As the daylight stays with us longer this month, we can get on with the tedious chores of our lives—doing the laundry, etc.—giving us more time to read. And we have three good ones for you this week. A new thriller, a beautiful memory and a piece of women’s history. Throw those clothes in the washing machine, forget about them and open the first page.
“Canyon of Desolation” by PJ Tracy (Minotaur Books, $27.99)
A mysterious desert retreat that draws celebrities under the spell of holy founder Father Paul is the centerpiece of PJ Tracy’s second thriller, starring LAPD detective Margaret Nolan and the greatest characters of all Tracy’s novels.
In this exciting story, Nolan still mourns the loss of her brother who died in military service. She is recovering from having to shoot someone on the job and her relationship with her father, who is in the military, has become increasingly distant. What worries her most is that her mother is going to a retreat at Father Paul’s Children of the Desert.
While Nolan and her sexy colleague Remy are having a drink at the fancy Hotel Bel-Air, they find a dead body in the famous Swan Lake. Why would anyone kill a lawyer and dump the body in such a public place? Stranger still, the coroner says the man was killed using a method used by Russian criminals.
Meanwhile, Nolan’s friend Sam Easton, whose face was melted on one side by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, helps his friend Lenny figure out how to protect a terrified woman and her young daughter, who Lenny picked up on the road and hid on his Boat.
Back at Children of Desert, we learn that Father Paul may not be who he seems. Half of the characters in this book are not who they say they are, including Ivan, a businessman whom Nolan examines and whose cold eyes she immediately dislikes. And there’s Mike, a mentally challenged young man who works at the grocery store closest to the Children of the Desert compound and knows a lot about what’s going on there because he spends time in the desert at night, to look for aliens.
In the final chapters, Sam needs all of his military training to infiltrate Children of the Desert, drawing Nolan and Remy into his plans. Can they save the woman and her child being held at the compound and Nolan’s mother? And who is the mysterious Irina everyone is looking for?
Tracy’s plots become increasingly complicated and her characters more complex. Nolan doesn’t like many people, but she longs for her family. Easton finally learns to live again after his injury. Remy seems to want a relationship with Nolan, which may or may not happen.
PJ Tracy is the pseudonym of Traci Lambrecht, who wrote the St. Paul-based computer geek series Monkeewrench. Her late mother, PJ Traci, lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, and her sense of place brings a special feel to the whole new novel, especially the heat and desolation of the desert.
“After Effects: A Memory of Complicated Grief” by Andrea Gilats (University of Minnesota Press, $19.95)
“All my life I had relied on three saving graces: music, painting and reading. Now, without giving a second thought, I had abandoned two of them at a time when I most needed saving. And the third was in danger. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read a chapter, let alone a whole book…I couldn’t take life. I wanted to fall asleep…”
This is Andrea Gilats, writing about the years after her husband Thomas Dayton died aged 52 after a five-month battle with cancer.
In this insightful, thoughtful, and beautifully written memoir, Gilats takes us on her journey as she endured 10 years of prolonged or “complicated” grief. Although everyone who loses a loved one grieves, complicated grief is long-lasting.
Although this type of grief affects up to one in seven people affected by the loss of a loved one, it is little known outside of professional circles.
For Gilats, it’s been 10 years, which she describes as “constant, unbearable grief.” She was so in her “cocoon of grief” that it never occurred to her to seek help.
What makes this book more than “this happened to me” is the author’s clear recognition of what she experienced. Not only does she tell us what happened, but also how her husband’s death impacted every area of her life over the years.
Gilats was the founder and director of the University of Minnesota’s Split Rock Arts Program, a nationally renowned series of residential visual arts and creative writing workshops in Duluth. When the program ended, Gilats turned to other pursuits, including yoga, which she taught for years. When she had major surgery, nurses were amazed at how fast she could run and how strong she was. All thanks to yoga.
Gilats slowly awoke from her years of sorrow as she returned to music, painting and reading.
“Throughout life and death, Tom has always been an unforgettable presence in my life, and now I began to imagine stepping back into the world without leaving him behind,” she writes. “It was this fragile, partial reconciliation that would help me pave a path to healing, however long and winding.”
“After Effects” is in part self-help for those with lingering grief who don’t know what’s wrong with them when people tell them to “move on.” It is also the story of a strong, educated woman willing to share her experiences to help others. And it is a meditation on eternal love.
When you finish the last paragraph, you will think: “I would like to meet this woman.”
Gilatis will present her book virtually on Thursday, February 10 at 7pm, hosted by Cathy Madison, author of The War Came Home with Him, presented by SubText Bookstore. Go to: subtextbooks.com.
“Poems from the Institution” edited and arranged by Janelle Molony, introduction by Jodi Nasch Decker (Molony&Nash, $35 hardcover, $25 paperback)
Why did Martha Hedwig Grüning Nasch spend seven years in the St. Peter mental hospital?
That is the question her granddaughter Jodi Decker and Jodi’s daughter Janelle Molony explore in this family story, told through rhyming poems written by Martha during her years in prison at St. Peter’s in the 1920s and 30s, beginning with hers Son Ralph 6 years old.
Martha’s poems about Ralph are loving, and those about her husband Louis Nasch Jr. (who may have been an adulterer) reveal her grief (“Why was your God so cruel to us, to let you go and stray?/Rather than tying love for us he took away this gift.”) She writes about her home, Christmas and other happy events, as well as those she has lost.
In chilling poems (“Here I Rot”), Martha reveals the suffering she and others endured in the asylum, including cold-water baths that were almost torture, force-feeding, and lobotomies. She reveals that patients were sometimes held against their will when there was nothing wrong with them. In her poem “Leiden” she writes:
“I stand before the judiciary,
A pale and wild creature.
I’m shaped like a woman
But helpless like a child.”
After Martha’s release, she became a national press sensation when she claimed she had not drunk, eaten, or slept in seven years. Was she delusional or was she lying?
In the end, the authors make a good argument that Martha had difficulties giving birth to her sons, which made her weak and tired, and that she was damaged during an operation. These physical difficulties led to her imprisonment in St. Peter’s. She married Bill Lehman after her husband’s death and died herself in 1970.
Martha’s story and poems that hurt to read are an example of how women were treated (‘a case of nervousness’) in those years.
There are many family photos in this book that could have been slimmed down by eliminating some of the family stories long before Martha shows up. But people who lived on the Upper West Side will probably remember her because the family home was at 642 Hall Ave. Ralph was baptized at the West Side Old Emmanuel Lutheran Church and his parents courted on the steps of the old Jefferson School.
Throughout the book, the editor uses footnotes to explain what Martha meant in specific poems and the meaning of the poems in relation to Martha’s life.