Posts Tagged New York

book review: Girl Through Glass

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Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson. Harper| January 2016| 304 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 9780062326270

RATING: *****/5*

Utilizing the ballet world in 1970s and 1980s New York, author Sari Wilson provides a fascinating and dark character study in her debut novel Girl Through Glass. Readers are introduced to 11-year-old Mira, a talented ballerina with immense potential. She’s forced to become savvy and self-sufficient after her mother and father divorce. Perhaps Mira develops an unusual [and rather disturbing] relationship with 47-year-old Maurice because she’s essentially without parental guidance and attention most of the time. Mira’s mom isn’t like other ballet moms – perhaps the equivalent of today’s helicopter parents—but she’s rather a free spirit occupied by her own interests rather than those of her daughter. Wilson writes: “Ballet mothers pack tiny, neatly wrapped sandwiches of sardines (good for the bones), little plastic bags of celery and carrot sticks, and yogurt with prunes.”

“But Mira’s mother makes Mira chickpea sandwiches on bread that crumbles when she touches it. Mira’s mother wears orange jumpsuits and culottes, and drops her off and leaves her to do errands, floating in at the end of class, smelling fresh and sour, lie the ocean and a cloudy day.”

Dance becomes Mira’s escape and addiction. This warps her self-esteem and sense of self. She begins investing as much time as she can to ballet and her body, even counting calories with anorexic obsession as she earns a spot at the prestigious School of American Ballet under the direction of legendary George Balanchine.  At this point she’s living with her father and his new wife while her mother searches for self-fulfillment in California. While Mira might be a street-smart New Yorker she’s also still a teenager when something unimaginable shatters her idyllic cocoon.

In present day, Kate, a professor of dance and dance historian at a midwestern college. concentrates on illuminating the cutthroat world of ballet—that Black Swan-type competitive focus on perfection, being the best at all costs and winnowing out the wheat from the chaff.  Kate re-invented herself after a tumultuous event and retreats into a new career although she remains involved with dance in another facet. She’s not abandoned her passion, she’s merely grown-up and into a fresher perspective on it. Kate’s liaison with a student shifts her trajectory. She also receives a mysterious letter from a man she knew in her childhood. She travels to New York to sleuth out what happened to this man who nearly destroyed her 30 years prior.

A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper.

 

 

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book review: A Reunion of Ghosts

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A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell. Harper Perennial| January 26, 2015| 416 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 9780062355898

RATING: ****/5*

“The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that’s where we’ve stayed.”

How could I not read a novel about three sisters living in their New York family brownstone—one divorced, one widowed, one never-married—who form a suicide pact. . Dark anything suits me. Dark humor. Absolutely. This isn’t three sisters giving up necessarily but realizing that with them may end the generations-long family curse. History. Using collective first-person, author Judith Claire Mitchell describes each sister and her struggles and upsets with flair, detail and gallows humor. Mitchell writes: “We’re also seven fewer Jews than a minyan make, a trio of fierce believers of all sorts of mysterious forces that we don’t understand, and a triumvirate of feminists who nevertheless describe in relation to relationships: we’re a partnerless, childless, even petless sorority consisting of one divorcee (Lady), one perpetually grieving widow (Vee), and one spinster—that would be Delph.”

It’s a superb exploration of familial guilt and discontentment. There are six suicides in the Alter family including their mother, two aunts, their grandfather and their great-grandmother. WWI and WWII figure prominently in their collective legacy. The novel flips from the present day lives of the three sisters to their ancestors. The greatest influence seems to be great-grandparents Iris and Lenz who live in Germany where both were scientists. Iris became the first woman to earn her PhD at university yet Lenz works and she frustratingly doesn’t as it was the early 20th century. Lenz works on weaponry. Details about their grandparents and parents add to the melancholies. “But we’d avoided growing up. We’d lived our lives like perpetual children, hiding in corners, never knowing what to say, never knowing what to do. If our plan to die was problematic, it was problematic in that it eliminated the possibility of our ever becoming serious, capable women.”

