[GIVEAWAY & REVIEW] Linda Wolfe’s Fall Reading List

Autumn is cornucopia time in the book world. Publishers’ lists are crammed with a harvest of the latest efforts of the big guns and the debut works of promising newbies. I’ve been enthralled, educated, amused, and moved by a great many of the books I’ve read this season. And here are some of the ones I enjoyed or wondered at the most.

KEEP READING AND ENTER TO WIN A COPY OF ONE OF LINDA’S FALL PICKS!

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Masters At Work by Linda Wolfe

Masters of the art of fiction – or perhaps I should say the craft of fiction, for it is these authors’ mischievous craftiness that accounts for a great deal of the delights of their new works. Me, I couldn’t be happier. New literary voices are all well and good but oh, to read again an author you have loved for years and find that she or he is still writing up a storm! That’s not just happiness, that’s joy.

Want to win a copy of one of these books? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question:

 Which of these books do you want to read and why?
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{Book Critic & Giveaway} Fall 2014: A Cornucopia of Treats

The publishers’ catalogs I peruse to see what’s coming up for the next season promised a veritable cornucopia of literary treats for the fall. Because I was about to set off for an extended stay in England and wanted to travel light, I chose a number of titles, obtained advance electronic galleys, and ended up toting a shelf full of upcoming books in my Kindle. They made for terrific travel companions as I sightsaw around London and reconnected with old friends in Oxford.

Here are the books that were my favorites.

Want to win a copy of one of these books? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question: Which of these books do you want to read and why?

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

The Bone Clock
by David Mitchell

Random House. 624 pp.

Am I the only American book critic to detect a direct connection between David Mitchell and a story that was on the Dr. Who TV series way back in the nineteen-sixties? Mitchell wasn’t even born when the story first aired. But in 1980, when he was a pre-teen, a novelization of the classic early show, called The Keys of Marinus, was published. Interestingly, some of the action in The Keys of Marinus was filmed on Britain’s Isle of Sheppey. Is it too far-fetched of me to speculate that the eleven-year-old Mitchell—the perfect age for gobbling up sci-fi novels—read the novelization and learned about the old film, after which, for the rest of his life, there lodged somewhere in the back of his brain the intriguing-sounding names of Marinus and of the Isle of Sheppey? Marinus is a planet in the Dr. Who story, a character in some of Mitchell’s books; the Isle of Sheppey is the place where some of the most important action in Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, takes place. Okay, so what if I my idea is a bit fanciful? When it comes to David Mitchell, no one can come up with ideas more far-fetched than his own.

The new book contains six sections covering the years between 1984 and 2043, and features several thoroughly believable characters who speak in Mitchell’s slangy captivating voice. There’s Holly Sykes, a teenage runaway; Hugo Lamb, a devious Cambridge student with whom she has an affair; Ed Brubeck, a war reporter she eventually marries; and Crispin Hershey, a friend of hers who was once a bestselling novelist but has now fallen into the sorry pits of the midlist. There are also fantastical figures who enter Holly’s life. Some are immortal by nature, like kindly Dr. Marinus, who turns out to be hundreds of years old, others are immortal by virtue of decanting and drinking the blood of young victims, like the malevolent Imaculeé Constantin.

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{Book Critic & Giveaway} Summer Picks from Linda Wolfe

Am I a voice of one? I’ve never felt that what often goes by the title “Summer Reading” in magazines and online book review sites is what I want to read in the summer. What I want in the summer isn’t a so-called beach book, the kind you are inclined to throw away or press “Remove from Device” on your Kindle as soon as you’ve read it. What I want to read in the summer, what I save to read in the summer, are books with some meat on their bones, so to speak. Here are some that I’ve found succulent indeed so far this summer, not one of which I’m going to throw away, though I might just part with a couple temporarily, to lend to a friend with the proviso that she’d better return them or the friendship’s over. Wham, bam. We’re done, ma’am. Better yet, I’ll probably tell her to go and get the book herself.

Want to win a copy of one of these books? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question: Which of these books do you want to read and why?

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

In The Light of What We Know
by Zia Haider Rahman

FSG. 497 pp.

This one, like they say about turning fifty and entering upon those challenging decades that lie ahead, ain’t for sissies. Inventive and erudite, In the Light is a debut novel by Zia Haider Rahman, whose family emigrated to England from Bangladesh when he was a young child. Displaced, impoverished, often hungry, the author lived for a time in a rat-infested condemned London building until his father got a job as a bus driver and moved the family into subsidized housing. Young Rahman, despite all the odds against him, flourished, was so intellectually gifted and industrious a student that he won a scholarship to Oxford, where he studied mathematics, and subsequently became an investment banker, then a human rights lawyer, and now, a novelist.

