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Posts tagged ‘New York Journal of Books’

Review of American Saint

51DSeMoivLLAmerican Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
Written by Joan Barthel
Reviewed by Gregory J. Wilkin
New York Journal of Books

“Characters like these, and scenes from the siege of New York, as well as the flirtation between Elizabeth and the handsome Antonio Filicchi, along with a very good death . . . all make this perfect fodder for a movie. It’s also perfectly suited to a book.”

Joan Barthel, whose earlier work dealt with murder cases in Connecticut and California that only an act of God could keep from turning into movies, seems to have a winner here with her timely and largely adulatory biography of Mother Elizabeth Seton.

After watching Meryl Streep’s despairing turn as Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and Barbara Jefford’s as the enragingly venomous mother superior in Judy Dench’s Philomena (as I’m confident He did, on a very big screen), Our Lord may want to get this book made into a movie Himself.

Publicity for the book emphasizes Seton’s wealthy upbringing, her political connections in the young republic, the sad tale of her husband’s early death in Italy, and the way she “resisted male clerical control of her religious order, as nuns are doing today.”

The life Barthels recounts counts in different ways for different folks: Maya Angelou in her foreword to the volume says “Seton’s life and achievements are proof that courage is the most important of all the virtues.”

True enough, Seton had to fight off the harshly overbearing Father Superior, John David, but in doing so, she worked closely with two other French priests and Bishop John Carroll. Courage it took, but to bill her as an early Catholic flouter-of-male-privilege is certainly to engage in a rather crass kind of book mongering.

In her introduction, Barthels situates her biography in the fraught context of the current administrative dispute about American nuns. The Vatican “doctrinal assessment,” which Sister Maureen Fiedler called on NPR “a hostile takeover,” will take five years to be prepared “and no one knows,” Barthels writes, “what will happen in the end.” In one of the least successful segues she pauses, indents, and gives us: “But Elizabeth Seton was there at the beginning.”

These beginnings bring out the best in our author: the early days in the Bayley family in New York are vivid and convincing, full of period detail and useful cultural background. As the young widow and mother takes her charges to Emmitsburg, the narration begins to rely on her letters, at one point quite a few of them rather wearily strung together. But some of this was heroic, loving effort by Seton herself, carried on despite fevers and worsening tuberculosis.

This is a lady who went through a lot. The accounts of the death of her daughters show her face to face with doubt:

“‘Eternity’ had long been her beloved word, her hope and belief. Now she was “uncertain of reunion.” She was kneeling at Anna’s grave when she saw a large, ugly snake stretching itself on the dried grass. Elizabeth was desolate, seeing Anna as ‘the companion of worms and reptiles! And the beautiful soul, where?’”

The takeaway here: doubt for the faithful, even for the saints, is one’s daily bread. Despite it all, Elizabeth Seton keeps her wits and her charm.

Read entire review and more at NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS

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Transhumanist Novel

41uUKy0oEmLThe Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
4 February 2014

In-depth philosophical essays and visionary science dressed up as a novel.

If you enjoy philosophy, you’ll love this book. If you’re a science geek you’ll read every word. If you are religious, spiritual, or into the supernatural, you’ll probably dismiss it, misunderstand it, and/or hate it.

Author Zoltan Istvan has taken a thinly disguised autobiography and transformed it into an almost plausible new world thriller that tends to go overboard on pontification and argument by the protagonist Jethro Knights, who becomes the mover and shaker of the Transhumanist movement and literally changes the entire world.

Istvan notes on the last page, “This story, The Transhumanist Wager, is the result of two decades of thought and inquiry into transhumanism and the quest for scientific immortality. I wrote it hoping to change people’s ideas of what a human being is and what it can become.”

A Transhumanist is someone who believes that the human race can evolve beyond its current limitations and can do so by means of technology and science.

The book has its moments. The love story between Jethro Knights and neurosurgeon Zoe Bach is believable and the action sequences in the book are top notch. The philosophy, debates, insights, and vision included in these pages are thought provoking and challenging, as are the observations about the clashes between religious fanatics and fundamentalists and those who believe in science, progress, choice and technology.

