Just in case you forgot someone—or forgot to get yourself something wonderful to read in the dark days ahead—here are some terrific books: a jewel of a novel plus some gems in brief. Want to win a copy of The King’s Grave? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question: What was your favorite book from 2013?
by Donna Tartt
Little Brown. 771 pp.
I took the longest time about getting to this one. Seven hundred and seventy-one pages! Who has time for that? But curiosity about all the raves got the better of me. So I plunged in. And found myself so absorbed I wanted it never to end.
It’s the story of 13-year-old Theo Decker, whose father, an irresponsible alcoholic, has abandoned Theo and his doting, artist-loving mother. Because of a sudden torrential downpour, Theo and his mother, heading elsewhere, take temporary refuge in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s the wrong place at the wrong time. While Theo and his mother are looking at 17th Century Dutch paintings, out of the blue a terrorist bomb suddenly explodes, leaving scores of severely injured people and quite a few dead ones, including, although Theo doesn’t know it at first, his mother. She’s not in the same gallery as he is when the bomb goes off and, fighting billowing clouds of smoke and chunks of crashing masonry, he’s trying desperately to find her. But he stops his search to tend to an old man with a bloodied head. Then, dazed, scared, unable to think clearly, and not sure why he does it except that the old man seems to be telling him to, Theo takes “The Goldfinch,” a tiny painting by Carel Fabritius, a contemporary of Rembrandt, down from the wall, shoves it into a bag, and attempts to make his way out of the unlit, debris-strewn museum. Brushing against unmoving bodies, stumbling past a disconnected limb here, a head without a top there, wanting only to be reunited with his mother, Theo finally finds a path through the wreckage, emerges onto a Fifth Avenue packed with ambulances, police cars, firetrucks, and hordes of panicked people. Another bomb is about to go off. Theo heads for home, sure his mother has decided to do the same and will be waiting there to rendezvous with him.
She isn’t, of course, and the rest of The Goldfinch recounts Theo’s adventures as, orphaned, he is passed from the home of the dysfunctional Park Avenue family of a schoolfriend friend to the bizarre Las Vegas home of his detested father, who has suddenly reappeared. Always mourning the loss of his beloved mother, always feeling like a rootless soul, and always hiding his guilty secret—the theft of the painting—Theo nevertheless forms some astonishing attachments that will lead him to the peace he will find at the novel’s end.
Tartt’s story of an orphaned boy makes one think of Dickens, master of tales of orphaned boys, and so too does her ambitious, well drawn cast of characters, among them a kindly furniture maker and a Russian friend of Theo’s from his Las Vegas high school years who has a Tolstoyan soul and a handy hand with a gun. Yet it isn’t just her great ability at creating unusual characters that has earned Tartt comparisons to the great Victorian novelist. It’s also that like that master storyteller, she knows how to tell a whopper of a story. This one ultimately involves a true love, an inadvisable wedding, drugs and gambling, the art and craft of antique furniture reproduction, head-spinning reversals of fortune, and a gaggle of international art smugglers.
But what really keeps you turning pages in this book is the voice. Tartt writes in a voice that immediately puts you on intimate terms with Theo, a voice that is observant, sorrowful, anxious, filled with inchoate longings and altogether enchanting. I promise you, you won’t feel like you’re reading a long book. You may even find yourself wanting to turn back to the beginning and start all over again, it’s so much fun.
by Jo Baker
Knopf. 332 pp.
Was I just talking about Dickens? Here’s a book that will take you back to Jane Austen and the delights of Pride and Prejudice. But it’s not one of those books that sets out to recapture our enthusiasm for the characters in a classic work and ends up being only mere shadow of the original. Longbourn is a fully realized novel about the home of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennett sisters. It’s a work that has little to do with those fascinating girls but instead tells the story of the equally fascinating servants, hardly mentioned in P & P, who keep their home running. There’s Mrs. Hill, the cook and housekeeper, who holds a dark secret about Mr. Bennett, James, the new stable hand and coach driver, who is in flight from something dark and ominous in his past, Polly, the scullery girl, a child rescued from an orphanage, and Sarah, the housemaid and central character, overworked, underfed, sensitive, brainy, and ambitious. (She’s an orphan, too—this seems to be the season for orphan books.)
Filled with engrossing information about how the meals got cooked and the beds made and the clothes washed in middleclass families at the start of the nineteenth century, Longbourn is also a sagacious, moving tale of lives lived in hardship but camaraderie, and its spunky heroine, Sarah, though she has no advantages of wealth or class or good connections, is as unforgettable as Elizabeth Bennett.
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf. 477 pp.
The heroine of this book is Ifemelu, a high spirited young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States, where she becomes highly successful at what she does—writing. Americanah is to some extent autobiographical, Ngozi’s own story—at least in its observations about life in America, where Ngozi too has become highly successful at what she does—writing. She’s won a raft of honors, among them the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for a previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, a MacArthur Genius award, and, most recently, the distinction of having her words used by none other than Beyoncé who, in her latest album, inserted a sample of Adichie reading from a speech on feminism into her song “Flawless.”
In the novel, Ifemelu, when she emigrates, leaves behind her girlhood love, Obinze, the one man who “made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.” Soon afterward, Obinze, too, leaves Nigeria, in his case for England. In America, Ifmelu suffers homesickness, loneliness and financial hardship while attending college but, struck by the differences between African Americans and American Africans, she begins writing a blog called, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” with postings entitled, among other things, “Sometimes in America, Race is Class,” and “Hair as Race Metaphor,” “How the Pressure of Immigrant Life Can Make You Act Crazy.” and wry observations like this one, about the tendency of black American intellectuals to wear casual clothes: “When it comes to dressing well, American culture is so self-fulfilled that it has not only disregarded the courtesy of self-presentation, but has turned that disregard into a virtue.” The blog becomes a success, with thousands of unique visitors each month, and Ifemelu begins to earn good speaking fees, wins a fellowship to Princeton, and acquires an American black lover.
Meanwhile, Obinze, who has been a failure in England, where he was unable to obtain legal status, has returned to Nigeria and, entering the oil-rich country’s booming real estate business, begins earning vast amounts of money, marries a beautiful doting well-to-do wife, and fathers a child.
But despite all the achievements of their new lives, Ifemelu and Obinze still long for one another. Ifemelu, in particular feels “cement in her soul.” And after thirteen years in America, she decides to return to Nigeria where, after she starts a new blog, “The Small Redemptions of Lagos,” and eventually has a reunion with Obinze.
