David Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.
David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.
At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.
Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.
Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.
What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.
Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.
But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.
Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.
Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.
Memoirs are a popular form of bibliotherapy, not only for the authors who find therapy in sharing their thoughts and words, but also for the readers who are lucky enough to come across the right one at just the right time. This is the case for Reasons to Stay Alive, a kind of hybrid self-help/memoir by British novelist Matt Haig. Even if you’ve never experienced clinical depression, it’s certain that someone in your life is struggling with it right now.
Haig’s warm confessional tone and conversational prose makes this an easy book to pick up, despite its heavy subject matter. The author recalls a moment at age 24 when a thought led to a strange, tingling sensation in his head that was followed by an immediate, suffocating state of depression — anxiety and anguish so horrific that the only way he felt he could deal with it was to end his life. Haig lays out what it’s like to fight battle upon battle in your own mind, barely making it from one day to the next. He also shares the things that saved him, his own “reasons to stay alive,” which included his family and the dedicated girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Haig allows that while he has come a long way from this lowest point, he hasn’t completely gotten over depression, and never will. He shares his coping mechanisms, but is forthright in telling readers that depression is not the same for everyone, as minds are unique.
He informs readers that depression is one of the most deadly diseases on the planet, and that suicide accounts for over one in every hundred fatalities in the U.S. and the U.K. He speaks from personal experience when he says that, despite this statistic, “people still don’t think that depression really is that bad.” This accounts for various unhelpful directives he’s been given along the way, like “Chin up!” and “Mind over matter!”. These fall under a chapter entitled “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.”
Reasons to Stay Alive takes on its delicate subject matter with heart and humor, giving readers a sure-fire gambit for starting conversations about what it means to battle depression. Matt Haig’s honesty and candor are a welcome gift.
South Korea is claiming a seat at the world’s literary table with the February release of female novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Londoner Deborah Smith. The novel was originally published in 2007 in South Korea as three separate novellas. The Vegetarian unites these related stories, which all center around Yeong-hye, a young woman described by those close to her as plain and unremarkable. That is, until she becomes tormented by recurring dreams of unspeakable horrors — dreams she associates with eating meat.
Her husband, the narrator of the first part of the novel, is alarmed when he finds her frantically throwing away the animal contents of their refrigerator. He immediately reminds her of the monetary costs, to no avail. Yeong-hye not only avoids all animal products but eats little at all and begins to rapidly lose weight. Her health declines but the dreams continue. Others scoff at her newfound vegan diet, while her blustering, domineering father decides to force-feed her during a family dinner to disastrous, far-reaching results.
The second part of the novel takes us forward in time, and this time the narrator is the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister, who is a successful and driven businesswoman and mother. The brother-in-law is an artist who has yet to find an audience for his work. He is obsessed with Yeong-hye, determined to use her as the centerpiece of an artistic, sexually graphic film conceived with her in mind. This middle portion of The Vegetarian takes the quiet yet alarmingly dark tone of the beginning and adds a brooding, hypnotic eroticism. What is it about Yeong-hye that bewitches him and causes him to risk everything? Is he driven by art, or merely lust?
The final part of The Vegetarian is told by the sister, whose life has been upended by both Yeong-hye’s actions and her stubborn convictions. Yeong-hye’s mental health is rapidly declining, or so it seems. Is there something much bigger lurking beneath her usual, seemingly placid exterior? Her rejection of the human world takes her to a startling place.
The Vegetarian is calm, cool, unflinchingly dark and unsettling. Readers looking for an intellectual and philosophical challenge will enjoy working out the rich symbolism for themselves, making this an excellent choice for book clubs with a literary bent.