Harvey Freedenberg

Sleepwalk is a wild ride across an eerie near-future America in the company of a surprisingly endearing kidnapper, arsonist and hit man. As emotionally charged as it is comically bleak, Dan Chaon’s fast-paced novel is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Chaon’s off-the-grid 50-something protagonist, Will Bear, thinks of himself as a “blank Scrabble piece” whose collection of aliases is rivaled only by his stash of burner phones. Fresh from a courier assignment, he answers one of those burners and is greeted by the voice of a young woman who calls herself Cammie and claims she’s Will’s daughter, the result of a sperm donation made three decades earlier. Things only get stranger from there, as Cammie reveals that Will’s contributions may have resulted in a small army of offspring.

Sleepwalk follows Will and Flip, the pit bull he rescued from a dog-fighting compound, in a race across a bleakly beautiful American landscape that’s scarred by civil unrest and plague cities, its endless highways now dotted with military checkpoints and “rabbit-beetle hybrid drones.” Though Will, who’s fond of microdosing LSD and ruminating about his epitaph, is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of being the patriarch of an expanding brood, the criminal syndicate that employs Will has reasons for dispatching him to eliminate Cammie—reasons that slowly become clear to him.

As Will shifts from being the target of Cammie’s outreach to becoming her ostensible pursuer in a shifting game of cat-and-mouse, he also has considerable time to reflect on his own troubled early years in the company of a mother who was “on the sociopathic spectrum, I guess,” and was “part of an anarchist collective that was more or less a cult,” a life that launched Will on his own shadowy career.

In Sleepwalk’s short, tightly written chapters, descriptions of apocalyptic cults, bizarre eugenics schemes and sheer mayhem vie with Will’s moments of profound regret and the faint hope that somehow his life could take a different path, as he longs to “wake up someday on a desert island with amnesia.”

The author of six previous books (both novels and story collections) that feature suspenseful plots and a distinctive literary flair, Chaon marries those qualities once again in memorable fashion while never losing sight of Sleepwalk’s emotional core: an interrogation of the power of ancestry and the way it helps shape our destinies.

Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

You don’t need to know anything about the titular subject of Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses to appreciate this candid and engaging memoir of how rediscovering a long-abandoned passion helped lift her out of a crisis.

Four years after the birth of her daughter, Nina, novelist Maum found herself drowning in a whirlpool of insomnia-fueled depression, creative stasis and dissatisfaction in her marriage to Leo, a French filmmaker. “I am a blob,” she writes, “struggling through the hours with eyes that will not close.” In search of the relief that even medication and a wise-beyond-his-young-years therapist couldn’t provide, Maum turned to one of her childhood pursuits: horseback riding.

It had been 29 years since Maum abandoned riding lessons at age 9, but she never lost her love for these majestic creatures. Her first lesson as an adult—when “the heat of that beast underneath me, the breadth of his body and the pump of his great heart, had touched something primitive inside”—instantly rekindled her affection. That encounter eventually led her into the “weird sport” of polo, where she learned that putting aside the futile quest for mastery in favor of simply having fun was the path to finding joy.

Through flashbacks to her privileged childhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, Maum also explores some of the roots of her adult angst. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and her younger brother, Brendan, developed some rare and serious medical problems that added to the family’s stress. She traces how some of her more troublesome personality traits from that period—notably a perfectionism that eventually expressed itself as anorexia—continued to manifest in adulthood.

Maum emerged from finding her footing in the world of horses “clearer and braver regarding what I needed in my marriage,” simultaneously discovering a focus and patience that allowed her “to reconnect with the daughter I’d lost track of.” While Maum’s prescription isn’t for everyone, her story reveals how “what pulls us out of darkness can be surprising.” The Year of the Horses shows how the willingness to put aside fear and take on a new challenge in adulthood can unlock a happier life.

You don’t need to know anything about horses to appreciate Courtney Maum’s engaging memoir of rediscovering this long-abandoned passion at a moment of crisis.

According to an article in the MIT Technology Review, by early 2019, more than 26 million people had added their DNA to the four leading commercial ancestry and health databases. That level of interest cries out for an in-depth examination of genealogy’s broad appeal, and Maud Newton gives us just that in Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, a thoughtful investigation of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the branches of her own family tree.

Speaking by FaceTime from her home in Queens, New York, the red-haired and bespectacled Newton is relaxed and cordial as she sits in front of a wall of glass-enclosed bookshelves. She speaks thoughtfully but with evident passion about a project that had its genesis some 15 years ago, when she started researching her family on Ancestry.com. But it wasn’t until 2010, when she received her 23andMe DNA test results, that her interest in the subject took off. Even then, she admits, she was “puzzled by my obsession with it. I wasn’t really sure exactly what I was trying to get at.”

Read our starred review of Maud Newton’s ‘Ancestor Trouble.’

