Book Reviews


“…I became curious about things and my curiosity kept me going.”

The Adderall Diaries, S.E.

Note: Adderall is a brand-name medication intended for people with ADHD. It increases alertness, libido and concentration, and, because it affects the mesolimbic reward pathway in the brain, it is as addictive as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Stephen Elliott’s memoir is a cocktail of sadomasochistic sex, hardcore drugs, emotional abuse and the altering perceptions on self, culture and the fine line that disguises the outcome of truth and fiction. But it’s more complex than a list of what it is and what it isn’t. As he mentions in the middle of the book: This book begins with a suicidal urge. If I was going to kill myself anyway, I could write whatever I wanted. And that’s what I started to do. He begins by mentioning that his father may have killed a man—a fantastic beginning. We follow the unraveling story, but then detour towards a murder trial set in San Francisco where Hans Reiser is accused of killing his wife, which Elliott has committed to write about. Through this suspenseful, edge-of-the-seat prose that pulls the reader along, underneath lies the tender and raw exploration of self that truly makes this work worthy of literary attention.

In a world where he finds comfort hogtied and abused, Elliott is an honest and straight-forward narrator. He is as sharp as a paper cutter in his approach to contemporary culture, like in moments when he amalgamates Paris Hilton’s incarceration with the Iraq War, showing the irony of how the media’s attention glamorized the beauty of a caged celebrity while war continued. He takes us through the detailed account of the murder trial throughout the book, and as he does so overlaps it with his tumultuous relationship with his father. By the end of the novel he confesses that it’s the most important relationship he’s ever had, even though his memory of it is terrifying: It wasn’t the handcuffs or the beatings or his shaving my head. That was nothing. It was the terror.

A denouement never arrives, only in regard to the trail in which Hans, the accused, finally confesses to the murder and is sent to a minimum of fifteen years in prison. In the last chapter Elliott refers to having read Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance numerous times as a teenager, hooked by Persig’s sense of resolution, trying to make it feel true to him. But he felt it was too much, too sweeping. The last line of the book can’t possibly be true, he felt. Instead: Neat conclusions do nothing for me. I write to make sense, to communicate, to connect, which is the overall sense you feel when reading this work.

The Adderall Diaries is an excellent, deft and provocative meta-memoir that becomes a strange, beautiful thing by the time you reach its last page.

Reviewed by Mario A. Zambrano

Editor’s Note: Look for 12th Street Online’s interview with Stephan Elliott, coming soon.

‘I wanted to be judged on what I did with my life, but now I will be judged by how I described it.’ – Great House, Nicole Krauss

Sensibility veils the language in Nicole Krauss’ new novel Great House, not in the way that obscures the images of life on the other side of the narrative, but in a way that perceives a character’s past—reflecting on loss, the inheritance of one’s history —in a sort of nostalgic embrace that finds poetry in meditation: ‘When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it’/ ‘…my mind went to it like a tongue probing the tender spot of a missing tooth.’

All the narrators that compose this orchestrated collection share a poet’s sensitivity and point of view. Two of these characters are writers: Nadia, a middle-aged novelist in New York City who has a brief affair with a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky, who gives her a wooden, nineteen-drawer desk, once owned by Lorca, to look after when he goes back to Chili, and Lotte Berg, a former Kindasport chaperone (her story his narrated by her husband Arthur Bender) who writes elliptical stories in the privacy of her attic studio, on the same desk Nadia looks after years later⎯the desk being the object that threads together all four narratives. Other participants in the trajectory of ‘the desk’ are Leah and Yoav Weisz, children of an Israeli furniture dealer who specializes in retrieving heirlooms lost to the Nazi’s during the war. And finally, there is Aaron, a man writing to his estranged son Dov after his wife’s death, trying to piece together the puzzle of their relationship that has been obscured by misunderstanding. Dov, who left Israel and went to London to become a judge, is alluded to as the connecting line to Nadia, who narrates her story to a judge, ‘Your Honor’, whom she has fatally injured in a car accident in Israel.

Reviewed by Mario A. Zambrano

*Editor’s note – there’s so much more to this review – click more and keep reading.

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is that rare book that eludes categorization. Is it literary fiction, or sci-fi? A thriller or a quiet rumination on the human condition? Is it a dystopian tragedy, or a coming-of-age love story? Astoundingly, the answer to all of these questions is simply “yes.”

It’s difficult to review the novel without giving away some of its more surprising plot points—discovering the world of Never Let Me Go is both its joy and its sorrow. (The film adaptation is premiering this Oscar season, so read the book before the movie hype spoils it for you.) I’ll reveal only as much as the first ten pages do: The novel is narrated by Kathy H., who works as a “carer,” in England, in the 1990s. She and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, grew up and were students together at Hailsham. Kathy H. has had a chance to reconnect with her friends after many years apart, since they were both “donors” she “cared” for. Hailsham, which seems very much like a boarding school, was much better than any of the other places. We see the “guardians” there are interested in art and creativity—the students take classes in drawing, poetry, music appreciation …and little else. One “donor” shudders when Kathy asks where he went, however, “he wanted… not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it was his own childhood.” Indeed, Kathy’s observant yet naïve reminiscences allow it to become our memories as well (though we learn in Chapter One that she’s not exactly sure where Hailsham is.)

