Nothing is the same

Last modified: 10/14/2012 12:00:00 AM
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.7 million people suffered a traumatic brain injury annually. When Massachusetts pediatrician Carolyn Roy-Bornstein's memoir, Crash: a Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude, begins, she is in her kitchen, asking whether her son Neil's girlfriend, Trista, would like cheese on her burger. After supper, Neil walks Trista home. They never make it; he becomes one of those 1.7 million.

A drunken driver hit them on a well-lit road. Trista died of her injuries. Neil's life was never the same. As Roy-Bornstein writes, the crash is 'a line, like a crack in the glass, that carves time and events in two: those that occurred before the crash and those that tumble and falter in its wake. There is this one moment after which nothing is the same.'

Roy-Bornstein writes movingly of her family's dislocating experiences after that moment. Even with her medical knowledge, Neil's condition is unfamiliar. From the night of the accident to years later when she notices something he does and wonders, 'is this the injury, or is this just Neil?' their world has become unpredictable.

Toward the end of the book, when she writes about Neil's struggles in college and adulthood, her medical career and the process of seeking justice, the story sometimes wanders. But this section is also poignant. To those who suggest her family 'move on,' Roy-Bornstein points out that Neil's cognitive and psychological challenges are ongoing, so 'this idea of closure is fraudulent.'

She also explains, 'I don't want to focus on what Neil might have accomplished without his brain injury. Instead I want to celebrate everything he has accomplished with it. Despite it. That is grace.' In the afterword she shares what she's learned about TBI as a mother, doctor and advocate, and describes Neil's life now. A tough but ultimately redemptive read.

Two more nonfiction gems:

The Words I Chose: a Memoir of Family and Poetry by Wesley McNair is a standout.

Fans of McNair's poetry and essays know he is a warm, funny writer whose work is rooted in life experience as well as responses to 'the erosion of family, region, and nation' he's witnessed. This memoir, which begins with his parents meeting and covers his youth and early writing career in New Hampshire, is a heart-rending narrative of emotional and economic hardship - the wells McNair has drawn from throughout his distinguished writing career.

After describing his lowest point as a college teacher barely making ends meet, a scholar and poet unsure of his strengths, and a father caught in his own parents' patterns of strife, McNair relates how 'six liberating words' from Donald Hall - 'I am dazzled by your poems' - set him on a new course.

McNair made peace with his past, himself and his family and continued to write, with great tenderness and power, the poems that made his name in American letters. This book isn't just the story of how McNair realized his gift as 'a poet who has been shaped from the start by the threat of things dear to me coming apart.' It's also a story of the healing power of literature, art and ideas.

McNair writes with abundant humanity and clarity about connections he's made in his work between 'the terror,' as he calls the difficult times he's faced, and the upheavals in American life over the past several decades.

And for literature buffs and those dealing with their own 'terror:'

Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family by Ruth Nemzoff.

I've been a daughter-in-law for almost 23 years, so I didn't think I'd learn from this book. But Nemzoff's engaging style and practical tone drew me in and I found much to ponder. She examines perspectives of both parents and grown children (including siblings, a particularly interesting section), and sticky issues from cultural and religious differences to addiction, money, grandchildren, holidays, aging and more. Nemzoff reminds me of my grandmother, who often said if I wanted to make the world a better place I should start by always trying to be my best self. She advises readers not to expect perfect in-law relationships, 'to put a statute of limitations on slights,' to be consistently kind or at least civil, to have some perspective (including looking at your own behaviors and beliefs), and 'to take the long view of things.'

A wise, warm book well worth reading whether you're a longtime in-law or are newly merging families.

New this month - also noted . . .

There are so many New Hampshire and New England authors and books, it's impossible for me to cover them all. So when necessary, I will briefly note those I haven't reviewed in depth. These books will still meet The Mindful Reader criteria: by an author from New Hampshire or adjoining states or set in or about New Hampshire, of interest to a variety of readers, and probably not well-known or widely publicized.

• Sermons In Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York, by Susan Allport, illustrated by David Howell. The Countryman Press has reissued this book, originally published in 1990. Allport is an engaging science writer who did meticulous research. Howell's detailed ink drawings are beautiful and informative. In her preface to this new edition, Allport notes the increased interest in stone walls and the complexity of what she expected to be a simple story.

• Cover-Up: One Man's Pursuit of the Truth Amid the Government's Failure to End a Ponzi Scheme, by Mark Connolly. 'This book is not meant to be a definitive history of this fraud; rather it is to inform the reader about how it feels to be in the middle of a political storm,' writes Connolly, former director of the New Hampshire Bureau of Securities Regulation. He dedicates Cover-Up to his bureau colleagues and the victims of Financial Resources Management.

• When America First Met China: an Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail by Eric Jay Dolan. Dolan, the Massachusetts author of several books including acclaimed volumes on the whaling and fur trades, explores the roots of America's relationship with China and how that story informs contemporary relations. Dolan writes of policies and personalities in government, commerce and culture, and the clash and cooperation that shaped our countries' intertwined destinies.

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