A 2014 cover story for Harper’s Magazine on “America’s Ancestry Craze” led to a book contract and launched Newton, a writer and former book blogger who briefly practiced law before her literary career began, on a long and sometimes circuitous path through subjects like the heritability of trauma and the spiritual importance of ancestors in various cultures. “As a layperson, my ability to understand the deep science was limited,” she says, “but I really wanted to do my best.” The broad reading list reflected in her book ranges from ancients like Aristotle and Hippocrates to the work of contemporary writers such as Dani Shapiro and Alexander Chee.

At the core of Ancestor Trouble is Newton’s complex and often difficult family story. She describes her birth as a “kind of homegrown eugenics project,” writing that her parents “married not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.” The union between her father, a Mississippi-born lawyer and unabashed racist, and her mother, a Texas native who later in life became a fundamentalist minister who conducted exorcisms in the family living room, lasted only 12 years but left Newton with a colorful, though at times painful, lineage to explore.

Among the most memorable characters in her family line are her maternal ninth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons, who faced multiple allegations of witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts, and her maternal grandfather, Robert Bruce, who reportedly married 13 times. (So far, Newton has only been able to document 10 marriages, though she’s still searching.) Another is Charley, Robert’s father, who was accused of murdering a man in downtown Dallas with a hay hook in 1916. He died in a Texas mental hospital, but Newton became so engrossed in his story that she purchased a tombstone to mark his previously anonymous grave.

“As a layperson, my ability to understand the deep science was limited, but I really wanted to do my best.”

For Newton, the most problematic aspect of her ancestry concerns her family’s connections with slavery and with efforts to expel Indigenous peoples from their native lands. On her father’s side, that history hardly came as a surprise; he was, after all, obsessed with the Confederacy. But Newton was dismayed to discover that some of her mother’s ancestors also enslaved people and participated in genocide against Native Americans. “It was an unpleasant surprise, but ultimately a healthy and useful one,” Newton says, “to recognize that it wasn’t possible for me to divide my family into the part that enslaved people and that I didn’t relate to as much, and the part that I related to more that didn’t have this history. It was on all the sides.”

Though her family history is rife with material, Newton wanted to write a book that was more than a conventional family memoir. “The only way I wanted to write it was if I could . . . look at it through these different lenses, both through my own family history and in the larger historical, sociological, scientific, philosophical and religious history context,” she says.

That broad perspective magnified Newton’s reservations about online DNA research websites like the ones that launched her investigation. “I am very skeptical and very concerned about the data those sites are collecting and the lack of control we have over what is done with that data,” she says. “And I also continue to use both of those sites regularly. I objectively think they’re highly problematic, and on a personal level, I continue to be seduced by the tools that they offer.”

“Making it personal is the most powerful force we have for change.”

Newton’s comprehensive approach also led her to explore different ancestor veneration practices, such as Tomb-Sweeping Day in China and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. As she studied these rituals throughout history and the world, she came to realize that “we in the contemporary West who do not venerate ancestors or minister to them in the afterlife are the aberration, not the other way around.” That intriguing and moving investigation, she says, provided her with “a spiritual connection now, a healthy connection to my ancestors, including to some of the ancestors who were problematic when they died, with whom I had difficult relationships in life.” In the end, she says, “it’s less important or interesting whether there’s some objective reality to this feeling that I have of connection to my ancestors. What’s important to me is the healing potential that this inquiry can have.”

Readers will connect with many aspects of Newton’s vivid story, but there’s one—what she calls “acknowledgment genealogy”—that she hopes will especially resonate. This encompasses, as she puts it, “personal harms that we can acknowledge within our own family or larger harms that relate to the systemic problems that we’re facing now as a country. . . . If each of us can feel a little more comfortable coming forward and recognizing these harms and thinking about them and feeling about them in a larger context,” she says, “we’ll move a lot further along as a country toward the kind of conversations and healing that we need.” Newton believes this and brilliantly reflects it in Ancestor Trouble. After all, she says, “making it personal is the most powerful force we have for change.”

Maud Newton author photo credit: Maximus Clarke

The essayist and critic has penned a thoughtful investigation of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the branches of her own family tree.

In 2014, the well-known literary blogger Maud Newton wrote a cover story for Harper’s Magazine titled “America’s Ancestry Craze.” Now, in her first book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, she significantly expands on that piece, blending a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy.

Newton introduces a large cast of characters from her lineage, some of whom were accused of murder and witchcraft. The conflict-filled marriage of her parents—a father from whom she’s been estranged for two decades and who would welcome the return of slavery, and a mother who believes in demonic possession and once led a fundamentalist church in her living room—provides rich narrative material, as do Newton’s often moving reflections on her markedly different relationships with her Texas and Mississippi grandmothers.

Maud Newton, author of ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ shares how she’s working to acknowledge the sins of her ancestors.

In the most incisive and tough-minded chapters of the book, Newton confronts the twin “monstrous bequests” of her ancestors: their ownership of enslaved people and involvement with the dispossession of America’s Indigenous population. She was able to trace her father’s forebears’ slaveholding back to 1816, which she more or less expected. But in the process, she made the unpleasant discovery that there are also slave owners in her maternal lineage, and that she’s descended from Massachusetts settlers who expropriated the lands of native tribes through treachery and violence.

