Lori Gottlieb & Laila Lalami

A book about a therapist who writes about her patients and her own therapy? Are you kidding me? As one who’s had a fair amount of her own experience with therapy (you’re shocked, right?), why would I want to read about anyone else’s?

Gottlieb_MaybeBecause, it turns out, Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is entertaining (especially if you’re something of a voyeur, like me), well-written, and, most importantly, has that quality I look for in every book I read: it tells us something about the human condition.

An aside: I generally steer clear of any book that feels even the slightest bit self-helpy. For whatever reason I feel that my own issues are far too complex, interesting and, well, special to benefit from advice doled out by the author of a book intended for the masses. Gottlieb’s book, without proclaiming itself self-help, sneakily causes us to examine our own behavior as we read about her own emotional trials and tribulations as well as those of her patients.

Here’s a section I underlined that felt illuminating: “therapy is about understanding the self that you are. Part of getting to know yourself is to unknow—to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.” Hmmmmmmm.

By the way, Lori Gottlieb is funny, self-deprecating, and almost uncomfortably honest. She’s also a little bit nuts, which makes her relatable. Her portraits of her patients, admittedly composites, ring true and we root for them on their journey to self-discovery. We root for her too, although I was pleased she didn’t solve all her issues and ride off into the sunset with a man on a white horse by the end of the book.

A note on Gottlieb’s own therapist, whom she calls Wendell in the book. She presents him as extremely skilled and compassionate, pretty much the dream shrink. He even dances with her when she’s ready – you’ll have to read the book to understand this. I’m a little miffed my shrink never danced with me. I many have to take it up with her.

Lalami_OtherIn March I finally visited Joshua Tree National Park to see the desert in bloom, a trip I’d been meaning to do for years. Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans caught my eye because it takes place in Joshua Tree and I was curious to see how the Mojave figured into the novel.

The book revolves around an unresolved murder, a hit and run involving a Moroccan immigrant. His daughter, who has left the desert behind for the life of a struggling composer in Oakland, returns home, becomes involved in solving the mystery of her father’s death, and falls in love with an old classmate.

This novel is much more than a police procedural. It’s about life in contemporary America post 9-11 for a Muslim family who, no matter how many American flags they fly at their business are still vilified. It’s also about the ugly racism experienced by a black female police detective, the justified paranoia of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, the PTSD of Iraqi war veterans, and the failed American dream of the white middle class. And almost every character is harboring secrets.

It’s not a pretty picture: the personal and the political are on a collision course in the small community in which the novel takes place. On my visit to Joshua Tree I had the definite sense there are many different slices of America living in close proximity in the small towns that line Highway 29: families from the 29 Palms Marine Corps base, old hippies running funky health food stores, artists who’ve flown LA, drawn by the beauty of the desert and cheap real estate, motorcycle freaks, and stoners on the lam from who knows what. It’s the perfect place to set a novel and Lalami makes the most of it.