{Book Critic & Giveaway} Fall 2014: A Cornucopia of Treats

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

Here are the books that were my favorites.

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

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

The Bone Clock
by David Mitchell

Random House. 624 pp.

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

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

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{Book Critic & Giveaway} Summer Picks from Linda Wolfe

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

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

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

In The Light of What We Know
by Zia Haider Rahman

FSG. 497 pp.

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

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

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

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{Book Critic & Giveaway} If Books Were Meals…

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

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

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra

Hogarth Press (Random House).

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

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

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

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

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

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{Giveaway & FOF Book Critic} Fab Reads for 2014

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?

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

A Sparkling Jewel

The Goldfinch
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.

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{FOF Book Critic} Top 10 Food Reads of 2013

Annette Gallagher Weisman is an award-winning essayist and a longtime member of the National Book Critics Circle. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she has written for numerous publications including the St. Petersburg Times, edibleASPEN, TheWineBuzz, Cincinnati Magazine, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Town & Country, People, and in the U.K. Vanity Fair and Over21. Annette received an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont.

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!

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{Giveaway & FOF Book Critic} Fall Reads From Linda Wolfe

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.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, recently published her powerful book, My Daughter, Myself: An Unexpected Journey, 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 capture everything from 1960s Kabul to present-day hostages in Somalia.

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.

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

bookintro

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

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

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

theflamethrowersTHE FLAMETHROWERS. Rachel Kushner. Scribner. 383 pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The infant, named Margaret,

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

The abandoned husband is living in a tiny studio apartment:

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

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

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

Clifford, like Rakoff, dies tragically young:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{FOF Book Critic & Giveaway} Read like an author

book giveawaylayout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCHRODER by Amity Gaige.
Twelve. 272 pp.

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

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

{FOF Book Critic} 5 books to fall in love with this autumn

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?

Five FOFs will win. (See all our past winners, here.) (See official rules, here.) Contest closes October 25, 2012 at midnight E.S.T. Contest limited to continental U.S. residents only.

 

{FOF Book Critic} The Best Memoirs of the Year (so far!)

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Are you a memoir junkie like we are? Then tuck into these top picks from FOF book reviewer Linda Wolfe. Plus, enter to win them all when you answer this question in the comments below: What’s your favorite memoir of all time?

Lately there’s been chatter in the publishing circles I inhabit about memoirs being difficult to sell; one editor even told me emphatically, “The age of the memoir is over.”  What?  Most of the women I know love reading memoirs. They may be harder for publishers and editors to market nowadays, but so too are all kinds of other books, what with bookstores disappearing faster than endangered animals, and self-published books making editors themselves an endangered species. But let’s not pick on the memoir. Those of us who like to read will always be captivated by well-told personal stories of love and loss, divorce and death, the triumph over illness or abusive rearing. So I want to say to my editor friends, keep those memoirs coming!
Here are four fascinating ones I’ve read in recent weeks:

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ONCE UPON A SECRET by Mimi Alford.  Random House.  198 pages.

You probably saw Mrs. Alford on television.  She was on every talk show imaginable: a discreetly dressed woman in her sixties, with a soft voice and unprepossessing manner.  But back in 1962, still in high school – she attended Miss Porter’s prep school, the same school as Jackie Kennedy – she landed a summer job as a White House intern.  On her fourth day at work she was invited to join a small group of the president’s special friends for a lunchtime swim in the White House pool. Kennedy turned up while Alford was swimming, liked what he saw, and invited her for a tour of the residence that evening. It was an evening that would shape – and scar — the entire rest of her life. The preppie Alford was not just sexually inexperienced, she was a virgin. She’d been kissed only once in her life, back in eighth grade, and despite her pretty, Waspy looks, suffered from a severe case of low self-esteem.  She’d had no boyfriends throughout highschool, had been anorexic at seventeen, and had always felt anxious and somehow undesirable.
{Click here to read the complete review!}

When Kennedy took her into the absent Jackie’s bedroom and plumped her down on Jackie’s bed, she wasn’t quite sure what was about to happen, but she knew for sure that she suddenly felt very special.  The President of the United States wanted her.  She didn’t protest as he pushed his way into her. She was feeling, she writes, “the thrill of being desired.”Alford remained a sexual toy of Kennedy’s until, during her first year of college, she met and became engaged to a boy her own age. Naively believing couples should be completely open with one another, she told her suitor about her affair with the president. He said he still wanted to marry her, but he made the harsh demand that she never say another word about the affair, not to anyone. They married, and Alford kept the secret. But it poisoned her life, making her feel emotionally distant from everyone she knew, and turning the marriage into a punishing and arid relationship.  After many years of feeling her secret as a scourge destroying her from within, she did begin telling a few close friends about her relationship with Kennedy.  But they kept her secret, too, and she never admitted the affair publicly, even after her marriage ended in divorce.  It was widely rumored that Kennedy had had an affair with a young White House intern, but who she went unknown, until historian Robert Dallek unearthed Alford’s identity and revealed it in a 2004 biography of Kennedy. After that exposure, and after finding a new husband who didn’t think her youthful indiscretion shameful, she decided to talk about her long-held secret – hence this book. And in letting go of the secret, she claims to have found at last some modicum of inner peace.

