Night Rooms: Essays by Gina Nutt

My dread has no origin. It extends back as far as I remember.

Moments in life can induce emotions not unlike those horror movies provoke. Unsure what’s creeping around the corner, insidious illnesses, dangerous strangers, being swallowed by the dark… stage fright. Maybe so many people gravitate towards horror films because it is an escape from all the real things in life that give us the “heebie jeebies, the creeps”. In this collection of essays, Gina Nutt examines moments in her own life and scenes from horror movies, translating distress, deflecting misfortune, mulling over displays at the Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans and the many instruments of horror from days of old. Nature isn’t off the hook, it can devastate too- as she ponders the many disaster rides at theme parks.

There are the terrors particular to women, our biological clock, sometimes faulty. How we feel about our bodies, desire, our very sexuality which can be both pleasure and pain. Sickness that hits us from nowhere, feeling like a specimen before the doctor, wondering if something lethal is inside of you, the sickness of stress. Obsessive focus on worst case scenario scenes, and having filled up on horror movies supplies endless fodder for that. The mad feeling of an unquiet mind, the torment of knowing death waits for us all and how do we live happy lives while that hangs over our heads? Okay, so going to the Morbid Anatomy Museum is a little, well… morbid- but one has to wonder, if yesterdays science and norms are todays horrors, doesn’t it translate that the same will one day be said of our norms? We humans are strange creatures, and Gina Nutt indulges all the things that people are meant to avoid. It truly is the distance watching horror films provide that makes it ok to enjoy them, right?

Life has it’s grim moments, if you live long enough you will house illness, be party to grief, loss, have your own dark night of the soul, but there is always poetry and hope. There is balance, there will be sunny days, but remember too much light can be brutal too! As Gina Nutt writes, “Horror movies are contained catastrophes.” That could be it. We can live out our biggest fears and walk away alive.

This was an interesting, unique collection- I watched a lot of horror movies as a teenager. It was fun to be spooked, scared stupid! She takes intimate moments from her own life and intertwines the memories with pieces of horror films she has feasted on. It’s not all dark humor, there are tender and heartbreaking incidents, one involving suicide. Yes, a solid read for anyone who loves personal essays or horror.

Publication Date” March 23, 2021

Available now

TwoDollar Radio

The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State by Tyler Gillespie

People could say almost anything about the state, and it would be true.

Florida native that I am, there is no denying Florida is a world unto itself and yes, deeply misunderstood. Growing up beneath a sky full of shuttle launches, my father worked at Kennedy Space Center, I saw the first manned shuttle launch of Columbia in 1981 (I’m that old) as well as witnessed the Challenger blowing up with my classmates at school, life can be pretty interesting here and not without its sorrows. Living minutes from the ocean, and less than an hour from all the theme parks it was a magical time to be a kid. I also lived where I had snakes and bobcats in our backyard, so yeah- we are sometimes untamed too! Add the nearby base formerly known as Patrick Air Force now Space Force , where I met and married my future husband, Florida can be pretty serious. It took moving away to England for me to realize just how swampy the air can feel to those who visit. It also tickled me to no end how other people think of us, not just overseas but stateside. After living in England, Japan and North Carolina we returned to my hometown again, which has flourished beyond my imaginings. For a state so many claim to hate and have turned into a long running joke, it certainly isn’t stopping them from making it their home. Naturally, I had to read this book and found myself cringing, nodding my head, and often laughing. It takes another Florida native to really get it! Our experiences can mirror each other and yet be vastly different.

Tyler’s take on our much maligned state is refreshing and just proves the point that Florida is so much more than a punchline. The Atlantic is in my blood, and so is the sunshine. For Florida natives, you take it with you wherever you go, he knows that. Tyler explores the Florida man stories, often not quite what headlines have you believe, surprising facts about the state’s history, the tragic shooting at Pulse Night Club, communities including Miami’s “Little Cuba”, the residents, our laws, the voting system, the wild animals, reptiles and snake farming (including animal smuggling), drag queens, halfway houses, confederate reenactments, conversion therapy, honing in on eclectic “controversial Floridians”- so much more. It is about his time growing up gay and as he says, it’s not meant to ‘defend’ the state but maybe “present a version of Florida other than the caricature so often seen in popular media.” He has done a beautiful job! I was surprised to learn a few things I didn’t even know.

The rest of the country could cut us off all they want, I think we’d still thrive- sure maybe we’re feral but that makes us tough. It’s my belief it’s the hot summers that make us a little wild too. Should our state come with a disclaimer? Nah, we’re not all that bad, people forget what a wild bag of mixed nuts we are. I say that with a grin and a wink. This is a fun read but serious at times too. Well worth your time if you want to know more beyond the ridiculous headlines and unfair assumptions. There really are so many versions of what people experience living here, whether they are natives or transplants. No two stories are alike, and Tyler Gillespie’s words go behind the memes and erase the stereotypes. One thing is a fact, it is always interesting! Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 13, 2021

University Press of Florida

Everything Is Fine: A Memoir by Vince Granata

I imagine Tim’s psychosis, his nocturnal madness, and remember all the hours my mother spent at the piano trying to soothe the raging nightscape that howled in his head.