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Who would’ve thought that in this craze-filled city, on an early morning in 1974, most every New Yorker would’ve stopped what they were doing to turn their heads and see, 110 stories above them, a man walking a tightrope from one twin tower to the other? Philipe Petit spent forty minutes dancing on air with a smile on his face, as if he were telling a joke to the world, proving that life is equally absurd as it is beautiful.The only other moment in the last few years that has been able to capture that kind of attention, especially in New York City with it’s unstoppable ambition, was when those twin towers fell. The comparison of those two awe-occurring moments, though not explicitly, is at the outset of Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann. The novel begins, “Those who saw him hushed.” Immediately, there is a quiet suspense in the language, and on the morning of 9/11, New Yorkers, along with everyone around the world, with their eyes glued to the television, hushed also. We saw those buildings blaze, then crumble, then gone.

That sort of feeling, the drop of the stomach, is present when you read Let The Great World Spin. Not because it leaves you feeling vapid, but because there are hard punches in the narrative, emotional undoing

s, and devastating degrees of faith that support the pillars of love and loss that seem to sway and crumble at their own accord. By using Philipe Petit as a focal point, McCann somehow suspends the present in a way that makes one evaluate the country’s cultural climate. And the composition itself, of the 1974 phenomenon and the fall of the Twin Towers, is beautiful. What is so admirable too is how human transcendence, ach

ieved through the stories of this inter-mingled cast, echos the lives of people experiencing life in the present: sons at war, the economic downfall, a distrustful government. The overlap is a sort o

f hologram, and the result is a heartbreaking literary work.

The cast offers different points of view and the structure as a whole is built like a collection of short stories. It is bound together by two Irish brothers named Corrigan and Ciaran who find themselves in the middle of New York meeting prostitutes, artists, housewives and judges, all of whom become effected by the state of the nation during this one day when a French man dares to defy all reason and walk onto a line of impossibility. I absolutely loved this book.

Colum McCann received the National Book Award for Let The Great World Spin in 2009 and currently teaches at Hunter College.

Reviewed By Mario A. Zambrano

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver

I know it’s been said before, and I’m not here to raise the picket sign, ‘MEET YOUR MEAT!’ I love my beef, pork, lamb, and seafood. But after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I am left frustrated as hell for living in a country that dismisses the truth about the farming industry, sweeping it underneath a corrupt and glorious media of bad (yet absolutely incredible) advertising frenzy.

You’ve heard the stories: what they do with so-called chickens, their beaks cut off, keeping them in their own waste in a perimeter the size of a Harry Potter book cover, soaking them in brine to fatten them up. It’s cruelty. Jonathan Safran Foer gets into details and testimonies about the farming industry in America, and yes, it’s frightening. But reading his book was like lifting the rug in the living room. We know there’s dust under there and we procrastinate cleaning, but the day finally comes when we lift it up, and the sight disgusts us. You cough, you sneeze, you immediately get the broom out and clean. But unfortunately, this mess, this abused identity of what we ‘think’ we’re eating as opposed to what we are eating, is bigger than any broom or mop can clean up. The book is heart-wrenching, at times pushing the ethical lever a little too hard. But facts are facts. 99% of all meat that Americans consume comes from the farming industries talked about in this book. Difficult to swallow, but good medicine to digest.

I read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan after Eating Animals and it appeased some of my discomfort about slaughterhouses and corporate giants, letting me know that, Okay, this isn’t the end of the world. Things are bad up but we can get through this. Michael explains the historical trajectory of, what he calls, Nutritionism: the conscious lifestyle of staying healthy by taking vitamins, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, B, C, D, and E, getting our Omega-3s, and so on, which we must admit, is occasionally fashionable. He explains how scientists have studied and researched what all vegetables, grains, and fruits contain, and once they’ve come to an arguable conclusion, they find ways to put those nutrients and vitamins into our cereal, our juices, our water, steering us away from food itself and leading us towards consumer products that are, fundamentally, imitations of food. He ends the book with eight helpful tips to stay away from highly processed, scientifically engineered products. One tip: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Loved that one.

