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

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

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

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{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} 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

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

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

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

theflamethrowersTHE FLAMETHROWERS. Rachel Kushner. Scribner. 383 pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The infant, named Margaret,

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

The abandoned husband is living in a tiny studio apartment:

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

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

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

Clifford, like Rakoff, dies tragically young:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{FOF Book Critic & Giveaway} Read like an author

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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} Not-to-be-missed summer fiction

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We’re still only half way through the publishing year, but, I’m sure I can already tell you two books that will be on every reviewer’s ‘Best Books of 2012’ lists,” says FOF book critic Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle. “[These books] are [also] sure to be nominees for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle fiction award: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s glorious sequel to Wolf Hall, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a stunning first novel by short story writer Ben Fountain.

“In addition, there are other bookish pleasures to be had this summer,” says Linda. “Books that will transport you, whether you’re off to some wondrous vacation destination or stuck sizzlingly at home.”

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BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt. 410 pp.

I remember that when Mantel’s Wolf Hall came out in 2010, I read it very slowly, rationing myself to a score or so of pages a day to prolong the joy the book was giving me. Then, to my surprise, when I got within sixty pages of the end, I did something I hadn’t done since I was a pre-teen.  I went back and read the book all over again, until finally, I finished it.  Not without regrets.  I’d wanted this work of galloping wit and invention never to end.

Like many women I know, I was more than a little in love with Mantel’s brilliant, complicated Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s confidante and chief secretary, a statesman who was a humanitarian and social radical, a master of languages, an admirer of Latin poetry, and an adoring husband and father who could brandish a stiletto, cook up a gingery eel sauce, evaluate the worth of an oriental carpet, and stay loyal to his friends even when the rest of the world shunned them. So too, were a great number of women I knew, one of whom reminisced to me recently, “All day I couldn’t wait for it to be nighttime, so I could get in bed with Cromwell.”

Well, he’s back again, and he’s just as fascinating, albeit a little less loveable, for in Bodies, Mantel gives us the side of Cromwell–masked in the first book–that is capable of suppressing doubts and foregoing moral principles to hold onto power. He is dedicated to his master, the king, wants above all to serve Henry well and for his kingdom to prosper.  “His greatest ambition for England is this,” Mantel tells us. “The prince and his commonwealth should be in accord.  He doesn’t want the kingdom to be run like [his father] Walter’s house in Putney, with fighting all the time and the sound of banging and shrieking day and night. He wants it to be a household where everybody knows what they have to do, and feels safe doing it.” But, Henry has grown tired of his second wife,  Anne Boleyn, with whom he had fallen so passionately in love that in order to divorce his first wife and marry Anne he had torn the kingdom away from Catholicism and started his own religion. Now, when Henry hints to Cromwell that he wishes to be rid of Anne, who has turned out to be not only a nag and a shrew, but has failed to  produced a male heir to the throne, Cromwell thinks of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, who was forced from power,  humiliated, and hounded to his death when he didn’t aid Henry to marry Anne. “To his inner ear, the cardinal speaks.  He says, ‘I saw you…scratching your balls in the dawn and wondering at the violence of the king’s whims.  If he wants a new wife, fix him one. I didn’t, and I am dead.’”

Cromwell will fix Henry a new wife, bringing Anne to trial on dubious charges of adultery and, using trumped-up evidence, causing her and a handful of implicated courtiers executed. But his efforts come at  great cost. He has accumulated powerful enemies. But more importantly, he has deadened a part of  himself. “He once thought,” he reflects, “that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm.  You think you cannot keep breathing, but your rib cage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs.  You may thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

Mantel, I’ve heard, had originally planned her sequel to follow Cromwell to his ultimate fall from power, but was persuaded to tell the story  in three parts–the better to secure more book sales.  I don’t care that Bring Up the Bodies stops short of the denouement.  Now, I’ve got a third book to look forward to as eagerly as I awaited this one.

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BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain.
Ecco.  307 pp.