Vince Granata’s mother was murdered at the hands of his mentally ill brother, this is a brutal fact, but what makes this memoir important for society and keeps it from sensationalizing his family’s tragedy, is the exploration of what brought them to this point. We read the headlines, horrified, make assumptions but most people never go much further than judgement. Claudia Granata was a victim of her son’s psychosis but that doesn’t tell the story of everything that became before and after. That doesn’t inform anyone that Tim, too, was a victim of his own psychosis. Such headlines seem to exist in a manner that erases the dedicated, loving mother who did everything she could to keep her son’s world safe. Yes, Claudia was a highly educated medical doctor, as is her surviving husband Attilio, but even with their means and education their son’s illness couldn’t be managed, and they did try. The day before her death, she spoke to a therapist who warned her to make her son feel safe and ‘be wary’. Their fear was that he would harm himself, as he had threatened to before when the noise in his head became too much to bear. Sadly, she couldn’t have imagined what was coming.

Vince writes about the signs they all neglected to see far earlier than his illness began presenting, and his shame at missed opportunities as a big brother and son. Just as any of us would rake over our own fears of guilt in the aftermath of tragedy, he attempts to pinpoint the pivotal moment when one step in the right direction could have changed the outcome. By sharing his brother Tim’s mental decline, it may well help other families going through similar struggles. The reality is, there is so much we do not understand about mental illness in all its forms, especially schizophrenia, which in Tim’s case went unchecked. What can be done when a patient refuses their meds, because they think they don’t need them, because that’s how the disease presents itself? You think you’re fine, better, cured. What is a person to do who lives each day with a distorted reality? We don’t think about how our perception, yes all of us, creates our world- it’s easier to draw a line from the ‘healthy’ and the ‘ill’ instead of thinking we could ever have any commonalities. All of us base our reality on what our inner voice tells us, what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, we just happen to have the clear functioning, for the most part, of measuring ourselves against others, which keeps us grounded. How differently would we behave, think, feel if we had voices howling at us that someone has abused us, or were demons? How would we react during hallucinations others don’t see but are real for us? Even if it presents in less threatening ways, the fact remains the such illnesses push the patient further away from others, even distrusting our own devoted, worried mothers. Much of the time others push those coping with mental illness away to the fringes of our world, out of fear or ignorance of the condition. Is it really a shock that isolation feels like the only safe haven? It is often in self isolation that the disease grows stronger, overtaking what grasp on reality still remains. Loved ones best efforts sometimes aren’t enough, it’s truly being between a rock and a hard place if a patient is an adult. You cannot force treatment, and the illness can cause paranoia, distrust of even those who truly have nothing but your best interest at heart. Vince’s memoir is not intended as medical research but aside from the patient themselves, who better than those who have been witness to the slow creep of the disease to give testimony?

Granata knows that mental illness still has a stigma, and that we can’t move forward shaming people who carry the burden of the disease. Why are we kinder to people who have visible illnesses? Why don’t we, as a society, understand that mental illness, though complicated and not fully understood, is not any more shameful than any other disease? Even people with the best resources, medical education are lost at sea in trying to help their loved one learn how to treat and manage their mental illness. With memories and stories of Tim we see him not as the monster his horrific act (while suffering psychosis, we must keep in mind) makes him appear to be but as a beloved son and brother who had athletic gifts and promise of his own. I read this as a mother would, there was never a point Claudia gave up. How do you arrive at justice in such a case, when everyone loses? This is not the future she wanted for her son, nor can anyone imagine she would want to see him demonized for the horrors of that ill fated day. What about the healing, how does Vince’s family and yes, Tim included, move forward from here? How does Vince remember the beautiful woman his mother was without the savagery of her final moments poisoning the past? It’s a question he had to ask himself. He cannot honor his mother’s memory without shedding light on who his brother Tim really is when not in the grips of psychosis because he was her heart as much as Vince and his siblings. I don’t have enough words to describe how much this memoir touched me. I know I drone on in this review, but that’s how moving I found it to be, and very relatable. My own son was diagnosed with autism at a young age and anything that’s ‘different’ changes how people treat you, I saw this first hand, even when people try to fit in. It is a daily struggle for him more than any of us. I also understand the scope of a mother’s love, the reach of her heart, her fears and hopes and that she is willing to sacrifice anything to help her children. I think of how my own grandmother had to navigate her son’s schizophrenia, he never stayed on his meds for long past release from hospitalizations. It affected the entire makeup of the family, it could just as easily be a story that could have happened to them. Today there have been more advances, but not leaps. Family has front row seats to the constant fight, it is a helpless, heartbreaking feeling. Vince’s brother was a collegiate heavyweight wrestler, but his fiercest opponent has been his own mind. Vince’s story does not minimize the enormity of Tim’s act, but it’s not a simple case. This memoir is about family bonds, grief, the realities and struggles of mental health, and tragedy but most of all it about about love and forgiveness. I don’t believe the description of Claudia’s end will be what remains with me, but the vision of a loving mother playing the piano to calm the storm in her son’s mind. Yes read it!