From a strictly literary perspective The Transhumanist Wager is nothing more than a collection of in-depth philosophical essays and visionary science dressed up as a novel. There are too many abrupt changes, events, and conclusions taking place in unrealistic periods of time without much depth or nuance to completely engage the reader.

Read entire review and others at NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS

What She Left Behind

61bLHO4EiELWhat She Left Behind
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
12 December 2013

“What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding.”

She’s done it again. At this time last year, Ms. Wiseman’s first novel The Plum Tree was released. It was excellent and received deservedly wonderful reviews. It is rare that a writer’s follow up work is as good as their first. Such a rarity has been accomplished with What She Left Behind. The author has once again delved into the lives of teenage girls, albeit in different circumstances than her first work, yet with the same insight, nuance, and raw emotion readers can appreciate and enjoy.

One of the girls in the story is 18 and is living in the 1930s (Clara) and the other (Izzy), lives in the 1990s. Clara is sent to a state mental institution (Willard State), because she challenges her father’s wishes for whom she should marry and Izzy must adapt to a new set of foster parents and her last year in high school, as a result of her mother having killed her father when she was seven. The girls’ lives intersect when Izzy gets involved in a project that unearths suitcases in the now defunct mental institution in which Clara was captive—she finds Clara’s journal and photo inside.

The scenes of Clara’s experience and travails at Willard State are all too real and affecting in part because many similar circumstances actually took place at that mental facility and others around the country for many decades. Izzy’s struggle with a school bully, harming herself, and learning who and how to accept love and whom to trust, is no less impactful than Clara’s chapters.

What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding of human behavior and what can and has been done to others to maintain control.

Read entire review and more at New York Journal of Books.

The Round House

41HfjdXnn9L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The Round House by Louise Erdich
Review by Gabriel Constans

I usually only review books for The New York Journal of Books and tend to not make the effort to share what I am reading, at least not often. This is an exception.

There are many times when books that have won prestigious national or international awards tend to fall short (in my eyes) and don’t live up to the hype and praise. 2012 National Book Award winner (for fiction) The Round House by Louise Erdich is not not one of those books. This story soars and takes you with it.

The story focuses on the aftermath of a brutal attack upon Geraldine Coutts, on the reservation where she and her husband and her thirteen-year-old son Joe live in North Dakota. Everything is seen through Joe’s eyes as he and his father (who is also a judge) try to discover who attacked their loved one and why.

Every character in this book is as real as real can be. Joe’s family, extended family, friends and everyone else on and off the reservation come to life with nuance and depth. “My father bent his head down and rested his forehead on his fist. He closed his eyes. There was the ticking of the clock in that sunny kitchen. Around the face of the clock there was a kind of sunburst. But the rays were plastic squiggles and the thing looked more like a gilded octopus. Still, I kept looking at the clock because if I looked down I would have to see the top of my father’s head. To see the egg brown scalp and thin patch of gray hairs would put me over the edge. I’d snap, I thought, if I looked down.”

One could go on and on, with further explanations and examples, but it will suffice to simply say that this is a story most people will want to read. It includes humor, pathos, fear, suspense, drama, coming of age and romance, but most importantly, it includes some of the best writing to be published in years.

Girl with the Crooked Smile

0988465620.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_Girl with the Crooked Smile: Stuck in a Moment. . . and the Pearls of Wisdom That Pulled Her Through It
by Darah Zeledon
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books

For writer, speaker, and “Warrior Mom of five” Darah Zeledon, life’s joys and calamities have been abundant and enlightening. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons, this woman has found a way to make fertilizer out of a truckload of shit.

Armed robbery, a suicide, complete financial ruin, an accident that almost took her life, and a brain tumor while pregnant with her fourth child are but stepping stones and mere folly for this matador of life.

There is no bull in this story, only honest and brutal reality with doses of humor and insight gushing from its depths like a glass of refreshing clear water to quench the thirst after travel through the desert.

