This installment: a brain tumor memoir full of life (nf); dressage lore in a juicy novel (f); a rebellious teenager who pins her hopes on MIT—not (f); time travel between Victorian England and our drug-fueled era among artists (f); and a powerful documentary about James Baldwin (DVD).
A Brand New Catastrophe by Mike Scalise
Ahh—give me a rare brain tumor, hormonal nightmares, a tough-talking mom with a heart problem, and a very good writer to tell all. That’s a recipe for pure satisfaction in my (perhaps) warped mind. At 24, floundering to find work, Scalise gets whammed with terrible headaches. The tumor was located in his pituitary gland which controls just about everything, so he has to go on a complex regimen of remedies to counteract stress, make sex work, and more. His devoted girlfriend (now wife) and stubborn, lively parents help him through. There’s lot of life in this surprising memoir.
The Horse Dancer by Jo Jo Moyes
On my recent vacation I read lots of paperbacks in which the plot hinges on a heroine we know should connect with the guy but she resists mightily until the end. Here it’s Natasha who’s broken up with Max, her husband who strayed. She’s a lawyer who works with at risk youth and into her life comes young Sara whose grandfather, Henri, has just had a stroke. He was a member of an elite French horse performance society but fell for an Englishwoman, had to choose, and ended up with her. Relocation to England and the marriage turned out to be a burden but Sarah, now 14, has the gift of horsemanship and keeps a horse in a dubious stable in London. Many dramatic happenings, some stretching the imagination, but Natasha softens, her marriage is saved, and Sara has a future in the field. A ripping good yarn sprinkled with dressage lore, some from Xenophon, no less.
Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson
Good Kate and bad Kate live inside one body. She’s a reverend’s daughter with good grades, track prowess, and does all the household chores (mother dead) but inside she’s resistant and rebellious. A typical thought: how can I believe in God when I have no boobs to speak of at 17? She pins her future on getting into MIT with no safety schools and gets rejected because other applicants had more oomph, the admissions office tells her. A neighbor and enemy from childhood, Teri, becomes homeless after a fire and ends up living at her house, along with little brother Mikey who’s actually Teri’s son via her jailbird dad. A series of very surprising happenings ensue and by the end Teri and Kate have bonded in unexpected ways. All the short chapters bear the names of chemical processes—clever. And the teen language is pitch-perfect.
Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
Time travel between the overheated romanticism of the Victorian era and the drug-fueled intensity of modern-day England with the overlapping figure of a woman who holds dangerous, seductive magnetism. We discover she’s more of a mythological figure, muse to poets and painters through the ages and a painter herself. Madness reigns in a crumbling manse in Cornwall back then and an androgynous psychiatrist now who warns writer Daniel to stay away from her. A sinister art collector also spans the eras. Historical characters like Swinburne are interwoven as well. Hand provides rich, esoteric details of décor, attire, folklore, legend and art (oh those rapturous names of pigments).
I Am Not Your Negro (DVD)
The Black Experience as delineated through the words of James Baldwin, still terrifyingly apropos today. What an intense presence he was with those glittering, protuberant eyes, and his delivery: refined, strict, and incisive with an edge of rage, sorrow and indignation licking at the edges. Amazing footage of speeches, interviews, and iconic images throughout history, like lynched figures juxtaposed with Doris Day-type clips of prosperous happiness. Excellent music, and narration by Samuel Jackson. Baldwin had been working on a book about the three murdered M’s before his death (Malcolm, Martin and Medgar). His sister gave filmmaker Peck full access to Baldwin’s estate—unprecedented.
Back next week.