Publication Date: April 27, 2021

Atria Books

Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi

There are many ideas I haven’t yet written down. They will lacerate me, it is true! But I have my heart and flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life.

Alex Christofi has written an intimate portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, one that beautifully connects his personal life with his great work. He wrote his way through, if not out, of personal tragedies. The pen seemed to be at ready to spill each fresh misery that cropped up during his many trials and tribulations, be they born from the seed of love or politics. A man who used even his mock execution during his brutal imprisonment to write a semi-autobiographical novel about the inmates in a Siberian prison camp. Dostoevsky’s writing always seemed to flow from what he was confronted by in life. There was an untold amount of tragedy, some at fate’s mysterious hands but often, like all of us, by his own making. Gambling, poor choices of the heart, deaths, illness- so much plagued our dear author from his earliest loss, that of his mother. Without question, his health influenced his work and was in and of itself a curious thing, epilepsy. So little understood about it during his lifetime, how can it not have affected Fyodor’s thoughts, creativity? Make him question his very mortality?

The phases of his life from childhood to his dying day, the people dear to him as much as those he resented, the pleasures and disturbances of his very existence, all of it found a way into his fiction and, as Christofi points out within these pages, made for autobiographical work. Dostoevsky didn’t need to leave behind memoirs, for he was present in everything he wrote. He pinned human behavior as no other, from the foolish to the profound, and that is why even today the wisdom of his words reaches many readers’ souls. He suffered, lord he suffered like no other. He was contrary, he pursued his desperate wants only to later reflect with keen perception how we never seem to be satisfied with attainment, that the rush is in the chase. He understood humiliation, the misery of insult, the imbalance of class, the madness of politics, the contrary nature of man, and he penetrated the very heart of every emotion that can be born of any situation and was able to express it through characters. Alex Christofi writes beautifully of the author I felt I was observing for an entire lifetime, one who is both grand and small.

This book is far less static than other biographical accounts of Dostoevsky, it is factual but with fictional breezes of Fyodor’s writing blowing through. Fyodor isn’t the only person brought to life, all too often when a historical figure is written about, the people surrounding them fall flat. Not here! The women that he loved, who caused him desire so strong he trembled, pulse with life, even when fading from their own story as consumptive Maria. Polina is the fire, the wildcard and would be assassin, a woman he can’t help but draw close and cling to, despite the burn. Later it is the young Anna, his stenographer who he falls in love with and uses a story to tell her of his love for her. Anna becomes his dearly devoted second wife and mother to his children, sticking by him despite his debts, gambling addictions, the crippling loss of their two children and severe illness. Anna is a beacon to his troubled soul, and their love story as great as anything he has written. She is the one who carries on his legacy, what does a man do to deserve such a faithful, intelligent partner?

I wasn’t expecting to be as deeply engaged as I was. You don’t need to be familiar with Dostoevsky to enjoy the read but certainly a book any fan would enjoy. Every person in his orbit is humanized. Beautifully written, the connections, the facts, the emotions, the timeline- it’s quite the journey. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 23, 2021

Bloomsbury USA

Born Under The Gaslight: A Memoir of My Descent Into Borderline Personality Disorder by Cindy Collins

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in my twenties. I never understood the extent to which it ran my life or the degree of dysfunction that it entailed. Only in my forties did I start to work on getting help managing it.

Cindy Collins opens up about her struggle of living with Borderline Personality Disorder, trying to understand and manage it. It is a harrowing experience, particularly throughout her childhood when she had no support and was deemed ‘the crazy one’ within her family. Add the gaslighting (a form of emotional abuse that causes a person to question their every thought, experience, memories and doubt their own sanity) that Cindy was subject to makes for a heartbreaking reality. It’s no mystery that children need structure, basic care, love, nurturing, and guidance but a child who has any challenge (be it physical or mental) requires that much more from their parents. There is, too, the bigger question of what caused her BPD, with all signs pointing to her traumatic childhood and abuse. Cindy Collins had the misfortune of being in a home where the adults were more concerned with selfish endeavors, leaving she and her brother (7 years older) to fend for themselves while they were away on trips. Sometimes they left their lonely children with other family members, who had no business having access to little girls. With no protection, traumatic incidents took place, violations that have left their mark on her body, soul and mind.

