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Enlighten Me Me by Minh Le
This is a kids’ graphic novel that is, well, enlightening on many levels. Binh’s family takes him on a silent retreat. He’s been beset by bullies and has started to fight back. Not a happy camper initially, but the program wins him over with Jakarta tales, exercises, and imaginative forays into the heart of Buddhist practice. Charming, lively, and a refreshing take on profound material.
Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter
Oh suburbia! Appearances take center stage; everyone wants to appear “normal.” But these two next-door families come to grief which erupts into fatal violence. Adam and Theresa have one daughter. Jackie and Neal have four sons. The dynamics between the neighbors shift insidiously and then become toxic. Theresa and Jackie start as best friends. Both embark on a weight loss program. Jackie follows through to the extreme but Theresa eventually gives up. Her husband Adam, unhappy deep down, finds himself gripped in a torrid affair with Jackie. Adolescent hormones beset the boys. We get various perspectives from each character—so much anxiety, with very little joy or relaxation. Haunting, melancholy, and fascinating.
Omega Farm by Martha McPhee
There’s Martha during COVID, wrestling with impossible circumstances. She and her family move from NYC to New Jersey to help her demented mother who lives on the edge of a protected forest--It’s where Martha grew up with 10 siblings and step-siblings. Dan, her stepfather, molested her when she was 4 years old on the waterbed as her mother lay quietly on the other side. The land is beset by dying trees and rampaging bamboo. The property suffers from a leaking septic system. Money is scarce. All these problems are interconnected and fraught with paradox—a solution for one area ends up causing harm to another. Martha soldiers on, actually makes some progress and finally realizes she can’t fix everything. I was transfixed by someone else’s troubles on the page that I (cross my fingers) don’t have to face in real life. Candid, vivid.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Annis and her mother are slaves. The plantation’s squire raped Annis’s mother repeatedly and Annis is the result. Annis finds solace in the woods, gathering mushrooms and herbs, and communing with bees and ancestral spirits. First, her mother is sold, and then she too suffers the long, painful journey on foot in chains to New Orleans. There she is sold to a quiet, vicious mistress of a sorghum farm, undergoes great privation, and eventually escapes. She periodically refers to Dante, having listened to the squire’s daughters’ tutor leading the girls through Il Purgatorio, and indeed her journey reflects aspects of that hellish scenario. Painful, haunting, elegiac, atmospheric—an amazing book. (On CD the author reads it, and I got to hear many poetic rhythms embedded in the text.)