Billy Lynn, Ben Fountain’s dazzling first novel, is bound for the literary peaks.  It’s the Great American Novel of the twenty-first century so far, the Catch 22 of the Iraq war, the sweet spot where satire and heartbreak, scintillating language, unforgettable characters, and sharp-eyed insight into American life combine to make a book unlike any other you’ve read.  Besides which, you’ll fall in love with Billy.  He’s not Thomas Cromwell, but he’s quite a guy!

Billy’s just nineteen, a soldier in Iraq, who, with the ten members of his small squad, nicknamed Bravo, engaged in a fierce gun battle with insurgents that was taped by a Fox “embed” and broadcast on national TV.  As the heroism of this small band of brothers goes viral through the culture, the Army quickly spots an advantage to bringing Billy and the eight surviving members of Bravo back home for a fourteen-day “Victory Tour.” A film producer latches onto them in the hopes of selling their story to Hollywood, members of the public go wild upon meeting them, pressing their flesh and spouting words like “terrRist, freedom, nina leven, currj, sacrifice,” and the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a man named here as Norm Oglesby, arranges to have Bravo star–on the last day of their tour–in the stadium’s vaunted halftime spectacle, along with Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child.

A small town Texas boy who’d never left home before the war, Billy has by now, Thanksgiving Day, seen a great deal of America. “It’s the same everywhere Bravo has been,” he observes.  “The airports, the hotels, the arenas and convention centers…retail dominates the land. Somewhere along the way, America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And in Iraq, Billy has seen things he could never have imagined, including the legs of Lake, one of the troop’s members, seeming to walk after the rest of the man has been blown apart from them. “What’s happening now isn’t nearly as real as that,” Billy thinks at the stadium. “The realest things in the world these days are the things in his head….A leg.  Two legs.  Lake’s…As if waking from a long sleep, the legs begin to stir. Tentative at first, they move with a childlike air of sweetly baffled innocence, but eventually they rise, shake themselves off and set off in search of the rest of Lake.”

Billy’s scared about having to return to Iraq.  “The freaking randomness is what wears on you…the difference between life, death, and horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow…turning your head to the left instead of the right.  Random.  How that shit does twist your mind.”  He’s a kid, but his experiences have made him feel older than his age, wiser than his fellow Americans. “They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them. These boys and girls.  These toddlers, these infants.  Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.”

He’s also desperate to find himself a girlfriend.  The tour has provided him with a goodly dose of sexual experiences but he’s still a virgin, and he’s decided “Blow jobs suck, just by themselves. Well, sometimes they’re all right. Okay, usually they’re awesome as far as they go, but lately he feels the definite need for something more in his life.  It’s not so much that he’s nineteen and still technically a virgin as it is this famished feeling deep in his chest, this liposucked void where his best part should be.  He needs a woman.  No, he needs a girlfriend, he needs someone to mash into body and soul and he’s been waiting for it to happen these entire two weeks.”

Ben Fountain, whose only previous book was the 2006 story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, has said that he conceived Billy Lynn while watching the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day 2004. “It was such a blithering, surreal, over the top mashup of patriotism and soft-core pornography that, once I actually started to pay attention to it, seemed emblematic of the general insanity of American life.  One of the weirdest things was that everyone – the people in the stands, the TV announcers, the people I was with–didn’t see anything unusual about the show.  It was just America being America. Couldn’t people see that the country was completely running off the rails?  I was coming to the realization that I had no understanding whatsoever of the country where I was born and have spent my entire life.  Billy Lynn is an attempt to gain some measure of understanding, or at least a reasonably accurate portrait of the current version of American psychopathy.”

That’s what Fountain has given us, and what happens to Billy during his hours at the stadium, the girl he finds, the decisions he has to make, and the new kinds of threats he must now fight, make for exciting, hilarious, chilling reading.  This book will explode into your consciousness like an IUD.

