Harvey Freedenberg

Pulitzer Prize winner and New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz’s first memoir, Lost & Found, is an eloquent meditation inspired by the end of her father’s life and the beginning of the romance that led to her marriage. This probing, multifaceted exploration of two universal phenomena—grief and love—is both a revealing account of defining moments in Schulz’s life and an eloquent map of the pathways connecting them to our shared human experience.

In the first section of the book, Schulz’s reflections on the profound grief provoked by the peaceful passing of the man she describes as “part Socrates, part Tevye,” at the end of a decade of slowly failing health, illuminate the “essential, avaricious nature of loss.” She examines the complexity and uniqueness of each person’s bereavement, giving the lie to clichés like “moving on” and “closure” that are offered to comfort those in mourning. “Everything felt fragile, everything felt vulnerable,” she observes; “the idea of loss pressed in all around me, like a hidden order to existence that emerged only in the presence of grief.”

The poignancy of these reminiscences is more than balanced by the exuberant account of Schulz’s love affair with C. in the second section of the book. Though C. is a fellow writer, she is also a woman whose cultural roots—as a devout Lutheran from Maryland’s Eastern Shore—are so different from Schulz’s—a nonpracticing Jew from Cleveland—that Mars and Venus can barely encompass them. The affectionately candid story of their instantaneous attachment and deepening relationship allows Schulz to probe some of the ineffable mysteries of human attraction and ponder the wild improbability that two people ever find each other and fall in love.

Concluding her memoir with a section entitled “And,” Schulz skillfully melds the two profound subjects that animate her story, attempting to reconcile herself to an undeniable reality at the heart of life’s beauty and pain: our limitless capacity to love, undiminished by the inescapable knowledge that one day every one of us will inevitably lose all we cherish. “Of every kind of ‘and’ that we experience,” she writes, “I find this one the most acute—the awareness that our love, in all its many forms, is bound inseparably to our grief.”

Discoursing knowledgeably and often with good humor on subjects that include etymology, poetry, natural history, psychology and more, Schulz displays a capacious intelligence matched only by her boundless curiosity and insight. Lost & Found is a beautiful, life-affirming book that passionately embraces some of the deepest questions of human existence in the fullness of their sorrow and joy.

Lost & Found is a beautiful, life-affirming memoir about love and grief that passionately embraces some of the deepest questions of human existence.

When it became clear in March 2020 that the coronavirus was more than an annoying temporary disruption, some writers took to keeping COVID diaries. We’re fortunate that one as gifted and insightful as Los Angeles-based novelist and critic Charles Finch chose to preserve his recollections in the eloquent, fierce What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic and fresh from a 13-city book tour, Finch began chatting on Slack with four friends. One of them was an emergency room physician from New York City, the virus’s first epicenter, who quickly impressed on Finch the gravity of the crisis. But even faced with this dire news, Finch obsessed over the availability of pasta, toilet paper and hand sanitizer and became a “candle guy.” As the months ground on, he grew more troubled by his increasing consumption of marijuana. Through it all he watched, with growing anger and dismay, as the human toll mounted, each round number of deaths rolling into the next, exposing our collective naiveté about how truly terrible our losses would be.

Finch is a keen political observer whose takedowns of the Trump administration’s almost willfully incompetent leadership are both savage and, at times, savagely funny. He also reflects on how the pandemic both exacerbated and exposed economic inequality in the United States, excoriating billionaires Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg and confessing to “the joy I would take in shaking a little sand in the gears of capitalism.” Following the murder of George Floyd, he devotes considerable attention to the massive protests, wondering whether they are the harbinger of an overdue reckoning with racism in the United States.

Occasionally Finch departs from his contemporary narrative to share some moving bits of personal history, including an evocative scene of a snowy Central Park when he lived in New York in his 20s. He reminisces about the uncle who introduced him to blues and folk music (Finch’s affection for country singer Kacey Musgraves is a recurring theme) and about his grandmother, the artist Anne Truitt. A transplant from the East Coast, he also paints memorable pictures of his adopted hometown of LA, “the only sad city I’ve ever lived in,” as he remarks on how its “cool sunniness, its low-slung tatterdemalion endlessness, give the city a tranquil, dreamlike quality.”

