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In 2005, O, The Oprah Magazine assigned Rosemary Mahoney to profile Sabriye Tenberken, a German social worker who founded Braille Without Borders in Tibet. Mahoney immersed herself in the task, agreeing to an excursion with two students from the Tibetan school who led her around Lhasa blindfolded. Mahoney said she realized “how little notice I paid to sounds, to smells, indeed to the entire world that lay beyond my ability to see.”

After finishing the assignment, Mahoney volunteered to teach English at an off-shoot of Braille Without Borders in Kerala, India, where she began to understand blindness as an identity, not necessarily a disease that needed a cure.

Mahoney’s latest book, For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind, collects and builds upon those experiences. Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University, crafted a meditative review in which he praises Mahoney for her introspective look at what divides the blind and the sighted. It is not as much as we might think. Here, an excerpt:


Over time, her students’ blindness becomes to Mahoney what it is to them — a fact of life. “I became used to the sound of white canes scraping and tapping down the walkway outside my bedroom door, to the clacking sound the folded canes made as the students shook them back to their upright positions at the end of a class,” she writes. Later, she adds, “I got used to the shocking gunshot sounds of screen doors slamming and to shouting, ‘Quit letting those screen doors slam! I thought you blind people didn’t like loud noises.’ I got used to the laughter and the hoots I received in response to that comment.” She would not have been capable of such irreverence before she met Tenberken; back then, she had worried about violating some arcane etiquette for dealing with the blind.

She admires her students’ skill in navigating the physical world, their fearlessness, their patience and self-possession. At the same time, she notices the quirks and mishaps that make their patience a necessary virtue. The students leave “horizontal finger streaks” on the windows as they feel their way along an outdoor corridor. They have “scarred shins and bruised knees.” When they cross the dining hall bearing full cups of tea, Mahoney darts out of their path. But anyone expecting “constant accidents” among the blind — as the writer perhaps once did — would be mistaken: “Nobody fell off a balcony, got electrocuted, caused the school to go up in flames. Nobody drowned while swimming in the lake. Nobody got lost on expeditions into the city. And nobody ever used blindness as an excuse for anything.”

One word captures what motivates immigrants to venture to a new country: Better.

Indeed, “better” is the catch-all for the immigrant families at the center of Cristina Henriquez’ second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans. Gathered from various corners of Central America — Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay – her characters all make their home in a small, dank apartment building in a sleepy Delaware town.

In an interview with, the Chicago-based Henriquez said that she wasn’t writing a political statement, but hoping to fictionalize the contemporary immigration debate. “The highest praise I’ve gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live,” she recalls. “She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That’s my job. That’s my goal.”

The novel opens with the arrival of the Riveras, a family fresh off a 30-plus hour trip in the back of a pickup truck with a driver  who chain smoked cigarettes in lieu of conversation. They arrive in the middle of the night, with little to their name beyond a mattress they found on the side of the road, dishes, and garbage bags full of clothes and towels.

Arturo and Alma come to the U.S. for “better” for  their daughter Maribel, a teenager who sustained a traumatic brain injury and needed more specialized schooling than they could secure in Mexico. The couple finds a reputable school in Delaware and depart.

One by one, they meet the other tenants, who show them where to buy food, clean their laundry, and take English classes. Maribel instantly finds a friend in Mayor Toro, whose parents quickly bond with the Riveras. A brief love affair between the teenagers sets the story in motion.

In a brisk 300 pages, Henriquez deftly depicts the immigrant experience, fraught with anxiety and hopefulness. It makes urgent both the heart-wrenching decision to leave a home and the unrelenting grit required to stay in a strange place. “I felt the way I often felt in this country—simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore,” Alma says. (To celebrate their anniversary, she and her husband go out for ice water at a local pizza place.)

While the Riveras and the Toros anchor the novel, Henriquez weaves in the neighbors, as the secondary characters share how they ended up in Delaware. One, Micho Alvarez, is brusque:

“I came from Mexico, but there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? … You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico. And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some f*****-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans.”

Henriquez, whose father emigrated from Panama in the 1970s, has built a story that’s less about immigration as a buzzword, and more about how families cling to each other amidst uncertainty—buying groceries when the labels are in another languages; attempting to file a police report without knowing the English word for “assault”; trying to call a child’s school and not being able to reach anyone who can hold a conversation. Henriquez’ characters navigate the obstacles and become more nimble, picking paths of least resistance as the novel strengthens its grip on the reader.