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MÉNAGE by Alix Kates Shulman
Other Press.  269 pages

If ever there was a perfect summer read, it’s this wicked romp by Shulman, author of four novels including the feminist classic, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. Ménage tells the tangled tale of a husband, his wife, and the total stranger the husband, on a whim, invites to live in his and his wife’s luxurious suburban home.  His motives for this odd offer are complex.  The stranger, an East European novelist now down-at-heels, was once the darling of the intellectual community here and abroad, spoken for by Sontag, lionized by the literati.  The husband, Mack, a wealthy architect and collector of all the wondrous things money can buy thinks of the writer, Zoltan Barbu, as another possession, a celebrity whose residence in his home. Particularly, if while staying there, Zoltan completes the long-awaited masterpiece he’s said to have been working on for years, it will add to Mack’s own prestige.  Moreover, his wife, Heather, is a would-be novelist; perhaps having Zoltan living with them will help her with her own writing; certainly it will provide her with the intellectual companionship Mack is too preoccupied with work and the occasional sexual escapade to offer her.

You think Heather might resent this “gift” of a live-in author?  Uh-uh.  She’s totally taken with the man from the moment she sees his “tall slim figure in a black cloak–dramatic, operatic” and especially when  Zoltan, “adept at entrances,” kisses her hand, lightly brushing her knuckles with his lips and faintly teasing her arm “with the glossy lock that had  fallen over his right eye.”

From there on in, you’ll be turning pages, bursting into laughter, scratching your head, absorbed in the antics of this engaging threesome–and how all of them ultimately get exactly what they want from their turbulent time together.  A heady mix of lively dialogue, right-on social observation, and fun-pokes at literary pretension and  suburban life, this novel is full of surprises.

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The SHADES OF GREY Trilogy by E.L. James.  Vintage.
Shades of Grey. 382 pages
Fifty Shades Darker.  395 pages
Fifty Shades Freed.  468 pages

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains information about the ending of each book in the Shades of Grey trilogy.

It looks like everyone who is thirty and fabulous has read the Shades of Grey trilogy, and I suspect that many a fifty and fabulous woman has already done so. But, for those of you who are still catching up, let me add my voice to the great E.L. James clamor.  The woman can write. She’s not a particularly good stylist–her sentences are flat, even dull, her descriptions of characters tend to involve merely a mentioning of  someone’s eye color.  But when it comes to sex scenes, she’s detailed and graphic, and besides the hot stuff, she’s got a wonderful mystery going, one that keeps the pages flying by. Innocent but spunky Anastasia Steele–her name says it all–is swept off her feet by gorgeous, entrepreneurial Christian Grey, who supports humanitarian causes but has sexual appetites that make Ana uncomfortable. He’s into S&M sex, albeit in a corporate sort of way. In Book One, he proffers Ana a lengthy contract specifying activities that are essential to his pleasure, like spanking, whipping and cuffing, but which allows her to indicate the specific types of canes, whips, and restraints she would like to consider off-limits. This legalistic sexual dominator is a) young – only twenty-six  years old and b) rich – he has his own (vaguely described) cutting-edge technology and shipping company.  The mystery is: what has made this paragon of a man weird in the bedroom (or in the“Playroom” where he keeps his exotic erotic equipment)?

Ana takes him on, and the plot of the tale is one that women have adored for centuries.  Think Lord Rochester in Jane Eyre, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Maxim de Winter in Rebecca – the kind of man who seems haughtily aloof or fiercely moody but who in fact has a heart of gold, the kind of man whose external defenses can be breached and whose tormented soul can be psychologically repaired by a good woman’s love. In Book Two,  Ana rescues Christian from the demons that have pursued him ever since his abusive early childhood, and yes, dear reader, she marries him. In Book Three, despite complications like quarrels over Ana’s career goals and the attempt by a villainous book editor to destroy Christian, the couple lives happily ever after. Still having hot sex, but of a more loving and consensual kind.

The books are sheer fun, and if you haven’t read them, put them on your “To Do” list.  For laters, baby, as Christian would say.

{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.
{Click here to read the complete review!}

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.
{Click here to read the complete review!}

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.
{Click here to read the complete review!}

“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.

Enter to win all four memoirs–your spring/summer reading list!–when you answer this comment in the questions below: What’s your favorite memoir of all time?

{FOF Book Critic} Your Spring Reading Guide

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FOF Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle, shares 3 books in bloom this spring.