Are the sisters independent spirits or does their ancestral history factor into their current lives? Of course we all inherit genetic dispositions, illness and traits; it’s how we live as our authentic selves in the present that matters. The Alter sisters cannot stop being drawn to the past and slowly it’s revealed why. Mitchell develops their stories and personalities so that we feel we know them quite well. Two out of three graduated college and they all work various professions—Delph works as a bookstore clerk, Vee as an insurance agent and Lady as a dental assistant. While close the sisters keep some secrets from each other. A Reunion of Ghosts mostly speeds along as each sister proves quite the character on her own and as a trio they’re strong and quite amusing. Despite the ending, it’s a delightful read.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J Mitchell [Working Stiff]

Released last year, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell is one of the most riveting, darkly humorous and moving memoirs I’ve ever read. I rated it *****/5 stars and placed it on my 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2014 list. It details the two-year medical examiner residency in New York City for Dr. Judy Melinek.

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“I was happy for the first time in nearly a year– but scared too. I had learned only what kind of doctor I did not want to be, and was convinced no hospital would take me as a new resident in any specialty now as I was damaged goods. The happiest I’d been in medial school was during the pathology rotation. The science was fascinating, the cases engaging, and the doctors seemed to have stable lives.”

Dr. Melinek started her medical examiner training two months before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It’s engrossing, detailed and macabre. Dr. Melinek wrote it with her writer husband T.J. Mitchell. The two met while undergraduate students at Harvard. There are chapters detailing poisons, accidental deaths, suicides, murders, maggots and bugs [“Stinks and Bones”] and the somber process of identifying bodies [and body parts] after 9/11.

I’ve worked in healthcare and almost changed careers to become a nurse. I’ve worked in all types of settings with patients from babies to the elderly. The medical world and pathology intrigue me. After meeting Dr. Melinek through twitter, she and her husband T.J. answered a whole bunch of questions I sent their way. And disappointingly skipped my more pressing questions about poisons and suicide.

I sent a lot of questions and said it was okay to skip some. Disappointed that questions on poison, alcoholism, suicide were skipped. also this one: you are “less comfortable with houseflies, and leery of cats.” Please explain. Also this one: description of people jumping from the World Trade Center is the only account like that I’ve read. Well done. What was the greatest challenge of DM01? How did you handle it?

Guess I’ll just have to do more googling or hope that one day I can interview Atul Gawande, M.D.

Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell

Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell

Amy Steele: I was riveted by this book. There are lots of books about medical students. Particularly first-year residents. How do you think yours stands out?

Judy Melinek: When I was in medical school I read them all – House of God by Samuel Shem, all of Perri Klass’ books, Oliver Sachs—these books inspired me as a physician and an author. They made me realize that in writing about my experiences I could keep my humanity intact, and by reflecting on the joys and tragedies, I became a better, more empathic doctor.

Working Stiff fits the doctor-memoir genre, but it stands out in some ways because of the singular experience I had in New York City during a historically turbulent period: 9/11, the anthrax attacks, the crash of American Airlines #587 in Queens. Most forensic pathologists in the United States might deal with one major terrorist threat or disaster in their lifetimes. During my fellowship year, the New York City OCME faced several. Working Stiff is also unique in that it focuses on the training of a medical examiner, instead of on celebrity deaths or who-dunnit cold cases. Since T.J. and I opened the story at the very beginning of my forensic training, we could take the reader along as I learned death investigation from Dr. Hirsch and the staff at the New York OCME.

Amy Steele: Did TJ ever NOT want to hear one of your gory days on the job?

T.J. Mitchell: No, my dilemma was worse than that. I thought I did want to hear Judy’s stories, and usually I would find her day’s cases fascinating. But every once in a while she would come out with a nightmare humdinger. The problem is, Judy wouldn’t know which stories a civilian like me would find nightmarish. And once I’ve heard it—well, you can’t unring a bell. There’s a good reason why we titled the first chapter “This Can Only End Badly.”