Cindy’s relationship with her mother was a toxin pumped daily into her psyche, a woman who invalidated her feelings and smothered her self-confidence leaving no wonder to the reason why she began to revolt. When BPD began to color her thinking, her home life was a sinking ship, leading her to self destruct. Cindy could abandon the wreckage, but being without love and hungry for it, she discovered fast that the damage her parents did had already set in. We can be stripped of every possession and survive, it is when we are stripped of our truths, our very stories that we crumble. To be invalidated by those meant to love and protect you often leads a person to seek out those human needs in anyone willing to give us so much as a crumb. Creating a healthy relationship when you’ve grown up with dysfunction as your ‘norm’ would be nothing short of a miracle and for Cindy her attempts are filled with landmines. Cindy’s journey is about the disharmony of the heart and mind. With a mother whose slogan was “What will the neighbors think”, it’s a hard truth that the only chance Cindy has is to figure out how to rescue herself. Her mother would rather bury her daughter’s trauma, sexual abuse, and mental illness (that she certainly exacerbated if not caused outright) than help her heal. It is nothing less than criminal.

Seeking help is vital, but there is never a guarantee fix, nor a doctor that even understands a particular diagnosis. How is a person meant to corral the extremes of their mental health when the treating physician isn’t fully qualified or worse, when the patient is made to feel like an anomaly rather than a human being? As Cindy tells us, she spends most of her time hitting a wall. The fact is there is no one size fits all to treating trauma, no magical pill no magical thinking that makes everything ‘all better’. We are bombarded by disinformation about mental illness, either made to fear it, minimize it, or dismiss it altogether. Factor in victims of abuse and society politely turns a blind eye. This memoir is for the neighbors that wonder what living in suppression feels like and exposes the truth of what happens behind closed doors. This is what it costs to ‘fit in’, hiding the violations to body and soul, as not to disturb the peace.

Cindy finds light at the end of her tunnel in adulthood with a promising new therapy but if you ever wondered why so many people struggling with mental illness give up on treatment, she provides insight. It takes validation to help her navigate her past and find hope for the future. This is Cindy’s account of what it is like to live with BPD, particularly undiagnosed and in a destructive family. Raw and unflinchingly honest.

Published April 2020

Indomitable Publishing

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad

For under the joy, a storm was gaining speed, a roiling sense of foreboding, some wet, starless savagery unfolding beneath my skin.

Suleika Jaouad had just graduated from college, was living in New York City having scored a summer internship, and dreamed of a career as a foreign correspondent. The internship isn’t supporting her, and her exhaustion has returned, telling her a change in scenery could be the cure. A position for a paralegal at an American law firm in Paris catches her eye one hot summer day and soon she is off to the start of a new career in the beauty of France, escape from drudgery but not before she meets a man named Will.

With her fresh start, romance kicks up when she begins to correspond with Will through text messages, emails and long letters. Soon, he arrives in Paris to be with Suleika and just as love is blossoming, a fog descends, her health spirals out of control. An itch, extreme exhaustion that gets worse and worse, all harbingers of something sinister, easy enough to ignore until “burn out syndrome” isn’t enough to explain away why her red blood cells are dropping. Before she can wake up from this nightmare, she is rushed back home to New York and diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an extremely aggressive form of cancer. There is a line in this riveting, raw memoir that many women who have suffered illness will relate to, “I wasn’t a hypochondriac, after all, making up symptoms.” Someone could write a book with that title alone and fill it with true horror stories about women and illnesses ignored. With the horror of the diagnosis comes strange relief, to finally have a solid explanation for the symptoms, but this is just the beginning of a long, painful journey. Cancer is indiscriminate, even educated young women with promising futures, careers waiting for them get reeled in by it’s mean hook.

Between Two Kingdoms is an apt title, particularly to those with one foot in the land of the living and the other in the land of the dead (dying). With her revelations on the road of cancer, all the people she meets, the pull and push between her love for Will, her family’s worries, the self-transformations, the grasp for survival and the rewriting of the life she imagined for herself the readers get close to wisdom and suffering. You can never truly know how it feels, not even as a caretaker, until it is your body that has turned against you. To be sick is to live in a world alongside the healthy who sees, at times, to have nothing to do with you. To feel blessed by those willing to stick by your side and resent that you have to feel thankful is beautifully expressed in her fledging, romantic relationship and complicated feelings for Will. Unlike Hollywood movies where the sick glow like saints from their hospital bed, reality is nothing like that. Diagnosis is grave and terrifying for everyone involved but it is the patient that can never put the mantle of their disease down. The failing body will make itself known, and juggling the emotional reaction of others (well intentioned family and friends) is often yet another cross to bear. It is a flood of advice, naturally from people who don’t have medical degrees, advice you didn’t solicit raining down on you like bullets. It’s time no longer being your own, privacy, and humility thrown to the wind. You begin to feel more of a thing, a body pinned under a microscope. It is a suspension of one’s life, with no guarantee it will continue. It is never being out of the woods, not even if you are cured. Illness has a way of cancelling out all the other pressing issues that felt so vital before.