Not much happens in this extraordinary novel. That is, what matters is what has already happened, and how its two main characters, talk about what has happened. The families of both are originally from Southeast Asia, though one, the nameless narrator, is from a privileged third-generation family, and the other, Zafar, from a background very like that of the author himself. Friends since their college days—both were at Oxford, both studied mathematics—the pair became bankers, and prospered professionally. But they haven’t seen each other in some years. And now a gaunt and haggard Zafar has arrived unexpectedly at the narrator’s posh home.

Reunited, he and the narrator talk at length in brilliant, analytical, digressive dialogue about all manner of things, from the financial crisis of 2008, to the war in Afghanistan, to sex, manners, love, betrayal, and most tellingly, about the ways class affects and afflicts one’s outlook on life. “No one talks about class anymore,” Zafar tells the narrator, “not since the death of socialism.” But class “is you, it’s the eyes with which you see the world.”

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{Book Critic & Giveaway} If Books Were Meals…

If books were meals, some of them would be the hearty filling kind, others, lighter fare. Here’s a book that’s really filling—the kind of novel you can chew over long after you’re done reading it—and some books that are lighter fare but are bound to amuse your bouche. Want to win a copy of one of these books? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question: Which of these books do you want to read and why?

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra

Hogarth Press (Random House).

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena—the title comes from the definition of life in a Russian medical textbook—was awarded the very first National Book Critics Circle’s prestigious John Leonard prize. It’s about Chechnya, and it’s an amazing novel, particularly given that its young author had never been to Chechnya. Many writing teachers tell their students, “Write what you know.” Marra believes, “Write what you want to know.” Doing intensive research, he came to know and understand the country, its history, and its people in great depth, and has produced what is decidedly the most brilliant and compelling work of all the many novels I read during our finally departed wretched winter.

Constellation tells the story of steely young Sonja, a Russian surgeon living in Chechnya who, with a mere couple of nurses, virtually no proper medical supplies, and no other doctors to assist her, decides for personal reasons to keep a Chechnyan hospital open and working throughout the ravages of war. She treats people whose limbs have been blown off by landmines, torture victims whose fingers have been severed at the joints, a whole panoply of sufferers from the inhumane harms war inflicts on civilians as well as soldiers. Sonja is brusque, sharp tongued. “Caring for the dying overwhelmed her,” Marra writes. “She couldn’t be expected to care for the living as well.”

Yet when Akhmed, “the most incompetent doctor in Chechnya,” arrives at the hospital one day with a little girl in tow and asks Sonja to shelter the child because her mother is dead, her father has been taken away by the Russian security forces, and the girl herself is being hunted, Sonja lets herself be persuaded to hide her.

Sonja and Akhmed will fall in love. The little girl will eventually be rescued. But I needn’t issue a Spoiler’s Alert; the way the love affair plays out, and the reasons Sonja agrees to save the girl are the meat of this story, and the hows and whys of what happens will keep you turning the pages as you meet character after character whose lives intertwine with those of Sonja and Akhmed. The style can sometimes be annoying; Marra, a young writer, employs the post-modern literary device so in vogue with many of today’s young writers: jumping backward and forward in time. But despite this, the story, as if resisting trendiness, marches straightforwardly ahead. And despite the grimness of the setting, the book is not in itself grim. Rather, it’s a paean to the human ability to triumph over tragedy, a tribute to the imperishability of love and compassion in a world bent on demolishing these. Plus, there’s some of the most beguiling language on the scene today. Just for a tidbit, here’s the child, Havaa, on her father: “Her father was the face of her morning and night, he was everything, so saturating Havaa’s world that she could no more describe him than she could the air.”

Not bad, huh? And there’s lots more that’s even better.

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{Giveaway} A Mysterious Collection of Books

FOF author & private investigator, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, is giving away her entire collection of 10 juicy reads (retail value: $150)! Carolina’s newest book, Magnolia, is “a departure from the mystery series” and delves into the erotica genre. We can’t wait to read it!

Want to win this sensational set of novels? Comment below by answering the question: Which of Carolina’s books do you want to read the most, and why? 1 FOF will win.