The other source of frustration for me in listening to Judy talk about her day at work was that she seldom delved into the things I wanted to know about. Where did this happen? What became of the perpetrators? How did the cops feel about the whole thing? Her focus is the story the body tells about the cause and manner of death, period. Plus, as we quote her telling me in the book, she’s a busy lady. She has new cases every day, and doesn’t spend time lurking around the homicide division or the DA’s office gossiping about open cases.

Still and all—I wanted to hear them. I just can’t help myself. They’re compelling, the stories my wife tells over the dinner table. I had a ball writing Working Stiff.

Amy Steele: You’re in the minority with couples where the husband stays at home with the children. So yay to feminist advances for one. What challenges do you face? How do others react?

T.J. Mitchell: Things have changed since I first started as a stay-at-home dad fifteen years ago. I used to have to explain to people what that meant. Now there are plenty of SAHDs out there—and some very talented and funny bloggers and authors have written about the job’s challenges. I found those challenges to be minor, really—or, I guess it’s more accurate to say, the unique challenges were minor. All parents face the same obstacles, and the ones I faced as a man that a woman wouldn’t face were easily overcome. Usually they had to do with persuading well-meaning older women that I really did know what I was doing, alone with a baby or three. A lot of that unsolicited advice involved hats, and whether they should be on or off, and whether they were too warm or not warm enough for the weather.

For the past ten years I’ve also been extremely fortunate to be a stay-at-home dad in the city of San Francisco. I started to notice soon after moving here that nobody ever asked me that irritating question I had to field on playgrounds and in grocery stores in Los Angeles and New York most every day: “Is it mommy’s day off?” That’s because, in San Francisco, a man with a baby or three might not have a mommy involved in the family equation. The very question would entail a faux pas. So I, as a straight man in a parenting role that reverses the normative gender expectations, am a beneficiary of the gay civil rights movement.

My biggest worry never materialized. I feared, early on, that our kids would either spend all day pining after their absent mother, or fail to bond with her in the same intimate way that kids who spend all day with mommy would. Neither of these things happened.

Amy Steele: Does seeing all you’ve seen make you extra cautious? You mention: “Wear your seat belt when you drive. Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise. Watch your weight. If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If you aren’t don’t start. Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.”

Judy Melinek: It doesn’t make us extra cautious. It makes us realistic and appropriately cautious. We subscribe to raising independent “free-range” children. We don’t stress out about giving our children the freedom to bike or walk to school alone, or take public transit across town, because we know that they are safer walking and riding the bus than they are being driven in a car. We freely discuss the effects and dangers of drugs and alcohol, and we don’t shy away from talking about death or suicide. They are entering their teen years, and open discussion with your kids about these serious topics allows them the freedom and comfort to trust you with their own struggles, or when they encounter a friend or classmate who needs help.

T.J. Mitchell: Plus, when Judy tells our kids or one of their friends, “Don’t do that! I know someone who died that way,” they listen. She has gold-standard street cred when it comes to safety.

Amy Steele: I’ll admit to you I DO NOT wear a seat belt even though six years ago I flipped my car on black ice. Right over. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I crawled out the broken window.

Judy Melinek: That is a really dangerous and bad idea. It also has financial consequences for you and your family because if you were going to get injured or killed in an accident, your injuries might be determined to be your own fault because you were not using the safety equipment as required by law. Wearing a seatbelt is a habit, and, like any habit, if you just build it into your routine, clicking it in place as soon as you get into the vehicle, then you will stop even thinking about it. Once you get used to it, if you then forget to put it on, you will see that you start to feel uncomfortable—like you are going to fly out the window even at a brief stop.

[note from Amy Steele: Of course I USED to wear a seat-belt and drove with one for years. Then I stopped using one. So being a habit or not doesn’t matter. I actually feel anxiety with the seat-belt on, like I might get stuck. I can’t even remember when I stopped wearing one.]

Amy Steele: What are the leading causes of death you see?

Judy Melinek: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and often kills people suddenly, through heart attacks and strokes. I find that it is not uncommon for folks to ignore the signs of a heart attack (chest pain, shortness of breath, arm pain) or stroke (dizziness, numbness/tingling, partial paralysis) because the pain is not that severe and they don’t actually feel all that bad. By delaying medical attention they are much more likely to die. It’s really important that all men and women over the age of 40 familiarize themselves with the symptoms of heart attack and stroke and seek immediate medical care.

