Two if by Sea by Jacquelyn Mitchard

twoifbyseaTwo If by Sea by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Simon & Schuster, March 2016

I read this book because the author is part of a panel I will moderate at the Virginia Festival of the Book called Life After Death: Hello from the Other Side. As the author said to me in an email, the book doesn’t quite fit with the theme (both of the other two books deal with reincarnation, or at least souls moving from one body to another). Still, the book begins with a terrible loss of life (which it shares with one of the other books) and features a young boy with inexplicable, supernatural abilities (which it shares with the other book), and so even though there is no reincarnation in this story, there’s definitely something paranormal going on.

We begin with a great tsunami devastating Brisbane, Australia on Christmas day. (It isn’t clear what year this is, but no connection is made to the Boxing Day Tsunami that killed so many people in Southeast Asia in 2004.) Included among the dead are Frank Mercy’s wife and unborn child. Despite his personal loss, Frank works to rescue others, including a young boy who is thrust into his arms. Despite the questionable legality of his actions, Frank takes the boy with him back home to Wisconsin, and on the way the boy’s remarkable abilities begin to emerge. And then it turns out that there are some “bad guys,” to use the boy’s terminology, who will stop at nothing to get control of the kid and his special powers.

It will be fun to hear the three authors on the panel talk about the thinks that link the books. Join us at 4pm on March 16 at Barnes & Noble in Charlottesville.



A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

prayerowenmeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany: A Novel by John Irving
William Morrow, 1989

I can’t believe it took me this long to get to this novel. I enjoyed a few other of Irving’s earlier books, but my impression has been that his later work was long, over-written, and in need of editing. So I stopped reading him, even other examples of his earlier work.

But recently I acquired an audio version of this novel and decided to give it a try, and since I also had a hardcover copy (purchased used, I would guess, based on the bookmark), I supplemented my listening with some actual reading. And I have to say that I think this novel is a spectacular achievement. Beautifully written, enchantingly plotted, and deeply layered, this is now one of my all-time favorite novels.

Everyone else has already read it, so you know the story. John Wheelwright and Owen Meany grow up together in Gravesend, New Hampshire. The boys are very different, but their fates are intertwined as they pass through the tumultuous ’60s. The story is told from John’s first person point of view looking back from his perspective in 1987 during the height of Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal. John is outraged, but it brings back to him the even greater outrage of the Vietnam War.

Owen Meany is one of the most memorable characters in modern literature, I would argue. Short of stature and with a high, grating voice, he believes himself to be, from a very young age, an instrument of God. How that manifests itself–and it does–figures importantly in John’s own spiritual journey. The high voice is a particularly nifty device. On the page, Owen’s voice is rendered in all caps (which Irving knows will be annoying to readers). In high school, where Owen is a columnist for the school paper, his articles are also rendered in all caps, which is a nice touch. As I said, though, I listened to the audio version of the book, narrated by Joe Barrett, and in that version the voice is a grating falsetto. The listener grows accustomed to it, and when I think of Owen Meany I will always remember that voice.

I don’t, usually, like religious books, and this one isn’t exactly trying to convert me. But it certainly is about Owen’s beliefs and about John’s changing beliefs.

An amazing book. Irving is a genius.

Return to Life by Jim B. Tucker, M.D.

returntolifeReturn to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives
by Jim B. Tucker

St. Martin’s Press, 2013

This book has been on my shelf for a while, purchased after I read the author’s previous book on the subject, Life Before Life, which I discussed here.  As I noted then, I’ve long been interested in the subject of reincarnation although I don’t believe that it’s possible. The case studies are difficult to explain away, though, and so I keep reading.

What prompted me to finally read this book was that I just read a novel that incorporates Dr. Tucker’s research into a story about a child who has memories of a past life. (My discussion of that book, The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin, is here.) Anticipating a discussion with the author at the Virginia Festival of the Book, I wanted to get the whole story.

While I’m glad I read the book, Tucker’s previous book contains more case studies, and those are what really appeal to me. In this book Tucker attempts to explain, using quantum physics and other theories, how reincarnation is possible. The cases are fascinating. The physics is unconvincing. Still, how to explain these “children who remember past lives?”

If you’re interested in reincarnation, I recommend both of Tucker’s books as well as Sharon Guskin’s novel.

