In Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun, the Puzzle Proves a Point.

silence once begun

Of silence, I can say only what I heard, that all things are known by that which they make or leave–and so speech isn’t itself, but its effect, and silence is the same.

–Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun

In Jesse Ball‘s most recent novel, Silence Once Begun, Ball goes bravely into the spaces between things, the quiet pauses between our conversations, the assumptions made in the absence of evidence, and our constant obsession with knowing and noise.

Narrator and reporter Jesse Ball investigates a unique criminal case which shook a Japanese town, the case of Oda Sotatsu. Eight older women and men, between the ages of 50-70, have disappeared from villages, under mysterious circumstances. In the place of each resident, a playing card is found.

Oda Sotatsu, a quiet, hard-working young man, a wearer of “simple, muted clothing,” loses a bet, and signs a confession. When he confesses his involvement in the disappearances, his community is shocked, and they beg for more information. Where are their beloved elders? Are they still alive?

silence once begun title page

Preface to Silence Once Begun.

The Jesse Ball of the book, the narrator and reporter Ball, discovers this story via silence. Sotatsu, after his arrest, falls silent. Ball, too, loved someone who one day stopped speaking, with no explanation. At one point, Ball realizes: “In searching for a way out of my own troubles, I had found my way into the trouble of others, some long gone, and now I was trying to find my way back out, through their troubles, as if we human beings can ever learn from one another.”

Ball reassembles the story of Oda Sotatsu through those who still have a voice, no matter how changed by the events surrounding the case that voice has been. The novel consists of interviews with Sotatsu’s family and his lover, transcripts of one-sided police interrogations, stories from the prison guards who knew Sotatsu in jail, and finally an explanation from the man with whom Sotatsu placed that fated bet.

Silence Once Begun is so minimalist at times it feels unsettling, and at times it feels perfect. Even the most unsettling moments are perfect. The story here needs no elaborate scene setting or frenetic, tense mood building. The absence of rhetoric, and the struggle of each character to explain such an unknowable, bizarre, and baffling situation in a clear way, is more interesting than any vivid imagery. How much isn’t said builds more mood than additional words ever could.

I can’t give too much away regarding plot here, although Ball does acknowledge in a (beautiful, concise) Paris Review interview that, “My books, some of them appear to verge on the political. This one certainly seems to be an indictment of a justice system.” In certain moments I hesitated, and wondered if I was reading a crime story at all, or just some sort of meditation on our ability to know the truth. If you have those moments yourself while reading Silence Once Begun, forge on, brave reader, as the ending is a totally unexpected answer to all your questions.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Want More Serial? Five Other True Crime Cases To Keep You Up At Night.

Can’t wait until the next episode of podcast Serial comes out? Here are five other true crime cases, where false convictions, unclear motives, and uncaught killers keep the rivers of justice flowing dark and murky. Hop on in, the water’s fine!

Ron Williamson's mugshot.

Ron Williamson’s mugshot.

1. The Conviction of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz – A great primer for those not familiar with true crime, John Grisham wrote about Ron Williamson’s death penalty conviction for the murder of Debbie Carter in his first nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. This reads like a Grisham novel, and doesn’t leave readers floundering for truth.

2. The Staircase Murder – Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s mini-series The Staircase follows the trial of novelist Michael Peterson. Sarah Koenig, Serial host and executive producer, referenced The Staircase as an influence for its style of revealing information. Peterson stands accused of killing his wife, who he insists fell down the stairs. Clear some time before you begin watching this eight episode series, as it’s impossible to stop once begun. Here’s Chapter One:

3. The West Memphis Three – Although this case has received a ton of press, I mention it because the original conviction depended so strongly on narrative over evidence, as did Adnan Syed’s case (at least it seems at this point).

While Adnan Syed was presented as a controlling Muslim, Damien Echols, Jesse MissKelley, Jr, and Jason Baldwin were presented as satanic adolescent rock and rollers. Echols was sentenced to death, and Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. They were all innocent, and West of Memphis is a great documentary about the entire ordeal, including suggestive evidence of the true killer. Damien Echols has also written several books.

The West Memphis Three mugshots.

The West Memphis Three mugshots.

4. The Long Island Serial Killer – For those seeking their own unsolved crime to puzzle over, Robert Kolker’s book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery explores the maddening details surrounding the Long Island Serial Killer.