Every day at the Coroner’s Office we have one or two cases of overdoses, either from prescription drugs, street drugs, or alcohol. A really common way for addicts to die is when they get out of rehab and relapse, they take the same quantity of drugs that they took in the past, but because they have lost their tolerance, they end up dead. In my opinion, it should be mandatory for rehab centers to educate them about that on discharge and provide them with reversal agents.

Amy Steele: How did you decide what stories to tell in the memoir? When writing did you have a gross-out level in mind. Some readers are clearly more squeamish than others.

T.J. Mitchell: At first I was concerned about the gross-out level, but very quickly I found that I just had to tell Judy’s story the way she lived it. If we tried to tone down the more macabre elements of that life we wouldn’t be telling the truth, and telling the truth is the first requirement of narrative nonfiction.

We decided which stories to tell based on the requirements of narrative nonfiction, too—the narrative part. We wanted to use stories that advanced the story and illustrated the science, while holding the reader’s attention. Our collaborative process served us well when it came to the more complex case studies. We worked as a team to make sure the science was solid and the storytelling was straightforward and engaging.

Amy Steele: How do you determine time of death?

Judy Melinek: Time of death is very tricky and depends more on the scene and circumstances than on hard science. We ask when the person was last seen alive and we figure out when they were found dead, and in all cases they died sometime between then. It’s not rocket science. Sure, things like body temperature, rigidity (stiffening of the body after death), lividity (pooling of blood after death) and decomposition can be used in some cases to narrow down a time interval, but none of these methods is scientifically foolproof, and all are highly dependent on the ambient temperature. It always cracks me up whenever the pathologist on CSI or Law & Order definitively says, “She died between 9 and 9:30 PM.” A half hour window? It’s more likely for me to say to the real-world cops I work with, “Based on the body temperature she likely died sometime between 9 PM and midnight, but it could be more or less, and don’t quote me on that or write it down because I don’t want to have to defend that in court.” Too wishy-washy for a TV drama, but that’s the way it is in reality.

Amy Steele: What is the strangest cause of death you found? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found when you’ve opened someone up on the table?

Judy Melinek: I always get asked those questions and I don’t know what to say. “Strange” and “weird” are relative, and while in Working Stiff I describe the piercings and tattoos that initially took me aback when I found them hidden under decedent’s clothing where the sun don’t shine, these things don’t faze me any more.

My favorite tattoo was on the buttocks of a chronic alcoholic. It said “Your Name.” I figured that he had it put there so that he could cadge drinks in bars this way:

Dead Guy: “Hi. What’s your name?”
Stranger: “Sean.”
Dead Guy: “What a coincidence! I have your name tattooed on my ass!”
Stranger (Sean): “No you don’t.”
Dead Guy: “Bet you ten bucks.”
Sean takes the bet. Dead Guy drops his drawers. He collects his money.

Amy Steele: You said: “I always will wait until I’ve removed the brain before I dissect the neck, because by then all the blood from the skull and face will have drained out leaving a clear view of the long, flat strap muscles on the front of the throat.” How did you develop your process—by doing or are you taught a specific protocol?

Judy Melinek: Training. At the New York City OCME I was given a checklist and body diagram and taught how to fill it out as I examined the body both externally and internally. The check list keeps me on task and reminds me to check all surfaces, and by following the same protocol on every single case I don’t miss anything. The checklist and diagram have changed a bit over the years, with different headings and check boxes based on the individual agency I work for, but it has a front and back outline drawing of a human body with room for me to draw in any injuries, medical devices or findings. Protocols are important in every specialty of medical practice, forensic pathology included.

Amy Steele: Besides examining dead bodies on the scene, what must MEs look for at a site?

Judy Melinek: It’s different in every case. When I get to a scene, the first thing I do—before I go in, even—is talk to the family members or witnesses, or the police officer at the scene, to hear the story or stories of what happened. How was the body found? Who found him? What is his medical history? If it’s a homicide, then generally I have to wait for the crime scene unit to photograph the scene before I can even go in.

