This installment: a clutch of novels—an intersex child; identical twins with ESP; disabled teenagers; a corpulent brother on the skids; neglectful parents; and a memoir about life in an iron lung. Just the kind of eccentricities I love on the page…
Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin
Teenaged Max seems to do everything right but only his family knows he’s intersex. His upper middle class parents have covered it up but when his father runs for Parliament, there’s bound to be scrutiny. Max is deeply confused about his identity and no one knows quite how to proceed. He looks like a very handsome boy but stopped taking testosterone. The unthinkable happens—a rape by a cousin—and the consequences are grave indeed. Coming to terms with the truth is both painful and necessary. Emotionally gripping and fascinating—familial and societal tensions ramped up to the max, as it were.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Vi and Daisy are identical twins who share “sensing”—a kind of esp. Vi’s turned it into a profession of sorts and has predicted a devastating earthquake on a particular date, which gains her big media attention. Meanwhile Daisy, who’s changed her name to Kate and has tried to distance herself from her sister’s persona, will experience her own serious upheaval domestically. She’s a housewife with two children and a great husband but a bad night with a serious lapse puts it all in jeopardy. Kate’s the narrator and it’s clear Vi, messed up as she may be, has a richer, more spontaneous life. Midwest setting, great characterizations.
Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
ILLC, the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, sounds like a benevolent social institution on paper. But as we learn from a number of its disabled teenage residents, it’s a lot like juvie and survival is the essential life skill needed. Their voices are intense, fresh and pungent with street slang. A few dedicated, frustrated staff members weigh in as well. The “bad kings,” nightmarish caretakers, put these kids at serious risk. A moving, eye-opening novel that reads like a documentary.
How I Became a Human Being by Mark O’Brien with Gillian Kendall
After I saw The Sessions, I was curious to hear directly from the subject. So here’s his account of four-plus decades in an iron lung with very limited mobility but an incredibly questing mind and spirit. When his parents can’t manage his care anymore he’s moved to an unpleasant rehab facility but eventually managed to live relatively independently (all things considered) in Berkeley and even graduate from the university. Struggles to get good attendants and functional equipment seem monumental but each improvement feels triumphant. Inspiring and a great antidote to any self-pity about one’s own circumstances.
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Edison’s an eccentric NYC jazz pianist. He and his sister Pandora have been out of touch but now he’s come to “visit.” At the airport she doesn’t recognize this corpulent heap. He’s in a bad way, a ravenous self centered mess. Pandora’s successful company, Baby Monotonous, makes witty custom dolls that speak, which supports her husband’s hand crafted furniture business. Edison’s residence stresses everyone to the max but Pandora is determined to save her brother. This involves moving to an apartment with him and instituting a crash course in dieting and exercise. Her marriage and her relationship to her teenage stepchildren are on the line. Will Edison make it? The ending’s tricky and I often doubted the verisimilitude of the plot, but there’s wicked wit here which kept me engaged.
The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls
Neglectful parents are Walls’ theme, and here Charlotte keeps leaving her girls alone to pursue her creative interests. She usually returns but when the authorities start to get suspicious, Liz and Bean flee to from California to the Deep South on the Greyhound and surprise their reclusive, eccentric Uncle Tinsley whom they’ve only met once long ago. He begrudgingly takes them in but it’s a pretty marginal existence. Other relatives offer some comfort and they find work with unpleasant Mr. Maddox surreptitiously because they need spending money. One more source of tension: school integration—it’s 1970. Things turn very sour and fraught. Will they flee with Charlotte once more? (That’s been her dysfunctional modus operandi.) It’s quite a story, almost Dickensian. And who would think emus would play such a big part.
Back next Monday