Enter to win all three books that Linda recommends by answering in the comments below: Which do you most want to read?

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THE SONG OF ACHILLES
by Madeline Miller. Ecco. 371 pages.

Song of Achilles won’t be out until March 6th, but if I were you, I’d pre-order this stunning novel by classics scholar and fiction first-timer, Madeline Miller. I read it in galleys, and these days galleys often bear the encomiums that will appear on the actual book’s jacket. They tend to be from friends of the author or editor, and often can’t be trusted any more than the words of the guy trying to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. This galley came with the following proclamation by Emma Donaghue (author of Room): “Mary Renault lives again!”

I took her endorsement with a hefty cellar of salt. But once I cracked the pages, I had to admit that Donaghue was right. Madeline Miller tells her tale of ancient Greece and its warrior heroes with all the knowledge and story-telling strength of that fabled master of historical fiction, Mary Renault – not to mention that very first historical novelist to tell Achilles’ tale: Homer.

Remember the story?  Achilles, the best warrior of his day, lurked moodily in his tent after being insulted by his commander, refusing to go out and fight the Trojans alongside his fellow Greeks. It was only after his best buddy, Patrocles, was killed during the fight, that Achilles came storming out of his tent, rallied the troops, and with uncontrolled rage and much brutal slaughtering drove the Trojans back. When I read the Iliad as a girl, I always wondered what made Patrocles so important to Achilles that he would wreak vengeance for his death on such a grand scale. Homer doesn’t tell us.

Miller, using the theories of Plato and other ancient Greek scholars and writers, does. Her Patrocles is not just Achilles’ best friend, but his longtime lover. This was a common interpretation of their relationship in the ancient world. There is even a fragment from a lost tragedy by the great ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, that speaks of Achilles and Patrocles exchanging “frequent kisses.”

In Song of Achilles, nine year old Patrocles, the son of a Greek king, is sent into exile because he has accidentally killed a bullying older boy. He is “adopted” by another Greek king, who often takes into his care young boys of good families to be potential companions to his son, the golden-haired Achilles. Although Achilles is half-god –his mother was a water goddess – he is unassuming and compassionate. He singles out the lonely Patrocles to be his friend, and from then on they study together, play together, get tutored in the arts of medicine and warfare, and, in their early teens, become lovers.

When the Greeks decide to go to war against the Trojans, Patrocles, who abhors killing, tries to evade conscription. But Achilles, hoping to make his name and win for himself a glorious destiny, is eager to fight. Equipped with troops, weapons and ships by his father, he sets out for the war, and Patrocles, fearing to lose him, follows.

What happens to them and their relationship during those long years is explored by Miller in a beguiling, psychologically astute, suspense-packed, and poignant tale. Don’t miss it!

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AN AVAILABLE MAN
by Hilma Wolitzer. Ballantine. 285 pages.

The available man in Hilma Wolitzer’s wise and touching new novel is 64-year-old Edward Schuyler, a reserved high school science teacher whose beloved wife, Bee, has just died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. Bee, a psychologist, wasn’t the only woman Edward had ever felt passionate about. In his mid-twenties, he’d had an intense and highly sexual attachment to a fellow teacher. Despite her character flaws – Laurel had been inordinately possessive and unpredictable — Edward had loved her, or at least loved her body, “the bold and innovative ways she used it, the way she looked – those small springy breasts as tender as if they’d only recently budded; the springy surprisingly dark hair of her bush.” He’d become engaged to her, but on their wedding day, with one-hundred-and-fifty guests already seated in the church pews, Laurel stood Edward up and disappeared.

It had taken took Edward years of “emotional hibernation” and shallow hook-ups to get over the humiliation Laurel had inflicted on him before he met Bee and once again fell in love. Physically, Bee wasn’t his type at all. She was “full-breasted, with curly brown hair” and “her hips, like her smile, were a little too wide.” But what Bee had going for her was warmth and steadiness – and a ready-made family, consisting of her mother and her two young children. Giving up his Manhattan bachelor’s quarters, Edward had moved into Bee’s suburban home, and overnight become “a husband, a stepfather, a suburbanite, a mortgager, a birder, and a commuter.” More, he found that “He had never been so happy in his life.”