Suleika will watch others, like her, fight and lose their own battles and come close to the edge of death herself. Hope is a demon of it’s own. With her creative mind, Suleika starts a blog that reaches young adults like her, an anchor in the storm of cancer. A blog that lands her an opportunity during her darkest days. In her own words, she expresses the pain of needing people, the pressure of playing the part of patient (how one should suffer, usually with grace), displaced anger, the battle against the clock, mortality, and the horrors of the hospital. Body, mind and life a disaster- this is the ruins of cancer.

What happens when light shines again, when a patient is told they are better but they still feel trapped in the land of the dying? How do you learn to dance with fear without allowing it to lead you? We are all struggling with something, Suleika knows this better than most. This is a gorgeous, biting, brave, honest memoir about a young woman’s life interrupted by cancer and everything that happens in the aftermath. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: February 9, 2021

Random House

Act Like You’re Having a Good Time: Essays by Michele Weldon

I have often been called “difficult”- a frequent damnation of women who speak their minds. “Spirited”, they say now if they are not trying too hard to insult you.

“Act like you’re having a good time” is the sage advice Michele Weldon’s father gave and modeled to Michele and her siblings, advice that has carried Weldon through sixty plus years and counting. You have to show up in life so you may as well enjoy as much of it as you can, because who wants to be around miserable people? Happiness is always in our own hands- at least in the way we react to what fate serves us. Michele writes about her identity and appreciates the privilege she has had, despite any obstacles she has faced, including a difficult marriage, the trials of single motherhood while trying to have a career and the harsh realities of having breast cancer. Mother, wife, friend, daughter, mentor, journalist, author, and emerita faculty at at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Weldon has a lot to reflect on and does so in these tenderly honest essays.

Ambitions and dreams that change as she faces her more mature years, the amount of time left to achieve them is the reality we will all face, if we are lucky. There is a point when a person takes stock of where they have been as well as who; how they have affected people in their life, where they have failed, what has been learned and what there is left to do. It’s not always pretty looking back and it can be scary looking forward. Waiting outside the door of the self is the larger world and what it means to be a woman in it. How beauty is measured, ageism, antiquated ideas, gender, race, class, ethnicity, attempts at fitting into the ever changing landscape, navigating technology that seems to move at the speed of light… it can feel like an uphill battle. Yes, even women of a certain age can feel the pain of comparison to an ideal beauty that is always shining on youth. More so when actresses in their age bracket don’t seem age. It is here, in her third act of life, that she shares what she has learned and what is still missing. All of this in the midst of the disruption COVID-19 has forced on the world.

It is not easy to reshape oneself, but in order to survive, we must. More so as we shed decades of experience, have to alter our thinking and embrace new ways of being. The world right now can leave you disoriented, that is true for the majority of us and it requires clarity to plant yourself where you need to be. Easier said than done. Michele certainly shares her failings with painful honesty, where finding a sunny disposition seemed of her reach. We are human, after-all.

Weldon understands what parents go through and the necessity of constant motion, as she raised sons, how it doesn’t leave much time for ‘pausing’, reflection. It is hard to keep ‘having a good time’ when you are running on fumes, with three boys and a career she certainly faced exhausting days. In these essays, she talks about the many phases of her life, the vulnerability and how it feels now to be arriving in a place where she is often left feeling “unseen”, inconsequential. How aging has changed from her grandmothers day to present time and where she lands in that disparity. Do you attempt being fashionable or let yourself go? Is there anything in between?

The hunger for affirmation has been present throughout her life, and isn’t it what most people have for a career goal, to achieve recognition or at least feel they’ve left their mark, made an impact somewhere before they retire? How much must one accomplish to feel right with themselves?

Michele Weldon examines her past to understand her present and plan for the future, because despite their being more behind her than ahead of her there is still so much living to do. I don’t think you have to be sixty to understand what it means to measure your worth, reflect on your choices, and try to navigate this madly spinning world. None of us age backwards, we’re all moving forward in phases, and wisdom of experience is never a thing to scoff at. At some point we all face similar questions. Yes, read it and I have to give a nod to the adorable book cover!