While the book is on one level the love story of Ifemelu and Obinze, it is also a work that is filled with acute reflections about life in America, in England, in Nigeria, and in other new African nations. Adichie is after something that goes beyond story in Americanah, She is determined to give us insight into our multicultural world today and in the process, she has written not only a well plotted novel about love but one that is immensely eye-opening on the subject of race.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Confession
by Leo Tolstoy
W.W. Norton. 224 pp.
If you’ve never read The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the incredibly poignant novella that Tolstoy began soon after completing Anna Karenina, or even if you read it once back in your college days, you’re in for a treat with this new translation by Peter Carson, one of the greatest translators of Russian fiction there has ever been. Ivan Ilyich is a long-married prosperous Russian judge, with an apparently devoted wife and two children, who falls sick and, confronting mortality, begins to question the sincerity of all his relationships, the point of all his achievements, and the very meaning of life itself. Ivan Ilyich is also Everyman, a stand-in for all of us when we fully realize that our time on earth is no longer limitless. Take my word for it: there has never been a story about dying as moving as this one.
Carson has paired it here with Confession, a less known, introspective, nonfiction work of Tolstoy’s, begun at about the same time. A memoir, Confession deals with some of the same questions that arise in Ilyich, questions about the inevitability of death and how that stunning often denied and ignored fact affects how—and even why—we live our lives. It is dense and philosophical, and usually published along with other religious treatises of Tolstoy’s. But Carson’s idea of pairing it here with the novella makes for very interesting reading.
The King’s Grave
by Philippa Langley & Michael Jones
St. Martin’s Press. 288 pp.
I have to make my own confession: this isn’t a book for everyone. I liked it, but I admit that reading about Richard III is an acquired taste. I acquired that taste way back when I read Josephine Tey’s mesmerizing mystery, Daughter of Time, which explored the ways in which writers of the Tudor period blackened the reputation of Richard, the king the Tudors overthrew, to make him seem far more villainous than he actually was. It was their versions of King Richard’s life that Shakespeare relied on in writing his malevolent king in Richard III. And since Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and his Richard III such a compelling and constantly produced play, then and now, it is Richard as demonic we all have come to know.
Much of that 15th century false history is presented and countered in this book by British historian Michael Jones. But the book is also the story of how, just last year, the body of Richard was unearthed underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, in the East Midlands, the very town where, historically, he was said to have been buried. Finding that body was due to the obsessive dedication of one woman, Philippa Langley, and she is the co-author of this book. The chapters alternate between her vivid accounts of the search and Jones’s scouring of the historical records.
Now that Richard’s bones have been found, the maligned king is to be given a proper burial, though whether it will be in Leicester—the city is fighting to have his remains remain—or in Westminster, along with all those other English kings, has not yet been determined. Wherever it is, “when we finally lay Richard to rest,” write the authors, “we do not seek to make him ‘bad” or ‘good’. Rather, we [hope to] put a stop to the stigmatizing and vilification and allow for complexity. We also grant him the dignity of resting in peace, a dignity that 500 years of history have denied him.”
As I said, this book isn’t for everyone. But if you—or the recipient of your gift—loves English history, or was an avid watcher of the recent Showtime series, The White Rose, or an admirer or critic of the current Broadway production of Richard III, starring Mark Rylance, it’s just the ticket.
To enter to win,
comment below by answering the question:
What was your favorite book from 2013?
3 FOFs will win. (See official rules, here.) Contest closes January 14, 2013 at midnight E.S.T. Contest limited to residents of the continental U.S.COMMENTS (6)
Picture Perfect Parties
by Annette Joseph
Rizzoli. 224 pp.
Does this sound familiar? You’ve invited friends to your home for a festive party; you’d thought it was a great idea, but now it’s just a week away and you’re fretting over what to cook and how to make it special. That’s when a TV stylist would come in handy. But how many of us can hire one of those?
Have I got a book for you! Annette Joseph, Today Show entertaining expert, has just come out with a cookbook with insider tips on how to throw fabulous parties with little effort. As she says, “Keep it gorgeous and keep it simple.”
Without spending a lot, Joseph can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. For instance, she’ll ask you to hunt around the house for items like fabrics, candles and craft papers to help create magazine worthy “tablescapes.” Then she’ll show you how to build a total environment around a theme, including Cinco de Mayo, July 4th, and the Super Bowl. Joseph also has step-by-step sidebars with innovative ways to create memorable centerpieces as well as other ideas that make a party unique.
But wait! This is a cookbook after all. Inside are full menus for 16 parties including appetizing recipes for dishes such as Apple Cheddar Soufflés, White Bean Vegetable Farro Soup, Sun-Dried Tomato Grilled Flank Steak, Lemony Risotto, Mini Palovas with Strawberry Sauce and Pumpkin Bread Pudding.
And, each event has an “Elements” section that will keep you organized by listing everything you’ll need from serving pieces to platters. With Joseph’s help you’ll always be ready to par-tay!COMMENTS (1)
I had a hard time deciding which fall books to review, because there have been so many terrific ones published of late that it’s been hard to choose among them. But here’s a half dozen fabulous reads, three novels and three memoirs, that will make you forget it’s turning cold out there because you’ll be cozily at home avidly turning pages.
Win one of these fall reads! To enter, comment below by answering the question: Which of Linda’s picks do you want to read?
First, the novels:
Claire of The Sea Lightby Edwige Danticat
Knopf. 238 pp.
I was blown away by award-winning novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat’s latest book, Claire of the Sea Light. It takes a writer—but only a supremely gifted writer—to give you a village, and that’s what Danticat has done here, given us the story of an entire Haitian village, told through the linked experiences of a fascinating a group of characters. There’s the girl of the title, Claire, a perceptive seven-year-old whose mother died giving birth to her and whose impoverished fisherman father, Nozias, hoping to ensure the child a better life than he can provide, wants to give her away to a wealthy townswoman. There’s the woman, Gaelle, whose own daughter has died and whose beloved husband has been the victim of a bystander shooting. There’s the owner of a private school whose son has failed to live up to his youthful promise, a hardworking restaurateur whose son has grown up to be an enterprising radio journalist, some corrupt policemen, careless gang members and a young housemaid raped and impregnated by a member of her employer’s family. The lives of all these people, and more, come together over time to provide a stunning portrait of Haitian life, one we never get from news stories about the island. Equally stunning is the technique with which Danticat handles the progression of time and the secrets that lie in time past, there for the taking if only we could make time run backward.