How then cope with the grief of losing a partner with whom he had shared twenty years of wedded bliss? How move forward with life? Or should he move forward?

Wolitzer skillfully takes us inside the head of this bewildered, anguished man as he tries to handle his despair, retain the love of his step-family, and yet possibly find intimacy and happiness again.

This time around, the rules and pathways of courtship have changed dramatically. Edward attends a grief support group and even, at the prompting of his stepchildren, tries online dating, but these do little to assuage his loneliness. So it is only by chance, and with effort, that in the end Edward does find happiness again. I daren’t tell you how because for a quiet domestic story, An Available Man is quite suspenseful.

Elegantly structured, this gem of a novel is the accomplished Wolitzer’s best work so far.

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HOW IT ALL BEGAN
by Penelope Lively. Viking. 229 pages.

How It All Began begins with a telling epigraph from scientist James Gleick’s book, Chaos: “The Butterfly Effect was the reason. For small pieces of weather – and to a global forecaster small can mean thunderstorms and blizzards – any prediction deteriorates rapidly. Errors and uncertainties multiply, cascading upward through a chain of turbulent features, from dust devils and squalls up to continent-size eddies that only satellites can see.”

Lively proposes in this, her twentieth novel, that The Butterfly Effect can alter lives as well as weather. How It All Began follows a chain of events that result when 76-year-old Charlotte Rainsford, who tutors foreign students in English, is mugged on the street near her London home. The mugger steals her purse, knocking her down in the process, and the fall makes Charlotte fracture her hip. When she’s let out of the hospital on crutches, her married daughter, Rose, insists on having Charlotte live with her and her husband until the fracture is healed.

The necessity of looking after her mother causes Rose to skip a day of work with her employer, the self-centered historian, Lord Henry Peters. Lord Peters is due to give a speech in Manchester that day about the politics of the eighteenth century, and, not wishing to travel alone, solicits the help of his niece, Marion, an interior decorator. In order to accompany him, Marion cancels a date with her married lover, Jeremy Dalton. Her text message to him accidentally falls into the hands of Jeremy’s wife, Stella. And, staying home for the day, Rose meets Anton, a pupil of her mother’s.

Rose and Anton fall in love, endangering Rose’s marriage. Lord Peters, nervous and out of sorts, makes a fool of himself in Manchester, Stella kicks Jeremy out of their home. Marion finds a new and more satisfying life without him. And so it goes, with character after character experiencing enormous life changes as a result of that unfortunate street mugging of an elderly woman.

Charlotte is the most deeply drawn of the large cast, perhaps because she seems to be the voice of the author, herself in her late seventies. Charlotte’s thoughts are eloquent. “For years now,” she thinks, “pain has been a constant companion. Cozily there in bed with one in the morning, keeping pace all day, coyly retreating perhaps for a while only to come romping back: here I am, remember me? Ah, old age. The twilight years – that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot – roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn’t know about. We all avert our eyes, and then – wham! You’re in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.”

The other characters are somewhat shallow, more caricatures than characters, really, but they are unfailingly amusing. Henry, who has lost his prominence and begun losing his memory, knows that “history is a slippery business; [that] the past is not a constant but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion. Henry is well aware of this, and aware that the eighteenth century has disappeared over the horizon so far as he is concerned, reconstructured, reinterpreted.”

That eighteenth century, whose disappearance from his memory has devastated Henry, doesn’t much trouble his niece, the interior decorator. “That period, for Marion, meant certain furnishings and styles: Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Robert Adam. Stripes. Tottery little tables….She had got through life quite easily knowing nothing much of the eighteenth century.” Jeremy, courting his wife in an effort to woo her back, takes Stella to “a courtship restaurant. He had taken Marion there once, early on. No matter. She hadn’t cared for it – something wrong with the decor.”