Here is an example of what she says after being diagnosed with a brain tumor and previously being told she will either lose her baby (at five months in utero) or her own life, a neurosurgeon (who says he can save both) offers her some choices:

“Hmmm.” Darah writes. “What were my choices again? 1) High likelihood of facial paralysis and probable deafness on the left side, or 2) guaranteed left-sided deafness with a high probability of no droopy face, or 3) a degree of unconfirmed damage to either of the above-mentioned plus God knows what else. Wait a minute. What the hell am I doing—choosing toppings on a pizza?”

The book takes place in several locations (New York, Panama, Barcelona, and Florida) and hops from one situation to another, but it doesn’t seem choppy or discombobulated. Somehow, like the author’s thought process, it all makes sense.

Her “pearls of wisdom” at the end of each chapter aren’t poetic spiritual New Age bits of gibberish, but practical suggestions congruently arising from her experience. For example, at the end of the chapter about her brain tumor and all the chaos and decisions that entailed, she writes “Be true to yourself and resist peer pressure. Come clean about what you believe. Recognize blessings. Trust your instincts.”

Girl with the Crooked Smile is a real kicker. It has wit, cultural insight (Latin American, Jewish, Floridian), and a warmhearted embrace of life as it is—not as we wish it to be.

Darah Zeledón is a gifted storyteller equal parts psychologist, teacher, mother, philosopher, partner, and friend.

Read this review and others at New York Journal of Books.

Carried In Our Hearts

0399161058.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_Carried In Our Hearts
New York Journal of Books
Review by Gabriel Constans

Carried in Our Hearts: The Gift of Adoption:
Inspiring Stories of Families Created Across Continents

by Dr. Jane Aaronson

“. . . There is great care, hope, and love in these pages.”

The introduction to Carried in Our Hearts reads, “These stories need to be told,” and Dr. Jane Aronson does so with honesty, insight, love, conflict, and conviction.

This collection of adoptive families around the world is wisely divided into eight thematic sections, the headings of which convey the essence of the essays in each. They are: The Decision, The Journey, The Moment We Met, Early Challenges, Becoming A Family, A New Life, Reflections: Children Tell Their Own Adoption Stories, and The Children Left Behind.

The author/editor of this collection is Dr. Jane Aronson, who has two adopted boys of her own from Ethiopia. Dr. Aronson is a pediatrician who specializes in adoption medicine and who founded the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. To say her heart, body, and soul are thoroughly invested in helping children (professionally, personally and collectively) would be an understatement.

UNICEF estimates that there are 153 million orphans in the world. Dr. Aronson is trying to get as many of them into families as possible and make sure those not adopted are treated with dignity and care.

The title of the book comes from an adopted child’s remark overheard by her mother when she was speaking to another young child her age. Her daughter’s friend said she was carried in her mother’s tummy and the adopted daughter replies, “My mommy didn’t carry me in her tummy; she carried me in her heart.” That line alone could make the harshest reader’s heart melt, but it is just one of many poignant moments revealed throughout this compilation.

Molly Wenger McCarthy, who has three children, including daughter Lu from Ethiopia, sums up the experience of adoption (and having and raising children by any means) with an insightful and comprehensive line, “The home side of our adoption is a humbling, astonishing, crazy, poignant mess of a life.”

Shonda Rhymes (creator of TV shows Gray’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal) tells about her need to surrender control to the process, as she adopted her daughters, as does actress Mary-Louise Parker and many others who had children previously or were adopting for their first time.

All of the parents who adopted also spoke about learning how to balance doing what they could for the process to move forward and simultaneously letting go of what was beyond their grasp or ability to change. Some might liken it to an adoption parent’s version of 12-step programs’ serenity prayer.

The section titled Early Challenges is especially helpful and necessary to give readers an objective perspective of the difficulties that can arise in the midst of all the goodness and joy. Physical and mental health issues, birth parents changing their minds, governments saying “no” at the last minute, adopted children having difficulty adjusting to a new environment and language, etc. can all take place before, during, and after adoption, just as painful issues can arise with biological children.

Carried in Our Hearts proclaims to contain stories from “families created across continents,” which may lead one to believe that the essays include a variety of adoptive parents (culturally, nationally, and of various financial means), but the reality is that ninety percent of the families who speak about their experience in the book are not only privileged white Americans, but also predominantly from the New York area.