Publication Date: September 15, 2020

Northwestern University Press

American Birds: A Literary Companion by Andrew Rubenfeld and Terry Tempest Williams, editors Library of America

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This is a writer’s dilemma- you’re drawn to experience but need to be stationary to make sense of it. But writing, like bird-watching, has universal human application. -Jonathan Rosen, From The Life Of The Skies (2008)

I admit it, I’m a total bird nerd. I feed them, photograph them, spoil them. The hummingbirds take a special delight in harassing me for nectar which is changed often here in the hot Florida sun. Hawks, Screech Owls, Sandhill Cranes… we have so many birds in this part of Florida it’s a constant show in the sky and on the ground. It’s not unusual to look overhead as a hawk swoops by with a snake dangling in it’s talons, sometimes a fish… Two months ago on a morning walk I saw an eagle carrying it’s kill (a rabbit) which was quite a sight to see. We never spotted eagles in our area until recent years, nor were the bobcats so free with their company, less shy but where can they really hide anymore? With all the clearing of the wilderness it’s not so surprising that they hang around.

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Naturally, this collection grabbed my attention being a gathering of writings from poetry to stories, musings and observations too as artists sketch our feathered friends. American Birds includes Lewis and Clark’s explorations and species discoveries as well as the important research of John James Audubon, a book about birds would feel incomplete without mention of him. For others, birds serve as divine messengers, portents… anyone whose little heart soars like a bird’s in their presence will enjoy this beautiful literary companion.  Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Sterling A. Brown, Cornelius Eady, Mary Oliver, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich are just a handful of talent included in this book that share an enthusiasm for the creatures and have written about them. I have a special love for crows and ravens, and enjoyed Barry Lopez’s, The Raven (1976). This line, “The crow is very accommodating and he admires compulsiveness.” Couldn’t be more true!

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Jonathan Rosen’s From The Life Of The Skies (2008) touched me, people really do consider bird watchers eccentric. I love all of nature, nothing is more relaxing then photographing animals in their natural habitat, and after-all what is man if not nature? Maybe we have cut ourselves off from it, being so ‘civilized’ in our cities and homes, but you can’t take nature out of man. I love the line Rosen shares from Walt Whitman, “we are both in and out of the game/ and watching and wondering at it.” I certainly feel that way. Yes, if you are a bird lover, this is a treasure- read it!

Published March 2020

Library of America

Here are a few of my photographs that I can’t help but share with felllow bird nerds like me! Taken in both Florida and Tennessee

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treepecking

nesting

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Hollywood Park: A Memoir by Mikel Jollett

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She would tell me we were safe here, all of us here in Synanon, living together, a great big family, a tribe of humans who love each other and love the world and love the little babies most of all.

In his painfully moving memoir Hollywood Park, the reader is plunged into Mikel Jollett’s eccentric childhood growing up in a California drug rehab- turned commune that morphed into the infamously dangerous cult called the Church of Synanon. For as long as his young mind can recall, his parents have solely been visitors in his life- a child closed off from society, nurtured by young women who oversee the youngest children of Synanon rather than by his own mom and dad. It comes as a brutal shock, followed by long standing confusion when his mother comes for him and his older brother Tony, who he doesn’t really know that well either as children are separated by age. Like escaped prisoners, they flee the compound into the alien world that their mother and father had willingly turned their backs on. He is meant to trust this woman, his real mother, but nothing makes sense! Why does he have to leave his friends behind and the sweet woman who has been the only maternal source he has come to love? Worse, why are they leaving his dad behind and who is the old man waiting in the running car?

So opens an emotional memoir where the mysteries of the adult world and the innocence of childhood collide. How much harder is it to understand life, other people, when you don’t quite comprehend where you’ve been? What you are? When you look upon the rest of the world with wild eyes, like an alien landed on earth for the first time? When your mother uses words you don’t understand about your Dad, like “drug addict”? Mikel’s brother is a mass of energy so different from himself, so angry all the time. Suddenly, he feels like he has no one, despite being in such close proximity to his actual blood family, he misses the children at Synanon. His mother is sad all the time, and goes places inside of herself that neither he, nor his brother Tony can reach. His grandparents keep saying that unfamiliar word “cult” like it’s a bad thing whose meaning he can’t comprehend. He overhears their accusatory raised voices, declaring that he and Tony were in an orphanage, whatever that means. No one explains anything!

It only gets more confusing when his mother finds work in Oregon, where he and his brother stick out among the other children, and bullies pay special attention to them. Here their mother teaches them how to care for themselves never without reminding him that she saved them from that bad place. In between bouts of falling apart and expecting them to fend for themselves, she bemoans her troubles as a single mom and the unfairness of it all. Too, there are men in his mother’s life- stand in fathers who are just as lost as the people who needed saving in Synanon. His real father is brighter than the sun when he pops up but never an easy man to emulate and certainly not a constant presence. Unable to describe how he himself feels with the sudden force of his mother in his life, never taught how to navigate the ‘real’ world which feels so much harsher, colder than the one he knew at Synanon full of songs, dance, attention and children to play with, he doesn’t understand his own emotional states. Now he is weighted down with a debt he owes her for saving he and Tony. This depression thing, whatever it is, consumes her and it’s his job to be the little man, to obey whatever character building skills she wants her children to have. No one protects him from monsters, real or imagined, not even his big brother who seems to hate him and deeply resent their mother. Their time at Synanon left them with wildly different experiences, making brotherhood impossible.