In May 2010, a woman pounded on doors in the small community of Oak Beach, yelling for help. She ran from her driver, and wasn’t seen again. The woman was a sex worker, one of the most exploited groups of people in America. Where she went, why she was asking for help–all this is a mystery. In December 2010, four bodies in burlap sacks were discovered in the same area. Four months later, four more bodies.

Some of the mystery here comes from the location–the barrier islands of Long Island, and specifically Oak Beach, where the investigation takes place, are somehow tucked away from the modern world. Oak Beach is a marshy gated community, without grocery stores or gas stations. People who live here seek privacy, not the mass hysteria surrounding a police investigation.

Interactive Case Map from Lost Girls.

Case Map from Robert Kolker’sLost Girls.

5. The Jeffrey McDonald Trials – A true crime puzzle, I’ve found myself lost in this for months at a time. On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey McDonald, Special Forces Green Beret, physician, good looking and likable guy, makes a call for help. His two young daughters and his pregnant wife are dead, murdered in his home. What follows is a desperate and winding path towards an unknowable truth, as the army bungles and destroys evidence in his Fort Bragg home, McDonald himself insists a Manson-like hippie cult killed his family, and police set out from the start to prove McDonald guilty.

Fatal_Vision_bookThe murders and subsequent trials have spawned three major works of non-fiction, starting with Joe McGinniss’s notorious Fatal Vision. McGinniss embedded with McDonald’s defense team during his trial, befriended McDonald, and was given unfettered access to his home and his deepest thoughts. Although McGinniss reassured McDonald he viewed him as an innocent man, even after his conviction, he early on decided he was dealing with a psychopathic murderer. The journalist never revealed his dramatic change of heart to his close friend and subject. Ever. McDonald wasn’t given a copy of the book ahead of its release, and he learned of McGinniss’s true feelings during a 60 minutes interview.

the journalist and the murdererMcGinniss’s betrayal of MacDonald’s trust and the subsequent lawsuit were the subject of Janet Malcom’s The Journalist and the Murderer. It opens with the famous line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” This book has been mentioned in reference to Serial, and it’s applicable to the complicated relationship between Adnan Syed and Sarah Koenig. At times Koenig sounds like an anxious lover, and there’s a huge amount of trust and delicacy surrounding their relationship and her choice to expose him at this level, as we all debate this young man’s life, freedom, like-ability and relationship to his faith.

a wilderness of errorFinally, Errol Morris goes through the evidence in A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. Morris is, as I am, constantly captivated with how narrative affects truth building in our world. An interview once called Errol Morris a forensic epistemologist, and I think that is his intention with this book, to break down and study where the knowledge of the case came from and how thinking patterns were influenced.

Morris doesn’t shy away from questioning why we think the way we do, in patterns that most of us consider necessary and natural. Although he’s analyzed truth in everything from photography to politics, the way we currently create narratives surrounding crime is a big interest of his. His first really notable documentary, The Thin Blue Line, was intended as a documentary about a forensic psychologist but ended up being a documentary about a man in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, thanks in part to the testimony of that forensic psychologist. Morris unexpectedly gets the true criminal to confess, and the unjustly imprisoned man’s conviction is overturned.

Errol Morris didn’t go into The Thin Blue Line looking to make that sort of documentary—he just realized he was dealing with an innocent man, and the rest followed. In A Wilderness of Error, Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt or innocence isn’t a focus as much as the narrative which surrounded Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt. The police were fairly sure he did it, right from the start, and sought evidence to fit with their idea of the crime. This is applicable to Serial, as Koenig’s private investigator mentioned the concept of bad evidence, and the police’s intention of building a case. Morris argues that reality doesn’t work in this way, in which we can build a narrative which makes sense to us then pick and choose evidence to frame that narrative.

This attitude, a lack of narrative building surrounding the crime, is part of Serial‘s appeal thus far. There’s an appeal to a narrator who doesn’t know what sort of story she’s telling. In a world thick with story lines and plots, there’s a simplicity in going wherever the research takes you. It’s a refreshing change from our world today, where everything from sales pitches to crimes are wrapped fully formed like stories, bows tied and loose ends ignored.

Hopefully these true crime cases keep you busy until Thursday. Happy sleuthing!

Edan Lepucki Shakes Up California

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Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California, quakes and freezes our world into dystopia, adds a dash of refuge with dark undertones, throws in the nefarious older brother from Ender’s Game, and stirs.

