Book Review: ASK AGAIN, YES, after unthinkable violence, can a family forgive?

Ask Again, Yes
Mary Beth Keane

The Gleesons and Stanhopes lived next door to each other in the small town Gillam, outside New York City where Brian and Francis were both police officers. Though the men briefly were partners, their paths diverged, and living on the same street didn’t bring them closer together. Lena, Francis’s wife, lonely outside of the city and away from her friends and family, unsuccessfully tried to befriend Brian’s wife, Anne. But, Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Stanhope’s only son, Peter, were born six months apart and became the best of friends, as close as siblings, until their teenage hormones shifted their relationship.

The families lived in a precarious balance until Kate and Peter became eighth graders. That year, tensions flared until an unimaginable act of violence tore the two families apart and shifted the relationships within each family forever. The Stanhopes left Gillam, and the families and individual family members tried to heal, making mistakes along the way, but the events of the fateful night were a fulcrum against which they all pivoted. Even as Kate and Peter found each other again, the ghosts of the past threatened them and their loved ones unless they could find the strength to forgive.

Overall, I enjoyed Ask Again, Yes. The story captivated my attention and I thought the language was lovely. Some of the characters, too, particularly stood out as unusual–Anne–or lovable–George, Brian’s brother. Francis’s journey, too, was a valuable window into his situation. Despite the dark turns the novel takes, it ultimately promotes a message of forgiveness and compassion.

Some things I liked less about the novel included reliance on what I think are overdone conflicts, for example alcoholism and infidelity, though they are perhaps overdone because so common and then deserve attention. The novel shifted perspective among characters, sometimes leaping forward in time, and while I don’t mind that in general, at times in this novel it felt a little jerky. Kate, who is a spitfire as a child, becomes rather passive as she becomes an adult, perhaps because of her circumstances, but it’s a shame she lost her moxy. Finally, the tone of the novel was one of reporting which served a bit to distance me from the emotions of the characters.

Ask Again, Yes should appeal to readers who like contemporary fiction in general or who enjoy family dramas and coming of age novels, and I would encourage those in these categories to read it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Scribner for providing an advance readers copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE EDGE OF EVERY DAY – SKETCHES OF SCHIZOPHRENIA

Sardy, Marin - The Edge of Every Day (1)The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia
Marin Sardy

When just a young girl, Marin Sardy’s mother began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia, though she never admitted to a problem and therefore was never diagnosed or treated. She did however, keep foil on the end of the television antennas and was so fearful of assassins she barricaded the door at night and often took the children to sleep in a motel.

Her parents got divorced, and her father bought the house next door so they could easily share custody, but he never discussed his ex-wife’s mental health. At times, Marin thought she was the one who had a problem. No one else was talking about it, so maybe her mother was the sane one.

By the time her little brother Tom reached his twenties, the family still wasn’t talking about mental health, but they had to acknowledge that the “shapeless thief” that stole their mother had set his eyes on Tom as well.

In The Edge of Every Day, Sardy combines innovative slices of writing to explore the illness that stalked her family and how it affected her and her other family members, particularly her father. She also reaches into the past to see how tendrils of genetic code of previous generations might have influenced the present and so to the future.

The chapters or essays in the volume take on different forms. Some are list, such as strange things Sardy has encountered. Another is a list of responses of family members–siblings, aunts, her father, her grandmother–to her mother’s symptoms. So striking is the repetition of hopelessness and lack of understanding evident in the “I don’t know”s in their reflections. Another chapter is told in “loops” of time.

The writing is lovely and raw, showing how mental illness echoes in a family, a group of friends, and a community. Sardy also frequently calls attention to the inadequate institutions available for those suffering from mental health issues which keeps them from getting the individualized treatment they need.

Though the chapters cover diverse subjects, from Sardy’s teenage gymnastics career to her David Bowie-inspired wardrobe in her twenties and her relationship with wicca, the theme of walking the line between mental health and mental illness winds through them giving them a cohesiveness. Only one chapter, “Dades Gorge,” seemed out of place, and I am slightly mystified as to why it was included. Also, after Tom began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia, Sardy focuses on him and puts aside the thread of her mother; I would have liked their stories as they affected Sardy to be more integrated.

The Edge of Every Day cuts deeply and though the story is often painful, it reveals in beautiful prose a family’s struggle with this mental illness that is still often misunderstood. The book will appeal to those who enjoy readings memoirs as well as anyone who desires an intimate account of living with a family member having this condition.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pantheon Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: LITTLE DARLINGS is Satisfyingly Creepy

Little Darlings
by Melanie Golding

Little Darlings by Melanie Golding was a perfect novel to read in the lead-up to Halloween. This book is creepy, scary, and unsettling, in the vein of traditional fairy and folk tales. Each section begins with an excerpt from such a tale to set the disturbing mood.