But for all death scenes, when I do go in, I don’t go straight to the body. I look around the place: Is it clean or cluttered? Are there blood stains anywhere? Does anything look disturbed or out of place, like there was a struggle? What is the person’s lifestyle? And I open closets, medicine cabinets, look on side tables and in the trash bin. This is how I train new death scene investigators. I tell them, “You don’t want the family to find the empty pill containers and suicide note after you have already left.”

Amy Steele: You’re now a forensic pathologist. How did your ME training prepare you for your current career?

Judy Melinek: The training I went through at the New York City OCME [Office of Chief Medical Examiner] really prepared me for the basic day-to-day challenges of doing autopsies, communicating with cops and family members, and testifying in court. What it didn’t prepare me for was the working world of political pressure, internal squabbles, and petty bureaucracy. That I learned on the job when I moved on, because as fellows at the OCME we were well insulated from all that nonsense.

Today I work as a forensic pathologist at the Alameda County Sheriff Coroner’s Bureau, and I also testify as an expert witness in legal cases as an independent consultant. I find that, like in many professions, keeping in touch with colleagues in my field via e mail and professional conferences has been then best way to stay up to date and to learn how to handle the ethical and political challenges of a career in a high-profile public role.

Amy Steele: Congratulations on selling the rights to the memoir and developing a TV series. How will First Cut be similar and different from the book and similar to your own experiences?

T.J. Mitchell: The TV deal you refer to is for Working Stiff.

First Cut is something else, a work in progress right now. It’s our next book together, this time a novel. First Cut is smart forensic detective fiction, with a protagonist based loosely on Judy, and with cases taken from her own experiences—taken from, but not reproducing exactly. The story traverses the familiar territory of the noir mystery novel, but with a uniquely heightened degree of verisimilitude that derives from Judy’s real work in death investigation both inside and outside the autopsy suite. We’re collaborating again as we did in Working Stiff, and are having a lot of fun writing First Cut.

Amy Steele: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

purchase at Amazon: Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

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The Revolution of Every Day: book review

cari-luna-cover

The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna. Publisher: Tin House Books (October 2013). Literary Fiction. Paperback. 392 pages. ISBN 9781935639640.

“She knows people have their own lives, their own things to do. It’s a squat, not a commune. But still, some Wednesdays, it seems they’re all down there together, everyone from Thirteen House and everyone from Cat House, squatter from Maus Haus and Utopia, kids from the park and a steady stream of the homeless. In summer they all spill out onto the sidewalk like a party. Those nights are the best. Those nights she could believe lentils and rice are the best damn thing she ever ate.”

This novel takes place in New York on the Lower East Side in the mid-90s when there’s a movement to take abandoned buildings back from the city. I’m not sure about the logistics and politics but some committed people get together to make the buildings living spaces, to make them communities. They make them safe and livable with electricity, running water and communal spaces. They rotate watch shifts or go dumpster diving and distribute food. Some become leaders. Some cling to relationships. Some find comfort in this strange lifestyle as if it’s the only lifestyle they’ve ever know. Others find that after so many years this is all they’ve got and they’re not going to quickly abandon it.

It’s about low-income housing, low-income living, survival, activism and community. This is about the American Dream becoming increasingly harder to reach. This is about living in a major city being nearly impossible anymore without drastic measures. Everything’s changed. There’s no longer rent control. People get pushed farther and farther away from where they truly want to live.

Intense. Enlightening. Spirited. Author Cari Luna focuses on several people in particular from varied backgrounds and how they came to live at a house they dub Thirteen House. She skillfully places the reader inside the house. Vivid depictions capture New York’s vital essence. A captivating array of characters will draw you in from page one.

Five squatters realize their own internal turmoil and disagreements might weaken foundations faster than city planners, officials and attorneys can evict them. Amelia entered the house as a teen runaway and drug user. While Gerrit believes they’re a couple, she’s having sex with his best friend Steve and is pregnant with Steve’s child. Amelia seems to be growing up and becoming independent and liking it. She’s finally making her own decisions. When she’d arrived at the house, drug-addled she relied on her sexuality and youth. Now she wants more. Gerrit isn’t all that great. He’s rather a pushover for everyone.