Danticat uses words sparingly, and to great effect. Here she is describing Haitian wives who prefer to live in antiseptic Miami but occasionally return to visit husbands stuck in Haiti by their businesses: “the so-called expatriate wives came back each time fatter and reeking of citronella, every mosquito and salad and untreated glass of water suddenly their mortal enemy.” Here she is, seeing Haitian youth through the eyes of the schoolmaster. “There was something tragic about a generation whose hopes had been raised, then dashed over and over again… Their leaders and elders—including himself—had made them so many promises that they’d been, for whatever reason, unable to keep.”
This small book—it’s only 238 pages long—more than holds it own against this season’s enormous doorstopper books. It’s tiny, but as exquisite as a gem.COMMENTS (4)
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.COMMENTS (38)
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
Barbara Taylor Bradford received her highly-regarded OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2007.
You’re 80, have good health, a wonderful husband, a fabulous home and oodles of money. Why, for goodness sakes, are you still working from morning to night? Because you’re renowned author Barbara Taylor Bradford, that’s why!
What drives you, at this point, to keep writing?
But what would I do? I have no children, so therefore, no grandchildren. My husband goes to an office every day. He’s a very busy man. He makes most of the TV movies and the mini series of my books. He’s just planning a couple at the moment, which is why he’s in London now. I went to work at 15 1/2. Do you think I can sit here staring at the TV all day long or going out with women who like to lunch and then go shopping?
I’m easily bored. When I finish the book I’m writing now, which will be at the end of July, Robert and I will go away for a couple of weeks. And then we’ll come to New York and WHAT WILL I DO?
I can’t just sit. I don’t want to do what others want to do. I want to write books.
What is it that you love so much about writing?
Getting engaged in a complex story about people who don’t exist, and I create lives.
Someone said to me recently, ‘oh, but you lead a very lonely life during the day.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not lonely.’ I have a solitary occupation, or profession, if you like. But it’s not lonely. I’ve got all these people who I invent and they become real. They have lives I create and I sit there telling all these lies. It’s a great challenge to weave a story and create drama.
And there’s another thing. I actually really love being a best-selling novelist.
Creating people who don’t exist and making them feel real to the reader. Creating something from nothing, because that’s what it is. A novel is a monumental lie that has to have the absolute ring of truth if it’s going to be successful. And the lie, of course, is the story and the lives I invent and the dramas and the problems. And the underlying support that gives it authenticity is that I include a lot of real events and things that have happened in the world at different times. I use a lot of history.
I enjoy all of the razzmatazz that happens when a book comes out, especially in England. I go over to London where I promote the book and there are book and author events. People come to lunch, or a tea, or a coffee morning, and I give a talk. They buy a book. I sign the book. I love all that. My publisher in London always gives me a party. I’m very recognizable because I’m always in the paper. I’ve become a little bit of an icon, I suppose, after 35 years as a novelist. I did 58 interviews and 4 events on the last trip. So I love all the excitement, the parties and the fuss. That’s the bit of glamour that you get, when the book comes out. The rest of it is just the hard slog.
What’s your favorite book?
Of course, you always love your first published novel. I started about 4 or 5 novels that I never finished. I put them away and I didn’t like them until I had the idea for A Woman Of Substance. It’s sold 35 million copies worldwide and is still selling everywhere. It was a six-hour mini series and it spawned two other books, Hold the Dream and To Be The Best. You always love your first novel, I suppose, but the book launched my career as a novelist.
Why are your books so popular?
I think the main thing is that I write about women very sympathetically so the reader has an empathetic feeling towards my protagonists. But I write about women who go out there and do it, who are women warriors, who conquer the world, who are women of substance, who go from being nothing to something important. And I don’t necessarily mean in work. I can write a novel about a woman who survives tragedy, like in Everything to Gain, the protagonist’s husband and children are killed in a carjacking and how she carries on afterwards and what happens to her and what she becomes. It isn’t always about a woman making money. That isn’t always the triumph. It’s also about overcoming adversity as well as making go of a career.
The women who I write about have become role models to other women, to the readers. Especially A Women of Substance, after reading it women will often say: ‘Oh, I decided to go out and go into the real estate business or I decided to sell my designs.’ Whole careers and lives have been built on some of that book. And I wasn’t sending a message. I just wanted to tell a good story.
What’s the best thing, Barbara, about having so much money?
I think we all want to have money. We have to pay our bills. I want to explain an attitude I have first. People say, ‘I think I can be a writer. I want to be rich and famous, just like you.’ I always say those are the wrong motivations. You won’t be if that’s what’s motivating you. You have to want to do the work and you have to want the challenge of doing your best work. Which is what motivates me.
Money lets you plan for your old age. I’m not old. I’m 49 actually, in spirit. And I don’t look 80 nor do I feel it. I was up at 4:30 this morning, dealing with my London editor. The best thing is that it gives you independence if you’re a woman. It’s nice to make money, if you’re working. I give to charity and do a little work for charities.
I am involved with Literacy Partners; Police Athletic League, which helps under-privileged children; Bob and I were one of the founding couples of the New York Pops and still support the orchestra; I am also on the board of the Authors Guild Foundation and give to that charity, too, and The St. George’s Society of New York, which is one of the oldest charities in the city. I also support charities in the UK, including one for missing and abducted children, called PACT.
Money gives you a certain amount of independence and security. Mind you, I’m married to a very successful man. We were never starving in the streets. It’s always nice to give a nice present to people you care about, to help them out if they have problems. It’s a nice feeling to be able to manage a lot of things without worrying.
What is your typical day like?
When I’m writing a book, I’m writing every day, seven days a week. When Bob is here, I get up at 5:30 or 6 and turn on the coffeepot and I get out his orange juice. And I have a coffee and a piece of toast and I come to my desk and I look it what I’ve written the day before because I try to always have some pages to edit because it pulls you back into the book.
I get him up at around 7:30 and I boil water and I stand and look at the clock as the eggs boil for 4 minutes. Then he gets his two boiled eggs and a kiss and then I leave him and get dressed. I’m in a dressing gown till then. I glance at the British papers, put them away (he’s got the American papers) and then I go to work. I start writing the minute I’ve given him his breakfast so I know I won’t be disturbed.
I go and put on pants and a tee shirt and I work until 12 o’clock. I do force myself to get up and walk around a little bit because one should. You get very stiff sitting. I stay at the desk until around 4 or 5 pm. I have a bit of lunch, a tomato salad with some endive or a piece of smoked salmon and a piece of toast. I eat very light at lunch.