And all of the characters, even those who are lightly drawn, have moments of epiphany, sudden realizations of the meaning of what they are going through. Charlotte, living with Rose but not privy to her feelings about Anton, thinks, “Who knows their own child? You know bits – certain predictable reactions, a handful of familiar qualities, The rest is impenetrable. And quite right too. You give birth to them. You do not design them” Anton, after Rose decides to remain in her marriage, accepts the failure of their relationship because it has made him feel alive again. “I had forgotten…not just what it was like to feel, but that feeling existed at all. It is like coming out into the sunlight.”

And what of the mugger? Here, Lively is at her wittiest. “The delinquent …was himself set upon almost immediately by a hostile gang and relieved of £67.27, which were distributed among the gang membership and disposed of within the hour. The delinquent was much annoyed at his loss, but recovered within a day or two; so it goes. Beyond him, unknown and of no interest, he had left Charlotte on her crutches, the embattled Daltons, Henry in his humiliation, Marion, Rose, Anton…Demonstrating that no man is an island. Even a fourteen-year-old with behavioral problems.”

Enter to win all three books that Linda recommends by answering in the comments below: Which do you most want to read?

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(See all our past winners, here.) (See official rules, here.) Contest closes March 8, 2012 at midnight E.S.T.

{Gift Guide} 7 books to wrap up this holiday season

Can’t get a read on what your friends and family want for the holidays? Here’s the ultimate list of books to GIVE this holiday season brought to you by FOF book critic Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle.

Then comment below for a chance to RECEIVE one of Linda’s top picks–“Then Again,” Diane Keaton’s new memoir. (Three FOFs will win.)

FOR CELEBRITY MEMOIR BUFFS:


“Then Again” by Diane Keaton.  Random House.  291 pages

Keaton’s memoir, “Then Again,” is not just her story, it’s her mother’s as well.  Dorothy Keaton Hall, who died at the age of eighty-six, left behind her eighty-five journals and scrapbooks that Keaton never bothered to read while her mother was alive.  But in 2008, after her mother’s death, she began ploughing through them, in the process discovering things about her mother she never knew – among them her mother’s thwarted ambitions and her early fear of memory loss.

Keaton uses Dorothy’s diaries as a scaffolding from which to explore and recount her own life: her girlhood insecurities and her adult strengths, her stunning career, her love affairs with Woody Allen, Al Pacino and Warren Beatty, and her late-in-life realization that despite the persona she’d cultivated as a woman who, like Garbo, preferred being alone, her life felt empty without children.  At the age of 50, she adopted two of them, and became as engaged a mother as her own had been.

The book is a bit scattered – as one might expect a book of Keaton’s to be – with hasty entries and more thoughtful ones, reflections that are to the point, and others that are vague and puzzling.  It’s really rather like a scrapbook itself, a collection of observations, reflections, and images, rather than a straightforward memoir.  But it’s charming, just like its author.   We learn that this famous beauty was so critical of her body that she became bulimic, stuffing herself with favorite foods only to void them right after consumption.  It’s also poignant.  We learn how sad it makes Keaton feel to consider the difference between her own life and that of her mother:  starting in her fifties, after her children grew up and left her with an empty nest,  Dorothy endured years of loneliness, whereas Keaton in her fifties has been able to come “out of isolation into a kind of family-of-man scenario, complete with an extended family, new friends and much needed ordinary activities.”
The book is an homage to her mother, a tribute to her own children, and an affirmation of woman’s ability to keep growing throughout life.

 

“Bossypants” by Tina Fey.  Little Brown, 277 pp.

Tina Fey, creator and star of TV’s “30 Rock” and former head writer and occasional star on “Saturday Night Live,” has written not a memoir, exactly, but a collection of chronological essays about important periods of her life – including the one where she gets her first period.  Her mother gives her a starter’s kit: some sanitary napkins, panty liners, and two pamphlets, one for a girl to read, the other for her mother to read and discuss with her.  That 10-year-old Fey’s mother hasn’t bothered to read her pamphlet but just turned it over to her daughter isn’t half the fun here; what’s funnier is that Fey remains totally unprepared for her first bleed, and doesn’t even recognize what is happening to her when her underthings turn red.  “I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency,” she writes. This wasn’t blue, so…I ignored it for a few hours.”

