My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent My Absolute Darling: A Novel: 9780735211179: Tallent, Gabriel:  Books

Turtle has been living a very self-contained existence for all of her 14 years of life. It’s been pretty much just her and Martin, her father, with a weekly visit to play Cribbage with her Grandpa. Except for going to school, Turtle has been living mostly off the grid, and Martin’s obsession with survival has her ensuring that her guns are always clean and her guard is always up. And while she feels incompetent because of her academic struggles, she feels little about how she is perceived socially – that is, until she meets 2 lost boys in the woods, who ultimately help her every bit as much as she helps them.

This is an utterly gripping, but utterly disturbing novel about how trauma can be experienced and passed down from one generation to the next.  We are in Turtle’s head as she withstands her recurrent abuse at the hands of her father, and we deeply feel compassion for the simultaneous love and hate she feels toward him. There are so many opportunities she has to escape and yet she returns to his overpowering grip. It is a classic abusive relationship, where the abuser convinces the abused that they have no way out.  

The writing is razor-sharp and keeps the reader on edge throughout.  It is impossible to put this one down. We are with Turtle, rooting for her, holding our breath, feeling her awkwardness, and reeling from her anger toward the hard, hard world she inhabits. We exhale when we meet her 2 new friends, as they banter mindlessly and playfully, in such stark contrast to anything she has ever known. And we cannot stop turning the pages to find out how far she will have to go to survive.  

This book is not for the feint of heart, but it is a wildly suspenseful read and an important insight into the mindset of a child abused.  

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett Imagine Me Gone: 9780316261333: Haslett, Adam: Books

Margaret has tried her best to keep her marriage to John and their 3 children’s lives as “normal” as possible, but she has not been able to stifle her fear that John’s formidable depression might return at any time. Steadfast in her love for him, she stands by him, even as he is unable to maintain even the fiction of function. Yet, as she is trying desperately to guide her children through their adolescence, she cannot prevent the tragedy that ends up defining them. Maybe, she thinks, she can keep them close enough to show them that family can help each other get through.

The sheer beauty of the writing in this novel carries it to great heights. The story is told from a rotation of voices, which strengthens the perspective and gives us a glimpse into the minds of each member of this close-knit and deeply pained family. There is such imagery, almost poetry, in the descriptions and the way ideas are shared. Michael, the eldest of the 3 children, has inherited his father’s mental illness, and it manifests in a mania, obsessions, and overwhelming and paralyzing guilt. He often rambles on, the typical “flight of ideas” of someone with mania. One of his rants, during a loan deferment application, contains the following passage: “I was selected by the Department of Education to voyage on their first Student Loan Probe to Jupiter, as one of four debitnauts. We traveled for years, passing through nebulae of internships and retail, through the wake of an imploding technology boom, and on through the outer rings of bankruptcy, before finally reaching the planet’s gaseous surface. Our hope was to make contact with the lost colony of the underemployed.” (Page 290) And so on.

The quality of the writing extends to the character development as well, in my opinion. We get inside the brains of Michael, of his sister, Celia, and his much younger brother, Alec. We learn how they cope, how they don’t cope, and how they rely on each other to get through. Their bond is just as dysfunctional as it is functional – typical and realistic. They fight each other and fight for each other. But there is always love underlying all of it – and that is communicated with the warmth and the humor and even the eye rolls that we can so clearly envision.

So yes, this book has its depressing overtones, but it is so beautifully written that it is worth the hardship of it. It is also such a realistic portrait of mental illness and its impact on a family that it’s our duty not to shy away from it.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig The Midnight Library: A Novel eBook : Haig, Matt: Kindle Store

Nora is done.  She has disappointed almost everyone she knows and feels she is done trying not to.  She gave up swimming and disappointed her dad.  She gave up the band and disappointed her brother.  She gave up her relationship and disappointed her fiancee, Dan.  And now, she’s even disappointed her cat.  She just cannot do anything right.  It’s just time to give up, period.  But when it comes that time, she discovers a place in-between and it may be that there is space for second (and more) chances.  

This book is based on a slightly outrageous, but fascinating premise of a theorem of quantum physics which states that we may be living more than one life simultaneously.  That is, even very tiny choices can lead us toward very divergent paths and have very different consequences for our lives.  And what if each of these are branches from a root life that are going on simultaneously?  And what if, at some point, we have the choice to go back and choose one of these alternative paths?  Sort of an “undo” of our lives?  It’s a pretty wild concept, no?

