman, to be difficult and off-putting. I am not among their number. Heck, I enjoyed Robert Pinget's The Inquisitory, and that has no names and no punctuation at all. This read is spang in the middle of a continuum between Burns and Pinget. There aren't names ("A name was just a name. In times of war, it served the same purpose as a number or a tattoo or a dog tag you wore around your neck: it was a way of identifying the dead," we're told very, very early in Slash and Burn), but you've got dialogue tags and punctuation...just no clear path to knowing instantly and unequivocally who's speaking, when we are supposed to all makes a lot of sense, in my opinion, as the entire point of reading a woman's take on war is about getting into the stakes of her participation.

She's not anything more than one woman among the thousands, the millions, the billions whose world is trying to defend the girls she's doing her goddamnedest to get through childhood into their own womanhoods.
She'd wake up in a sweat with tears in her eyes because she always lost one of them in the dream. Sometimes it was the eldest girl she'd raised; sometimes, the littlest. Sometimes she lost the girl she'd actually lost, and sometimes the girl lost her. The only one she never misplaced was the third girl she'd raised. Her daughters asked why. She could never say. The girl in question said it was because she loved her more than he rest of them, though she'd later complain that she loved her least of all: she didn't spoil her like she did the littlest or support her like she did the eldest daughter she'd raised; she didn't search the world for her like she had the first girl she'd given birth to or let her study in the capital like the second sister she'd been brought up with.

These aren't happy-clappy figures of Survivorhood. These aren't the women who run charities and organize microlending cooperatives. Author Hernández's women are the ones that make the world, the vicious one they inhabit, function in spite of and in parallel to the wars destroying the world.
To her mind, it was soldiers who raped. They were always the culprits in the stories she’d heard of assaults. But what her neighbor had said was true, at least partly. The boys had been at the camps. But as soon as they'd earned the guerrillas' trust and their weapons, they'd set off on their own path and followed their own goals. They took advantage of the fact that everyone was busy running from soldiers and advancing their positions to go to unprotected zones and take as many women as they could.

They'd take the girls to the hills for three or five days. Then they'd bring them back and take others. They'd rape grown women in their homes and make them cook for them while they raped their young daughters. Later, it became known that just one of the boys also raped elderly women. His compañeros abstained, one out of fear it would mean some additional kind of punishment at the final judgment (if it ever arrived) and the other because he found no pleasure in a woman without the strength to resist or a future to compromise.

Nor did the boy rape all the elderly women he found or come down from the hills to search them out. It was more a matter of circumstance, of making the most of their efforts, so long as the woman looked at him badly for it. He'd never touch her grandmother, for example, because, even after he'd provoked her a little, he didn't see in her the sort of response that inspired him to humiliate.

It's simple, to her. It's the world, it's not going to do her a blind bit of good to do more than make her odds, of being murdered by these uncontrolled armed fearless and foeless monsters, as low as she can. But there is nothing in this world that isn't violent and abusive on levels unthinkable to most of us reading the story in our warless, unchaotic surroundings.
She turned to face the enormous body of water and said, Thank you, Lord, even though she didn’t know who the Lord she was thanking was, or if there was any Lord to thank. It felt incredible to be on the other side. Her sister, meanwhile, had started crying, not because she’d choked on any water, but because she’d lost a little bit of masa as they crossed. She thought her mother would punish her for it. The girl convinced her sister that nothing would happen. She was certain her mother wouldn’t notice any masa was missing. And if she did, she’d take the blame for it. She swore to her little sister that their mother would believe her, even though she herself wasn’t convinced. She was sure her mother had keen instincts (although what she actually had was a watch) and that they’d be found out one way or another. So instead of telling her, she told her father, who’d come home early that day.

Days later, they moved away. The official story was that her father didn’t want to keep living on her maternal grandpa’s land now they had their own parcel in a place named after a plant. But she suspected he was trying to protect her: there were no bodies of water to cross around there. She was his little girl, the first of the daughters who’d survived.

In that region, where her dad’s sister also lived, she came across more people who hit her, such as the girls next door. They picked fights with her because she was new and because she was always the first to arrive to fill her earthen pitchers, and always clean and buttoned-up. They called her vain. Then they pulled on her skirt until it fell to her feet, knocked over her pitchers or stuck their muddied hands in them, spoiling all the work she’d done and making her task harder. She wanted to defend herself, but her mother had warned her never to hit anyone. She didn’t want any trouble. She didn’t want her to respond to their attacks, not even with words. If anyone said or did anything to her, she was to take it in silence. If she didn’t, she’d hit her even harder.

This is Life the way people in a war zone that hasn't been anything but a war zone for a generation know it, and so how they do the mechanics of living. It isn't sweet, it isn't about redemption or Coming To The Realization That x; this is what gutting it out, putting food on the table and a roof of some sort over your heads, means.

