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From the current crisis of migration and displacement, comes a twist on the American road trip novel in a station wagon rather than a covered wagon. It's also a novel about storytellers and storytelling and how we document our experiences. As well, it is a story of family, marriage, and parenthood. The father is a sound documentalist, hoping to gather an "inventory of echoes" of vanquished Apache warriors. The mother, a radio journalist, doumentarian, and volunteer translator for a handful of the thousands of misplaced children held in detention centers. Narrated by the mother and son, the novel also contains excerpts from various texts, song lyrics and images. The book is highly inventive and compelling in eloquent and beautiful prose. The author, Valerie Luiselli, is young (born in 1983 in Mexico City), but already an accomplished author of one other novel and three books of non-fiction. Among the latter is a 2017 work called Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions that is based on her experiences volunteering as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking legal status in the United States. It was a National Book Award finalist.
From the popular author of a variety of food/plant based books like The Botany of Desire, The Ominivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and more, comes a new book whose subtitle says it all: "What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence." Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin are being used in psychotherapy to treat different problems, such as depression, addiction, and anxiety. His early findings showed that these substances provided improvement for both mentally ill and healthy people when administered under carefully controlled conditions. As a result he chose to explore the topic in the first person as well as the third. This book, part science reporting and part personal memoir, describes his experiences from his discovery of how a promising field of research became the target of a powerful backlash when a handful of psychedelic evangelists -- notably Timothy Leary, a flamboyant psychology professor -called too loudly to American youth to "turn on, turn in, and drop out." By 1970, all hallucinogens were banned for consumption or research. It was only in 2005 that a team of researchers published a series of scientifically rigorous studies showing long-lasting benefits to volunteers of an experience with the psychedelic psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms"). More research followed showing how therapeutically-guided psychedlic experiences could be valuable for a range of disorders. Pollan starts out green and walks us through the research literature on the subject. He tells his story well. Perhaps the most absorbing part are the many interviews that form the basis of his exploration -- researchers, patients, advocates. Further, he documents his own experiments with the same rigor and story-telling ability. His title reflects the double meaning of his book -- from the reorganizing effects on the brain of these drugs and also to the deeply held cultural stigma against psychedelics. A fun book and worthy of discussion.
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who wrote the wonderful bestseller, CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC, returns to the South for another wise and often hilarious tale. In this new book Tony Horwitz is following in the path of an earlier journalist (called in those days "a roving correspondent") who made a trip through the South in the 1850s on the brink of the Civil War. This Connecticut Yankee writer sent his dispatches to the New York Daily Times to be published under the pseudonym "Yeoman". This early traveler cum correspondent was Frederick Law Olmsted who is today celebrated as a visionary architect who designed, among other spaces, New York's Central Park, and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. As a rebuke to the caste-bound ideology of the South's aristocratic class, Olmsted found his own way to a career as America's foremost landscape architect. In the process, he sought to reform his own society by creating democratic spaces for the uplift of all. Amid the angry discord and polarization of our own time, Tony Horwitz follows Olmsted's path, often using his mode of transport: through Appalachia, down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, into bayou Louisiana, and across Texas to the contested Mexican borderland. The resulting book is a splendid study of Olmsted, whose destiny was forged by his Southern odyssey, and some penetrating, poignant and often very funny stories of Horwitz' own journey through this outsize American landscape.
The Man Booker Prize for Fiction for 2018 went to MILKMAN by Anna Burns, pictured above. It's the first time a Northern Irish writer has been awarded the prize. The book presents an unnamed 18-year-old girl's perspective on her life which is ensnared by the politics of the "Troubles" in late 20th century Northern Ireland which pitted neighbors and communities against each other and divided the nation into factions and mini-factions. But it could be anywhere. In an unnamed town in an unnamed country, the narrator referred to as Middle Sister, is trying to figure out her life and its proper direction against what other people expect for her -- her parents, her older siblings, her friends, the community, the church. None of the characters are named except through their relationship to the Narrator (e.g., Elder Sister, Second Sister, Brother-in-Law) or through an occupation or preoccupation (e.g., Chef). But one thing is true of all these overseers of our portagonist's behavior. They want her to stop reading while walking. Her quiet beauty and solitary nature have drawn the unwanted attentions of an older man, referred to only as Milkman. He is a powerful member of the paramilitary in this town. He becomes her stalker, her nemesis, her nightmare. He won't leave her alone and even makes threats against a man she care for, whom she calls her "maybe boyfriend." Everyone in this small closed community is deeply involved in side-taking, making judgments, and policing the behavior of others. No one believes she is not willingly involved with the Milkman. Even her best friend, to whom she turns for help against this threat, only scolds her for reading while walking which brings scrutiny on her and singles her out for being different from everyone else. This is a lovely book. The narrator's voice is original -- observing, reflecting, smart, funny, grim, and very real. The sexism and violence depicted here are not unique to Northern Island, nor are they unfamiliar to us. There are wonderful minor characters. My favorites are the Wee Sisters, a precocious threesome, who dress up in their sister's clothes to practice ballroom dancing and take the phone apart every time it rings looking for bugs although they have no idea what these might be or what they might look like.