A Darkly Entertaining Tale of Faith Gone Too Far

Coming of Age at the End of Days, by Alice La Plante

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of Rapture sermons, you’ll find much to relate to in Coming of Age at the End of Days, the darkly entertaining novel of faith gone awry by Alice LaPlante, the bestselling author of Circle of Wives.

Sixteen year old Anna, unpopular at school and searching for something to hold on to, falls under the spell of her new neighbors, the Goldshmidts. The Goldshmidt parents and their teenaged son, Lars, belong to a cult whose mission is to speed up the coming of the Tribulation–the dark period of hell on earth that fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the second coming of Christ. When she is suddenly orphaned, Anna’s grief over her parents’ death is muted by her belief in their spiritual shortcomings. As a concerned teacher tries to guide her back to reality, Anna becomes ever more obsessed with the Tribulation and her role in making it happen.

The cult’s mission centers on the breeding of pure red heifers; Orthodox Judaism holds that Jews must be purified by the ashes of a red heifer in order to rebuild the Third Temple. Evangelical Christians have long been on this bandwagon, as they believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a prerequisite for the coming of Christ. This is great stuff, and it’s not even made up. (For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the red heifer mythology and a profile of the Mississippi preacher named Clyde Lott and the Orthodox Rabbi who are in cahoots to breed cattle to get things rolling, read the excellent PBS Frontline report, Forcing the End: Why Do a Pentecostal Preacher from Mississippi and an Orthodox Rabbi from Jerusalem Believe That a Red Heifer Can Bring Change?)

In the background of LaPlante’s novel is a far-away figure who is working to breed the heifers–a character who seems to be based to large extent on Lott. For readers who didn’t grow up with the terrifying Left Behind series (we watched them at church lock-ins) and with the Rapture in the background as a constant threat, LaPlante’s novel may seem delightfully far-fetched. As someone who believed all this stuff hook, line, and sinker until I left high school, it’s far more relaxing to return to the subject in fictional form as an adult, when I am able to see it as a dark fairy tale instead of a terrifying inevitability.

Anna is an interesting character, and I easily found myself rooting for her. The only bit that didn’t quite ring true was Anna’s initial fascination with Lars. When he utters a few words to her at a bus stop, she falls instantly under his spell. I would have liked to see her more gradually sucked in; a deeper exploration of why she fell for Lars’s story, and for his outsized view of his own elevated place in the world, would have made for a more nuanced character.

What I find most interesting about the Tribulation is its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical American presidents have made monumentally dangerous decisions based upon the belief that it is their duty to move the world in the direction of the Second Coming. As I write this, ISIS too is attempting to bring on the Apocalypse. With three distinctly different groups–evangelical Christians, Islamic extremists, and Orthodox Jews–moving toward three very different versions of the end of days, a man-made version of the Tribulation may very well come to pass.

In Coming of Age at the End of Days, LaPlante has crafted a darkly entertaining and often enlightening cautionary tale about what happens when youth and faith collide. Highly recommended for fans of psychologically complex fiction, as well as for reformed Evangelicals.

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ISBN 9780802121653

Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2015

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, including Golden State and The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections, including Hum.

A review copy of this book was provided by Netgalley.

Quick Takes – Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal by Sigrid Undset

Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal, by Sigrid Undset

translated by Tiina Nunnally

reviewed by Michelle Richmond

The 1907 novel by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1928, still holds up to scrutiny today. It is now, as it was then, a very modern novel. The subject–the interior life of a young married woman who desperately longs for a more passionate life–made waves in Norway upon its publication and has been translated for the first time into English. A beautifully written, deeply affecting journey into the mind of a woman struggling against convention.

University of Minnesota Press, March 2014, ISBN 978-0816692521

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Flying Shoes by Lisa Howorth

Flying Shoes by Lisa HoworthFlying Shoes by Lisa Howorth

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

When Oxford, Mississippi resident Mary Byrd Thornton receives word from a Virginia detective that the thirty-year-old investigation into the assault and murder of her half-brother, Stevie, is being reopened, she must travel to her hometown to confront her family’s heartbreaking past. Her current life doesn’t stop for the investigation, however. As Mary Byrd is preparing for the arduous journey through a killer storm, the daughter of Mary Byrd’s housekeeper, Evagreen, is arrested for the murder of Angie’s abusive husband.

In Flying Shoes, Lisa Howorth (co-owner of Oxford’s beloved institution Square Books) provides a smart, provocative glimpse into an often misunderstood culture. While the story of the search for Stevie’s killer plays backseat to the larger story of Mary Byrd’s life as a wife, mother, friend, and inhabitant of Oxford, the specter of Stevie’s loss, and Mary Byrd’s guilt over her possible connection to the crime, haunts the entire novel. The wide cast of deftly drawn characters–a homeless Vietnam vet named Teever, an insufferable but too-famous-to-be-ignored photographer, a hard-drinking love interest from an old but fallen family, and Mary Byrd’s dear friend Mann–offers a glimpse into the complexities and contradictions of Mississippi’s plantation-era past, which has deep-seated implications for racial relations in the present day.