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{FOF Book Critic & Giveaway} Summer reads from Linda Wolfe

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I’ve been trying to evade New York City’s heat wave (and an apartment full of chores) by holing up out East in Sag Harbor, with little to do – lucky me! – but relax, swim and read, read, read. Here are some of the books I’ve found particularly interesting this summer.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, recently published her powerful book, MY DAUGHTER/MYSELF, in June.  She has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.  Her latest reviews take you from the 1970s art world to a remote Afghani village; a gay artist during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to a Cherokee migrant worker in the 1930s.

Win one of these summer reads! To enter, comment below by answering the question: Which of Linda’s picks do you want to read?

theflamethrowersTHE FLAMETHROWERS. Rachel Kushner. Scribner. 383 pp.

Motorcycles! Lovers! The heady 1970s. The cool art scene in lower Manhattan. The sizzling urban guerilla scene in Italy. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is a coming of age story about Nevada-born Reno, a motorcycling enthusiast, who comes to New York, an innocent abroad, so to speak, makes friends among the art world’s cleverati – painters and filmmakers whose conversation is as abstract and difficult to fathom as their work – falls in love with painter Sandro de Valera, scion of a wealthy Italian family that manufactures motorcycles, gets betrayed by Sandro, and loses some of her previous befuddled naivete. Along the way she races a motorcycle on the Salt Flats of Utah, poses as a model for a New York company that produces film stock, goes to Italy, falls out with Sandro and in with members of Milan’s Red Brigades, and becomes an artist herself, a “land artist”– a practitioner of the art of creating patterns and designs on the earth’s surface.

Kushner is a gorgeous writer. The muse doesn’t just inspire her, it colonizes, inhabits her, making thoughts and images flow from her pen in a seemingly unstoppable flow. Some of the writing is exquisite. Of New York in winter, Kushner writes “Water jeweled itself to a clear, frozen dribble from the fire hydrant in front of my building.” Of Milan, she observes, “Neon was electric jewelry on the lithe body of the city;” Lake Como is “a spill of silver;” Utah’s Great Salt Lake has “white drifts [that] looked almost like snow but they moved like soap, quivering and weightless.”

But Kushner can also be wordy and imprecise. Here she is, stumbling toward describing how when we become adults, we still retain remnants of our girlhood selves: “It was not the case that one thing morphed into another, child into woman. You remained the person you were before things happened to you. The person you were when you thought a piece of cut string could determine the course of a year. You also became the person to whom certain things happened. Who passed into the realm where you no longer questioned the notion of being trapped in one form. You took on that form, that identity, hoped for its recognition from others, hoped someone would love it and you.”

Worse, Kushner can be insufferably boring because she enjoys making the reader realize how insufferably banal some of her characters are by reproducing lengthy passages of their pretentious conversation. She is also a devotee of the post-modernists’ distaste for chronology, starting her story with Reno’s motorcycle race, then taking the reader back in time to her meeting Sandro and his circle, then on to the motorcycle race again, then forward once more, to the trip to Italy. But she interrupts even this confusing structure with chapters about Sandro’s father, the founding of the Valera company, and oddments about domestic terrorists in sixties New York. Toward the end, this speed-obsessed book swerves and nearly crashes.

Still, Kushner has been highly touted by a multitude of critics, called the voice of her generation, and “one of the most brilliant writers of the new century.” Give the book a whirl, get into the conversation, and see what you think.

lovedishonormarrydieLOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH by David Rakoff. Doubleday. 116 pp.

When’s the last time you read a novel in verse? I hate to admit it, but I think the last one for me was The Iliad, in my college days. So I was totally unprepared for the experience of reading this playful, highly original, laugh-out-loud funny, yet deeply moving first novel written in rhyme by David Rakoff, essayist and frequent presence on the radio show This American Life.

Rakoff, who died of cancer at the age of forty-seven worked intensively on Love, Dishonor for the last months of his life, writing between bouts of chemotherapy and surgery, and encountering ever-increasing weakness. Still, determined to finish the book, his first novel, finish it he did, about a week before he died.

The novel links the lives of seven characters who live in various American locales and in various decades. It starts with a child born to a superstitious, rejecting mother in turn-of-the-19th-century Chicago, and ends in present-day New York with a man whose wife, unfairly blaming him for the failure of their marriage, has left him and taken their children.

The infant, named Margaret,

had hair on her head
Thick and wild as a fire, and three times as red
The midwife, a brawny and capable whelper,
Gave one look and crossed herself, God above help her.

The abandoned husband is living in a tiny studio apartment:

It struck him as fitting, a concrete admission
Of guilt: one’s apartment as form of punition.
In such a bare space, he might do some soul-healing.
With room for the boxes, stacked from floor to ceiling.

There is also a woman, “neither widow nor wife,” with a husband whose stroke has left him helpless, an office worker, once a glowing Aphroditic beauty but now middle-aged, and single, in love with her married unresponsive boss, and – most touchingly – Clifford, a talented gay artist who contracts AIDS in epidemic-stricken 1980’s San Francisco. As his illness worsens, Clifford, the voice of the author:

thought of those two things in life that don’t vary
(Well, thought only glancingly: more was too scary).
Inevitable, why even bother to test it.
He’d paid all his taxes, so that left…you guessed it.

Clifford, like Rakoff, dies tragically young:

The inkwell tipped over and spread ‘cross his page.
Clifford was gone. Forty-five years of age.

The connection between the novel’s various characters is indirect but, once revealed, thrilling. The rhymes are witty, ingenious. And the poet proves to be a soulful chronicler of our human joys and sorrows

mountainsechoedAND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini. Riverhead. 404 pp.

If you haven’t already read Khaled Hosseini’s beguiling And the Mountains Echoed, you should. More complex than The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it nevertheless moves like the wind, sweeping the reader along through decades of Afghanistan’s troubled history. But the history here is not one of wars and invasions and political turmoil. “I need not rehash for you [our] dark days,” says a doctor who has come to Kabul to tend to people grievously wounded in the country’s chaos and serves in a major section of the book as the voice of the author. “I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been chronicled. And by pens far more learned and eloquent than mine.” Rather, the history in And the Mountains Echoed is that of ordinary people, Afghanis and visitors to Afghanistan whose lives flourish or fail in the dark days and intersect in oblique and fascinating ways.

Hosseini is enormously skilled. The book begins with the story of a ten-year-old Afghan boy, Abdullah, who has been looking after his sister, Pari, ever since their mother died in childbirth. As an example of the author’s skill, from the moment we meet the sister, he doesn’t have to tell us that Pari is a much younger child. Rather, he shows us the girl, unable yet to correctly pronounce her brother’s name, calling out “Abollah!” whenever she wants him.

Pari is, as it turns out, three, and when the children’s poverty-stricken father allows a childless upper class woman to adopt her, Pari’s cry of “Abollah! Abollah!” as she is torn from her brother, is heart-wrenching.

The separation of the children is prefigured by a folktale, one of many in the repertoire of the children’s father, about a long-ago time when a giant dwelled on the earth and could demand and carry off a poor family’s child. The stolen children are not, as their families fear, killed or, worse, consumed, by the giant, but allowed to grow up in luxurious circumstances, live like princes and princesses in a landscape of gardens and twinkling streams, surrounded by music and poetry and fed with delectable food. But the children forget their parents, and the father in the tale, who discovers the whereabouts of the kidnapped boys and girls, is given a glimpse of his own stolen child but then given, too, out of the kindness of the giant’s heart, a potion that will make him forget what he’s seen and indeed never remember his child at all.

This tale haunts the book, which is filled with stories of separation,
of partings caused by poverty, war, or ordinary human selfishness and self-absorption.

In the case of Pari and Abdullah, Pari is taken away to live in Paris by her adoptive mother, and grows up ignorant of her true parentage. Yet all her life she feels “the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence. Sometimes it was vague, like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled. Other times it felt so clear it made her heart lurch….I was like the patient who cannot explain to the doctor where it hurts, only that it does.” Abdullah eventually emigrates to the United States, where he opens a tiny California restaurant called Abe’s Kebab House and, although having some modest success, never feels altogether happy. Or rather, he always feels somehow incomplete, and all his life hides beneath his bed his fondest treasure, a box of bird feathers he had collected in his boyhood to give to his sister if he ever saw her again.

When Abdullah’s wife gives birth to a daughter, he gives the child the name of his beloved sister. Little Pari grows up believing, like many little girls, she has an imaginary friend, but hers is an aunt named Pari, with whom she shares her dreams and worries.

The first Pari and her brother never meet until they are elderly, when they are brought together by the younger Pari. By the this time the first Pari suffers from severe arthritis and Abdullah, like the father in the folktale, has Alzheimer’s and cannot recognize, or even remember, the sister whose removal from his care has soured his whole life.

You’ll cry at the story of this brother and sister. You may cry, too, at the story of Pari and Abdullah’s father, deprived by a warlord of his meager property, or at that of Nabi, their uncle, who flees village life to become a servant. Or at the story of the hidden homosexual who for the sake of convenience marries the woman who adopts Pari. Or that of Thalia, a Greek girl who cares for the mother of the home-evading altruistic doctor in Kabul. Hosseini is a master at tugging on a reader’s heart strings.

More, all his stories here circle around that ancient folktale of familial separation. Such separation is a major torment in today’s world for the many immigrants from poor nations who must leave their families behind to work in – and hopefully send money home from – industrialized countries.

marycoinMARY COIN by Marisa Silver. Blue Rider Press, 322 pp.

In the mid-nineteen-thirties a photograper working for the Federal Resettlement Administration snapped a haunting picture of a worn and desperate-looking woman surrounded by her young children, eyes staring worriedly into space at what she seemed to envision as a miserable future. You’ve seen the photo. It has become emblematic of the Great Depression and its millions of victims. Frequently exhibited in museums and galleries, copies of it are on posters and even on tee-shirts everywhere.

But who was the woman? And why was she so worried? The photographer’s name was Dorothea Lange. The subject of the photo was a woman called Florence Owens Thompson. But that tells us precious little. And it was the absence of information about the photo’s subject that inspired novelist and story writer Marisa Silver to write Mary Coin, her graceful and engrossing fictional exploration of the story behind the famous photo.

The story is told by three characters, Vera Dare, a photographer, Mary Coin, a migrant worker, and Walker Dodge, a professor of cultural history with a penchant for digging up the artifacts of everyday men and women. But it is Mary’s story that makes this novel so effective.

Silver’s Mary is born into a Cherokee family living on a farm in the Midwest. A daring and bright young girl, she dreams of a future that will get her away from the drudgery of farm life, a handsome prince who will carry her off and upward. She finds him in the son of wealthier neighbors, they fall in love, marry young, and migrate to California, arriving just when the depression strikes. They manage to land jobs picking fruit and vegetables on California estates, but they have children and are barely getting by when her husband succumbs to pneumonia and dies. From then on, Mary’s life goes from bad to worse.

She is now the sole support of her brood, and must take ever more demeaning and arduous picking jobs. These become more scarce as more and more migrant workers pour into California (think Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.) and Mary’s life is filled with almost unbearable poverty and misery – both of which she faces with an undauntable spirit. Mary also encounters Vera Dare, who like the woman her character is based upon, had polio as a girl, lived a bohemian life in San Francisco as a young woman, had numerous unhappy love affairs, and became a photographer, first of society figures but later, during the depression when clients became fewer and far between, a government -hired photographer of the poverty-stricken. Mary also has an affair – hers with the son of the owner of a ranch who may or may not be the grandfather of Walker Dodge, a secret that gives the novel momentum.

Did I say The Grapes of Wrath above? In fact Silver’s portrait of Mary Coin far exceeds anything in the Steinbeck novel, where the characters seem merely embodiments of propaganda. Mary, on the other hand, seems to live and breathe on the page. She makes this novel a powerful achievement.

Win one of these summer reads! To enter, comment below by answering the question: Which of Linda’s picks do you want to read?

1 FOF will win. (See official rules, here.) Contest closes August 1, 2013 at midnight E.S.T. Contest limited to residents of the continental U.S.

{FOF Book Critic & Giveaway} Read like an author

book giveawaylayout

Spring is in full force! Time for a change?  How about trying personal essays?  For those of you who may have binged on the fabulous books of short stories that came out in the winter — books like George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and Tessa Hadley’s Married Love – here are two books of essays that are, in their way, as vivid and engrossing as stories.  Here, too, are a couple of delicious novels with highly unusual protagonists, not your typical fictional cast of characters.  In one, a golem and a jinni.  In the other, a sociopathic husband and father.   He’s in love with his little daughter, but he doesn’t really know what to love someone really entails.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has a new book coming out in June!  MY DAUGHTER/​MYSELF is “a wrenching, highly personal account of her 38-year-old daughter’s out-of-the-blue, near-fatal stroke and miraculous recovery.”  We can’t wait to read it!

Want to win a copy of Helene Wecker’s fabulous new book, The Golem and the Jinni? Tell us your favorite spring read of 2013! 2 FOFs will win.

PORTRAIT INSIDE MY HEAD by Phillip Lopate.
Free Press. 292 pages.

Essayist Phillip Lopate started his career as a poet but gave up poetry because he had, he tells us in his new collection, Portrait Inside My Head, “fallen in love with the personal essay and its possibilities. I found in the personal essay a wonderful plasticity, which combined the storytelling aspects of fiction with the lyrical, associative qualities of poetry.”

The new book contains Lopate’s musings on many matters — on movies, baseball, other writers, the public spaces we inhabit — but it is his essays on private matters like marriage, sex, parenthood, and what he calls “the nail pairings of daily life” that are the most like stories.

In “Tea at the Plaza,” Lopate and his wife take their four-year-old daughter, Lily, to tea at the Plaza Hotel’s former bastion of High Tea for high society women and their offspring, the now vanished Palm Court, because they long to give her “all the social graces and sophisticated experiences” that they feel they themselves were deprived of in their childhoods. They exclaim over the “fabulous high ceiling, the palm trees, the piano, the marble floor….the peach cobblers, the jams, the crustless cucumber sandwiches, the savories, the petits fours.” But as the essay unfolds, it becomes clear that the occasion is less thrilling to Lily than to her parents, and even becomes an occasion for piercing sobs and anguish. The essay ends, as a story might, with the narrator reflecting on how he and his daughter have made the “now-shared discovery that life was composed, at bottom, of loss, futility, and ineluctable sadness. There was nothing you could do about it but laugh.”

When she was an infant, that same daughter had a mysterious illness, one that required her to be hospitalized for almost a year. In a later essay, “The Lake of Suffering,” Lopate describes the anguish of having a child in mortal danger, and the ordeal of paying daily visits to the hospital, a place that “was like a spaceship: no gravity, no up or down, white, weightless. Lily finally got to come home when she was about a year old, but had periodic setbacks for years. She is over them now, has become, we learn, “for all intents and purposes, a healthy teenager. Which means she is snappish, moody, dictatorial, and self-absorbed” (though she also has a good sense of humor and the ability to “tolerate her parents reasonably well. “) Lily and her mother have let go of the horrors of the hospital year. But Lopate can’t. “Is it because it shook me to my very core?” he asks self-critically. Or, vaingloriously, “Is it because I am too proud of having survived that ordeal to stop dwelling on it?”

That’s typical Lopate. In each of his personal essays he learns or reveals something untoward about himself. In “The Countess’s Tutor,” he learns he is capable of cruelty. In “Brooklyn the Unknowable,” he confesses that although he has come to like living and raising his daughter in Brooklyn, the borough he vowed never to return to once he left for Manhattan in his college days, he “may never be whole [because] I have been both Manhattanite and Brooklynite.” He has identified with “the imperial contempt” of Manhattan and “the complacent inferiority complex” of Brooklyn, “sampled the champagne and the Ovaltine, and will forever be split.”

To the extent to which there is a consistent theme in this collection of essays, Lopate tells us, “it is the discovery of limitations, and learning to live with them. The recognition of one’s limits, painful as it may be, can have salutary side effects.” For the reader, a highly salutary side effect of the author’s discoveries of his limitations is enjoyment and admiration for his honesty.

SHE MATTERS:  A Life in Friendships by Susanna Sonnenberg.
Scribner. 255 pages.

All of Sonnenberg’s essays in She Matters concern friendship, what makes one work, another one fail, fair weather friends, foul weather friends, friends who’ve treated us shabbily, friends we ourselves may have treated shabbily, the reasons behind why women sometimes treasure their female friends more than their male partners. But this is not a book of advice. It’s a wandering down the lanes and byways of Sonnenberg’s experiences with her own friends.

In a previous, highly acclaimed book, Her Last Death, Sonnenberg wrote about her traumatic childhood. Her witty and cynical father, founder of the now defunct literary journal Grand Street and her narcissistic, alcoholic, and extremely manipulative mother divorced when she was young, and Sonnenberg was brought up by the mother. She was, Sonnenberg writes, “the dominant woman of my life, who pulled and pushed, evaporated and materialized, careened, undid things, brambled my intentions.” Living with such a mother made it hard for her, as a girl, to form friendships. She was either wary of other females, afraid they would abuse her in the ways her mother did, or so needy that she would fling herself into a relationship even when the object of her quest was alarmed by her intensity. In She Matters she explores how she slowly came to trust other women, and how important other women have become to her.

She first truly “learned” friendship, she tells us, when she herself became a mother and was introduced by a new acquaintance to that woman’s friendship circle of young mothers. Accepted into their midst, “I’d never had such friends,” Sonnenberg writes. “Women to count on, who counted on me.”

Her new group of friends gathered frequently, gossiping, exchanging child-rearing wisdom, and nursing their babies. “Men!” Sonnenberg thinks as she finds new warmth and solace with these women, “I could barely fathom their use, now that we’d made children. The men didn’t speak our minutiae, or pass hours gathered with toddlers and strangers’ babies….They did not gentle the kids’ stiffened legs as we did, lifting them from the carts. What else could be important? Today, I could say to my three friends, on the weariest, hopeless days, I fed my family. That is enough, they said back. That is so much.”
If you’ve ever been a mother, you may remember a feeling like this, though you may never have put it into words, as Sonnenberg does.

Similarly, if you’ve ever felt that the way we women sometimes talk to one another might shock a man, you’ll cotton to this, about how the author’s husband, arriving in the midst of a visit to Sonnenberg by two lesbian friends, is thrown for a loop by their language and intimate stories. The pair, Sonnenberg explains, “exalted sex as sacred and did it saying cunt and pussy, spilling mock secrets, letting raunch erupt.” Sonnenberg’s husband blushes, says, “Stop it!”, while the author longs to tell him, “It’s good…when women say the real everything, allow each other, wield dirty talk as part of living.”
The book, as it delves into Sonnenberg’s friendships with the women who comforted her when she lost her father, or who helped her become accustomed to living in a new part of the country, or made her understand herself better, is filled with little moments like this, moments you may have experienced in your own friendships with women.

Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast with a book like this that the author may come off at times as overly self-involved. Sonnenberg does, and it’s sometimes annoying, but it’s also clear that she’s well-equipped with wit, imagination, and the talent to make an essay read like almost like a short story.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker.
HarperCollins. 486 pages.

A golem, first mentioned in the Old Testament and subsequently entrenched in Jewish folklore, is a creature that resembles a human being, but is made of clay, and designed to obey its creator or a master. A jinni, in Syrian folktales, is a creature that lives on the edges of human perception, rather like a fairy, but on occasion can be caught, entrapped, and also be made to serve a master. Traditionally, these figures have no will of their own and can be put to evil or selfish purposes by those who control them.

Helene Wecker’s golem and jinni have no masters. The golem, a female one, was purchased in Poland by a man in need of a wife from a wizened student of the Kabbala, an ancient Jewish form of mysticism and magic. The prospective bridegroom requested an obedient wife, but also one endowed with intelligence and curiosity. The magician complied, the buyer packed up his golem in a trunk, and emigrated with the trunk to America aboard a steerage ship. He was planning to awaken and give orders to his clay spouse once they were in the new country. But unfortunately, he dies en route.

The jinni has been encased in a copper flask for many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, by a desert dabbler in the dark arts. He is freed from his imprisonment, appearing vital, virile and handsome in human form, when a Syrian tinsmith is asked by a friend to repair a dented old flask, and begins tinkering with it. But the tinsmith cannot be the Jinni’s master. His master is the long-vanished magician who put him into the flask.

Rudderless, both golem and jinni are on their own in navigating the strange new world of lower Manhattan in the late 1890s in which they find themselves. Recreating that world is Wecker’s great achievement. Not since reading that cult classic, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, have I felt so transported back to old New York by a book, a trick as magical, in its literary way, as the creation of non-human beings. Wecker brings to life the tiny shops near the Bowery of what used to be called little Syria, the multitude of tenements and synagogues near East Broadway on the Lower East Side, the welter of languages spoken on the cheerless streets, and the ways in which people with a past of poverty are trying to grab hold of America’s promise of a future of wealth. In this teeming environment, the golem and the jinni must learn how to control their baser impulses, how to use their own free will, and how to love – in short, how to be human. The golem becomes a baker’s assistant, the jinni takes up the tinsmith’s craft, they make friends among their neighbors, eventually meet one another and – you guessed it — fall in love.

This all works, though alas, for me, the end of the book didn’t. Wecker abandons her hitherto graceful pace and carefully observed scenes to tie up her plot in a swirl of comic-book-like appearances and disappearances, now-you-see-ems, now-you-don’t surprises. But as the best magicians know, magic tricks are best not explained. Nevertheless, until the overwrought end, I thoroughly believed a golem and a jinni might have walked among my forebears on New York’s Lower East Side.

SCHRODER by Amity Gaige.
Twelve. 272 pp.

First-novelist Gaige was inspired by a notorious real-life episode to create her tale of Erik Schroder, an immigrant from East Germany raised in a shabby lower-class neighborhood in Boston, who as a teenager begins to call himself Eric Kennedy, and claim to be from a town “not far from Hyannisport.” You may remember the real-life episode. It was the story of the con artist Christian Gerhartsreiter who renamed himself Clark Rockefeller, fooled a number of people into investing big bucks with him, and kidnapped his daughter in a custody dispute with his estranged wife. Gaige’s Schroder will also kidnap his daughter, 6-year-old Meadow, when his wife, from whom he is recently separated, attempts to reduce his visitation rights.