As absorbing as it may be, Newton’s family story is only one element of her account. Ancestor Trouble broadens into a much deeper excavation of the subject of ancestry that ranges widely across an abundance of topics, among them the allure and danger of websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and the spiritual practice of ancestor veneration. She also investigates controversies in cutting-edge DNA research, acknowledging that apparent scientific advances are not always unalloyed goods.

Newton’s family history is uniquely hers, but her book arms anyone who’s ever been tempted to visit their own ancestry in a serious way with a host of provocative questions to consider.

In her striking debut, Maud Newton blends a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy.

Even aside from Sylvia Plath’s literary output, there’s always been intense interest in the writer’s short, tragic life, which ended in 1963 with her suicide at age 30. Debut novelist Lee Kravetz’s The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. is a fascinating fictional re-creation of Plath’s final decade, a paean to the allure of poetry and an investigation of the mysterious sources of literary inspiration, as told by three women close to Plath.

When Plath enters the coveted Boston poetry workshop run by famed poet Robert Lowell, her arrival ignites the professional and personal jealousy of Agatha Gray, a contemporary who publishes under the pseudonym Boston Rhodes. Plath is the Mozart to Rhodes’ Antonio Salieri, “a success in all the ways I was not,” as Rhodes bitterly summarizes it. As she describes in a lengthy, anguished letter to Lowell, Rhodes is convinced that Plath is the only thing standing between her and the status of “Major Voice” in the confessional poetry movement emerging in the 1950s.

Estee, a master curator at a struggling Boston auction house, also has her own personal connection to Plath’s story. In 2019, three spiral notebooks containing a previously unknown draft of Plath’s posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, are discovered in the attic of an abandoned home. As Estee supervises the sale of the notebooks in her final auction before retirement, she wrestles with her misgivings about allowing this literary treasure to pass into private hands.

In addition to the voices of these fictional characters, Kravetz introduces Ruth Barnhouse, the real-life psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts who treated Plath with several unconventional therapies following the poet’s first attempted suicide in 1953. Ruth describes her difficult work with Plath’s persistent depression in a series of candid journal entries: “Miss Plath is no longer chasing literary prizes, top marks, or perfection,” she writes. “I fear she is chasing death itself.”

Rotating between the three voices, Kravetz skillfully orchestrates a chorus of regret and longing that swirls around Plath. The women, each of whom has been touched by Plath in markedly different ways, try to make sense of their lives and their relationship to hers. Into this narrative Kravetz cleverly inserts a subplot that pursues the mystery of how Plath’s notebooks fall into the hands of a pair of aliterate Boston house flippers. The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. will intrigue admirers of Plath’s work and likely introduce her to a new group of readers.

Lee Kravetz’s novel is a fascinating fictional re-creation of Sylvia Plath’s final decade and a paean to the allure of poetry.

“The making of many books is without limit,” says the book of Ecclesiastes, and that weary reaction seems appropriate when considering yet another offering on personal finance. But Paco de Leon’s Finance for the People: Getting a Grip on Your Finances is a refreshingly original contribution to this crowded field, and one her fellow millennials will find especially valuable as they contemplate the decades of decisions that will shape their financial futures.

Founder of the Hell Yeah Group, a financial firm that emphasizes service to creatives, de Leon touches all the traditional bases, from how to handle debt to saving and investing for retirement. Much of this advice (e.g., automate savings and max out contributions to a retirement account when there’s an employer match) doesn’t stray far from conventional paths. But as she leads readers on the perilous ascent of what she calls the “Pyramid of Financial Awesomeness,” several aspects of her approach stand out.

Acknowledging that we are all “weird about money,” de Leon offers an empathetic yet concrete perspective on overcoming the psychological barriers that prevent many people from dealing effectively with financial decision-making. And while she’s not averse to discipline, she disdains some of the popular emphasis on austerity (think David Bach’s The Latte Factor). Rejecting a worldview that chooses “scarcity over abundance,” she’s intent on “helping people connect to their financial power,” encouraging them to think at least as hard about generating more income as they do about saving in order to balance what she calls the “personal finance equation.”

De Leon delivers her message in a breezy, conversational style, emphasizing key points with an assortment of clever cartoons. At the same time, she is eminently practical, insisting on the need to set aside 30 to 60 minutes of “weekly finance time” as a first step toward systematically establishing sound money habits. Most notably, de Leon includes some tips—including journaling as a means of “unearthing your beliefs about money” and using mindfulness meditation to develop the muscle of delayed gratification—not likely to be found in other books of this genre. Above all, she’s an engagingly self-deprecating storyteller, illustrating her advice with tales of some of her own money missteps and their hard-earned lessons.

Dealing with money is one of life’s inescapable realities, and for most people there will always be some amount of pain associated with it. Having a friendly guide like Finance for the People can help the journey become both more bearable and more profitable.

Paco de Leon’s Finance for the People is a refreshingly original contribution to this crowded field of personal finance books.

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