Archive for June, 2019

Stay Awake / Dan Chaon

In recent years I have read two captivating novels by Dan Chaon: You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply.  Both featured three characters presenting the same situation from their individual perspectives.  Each showed Chaon as a master of character development, featuring people who captivated the reader’s interest and rang true to life.

Stay Awake is a collection of short stories.  More limited in scope, each concentrates on a single individual, damaged by an event in their lives, a haunting moment that has pushed them to the periphery of society’s accepted norms.  While quite different in tone, all share a defining similarity, be it a failed marriage, a broken home in childhood, or an inability to achieve a hope for normalcy when compared to friends and family.

In these stories, there is a sense of an impending catastrophe.  As a result, the reader is kept on the edge of their seat, fearing the worst is about to occur.  To Chaon’s credit, he is able to provide satisfying endings that defy expectations.  The majority succeed in overcoming shared familiar elements to provide a separating jolt of originality.

Despite this, by book’s end, the stories tend to blend together.  Chaon cannot be blamed for this detriment.  No matter how well written, most collections of short stories suffer this same fate.  If isolated on their own, the stories in Stay Awake would linger in a reader’s memory.  When amassed in a collection like this, they all jostle for dominance, and as a result blur into a morass where only several stand out in remembrance.  Instead, I look forward to Chaon’s next novel, where he will again expand individual characters’ stories into a satisfying whole.


How many of me have died?
There was the child ruled by raw emotion,
his mind a student taking notes.
Then came the adolescent.
Inside him, the turmoil of small wars,
a constant skirmish between
bravado and insecurity, with no victor.
The young man that followed,
more often than not, pledged allegiance
to a heart’s dictates.
He rarely paid heed to a mind’s counsel.
His replacement, a clever imposter.
There on center stage,
acting the part, a boy stepped into
an adult’s shoes, fearing
he would finally be exposed as a fraud.
After so many funerals,
the one now left prepares for his own.
With a truce at last
declared between heart and mind,
dominance no longer matters.
He is content, but vigilant,
an aged figure in the mirror, battling
a body’s daily rebellion.
What remains is a composite of all.
Through reminiscence,
he reconciles his separate selves
into life’s masterpiece.


When Mother forgot
a name there on the tip of her tongue,
left the faucet running,
wondered if she had locked the door,
she’d exclaim,
“Oh, I’m such a birdbrain.”
But the accusation was delivered with
laughter in her eyes.
As a child, not realizing the deprecating
nature of her remark,
I thought the phrase to be high praise.
After all, birds flew
thousands of miles each spring
to return to the same back yard tree.
Little did I know then
that on her deathbed, with dementia’s
gloss darkening
those eyes, I would close my own
and picture Mother as
part of a courageous migration,
no longer needing to be concerned if
she’d left the iron on.

The Men Who Lost America : British Leadership, the American Revolution, And The Fate Of An Empire / Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

While I have read many books about the War of Independence, they were mainly told from the American perspective.  What attracted me to The Men Who Lost America is its focus on the British political and military decision makers during the conflict.  In the book, O’Shaughnessy concentrates on the men most often labeled as being responsible for Britain’s loss of America at war’s end.

Each of the men is given a biographical chapter, with the focus around their involvement in the conflict.  This leads to some repetitiveness, since each of the men’s activities overlap with the others’ interpretation of events.  Rather than being a detriment, this allows the author to show the differing perspectives of events already described.  The profiles in the book include the monarch, politicians, and the military leadership involved.

While each of the men profiled has been blamed for Britain’s loss of America, this detailed history provides ample evidence that there are far too many factors involved to lay blame on a single individual.  From the first, it was obvious to many in Britain that the war was not a winnable proposition.  The only hope for the British government was that there were enough loyalists in the colonies who would rise up to assist the occupying army in subduing the rebellion.  This failed to occur, and once France, Spain and Holland became involved in the conflict, Britain’s military resources were spread far too thin to deliver a knock out blow in America.  In the final analyses, the British chose to focus on preserving Canada and their Caribbean possessions.