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

forgettingtime25527908The Forgetting Time: A Novel
by Sharon Guskin
Flatiron Books, February 2016

A couple of years ago, Dr. Jim B. Tucker of the Division of Perceptual Studies in the University of Virginia made an appearance at one of our local bookstores in Staunton, Virginia, The Sacred Circle. I wasn’t able to attend the event, but when I learned that he researches reincarnation, I picked up a copy of his book Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives, which I discussed here. At the time, it occurred to me that the topic would make a great subject for a novel, and I thought if I ever finish the projects I’m currently working on I might tackle it.

There have been other works of fiction involving reincarnation recently, but The Forgetting Time deals explicitly with Dr. Tucker’s work on cases of children who remember past lives, relying heavily on both the book mentioned above and his more recent book, Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, which I have and plan to read this weekend. I guess I don’t have to write that novel now, because Sharon Guskin has already done it.

I might have read Guskin’s book anyway, but I’ve read it at this time because I’m moderating a panel next month at the Virginia Festival of the Book called Life After Death: Hello from the Other Side and the author will be presenting The Forgetting Time there. I can’t wait to talk to her about it.

The book begins with a New York architect, Janie, taking a vacation to Trinidad where she has sex with another American. She becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to her son, Noah. Noah is a handful and displays inexplicable behavior, including telling fantastic stories about experiences he can’t possibly have had. Worried about a possible diagnosis of schizophrenia, Janie gets on the Internet looking for alternatives, and finds the work of Dr. Jerome Anderson, who has written about similar behavior.

Meanwhile, Anderson has just received a diagnosis of progressive aphasia and knows that his time is limited. In order to complete his work on reincarnation, he needs to publish his latest book and for that he is told he needs one really strong American case.

So Anderson meets Noah and at first doesn’t think the case is strong enough, but gradually he becomes convinced otherwise and the research begins.

There isn’t much more I can say without spoiling the plot, so I’ll only comment that Guskin has written an engaging story that most readers, I suspect, will consider science fiction. But she has included some of Tucker’s actual case studies, and if one reads those, or reads Tucker’s books on the subject, it’s hard to come up with a plausible alternative explanation for those “children who remember past lives.”

In any event, the book is fast-paced and heart-warming, and I think it will appeal to a wide audience.


Welcome to Christiania by Fred Leebron

christiania27135251Welcome to Christiania by Fred Leebron

Outpost 19, February 2016

Fred Leebron, a former teacher of mine, is a genius. I don’t say that lightly. The fact is that he blows me away whenever I hear him give a craft talk, which I’ve had the good fortune of doing on several occasions. He’s also an amazing writer–with three novels and numerous prize-winning stories–and I’ve been anxiously waiting for something new from him.

Here it is, in the form of a very short novel set in Christiania, a semi-autonomous section of Copenhagen, Denmark known for its free-wheeling drug culture. The book is dark and weird and fanciful, also disturbing and a bit depressing. I’m glad it’s short so that I can dive back in and see what else I can mine from it on a second read.

It’s a symmetrical little book. In the first part, the narrator–about which the reader knows very little–works the streets of Christiania selling drugs for the Big Man. “I am here,” he tells us, “not because I want to be, but because I have to be.” He has traveled all over the world, searching, and this is where he has landed, thinking, at first, that he’d found what he’d been looking for. In the second part, he goes to Spain with his friend Otto to recover from a tragic loss, finding a community, if that’s the right word for it, not unlike the one he’s left in Christiania. And in the third part he returns to the Big Man, only to find that the world he knew has changed.

What does it all mean? The narrator is adrift and without attachment. At the outset, he says “Unlike all the other pushers, I have no dog. I am my own dog.” But in the end he says, “I have never been my own dog. Otto is my dog.” Does that mean he’s content to be with Otto as the world crumbles around him? Maybe. Not clear.

It’s a quick read. I recommend it. Let me know what you think.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

citizenCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Graywolf Press, 2014

This book, which is a collection of prose poetry and essays, strikes me as a more lyrical version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. It is just as powerful and important, and I recommend it highly.

Written largely in the second person–appropriate for this narrative–the book explores racism from a personal perspective. The “you” in the poems goes about her day, regularly encountering the slights and slurs that observers (white observers, I mean) might miss. But here it is clear how painful they can be, even when, as is often the case, they are done without malicious intent, or any intent at all. Which is part of the problem, and this book, like the Coates book, aims to raise awareness. But often there IS malicious intent, and the book also explores the too-frequent examples of lives lost through racism.

Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour. You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.

Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.

Everyone should read this book. If we did, we might be able to move closer together and really deal with this problem.

