I Had Brain Surgery, What's Your Excuse?
By Suzy Becker (Workman, $19.95)
They say time heals all wounds, but for author Suzy Becker, recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor, her sense of humor was clearly more important. At first, I thought reading an illustrated book about such a serious subject would be nauseatingly cute, yet Becker's whimsical, Sandra Boynton–esque line drawings save her account from its own solemnity. Undeniably, I laughed out loud on the bus—to the dismay of my fellow commuters—at her imaginary exchanges with Fresh Air's Terry Gross and her illustrations of what she was thinking during medical consults and surgery (she was awake during the procedure) to remove the noncancerous growth that was causing seizures.
The description of her diagnosis and subsequent operation is riveting, complete with appropriate doses of melodrama and educational tidbits—I felt like I was watching a PBS documentary on the art of brain surgery. Unfortunately, Excuse does stall during its second half as Becker describes her recovery. Her ability to read, speak, and draw now impaired, she feels much anxiety, since illustration is her bread and butter. Describing her need to slow down and relearn how to communicate, she dwells at length on her impatience and frustration. Then, somewhat confusingly for the reader, she's suddenly functional again, recovered from mild brain damage, and working steadfastly on her fellowship colloquium. Including more pre- and postsurgery samples of her artwork, which help convey her progress during recuperation, would have benefited the reader. To my non-discerning eye, examples from before and after surgery look no different—implying a full recovery.
Unless authored by Sherwin Nuland or Oliver Sacks, no book on brain surgery is going to have an unhappy outcome, and Becker's is no exception. Only weeks after surgery, she's participating in a 500-mile charity bike ride, beginning a Radcliffe fellowship, and contributing cartoons to an environmental magazine. Her lust for life obviously smoothed her surgery and recovery. If the same can't be said for her book, it is nonetheless both charming and inspiring. SAMANTHA STOREY
Suzy Becker will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., March 12.
By Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead, $24.95)
Long Island gets no respect in fiction. Since The Great Gatsby, it's become nothing but a déclassé terrain of Levittown, unfettered sprawl, and minor tabloid headlines from the Hamptons, a poor cousin to the better-heeled burbs of Updike, Cheever, and Begley. Yet Chang-rae Lee (A Gesture Life, Native Speaker) recognizes it to be more American than those Mayflower–WASP domains precisely because it's newer, crasser, and more interestingly in flux.
Lee's protagonist and narrator, 59-year-old semiretired Jerry Battle, is something of a reluctant, resurgent warrior for his class. His father changed the family's name from Battaglia and moved its construction and landscaping firm from the city to the booming suburbs. Jerry took over, he explains, because he was too lazy not to. Likewise, he confesses, he got married and had kids out of the same sort of inertia, then passed the business over to his son in order to travel and pilot his single-engine plane over Long Island. A widower whose exact circumstances of widowhood gradually emerge in Aloft, Jerry is a man withdrawn, emotionally disengaged with his two adult children. His tart, Ph.D. daughter calls him non–"heart-sharing," perhaps the reason his live-in girlfriend of some two decades recently dumped him. Nurse Rita essentially raised his kids for him, yet Jerry never got around to marrying her. Couldn't be bothered.
Selfish, self-entitled, and safely cocooned in privilege ("the last white man," his daughter sneers), Jerry isn't exactly a boomer; he's a little too old for that. But he's the builder to the boomers who flocked to Long Island, and he well understands their urge to isolate themselves in nuclear-family units of four walls and a yard—as does his own clan. While the Battaglias may once have lived in extended-family squalor, his daughter's fiancé observes, today the Battles want to live "in their own mini-biosphere." For Jerry, that biosphere is his plane. For his father, a nursing home. For his son, a nouveau-riche mansion that's bankrupting the family business. For his daughter, a pregnancy coupled with cancer. Aloft is about all those mini-biospheres cracking, like a minor fender bender on the LIE that creates a huge backup.
The crises lead back to Jerry's humble ranch house, where Aloft becomes a novel of family reconciliation, pleasing and conventional, if less expansive than The Corrections. (Already a movie is planned, chasing what might be called the About Schmidt demographic.) If Aloft ends with a tailwind's push of melodrama, Jerry Battle is the kind of guy you'd want at the stick: not infallible, but someone who knows to switch off autopilot when a storm disrupts his flight plan. B.R.M.
Chang-rae Lee will appear at Third Place Books, 5 p.m. Sun., March 14; and at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., March 15.
The Dew Breaker
By Edwidge Danticat (Knopf, $22)
Again, sad Haiti is in the news, and again, young Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat has a new novel out, her third. Its title comes from the nickname for the Duvalier-era thugs who tortured and intimidated the political opposition that would produce now-deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. These goons rose early—hence broke the dew—to terrorize their rivals. In these nine interleaved stories, the past of one such dew breaker, now an old man, is revealed to his adult daughter. We also meet the same old man at different stages of his life, gradually yielding a well-rounded portrait of him and his family in present-day Brooklyn, with roots in 1960s Haiti.
Throughout, Danticat introduces different characters and switches voices quickly and often. They include the daughter, Ka, an artist who learns the terrible secret about the scar on her father's face. (Before, he'd told her he was a political prisoner, not a torturer of political prisoners.) He and her mother also share in Dew Breaker's narration, as do several of his victims back in Haiti, which can be slightly confusing until you learn to recognize the changes in voice.
Though not a mystery (Ka hears the truth about her father in the book's first chapter), The Dew Breaker ends with an unexpected twist. Its unpredictability may reflect the latest news developments from Haiti, which is only 200 years old. For Danticat, only 35, that country's troubled history and uncertain future suggest material for many more novels. GINGER DONALD
Edwidge Danticat will appear at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center (104 17th Ave. S., 206-624-6600; advance tickets $5–$7 at Elliott Bay Book Co.), 7:30 p.m. Wed., March 17.