If we’re going out, I’ll probably have a rest for an hour on the sofa in my office. I actually do fall asleep. I am a great believer in naps, borrowing that from Winston Churchill, who always believed in a nap after lunch. I do not work at night. I’ve always been a daytime worker.
Do you go out a lot or do you like to cook at home?
We do go out several nights a week. We like to go to the theatre and the movies, but we see most of the movies at home. I love to cook because I don’t have to think. I like to make a lamb stew or chicken in the pot.
Do you use a computer to write?
When I look at the screen, I freeze. I lose my creativity. The screen seems to demand that I write instantly and I can’t do that. I use a very modern IBM Personal Wheelwriter 2, by LexMark. Or I write in pen and then it gets faxed to a typing agency and they put it on a disk. I use a computer to do the research, but I find I can’t write. I do a lot of research myself. I do a lot of handwriting on a yellow pad and then I type that up and edit the page. People who are very into computers kind of get hostile with me, and they say, ‘You don’t use a COMPUTER!!! Why?’ My answer is that I do it the easiest way for me and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
They must be threatened by something else.
By my talent (chuckle).
What’s the best thing about being 80? The worst?
The best things about being 80 are the wisdom and patience that I’ve acquired from my experiences. There’s nothing I don’t like about it. I have lots of younger friends, in their 40s, 50, 60s and 70s, who are up on everything. Many 80 year olds want to lie in the sun and relax, but I have a typical English complexion so I’m not interested in doing that.
Have you had plastic surgery?
No, I haven’t. Oh, well that’s not true. A number of years ago, and I’m going back 30 years, I had my eyes done. If you touch your eyelid, beneath your hard brow, I had rather heavy lids so I had a lot of skin removed and I could see better and, of course, I look better because I had too much skin on my eyelid. I’ve had fillers. I’ve always had a frown. So I have Botox on the forehead and on the bridge of my nose, which is very narrow. I’ve had Juvederm, on the lines that come down from the nostrils to the lips.
I do use a lot of creams. Evelyn Lauder, who died of cancer about two years ago, was a friend of mine and she told me to use Night Repair, in a brown bottle, and Re-Nutriv. And there are a number of their creams that I put on every night before I go to bed. My father, who died at 81, looked 60. I’m lucky in that way. I do use a lot of creams and Botox and filler.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I have to have a book in every July. It takes about nine months to write.
Do you go to many doctors? Take medications?
I might take a Tylenol occasionally, if I get a headache. I take Vitamin D and I take some pills for bone density. I am a great believer in Vitamin D. It’s very good for the legs and for walking. I still wear high heels. They were 3-inches, but then I could only go in and out of a car with them. But I do wear 2-inch heels and a lot of wedges, which are comfortable. My foot doctor in New York said ‘no woman should wear flat shoes,’ after I got tendonitis from wearing flats.
I eat carefully and I don’t want to put on weight. I’m not thin, by any means. I’m 5’6” and I’ve got flesh on me because I don’t like bone-thin women. I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I eat fish and chicken. I take care of myself and I walk a lot. I’m lucky that I’ve got good health, as I knock on wood.
Do you go to London a great deal?
Last year, we went to London from September through December, but we don’t keep a home there. We live at The Dorchester Hotel and have for 25 years. It’s much easier; we always have the same suite there.
I read that you’re selling your New York apartment.
We live in the fifties. We put it up for sale because it’s just too big. It’s 14 rooms.COMMENTS (4)
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.
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.
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.
Whether we have passed the fork to an FUF hostess or still host Turkey Day dinners in our own homes, cooking and food become top of mind this week. For those doing the hosting–the supermarket scramble, labor-intensive prep, mad rush to get the dishes from oven to table in time (and all at the same time), is enough to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of even the most passionate FOFoodies. For those of us who are guests to our Thanksgiving feasts, we still have to navigate busy grocery stores, stand on bakery lines and interpret our hosts subtle hints or in some cases, very particular instructions on what to bring.
Enter Annette Gallagher Weisman. Annette is a freelance writer, book critic and award-winning essayist. This week, she shares four scrumptious cookbooks, two fabulous chef memoirs, a marvelous new book about wine and a book of witty personal essays on the history of food trends. Just when you were about to put down that spatula and call it quits–these 8 books will get you excited about cooking, again.
Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as Professional Eater by Gail Simmons
Hyperion, 288 pages.
Gail Simmons, currently the host of Top Chef: Just Desserts and the Special Projects Director at Food & Wine magazine, was a former judge on Bravo’s Top Chef and continues to travel worldwide to taste, judge and experience a mind-boggling array of foods. The subheading of her memoir “My Life as a Professional Eater” prompts the question, how does one become a professional eater? Simmons says she had no idea after graduating from college what career path to follow, so she made a list of things she loved to do and came up with four: Eat. Write. Travel. Cook. Then she connected the dots and followed the food line. Ingenious.
Simmons left Canada, where she’d grown up, to attend culinary school in New York. She then worked briefly on the line at two top New York restaurants, Le Cirque 2000 and Vong. Later, she became an assistant to eminent food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten. Simmons admits she had a smooth path with few obstacles in work or in life to hinder her from reaching the top of her profession.
Today, when Gail Simmons talks about food, people listen. In her memoir, she regales us with a personable account of her Jewish background in Toronto, talks about her marriage to her husband Jeremy as well as other life experiences. But Simmons main focus is on food. In a straightforward and frank manner she reveals the story of what it’s like to work behind the scenes of the culinary world. If you want a step by step guide as to how she earned her food stripes with an overview of the flourishing food biz, this book is for you.
Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich
Viking, 288 pages.
Perhaps, like me, you saw Joe Bastianch along with Gail Simmons recently on Dr. Oz. I was struck by the quiet-spoken, calm demeanor of this trim, elegant bald-pated restaurateur. You’d never think he’s the same one who uses the F word throughout his memoir. Like Anthony Bourdain, author of food classic Kitchen Confidential, Bastianich has an in-your-face style of writing: a tell-it-like-it-is replete with colorful language.
Joe Bastianich’s father, Felice, ran a family restaurant in Queens, his mother, Lidia, is a well known chef and author of several cookbooks. Joe himself, partnered with Mario Battali to found the famed Babbo restaurant in New York together, going on to participate with him in ventures like Eataly, an Italian megamall of artisanal food and wine and several boutique restaurants and shops. He reveals all the nitty gritty details about running a restaurant, the day-to-day stuff, the costs and how to cut them, the staff, and the food and how wine is marked up. In fact, there’s a great deal about wine. Not to mention a year spent in the vineyards of Italy where Joe, post stint on Wall Street, learned to make wine. Bastianich looks fit (he lost a considerable amount of weight marathon training). Yet, he says he drinks about a bottle of wine a day!