Although Steve’s been married for over a decade he constantly cheats on Anne and they don’t have an open relationship. Anne, Steve’s wife, questions both her commitment to Steve and the squatter lifestyle. Steve and Gerrit work well together when focused on the building’s needs and in leading people to fight gentrification taking over their neighborhood. They both have varied experiences as community organizers and protestors. Cat, a former downtown legend of the club/music scene and leader in the squatter movement, might be giving in to a former drug habit. Cat surprised me the most. I didn’t expect her to use again but became so tired with everyone expecting so much from her when she wanted quiet. Seemed the stagnation finally got to Cat.

“Forty-one years old and worried about being late to a job selling onions. This isn’t’ what she’d expected from her life. Though, truth be told, her expectations ran out at thirty and she’s been winging it since then.”

Communal living interests me. I like my privacy and alone time but also prefer not to live completely alone. I’ve often wished I could live in a boarding house but I don’t believe those exist anymore. I doubt I’d survive on a commune because I don’t favor manual labor unless it’s taking care of horses. I don’t like yard work or gardening so I’d be pretty useless on a commune. Maybe I could do the cooking as I’m a pretty good vegan cook. However I could never be a squatter. If I’m living somewhere on principle to be in the city that I want to be in I want to be there and experiencing everything I can.

RATING: *****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Tin House Books.

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Elsewhere: book review

elsewhere

Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo. Publisher: Knopf (December 2012). Memoir. Hardcover. 243 pages. ISBN: 978-0-307-95953-9.

Richard Russo doesn’t write particularly empathetic female characters. Writers write what they know and any psychiatrist might extrapolate the relationship with his mother from his novels. In Elsewhere, Russo describes a mother so dependent on her son that she follows him constantly, across the country from New York to Arizona and back to Maine. She suffers various afflictions and anxieties though never seeks any medicinal or therapeutic help. Russo’s a fantastic writer but there’s an arrogance to this. He writes, “From the time I was a boy I understood that my mother’s health, her well-being, was in my hands.” Just how much does he resent his mother?

“My mother’s ‘condition.’ This was something the whole family seemed aware of, but no one talked about it. One word, nerves, was evidently deemed sufficient to describe, categorize, stigmatize, and dismiss it.”

Russo left the factory town of Gloverstown, New York in 1967. He writes of it often—Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, The Whore’s Child—but he’s never been back. When Russo enters the University of Arizona, his mother tells him she’s left her well-paying job and will move to Arizona as well. She needs a fresh start too, after all. This continues. He finds apartment after apartment for his mother wherever he’s living. While exhibiting a snobby outward appearance she’s becoming increasingly shaky and unsure of herself. She claims independence and feigns disdain when Russo offers assistance.

She can’t understand why her son, an accomplished scholar, a PhD, continues to write about their mired hometown. She’s never satisfied. Russo says one kind thing about his mother and that’s her accumulation of books and her establishment of some sort of library—“If a stranger came into her apartment, a quick scan of her books would give him a pretty good idea of who she was, whereas all he could say about ours was, Boy, these people sure have a lot of books.” When his daughter gets diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD], Russo ponders his mother through a diagnostic lens. Mental illness can skip a generation. Elsewhere is quite stark yet enthralling, honest. This memoir now becomes part of my library.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Rape New York: book review

Rape New York , by Jana Leo. Publisher: The Feminist Press at CUNY (February 8, 2011). Politics/crime. Paperback, 192 pages.

The sanctity of the home and the body, and the fear of the ultimate invasion of privacy, is perverted by society distancing itself from the victim.