Reading Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a healing way to end my mad onslaught of food reality. An acclaimed writer, she shares her story of an entire year living on a farm in Virginia with her husband and two daughters. They grow pretty much everything: peaches, tomatoes, spinach, kale, melons, pumpkins, cherries, you name it. The youngest daughter raises her own flock of chicks while Kingsolver herself raises turkeys and also makes her own cheese; her husband bakes bread daily. The experiment: to see if she could feed her family for one year with food from her own garden. Does she succeed? Yes, she does; they all do, including the soil. It’s a wonderful book, inspiring, especially after learning about the agricultural slaughter this country is going through. It reminds you of what seasonal actually means, and puts into perspective how illogical it is to eat strawberries during winter.

For epicures, I’m concluding with honorary mention of two great cookbooks that promote healthy, natural eating and an eco-conscious lifestyle.

Lucid Food, by Louisa Shafia
Super Natural Cooking, by Heidi Swanson

Reviews by Mario Zambrano

Death Becomes Them by Alix Strauss
Reviewed by Liz Axelrod

Did you know that one person attempts suicide every thirty-four seconds and one death occurs for every twenty-five suicide attempts? In America eighty-six people succeed at killing themselves every day. Divorced men are 400 times more likely to kill themselves than women. Men favor guns; women favor pills and razors. These and more tidbits can be found in Alix Straus’s clever and compelling Death Becomes Them. Ms. Straus does not go deep into the reasons or despair involved in the celebrity suicides she unearths, but she gives us insight and illustrates the methods and morality involved in famous suicides such as Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath, Michael Hutchence, and Kurt Cobain.

These dark days of winter are the time of highest suicide rates so, dear reader, pick up the book instead. Get engrossed in the lives and the interesting and sometimes shameful details of the deaths illustrated here, such as Virginia Woolf’s first attempt at suicide – she tried to jump out a window but failed since it was on the first floor. Hemingway bought the gun for his own self-inflicted death from Abercrombie & Fitch (OMG!!). And after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, his wife, Courtney Love, found a piece of his skull on the floor and washed it, then later clipped off a swatch of his pubic hair as a memento. This well researched collection makes no statement in defense of or against suicide; it merely heightens our collective wonder and offers us a chance to live through some of our idols’ famous deaths.

Alix Strauss is the author of the award winning short story collection, The Joy of Funerals (St. Martin’s Press), and the editor of Have I Got A Guy For You, an anthology of mother-coordinated dating horror stories, (Adams Media.) Her latest book, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous and the Notorious, was released by Harper Collins and has been optioned for TV. Her second novel, Based Upon Availability, is due to be released in June 2010, also by Harper Collins. Alix lives in New York City. For more information please visit her web site: http://www.alixstrauss.com

On February 26, 2009, Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times of Philipp Meyer: “American Rust announces the arrival of a gifted new writer — a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.”  The reviews for this first-time novelist have been rave, with comparisons to Richard Russo, Salinger and Steinbeck. This pressure on a writer brings excitement to readers.american-rust

It was the first day of spring and I was excited to attend the event, Fateful Acts: A Fiction Panel, with authors Valerie Laken (Dream House), Katharine Davis (East Hope), and Philipp Meyer (American Rust).

Katharine Davis discussed the difficulties in briefly describing her novels. “It’s the complexity that makes [novels] interesting.” Valerie Laken described how the idea for her novel came from a personal experience. She and her husband had bought a rundown house in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Ann Arbor. Soon after, they learned that a murder had occurred years before in their fix-it-up home. A young man had shot his mother’s boyfriend in the house, then walked down the street to the ice cream shop, set the gun on the counter and asked if someone would please call the police. “Stories come from mistakes,” she said, getting a laugh from the crowd.

American Rust, Mr. Meyer described, starts with a killing in a town where the steel industry went under. “It’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice for their friends.” He said he’s hesitant to call it a crime novel because throughout the book the reader always knows more than the characters.

“It’s set in southwest Pennsylvania, which is very beautiful, and very remote, with a lot of wildlife. It’s a place so depressed that a job at Walmart is coveted.” He described the place as having a “certain sense of loss, both human and material.”
philipp-meyer
He’s held many unique jobs, including working in a trauma center, driving an ambulance, and doing years of construction work. When Mr. Meyer was 16 he dropped out of high school and got his G.E.D. “I didn’t understand at the time how it would change me. It’s a social handicap. The decision was more significant than I first expected.”

While working in construction he knew several people who had been to jail, and what he learned from them made its way into the novel. “Most had some awareness that people are interested in them as ex-prisoners. When they realize that you’re not afraid of them, they’re willing to tell you anything.”

Researching the novel he “did a lot of walking in the town, and so in the book there is a lot of walking. Sometimes I would go to a bar and buy someone a beer. You’d be surprised, everyone wants to talk about themselves.”

Mr. Meyer admitted that American Rust is the third novel he’s written, but only the first one published. He was writing for eight years before he had a single story published, but now he’s had stories in McSweeney’s and on Salon.com. “I’ve always been a big reader,” he said. “I don’t remember learning to read, I just remember always reading.”

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