Bastianich also offers many revelatory anecdotes about celebrity diners. Entertaining and informative, this is the real dish about what it’s like to be in the restaurant business today.
A Table At Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes From New York’s Most Legendary Restaurant by Sirio Maggioni and Pamela Fiori
Flammarian, 256 pages.
It is a fact: Le Cirque is a fabulous restaurant. Since 1974, Le Cirque has been in three different New York City locations. It opened in the Mayfair Hotel on East 65th Street, in 1974, moving from there to the Villard Houses in the New York Palace Hotel in 1997. Then, in 2006 it moved again to its current more contemporary home at 1 Beacon Court, across from the Bloomberg Tower, where a formal jacket is not needed at the bar and a more casual menu is offered.
If you don’t live in Manhattan or can’t afford to dine there, this book will make you feel as though you know the restaurant well, are familiar with its cuisine and haven’t missed out on the dish about the celebrities, powerbrokers and socialites who are regulars. A Table at Le Cirque is not a cookbook, rather a story book with prized recipes.
Owner Sirio Maccioni is the ringmaster of “The Circus” as well as the ultimate meeter and greeter. Page after page of fantastic photographs show him welcoming innumerable stars and notables including Jackie Onassis, Sophia Loren, Andy Warhol, The Reagans, Danny Kaye, Barbara Walters and royalty from many countries, even Pope John Paul ll. No matter how famous the person, if you think you saw them at Le Cirque, you did.
While Maccioni used to be a one-man show, his co-author Pamela Fiori says his three sons Mario, Marco and Mauro now relieve the pressure of running this restaurant by weighing in on every major decision. Fiori, former editor of Travel and Leisure and Town & Country is an elegant woman who knows a thing or two about spectacular restaurants. She speaks fondly of Maccioni, Le Cirque’s almost 40-year history in its three different locations, and the fact that until now Sirio has never published a cookbook.
About half way through the book we are treated to the recipes of the chefs who have been part of the Le Cirque family, from Jean Vergnes, co-owner initially, to the current chef Olivier Reginensi, and those in between including Daniel Boulud and David Bouley. These treasured recipes such as Black Tie Scallops, Bouillabaisse Le Cirque, and Spaghetti Primavera (still an off-menu request) are accompanied by full color photographs.
Ricky Lauren The Hamptons: Food, Family and History by Ricky Lauren
Wiley, 256 pages
Ricky Lauren is the kind of fab woman many of us would like to be. After all, she is brilliant—an author, photographer, artist and psychotherapist. She is also beautiful and married to a handsome man, Ralph Lauren, the arbiter of American good taste. It’s a given any book she writes will exude style and grace.
In this, Lauren’s fourth book, she depicts through family recipes the homes she and her husband have lived in over the past forty years: in Southampton, Amagansett, East Hampton and Montauk. But, the book is not only a collection of recipes by one of its celebrated residents; you will also find inside essays about the history of the area, its architecture, culture and lifestyle. If you’ve never been to the Hamptons you will enjoy this exclusive resort vicariously. If you have, you will relate through these culinary scenes the appeal that attracts so many to the Hamptons way of life.
Lauren describes her homes, such as the one in East Hampton, in a way that captures their relaxed lifestyle. “The patio outside our living room had a low wall of flat stones around a rectangular terrace. The wall was an excellent place for perching. To turn the patio into a lounging area, we placed denim-covered mats against the inner walls and added tray tables. To this we added a multitude of bright-colored throw pillows. We often picnicked there under huge Italian Veronese marketplace umbrellas. If it rained, we could pile everything indoors to suggest sofas in an empty corner of the living room.”
The recipes are easy to follow and focus on healthy and colorful ingredients. They include Morning Smoothies, Cinnamon and Vanilla Challah French Toast, David’s Pea Soup, a Hamptons Beach Party Barbeque, Seafood Frittata of Shrimp Scallops and Crabmeat, Dylan’s Sunshine Salad, Nana’s Hungarian Beef Goulash, her Rum Laced Brownies, a Strawberry Soufflé along with Andrew and Ricky’s Chocolate Mousse are all worth the small effort to prepare. The full page color photographs of each recipe look like culinary art.
The Hamptons by Ricky Lauren would make an ideal gift for anyone who is hunkering down for the winter and dreaming of summer by the sea.
Lunch in Provence by Rachel McKenna and Jean-Andre Charial
Flammarian, 232 pages/245 color illustrations
The cover photograph of a weathered gray wooden table, set with just three pieces of old silverware conveys the feeling from the outset that simplicity equals beauty. Such evocative images by Rachel McKenna and the clear layout of recipes have a calming effect. It’s as if we are transported to Provence and held in a state of reverie; life slows down and so do we just by turning the pages.
The introduction is written by award-winning American chef and author, Patricia Wells, who herself has homes in Paris and Provence. But the star of the book is a French chef, Jean-Andre Charial, owner/winemaker of several Michelin-starred restaurants in Provence, the most celebrated being Oustau de Baumaniere. Throughout the book he gives opinions about life and cooking and the importance of fresh ingredients.“The best food is the simplest–it should just be an expression of the produce and then it is tres bon.”
There are 35 recipes, one to a page, with full color photographs alongside typical Provencal dishes such as grilled sea bass with ratatouille and leg of lamb rubbed with rosemary and anchovies. The text is laid out sparingly, and includes quotes from famous authors and chefs, so you can read it easily with time to ponder over each one.
What this book does best is convey the sensibility of the region along with gorgeous images of the French countryside and its produce. If you’ve been to Provence it will evoke happy memories. If you haven’t, you’ll feel like you have. And your favorite Francophile will appreciate the gift of having Lunch in Provence, too.
The New York Times Book of Wine: More Than 30 Years of Vintage Writing edited by Howard G. Goldberg
Sterling Epicure, 592 pages
Overheard at a wine tasting, “Hmm it has an amusing bouquet with just a hint of
apple strudel, a lively torso and long legs.” Do you a) concur, b) laugh or c) vacate the premises?
While the above comment is fictitious, it is not far off from some of the creative descriptions one will hear after a person you barely know has sniffed, swirled and tasted a wine you thought was just okay. But the comment is perplexing. Is it good or bad? Do you care? Wouldn’t it be fun to respond with some enigmatic repartee?