Author Jana Leo describes the harrowing experience of being raped at gunpoint in her own Harlem apartment and its aftermath. The front door never locked. Cheap rent and diversity attracted the Princeton graduate student to the neighborhood. She makes a compelling argument about the concept of home and its connection to everything. If you don’t have one, you feel isolated and failing. If you have one you become a prisoner within its walls as you do all you can to keep it. One in 10 women is raped during her lifetime. She proves she’s not a case number, not a cold case, not merely a statistic. Leo shines a spotlight on this country’s flawed criminal justice system and on people taking shortcuts to make money. Many years after the crime, police identify her rapist through DNA. Through her sharp and evocative feminist perspective, she analyzes the crime, poverty, class structure, gender, race, her corrupt landlord. Leo intersperses startling data with her recollection of this trauma that has changed her forever. Rape New York is at times frightening, maddening, discouraging and ultimately honest, important and useful.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Melissa Senate [The Secret of Joy]

See my earlier review of The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate. Recently Melissa took the time to answer these questions for me.

AMY STEELE [AS]: Why did you decide to have Rebecca live in Manhattan and Joy live in Maine?

MELISSA SENATE [MS]: I moved to Maine from New York City (where I’d lived since 1989) in 2004 and I can clearly see every day that Maine is a beautiful, easy place to live. But five years later, it still doesn’t feel like home. I think I sent my main character to Maine to find what I know is here (the beauty, the quaint, the lack of traffic and honking, the quirky), but haven’t really appreciated on any kind of level (except where it concerns my young son; Maine is made for kids). I think I made Maine and Wiscasset sound dreamy because I know it is and wanted to help myself see it. It did work a little. But for me, a lighthouse will never compare to Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace with its Angel of Waters statue.

AS: How do the differences between and urban and then a more serene, rural setting advance or influence the story?

MS: It’s interesting to me that New York seems like the bad guy in the story. It’s where Rebecca can’t find herself, can’t breathe, gets her worst news, feels trapped by her own . . . rut. And Maine is where everything opens for her.

[writer’s note: I’m an urbanite but I would, if I could afford to, have a country house in The Berkshires, Maine or Vermont]

AS: Many TV shows and films, place the urban woman in the middle-of-nowhere town where hilarity ensues. You definitely took a different approach with Rebecca. Why? Have you had some experience in this with your own move from NY to Maine?

MS: I’m a sucker for those fish out of water movies, even ones starring Renee Zellweger. But being in a very different environment wasn’t at all a driving force in the novel. Granted, the setting created its own world, but at its heart, this story could have been told with basing Joy in the East Village of Manhattan. Would have sounded different, sure, but the “middle of nowhere” aspect for The Secret of Joy was really to send Rebecca off to a place that in itself would be comforting. A comforting, sweet backdrop so that when she felt most alone, her surroundings would be like a hug. One of my favorite blurbs for The Secret of Joy said it was “a warm hug of a book.” I love that.

AS: How realistic do you think it is that Rebecca fits in so quickly in the town?

MS: When I first moved to Maine, to a small town with one (unnecessary) traffic light, I felt like I fit in right away. One neighbor knocked on the door the first day with vegetables from her garden. Another invited me to a book club meeting. Fitting in can often depend on how you feel about where you are. The people Rebecca meets (and the people I met) are not very different than she is, really. More down jackets and fewer pointy high heels, maybe.

AS: How did you come up with the idea of the letters unsent, kept in the box?

MS: Much of The Secret of Joy is based on what I wish I knew about my own biological father, who I haven’t seen or heard from since I was eight. I have always known that, as the result of his own affair, I have a half-sibling who was born when I was seven, a half-sibling I’d never seen or heard from until I was in my thirties when I received an email that said: I think you might be my half sister…. The story isn’t at all autobiographical; just that nugget of half-siblings connecting as adults is based from real life, but there are certain things I wish were true. One is that my biological father wrote a stash of letters explaining himself—and in a way that would bring closure. That’s one of the most wonderful things about writing fiction that you can change whatever you want to fix in your own life.

[writer’s note: I “re-connected” with my father as an adult (I too had not seen him since I was about 10) and he published a magazine in L.A. and I’m a writer. How perfect. Well, he blew it again and again. We agreed I’d write for him. He’d pay me a small amount. The check bounced. Same dead beat dad. And after all that time, what hurt the most was that his daughter he hadn’t seen in 20 years was there and he could have re-established a relationship and he chose not too.]