The Other Side of Life by Andy Kutler

othersideThe Other Side of Life by Andy Kutler

Neverland Publishing, 2015

I might not have come across this novel except that I’ve been asked to moderate a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March called Life After Death–Hello From the Other Side, which I assumed meant that the three novels to be discussed were about reincarnation.

This is the first of the three I’ve read, and it’s not exactly reincarnation that’s going on here. It’s way more complicated than that, and as it turns out makes for an excellent story.

Lieutenant Commander Mac Kelsey serves on the USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor and thanks to his quick thinking saves his ship when the Japanese attack. Many of his men are killed, however, and he is also severely wounded, perhaps mortally. Because of a personal tragedy, he actually welcomes death, but instead, he finds himself boarding a train. He assumes this is the train to heaven, or wherever he’s bound, and the reader thinks he’s probably right about that.

But he’s not, at least not quite. He meets Sam Leavitt, his Guide, who makes him an offer, which is to begin a new life somewhere else. With little to lose, Kelsey accepts the offer and finds himself in New Mexico, attached to the US Army, just as the Civil War is about to break out in 1861.

And that’s about all I can say without giving too much away about this very enjoyable novel. Kelsey is an intriguing, flawed central character, but his is not the only narrative voice the author uses to tell this story, and the book is populated by several engaging, fully-realized men and women. The military details (both at Pearl Harbor and in the Civil War scenes) seem spot on (or at least completely credible), the action is fast-paced and dramatic, and the dialogue is excellent.

And then there’s this Sam Leavitt character and the Guides, who are sort of, but not quite, angels. How do they fit into this war story, and what do they have in mind for Lieutenant Commander Kelsey? That’s a very good question, one that for this reader was most satisfactorily answered by the book’s resolution.


Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust

paradisedriveParadise Drive by Rebecca Foust
Press 53, 2015

This book won the Press 53 Award for Poetry. A collection of modern sonnets, it explores the trials and tribulations of Pilgrim, a name selected, Foust tells the reader in a note, because Anne Dudley Bradstreet, the first woman poet to be published in both England and America, was among the Puritan immigrants who arrived on these shores in 1630.

The poems are not then about Bradstreet, but about a woman who is also a seeker, one who is, perhaps, under some of the same puritanical constraints. But this Pilgrim lives in Marin County, which is another sort of colony altogether:

It hit her like a double bolus of morphine.
Her problem was ennui. Envy of ENVY.
Pilgrim wished she could, but just did not care.
Not about shoes, blow-dried hairdos,
ins to swank parties, flat stomachs and house lots,
toddlers locked and loaded on Harvard,
sugar in schools, or Land Rovers. v. Escalades.

These are poems worth reading again and again, which I will do, certain that there was much I missed the first time around.


While the City Slept by Eli Sanders

whilecitysleptWhile the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness by Eli Sanders
Viking, February 2016

Eli Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his reporting on the Seattle rape and murder of Teresa Butz. Now he has turned that reporting into a book that is more than just a crime story. With great compassion, Sanders spends as much time painting a portrait of the victims of the crime as he does with the criminal. And so it is that, after we read of the home invasion in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle and hear the accounts of neighbors who heard screams, and after we learn that Teresa, one of the residents of the house, has died and the other resident, Jennifer, has been rushed to the hospital, we spend the next 80 or so pages learning about these two women–who they are, how they met, and how they came to be living together.

That part of the book is a love story, and it seems unusual (but not unwelcome) for a book like this to dwell at such length on the victims of the crime. We learn about Teresa’s large family, her struggles with her sexuality, and ultimately her coming out as a lesbian. We learn of Jennifer’s own family difficulties, being raised by an addicted single-mother, and her career challenges in the musical theater world. (Ironically, Teresa’s brother is a two-time Tony Award winner for his work in Broadway musicals.) They eventually meet in Seattle, fall in love, and plan to marry (even before same-sex marriage was recognized). Both of their families have some difficulty with their plan, but neither is rejected by family.

Interestingly, this part of the book is told in present tense. (“In the fall of 1990, Teresa arrives at Mizzou . . . Jennifer meets a conservatory student named Kerri Sanford . . .”) It’s a puzzling choice, I think, but it does create a kind of immediacy, and even intimacy, so that the reader is drawn into the victims’ lives even more closely

Then we learn about Isaiah, the son of a Ugandan immigrant and an American woman. The household is strict–Isaiah is sent to Seventh Day Adventist schools–but violent, and eventually his parents divorce. Isaiah’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and worrisome to his family. He gets into trouble with the police, and there are plenty of warning signs that he is mentally ill. He gets worse and he is no longer welcome at his mother’s house. He lives with an aunt and then is kicked out of her home as well. (Shortly afterward, the aunt and another resident of the house die in an arson, which is presumed to be connected to Isaiah.) And then for reasons no one really understands, he broke into Teresa and Jennifer’s house, brutally raped them both multiple times, and killed Teresa.