I read The Book of Unknown Americans in a blistering four hours over the July 4 weekend, gasping numerous times in the last few pages, prompting my husband to ask me if I was okay. I nodded but did not answer. Something resembling heartbreak told hold of me. Henriquez moved me to (patriotic) tears, reminding me no matter how varied our paths, we all want better.

Fourteen years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his haunting second novel, “A Gesture Life,” Chang-Rae Lee delivers another startling, unsettling work. Sentence by gorgeously meditative sentence, “On Such a Full Sea” carries its readers into a future of captivity, danger and diminished identities.

Lee will return to Cleveland Tuesday, March 24, 2015, as part of the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s distinguished Writers Center Stage series.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The playwright gives the line to Brutus and it is worth quoting as fully as Lee does on a page before his novel starts:

We, at the height, are ready to decline.

            There is a tide in the affairs of men,

            Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

            Omitted, all the voyage of their life

            Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

            On such a full sea we are now afloat,

            And we must take the current when it serves

            Or lose our ventures.

Lee, then, has written a quest novel. Ingeniously, it is narrated by a collective, a “we” that simultaneously Iulls and alarms.  Here is the first sentence: “It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.” The voice belongs to the descendants of immigrants imported to live in a facility called “B-Mor,” the former Baltimore.  There is a sister facility in the Midwest called “D-Troy,’ occupying the ashes of Detroit. Some kind of environmental catastrophe has swept the globe, although there is Amsterdam, “one of the few cities that is still like it was in olden times, inhabited by permanent residents but also completely open to any who wish to visit and tour and buy souvenirs and snacks.”

Not so for the residents of “B-Mor,” who keep their heads down growing vegetables and raising fish for the finicky elites called Charters.  At the bottom of the heap are the rough trade who live in the lawless “counties,” where those who misbehave are banished.  The book unfurls the story of Fan, a 16-year-old B-Mor girl who – unbelievably – hops the fence. The narrators assume she is seeking her boyfriend Reg, whom the authorities have hustled away to study because he has tested “C-free.” The C, undoubtedly, stands for cancer, which seems to carry off almost everyone in this blighted land.

Although she is as tiny as a girl four years younger, Fan has distinguished herself as an expert diver working in the facility’s fish tanks.  At the end of the opening chapter, the narrators reluctantly disclose that before she bolted, Fan did the unfathomable: she poisoned her own fish.

“On Such a Full Sea” is studded with small shocks, which grow larger and accumulate in the bloodstream of the reader.  Lee’s precise, musical writing tells a mysterious moral story reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 masterpiece, “Never Let Me Go.”  It, too, is set in a disturbing future and centers on teenagers.  Although the  film of the Ishiguro story was a dud, both novels ache with serious explorations of who qualifies as fully human.

Early in “On Such a Full Sea,” our narrators make an argument for the collective, asking, “Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” Lee’s subtlety allows this question to read another way, so it becomes “Have we not done the job of becoming the best slaves?”

All the while, Lee’s details singe and sing:  a soccer game, a lavish outpost dinner, the swimming that has been Fan’s formation.

In her critique in the Guardian, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin praises the prose but objects to Lee and Cormac McCarthy (in “The Road”) entering into her genre of science fiction “irresponsibly, superficially.”  She dislikes what she regards as holes in these stories: How, exactly, did Lee’s world slide into its decline? How are raw materials transported and manufactured into luxury goods for the Charters when the roads are abysmal?

Such criticism rests on the assumption that all should be explicit in creating a coherent world. But in “The Road” and “On Such a Full Sea,” much potency and poignancy lie in giving the readers’ imaginations the range to fill in the blanks.

The roads to dystopia lead back to the present, and if done well, create a gravitas of the highest order. Toward the end of “On Such a Full Sea,” Fan allows herself to imagine a reunion with Reg, and a happy life.  Our narrators add the devastating coda: “For none of us can resist such hopeful flashes, which are, in the end, what lights our way through this ever dimming world.”

Colson Whitehead will be 45 this year, and his latest book invites readers along on a midlife road trip, “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death.” It’s a jaunty, discursive ride from a man whose first novel triumphantly, improbably featured elevator inspectors (“The Intuitionists”) and his second (“John Henry Days”) snagged an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2002.

