Ari Silverman’s violent encounter with a neighborhood boy leaves him questioning himself in Aaron Hamburger’s Nirvana Is Here, a coming-of-age novel set outside Detroit amid the rise of grunge. It is a nostalgic, wrenching depiction of a youth in crisis whose sensitive, unsparing movements spark with realism.
The novel begins in Ari’s present. An openly gay professor, he’s about to meet a high school classmate, Justin, whom he hasn’t seen in years. The prospect sets off bittersweet memories of the early 1990s, when a teenaged Ari—white, Jewish, suburban, and recovering from the attack—met Justin, a black scholarship student from Detroit. But his friendship with Justin grew complicated when the boys realized their expectations differed. The place where they left off becomes an anticipatory space that Ari imbues with significance.
Flashes of the past intersperse with Ari’s adulthood, allowing the events that shaped him to fully manifest their effects over time. Amid pieced-together revelations, snapshots of prep school life, his parents’ attempts to get Ari to move forward, therapy, doubts, and sexual exploration, there’s a poignant depiction of a boy struggling to reenter life after withdrawing in fear. Music and art are Ari’s rich safety net, and they give him a sense of an identity.
This gritty portrayal of adolescence and its cruel secrets highlights the damage that people inflict on each other, yet it’s its tender mercies that stand out: friends, a trip to France, a well-timed word. Despite complications, which range from the threat of his assailant’s reappearance to anxiety about being outed before he’s ready to claim being gay, Ari finds his own voice.
A tender self-reckoning, Nirvana Is Here brings the past full circle. Hamburger deftly reveals how incidents recede—even if they leave their mark—to bring new hopes into focus.
KAREN RIGBY (April 27, 2019)
In West Camel’s Attend, something mythic lingers just below the surface of Deptford, England, that will bind together three lives at loose ends.
A recovering drug addict, middle-aged Anne has moved home to face her family, sobriety, and a future in the haunted landscape of her past. Twenty-three-year-old Sam has moved to Deptford for work, but even more to escape the memory of his friend’s death in a sailing accident. By chance, each meets centenarian Deborah. When she tells them, “And of course, I can’t die,” they’re inadvertently drawn into her obsession: to help her die by destroying an ancient strip of cloth that she discovered in 1913 buried in a tunnel underneath 36 Albury Street. As Anne, Sam, and Deborah face the stories they’ve been telling themselves, they help each other find their paths to freedom.
Camel understands the heart’s momentum and its lurid compulsion to plunge. Anne, Sam, and Deborah have plummeted into a darkness from which they haven’t fully recovered, whether it’s a seemingly cursed return from an underground tunnel, the shadow of addiction, or the specter of death. Sidelined by their trauma, each is trying to find their way out of private hurts and back to connection. Navigating that distance overlaps the quotidian with the mysterious, and Camel uses both to interrogate their most practiced patterns, showing the snarled relationship between the personal and public faces of grief, reconciliation, and survivorship.
From its opening gambit to its final line, Attend demands and rewards attention. Camel’s magical realism opens trenchant depths in the ordinary, elevating the raw details—both emotional and prosaic—of people’s lives into moving motifs. Relayed with lyricism and compassion, Attend is “somewhere between a Bible story and an ugly fairy tale: never wanting to settle on either.”
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (April 27, 2019)
The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
One of the more startling facts Thomas Seeley, the Horace White Professor of Biology at Cornell University, cites in his comprehensive and essential The Lives of Bees is that “the honey bee provides nearly half of all crop pollination services worldwide.” The importance of the honey bee to the earth and humans is undeniable, and many volumes have been written about the subject. The differentiating factor of this book is that, unlike previous works, The Lives of Bees focuses primarily on how colonies of honey bees live in the wild.