The details of the affair are engrossing and often shocking. And the book has a rare authenticity.  It doesn’t sound ghostwritten. Alford’s voice is her own: gentle, modest, and self-revelatory.

When the author was interviewed on TV some of her young interviewers were critical of her for having succumbed to the advances of a much older man. Didn’t she feel abused? Alford’s response was no, that his attentions made her feel important.

I felt the young interviewers just didn’t get it. They’ve grown up in a different time, a time when women feel outraged at the thought of an older and more powerful man attempting to seduce a younger powerless female.  And seem to expect said female to feel outraged, too.  But Alford’s time was my time, too.  And I can assure you that if the charming, handsome and powerful Jack Kennedy had wanted to make love to me, I’d have done just what Alford did.  And felt just the way she did.

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INTIMATE WARS by Merle Hoffman, The Feminist Press.  267 pages,
How you feel about Intimate Wars will depend entirely on how you feel about a woman’s right to choose whether and when to bear a child. Hoffman is the director of a prominent New York abortion clinic she opened at the age of twenty-five–two years before Roe v. Wade–which she is still running today, forty-one years later. Strong-willed, outspoken and fearless, Hoffman has fought in all the battles over reproductive rights that have tormented our times since the day dangerous, unsanitary and cruel back-alley abortions, were supplanted through U.S. law by safe abortions performed in clean, accountable, professionally-staffed medical clinics. Hoffman has been a hero in these battles, and a crusader in other women’s health issues as well, like the need for affordable mammography for all women. I say hero deservedly; Hoffman has faced down innumerable bomb-threats; opened hate mail that contained deadly powders; and learned to shoot a gun in order to protect not just herself but her many employees from threatened attacks.
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What makes a woman so brave?  Gaining insight into this question was one of the chief pleasures of this frank book. From the time she was a child, Hoffman always identified with the heroes and heroines of myth and history. “I was Sir Lancelot, resplendent on a white caparisoned horse,” she tells us. “I was Elizabeth I, exhorting her troops to fight the Spanish Armada at Tillbury….I was Sir Gawain the Pure, searching for the Holy Grail. I stormed the ramparts as Joan if Arc…rode with Amazon women.”  She tells us, too, after grraduating from high school, where she’d been something of a musical prodigy, she wondered “where would I find the greatness I sought?  On what set?  I knew that any kind of well-traveled path would not be the path for me” Hoffman tried acting, taking theater lessons with the hopes of doing Shakespearean roles on stage.  She tried painting, studying at the distinguished Art Students League.  And she searched for higher meaning by dabbling in religions, exploring Catholicism and Christian Science.  But none of her experiences, she tells us, “satisfied my quest for meaning.”  She had been, she writes, “preparing for battle my whole life.  I had no way of knowing that a movement, a history, a war was waiting for me.  But I was ready.”The discovery of the set on which she would make her mark came about accidentally.   Needing a job to augment her dilettantish pursuits, she took a part-time position as office assistant to Dr. Martin Gold, a  New York physician specializing in family care. In 1971, when abortion was legalized in New York, Gold opened one of the state’s first ambulatory abortion facilities and, feeling that a woman should be its public face, asked Hoffman to run his new clinic.  Accepting, Hoffman realized that she was about to be “on the front lines of an exciting, pioneering new era of medicine….longing for a great stage to act upon, I was ready to throw myself into creating a new world.  Now was the time– this was my hour.”

Hoffman can be grandiose. But she’s refreshingly open, no secrets this woman; she tells us that she and the married Gold were lovers. She tells us that they remained so for many years, until eventually he divorced his wife and married her. They had no children–he already had some, and she didn’t want any.  But long after his death, Hoffman realized, at the age of fifty-eight, that what was missing from her embattled life was a child. A year later she adopted a three-year-old Russian girl, and discovered the intense joys of motherhood.

Has raising a child altered her commitment to providing abortions?  Not at all.  It has simply strengthened her dedication to helping women experience those joys only when they want and are ready to do so.

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WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? By Jeanette Winterson, Grove Press. 250 pages.