The new book is nonfiction, the outgrowth of a Grantland assignment. An editor staked Whitehead in the 2011 World Series of Poker after learning that the virtuoso writer enjoyed a regular poker game in Brooklyn. The online magazine, part of the ESPN empire, paid Whitehead’s entry fee of almost $10,000 and assured him that he could keep any winnings. Rodrigo Corral’s jacket design for “The Noble Hustle”—the King of Hearts plunging a bloody knife into his own neck—hints that it didn’t go well.

So does Whitehead’s first sentence: “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” He is still in the same paragraph when he dispatches the cliché that hangs over every card game: “You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.” On the next page, Whitehead informs us that he was newly divorced when Grantland called, but he doesn’t linger. Crisply, our beleaguered memoirist writes that “one of the overlooked benefits of joint custody is that you’re going to go max thirty-six hours until someone discovers your decomposing body. ‘Anyone seen him? He was supposed to pick her up after school.’”

We seem to be in an era of humiliation humor—Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, Louis C.K.—but Whitehead borrows the mantle lightly. A lot of chortling awaits the reader of this dispatch from the “Leisure Industrial Complex.”  Whitehead takes the Greyhound from NYC to Atlantic City to limber up his amateur game.

During his first, low-stakes tournament, Whitehead makes it to the final table, where “the other castaway was an elderly white man who bent over his chips, squinting through a magnifying attachment that barnacled on his thick specs like a jeweler’s loupe. He pondered before acting, as if reviewing a lifetime of hands and confrontations, or fighting off a nap. Sometimes you have to accept a casino trip for what it really is: an opportunity to see old people.”

The author preps for his Las Vegas days with a stack of poker books, a coach, a yoga instructor—the breathing exercises turn out to be clutch. He buys a red track suit, which he customizes with lightning bolts and the nebbish-y, Woody Allen-like script “Republic of Anhedonia.” He defines the word for readers before chapter one: the inability to experience pleasure. (“I was a skinny guy but I was morbidly obese with doom.”) He selects the sunglasses he will wear indoors.

Our warrior had hit Vegas before, in 1991—as a newly minted Harvard graduate on a cross-country trek with a couple of buddies. They crashed in a “grim box” of a hotel, without a proper casino, but Whitehead dropped his nickel into a slot machine anyway and won $2:  “In a dank utility room deep in the subbasements of my personality, a little man whipped his hands on his overalls and pulled a switch: More.”

With one amusing sentence, Whitehead has conjured the stirrings of addiction. In his own life, and in “The Noble Hustle,” he doesn’t take it much farther.  We do get a glimpse of a hyped-up stranger struggling to get back to the tables, calling out for a wheelchair, and Whitehead himself ponders the siren call of a stint on the circuit.  But mostly we get jokes. And fine word-craft.  And the agreeable ping of Whitehead’s observational abilities, bouncing off the felt in nimble, free association.

“The Noble Hustle” is fizzy, with just enough bite in its cultural acumen for us to shrug off the empty calories. The book won’t be the most important in the Whitehead oeuvre, but if it sends a batch of new readers to “The Intuitionists” and “Zone One” and “John Henry Days,” then that bloody King of Hearts will have done its work.

Anthologies are tricky – and a new one called “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry” might seem like a gimmick. But readers who venture here will find that London editors Anthony and Ben Holden, a father and son, have come up with an engaging conversation-starter and a new angle on some marvelous work.

They asked 100 men to write a brief introduction to a poem that choked them up. The “vast majority are public figures not prone to tears,” writes Anthony Holden, “as is supposedly the manly way, but here prepared to admit to caving in when ambushed by great art.”

One, Simon Schama, is the Anisfield-Wolf juror and historian. Two are recent Anisfield-Wolf winners: Mohsin Hamid and Andrew Solomon. Poet Terrance Hayes picks former juror and Anisfield-Wolf recipient Gwendolyn Brooks for her poem “The Mother” and two contributors – novelist Mark Haddon and actor Tom Hiddleston — choose separate Derek Walcott poems, both published in 1984.

Schama, fresh off his new book and PBS series, “The Story of the Jews,” decides upon W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby.” The historian writes that “tears come to me reading Auden’s ‘Lullaby’ to a lover already asleep because the poem suspends time and the brutality of the world (‘1937 when fashionable madmen raise/Their pedantic boring cry’) at the moment of unanswerably perfect love.” The honesty in the poem “makes the eyes prick and the heart knock,” Schama writes. The actor Simon Callow, for his own reasons, picks the same poem.