This narrative begins well.  We feel a deep empathy for Nora and her experience of depression, loneliness, and hopelessness, and understand her decision to escape.  The “midnight library” is an elaborate metaphor and creates a gorgeous image that helps us to understand this concept of simultaneous lives in a way that is accessible to those of us who may not be able to comprehend very abstract concepts of quantum physics. 

Unfortunately, I feel as though the author struggled to know where to drive the storyline once the underlying premise was established.  There is a clear message here, but it is so clear that it makes the outcome transparent way too early on.  Knowing this made it feel like too much work to get there.  And with an ending so predictable, it was also disappointingly melodramatic and “picture perfect.”

What I did appreciate is that the author, Matt Haig, is not afraid to discuss the oft-hushed topics of anxiety, depression and suicidality through fiction.  We know he has first-hand knowledge of these topics, as he has authored a memoir (reviewed in this blog in 2019) called Reasons to Stay Alive, in which he so generously shares his own struggles with these difficult conditions.   In giving voice to mental health issues, creating characters who live with them, it helps to widen the scope of empathy for the millions of folks who struggle with these disorders, both visibly and invisibly.  

So while there is value to this book, in the clever premise and vital message, it is disappointingly predictable. 


There is another book that presents this theory and in a more subtle way:  The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult.  See my review from May 29, 2021   




Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Through this deeply moving memoir, Kiese Laymon shares his experience having grown up as a black male in a larger body in the deep South.  He shares his earlier traumas, his fonder memories, and how he has learned to cope with both the times his mother was absent and the times she was present.  

This is a such a gritty, revealing memoir that reading it feels almost voyeuristic.  Writing it as a letter to his mother, Laymon is so deeply introspective and revelatory that we peer into his private window, we peek inside his heart.  We experience his profound sense of pain and powerlessness as he watches the women in his life become victimized by other men.  His anger is, sadly, directed inward – as it so often is.  It manifests first as binge eating and later as restriction and overexercising.  This coping strategy works for him, however, until it doesn’t.  Meanwhile, he is able to be as resilient as possible, forging relationships,  excelling academically and achieving goals on his terms.  

As a side note, I so appreciate that Laymon has come forward with this memoir, because it defiles so many stereotypes of who struggles with eating disorders.  As he acknowledges himself, eating disorders are thought to exist only in upper class, white women – and this is just not true. Folks of all genders, races, and socioeconomic strata utilize these behaviors to cope with their lives and one can never assume anyone is free or “protected” because of who they are or appear to be.  These are secretive behaviors and cannot be diagnosed by someone’s appearance.  And they can be very painful, distracting, and most importantly, life-threatening – never to be taken lightly.

This is also an important memoir from the perspective of understanding racial issues and racism.   Laymon shares his encounters with racism and digests them with us, his readers.  Both he and his mother, in spite of their obvious intelligence and academic accomplishments, are underpaid and frequently disrespected.   But, again, he also places his experiences into context.  He understands that even when he’s been treated as less than, he is still not at the bottom of the totem pole, being a male as opposed to a female person of color.  His compassionate view of the women in his life enables him to see their utter vulnerability to the forces of bias and power imbalance. 

I deeply appreciate this memoir, for all its raw and painful honesty. This is a hard read but well worth the work of it.  




The Golden Child by Wendy James

The Golden Child: A Novel: James, Wendy: 9781510737914: Books

Charlotte is what many would call a “queen bee.” She is always at the center of activity– pretty, smart, and sporty, with many friends who admire her — while her older, yet more sedate sister, Lucy, seems happy just to hang on the sidelines. Their mother, Beth, has been preoccupied with their upcoming return from New Jersey to Australia, so while there have been some signals of trouble, it hasn’t felt like much more than normal “girl stuff” to her. Could it be that she’s missed something enormous, even in her own daughter?

This is a disturbing and yet utterly engaging novel that anyone who’s ever known or ever been an adolescent girl can relate to. (And if you’ve ever been a mom of one, it tugs at your heart strings like few stories do.) It highlights the cruelty of the adolescent girl dynamic, the targeting of others for random imperfections, quirks, or non-conformities and the ostracizing of others for the least infraction of an ever-changing, “accepted” norm. In the age of social media, it is magnified a million-fold and it is irreversible. And horrifying.