Kick lack of knowledge and pretension to the curb, and buy yourself The New York Times Book of Wine. Encompassing 30 years of vintage writing by Eric Asimov, Frank J. Prial, Florence Fabricant, Frank Bruni, and as they say, many more, all in the capable hands of esteemed editor Howard G. Goldberg, this book is a treasure chest filled with opinions about wine.
The best way to discover something, I find, is by osmosis. Whether it is watching your mother cook as a child or listening to a bedtime story with a message, the process becomes effortless. You’ll find 156 articles in this book, which are just like stories to be read individually, in a cluster, or out of sequence at bedtime or any other time. They are by no means dry tales, but interesting, useful and often funny accounts of every aspect of the wine biz.
Intriguing titles like “Affairs to Remember,” “Pairing Wine with Chinese Food,” “Why Red Wine and Cheese Have Stopped Going Steady,” “A Sommeliers Little Secret: The Microwave, and What You Drink with What You Eat,” make it hard to stop reading. I’d love to quote from many of these essays, but by the time I finished we’d be up all night. However, I’ll leave you with a quote from “Words, Words, Words” near the beginning of the book. In this humorous piece by Frank J. Prial he cuts through the clutter of what he terms “winespeak.” This is one of many actual descriptions Prial found on a restaurant’s wine list, in this case about Gevrey-Chambertin, “that is fathoms deep and as pleasingly prickly as a kitten’s tongue.”
Despite the kitten reference, Gevry Chambertin remains one of my favorite wines. But don’t buy this book just to learn something. Buy it for the love of wine and a good story.
Martha’s Entertaining: A Year of Celebrations by Martha Stewart
Potter, 432 pages.
This one by lifestyle maven Martha Stewart isn’t new–it came out last year–but if you don’t already own it, you ought to. Or, at least give it to a good friend. And considering I still have Martha’s first Entertaining book that came out in 1982, it’s safe to say this bigger and better version will last a while.
What Stewart brings to the table is perfection. No matter what the time of day, breakfast, lunch or dinner, whether a picnic at sea, an ice cream social, bridal shower, Fourth of July barbeque, or Thanksgiving dinner, Martha has you covered with dishes like Lobster Sheperd’s pie, Wild mushroom lasagna, desserts to die for such as Pavlova, and special drinks, such as Elderflower martinis. And somewhere in the middle you’ll find a glossary of peonies. Trust Martha to think of that.
Weighing in at a hefty four pounds, this book belongs on a coffee table. It’s the kind of book you “ooh” and “ahh” over, because the photographs by Frédéric Lagrange and others are so beautiful.
There are idyllic scenes, on a yacht, in the city, in the country, of houses, flowers, patios, and, of course, dishes so tantalizing you want to eat the pages. Though, in fact, one almost forgets about recipes until you come across them toward the back. Martha’s personal chef who compiled them is none other than Pierre Schaedelin, a former chef at Le Cirque, so you know these dishes don’t just look good, they will taste good, too.
One photo shows Martha sitting next to Billy Collins, who is standing and reading, presumably a poem. Nothing like having a former poet laureate for dinner! Perhaps it is an ode to Martha for a lovely meal. And why not? I think I’ll write a poem myself to thank her for this book.
The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnick
Vintage, 336 pages.
Quickly: if you could ask anyone to a dinner party, who would it be? The first person who comes to my mind is playwright Oscar Wilde, famous for witticism such as “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” and even on his deathbed quipped “Either that wallpaper has to go, or I will.” Unfortunately, Oscar’s not around anymore. But another witty man and a know-it-all—in a good way–is–Adam Gopnick. Longtime writer for The New Yorker Gopnik writes on any topic with erudition, yet his work is always punctuated by wit and verve.
His latest book, The Table Comes First has just come out in paperback, an ideal gift for the true foodie in your life. From the first restaurant in—where else–France, to famous names in gastronomy through the ages, to current day food trends, localism, organic farming, sustainable living, you name it, Gopnick explores it all. Call it a conversation with the reader about the meaning of food.
“The point of eating is to slow down life long enough to promote what Brillat-Savarin called, with simple charm, good cheer. It doesn’t just take time, but makes time—carves out evenings, memories.”
He also discusses food throughout the book via email letters to an art and food critic Elizabeth Pennell, who died in 1936, as if she were a confidante alive today participating in this epistolary relationship.
“Dear Elizabeth: I have read and reread your chapter on the perfect dinner party many times. And I like it. How hard we have to work to make perfection, and yet when it happens, the truth is that it falls on us like grace.”
Dinner parties are for guests who make us laugh and cry, who say things like, “Either that wallpaper has to go or I will.” And we all love being in the company of a person like that, even if, for those of us who don’t know Gopnick personally, we only get to be in his company while perusing the pages of his thought-provoking book.
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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?
After a “totally relaxing” summer hiatus in Provence, FOF book critic Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle, is back. “Help, help! Autumn! So much to do! It’s as if I never went away,” she says. “All that inner peace has vanished, I’m making lists in my head all day long, and I only have two cures: yoga and, you guessed it, reading.” Find out five books that she wants to share with you this fall, and enter for a chance to win one.
Enter to win the book of your choice, by answering in the comments, below: Which one of Linda’s fall picks would you most like to read?
Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey
Edited by Lori Perkins
Smart Pop Books. 384 pages.
This book is something of a grab bag, and if you’ve ever been to a grab bag party, you know that you’re liable to find yourself with something that’s just what you wanted, but just as liable to get something you consider tasteless or even ugly. It’s an anthology of reflections on, opinions about, and digressions related to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” That book has sold 32 million copies in the U.S. alone, has been translated into scores of languages, and been on the New York Times bestseller list since last April. “Everywhere you go,” writes the anthology’s editor, Lori Perkins, a literary agent and the former editorial director of a publishing company called Ravenous Romance, “people are talking about “Fifty Shades,” from the supermarket (where it is on sale!) to the airport to PTA meetings and even church socials.” The fifty writers whose essays she has collected here run the gamut from fans of the book to rivalrous writers enraged by E.L. James’s success, to other writers who here offer their own erotic fantasy stories –notably, one from Judith Regan, former HarperCollins publishing maven, that involves wreaking sexual vengeance on a male higher-up in an act that’s worthy of Lisbeth Salander.
You’ll also find a piece by Tish Beaty, the woman who edited “Fifty Shades.” Beaty reports first encountering James’s story when it was called “Master of the Universe” and appeared in installments on a website called fanfiction.net. From the first chapter, she reports, “I was drawn to Ana’s unbelievable innocence, and found Christan’s ability to take command of Ana in the bedroom, and otherwise, a huge turn-on.”