Hamid, who won his Anisfield-Wolf book award for the novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” chooses Robin Robertson’s “Keys to the Doors,” a 14-line piece addressed to a daughter and published in 2012, the book’s most recent poem. Hamid writes that he cut it out of the New York Review of Books, mailed it to Lahore and taped it to his printer – “It’s there now, stirring to the beat of my ceiling fan as I write this.”

A young father when he found it, Hamid writes that the poem captures something of the way his own little girl would “stride into my room where I was novel-writing, and talk to me, and ask me questions, and bring her fantasies into where I sat draped in mine.”

Andrew Solomon, who won last year’s nonfiction Anisfield-Wolf book award for “Far From the Tree,” picks Elizabeth Bishop’s 1976 work “Crusoe in England.” It is one of a dozen poems in the book by women, in the voice of an imagined aged Robinson Crusoe. Solomon writes that “the meticulous dryness of this narrator, so bereft of the spirit of adventure even when recalling adventures, seems to catch in the throat of the old man who speaks it.” Solomon esteems this voice for containing “not so much bitterness as restraint. Love is circumstantial; we can love anyone if need be; and losing the one we love is the singular catastrophe.”

Terrance Hayes writes that Brooks’ 1945 poem that begins “Abortions will not let you forget” was instrumental to him as a college student: “It is, in fact, the poem that made me choose the path of a poet rather than that of a painter. (No painting had ever made me cry.)” He writes that his continuous relationship with the poem as an older man is “a testament to its craftsmanship.”

Finally, Mark Haddon selects Walcott’s “Midsummer: Sonnet XLIII” and writes that he dislikes the sentimental. But the Nobel Laureate accomplishes something different here: “the sublime sublimely articulated.” A few pages later, Hiddleston writes that he reads Walcott’s “Love After Love” at least monthly. “I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.”

All these tears caused Billy Collins to jokingly ask “how any of us make it through the book without succumbing to a complete emotional breakdown,” editor Ben Holden writes. And then he shrugs: “What could be more human, honest, or pure than tears?” 

“Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” publishes this week, the first collection of poetry from Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Kevin Powers. Here is the title poem:

I tell her I love her like not killing

or ten minutes of sleep

beneath the low rooftop wall

on which my rifle rests.

I tell her in a letter that will stink,

when she opens it,

of bolt oil and burned powder

and the things it says.

I tell her that Private Bartle says, offhand,

that war is just us

making little pieces of metal

pass through each other.

Powers, who grew up in Richmond, Va., enlisted the day after he turned 17. He served as a U.S. Army machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. Those years informed “The Yellow Birds,” a first novel that writer Tom Wolfe called “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab wars.” Private Bartle is its narrator.

The new book contains 34 poems that well out of war, bafflement and remembrance, often speaking of mothers. They touch on rifles, men in bars, stretches of Texas and Nebraska and West Virginia. The book is dedicated to “my friends from the Boulevard.”

When Powers spoke in Cleveland last September, he said he hadn’t kept a journal as a soldier, that he didn’t have the stamina or mental reserves. But the books his mother mailed him were a lifeline, and he wrote some letters. Almost three years ago, a friend brought out one that he’d sent to her.

“I could see the point in the letter where I almost opened up, but didn’t,” he said.

In his penultimate poem, “A Lamp in the Place of the Sun,” Powers concludes with four short lines in plain language: “How long I waited/for the end of winter./How quickly I forgot/the cold when it was over.”

“Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” is the first book of poetry that Little, Brown & Co. has published in 30 years.

Penguin Press, Zadie Smith’s publisher, is offering readers a sneak peek at her latest novel over on its Facebook page. We’re not sure how long it will be available, so if you’re interested, go read it today!

The reviews for NW are already trickling in and we really like this write-up from the Washington Post, even if it’s not the typical glowing four-star review:

The Washington Post’s Ron Charles writes:

“You either submit to Smith’s eclectic style or you set this book aside in frustration. At times, reading “NW” is like running past a fence, catching only strips of light from the scene on the other side. Smith makes no accommodation for the distracted reader — or even the reader who demands a clear itinerary. But if you’re willing to let it work on you, to hear all these voices and allow the details to come into focus when Smith wants them to, you’ll be privy to an extraordinary vision of our age.”

Do reviews like this make you want to read it more or less? Will you be picking up a copy of “NW” when it hits bookshelves in September?