Book Review: HEART BERRIES, an emotional and raw memoir

Mailhot, Terese Marie - Heart BerriesHeart Berries
Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries, written in poetic, dream-like prose, in part is directed towards Mailhot’s sometimes lover, later husband Casey Gray. In the midst of a breakdown, her excess proved too much for him, and the memoir begins with her institutionalized–voluntarily she is quick to clarify–as she wrestled with his abandonment. (One of my favorite scenes depicts a group of women coloring at the psychiatric facility.)

Within this dysfunctional love story, Mailhot reveals greater sorrows. Her mother had a series of boyfriends and neglected her children, so they went into foster care. When Mailhot aged out of the system, she got married because she lacked better options, but she lost custody of her elder son to her ex-husband. Later, when she is medicated and more stable, she remembers that her father abused her. She reveals she and her siblings have substance abuse problems as well. All that is set against continued microaggressions due to her ethnicity, starting with those she witness against her mother who was ignored in restaurants and shops as if being Indian were a crime.

After Mailhot leaves the psychiatric facility, she starts seeing Casey once a week, though she knows he is also seeing other–white–women, at least casually, at least as friends. Even though she doesn’t believe Casey can understand her pain, even though she thinks he prefers white women, they have a child together and they marry. The memoir turns, then, addressing Mailhot’s parents and their legacy to her.

When I finished reading Heart Berries, I read some of the online reviews, and they didn’t match my experience of the book. Although I value women’s stories and women seizing control of their own narratives, Native women in particular, I don’t personally care for Mailhot’s style. At times, her writing can be lovely, but too often, it felt choppy to me. That some reviewers called her the voice of a generation seemed at best hyperbolic. That said, it was achingly honest and a provocative meditation on love, abuse, mental health, racism, and motherhood.

Book Review: BURIED ANGELS, new evidence in a decades old missing persons case

Lackberg, Camilla - Buried Angels (2)Buried Angels
Camilla Lackberg

In 1974, the Elvander family mysteriously disappeared from a boarding school they ran on Valö, an island near Fjällbacka, Sweden. They left their Easter dinner on the table and one-year-old Ebba alone in the living room.

After Ebba’s young son Vincent tragically died, she and her husband fled to Valö, transferring all their grief into the physical labor required to transform the dilapidated old school into a bed and breakfast. However, when they pulled up the floorboards in the dining room and found blood stains, the decades old crime came to light. Only days later, someone set fire to the house while Ebba and Tobias were inside sleeping.

Although he had little evidence, Patrik Hedström was convinced the family’s disappearance, Ebba’s return, and the arson were all connected. And when someone shot at at Ebba through her kitchen window, he felt he was racing against time. His only colleague though was the famously lazy Gösta Flygare since Martin was on sick leave and Paula on vacation. Surprisingly, though, Gösta showed an interest in this case that he’d never displayed in the entire time Patrik had been with the Tanum police.

Five students had been on the island during the Easter weekend the family disappeared, and they happened to converge in Fjällbacka. Patrik and Gösta plus journalist Kjell Ringholm are convinced they know more than they admitted in their interviews at the time. However, they have even more to lose now. One of the group, Sebastian Månsson, is a wealthy businessman, and another, John Holm, is a leader of Friends of Sweden, a neo-Nazi political group.

Patrik’s wife, true crime novelist Erica Falck, long interest in the Valö mystery, insinuates herself into the investigation, perhaps putting it, herself, and others in danger.

For me, Buried Angels began slowly, and really didn’t capture me in an I-can’t-put-this-down way until I was about halfway through the book. By then, I was invested and curious enough that the rest of it went very quickly.

I’ve read all of the Fjällbacka mysteries (with varying degrees of recall, I must admit), and Buried Angels improves on the dialogue, which in past volumes was choppy and abrupt. Although I assumed it was a translation artifact, it wasn’t present in this entry, at least not so that I noticed.

However, Lackberg did seem to return to two of her favorite themes: Nazis and secrets among groups of old friends. Certainly, these themes are deployed differently in Buried Angels than in other books in the series, but I would like to have more variation.

Being the eighth book in the series, the characters are fairly well-established. Mellberg is often presented as a caricature of a buffoon, though the rest of the cast is likable if sometimes flat. Gösta, though, long written off as a disinterested and lazy officer, gains some depth in this book.

Buried Angels has two parallel stories–the contemporary investigation, and a chronicle that begins in 1908. Lackberg uses the historical sections to create small cliffhangers, but sometimes they are never resolved. For example, Ebba receives a threatening postcard, and though readers ultimately learn who sent it, we are never told what it said.