The writing here is crisp and engaging and the characters, while somewhat stereotypical, are still extremely plausible. The author also utilizes the technique of incorporating blog posts from the characters to interject their innermost thoughts, which adds both a deeper dimension and a clever diversion to the plot. It’s an intriguing read that keeps you turning the pages – with a satisfying twist of events right up until the very end.

This is not a “MUST READ” but it’s quick, slightly disturbing, and yet intriguing one, if you have the time.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Untamed: Glennon Doyle, Glennon Doyle Melton: 9781984801258:  Books

Just as a cheetah in a zoo is caged and trained to repeatedly chase after what she perceives as prey, so too are women caged in by society’s expectations and rules. We live and breathe in the norms around us — the standard of the thin, beautiful, smart, soft, modest, quiet, unassuming, and all-giving idea of the perfect woman — and cannot avoid striving for this, even when we are not even aware that we are doing so. This is what Glennon Doyle becomes aware of as she watches this caged cheetah pace back and forth and sees that she is not much different from this animal. It’s just a bit more complicated for her to work her way out of her cage, as it involves more than just her own life – it involves the lives of her husband and children as well.

In this memoir, Doyle reflects, through tiny moments and vignettes, about her metamorphosis as she moves from inside the cage to outside. She reflects back through her journey through recovery from bulimia and substance use, disentangling from a dishonest marriage, and tiptoeing through tightrope-like moments of parenting. Unlike many of us who struggle with similar issues, she also had to do this while living as a public figure, so had to also contend with answering to the public about this deeply personal process. What she learns, however, is to use her anger and her pain for good. She learns that rather than trying to escape these feelings, sinking into them actually can make her stronger.and push her into constructive action.

This is a powerful book that has many lines of wisdom contained within. Here are 2 of my favorite lines:

“If you are uncomfortable – in deep pain, angry, yearning, confused — you don’t have a problem, you have a life… You will never change the fact that being human is hard, so you must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.”


“Maybe Eve [from the bible] was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

This is an enriching read for both women and men. It will open your mind and your heart and force you to look both inward and outward.

Another MUST READ! (This list is growing so long!)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Image result for image of quiet by susn cain

Do you ever crave an escape from the noisy world we live in? Do you thrive in quieter settings, when you’re either alone with a good book or just engrossed in deep conversation with one friend? Have you worried there was something wrong with you when you panicked at the thought of having to speak up in a group of co-workers or a study group? If you have, you may actually be an introvert – and that is not a bad thing! While our society seems to prize the extrovert, the one who is the outspoken, confident leader — think Homecoming Queen, for example — it may be the introvert who really is behind so many of our major advancements (think Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple). It is the introvert who may allow for the quiet time during which thoughts can generate and percolate, and who may seek deeper conversation that brings people close. To be clear, it is not that introverts do not seek to be with others, but their connections are generally in smaller groups, on their terms, and more intimate. Nor is there a judgement that being introverted vs extroverted is better or worse – this is just a variation in personality style and a way of relating that can be every bit as effective. This book helps to identify and elevate those who are introverts to allow for all of us to prize introverts for their unique value just as we do extroverts for theirs.

An important impact of how society values extroversion is on our educational system. More and more, classrooms are being set up to promote group activity, with desks moved into circles rather than in the classic rows. This is great for those who function well in groups, the extroverts, but those who learn better with time to themselves, this may be more challenging. It is up to the teachers to appreciate and value both personality types and learning styles and to accommodate both.

I wish I had had the opportunity to read this book years ago. I learned so much about both myself and members of my own family through the pages of this book. I now understand why after caring for patients and interacting with my colleagues all day at work, all I am usually able to do by the end of the day is to get into bed and read. I realize that while I feel privileged to have the interactions I have both with my patients and my colleagues and I do feel passionate about what I do and enjoy it, it does take all of my energy to maintain the level of human interaction that it requires. At the end of the day, I need to refuel. Apparently, I am a true introvert.

This is an important book for so many of us to read. It gives us a much deeper understanding of our family, our colleagues, and our friends and enables us to value each of them for their unique styles of interaction. It may also give us a deeper understanding of ourselves. It certainly did this for me.

I recommend this as a MUST READ!


Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

In the fall of 2007, Amanda Knox joined the many college juniors who left their campuses to study abroad, Amanda choosing a small town, Perugia, in Italy for her experience. Because her chosen university did not have a dorm for her to live in, she felt fortunate when she stumbled upon an apartment she would ultimately share with 3 other women. Life with the others began quite peacefully, and she formed a comfortable relationship with each of them. What she never imagined was that one of them would be brutally murdered by a stranger, and that she, Amanda, would be wrongfully accused of being the twisted ringleader of this murder.

I felt compelled to read this story, as I’d felt compelled, years before, to listen to this story every time it came on the news, in each of its permutations. When it first was announced in the media, the story was quite bizarre, filled with seedy details of sex and drugs that sounded questionable even back then. And the more it was discussed, the more bizarre and unlikely it sounded.

Reading the actual story was much more painful, however. It was no longer someone far away – it was now someone I was getting to know and empathize with. I hadn’t remembered so many of the actual details of the story – or probably never was given the true ones — nor learned about her personal life before the murder or during the trials. I also didn’t know how much time she served in prison, before she was finally found to be fully innocent. And I also didn’t how the prosecution obtained their evidence and how willfully they pursued a feeble motive/explanation for the events against the weight of the evidence for the defense. It was truly like watching a car wreck – you can’t look at it and at the same time, you can’t look away.

And honestly, even though I knew the ending, there was still a great degree of suspense. The ups and downs were wildly intense and I felt the ride right along with her. When she was trapped inside those walls of the prison, I felt almost as if I was inside there with her.  It was almost hard to breathe. At the same time, she showed a courage and hopefulness I’m not sure I would have had.

This was a very quick read that I’d definitely recommend!



The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

Trauma, in its many forms, can impact people in devastating ways, both mentally and physically, especially when untreated. The way this manifests can be incredibly complex and we are only beginning to understand how and why this is. Dr. van der Kolk, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has treated hundreds of patients with trauma and has himself conducted much research in this area, has in these pages compiled a summary of the issues and the research to date in a palatable, accessible narrative.

What is striking is how physical psychological trauma can be. More importantly, as van der Kolk demonstrates, it is often not until one appreciates the physicality of the experience of the particular trauma, and until one actually experiences it again — with the banging of the heartbeat, and the shortness of the breath, and all of the other uncomfortable attendant bodily sensations — in a safe and nurturing environment where one can process it, can one truly overcome the trauma.

There is a lot of repetition in this book. Ir feels as if the author does not trust the reader to believe his conclusions and he therefore has to drive them home again and again. On the other hand, he does pepper his points with many vignettes and personal stories as examples, and these are what make the book so memorable. There are so many dramatic stories of recovery, it is utterly inspiring.

I will also add that for anyone who uses the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), there is some interesting backstory here. What has come to be used as a basis on which official diagnoses are made (and in turn, billing and insurance coverage), was originally intended as general diagnostic guidance only. In addition, there is a lot of money made from the publication of this book.

I highly recommend this book – you will gain insight into others – and perhaps into yourself.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Althea and Proctor are deeply troubled, and it is less about their being imprisoned than about how they got there and what this means now for their family.  On an impulse, and in revenge for longstanding resentment toward her mother, their daughter, Kim, has revealed illegal activity committed by her parents, and they are now all paying the price.   Will they be able to repair the damage that has been wrought, especially with the physical distance they now must endure?  Will Althea’s sisters, who have themselves experienced hardships in their youth, be able to rescue the situation?

This was an engaging narrative from page one.  Each character was a mosaic of her complex past and her present emotional strength, with the overlay of the complicated state of their family story.  No one was a cliche, and no one was a stereotype.  Everyone felt genuine and unique.

I personally appreciated the inclusion of characters of color with eating disorders.  While eating disorders are so common, it is rare that folks who suffer from them are depicted in novels – and rarer still, that people of color with eating disorders are represented.  I have worked with adolescents for almost 30 years and I can attest to the fact that these disorders do not discriminate by race, gender, sexual preference, religion, or socioeconomic strata, despite what the general public believes.  I also loved that this was not the focus of the story – it was just a side issue .  Nonetheless, it was described with tenderness, with sensitivity, and with a true grasp of the suffering that occurs with these conditions.

This was a quick read, it was engaging and honest.  I would definitely recommend it!