Protagonists Cal and Frida flee a crime-infested and broken-down Los Angeles, making home out of a shed in the woods. As memories mix with their day-to-day struggle to survive and search for companionship in this new world, they stumble upon the causes of their civilization’s decline.

In this not-too-distant future, the wealthy live in Communities, with infrastructure and protection paid for by supporting corporations. Those who can’t afford to get into the Communities, like Cal and Frida, are left fending for themselves in the wilds of America. Outside a Community’s high walls of safety brace, they brace for raids from marauding pirates, plant vegetable gardens and fish, and wait for the horse-riding tradesman to arrive.

This book is probably on your radar as its hype machine has been running hard. It was featured on Ford’s Audiobook Club, and The Colbert Report. Currently, it is up for a Goodreads Choice Award for Best Sci-Fi.

I waffled quite a bit while reading California, not sure if I loved it or hated it. Main characters Cal and Frida, like most of us, seemed dull rather than dazzling, struggling in dystopia rather than building evil empires or falling apart into little pieces. They make dumb mistakes and don’t stand up for themselves. They have sex a lot because they’re bored, they hate eating vegetables every meal and miss their friends and families. Maybe this makes California authentic to a post-disaster life, and maybe this makes it a bit boring. They’re just trying to survive, scared and hungry and lonely. As other reviewers have mentioned, the language here isn’t doing any cartwheels, but I don’t think Lepucki intended her narrators, Cal and Frida, to speak eloquently or rhapsodize about their experience.

California scared me not because I live in it’s namesake state, home of earthquakes and the current drought, but because the concept of privatized Communities felt so plausible. I lived in Oakland, CA for many years, and there’s been much debate about private security cars roaming the nicer areas while the poorer areas are left to fend for themselves. Google is building an airport in Mountain View complete with a blimp hangar. I winced when I read about a world in which corporations keep the wealthy safe in compounds and forget about the rest of us, because it does seem so plausible based on some of the current struggles in the Bay Area.

What makes this book great is all that necessary societal evil brimming under the surface. In this California, you can’t have everything, and the sacrifices made for safety or its opposite, for comfort or control, are staggering. This isn’t just another dystopian novel, but (like the best speculative fiction/dystopia) it feels like an accurate criticism of life in our society today.

California on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm Morphs Mom and Dad Into Spy Vs. Spy

the farm

Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm follows his hit trilogy Child 44, and fans of Child 44’s tense and gristly tone won’t be disappointed.

The Farm begins with protagonist Daniel’s parents pitted against each other. Mild-manned, retired mom and dad seem to have gone totally mad, as Daniel’s dad calls complaining about his mom’s violent, erratic behavior. Hours later Daniel’s mom calls him from a pay phone, warning him to not trust his father. Daniel feels submersed in a familial spy novel, where he doesn’t know who to trust or what to think.

Daniel’s frazzled mother, Tilde, arrives on his doorstep and begins to weave a tale which is as indecipherable as it is irresistible. Daniel knew his parents retired to a farm in rural Sweden, but layers upon layers of what Daniel imagined to be the idyllic golden years of his parent’s life are revealed as untruths. Daniel is shocked, not only by what his mother is revealing about her own life but also by the treachery she senses in her new rural area. Is Tilde mentally unstable, paranoid and erratic? Or is she a strong, stubborn and observant woman, willing to speak up against those in power in a small community corrupted by evil?

From its opening sentences, The Farm wraps the reader into its vivid, suspicious world. Smith masters storytelling through Tilde, who comes across as brusque and a bit wild, but captivating. Smith drags the reader along on this journey of discovery with Daniel, like being dragged along the outside of a speeding car. Anyone with a remotely typical family life can imagine Daniel’s dismay at being presented with stories so wild they clearly belong in nightmares, not his parents’ retirement years. Although a twist near the end may leave some readers feeling cheated, fans of Smith’s previous work will expect nothing less.

The Farm on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Love Is Lost and Found in Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night

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Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night opens with TV host Gillian in the hospital, disfigured after a car crash. Her husband, the drunk behind the wheel, was killed. But really, this book isn’t as depressing as it sounds.

Unlike other blockbuster books which feature a character with a disfigured face, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van or Invisible Monsters by Chuck Pahalniuk, this isn’t a book about looking different. This is a book about how life goes on, about how the clock ticks past moments both brilliant and brutal.