In “The Byronic Hero,” a poet and English professor named Jennifer Sanzo analyzes the book’s literary pedigree. “Originating with Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Sanzo writes, “the term ‘Byronic hero’ is defined by the “Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms” as a ‘boldly defiant but bitterly self-tormenting outcast…suffering from some unnamed sin.’ In other words, he’s a sexy bad ass who might have a chip on his shoulder, but is naughty in all the right ways.’” His descendants include, besides our own present day Byronic hero Christian Grey, “some of literature’s most famous panty-droppers, including Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” Rhett Butler of ”Gone With the Wind,” Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights,” and Edmond Dantes of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Christian Grey is Mr. Darcy with a darker past, a few more scars, and a more extensive sex toy collection.”
There are quite a few pieces touting BDSM–Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism to you–as a way of life, including one by the side-splittingly imperious “Master M,” who runs something called La Domaine Esemar, location undisclosed, “the world’s oldest training Chateau for Masters, Mistresses, and slaves from around the globe.” Master M. attempts to evaluate Christian Grey’s abilities as a Dom and finds him lacking on many scores. He thinks that if the poor fellow were real, not a fictional character, he’d need to spend some time at the chateau learning to improve his skills at being dominating.
An outspoken obstetrician-gynecologist named Dr. Hilda Hutcherson admits to having a “love-hate” relationship with “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It’s an “important book,” she tells us. “It has singlehandedly given millions of women permission to explore erotica. Get in touch with their inner sexpot. And try new ways to heat up the bedroom with their partners.” But it’s also a dangerous book. “Anastasia comes on demand,” Hutcherson points out. “Christian has only to command that she come for him–‘Come for me’–and she explodes into a million pieces. Really? And the kicker: Anastasia Steele explodes into a massive orgasm when he flicks her clitoris over and over with a riding crop! I am expecting to see more than one bruised clitoris in my office in the coming months.”
Dr. Hutcherson views a great deal of “Fifty Shades” as reflecting male, not female, sexual fantasy, including Ana’s ability to have orgasms through vaginal penetration alone and the speed at which she climaxes. “More than 75% of women do not experience orgasm through intercourse alone and many worry that something is wrong with them when they can’t come within 5 minutes or have multiple orgasms,” Hutcherson states, and then asks, “Is this the message we want men to hear, [given that] they have been telling women for years that they are defective when they don’t come the moment their nipples are sucked or their vaginas assaulted by a stiff penis? It all makes me want to scream!”
A lawyer named Sherri Donovan examines the contract Christian Grey wants Ana to sign and makes recommendations as to how such a contract–unenforceable as it is–might be amended to suit both parties. A self-styled “member of the Leather community,” Sassafras Lowry, objects to the Fifty series’ portrayal of Christian’s pursuit of BDSM as being “an obscure, damaged result of his childhood abuse.” It ain’t so, Lowry tell us. In fact, James, he warns, gives “kink novice readers” the “impression that kink and abuse truly are one and the same,” whereas in fact “hir” pleasant Leather community “does not consist of people who are “Fifty Shades of fucked up.”
An author of romance and fantasy novels named Jennifer Armintrout also offers a warning. But hers is a warning about the dangers inherent in promoting abusive behavior. Imagine your daughter, your sister, or a friend has a handsome, rich and charming new boyfriend, she suggests, a boyfriend who “emails and texts her often, demanding to know her whereabouts. He has her cell phone traced, so he can follow her against her wishes. He reacts with jealousy to her friends. He physically hurts her when she makes him angry…She cries often. She thinks she can change him. This is the deciding moment. Do you pick up the vibrator and fantasize about him, or do you call the police?”
“Fifty Shades brings all these issues and more to the reader,” writes editor Perkins. You bet. It’s definitely a stuffed-up grab bag.
Sweet Tooth: A Novel by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 324 pages.
Lets be clear about this. ”Sweet Tooth,” McEwan’s fifteenth novel, and the fourth since his triumphant “Atonement,” is a work about writing that masquerades as a spy novel, a work about the business of spying and the emotional havoc spying wreaks on those who practice it, that is more witty and at times downright funny than filled with chills and thrills.
Yet it is thrilling. It’s thrilling because McEwan’s prose is so remarkable–smooth as velvet, vivid as a motion picture–and because embedded in the novel is the story of spy-crossed lovers that is surprisingly moving.
The book’s heroine is the “rather gorgeous” and rather gauche Serena Frome, a bishop’s daughter and graduate of Cambridge University, who gets a low-level job with Britain’s MI5 during the Cold War. Serena has studied math at university, but her favorite pastime is reading fiction. She’s always “looking for a version of myself,” she tells us, “a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of old shoes.”
She gets her job with the intelligence service thanks to the intercession of her first real lover, a middle-aged intelligence operative who dies under mysterious circumstances. But while the rather-ditzy Serena slowly becomes aware of unsavory doings at the agency, her daily life at MI5 is dull and demeaning. Despite her education, and because of her sex, she is assigned to file-pushing and even house-cleaning chores. But her fortunes change when the agency, upset by the increasingly left-leaning British intelligentsia, decides to secretly offer large grants of money to writers likely to express positive thoughts about capitalism in their work. Serena’s passion for literature has been noticed by a higher-up, and she is chosen to recruit a young short story writer, Tom Haley, who is thought to have right-wing views. Serena is instructed to meet with Haley and offer him a grant, but under no circumstances reveal that MI5 is behind the money. She devours his work, is awed by his talent, and when she meets him, falls in love with him.
Here’s where the novel really takes off. How will Serena tolerate lying to the man she loves and endure keeping him in the dark about the political motives behind the grand literary stipend he is awarded? And, will she be able to keep him from antagonizing MI5 and losing his funding once he embarks on a dystopian novel that suggests the decay of Western civilization?
The progression of the love affair between the writer and the novice spy is filled with the twists and turns that make love such a complex matter. The complexity of love spurs McEwan to deliver such delicious epigrams as, “Love doesn’t grow at a steady rate but advances in surges, bolts, wild leaps.” And the advances, surges and wild leaps in this particular love story will keep you turning pages.
The denouement is a surprise (no spoilers here). And although you may be able to guess what Serena’s answer to Tom’s last question to her will be, she’ll have become so real and important to you that you’ll wish you could actually hear her answer.
The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson.
Viking. 471 pages.
