We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

Lately I’ve been writing about my skepticism toward some of the “Big Books” that are released each year by established authors with strong platforms. While I don’t think there’s an official definition for the term Big Book, I associate it with a book that its publisher is expecting will sell well and therefore received a large advance and a lot of subsequent buzz. Written by a debut author rather than an established name, We Are Not Ourselves is an interesting addition to the conversation.

I loved the beginning of this book. In fact, for the first 200 pages or so, I thought it might end up being one of my favorite books ever as I followed Eileen Tumulty, born in Woodside, Queens in 1941 to Irish immigrants, from age 10 to somewhere around 45. This part of the story is as close to my version of The Great American Novel as any I can recall. Through Eileen’s coming of age, Matthew Thomas creates a bigger narrative about the dreams, expectations and realities of post-war, middle-class, first-generation Americans moving through the 20th century.

If this is the kind of story that appeals to you as much as it appeals to me, you can probably imagine that the last thing on my mind was any concern about the book’s length (just north of 600 pages) or any sort of editing treatment it may or may not have received. But I wondered just where this was heading, with 400 pages to go and a 45-year-old protagonist.

It’s around this spot in the book that Something Happens. If you don’t already know what that something is, I don’t want to tell you. I find that it’s a much more powerful experience to be surprised by a story’s events rather than to be waiting for them and that was certainly what I found so gripping about the second 1/3 of this book. At this point, though, the book’s pace slows down significantly, matching the course of events, and I realized that the rest of the book would focus on this thing that happened (again, very much in keeping with how the characters are experiencing the events being described).

So while I still enjoyed the rest of the book—the characters are incredibly well drawn—the things that make it so good can also make it difficult to read. Thomas is portraying events that are, at times, upsetting and scary and are, at other times, arduous and mundane. He does so in a style that mirrors these experiences so that the reader is that much closer to the characters.

This all comes around to an issue of realism. One of the topics that came up in my post about My Very End of the Universe and my accompanying interview with Chris Bower was how the succinct nature of flash fiction can lend a story a sense of realism, particularly as it reflects memory. In We Are Not Ourselves, the opposite effect is at work. Many have called this book an epic saga and while I wouldn’t categorize it that way, I do think that Thomas needed every one of his many words to accurately reflect his characters’ experiences.

Phew. I need a break from fiction, folks. This last one nearly did me in with all my worrying about these poor characters. Up next is something self-helpy, for those of us gearing up for our New Year’s resolutions.


For Kids!

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate PowellMarch Pic

People, I had the chance to hear Congressman John Lewis speak this past weekend—if you ever have a similar opportunity I highly recommend it. Lewis has written a graphic novel (along with a co-author and illustrator) about his experiences in the civil rights movement. His project is modeled after a comic book he read in the 1950s, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which ultimately inspired him to join the civil rights movement. Lewis’ book aims to bring his story to a new generation and it was really great to see a bunch of tweens in the crowd. From what I’ve read so far, this would be good for kids roughly 10 years and up. I think. I know nothing about kids or what they read, so, parents: check it out and be the judge. (And let me know) It’s very well done.


Another great cover. Who needs Henry when the books look this good?

Another great cover. Who needs Henry when the books look this good?

The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power
by Seth Rosenfeld

Being a staunch Gen Xer in a city of militant hippies can be a confusing existence. Starting with the realization that there is such a thing as a militant hippie. So I figured that Subversives, which chronicles Berkeley in the 60’s, might provide me with some missing historical knowledge about this place that’s become my home and, in the process, maybe I would start to understand the mysterious habits of an indigenous species known as the Baby Boomers.

Subversives follows the trajectories of three men whose paths converged during Berkeley’s student protests: Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement; Clark Kerr, president of the University of California; and Ronald Reagan. Seth Rosenfeld, the book’s author, spent more than 30 years piecing together this story as he battled the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act to attain secret agency files. Four lawsuits later, he finally obtained 250,000 pages of previously unreleased material that fleshes out the standard 60’s narrative in a detailed and fascinating way. Given my penchant for getting to the bottom of this whole Baby Boomer thing, I found myself particularly drawn to Mario Savio’s story.

Born in 1942 and raised in a Catholic household, Savio was an uber intellectual with a genius-level IQ and a sensitive soul. He loved math and science and assumed he would become a physicist. As he hit his teenage years, Savio’s deep thinking became more complicated as he tried to reconcile his scientific mind with his devout religious beliefs.

Later, looking back on his childhood, Savio claimed that his most formative experience was when he came across pictures from the Holocaust for the first time. “It’s like a dark, grotesque secret that people had, that at some time in the recent past people were being incinerated and piled up … I started to get the idea that people weren’t really coming completely clean about things … that there was almost a conspiracy not to tell the truth to oneself, even on a mass scale.”

Reading this quote from Savio, I started to get where his generation was/is coming from a little more. If one feels that society has refused to acknowledge evil and act accordingly, it would follow that one would Question Authority and all the convention, consumerism and bureaucracy that comes along with that authority. So, yeah, trying to change the world comes with some entitlement.

There isn’t space here for me to tell you exactly how, a decade later, Savio found himself standing on top of a Berkeley police car delivering an improvised speech to hundreds of his fellow students who sat surrounding the car. That speech would come to mark the beginning of the Free Speech Movement and, some would argue, the beginning of The Sixties.

I began reading Subversives during the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. I’d been riveted by CNN’s 24-hour coverage (by the way, if anyone can tell me why people hate Don Lemon, I’d love some insight) and I was feeling like I needed a reading selection with some relevance—however indirect—to current events. In Rosenfeld’s prologue, he explains that his book “illustrates the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.” Enough said. I recommend this book to anyone interested in a history of Berkeley and/or those seeking to fan any dying flames of resentment toward Ronald Reagan.

Speaking of Reagan, I think I’ll be reading fiction next …