The remainder of the book deals with the capture and trial of Isaiah for these crimes, but is primarily an indictment of our mental health treatment systems in the United States. Isaiah’s behavior waved all kinds of red flags and he was seen by many mental health professionals, but the system was powerless to do anything to help him or to prevent his horrible crimes.

Realizing that this was the real subject of the book, as I was reading I thought of a situation closer to home. A little over two years ago, Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, whom I know from my own political activity, sought help for his son Gus. But the system failed Gus, as the family was told there were no beds available in mental health facilities. At home, Gus became violent, attacked his father with a knife, severely wounding him, and then turned a gun on himself to commit suicide. Since then, Senator Deeds has championed reforms in Virginia and speaks often about the problem. (Sanders, near the end of his book’s Epilogue, mentions the Deeds case.)

Another recent, very different book, Missoula by Jon Krakauer, also deals with the crime of rape, seeking to blame the criminal justice system for its inability to effectively prosecute rapists. This book, though, focuses not on prosecution but, appropriately, on prevention. If the system had better funding, if community mental health treatment centers weren’t so constrained, this particular crime and many crimes like it could have been prevented. The cost of untreated mental illness, the book emphasizes, is staggering. Prosecution of this one crime alone cost “well over $3 Million.” Sanders makes the point this way:

If Isaiah’s crimes could have been prevented through early psychiatric intervention, it could well have saved the public money. This is why advocates continue to argue that it’s shortsighted and self-defeating for political leaders to continually cut, and perpetually underfund, public mental health programs in this country while much more easily approving funds for things like new prisons.

It’s a compelling argument, made all the more effective by the author’s compassionate portrait of the victims. It’s not just the money, he’s saying. See what we’ve done? See what we’ve lost?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

halfsunHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This stunning novel was published in 20o5, and somewhere along the way I acquired a signed first edition, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer. (And, in truth, I read it because I nominated it for my Reading Liberally book club to tackle for this month.)

I think most Americans were only aware of the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) because of various humanitarian aid efforts undertaken to relieve the horrible famine in Biafra that ultimately killed 2 million people. We were distracted at the time by the Vietnam War, but it is still unforgivable that we were so ignorant of what was happening.

The novel tells the story of two privileged sisters, daughters of a wealthy Igbo man. One is involved in the family business, and the other, who falls in love with a “revolutionary” academic, teaches with him at the university in Nsukka, in the territory that will become Biafra (populated mostly by Igbo people). The business-oriented daughter falls in love with a British writer who is enchanted by Igbo culture and tries to make it his own. The other sister and her lover are joined in their household by a young villager who becomes their houseboy. All of these people struggle through the war, displaced from city to village, their situations becoming more and more dire as they witness atrocity after atrocity.

A little slow to take off, this soon develops into a thrilling and deeply disturbing plot. Even more effective, though, is the portrayal of the characters, especially the three rotating narrators. We start with Ugwu, the village boy who comes to work for Odenigbo, the revolutionary, and Olanna, the industrialist’s daughter who is his lover. We then get Olanna’s point of view and meet her sister. And finally we have the point of view of Richard Churchill who has come to Nigeria to study and write about Igbo art. These are some of the best-drawn characters in modern literature. The reader truly gets a feel for who these people are as they encounter their country’s terrible suffering. But as horrible as the story seems, the reader gets the feeling that reality was even worse.

While rotating the narrative among Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard worked well, Adichie made one structural choice that still puzzles me. The book has four parts. The first is “The Early Sixties” in which the characters are introduced and the setting and conflicts established. The second part is “The Late Sixties,” jumping ahead to when the war is underway. We have hints in this section about plot points that the reader won’t fully understand, but these are clarified in the third part, in which we jump back to “The Early Sixties.” For the fourth part we return to the war and “The Late Sixties” and the resolution of the novel. I suppose the reasoning for this chronology shift is to have a bit of mystery–what caused this tension between Richard and Odenigbo, for example–but the mystery is so secondary to the greater story that I think a straightforward chronology would have been just as effective.

I’m very glad I finally got around to reading the book. I know I am ignorant about most of Africa, but reading this was a good start to a greater understanding. And I’m now looking forward to reading more of Adichie’s work.