Poignant and unputdownable, Flying Shoes is told with humor and verve. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of Golden State and The Year of Fog

Flying Shoes, by Lisa Howorth

Bloomsbury USA, Hardcover, 9781620403013, June 17, 2014

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The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year Old Boy with Autism (Starred Review)

The Reason I Jumpby Naoki Higashida

translated from the Japanese by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida

This slim, poignant, immediately readable journey into the mind of a thirteen-year-old autistic boy is arranged as a series of answers to 39 questions–such as “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” and “Why do you like being in the water?” The book takes its name from one of the more common behaviors of autistic children, a behavior that is often frowned upon.

The Reason I Jump was written by Higashida using an alphabet grid designed by his mother to help him communicate. Much of the book centers on the subject of communication; despite the terrible difficulties he experiences in attempting to communicate with others, Higashida writes, he wants desperately to be understood. Language is difficult for him; forming words is excruciating.

In answer to the question, “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” Higashida writes”

Firing the question back is a way of sifting through our memories to pick up clues about what the questioner is asking. We understand the question okay, but we can’t answer it until we fish out the right ‘memory picture’ in our heads.

One comes away from this book with an understanding of Higashida’s deep sensitivity, as well as his isolation and desperation. He pleads with parents of autistic children to understand that the greatest pain the child experiences is the knowledge that their caregivers suffer.

I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have…The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.

He asks that teachers and other children be patient with behavior that may seem odd or off-putting. Autistic children do not choose to behave differently, he says. They are hardwired to do so.

As for the question that inspired the title, “What’s the reason you jump?” Higashida offers a multifaceted explanation:

“When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well,” he writes, “and that makes me feel so, so good.” Beyond that, when he experiences intense feelings of happiness or sadness, his body “seizes up as if struck by lightening.” Jumping, he says,  is a way to combat that stifffness, “shaking loose the ropes that are tying up my body.”

While Higashida asks for patience and understanding, he is far from self-pitying. While his autism can be painfully isolating, he also celebrates the extraordinary gifts of autism:

Every single thing has its own beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing given to us. Wherever we go , whatever we do, we can never be completely lonely.

Higashida’s intense experience of the world and his precise, often lyrical observations are a reminder that autistic children have much to offer. This edition includes a forward by co-translator David Mitchell (The Cloud Atlas), who, as the parent of an autistic son, found Higashida’s unique story to be a welcome counterpoint to the growing library of books about autism, most of which are written by parents and psychologists.

Poignant, honest, and highly informative, The Reason I Jump should be required reading not only for parents of children on the autistic spectrum, but also for teachers. Parents could also read this book with non-autistic children in order to foster understanding and compassion for their autistic classmates and peers.

Pub date: August 27, 2013, Random House Publishing Group

ISBN-13: 9780812994865

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Michelle Richmond (reviewer) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, and Dream of the Blue Room. Her new novel, GOLDEN STATE, will be published by Random House Publishing Group in February, 2014.

One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One

by Lauren Sandler 

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

Parents of only children can breathe a sigh of relief. Citing decades of comprehensive research, journalist Lauren Sandler sets out to debunk the prevailing myths about only children and their parents. As an only child and the parent of an only, Sandler understands all too well the prejudice faced by parents who choose to stop at one.

Sandler devotes ample attention to the selfishness theory–that singletons are selfish because they don’t have siblings to teach them how to share and how to get along with others. Study after study shows the fallacy of this assumption:

Instead of operating in terms of what’s mine, as siblings tend to do, onlies learn from mothers and fathers how to develop mature and ethical behavior in relationships. Singletons mimic how their parents share and take responsibility, rather than brawl over the remote. From parents’ influence, rather than an immature siblings’, Cacioppo says, You know you can’t exploit other kids, you know you have to attend to other people, and you tend to take a greater responsibility within those relationships.’