The historical sections themselves are interesting, though they might have been even more interesting if they’d had more contextual information about the times in which they were written.

Like many of the books in the series, the characters in Buried Angels struggle with fair division of labor within relationships. It’s a constant internal refrain for Erica, though she doesn’t communicate about it with Patrik.

Also present in this book is the pain from losing a child and how difficult it can be for the parents to individually heal and at the same time repair their relationship.

Buried Angels is not the best, but not the worst book in the series. It’s definitely something fans should read. Those who haven’t read Camilla Lackberg before should begin with The Ice Princess.

Book Review: NINE PERFECT STRANGERS, ten days at a remote health retreat – what could go wrong?

Moriarity, Liane - Nine Perfect Strangers (1)Nine Perfect Strangers
Liane Moriarty

Gathering at the exclusive Tranquillum House, an exclusive health resort, for a ten day wellness retreat, nine guests arrive at the rural property with different goals in mind. Ben and Jessica hope the retreat will heal their fractured marriage while the Marconis and their daughter seek solace from grief. Carmel, recently divorced, wants to lose weight, and Tony, a former athlete, worries about his health. Lars, who often attends such retreats, uses them to escape the intimacy of his relationship. And Frances, a former bestselling romance novelist, not only was scammed by a man on the Internet who pretended to fall in love with her, her last manuscript was rejected.

All of the clients turn over their cell phones and other contraband, such as wine and junk food, with varying degrees of resistance, and are surprised that the retreat began with five days of “noble silence.” Masha Dmitrichenko, owner of Tranquilium House, a convert to healthy living after having a heart attack ten years previously, was experimenting with a new protocol during this session and was sure her new techniques would lead to lasting change in her guests. Though the silence was difficult at first, they did ease into it as they enjoyed daily smoothies, massages, facials, and hikes. Without speech, the guests couldn’t help but make assumptions about each other–yet the nobel silence was soon to come to an end. They wondered what would happen when they could finally interact and what Masha had in store for them next, hoping that she could solve their existential problems.

Although all the guests, plus some of the Tranquilium House staff, have point of view chapters, Frances’s viewpoint is dominant. One thing I love about Frances is that she is fascinated by other people. So many characters in books are antisocial or loathe others, it’s refreshing to see someone who relishes interactions with new people–even if it might only be for material for one of her manuscripts. Given that Frances is reeling from her first rejection, Nine Perfect Strangers includes (unflattering) insights into the publishing industry, such as discrimination and sexual harassment. It’s hard not to wonder if Moriarty was writing from personal experience.

At times, the book is very funny. Frances’ observations are witty and some of the situations are hilarious, but the book is also heartbreaking, particularly when recounting some of the characters’ backstories. While all the characters were flawed, they were also for the most part likable, though Masha’s past behavior was slightly inexplicable to me.

What I didn’t like so much about the book was that as I was reading it, I had no idea where it was going. I wasn’t even sure into what genre the book might fall. I’ve decided that this sense of being unsettled reflected that of the guests at Tranquilium House.

While it’s possible that Moriarity might be making general statements about the health and wellness industry in Nine Perfect Strangers, no doubt Tranquilium House represents a unique setting against which other facilities can’t be judged. The book questions not just how the health and wellness industry but how social media shapes expectations of beauty and behavior. It would be fair to say that whether or not Masha’s treatment worked, the experience did bring all the guests closer to being themselves, and while that might not always be the goal of these retreats, perhaps it should be.

Reading Nine Perfect Strangers was entertaining and satisfying, and it contained enough deeper questions that I was intellectually engaged, but it has a lighter tone than Moriarity’s other novels and it definitely wasn’t her best.

Book Review: GOOD AND MAD will make you good and mad

Traister, Rebecca - Good and Mad (1)Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister contextualizes female rage from abolitionists and suffragists to the participants in the March for Women and those in the #metoo movement. She explains how women have been socialized to tamp down anger but in reality, that very anger can, and in the past has, led to momentous social change.

Good and Mad explains how existing cultural and social institutions, built by white men, maintain their power, and perpetuate it by dividing the interests of groups that might unite to topple it, such as men of color and women. She also explicates how white women become implicated in the extant system, and her interpretation of why a majority of white women voted for Trump is the only one that has made any sense to me (as stomach churning as it is).

Traister writes for white women, some of whom might be feeling rage for the first time after Trump and the revelations of #metoo. She is careful, though, to remind readers of the vital and often overlooked contribution of black women. Black women brought the first sexual harassment cases to court in the 1970s and a black woman started #metoo in the mid-2000s. Rightly so, black women have been angry for a very long time–and while white women showing anger violates cultural expectations, when black women show anger, they suffer even more, diminished to the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. The sections on how women need to work together going forward were among my favorite in the book, yet I also craved more stories about women of color in the book.

