‘Sum,’ ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’ and ‘The Music Teacher’


Forty Tales From the Afterlives

David Eagleman

Pantheon: 128 pp., $20

Something interesting almost always happens when thinkers with a scientific bent write fiction. (Jonah Lehrer discusses this in “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.”) But David Eagleman really is a neuroscientist, and each vignette here describes a possible afterlife. “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” The afterlife is soft in one story, has " San Diego weather” in another. Not surprisingly, God’s favorite book is “Frankenstein,” so Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley gets her own throne.

God is a woman. God is a married couple. We are God’s internal organs. In one afterlife, you relive your life with events shuffled in a different order; for example, you take all your pain at once, or spend six days clipping your nails. Another afterlife is made up of only people you know. There’s less traffic, but “the missing crowds make you lonely.” This little book is teeming, writhing with imagination. It’s the Duomo between covers, reinvented and distilled.

I Never Promised You

a Rose Garden

A Novel

Joanne Greenberg

Holt: 304 pp., $15 paper

Since its initial publication in 1964, this classic story of a young girl’s diagnosis and treatment for schizophrenia has sold millions of copies and inspired similar ventures like Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted” and Augusten Burroughs’ “Running With Scissors.”

This paperback edition has a new afterword by the author, an essay that reveals just how painful the stigma of schizophrenia was in those days. Joanne Greenberg was institutionalized from age 15 to 19; she left the hospital in 1951 and has returned only once, in 1953. Many years were spent lying about her past; Greenberg was forced to show “sanity papers” before she could take classes at a local college -- there was no guarantee her privacy would be respected.

“I did not write ‘Rose Garden’ as therapy,” Greenberg writes. “I wanted to show what being mentally ill felt like, how it felt to be so deeply estranged from the world.” It’s a pioneering, unforgettable and generous book.

The Music Teacher

A Novel

Barbara Hall

Algonquin Books: 304 pp., $22.95

It feels like an ancient story -- the tired, disappointed teacher who has long since given up on her own talent meets the young student who truly has a shot at greatness. The many ways in which we -- parents, teachers -- might be called upon to funnel our dreams into someone with more talent; the realization that we have a different sort of gift to offer. Pearl Swain is a violin teacher. Her 14-year-old student, Hallie Bolaris, is brimming with promise, but Pearl’s vicarious desires become a problem. She crosses too many boundaries and punishes her student for pushing her away. “The Music Teacher” is a study of the many ways to crush the creative human spirit. “Did you get anything from me?” Pearl asks her estranged student. The question echoes long after the novel ends.