For anyone interested in the history of the War of Independence, The Men Who Lost America offers a fresh perspective on the conflict.  For most Americans, the involvement of the individuals highlighted here will be unfamiliar.  O’Shaughnessy does a marvelous job of showing the wide range of issues they faced during the conflict.  Clearly written and meticulously researched, this book is sure to be a lasting addition to the canon of essential literature on the topic of the American Revolution.

There Are No Children Here : The Story Of Two Boys Growing Up In The Other America / Alex Kotlowitz

As the title indicates, this book tells the true story of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers.  The “other America” chronicled in this case is Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1950s.  At the time, it was a place where the area’s Blacks were eager to move into with their families.  Over time, however, crime and neglect began to reduce the complex into a cockroach infested building with broken appliances and filth everywhere.  By the 1980s, the time period the book describes, the residents of Henry Horner Homes feared for their lives with drugs and gang activity overrunning the area.

Lafeyette and Pharoah’s mother, LaJoe, grew up in the complex, and it is where she raised her eight children (the last three were triplets).  All shared the same father, Paul Rivers.  A parent with drug and alcohol problems, he is often absent from the family’s crowded apartment.  During the time period described, Lafeyette is a young teenager, struggling to keep out of trouble and avoid being caught up in the rival gang wars taking place in the neighborhood.  Pharoah, several years younger than his brother, is a studious daydreamer, hoping he will have the chance to attend college and escape the “projects”.

Alex Kotlowitz spent three years researching this book, conducting frequent interviews with both boys, their mother, and friends of the family.  While his story of urban poverty is at times heartbreaking and tragic, he also portrays the love that this family has for each other and the moments of brightness and hope that keep them from succumbing to despair.  

There Are No Children Here was a groundbreaking feat of reporting, and its “You Are There” perspective captures the challenges that LaJoe faced in trying to raise her children while on welfare.  Some thirty years after the book’s publication, one cannot help but wonder about what happened to Lafeyette and Pharoah once they reached adulthood.  In this meticulous portrait of the two boys and their family, Kotlowitz provides a harrowing description of the efforts it takes to survive when living in such a blighted urban landscape.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh / Carl Zimmer

In this sweeping overview of how heredity has shaped human society, Carl Zimmer examines the birth of genetics as a science, tracing its progression over the centuries to present times.  In doing so, he presents not only the scientific details our DNA, but also highlights the key figures involved in piecing together an understanding of how we inherit genes from our ancient ancestors, and how those genes are passed from parent to child.

The book reads like a first class mystery story as Zimmer follows the numerous missteps taken along the way, and how erroneous theories affected cultural beliefs and actions.  He does not scrimp on aspects of the science involved, but provides it in a manner that is readily understood by the layperson (i.e., me).  He is a gifted storyteller, and his lucid descriptions kept me engaged throughout.

Published in 2015, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, describes in its final chapter the advent of genome editing through the use of CRISPR.  It highlights the many ways this could shape our future as well as all the dangers that lurk in the shadows through using the new technologies now available to manipulate heredity.  Despite the book’s daunting length, Zimmer has taken a complicated topic and turned it into a page turner that is difficult to put down.

From beginning to end, this is a fascinating tour de force on the subject.  In an amalgamation that combines historical and scientific detail, Zimmer enriches his tale with fascinating character studies of the scientists who advanced our knowledge.  In doing so, he has created a scientific tome that reads like a novel.  It reveals not only how our genes have shaped the nature of who we are, but also the role environment plays in the process.  She Has Her Mother’s Laugh is a work that should be read by anyone curious about the topic.  One does not need a scientific background to fully appreciate Zimmer’s book.


Life Cycle

At some point we become “white dwarfs,”
the years inside of us
crushed by gravity, compressed and dense,
as we jettison vanity’s
remnants to perpetuate life’s intense core.

The passage to a “black dwarf” state is
fueled by memory alone;
transitioning into a ghostly dark silhouette,
dim among luminescence,
science strains to see what we remember.

What awaits beyond that is a “black hole,”
Biblical in conception,
where our trapped light, swallowed whole,
expectantly persists,
a patient seed consigned to bloom again.