He grows up in a dysfunctional household, with a mother whose deep depressions eclipse her children’s very real struggles and a father too tough and footloose to be of much guidance. Overcome by anxiety and fear after leaving Synanon, and reeling over their father’s betrayals their mother doesn’t have room for optimism nor tender mothering. Clinging to the idea of self-sufficiency  more often than not leads to psychological torment for her sons. Before long it is Mikel who is behaving like the adult, or worse, like an AA sponsor offering the comforting phrase “let go and let God.” His teen years don’t get any easier, especially the complicated relationship between he and Tony who is more often lost in anything that numbs the mind and body.  Neither make it into adulthood untouched by the seeds of their parents idealistic past that began in Synanon.

Mikel makes his dizzying way into adulthood but the trauma of the past is never far behind. This memoir encompasses more than growing up in a cult, as Mikel was only a little boy when they escaped. It reveals how it infected their lives long after they left and fractured every bond in his family from grandparents to his own sibling. We learn why his parents fell under Synanon’s spell to begin with. It’s not all sad endings, though there are quite a few.  Mikel Jollett finds a place for himself in this unfamiliar territory we call life, but what a trek!

Publication Date: May 26, 2020

Celadon Books

 

 

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

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“Though they arrived at Mecklenburgh Square at different stages in life, moving there provided each of them a fresh start at a critical moment: the way they each chose to set up home in the square was a bold declaration of who they were, and of the life they wanted to lead.”

Square Haunting focuses on the influence living at Mecklenburgh Square in London’s Bloomsbury had on the poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. Each lived here at different times, choosing not the expected path for women, marriage and children, but feeding their ambitions, a break for freedom from the social norms of their time. Here they could ‘follow their own pursuits’, and meet with like minds. They had to work to earn the lives they wanted, of course some had the wealth of family but money was a necessity one always had to fret over. Geography matters, it is always conducive to one’s education to be at the heart of things, politics, revolutions, and around people and places that ‘stimulate the intellect.’ 

We remember these women as established writers but it is the making of them that is often forgotten. Their fears and of course the fight to be more that their mothers before them were ‘allowed’. To reach for the things their fathers and brothers were given simply for being born male, all those opportunities women were shamed for wanting.  In the midst of wars, modern culture on the rise, bohemian life, Bloomsbury was often thought of as a ‘vulgar place’. Here was a changing society, moving fast, too fast for some. But for women, it truly ‘offered a room of one’s own.” Our great authors wanted a different life, Mecklenburgh Square is where they would be shaped, a common thread in their world. Or it is where they were meant to find refuge, and engage with others to escape their own mind.

H.D.’s time spent in Mecklenburgh Square tinted her whole life, writing of how men hindered her (a female) as an artist. Disinterested in being Pounds protégé writing autobiographical work, exposing real people with her pen, layered truths and fiction. Born an outsider, understanding all too well how unrealized dreams could hinder a woman, as with her own mother, she would never confine herself so. Playing with her gender, shirking rules, rebellious and vulnerable, London was just the place Hilda would belong. Enthralled with suffragettes, finding a perfect circle of friends, London itself was a place in her writing that her characters, heroines too could find confidence in ‘work and herself’. H.D’s hungry mind could feed on manuscripts at the British museum, marriage with Aldington was a joining of like minds, but the Bloomsbury sets pleasures were interrupted by war, patriotism. No one could remain untouched. Devastation would come soon enough, personally as well. A place is both freedom and later, “four walls about to crush her”, when her marriage began to crumble with infidelity, and deep loss.  Mecklenburgh was formative, even when she was wrapped in misery, for it is here she found herself.

One common theme is women deciding to be neither male nor female. For “it is fatal to be man or woman pure and simple”, particularly for a writer. For these famous women it reduced them to be one or the other, to be defined, to carry the weight of expectations, of one’s sex, better to be both- to have an ‘androgynous mind’ is the only way to a limitless existence.