Sandler doesn’t set out to convince anyone who wants multiples to stop at one. What she does set out to do is to help parents who want to stop at one feel that doing so is an option. She argues that when parents who would prefer to have one have two or three or four, because that’s what society expects of them, they tend to be less happy as parents, and to pass the stress and unhappiness on to their children. Her findings are encouraging to those of us who choose, for whatever reason, to stop at one:

  • Contrary to popular belief, onlies tend to get along better, not worse, with other children.
  • Onlies tend to score higher on IQ tests
  • Onlies tend to develop a greater vocabulary much earlier–in large part because onlies receive much more language interaction with their parents than do multiples
  • Onlies tend to be high achievers, accounting for disproportionate numbers of, for example, Nobel Laureates
  • Greater access to their parents and greater “parental vigilance” leads to higher confidence in only children, which positively affects happiness and achievement throughout their lives
  • Onlies are more likely to build strong friendships that last throughout their lifetimes
  • Onlies are more likely, as adults, to be happy with solitude
  • Onlies tend to have stronger bonds with their parents

One of the author’s sources, Toni Falbo, has analyzed more than 500 studies, and has used the data from these studies to examine sixteen traits–

leadership, maturity, extraversion, social participation, peer popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, and contentment. In each and every one of these categories, only children do just as well as siblings.

There are two gaps in the data–achievement motivation and self-esteem. In these categories, only children scored higher than children with siblings.

One of the more cynical myths about parents of onlies is that they simply don’t like children. Sandler cites an old (1955) but enlightening study surveying 1,455 fertile couples on their choice to have one or more children. The authors of the study, Lois Pratt and P.K. Whipton, found that “nearly half of the parents who planned to stop at one said they liked their child ‘very much’ on a scale of very much, much, some, or little–twice as many as parents of two kids. (Under five percent of parents with three children liked their kids ‘very much.’” The point being that parents of onlies didn’t dislike children, as is so often assumed by parents of multiples. Far from it. The parents of onlies “were usually just happy with the one child they already had.”

Unfortunately, Sandler also spends a lot of time talking about only children in China, where the famous (or infamous) one-child policy has made one-child families the norm. She cites the economic reasons for the embrace of the policy among many parents–they want their children to be able to get ahead. China is a poor comparison model for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that children who grow up in a society where all of their friends are also only children are not facing the stigma that onlies in the U.S. face. Nor are their parents.

Despite the good news for parents of only children, Sandler acknowledges the primary challenge facing singletons: as adults, they will be the sole progeny when their parents are old and ailing. She notes that parents can make this easier by planning well for their elderly years, as her own parents have done. Still, she admits, there is no easy answer for only children who will likely one day survive their parents. That said, she points out that, in most families, it is one child–usually the oldest and nearest daughter–who takes on most of the responsibilities of caring for older parents.

She also notes the importance of a healthy relationship for parents of on lies, a marriage in which each spouse is an equal, individuated partner. When parents fight, it is particularly difficult for only children, who do not have the refuge of siblings. No parents should ever cast children in the role of mediator; this is especially important in one-child families.

In addition to debunking myths about only children, Sandler delves into the patterns of only children. One-child families tend to be more prevalent in times of economic hardship. The more religious you are, the more children you tend to have. Only children are more likely to be the offspring of highly educated, secular parents.

And finally, Sandler notes that, in discussions of the environment, family size rarely comes up; it is, for all intents and purposes, off the table. While she doesn’t suggest that anyone stop at one for the sake of the environment, she notes the hypocrisy of acting as though family size is irrelevant in the environmental debate. The single most effective thing you can do to help the environment is have fewer children. The more children you have, the greater stress on the planet’s resources, no matter how environmentally “friendly” you raise your children to be.

ONE AND ONLY should be required reading for any parent who wants to have only one child but thinks they should have two “for the sake of the children.” It should also be read by parents of multiples who feel that their one-child peers are somehow “less” as parents. As the mother of a well-adjusted only, I found this book illuminating, encouraging, and essential.

ISBN 978-1451626957

Simon & Schuster, June 2013

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Michelle Richmond (reviewer) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, and Dream of the Blue Room. Her new novel, GOLDEN STATE, will be published in March of 2014.




Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

In this entertaining, enlightening book, Berger explains why certain ideas and products become viral. Using examples as diverse as an As-Seen-on-TV blender, a $100 Philly cheesesteak, and the suddenly cool-again Kit Kat, Berger outlines the STEPPS system for making an idea or product highly sharable:

  • Social Currency – Will people feel cool and in-the-know when they share your product?
  • Triggers – What will remind others to think about and talk about your product?
  • Emotion – “When we care, we share.”
  • Public – How visible is your product or idea?
  • Practical Value – People like to share information that is helpful and practical.
  • Stories – If you package your product or idea in a remarkable, interesting, and relevant story, you increase sharing exponentially.

Despite a fair amount of unnecessary repetition, the book offers clear strategies for breathing life into a campaign.

Bottom Line: Contagious is a tremendously helpful guide for anyone looking to spread brand identity and create buzz on a budget. While the ideas are useful for businesses of any size, small businesses in particular will benefit from the relatively low cost of putting the STEPPS into practice.

Related content: Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor who blurbed the book, offers clear explanations of some of the behavioral patterns described in this book in the Psychology of Money segment of his online coursera course, “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.” For a video lecture explaining prospect theory and diminishing sensitivity, see Ariely’s lecture on money and relativity. 