What seems to be a story of Gillian’s struggle to recover dramatically shifts halfway through, to focus on an artist known for his paintings of nude housewives. As his life interweaves with Gillian’s several powerful times, this shift saves the book from an unbearable overexposure of one woman’s struggle.

All Days Are Night morphs into a love story, a falling-out-of-love story, with steamy sex and moments of crazed artistic frustration. The title quote, despite its dismal insinuation, comes from Shakespeare’s Love Sonnet 43:“All days are nights to see till I see thee,/And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.”

Stamm writes with little indication of change—conversations or shifts in scene blur in his writing as they do in life, time moving on unceremoniously. Stamm’s prose needs no formatting, as it cuts clearly to the big questions. He looks to what defines us, and what drives us, when we think we can’t go on.

All Days Are Night is out today on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter, Socialite Turns Sleuth

dear daughter 2

There are those for whom recklessness is a state of abandon. Of thoughtlessness. Of a conscious decision to ignore repercussions and eventualities. And I bet it’s liberating for them, like spinning in circles and falling to the ground. But that’s not me. My recklessness was a demonstration of restraint. I spun in circles to prove I could walk a straight line after.

–Elizabeth Little, Dear Daughter

Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter has all the thrills of a Gillian Flynn novel, dressed up with the glamour of a jaded Los Angeles socialite.

Janie Jenkins is a sarcastic and spoiled celebutante (think Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan). Which makes her situation all the more intolerable—as a teenager, she was convicted for her mother’s murder.

Now, after ten years, Janie’s conviction has been overturned on a technicality. With paparazzi hot on her heels, LA’s it girl is out to clear her name. In a modern day mash-up of texts, Wikipedia entries, and CNN breaking news e-mails, Little mocks the media and high society but doesn’t forget to build up a real story in there too. What really happened the night of the murder?

Janie’s search takes her where no modern day socialite has dared to go before: a small mining town in South Dakota. In the same vein as Tawni O’Dell’s One of Us, when a glamorous duck is placed in a small mining pond, the culture clash is sure to be memorable.

This is a mystery, but a hilarious one. Dear Daughter takes a shameless dive into celebrity culture, and the spoof is just wacky enough to work. Like a bad reality show that you can’t stop watching, you’ll find yourself consuming Dear Daughter in one sitting and wanting more when it ends.

Dear Daughter on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Halloween Treat Alert! Ghastle and Yule by Josh Malerman.

ghastle and yule

Happy Halloween! The Bay Area is finally getting a bit of rain, and what better day for a storm than Halloween.

Also, what better day for a Kindle Single release from Josh Malerman, of Bird Box fame. Bird Box my list of spooky novels a few days ago, and Malerman’s Ghastle and Yule is the sort of calorie-free Halloween treat you can’t miss. It’s less than a dollar, so the price is right.

I’ll be reading it tonight as I listen to the thunder and await trick-or-treaters. (Do they even come to apartment buildings? I never know.)

From the Amazon book description, Ghastle and Yule sounds a bit like Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in all the right ways:

Two warring horror filmmakers are haunted by each other’s work in this tense, chilling tale of dark artistic vision set in 1960s Hollywood. Gordon Ghastle and Allan Yule are promising young directors who help reshape the genre. But as their careers take off, will their need to outdo each other bring them to commit acts more macabre than what they commit to film? Told in intimate detail by their mutual cinematographer, Ghastle and Yule chronicles the rise and fall of two geniuses at the stormy height of their powers—and what happens when obsessions go too far.

Eerie retro films, battling mad geniuses, a cinematographer caught in the madness! Put your brave face on and indulge in all the candy meant for trick-or-treaters your heart desires, because you only get an excuse to love horror this much once a year.

Ghastle and Yule on Amazon.com

Chelsea Cain introduces tough girl Kick Lannigan in One Kick.

one kick

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

—Bruce Lee, epigraph from Chelsea Cain’s One Kick

It’s about time for Kick Lannigan. In Chelsea Cain’s new series One Kick, Lannigan turns the woman-in-peril concept on its dainty head. Who better to fight crime, Cain asks, than a victim? After all, victims of crime know their perpetrators more intimately than the police ever will.

Koethi Zan explored this territory in The Never List, where traumatized young women held in a basement for years reunite to investigate the case. Where The Never List was nightmarish in places, One Kick only dabbles into Kick’s dark memories without dwelling there. A child pornographer kidnapped Kick (then Kathleen) as a wee child. Abuser Mel and his pseudo-wife carried little Kathleen from hide-out to hide-out amongst a network of kiddie pornographers, referred to as the family. Yikes!

Mel started Kick’s intensive training in weapons and defense, as he knew the possibility of a raid was always upon them. Once freed from Mel’s creepy grasp by that inevitable Fed raid, Kathleen-turned-Kick continued her training, choosing to empower herself with knowledge and physical ability most of us might consider obsessive. But hey, she’d been through some brutal stuff. Martial arts training, lock picking, time at the gun range–she channeled all this self defense into her own sort of therapy, becoming the strongest Kick she could be.

By the time we meet Kick Lannigan, she’s a smart, guarded, and sometimes bizarre woman who can take care of herself in any situation and doesn’t care what other people think. She makes herself laugh, intensely, loudly, “HA!” in uncomfortable situations to lower her cortisol levels. She squats like an idiot in the park, for martial arts training. She wears her hood up. She’s got personality, and she’s someone most girls would want to be friends with. I want to be friends with her.

So when another kid goes missing, and a secretive rich business man has interests in the case, Kick finds herself recruited into the pedophile-busting business. She works with the suave, world-weary Bishop, who is the perfect match to her own unusual combination of regular world naivety and dark world over-exposure.

Because Chelsea Cain wrote One Kick, you can bet on some serious emotional turmoil mixed in with the action. Her hit Gretchen Lowell series features a cop, Archie, enmeshed with the serial killer that tortured him, and that same vibe is strong here. As this is the first book in a series, I doubt this theme of caring for your captor is likely to go away anytime soon.

Any girl out there seeking her own realistic superhero for this modern world need look no further, Kick Lannigan is here and she’s taking the power back!

One Kick on Amazon.com*/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

*As I’m writing this, the Kindle edition is only $4.99. It’s a deal, y’all.

The Spookiest Novels I’ve Read

Halloween is just around the corner, and inquiring minds around the book-o-sphere are asking, “What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?” Lists of scary stories are being passed out like Halloween candy. LitReactor even has the “5 Scariest Grammar Issues.” Adding to that festively dark spirit, here are a few of my favorite spooky novels.

1. Bird Box by Josh Malerman

bird boxI reviewed this back in July, and it still stands out as one of the scariest books I’ve read in quite a while. I highly recommend listening to this as an audiobook, as it features a world in which people go mad by catching a glimpse of otherworldly creatures.

In Bird Box land, you hunker down at home, hiding behind windows covered with with mattresses and blankets. You need to protect yourself from seeing whatever thing is outside. When you must go out for supplies, you go out blindfolded, fumbling, and very afraid. This book is agonizing in some places, as it presents characters with countless fears they must face blinded.

2. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

house of leavesThe best kind of spooky novel doesn’t make sense in places, and MZD’s House of Leaves creates a world in which nothing is quite right. There are layers here, and each one of them hangs like a crooked picture on a wall of madness.

First, we meet photojournalist Will Navidson and his family, who have moved into a house which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. He films his ventures into the home’s more bizarre aspects.

In the second layer of the story, Navidson’s film is analyzed by Zampanò, a blind academic who devoted much of his work to studying the documentary “The Navidson Record.”

The third layer is that of Johnny Truant, who stumbles upon Zampanò’s notes, and thus the story of Will Navidson and his home, and begins to assemble those notes into a narrative, often including his own story and thoughts.

Got all that? As Truant falls deeper into the house, you’ll find yourself falling too…

3. The End of Alice and Appendix A by A.M. Homes

the end of alice collageNot all spooky things are creatures or possessed houses, and The End of Alice is more terrifying than any ghost story precisely because it talks about human evils.

A pedophile (nicknamed Chappy, a reference to a childhood love of Chapstick) has been locked away for years, and begins receiving letters from a catty young woman who claims to also be a pedophile. Through this young woman’s questions and her own stories, Chappy walks us through his long and dark hall of memories, each one building up to a more brutal, sad, and sadistic result than the last.

Appendix A, for those of you who really want to get freaked out, is a collection of (obviously fictional) evidence surrounding Chappy’s crime: his confession, some self-portraits he created, evidence bagged from the crime, and photos of his very disturbed family.

A.M. Homes is a beautiful, lyrical writer, so the concept manages to work without being unbearable to read. However, this is the most disturbing book I’ve read, and it definitely doesn’t have a happy ending. If you aren’t looking for something gruesome and grim, choose another from the list.