It’s hard to like Schroder. He’s totally self-involved, and even as he gets his hands on his beloved daughter and flees up north with her you gradually sense something eerily irresponsible about him. When he takes the child swimming at Lake George, instead of joining her in the deep cold water, he stands on the shore chatting up a woman he’s met on the beach, letting the little girl wade so far out alone she’s in water up to her waist. When he and Meadow spend the night in a backwoods New England cabin, after he puts the child to bed he leaves without telling her he might go out, and has sex with a woman in the next-door cabin — only to have Meadow awaken, discover his absence and, panicked, go out into the night to try to find him. He even attempts to hide the little girl in the trunk of their car when he fears the police are pursuing him. How Schroder handles his presumed “love” for his daughter is so thoughtless and eccentric as to be monstrous. The author’s insight into the mind of the pathological Schroder is profound, and the book will haunt you long after you have put it down.

{Giveaway} Signed Dorothy Parker Mystery Novel Set

FOF Agata Stanford is giving away a signed set of five of her Dorothy Parker Mystery novels (Retail value: $105). Enter to win by answering this question in the comments below: What’s your favorite novel?

The Algonquin Hotel became a part of Agata Stanford’s life at a young age. “I went to the High School of Performing Arts in New York City when it was on 46th street,” says Agata. “I used to pass the hotel often.” Being a drama major, Agata knew about all the members of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of celebrated writers, critics, actors and wits from the 1920s. “They met every day for lunch at one o’clock,” says Agata, “and their conversations were published in newspaper columns across the country. Everyone knew what they said at lunch.”

Agata went on to enjoy a career in the arts. She performed in and directed equity plays, toured as an actress, and appeared in over fifty films. After her kids were grown, Agata found herself in need of a new project.  “I thought about doing a one woman show on [poet] Dorothy Parker,” says Agata. “I started to read intensely about her life.” About four years ago, Agata decided she wanted to do something fun with her love of mystery novels.  “I wanted to do a series, something humorous and fun to read, something that I would want to read, and it just popped into my head: Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.”

The Dorothy Parker Mystery series features real characters from the Algonquin Round Table. Set in the 1920s, Dorothy Parker is the amatuer sleuth. “I wrote these books in first person so Dorothy Parker is telling the story,” says Agata. “I combine the famous lines that she said within the text of the books.”

Since she published her first book in 2010, Agata has sold over 2,000 copies. Her novels are sold online on Amazon and iTunes, worldwide, and in major brick and mortar stores such as Barnes & Noble.  There are currently five novels in the series, but Agata doesn’t plan on stopping there. “When I run out of ideas or things to say, I’ll stop writing,” says Agata. “Right now, it’s a journey. It has been so much fun.”

Enter to win a signed copy of the Dorothy Parker Mystery Novels Collection by answering this question in the comments below: What’s your favorite novel?

One FOF will win. (See all our past winners, here.) (See official rules, here.) Contest closes November 1st, 2012 at midnight E.S.T. Contest limited to residents of the continental U.S.

{Giveaway} Carole King got married at 17…

…and 4 other surprising facts you may not have known about this FOF icon.

Plus, win a copy of her new memoir, A Natural Woman, when you leave a comment below.

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FOF Carole King has lived a quintessentially FOF life. Born in 1942, in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was a mother of two by age 22, married and living in suburban New Jersey where she cooked, cleaned and even sewed her daughters’ clothing. A classic 1950s housewife. Kind of.

At the same time, she and her husband, Gerry Goffin, were famously writing top-40 songs–including “Up on The Roof,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and “Natural Woman”–for the decade’s biggest pop stars. In King’s new memoir, A Natural Woman, we watch her life evolve, buoyed by the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and all the other cultural cliches FOFs created–and now take for granted. Even as her first marriage dissolves and the “girl groups” fall out of favor, she forges ahead, reinventing herself as a hippie-ish single mom, a #1 recording artist, and later as a pioneer woman in Idaho. Through it all, she struggles to find a balance between her blockbuster success as a performer and her deep desire to live a “simple life”–cooking, sewing and caring for her children, husband and home.

Here, we’ve got 4 fascinating details from Carole’s new memoir, Natural Woman. Enter to win a copy for yourself when you leave a comment below.

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Enter to win a copy of Carol’s new memoir, A Natural Woman, when you leave a comment below.

2 FOFs will win. (See all our past winners, here.) (See official rules, here.) Contest closes May 10, 2012 at midnight E.S.T.

Images: Grand Central Publishing / Tomorrow’s News