With the election of Joe Biden and the arrival of vaccines, Finch emerged from an ordeal that hadn’t quite ended with the mien of a battle-weary combat veteran. Years from now, historians will comb through primary sources looking for evidence of how we thought and felt during these plague days. They would do well to turn first to What Just Happened.

Years from now, historians will search for evidence of how we felt during the COVID-19 plague days. They would do well to turn first to What Just Happened.

Taking on questions of race, sexual identity or class in a work of barely 200 pages would be an ambitious project for any writer. Asali Solomon’s second novel, The Days of Afrekete, tackles all three with insight, wit and grace—a tribute to her considerable talent.

At the core of the novel, whose title refers to a character in Audre Lorde’s Zami, is the story of Liselle Belmont and Selena Octave, two Black women who meet at Bryn Mawr College in the 1990s and enter into a brief, intense relationship; each ascribes the fault for its end to the other. Even at a distance of some 20 years, it’s clear that neither woman has been able to shed the memory of their four months as lovers, scenes of which Solomon sketches in vivid, economical flashbacks.

As their college years recede, Liselle’s and Selena’s lives proceed in opposite directions. Selena undergoes a series of psychiatric hospitalizations and moves through a succession of downwardly mobile jobs. Liselle, in contrast, marries Winn Anderson, a white lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut family whose primary campaign against an incumbent Black state representative has ended in defeat, a disappointment compounded by Winn’s entanglement with an unscrupulous real estate developer that has made him the subject of an FBI investigation.

Most of the novel’s present-day action unfolds at a dinner party hosted by Liselle and Winn at their 150-year-old home in an upscale neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia. The racially mixed gathering, intended to thank Winn’s core supporters, subtly dissects Liselle’s profound unease over the state of her marriage alongside her almost comical discomfort in the presence of Xochitl, the highly educated daughter of Liselle’s Latina cleaning woman.

Solomon doesn’t offer a tidy resolution to the story, but her novel doesn’t demand one. The Days of Afrekete’s strength lies in its well-drawn characters and its realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

With insight, wit and grace, Asali Solomon’s second novel offers a realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

How does one sum up the arc of a long life? That’s the intriguing question Joshua Ferris poses in A Calling for Charlie Barnes, a poignant, bitingly funny exploration of how a life that’s riddled with defeat may turn out, after all, to be profoundly meaningful.

Inspired by the death of Ferris’ own father in 2014, the novel tells the story of Charlie Barnes, nicknamed “Steady Boy,” an investment adviser struggling in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse whose ambition is matched only by the number and magnitude of his professional and personal debacles. Charlie is a bundle of contradictions—an ethical money manager in a world of charlatans, and someone whose endlessly inventive mind conjures up bizarre moneymaking schemes that are distinctive only for their consistent failures, like a flying toupee called the Original Doolander or the Clown in Your Town, a franchised fleet of party clowns.

But when, at age 68, Charlie is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he’s forced to confront his mortality and come to terms with a chaotic family life that has included five marriages—four of which ended badly—and has caused the bitter estrangement of his two eldest children. His youngest son, Jake, the only Barnes sibling who remains close to his father, is a novelist who takes on the project of chronicling Charlie’s “perfectly failed life.” From moments of rollicking humor to episodes of deep pathos, Jake strives to capture his father’s utterly ordinary, strikingly tumultuous biography with as much fidelity to the facts as he’s able to muster while keeping it “honest, but respectable.”

In addition to its autofictional component, A Calling for Charlie Barnes contains a strong metafictional element, as Jake comments frequently and incisively on the challenges of storytelling, even assuming the mantle of unreliable narrator almost with a sense of pride: “Like reliability exists anywhere anymore,” he writes, “like that’s still a thing,” reminding the reader of “the power you have when you control the narrative.”