4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseThis is my current spooky Halloween read, and thus far it is not disappointing. It is, in fact, totally epic. It is thought to be the best haunted house story ever written, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Montague hopes to investigate the paranormal activity at Hill House, a ghost hunter before his time, and he invites three young guests to stay in the house with him. Shirley Jackson is a master of creating mood, and the suffocating, nauseating mood in Hill House as its first new resident steps in, summoned in a letter by Dr. Montague, is unforgettable.

Those who have seen the movies know it all goes downhill from there.

5. Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez

syndrome eI’m going to be talking about Franck Thilliez’s Syndrome E more in the next coming months as there is a sequel coming out in January, Bred to Kill.

I think this book hasn’t seen its peak in popularity yet, as there’s some buzz about it being made into a movie by writer Mark Heyman, who penned Black Swan. Uhm, amazing.

If there’s something spooky in a book and it isn’t a house, you can bet it is going to be an old film. In Syndrome E, an old film is blinding people who watch it. Two detectives converge on the case from very different directions; they uncover all sorts of dark and twisted stuff all over the world. I’m not going to give it away here.

Go get your read on, you dark and twisted children of the night!

Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions Is An Intimate Look At One Family’s Struggle With Addiction

if only you people

Cut.
Take gazillion and one.
This time with a little less weepy-weepy, please. A little less improvisation. A little less lip. A little more faith. A little more higher power. A little more prayer, a little less wine. Cut the crap. Cut the line. Tuck the chin. Look left, right, faster, slower. Pick seven dandelions on the first day of spring. Hate less or more. Work harder. Chew slower. Be better. Look to god, God, GOD. Watch your language. Watch your back. Collect rocks. Lick ‘em clean. Count the pigeons in the backyard and multiply times forever. Give it up, let it go, take it back, take control. Say yes, say no. Say no, no, no. Stick to the script. Steps One through Twelve. One through Twelve. Keep coming back. It works if you work it.
If only you people could follow directions.
–Jessica Hendry Nelson, If Only You People Could Follow Directions

Jessica Hendry Nelson‘s If Only You People Could Follow Directions is like a photo album of a family wading through the darkest depths of addiction. In a collection of personal essays, Nelson describes memories like snapshots, sad and bright and strange, jails and fear and funerals replacing the smiling faces that fill most family pictures.

Rather than try to explain addiction, in medical or historical terms, Nelson leaves those general concepts unexplored and focuses on her own family’s story. This narrow view forms addiction into an ominous cloud, an elusive force pulling and pushing those around her.

Nelson tells of fun, terrifying times with her father, dead early from alcoholism. She reveals guilt at having introduced her brother to drugs, as he’s now following in her father’s footsteps. And her mother does the best she can, smoking and drinking her way to something like peace. In one essay, Nelson traces that unquenchable thirst back for generations, to her great-grandmother. Nelson’s grandmother has memories of discovering her own mother so drunk she’d fallen out of bed, incoherent, and been sick on her nightgown. “Looking at her lying there, crooked and pale, I was so afraid.” Cynthia, Nelson’s grandmother says.

In writing of this as an ongoing saga, Nelson is almost like the survivor of a car crash, or a plane wreck, but not really even that because she’s still lost amidst this familial struggle. So she’s in a car, right now, crashing against this beast of addiction. She’s glancing around, despite the high speeds and the loud noises, and relaying how this crash-in-progress looks. She’s telling us how much it hurts, and how little she can do to stop the forward movement.

Books without much of a plot don’t work if the prose isn’t so moving that it propels you forward, and Nelson’s writing is sad in all the right ways. It’s bittersweet and at times so bare it hurts. It helps to be really interested in this topic, and people who haven’t experienced or been affected by addiction may just not get it. Other reviews are all over the map–some people say it’s overwritten, or that the drifting format feels overwhelming at times.

But sharp memories torn from a disorderly life seem to perfectly express addiction’s elusive, repetitious nature. In the prologue, a letter to her brother recalls the countless locales they’d visit to see their troubled father: rehabs, prisons, “Grandma’s big house.” Then, “He visits us every time you land in the same jail, your twin mug shots forever floating in the same county database, each one more fucked up than the last.” Addiction is such a muddy, messy thing; push up your sleeves, let down your guard, and grab your Kleenex.

If Only You People Could Follow Directions on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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