The book both celebrates and chronicles the natural history of the honey bee. Using his own experimental research and drawing on numerous studies, Seeley provides an in-depth scientific look at honey bee colony nests, reproduction, food collection, temperature control, and more. His hands-on experience with honey bees in the Ithaca, New York area, where Cornell is located, personalizes the story.
Just as fascinating as the honey bee itself is the complex relationship this insect has with humans who, as Seeley writes, have manipulated bees “to boost their productivity.” Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book is the comparison of wild colonies with managed colonies. Seeley identifies and explores twenty-one distinct differences between the living conditions of each. He closes the book with a section entitled “Suggestions for Darwinian Beekeeping,” in which he outlines fourteen specific steps beekeepers can take to help honey bees “live with a better fit to their environment, hence with less stress and better health.”
As the book compares and contrasts honey bee colonies in the wild with those controlled by humans, it becomes clear that honey bees’ lives can be enriched or endangered by human beings. Seeley urges beekeepers in particular to focus “less on treating a honey bee colony as a honey factory or a pollination unit and more on admiring it as an amazing form of life.”
BARRY SILVERSTEIN (May 16, 2019)
In Michelle Kadarusman’s hopeful Girl of the Southern Sea, an impoverished girl living in Indonesia dreams of a better life.
Nia longs to go to high school. Her mother died giving birth to her brother, Rudi. Her father drinks, leaving Nia to take care of Rudi in their one-room shack in the slums of Jakarta. The family makes money selling banana fritters out of a cart, and Nia comforts and entertains Rudi with stories she makes up about her favorite heroine, Dewi Kadita.
After Nia walks away from a minibus accident as the only person who was not seriously injured, she tries to parlay the unexpected attention into a way to earn money for school. She doubles the price of her fritters, suggesting that those who buy them will also have a piece of her good fortune. But the accident and her actions have unexpected consequences. Drawing inspiration from her stories, Nia summons every bit of Dewi’s imagined courage and determination to hold onto her dreams.
A stark setting combines with striking characters as they struggle to survive, often engaging in dangerous or unethical activities to earn enough money to live. The choices that the characters make are reflections upon questions of right and wrong in an environment where basic needs are never guaranteed to be met. Nia’s life may not seem like it is in her own hands, but she proves to be a strong young woman, even if the challenges she faces are overwhelming. The novel does not offer simple solutions but instead wraps up Nia’s story in a way that demonstrates her willingness and ability to stand up for herself.
Girl of the Southern Sea is an uplifting novel about hope and the power of storytelling.
CATHERINE THURESON (April 27, 2019)
Life beyond the Binary
“Human diversity is neither a weakness, a threat, nor a fiction. Our diversity is a gift, and it is an undeniable reality,” writes Joshua Ferguson, an activist who is the first person to receive a non-binary birth certificate with an “X” gender designation in the province of Ontario. Their memoir, Me, Myself, They: Life beyond the Binary explores the personal struggle behind that “X” and the great lengths Joshua has gone to fight for non-binary representation.
Gender expression, sexuality, and sex are highly nuanced subjects. Me, Myself, They takes on the challenge of explaining a deeply personal, sensitive subject in a way that is comprehensible without being reductive. The memoir dives into Ferguson’s identity and describes what “life beyond the binary” feels like to them. The book opens with a disclaimer: obviously, Ferguson can’t and doesn’t try to speak for their community. However, their personal experiences are shared with courage and vulnerability. Non-binary identities are unique, they remind us, but compassion must be universal. A glossary of terms such as “transgender narrative,” “gender expression,” and “cisgender” is included.
Me, Myself, They is organized thematically. Each of the memoir’s thirteen chapters is a short essay on a theme, such as “The Survivor” and “The Amazon.” Ferguson writes explicitly about their past, including suicidal ideation and sexual and gender-related trauma. At the same time, the book is rich with happy memories. Passages about Ferguson’s husband, Florian, are especially moving, and stand as important reminders that queer pain is powerful, but queer joy will change the world.
CLAIRE FOSTER (April 27, 2019)