This installment: inside NYC’s infamous hospital (nf); an immigrant family comes to grief in a small desert town (f); what happens when you find out who your “real” dad is (nf); a driven woman photographer (f); short stories, many about surfing (f); and short stories about a tough Houston neighborhood (f).
Twelve Patients; Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital by Eric Manheimer, M.D.
I grew up in in NYC where this this hospital had a heavy reputation, especially its psych ward. Here the former medical director takes us behind the scenes. Tales of woe, tales of triumph (rarer) but all riveting. In describing each case history, he manages to focus on specific societal ills: the medical establishment, the government, the penal system, racism, mental illness, treatment of immigrants—the whole dysfunctional gamut. This is an earnest, hard-won book, many years in the making.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
A small town in the Mojave Desert where a car mows down Driss at night. He came from Morocco, opened a donut shop, and has a contentious, racist neighbor. His younger daughter Nora, a composer, returns home from Oakland to help her grief-stricken mother. Nora’s convinced it was more than an accident. She connects with Jeremy, a cop she knew back in high school when they were both students, and it’s an odd match. Nora’s sister, the “good girl,” is surreptitiously using pharmaceuticals to muffle her unhappiness. Secrets are revealed. It took me awhile to get into each character’s story, delivered in short chapters, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Affecting.
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
Many kids are convinced the family surrounding them is not the “real” one. In Shapiro’s case, she was right! Subtitled A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, a casual DNA test shook the ground under her. Her beloved father, a devout Jew. Her biological father was a sperm donor as a medical student, blond, and Christian. She and her husband track down leads and there in a YouTube clip she sees mannerisms that bring their bond home. Luckily this father was a decent, generous person, willing to connect with her despite the uncomfortable revelation to his own family, and that helped her sort out deep questions of identity. Well-told.
Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
The creative process is fascinating, especially if it’s a woman who’s driven by her need to make art that conflicts with traditional female roles. In this case, Lillian is a photographer. She gets pregnant and brings up Samantha as well as she can, given her obsession. The novel’s construction is challenging, in the form of a posthumous catalog of Lillian’s work, annotated by Sam. Each photo tells a story. Lillian dies young and never quite gets the acclaim she deserved in her lifetime. To create Lillian’s character, Goldberg has drawn on aspects of photographers I’ve read about, like Arbus, Maier, and Mann. Not a thoroughly satisfying read, but intriguing enough to stick with it.
Perfect Conditions by Vanessa Blakeslee
Short stories, a number about the world of professional surfing. Tough in tone, almost “masculine.” Survivalists. Brutal, dangerous life aboard a commercial fishing boat. A mysterious healer in Guatemala. A woman desperately stocking up for the apocalypse with tragic consequences. Disturbing and vivid.
Lot by Bryan Washington
These short stories center around a tough neighborhood in Houston, an uneasy melting pot. Many feature the same characters: a family-run restaurant with Ma, African-American, holding the fort and Pa, Latino, catting around. One son, who narrates many of the tales, is gay. Drug dealing. Baseball. Rough language fits the material. Atmospheric.
Back next week.