During the worst drought since 1976, Lauren Tanter gave birth to twins. The hospital where she delivered didn’t allow her (rather useless) husband Patrick to stay overnight (is this normal in the UK?), so she was alone, drugged after hemorrhaging. In the middle of the night, she heard a woman singing a creepy lullaby to her own newborn twins. On the way to the bathroom, Lauren asked her to quit singing as it could disturb the other patients. Strangely, the woman’s bay had no hospital bed. She was dirty with stringy hair and her babies were in a basket. The woman asked her to switch one baby. The Tranters’ babies had every advantage; it wasn’t fair. Lauren gathered her twins, barricaded herself in the bathroom, and called 999. The responding officers determined no one was in the ward and referred the case to Mental Health Services. DS Joanna Harper, though, thought it worth investigating, even though the psychiatrist chalked the incident up to postpartum hallucinations.

Frightened, Lauren stayed in her house after she was discharged until she finally met her friends Rosa and Cindy at Bishop Valley Park. Lauren took a walk after her friends departed. Waking up, the twins’ stroller was missing. DS Harper rushed to the park and found the twins with a woman who was struggling with the stroller at the edge of the water. When DS Harper came upon them, the woman ran. Quickly captured, she claimed she wasn’t kidnapping the twins at all; she had found the babies and was returning them.

At first, Lauren was overjoyed. Then, she took the stroller and started running towards the river, convinced that the babies weren’t hers; they’d been replaced with the dirty woman’s creatures. Despite everyone’s attempts to convince Lauren otherwise, she believes that her babies aren’t her own. And, as DS Harper investigates the abduction, she begins to see evidence herself that the boys might not be the real babies.

Little Darlings has lots of provocative elements: changeling babies, a drowned city, a mysterious and similar crime from 1976. Even better, it’s ending is satisfying but ambiguous enough that it leaves the reader unsettled and disturbed, perfect for a horror tale.

Thank you to Netgalley and Crooked Lane Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Viet Thanh Nguyen in Ithaca

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Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca to discuss The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives in conversation with Jack Wang of Ithaca College. I knew the talk would be thought-provoking and insightful, but I was surprised that I also laughed so much. Despite the moments of humor, I personally find it shameful how the U.S. treats refugees (and undocumented immigrants). If you haven’t read The Sympathizer which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, you should put that at the top of your to-read stack!

The event was co-sponsored by Ithaca Welcomes Refugees and Ithaca City of Asylum.

A portion of the proceeds of The Displaced are being donated to the International Rescue Committee to support their work aiding people whose lives are disrupted by conflict and disaster.

Book Review: WAR TRASH, the “memoir” of a Chinese veteran who fought in the Korean War

Jin, Ha - War TrashWar Trash
Ha Jin

War Trash recounts the travails of Yu Yuan, a Chinese veteran of the Korean War. Yu, who had been a student in a military academy when the Communists took over the Chinese government, was viewed with some suspicion by his superiors since he might harbor Nationalist sympathies. Still, he was valuable because he could speak English so well.

Once in Korea, Yu’s division was ordered to march south. Against the superior firepower of the Americans, the Chinese division got separated. Yu and a handful of others survived, nearly starving, in the wilderness for weeks until they were captured as POWs.

First at a collection center then at a series of camps, Yu struggles to survive as the Communists and Nationalists viciously clash with the captors doing little to maintain order until it reaches a boiling point, and the U.S. military arrives with force if not skill and strategy.

Although Yu is repelled by the extremism demanded by both factions of the Chinese, he is at turns required to prove his loyalty to both for survival, and when the war ends, Yu’s struggles are far from over.

Ha Jin has written War Trash in the form of a memoir drafted by Yu Yuan. As a result the prose is, as Yu might describe it, “documentary-like,” richly descriptive and detailed but not elegant or beautiful. Slang words and phrases like “meanie,” “saving his own skin,” “popped off,” and “roped me in,” are jarring and seem out of place – yet, maybe they aren’t because Yu learned English in part through reading the Stars and Stripes and through conversing with guards. In short, the book is not what I’d call well-written, but I cannot conclude if that is deliberate to reflect Yu’s voice or if it is because Jin didn’t rise up to his usual standards. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The story itself makes War Trash worth reading. Personally, I know little about the Korean War, and until reading War Trash, I knew nothing about the American-run POW camps. Jin outlines the inventiveness and determination of the prisoners but also the toll it took, as some slipped into depression or committed suicide. American men for the most part are represented as buffoons, saved by the strength of the military’s weaponry and equipment.

Chinese politics at the time serve as the backdrop. Only two years since the Communists seized power, the Nationalists, formerly in power and backed by the Americans, now ensconced in Taiwan, still believe they can triumph to win back the country. The Chinese POWs are pulled between these groups, fearing them both yet needing to form an alliance with one or the other. In the peace talks, the POWs became a bargaining chip. The Nationalists wanted to claim them to increase their ranks while the Communists wanted them to return to the mainland voluntarily to save face. Of course, Yu concludes that not just he and his fellow POWs but also many others affected and abandoned by the war effort are discarded and treated as war trash.