I've said I don't find the unmoored "she"s troublesome. The reason is that I don't do more than the minimum to associate the references to a general roster of possible identities. I think the read made sense to me because I realized these aren't Characters. These are types, a sort of massive and mostly undifferentiated Woman-ness. Author Hernández isn't telling Maricela's story then Marisol's story then Ludivine's; she's telling their story as the topology of the War they're doing their individual bests to avoid dying in brings them into relevace.

It isn't easy to adjust the novel-reader's expectations to this, or the wealthy-country educated book-consumer's preferences for delineated and labeled identities. Accustoming myself to a more base, earthen interchangeability, fungibility of women playing similar roles at different times was the best adaptation I could make. It felt unnatural for about 30 pages, 10% of the Kindle file. But thinking it through and considering the magical-realist underpinnings of flexible identities and the feminist rage of reducing women, the centers of this unnatural Life, to faceless nameless utilitarian labor units added a nauseating note of indifferent and amoral cruelty to the entire tale. And that is, I strongly suspect, a good deal of Claudia Hernández's point. The title...Slash and Burn is sort of the sense of it, "Roza tumba quema" or "fondle fall burn" in that order...feeling indicative to me of a soldier checking out the goods, knocking them over, not-quite-accidentally, not entirely purposefully, but carelessly in all its senses, setting them on fire. This is a solid preparation for the hard, unyielding world that the mass of women, the Woman if you will, simply bends herself into whatever shape she has to so as to make her way into another morning, through its day, and out on the other side of another night.

I found great value, solid art, and a seriously important and timely reminder of the way that war's costs are distributed is violent and unconscionably cruel, in this intense read.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

AGAINST THE ICE: The Classic Arctic Survival Story, a book brilliantly served (even saved!) by its film

AGAINST THE ICE: The Classic Arctic Survival Story
(tr. Maurice Michael)
Steerforth Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The harrowing, amazing, and often amusing personal account of two mismatched Arctic explorers who banded together to keep themselves sane on an historic expedition gone horribly wrong

Ejnar Mikkelsen was devoted to Arctic exploration. In 1910 he decided to search for the diaries of the ill-fated Mylius-Erichsen expedition, which had set out to prove that Robert Peary’s outline of the East Greenland coast was a myth, erroneous and presumably self-serving. Iver Iversen was a mechanic who joined Mikkelsen in Iceland when the expedition’s boat needed repair.

Several months later, Mikkelsen and Iversen embarked on an incredible journey during which they would suffer every imaginable Arctic travail: implacable cold, scurvy, starvation, frostbite, snow blindness, plunges into icy seawater, impossible sledding conditions, Vitamin A poisoning, debilitated dogs, apocalyptic storms, gaping crevasses, and assorted mortifications of the flesh. Mikkelsen’s diary was even eaten by a bear.

Three years of this, coupled with seemingly no hope of rescue, would drive most crazy, yet the two retained both their sanity as well as their humor.

Indeed, what may have saved them was their refusal to become as desolate as their surroundings…

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who co-adapted the book into a screenplay, provides a new foreword to this brand-new edition of the classic exploration memoir, which was one of The Explorer’s Club’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century.

Originally published as Two Against the Ice: A Classic Arctic Survival Story and a Remarkable Account of Companionship in the Face of Adversity. Translated from the Danish by Maurice Michael.


My Review
: It was the Postscript that did me in.

Ejnar, a man I'd come to see as a massively egotistical narcissist and manipulative user by now, became an old, old man out of his time and out of his element. Writing in the 1950s about the world he had thought inviolable forty years before, he sounded like I feel in this hideous, distorted Hellscape of a 21st century, hag-ridden by preachers and haters and assorted other lowlife scum empowered by their lack of opposition to usher in Armageddon seemingly at will. His awe at a 12,000-horsepower diesel motor that powered US forces (whose presence as saviors there must have rankled at least a bit, given the impetus for his entire ordeal in 1910) to victory over the Nazi regime's outpost in Greenland, was unbearably poignant to me.

This world has never stood still. It is hard for me to remember that punch-card tabulating machines were the dernier cri, unimaginably advanced tech, to Mikkelsen. He died in 1971, so he lived to see Humankind step on a different world. A man whose life was almost lost because his technology was not up to the job of taking him to a very harsh and hostile environment here on Earth watched people walk on a place that makes Greenland look like the Riviera.