Simon & Schuster, March 2013


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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog and the forthcoming novel Golden State. Creator of The Paperclip Method. Follow Richmond’s reviews @michellerichmon










A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Book Two of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, A Man in Loveis a bit of a puzzle. First, there is the controversy of the title. Publishers around the world have tried to find clever ways to deal with the negative associations with Mein Kampf. (The original Norwegian title is Min Kamp.)

Then, there is the question of exactly what has made the series so commercially successful in Europe. While the book seems to go on forever, and very little happens, it is nonetheless compelling.  One is drawn into the everyday rhythms of the life of this man who wants so desperately to write,  whose relationships, even when at their best, are a hindrance to the fulfillment of that desire.

Knausgaard, who says he desired to be liked since the age of seven, is often unlikable. Immediately after the birth of his first child, he disappears for two weeks to write, leaving his long suffering partner, Linda, home alone with their newborn. Later, Linda goes back to school while Knausgaard stays home with the child. Many pages are devoted to the misery of child care. He finds the situation unfair primarily because he is not a mother, but a father. For Knausgaard, the domestic duties are emasculating, symptomatic of a larger crisis in Scandinavian culture–progressive ideals that turn men into house husbands and cast a dull, polite patina over what should be politically charged conversations.

Nonetheless, his vulnerabilities are such that, at times, one finds oneself empathizing. He clearly loves his children, and there are passages in which his tenderness toward them is heartbreaking. He suffers from a burning desire to please everyone. What makes Knausgaard insufferable is also what makes the book itself compelling. You struggle through the self-absorption because there is there is so much very good and thoughtful writing here. Knausgaard writes powerfully about the desperate desire to carve out time to write, an all-consuming desire that anyone struggling to balance parenthood and writing will find familiar. All of us who juggle writing with family know the wrenching feeling of being tied to people and events and everyday activities, when all you want in the world is to be alone in a room with some books and a laptop.

At one point, when he has to give a lecture about his own work, he sits at a cafe waiting for the appointed time, considering what he will say to this roomful of eager listeners:

I was supposed to talk about the two books I had written. I couldn’t do that, so it would have to be about how the books came into being, those years of nothing until something definite began to take shape, how it slowly but surely took over, in such a way that in the end everything came by itself.

Such beauty is everywhere in this book, which is by turns graceful and maddening, wise and self-serving.

Since the publication of the first book in the series, Knausgaard has sold half a million books in Norway. In the U.S., half a million is a respectable showing (for a single book, not necessarily for multiples), but in Norway, that number means you’ve reached one in ten of the population, an unheard of feat. The series has also been a success in Europe and is garnering a good deal of attention from reviewers in the U.S.  It appears that literature has found its new golden boy, and, in keeping with the archetypal literary golden boy, Knausgaard complains frequently in this book that he hates the attention. The accolades sicken him,  the journalists and photographers who want to capture something of his spirit for an admiring audience are objects of ridicule.

The complaint does not feel quite genuine. The internet is swarming with images of Knausgaard gazing soulfully into the camera, or looking off into the distance with a cigarette in hand. It’s not that he is different from other writers in this respect; Knausgaard’s friend Geir admits that everything that Knausgaard has is exactly what Geir wants and can’t achieve. Having taken a page from the Jonathan Franzen playbook, Knausgaard doth protest too much. It’s fine to enjoy the fame. It’s hypocritical to wallow in it while pretending to despise it.

Ah, but the book. The book itself is very good, easy to put down at moments but easy to come back to. Or, perhaps I should say it calls you back. During the period that I was reading it, I kept remembering that it was there, in the other room, that I only need go in there and shut the door and I would be immersed in it again. I wanted to be immersed in it. The book itself has something. It is truly a joy to read. The endless minutia of the writer’s days has a kind of raw intensity. One might be tempted to say “honesty,” but, upon closer inspection, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The book is orchestrated, like all memoirs, to give a certain view of the speaker. Accuracy isn’t the point, perhaps. Knausgaard is a very good writer, and that is why one is so easily drawn into the book.

Incidentally, one has to question whether the exact same book by a woman would be considered high art at all, or merely another domestic memoir filled with nappies, love affairs, friends, and food porn. Knausgaard is very good at food porn. The way that My Struggle has been received seems symptomatic of the larger issue in the literary landscape: men can write about anything and be praised for creating serious art (Knausgaard’s previous book was about angels), while women who tackle the same themes, with equal talent and scope, are marginalized as “women writers” working in the realm of “domestic” fiction or memoir. This disparity has nothing to do with the quality of Knausgaard’s work, which speaks for itself, but rather with the lingering assumption among critics that women who write about certain subjects are not deserving of serious consideration, while men are.

Archipelago Books, May 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1935744825

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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond