A spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All
By Heather King
Viking. 238p $24.95
A brutally honest, moving and heartfelt memoir, Redeemed is an account of ongoing recovery, conversion to Catholicism and a journey across terrifying borders into a new and previously unfamiliar world. Attorney-turned-writer and NPR commentator, Heather King, whose first book, Parched, detailed her two-decade-long alcoholic, drug-addicted, sex-driven and depressive life, turns a contemplative corner in this finely wrought, beautifully written sequel. “If there was one thing I’d always known about myself, it was that I was sick—soul-sick, weary.” The Catholic Church, which “didn’t sugarcoat or pretend everything was all right,” provided her the needed self-affirmation and courage to embrace life and others in meaningful new ways. Through the eyes of fresh faith, she reflects on various chapters of her life—a failed marriage; a bout of breast cancer; making it through law school; her writing aspirations; family strife; her elderly father’s painfully protracted death—and the road back, through steadfast prayer, to full and fruitful engagement with the world. Readers have much to take away from this insightful, gutsy and inspiring story. P.A.K.
In Praise of Melancholy
By Eric Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 176p $20
Peppered with anecdotes from the lives of famous artists, writers and musicians, all of whom suffered greatly but whose pain yielded some of the most poignant art, Eric G. Wilson’s Against Happiness analyzes how American life and industry strives to vanquish sadness, disregarding its importance on the spectrum of human emotion. “Why,” Wilson asks, “are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste?” His encomium to melancholia incisively challenges American culture’s acquisition-oriented conception of happiness, encouraging instead a more meaningful engagement with the world, noting that diversity of emotion enriches the human experience and preserves what he calls the “vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience.” Though occasionally hamstrung by overblown language (“They’ve probably never moved among autumn’s multihued lustrousness, through the serrated forms of orange and amber and crimson, with hearts irreparably ripped”), Wilson’s polemical thesis is a welcome antidote for readers seeking a richer if more complicated existence than one offered by self-help culture. R.N.
By Christina Meldrum
Knopf. 416p $16.99
This is a spellbinding literary debut by a former attorney. The novel’s protagonist (Aslaug, of Danish descent) is reared by a sickly mother in a solitary and sheltered town in the Maine woods. Plants and their unique properties take center stage throughout; philosophical questions abound; science and faith, reality and fantasy are in constant collision. After her mother’s sudden death, Aslaug relocates with a newfound family on a search for her true self and the mystery surrounding her mother’s life and her own. But she becomes embroiled in new and darker mysteries. Then a fire at the church/home where she was residing kills her aunt and female cousin (who were already meeting their Maker after an overdose of the lethal jimsonsweed). Aslaug is accused of murder. Thereafter, in alternating chapters, we follow her trial and her narrative of prior circumstances and events. Now a young mother (a cousin is the father), Aslaug is ultimately acquitted of the crime and moves away with her daughter to provide her an upbringing that “bridges the gap between heaven and earth.” The novel, however, slackens in pace toward its denouement, and the somewhat surprise ending is less than satisfying. Still, it will keep the reader thinking hard from first to last. P.A.K.
Ed. by Zadie Smith
Penguin. 304p $15
To generate material for this short story anthology, novelist Zadie Smith assembled 22 writers, asking each to “make someone up,” a character around whom their story centers. The objective was to illustrate that, in Smith’s words, “there are as many ways to create ‘character’ (or deny the possibility of character) as there are writers.” Daniel Clowes presents in graphic novel format a disillusioned film critic confronted by the specter of his past enthusiasm, while Nick Hornby introduces a single character through a series of altering dust jacket biographical blurbs and cartoon photographs. Others examine the powerful effect of name, as in Aleksandr Hemon’s “The Liar,” in which the protagonist’s identity is filtered through this title, swaying the reader to impose judgment before finding out who this “liar” really is. Even the concept of “character” itself evolves, as Toby Litt and George Saunders write about non-human subjects in, respectively, “The Monster” and “Puppy.” While the shift between such varied styles can be jarring without an underlying theme to unite them, an admission Smith makes in the introduction, it is far outweighed by the value of this literary experiment. R.N.