Of course, a fear behind this anger is that the anger will diminish without leading to any real change. The final section of the book offers both strategies and a message of cautious hopefulness.

It’s perhaps not too surprising that as I read the book and learned more, I became even angrier than I had been (though Traister would say that’s not necessarily a bad thing and might even be a good thing). The book is meticulously researched and contains ample evidence to support her arguments along with personal insight. And, while the topic is serious, the book contains moments of levity that made me actually laugh.

As I mentioned, I might have liked additional stories from women of color or a sense that they were part of the audience for the book. Additionally, at times, I didn’t enjoy Traister’s writing style. Some of her sentences were like roller coasters, endlessly long with excessive elliptical clauses and descriptive phrases that were unnecessarily difficult. Overall, however, I thought this was an excellent and important volume, one that both taught me new information and helped me make sense of the current cultural landscape. I recommend Good and Mad for any angry woman or man or any man wanting to understand and angry woman.

Book Review: A SPARK OF LIGHT, held hostage in an abortion clinic

Picoult, Jodi - A Spark of LightA Spark of Light
Jodi Picoult

People come to the Center, a women’s reproductive health clinic and Mississippi’s only abortion provider, for myriad reasons. Some seek birth control, some are there for gynecological exams, some are working, some are protesting, some are friends and family of patients, and some, but by no means all, are there to have abortions.

George Goddard, though, has come to the Center for revenge, and after initially shooting five and killing three, he corrals the survivors into the clinic’s waiting room as he has a tense standoff with the police. Hugh McElroy, the police negotiator, has a vested interest in the case. His fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside, but he hides that information from his superior and coworkers since he knows he’ll be removed from active duty if his connection is revealed.

Meanwhile, the survivors, none of whom would have come together otherwise, develop bonds that buoy them as they support each other and try to outwit George, but are also tested as they all consider the reasons they’ve each arrived at the clinic on that particular day.

A second strand of the novel features Beth, a young girl who self-administered a medical abortion with drugs she ordered from China. When she hemorrhaged and was taken to the emergency room, a nurse called the police. Seventeen-year-old Beth, still recovering, was arrested for murder. Beth tried so hard to obtain an abortion legally, but she was too young, she was too far along, she didn’t have her father’s permission. . . I ache for Beth.

The novel is told backwards, starting from the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m., and retracing it hour-by-hour through 8:00 a.m. For me, this structure didn’t work in this particular novel. It required the introduction of information before context which made it confusion. Then, when the context was provided, the information was restated. To add to the repetition, some themes were simply repeated. At two different times, George considered how his actions didn’t corresponds with movies as he thought they would.

Given that the novel is set in a single day, it’s unreasonable to expect that every question will be resolved, but the novel itself highlights two questions that get abandoned: the relationship of Hugh and Wren to Annabelle, Wren’s mother plus the insidious nature of secrets. One character, in particular, seems to resolve to reveal her secrets after the clinic ordeal, but a hint of the future indicates that they are still buried.

I also found the writing at times to be problematic in a way that’s hard to describe, maybe didactic, maybe trite, maybe too overdone. One character thinks, “Who was going to rescue her now?” I’d expect to see such a sentiment in a romance novel.

What I did like about this book was the presentation of both sides of the abortion debate. I think it was more sympathetic to the pro-choice characters, though that may be my personal bias, but it certainly was empathetic to the pro-life protesters (except George, who was really not part of the anti-abortion movement but acting out of a personal narrative).

Picoult reveals how choice is an illusion when the lack of facilities, the presence of bureaucratic hurdles, and the shortage of resources present obstacle upon obstacle for women seeking abortions, particularly minors. She shows how the characters in Mississippi have to undergo a two-day process if they want an abortion: a day for counseling, in which the provider is required to provide a litany of information, much medically false, and a second day for the procedure. I thought I knew what it was like to seek an abortion in a southern state. I DID NOT.

Also perceptive is the link between anti-abortion campaigns and race and the fact that most pro-life protesters are middle-aged white men. The movement is about controlling women’s bodies, not protecting babies. As many have mentioned, if it were about babies, the same pro-life advocates would also be marching for social services to protect those babies after they are born.

So, then, I am decidedly mixed about A Spark of Light. I appreciated the depth of Picoult’s research and was moved and informed by the themes of the novel, but I didn’t care for the structure or writing.