Dorothy L. Sayers seemed to torture her long suffering parents with her big dreams, ‘yearning to achieve success through her writing’, she didn’t want to be a teacher. Not surprising from a woman who was one of the first females educated at Oxford. She felt “her brain growing rusty” when she settled upon teaching, so she followed her heart and a man to France and with the sour end of that venture, knew it was London that shined with possibilities. She felt at home immediately at Mecklenburgh Square, where for H.D. it was collapse of her marriage, it was independence for the single Dorothy. Living life differently in London left her with a brave feeling. working on translations for extra money so she could continue to write her poetry and chilling stories. Here she wrote her first novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and everything in her surroundings supplied her with plenty of material for the future of her work. This was the only place that could guarantee her artistic success. In time, love would test her too, and her feelings about her work and social norms. Sayers, just like H.D., would discover the cost of freedom for a woman is much harsher than for any man. Work is where a woman like Sayers healed, and she pored herself into it.

Jane Ellen Harrison is this books enigma, a woman who came to Mecklenburgh Square at the advanced age of 75, “having renounced her comfortable life as a Cambridge don”. She destroyed evidence of the life she led before and as Francesca Wade notes, for Harrison it was a rebirth, not a beginning as it was for H.D. and Sayers before her. It would also be her final home, as she died there. A bit of a myth maker about her own life, what mattered most wasn’t intimate revelations and exposure about herself but that it’s possible to shake off and discard anything that doesn’t provide what is needed, for one’s work or happiness. Many lives, regardless of age, are always possible. Once called one of the cleverest women in England, she too chose of life of intellectual stimulation and  struggled with the in between time of success and uncertainty about her future. She was passed over often, as women often are, for posts that she certainly deserved even if she didn’t like such a fact to be known, never one for being pitied. From Archaeological digs and her study on man-made hierarchies and ” the gradual erosion of women’s importance in Greek society” she drove home with factual evidence the vital roles women played in history, challenging the institutions run by men. What a greater inspiration to other young ladies, and female writers coming of age, then the findings of Jane Ellen Harrison and learned ladies like her? Of course, she was accused of debauching young minds. A woman’s education could go further, and should, then motherhood alone. A staunch believer in being a ‘free woman’, but much like the others also was adamant about not categorizing brains into male/female. Eventually into her life came Hope Mirrlees, a relationship that gave her so much of what she needed.

Eileen Power is another whose history has been partially erased ‘for reasons unknown’ by her own sisters after her death. A serious scholar, but as a woman seen by her male peers as ‘an anomaly’ for women surely aren’t this clever. Subordination seems to be a role women like Power and Harrison fought against and yet understood all too well. Her years in Mecklenburgh Square showed other women there was much open to them, a feminist, a pacifistic, who ‘owned her independence.’  She wanted her work to prosper and her surroundings, home should allow for it. She wasn’t one to let her personal life interfere with her important professional work, but it was vital for her to find like minded female friends with whom she could be herself. Her biggest cause, she said, was the cause of women. That women keep their individuality after marriage, ‘that love is not the only thing in the world’. 

For all the important women in this book, their thoughts echo many of the same things. That they are a person, that love isn’t the only thing in life, that an education, intellectual stimulation, a profession, passion is vital for every human being. Mecklenburgh Square was a hive of activity that fed them with the very things they needed to grow and to freely be themselves. Despite their intelligence, each saw the same “unchallenged assumptions” again and again. Maybe this is why they were found walking straight into what had always been predominately male territory. In London, they were able to cultivate friendships, connections to make the life they wanted a reality, despite the expectations of their time.

Virginia Woolf is the last, her time in Mecklenburgh Square was tense, with ‘political crisis’. There wasn’t fresh hope to be had, for Woolf a cloud of grief followed she and her husband Leonard after a wretched year. They were to manage their time going through a war. Back and forth, solitude and city- for her ‘peace of mind’ during a deep depression. When in Mecklenburgh Square they could entertain and debate with fellow writers. The lively discussions lifted the mood but her storms always returned. Not unlike the women before her, her love life was complicated and non-conventional in it’s own right. Partaking in an affair of her own with Vita Sackville-West, their marriage had it’s problems. Leonard was the one that tried to nourish her so she could write, despite her fragile mind. Like the others, she too was invested in defying conventions, in exploring how such things effect people, their life choices, their happiness, work and love life. It seemed she too was influenced by the environment of Mecklenburgh Square, tacking questions of womanhood, personhood. Yet with the destruction and looming threat, she couldn’t be truly at ease there. She still hadn’t truly found a room of one’s own.

This book is about women shaping their own worlds, trying to be self-sufficient in incredibly  difficult, often chaotic, war-torn times,  breaking with social norms. Wanting nothing more than to be a person, not confined by gender or any other roles society seems fit for them. They struggle with work and relationships, with family and destiny, and some with the state of their own mind. Sometimes the women are contrary, but always curious, intelligent and inspiring. It is an engaging read, sometimes heavy and sad, but it couldn’t be any other way when you strike out to change the world, or discover your place in it.

This is how one place shaped the lives of these famous women. Yes, read it, my review is flimsy by comparison to Wade’s work.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Crown Publishing

Tim Duggan Books