This is not surprising due to the author’s circle of contacts and practice, but it would have added an enriching depth and perspective if there had been as much diversity with the adoptive parents as there is with the children who were adopted.

There is also only one story about an adoption not working out and the child being returned to the orphanage or childcare center. There may be fewer unsuccessful adoptions internationally (which is the primary focus of this collection), but on a local level there is a higher percentage (as much as 50% in some areas), in which the children do not stay in the adoptive home.

Whether you have children, are thinking of having children, thought about adopting or adopted hundreds, Carried in Our Hearts is an inspirational and timely collection. There is great care, hope, and love in these pages.

*****

Read complete review and more at New York Journal of Books.

Reviewer Gabriel Constans’s books include Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call; Good Grief, Love, Loss & Laughter; The Skin of Lions: Rwandan Folk Tales; and The Last Conception (coming in 2014). He is the father of five children (two adopted) and is closely associated with the Rwandan Orphan’s Project and the Ihangane Project, both in Rwanda.

Superb Story and Scribe

0670026638.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books

“Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is one of the best novels of 2013—and will surely inhabit that position for years to come.”

However you envision or conceptualize life, you will never see it quite the same once you’ve read this brilliant story. “Brilliant” is a strong and suggestive superlative, but it fits this story like the insistent tolling of a bell calling for one’s attention.

Down to earth and intellectual. Filled with judgments and acceptance, separateness and interdependence. Complicated, yet simple. Ms. Ozeki’s characters question their thoughts, feelings, and actions—even how they respond to suffering. They ask whether their choices and lives make a difference, what is the meaning of conscience, and how to explain the nature of existence—and they do so in the pages of a beautiful tale of families struggling to survive, understand, and share their love.

Ruth, a novelist who lives on an island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver, happens upon a diary she finds in a sealed lunchbox she discovers among some kelp that’s washed to shore. The diary is that of a sixteen year old in Tokyo, Japan, named Nao.

As Ruth begins to read the diary—which describes Nao’s family, her thoughts of suicide, and her close connection with her 104-year-old great grandmother Jiko (who is a Buddhist nun living in the area of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami)—we are pulled into Ruth’s thoughts and feelings about what she is reading as well as its impact on her, her husband, and others living on the island.

Every person, animal, life form, building, city, town, and forest in this story feels real and congruent. You can almost reach into the book and pet the cat, yell at the bullies, shake Nao’s father, hear the wind, see the crow take flight, and feel the ancient, chilly, wooden temple floor beneath your knees as you bow.

There are so many exquisite lines of prose within A Tale for the Time Being, that it is difficult to choose a few that will give readers’ a taste of this sweet, caustic, entertaining, and captivating novel. Nonetheless, here are a few morsels.

When Ruth first reads the diary, she describes the letters. “They were round a little bit sloppy (as she now imagined the girl must be, too), but they stood more or less upright and marched gamely across the page at a good clip, not in a hurry, but not dawdling, either.”

Nao writes of a moment when she is holding Jiko’s hand. “I was still thinking about what she said about waves, and it made me sad because I knew that her little wave was not going to last much longer and soon she would join the sea again, and even though I know you can’t hold on to water, still I gripped her fingers a little more tightly to keep her from leaking away.”

Ruth speaks of time and how it interacts with attention. “At the other extreme, when her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like pixels, diffused and suspended in standing water.”

It sounds like Haiku poetry when Jiko is telling Nao about her son (Nao’s great uncle) who died in World War II. “A single frog croaked, and then another. Jiko’s words dropped like stones into the silence in between.” Jiko explains to Nao (who had told Jiko about it feeling like there were fish flopping around in her stomach when she felt grief or was being bullied) that the loss of her son was like a whale in her gut and she was learning to open her heart so the whale could swim away.

A Tale for the Time Being is more than a lovely piece of literature; it also explores science, philosophy, nature, history, psychology, biology, physics, Japanese culture, and the nature of consciousness. There is also a healthy dose of Buddhism and meditation thrown in with subtle precision integrated into the characters and storyline without dissemblance or force.

Read complete review and others, at New York Journal of Books.

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