But what made this read come alive for me, what caused the whole exercise in storytelling to be extraordinarily enhanced, was the extraordinarily beautiful and accurate adaptation. I don't like Mikkelsen any more than I did...he plays Iver's heartstrings like a virtuoso violinist...but he, as Coster-Waldau embodies him, truly reciprocates the devotion and affection Iver offers to him. That he found this in the text, that he saw the truth of their mutuality and interdependence was enough for me to overlook the sheer absurd heteronormative gloss of the thing. Days in the film version are numbered, and the count becomes astonishing...Day 793 is memorable...and a deeply affecting and effective way to offer the experience as the supreme ordeal that it truly was.

Maurice Michael, the translator whose work was largely unsung for generations, rendered Mikkelsen's prose so beautifully that there were moments I sat still and the moments depicted. No, quoting them out of context won't do a damn thing because there's just no way to being their most important advantage...interrelationship...with them.

These photos are in the book, and are astounding to me...that they survived, that they made themselves records like this, what a miracle that must've seemed to the men of the 19th century! And I, stuck to my bed by disability, can not only reproduce the photos with a few clicks of a computer's mouse. These are the two men themselves...the resemblance of Coster-Waldau to Mikkelsen is remarkable.

The film, the story of it, is also very interesting, and I encourage you to look into it. More important to me than that is to say that I, who absolutely abhor animal cruelty in my reading, was deeply upset by the treatment of the dogs in this tale...not because it was cruel, but because it was necessary and because the men were quite upset by it on more than one level. This is not a straightforward triumphalist tale of Conquering The Elements. This is the reckoning of a life lived on his own terms delivered by the man who grew and changed, who resulted from the brutalizing battle to survive that would've killed anyone not as powerfully self-motivated and indomitably self-willed as Mikkelsen was.

Truth be told, it's just the fact that had such good luck in his filmic avatar that rescued him from my "that whole postcard thing is a stupid, bad smokescreen" judgment of his manipulative and overbearing character. Had I not been made to see the vulnerable side of him, I'd've stuck with "what a relic of a bad time" and missed the subtle and worthwhile nuances.

DREAMING OF ROSE: A Biographer’s Journal, a deeper dive into the life of a pre-feminist ikon of independence

DREAMING OF ROSE: A Biographer’s Journal

Handheld Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Said: The companion to Sarah LeFanu's biography of Dame Rose Macaulay.

Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal is a fascinating account of a biographical quest and of a personal journey. While working on her biography of the writer and traveller Rose Macaulay, Sarah LeFanu kept a journal that charts the details of that quest: the people she met, the places she visited, and her strange dreamworld encounters with the very subject of her biographical pursuit.

Research trips to Varazze in Italy to look for Rose’s childhood, and to Trabzon in Turkey to find traces of The Towers of Trebizond, were remarkably intuitive ventures that found treasures in unexpected places.

Dreaming of Rose is also a memoir of a woman juggling the demands of teaching, research and writing while patching together a living. LeFanu’s work on Rose was squeezed in between many other commitments and responsibilities: she wrote for the BBC and taught creative writing and English literature. Suffused with the tensions and dramas of everyday life, and the necessity for intellectual integrity, this is an important memoir of women and writing.


My Review
: Do you watch the end-credits of films? Are you by nature (or nurture, can't be sure which) a completist? Is the world a maze of maddening omissions and lacunae that you *know* were worth including but simply got...left behind?

My friend, do I have a reading experience for you!

I'll begin my praise for this book with things that will cause Some Eyebrows to rise like theatre (note: misspelling intentional) curtains: 1) I am a man; 2) I am an American; and 3) I am utterly ignorant of Rose Macaulay as anything except the author of Towers of Trebizond and its utterly mesmerizing, loathsome Father Chantry-Pigg, that personification of Religion in all its malevolent, seductive self-righteousness. There was, I am now aware, a LOT more to Rose Macaulay than I ever knew.

And the weird part is that I never knew that I never knew this entire life existed. Macaulay doesn't get a lot of public mention, though goodness knows it seems she should. Author LeFanu wrote an entire biography of Macaulay (non-affiliate Kindle link), for heavens' sake! And how I wish I'd read it first....

What makes me say that about a read I'm rating four stars, you could reasonably ask. Well, it's this simple: While this is not a book about Rose Macaulay, it *is* about the author's quest for her life and doings. The fact is that Author LeFanu went down several rabbit-holes in her quest to comprehend the life of a very, in fact a notoriously, private person. Had I had a sense of Macaulay's trajectory (beyond reading a single, late work of fiction by her) I would've had a frame of reference to put the anecdotes into. The challenges of LeFanu's quest would've felt more immediate to me had I had the recent experience of learning Macaulay's life's details.

I liked the read a lot. I wanted to know what the heck was going on to cause Author LeFanu to have these specific collywobbles, so I would've benefited from reading her biography of the writer...and that is something I shall now do. I will, as I've only recently read this fascinating companion to the main book, have an even richer experience of the read.

I urge the read on anyone who thinks the conundrum of living life and making art has one correct answer.