If you don’t find this funny, you’d best stop reading.  Period. (Pun intended.)
The book contains Nora Ephron-like tips for women entering the male-controlled work world: “No pigtails.  No tube tops.”  And “You’re not in competition with other women; you’re in competition with everyone.”  Of interviewing for a job on “Saturday Night Live,” Fey writes, “Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”  Of going to college at the University of Virginia, “I spent four years attempting to charm the uninterested.”  Of turning forty, “I need to take my pants off as soon as I get home.  I didn’t used to have to do that. But now I do.”  Of doing a photo shoot, “The makeup artist will work methodically on your eyelids with a series of tickly little brushes for a hundred minutes,” and “at really fancy shoots, a celebrity fecalist will study your bowel movements and adjust your humours.”

If you don’t love Fey, I’d say you don’t have a sense of humor, let alone good bodily semifluids.

FOR FICTION LOVERS:

 

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides. FSG, 406 pp.

Like a Jane Austen novel written for our own times, the plot of Eugenides’ engaging new book, “The Marriage Plot,” concerns a young woman, her suitors, and her quest for a lifelong partner.  But our world is a far more confusing one than the marriage-means-happy-ending society inhabited by Emma and Elizabeth and Austen’s other heroines. Finding one’s way in it is far from simple, and Eugenides’ heroine, Madeleine, as well as her two suitors, Leonard and Mitchell, are having a hard time when the book begins and the three of them, students at Brown in 1982, are about to graduate.

Madeleine, a  literature student who’s pretty, rich, and sexually-inquisitive, is desperately in love with Leonard, a brilliant but bipolar science student who initiates her into physical intimacy but can’t quite commit to their relationship.  And Mitchell, fascinated by religion and philosophy, is in love with Madeleine, who couldn’t care less.

After they graduate, Madeleine, unsure of what kind of career to pursue, flounders. Leonard learns that brilliance isn’t enough, and Mitchell, searching for life’s deeper meanings by working with Mother Teresa in India, loses his youthful idealism.  I won’t tell you who Madeleine ends up with, but, without giving away too much, I want to say that despite having known a few manic-depressives and read a great deal about that illness, the way Eugenides shows us the awful progression of the disease beats any rendition I’ve ever read in fiction. Equally special is his satirical take on the absurd literary theories in vogue in the eighties.

Witty and moving, this book about love, sex, and coming of age, gets being young in the eighties altogether right.  And I suspect it’s pretty accurate about the pleasures and problems of being young in any decade.

 

“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett.  Harper/HarperCollins.  353 pages.

I reviewed this book at length earlier this year, so I’ll be brief and just say here that if I had to tell you my choice for the “Number One Best Book of 2011,” it’d be “Age of Wonder.”  With more than a touch of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” this book is a stirring evocation of a primitive world, a mystery tale, and a deft exploration of the character of two brilliant women.  In the depths of the Amazon, the heroine, self-effacing Dr. Marina Singh, must discover the secrets that the imposing Dr. Annick Swenson, a one-time mentor of hers, is hiding from the rest of the world. She also must learn how to live and even thrive in barbarous surroundings, and become psychologically strong enough to defy her teacher.

You’ll be with Marina, learning her thoughts as if inside her head and experiencing her alien surroundings with her distinctive eyes and ears, throughout this stunning tale.

 

11/22/63 by Stephen King. Scribner.  849 pp.

I’m not a fan of horror stories, don’t like reading about cars with minds of their own, killer viruses or crazed fans, so I rarely read King.  But this book is about horror of a different sort–and it’s terrific. The horror in “11/22/63” is time, an adversary that each of us must do battle with, and which always, whatever our circumstances, defeats us, taking away our abilities, our strengths, and all that we most prize.