Jeanette Winterson’s best-selling 1985 autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, told the story of her adoption as an infant by a fanatical born-again Pentecostal Christian who saw evidences of Satan in the tiny child.  Trying to alter her nature and destroy her spirit, her mother, who she refers to as “Mrs. W.”, punishes her for the slightest infraction of rules.  She is not just beaten, or sent to bed hungry, but sometimes even locked in the basement coal bin or made to spend the night outdoors on the front stoop. When the pre-teen Winterson falls in love with books, her mother burns them.  And when she is a teenager and her mother learns she is attracted to women, she is forced to undergo a cruel and frightening church exorcism. Winterson survived Mrs. W., left home at fifteen, started working, managed against all odds to attend a local college and then Oxford University, and ultimately went on to write Oranges–which has become a classic of lesbian literature–and several other books.
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At the time Oranges was published, Winterson, then in her late-twenties, was full of rage toward her adoptive mother.  Now fifty-two years-old, and in a relationship with a nurturing partner, she has taken the same material and written an altogether different book.  A forgiving one.  “Mrs. W.,” she tells us, ”was huge, she filled the phone booth.  She was out of scale, larger than life….Only later, much later, did I understand how small she was to herself.  The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her.”  Winterson has come to understand that cruel people are those who themselves have been cruelly treated.  It doesn’t make cruelty better. But it makes it comprehensible.Winterson has also come to see that the ordeals she endured at her adoptive mother’s hands have played a role in the achievements of her life.  Remembering the burning of her books incident, she writes that what the books held “could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away.” More, as she regarded the  smouldering pile of paper and type, she had an epiphany: “There was something else I could do. ‘Fuck it’, I thought, ‘I can write my own.’”

The author’s undauntable personality manifests itself throughout this powerful book, which culminates in her search for her birth mother. With increasing suspense, she tracks her identity and whereabouts, and ultimately the pair is reunited. Her mother turns out to be a kindly motherly woman, as happy to meet Winterson as Winterson is to meet her. Winterson likes the woman she finally meets. But regretfully, she realizes that the reunion has come too late; she can never be the happier person she might have been had she been raised by her genial birth mother.  She is Mrs. W’s creature. And, she speculates, that has made her into the strong, successful woman she is now. Indeed, when her birth mother, learning of her child’s unhappy rearing, condemns Mrs. W.,  Winterson finds that, “I hate Ann’s criticizing Mrs. Winterson. She was a monster, but she was my monster.”

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FIERCE JOY by Ellen Schecter.  Greenpoint Press.  2012

In her late thirties, Ellen Schecter, married, and the mother of two small children, began experiencing pain in various parts of her body. Her left foot felt numb, her fingers tingled, her ears ached, she saw white flashes in one of her eyes. The pain was so cosmic and so difficult to pin down that she sometimes thought it might be a figment of her imagination, that she might be a hypochondriac or a hysteric. But after two years of trying to ignore the ever-increasing anguish colonizing her body, she and her husband finally sought medical attention and a diagnosis.  What she had turned out to be not in her head at all, but systemic lupus marked by inflammation of her peripheral nerves. The disease is progressive. The commonly used treatment – heavy doses of steroids – failed to slow its march through the corridors of her body.  And Schecter proceeds to fight her deterioration with every scrap of will and humor she can muster. Fierce Joy is the story of this courageous woman and her battles to maintain her spirits even while she was losing not her nerve, never her nerve, but her nerves.
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“I push down my terror, grit my teeth, and keep marching,” she tells us about a day early in her struggle.  “Am I trying to elude my worst nightmares about the future?  You bet. Am I trying to pretend It isn’t taking over my body?  Absolutely. I suspect I’m like a kitten I once had – she hid her head in a paper bag and thought no one could see her.”At this time, she was working part-time at the Bank Street College of Education and writing children’s book and scripts.  Refusing to let her illness cut off her possibilities, she takes a full-time job at the college. And she becomes, she tells us, “a whore in search of any potential for healing, Eastern or Western, as long as it doesn’t endanger the traditional medical options I need.”  In some of the book’s lighter sections, she describes her encounters with meditation, support groups, the laying on of hands conducted by a founder of a major New York church’s health and healing program, and her sessions with a noted physician who uses hypnosis and trance work to help severely ill patients deal with their diseases and the side-effects of their treatments.  Dr. Casell assists Schecter  in coming to terms with her illness by accepting it, by mourning her losses instead of denying them, “palpating the dimensions of my rage instead of burying it.” On a day she finally allows herself to do this, she is “suddenly but unmistakenly flooded with a fierce joy that simply will not allow me to be dragged down into that deep Pit, but instead pushes me up and into the light.” Indeed, she refuses to be dragged down; when she becomes too ill to continue working full time, she sets herself the goal of learning Hebrew and studying the Torah. Wherever Schecter goes and whatever she tries, she meets helpers and friends along the way, people who smooth her way, and soften the sad sharp edges of this tale.

You’ll like this brave woman, who can laugh through her tears, and make us laugh too. I have one caveat.  The book ends abruptly in the year 2000, leaving one to wonder what’s happened to Schecter in the past twelve  years. Presumably she spent a lot of that time working on the writing of this book.  But I wish she’d told us more about these years, and how she’s been coping of late.  It’s a criticism, but one I doubt I’d be making if she hadn’t made me feel close to and concerned for her.

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FOF Linda Wolfe is the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle.

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