Ferris’ control of his own narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for the frequent wicked curveballs he delivers with evident zest. A Calling for Charlie Barnes has plot twists as manifold as its protagonist’s cruelly dashed dreams, but when Steady Boy’s story reaches its end, it’s a reminder of how little we know about the ones we love and the fact that even the humblest life story encompasses unfathomable depths.

For the audiobook, Nick Offerman delivers a powerful performance as Jake Barnes.

Joshua Ferris’ control of his narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for frequent wicked curveballs.

Award-winning Israeli writer David Grossman’s More Than I Love My Life is a complex novel about the secrets that scar three generations of women for a lifetime.

Upon her 90th birthday, family matriarch Vera Novak reunites with her daughter, Nina, after five years of separation. Both Vera and Nina have committed the almost unpardonable act of abandoning young daughters—Vera when Nina was 6, and Nina when her own daughter, Gili, was even younger. The circumstances surrounding Vera’s and Nina’s departures are complex, slowly revealed and come to dominate all three women’s emotional lives.

When Nina, who has spent several years on a tiny island between Lapland and the North Pole, announces that she’s in the early stages of dementia, she asks Gili, a writer and filmmaker now approaching her 40s, and Gili’s father, Rafael, formerly a film director himself, to record Vera’s story. The novel reaches its climax when the foursome journeys to the island of Goli Otok, off the coast of Croatia, once home to a notorious labor camp and reeducation center for opponents of the Tito regime in the former Yugoslavia. Vera was sent there after the death of her husband under circumstances she’s withheld from Nina all her life. 

In harrowing passages that alternate with the present action, Vera recalls two months of her nearly three-year imprisonment when she was marched daily to a cliff top and forced to stand in the blazing sun, her only companion a sapling she shaded with her body.

Vera, Nina and Gili are memorable characters, each suffering in different but equally profound ways. Grossman effectively inhabits the consciousnesses of these women and doesn’t spare the reader any of their considerable emotional pain. He’s a sympathetic if unfailingly honest chronicler of their anguish. A reader doesn’t have to identify with the particulars of the women’s stories to appreciate how the consequences of fateful choices can reverberate down through the generations.

David Grossman is a sympathetic if unfailingly honest chronicler of the anguish of three generations of women.

Miranda Fitch, the protagonist of Mona Awad’s third novel, All’s Well, might best be described—to borrow the title of the 1988 Pedro Almodóvar film—as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A professor of theater studies at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, she’s laboring mightily to stage a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which she thinks of as a “problem play,” one that’s “neither a tragedy nor a comedy. Both, always both.”

Apart from a rebellious cast, Miranda’s primary obstacle is unremitting pain from an injury she sustained when she tumbled from a stage during her promising but brief acting career. The resulting hip injury led to serious back problems unrelieved by the ministrations of a string of doctors and physical therapists, transforming Miranda, divorced and not yet 40 years old, into a pill-gobbling automaton who has abandoned all hope of her own happy ending.

All’s Well quickly leaves behind this depressingly naturalistic scenario to veer into the realm of fabulism when Miranda encounters three mysterious men in a local pub. The trio, who inexplicably have intimate knowledge of her life and struggles, grace her with what seems like a miracle cure. But as she discovers, even healing can come at a price.

Awad efficiently portrays both Miranda’s confrontation with chronic pain and the slowly evaporating patience of the people in her orbit (her ex-husband, Paul; colleague and friend Grace; and Mark, the last in a chain of physical therapists) with her lack of improvement. Anyone who’s been similarly afflicted or knows someone who has will recognize this scenario. Awad leaves it to the reader to assess how much of Miranda’s mental turmoil is the product of an inexplicable but desperately welcome truce in her battle with pain, and how much flows from her encounter with supernatural forces. It’s a wild, at times over-the-top ride, but like Shakespeare’s eponymous work, there’s both pathos and humor in this story of how we suffer and the ways in which we’re healed.

Like Shakespeare’s eponymous work, there’s pathos and humor in this story of how we suffer and the ways in which we’re healed.

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