This fascinating exploration of the rise to literary prominence of the novelist, Jack Kerouac, who was known as the voice of the Beat Generation, is written by a woman, a novelist in her own right, who had a two year affair with Kerouac, just before he published “On the Road.” Johnson has already written a prize-winning memoir about their liaison, “Minor Characters.” But nearly some fifty years after the affair, years during which she waited to no avail for some scholarly biographer to write a biography of Kerouac that would definitively declare him the major talent she believes him to be, she decided to write her own.
Johnson’s Kerouac is not the automatic writer of Beat Generation mythology, the man who sat down and in a caffeine-fueled typing marathon composed the vivid and lyrical “On the Road.” “Spontaneous bop prosody,” the poet Allen Ginsburg called it. “He just spewed his words on paper!” the singer Patti Smith said. “It isn’t writing, it’s typing,” Truman Capote scoffed. Johnson disputes this, revealing the arduous work that went into the composition of “On the Road.” Kerouac, she tells us, had begun writing in high school, had completed a 77-page segment of a football novel by the time he was sixteen, and in the years before writing “On the Road” had studied and even at times attempted to emulate some of the great writers he admired: Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, Victor Hugo, Balzac, and Proust. ”On the Road” was rewritten from scratch five different times, and “each paragraph had to be a poem, each sentence a breath of separation of the mind.”
Kerouac, who grew up in working-class Lowell, Mass., was of French-American descent, and grew up speaking not just English, but joual, “a powerfully direct and emotionally expressive” patois. It was, Joyce says, Kerouac’s “genius to find his voice,” a voice that “matched his vision–the reason we will continue to read him. His works live on, while the Beat Generation has not existed for a very long time.”
But it is Johnson’s voice that makes this book a good read. She is at once both intimate with her subject and yet thoroughly versed in all the reams of material that have been written about him by his contemporaries. Her voice brings us as close to Kerouac as we are ever likely to come.
A Little History of Science by William Bynum.
Yale University Press. 256 pages.
I don’t know about you, but if you’re anything like me, you often feel there’s a black hole in your brain when it comes to understanding news reports that talk about “the human genome project,” or “quarks,” or “bosons,” or, for that matter, “black holes.” William Bynum, an Emeritus Professor of the History of Medicine at University College in London has written a tiny little book that will tell you in just a few hours’ reading the history of and the latest developments in astronomy, biology, physics, geology, pharmaceuticals, and many other areas of scientific knowledge.
Bynum has a light touch. His daunting subject matter is leavened with anecdotes, like this one about a certain James Clerk Maxwell, a mathematical physicist who is apparently as important in the field of physics as Einstein: At dinner parties, his wife was given to saying, ‘James, you’re beginning to enjoy yourself; it is time we go home,’ and she’d shunt him off to his laboratory.
His style is clear and direct. His chapters short. And his history fun. As far back as the time of the ancient Greeks, Bynum tells us, doctors observed that some diseases were self-limiting; they got better on their own through the body’s attempts to heal itself by such things as sweating, bringing up phlegm, and vomiting . And to this day, “Doctors sometimes joke among themselves that if they treat a disease it will be gone in a week, but if they don’t it will take seven days.”
Bynum’s book won’t tell you everything you want to know about his various subjects, or understand the torrent of talk these days about medical ethics and cloning and cyber attacks. But, it may inspire you to read more deeply on, say, whether or not to get your genes sequenced, or whether or not to demand an antibiotic for that scratchy throat you can’t seem to shake off. And it will certainly give you the vocabulary to understand and join in the conversation.
Joseph Anton:A Memoir by Salman Rushdie.
Random House. 636 pages.
Rushdie was already a celebrated author when, in 1989, his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” was published, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, condemning the book as blasphemy against Islam, issued a fatwa calling for the author’s death. His existence threatened, Rushdie, who lived in London, had to go into hiding, and even change his name. He chose the moniker Joseph Anton, combining the names of two of his most beloved authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. His memoir, Joseph Anton, written in the third person, is principally the story of how he endured the nine years in which he was a wanted man, though there are sections about his childhood in India, his emigration to England, his early literary career and, when he was finally released from the doom hanging over him, his life as a free man in America.
I found the central matter of the book fascinating. When “Verses” first came out, no one in the West perceived the novel as potentially insulting to Islam. But some Muslims in India protested that the book be banned, and with wildfire speed–just as we’ve seen happen today with Muslim outrage over the YouTube film, “Innocence of Muslims,”–Muslims all over the world, including in England and America, were demanding Rushdie’s death. The British government offered Rushdie protection, assigned him arms-toting security guards, but insisted he moved out of his home and into what ultimately became a disorienting series of safe houses, often out in distant rural parts of the country. Rushdie had a young son in London. In order to see his child, he had to meet him secretly in the homes of various London friends who risked danger to themselves to let father and son unite. When things went wrong with the plumbing in one of the safe houses he had to hide ignominiously in a closet. At another house, when a housecleaner arrived to do her work, he had to hide in a locked bathroom. After that, he and his guards decided that from then on they would do the housecleaning themselves.
But the worst of Rushdie’s travails was the way public opinion turned against him. He persistently defended his book on the grounds of its literary merit and invoked England’s long history of upholding free speech. But, he soon found himself ostracized even by fellow intellectuals. He had insulted the Muslim religion, many of them argued; he “knew what he was doing,” and had brought what happened upon himself. It was a case of blame the victim. The Thatcher government, although providing security, seemed to hold him responsible for the turmoil in the cities. The Archbishop of Canterbury declared, “We must be more tolerant of Muslim anger.” Newspapers and TV channels in this country that had long ago rid itself of the death sentence gave pages and airtime to self-appointed “religious leaders” saying such things as Rushdie “must be killed“ and even “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him.”
All this was before 9/11. Before the West had come to understand that we had an enemy determined to put an end to our traditional beliefs in the separation of church and state and the right to free expression.
I don’t admire everything in this book. Rushdie treats various of his wives with contempt, and takes little responsibility for his own role in some of his many marriages’ falling apart. He is vindictive toward those of his publishers who, themselves and their staffs receiving death threats, declined to publish his next books. When he gets to America, where he becomes a fixture at society events, he is irritatingly star struck.
But, he is a brilliant writer, a brave man, and a prophet who early perceived the dangers inherent in society where it’s politically incorrect “to criticize the militant stridency of [Islam] in its contemporary incarnation.” I found the book difficult to put down.
Enter to win a book of your choice by answering in the comments below: Which one of Linda’s fall picks would you most like to read?