AS: Why sisters? What is it about the bond between sisters that usually makes for a compelling story?

MS: What I love about the dynamic between sisters is the potential. You should be best friends, first best friends from the tiniest of tot hood, but oftentimes sisters are not best friends, not friends at all because of what parents do their children, whether meaning to or not, or because the sisters are just very different people. What’s possible, what should be, is what I find so beautiful and love delving into.

AS: What do you think The Secret of Joy can tell people about family dynamics?

MS: What was reinforced for me during the writing of this book is that sometimes (and key word is sometimes) there’s no real bad guy when it comes to family dysfunction, that all involved feel differently about things depending on their point of view and personalities. I’m a happy person because of this way of thinking.

AS: Why did you choose the travel group as a career for Joy and the paralegal at a mediation firm for Rebecca?

MS: I wanted to give Rebecca a career that made endings a good thing, which is a bad thing for her. And I wanted to give Joy a career that made beginnings, and the open road, a necessity. Rebecca’s job is so bad for her that it helps her be in a place where she wants to flee. And Joy is right where she needs to be, with a foot firmly on the brake that slowly lifts up.

[writer’s note: Very clever. I never thought of that in reading it but now I see it and adore that idea–delightful!]

AS: What is your favorite aspect of the novel?

MS: What I love most is the spirit I think is there. There are a lot of stuck people in the novel, and at the end, they’re all on the way to finding the secret of joy for themselves. No one’s found it, of course, but they’re seeking it instead of doing absolutely nothing or remaining status quo or stuck in a rut. The seeking is everything.

AS: What do you find to be the greatest challenge about writing?

MS: Finding my main character’s heart and soul and putting voice to that. It takes me a good one hundred pages until I feel like I know her inside and out and can really tell her story. The fun part of that is then I can go back through those first 100 pages and color what’s black and white.

AS: How did you create the character of Michael—he’s like my ex-boyfriend and usually the type of guy I’m attracted to- successful but controlling?

MS: Yup, know the type! I’m not attracted to controlling, but I’ve had controlling boyfriends and I know how easy it is to lose yourself to their voice, their opinion, especially when you don’t know what you want or where you should be. For Rebecca, leaving controlling Michael, leaving her job, leaving her home would take something very big, something that was all hers and meant nothing to anyone else but her. That something presented itself in the form of a half-sister, a total stranger. And she reaches out for it. Michael calls her constantly in Maine, comes after her, never really listening to her from the beginning. He seems supportive, full of hugs and hot chocolate and wine and “their future,” but what he actually says is rat poison.

AS: What kind of research went into The Secret of Joy? as it is unusual for an adult to find her sister after the death of her parent.

MS: Eight years ago, I received an email that said: I think you might be my half-sister. Can you imagine getting that email out of the blue? The I think itself floored me. I took the nugget of that and created an entirely fictional premise and plot and characters, but the emotional impact, the emotions, period, all very real. That was my research!

AS: Why was Rebecca so desperate for a family that she didn’t even know in Maine. What attracted her so much to Maine?

MS: I don’t think she was desperate for a family; I think she was given this wisp of a huge thing (a secret half-sister) by her dying father and that it felt like a lifeline to her. A connection to herself, when she felt she had none—no family, no sense of herself or where she belonged. What she was desperate for was what was possible.

AS: Why the title The Secret of Joy?

MS: My editor came up with that perfect title, which now seems like such a no-brainer. (I’d originally called it The Love Bus, but the art department had big trouble designing the cover with such an odd title.) The main character’s secret half sister is named Joy, but what the title means for me is that the secret of joy is individual for every character in the book and they’re all finally looking for it. As I said, I think the seeking is everything.

AS: Thank you Melissa. I enjoyed The Secret of Joy and really enjoyed See Jane Date too which I read when it first came out.

MS: Thank you! I loved all your in-depth, insightful, and interesting questions!

[writer’s note: You are one of my new favorite author-friends! If I can be so bold to say that.]

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