Ayelet Waldman suffered from severe mood swings for years. She went through a lot trying to get a diagnosis — she was even misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder for a few years — and she dutifully participated in therapy and tried almost every medication out there. That worked to varying degrees, but it was all taking a toll on her life and her marriage.
In the midst of this, Waldman heard about an experimental treatment in which people microdose with LSD. At about 10% of a typical dose, people who microdose don’t feel any of LSD’s trippy effects and instead begin to experience…nothing. The doses are too minuscule to cause any discernible mood alteration. And yet, the little research that does exist on microdosing points to its usefulness in treating mood disorders and illnesses like PTSD.
A Really Good Day is part memoir, part investigation on the LSD and drug laws in the United States. Waldman, a self-described nerd and chicken when it comes to breaking the law, chronicles the events that led to her finally receiving a little blue vial of diluted LSD in the mail from “Lewis Carroll.” As a former lawyer who often represented clients accused of drug-related offenses, Waldman had personal experiences with drug laws that gave her book some unique insights.
It’s the summer of 2004, and Brokeland Records owners Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings are fighting to keep their little corner of Oakland alive. Ex-NFL star Gibson Goode has just announced plans to open one of his Dogpile megastores in the area, which would effectively shut down Nat and Archy’s already-struggling business. With their livelihood, their close-knit neighborhood, and the sacredness of their carefully-selected used vinyl on the line, Nat and Archy refuse to go down without a fight.
Meanwhile, their wives are waging a battle of their own. Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks are the women behind Berkeley Birth Partners. Aviva has a reputation as “the Alice Waters of midwives,” and there is no one whose instinct she trusts more than Gwen’s. They’ve delivered over a thousand babies, but when one of their deliveries goes wrong, the find themselves fighting the smug staff at the hospital in a power struggle that quickly turns ugly. Their hospital access is in danger of being revoked.
There’s quite a list of characters — and sub-plots — in Telegraph Avenue. Nat and Aviva’s teenage son, Julius, is exploring his sexuality with none other than Archy’s son, Titus (who “isn’t gay” but humors Julie anyway). Titus has been shuffled along between Texas and California following his mother’s death; he hasn’t been a part of Archy’s life at all (Gwen doesn’t know about Titus). As a matter of fact, Archy doesn’t even know Titus is living in the same town. Both of the boys are film nerds and adore watching Archy’s estranged father, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings.
I didn’t think I was going to like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay when I first started it. Little did I know that it would soon become one of my favorite reads of 2011. The book had been on my TBR list for years, and I finally picked it up for my Pulitzer 1s project, but the beginning — while well-written — just never grabbed me. Then somewhere around the 50 page mark, something clicked and I found myself going, “Just one more chapter! Just one more!” for the remaining 600 or so pages.
The book is about Samuel Klayman and Josef Kavalier, two cousins who are lucky enough to break into the comic book industry during its golden age, the 1930s – early 1940s. With Sam creating the stories and Joe providing the artwork, the two are able to create a quality comic series at a time when people were churning out bad product in hopes of raking in a small share of the lucrative industry. Their star: The Escapist, who is able to fight his way out of any bind in his quest for justice.
“Escapist” is a significant term in the book. The superhero’s past is similar to Sam’s in many ways, though it takes a while before Sam even realizes this. There’s another way that it applies to Sam, but I won’t get into that because it’s a surprise in the plot. It also reflects Joe, who recently — and just barely — escaped Hitler’s occupation of Prague. His entire family is still trapped there, and his main goal is to make a lot of money and find a way to get his family to the United States. This pain and frustration over his family is often poured into Joe’s art; and most of the early issues featuring The Escapist have him fighting various recognizable Nazi figureheads, Hitler included (see: book cover).
56 of the books I read in 2011 were fiction. Naturally, I had a much harder time choosing my favorites this year. After some tough decisions, here’s what I came up with. The first three are my absolute favorites of the year. I didn’t rank the rest; everything after the jump is listed in alphabetical order by author, but I adored them all.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck (2002 ed.)
Originally published in 1952, East of Eden is a modern retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. Set in California, the book follows two generations of the Trask family and the devious woman that binds them together. Everything about the book is breathtaking. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. In my entire life.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008)
Revolving around the tenants of 7 rue de Grenelle, Hedgehog is filled with excellent writing and a memorable roster of characters that includes an underestimated concierge and a suicidal twelve-year-old. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to move into that building. This book was so satisfying that I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it again many times in the future.
Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (2011)
This book is about a middle-aged man and an underage girl that he coerces into going on a cross-country road trip; it’s definitely one of the darker books I read this year. I still get unsettled if I start dwelling on Lamb for too long, but I think that speaks to the power of Nadzam’s writing. Read my review here.