Neshama’s Choices for March 25th

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Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion  

Ruby lives with her father Lucas, along with his aged mother Clover in their Vermont farmhouse. Lucas tries to control Ruby's every move. When Ruby was three, her mother, Deena, disappeared, and Lucas whisked Ruby away from other family members in Philadelphia, which has, in effect, erased Ruby's memory of those times. Deena's sister Nessa is confident Lucas was responsible for Deena's demise, though no body was discovered; Clover provided his alibi, and he was cleared. Nessa hires a private eye to send her reports of how Ruby is faring. As inevitable information leaks, Ruby starts questioning everything, including her identity. It was chilling and riveting, especially witnessing Lucas's power and masked craziness.  


The Burnout by Sophie Kinsella  

Sasha, facing an impossible job in marketing for a malfunctioning firm, flips out at work. Her mother arranges a vacation for her at the seaside resort where the family spent many happy holidays. The hotel has become rather seedy, but the staff knocks themselves out trying to fulfill a 20-step self-help program her mother has set up for Sasha, including disgusting kale smoothies. Finn, another of their few guests, also exploded on the job and is taking time to regroup. Initially, their relationship is damaging, but romance inevitably blooms when they discover their similarities. Kinsella, whose clever rom-coms are among the best, makes great fun of woo-woo therapies, but there's wisdom and compassion beneath the sparkling surface. Feel good all around! 


Girls and Their Monsters by Audrey Clare Farley 

Subtitled The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America. True confessions: I'm always up for horror-fascination, so this book leaped out at me on the shelves. In 1930, Sophie was surprised—to say the least—when she gave birth to four babies. The press enthusiastically greeted the event, and the family was showered with gifts and support. The dad, Carl, had been floundering as a breadwinner but got a good job. But behind the jolly family scenes was a nightmare. Carl was pathologically controlling and a sexual abuser; Sophie was ambitious but cowed. When the girls started to exhibit increasingly aberrant behavior and were diagnosed as schizophrenic, they were taken to NIMH  as subjects of groundbreaking study; was the condition primarily nature or nurture? Only one of the girls had anything close to an everyday life in subsequent years. Farley explores the trajectory of mental health theories and trends in our country from Freud to cognitive behavior therapy, and the conclusion is chilling. You name it: a mess of contradictions, harmful treatments, and bureaucratic snarls! Fascinating. 


Yellowface by R. F. Kuang 

June and Athena were wanna-be writers and casual friends at Yale. Athena hit the big time some years later, but June's first novel just limped along. June is visiting Athena, who chokes on a pancake and drops dead. On Athena's desk sits her typed manuscript, which no one has seen. It's a potential blockbuster about Chinese laborers circa WWI and needs extensive editing. Junie absconds with it. She's a good writer, whips it into shape, and presents it as her work. Her rationalization: it's keeping the book alive, as it were. The scheme works for a while as June ascends, but it invariably combusts. Athena was Chinese American, and June was white, so issues of cultural appropriation spice up the ensuing scandal. The material is scathing, especially about the machinations embedded in the publishing industry. Almost all the characters come off as marred, greedy, and two-faced. I ate it up!