A science fiction tale with that hoary old subject, time travel, “11/22/63” recounts the experiences of a Maine schoolteacher, Jake Epping, who goes back into the world of the late nineteen-fifties bent on a mission: to stop Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. King recreates that world with meticulous and delightful detail, from the vibrant preservative-free taste of root beer, to 19.9 cents-a-gallon gasoline, to music you could really dance to.  But the past has its drawbacks.  “It’s a time,” King points out, “for which a lot of people felt nostalgic.  Possibly because they had forgotten how bad the past smelled.”
Not only does the past smell bad, it’s rife with poverty and racial strife.  Yet the good-natured Epping begins to prefer the past, with all its unsavoriness, to his actual present.  He takes a job as teacher in a small Texas town, gets to know the Oswald family and–this will delight conspiracy theorists–tries to determine if Oswald was the only person responsible for Kennedy’s death.  He also falls passionately in love with the school librarian.

King has bigger fish to fry in this work than in most of his other novels.  The book has a gripping plot and a likeable hero in pursuit of an ominous killer, but the author is also in pursuit of the answers to the Big Questions:  Would today’s world be different if Kennedy had not been killed?  Is there any way to slow time’s indifference to human life?   Is love the only thing that makes life worth living?  And, is loss always our inevitable fate?

FOR HISTORY FANS:

 

“Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie, Random House, 625 pages

Despite its heft, this doorstopper of a biography goes down as smooth as fine Beluga caviar.  It’s the story of Catherine the Great, an obscure German princess who deposed her ineffectual alcoholic husband, Czar Peter III,  in 1762, seized the throne of Russia, and ended up ruling that vast turbulent country for more than thirty years.

In Massie’s hands, the start of the story has all the elements of a fairy tale: a child scorned by her mother, plucked from obscurity by a kindly aunt (who just happened to be the daughter of the czar of Russia), decked out by that fairy godmother of a relative in furs and jewels, and married amid wild celebration to the future czar.  “An adolescent girl,” Massie tells us, “was launched on a great adventure.”

But of course, Catherine was no fairy tale princess.  And her story becomes ever more interesting as she learns to be a ruler, finding her way to gain and hold onto power despite constant threats.  A quick study, she had taught herself at an early age was always to appear courteous and humble, to be a good listener, and to mask her considerable brains.  But as she matured, her brilliance became evident to all who knew her, evoking respect even from such luminaries as Voltaire and Diderot.  “I would say about myself,” she wrote in “A Secret Confession,” a private account of her life and loves, “that I was a true gentleman with a mind more male than female.”

Catherine reformed and reorganized Russia, she encouraged the arts, education and medical care, put down powerful rebellions, survived innumerable political crises and–somewhat ruthlessly–accomplished several land grabs that greatly extended Russia’s territory.  But, aside from being an astute monarch, she was above all a woman, endlessly looking for the love she had been denied by her mother and lacked in her marriage–her husband had refused to make love to her during their nine years together. She said she was “Loath to be without love for even a single hour,” took numerous lovers, and wrote to one of them, “If you want to keep me forever, then show me as much friendship as love.”
Massie’s Catherine is not only a political genius, but a flesh-and-blood woman who at times sounds just like one’s BFF.

 

“1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” by Charles C. Mann. Knopf 535 pp.

Charles C. Mann’s best-selling “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” was a sweeping examination of life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.  His “1493” takes up the story of what followed: the vast spread of plants and peoples that is known as the “Columbian Exchange.”  “After 1492,” Mann explains, “the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian Exchange…is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Swtizerland, and chili peppers in Turkey and Thailand.  To ecologists [it] is arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs.”

Indeed, Mann tells us, it has created an altogether new ecological era, the “Homogenocene” or the Age of Homogeneity, the era in which we live, although most of us just call it “Globalization.”  Undeniably, we have become One World, where what happens in Greece affects our stock market, what happens in China  effects our manufacturing, what happens in Africa affects our hospitals.  But the process, so recent-seeming, started ‘way back then, immediately after Columbus’s history-altering discovery.

The Columbian Exchange has vastly benefited mankind, spreading foods that not only delighted, like those tomatoes and oranges, but foods that filled hungry bellies, like wheat and corn. Nevertheless, benefit and detriment are the two faces of the Exchange’s coin. Take the exchange of plants: along with its beneficence it brought pests never before known in the West and mighty difficult to eliminate. Or take the spread of peoples: the European settlers who descended on the ancient native populations destroyed them both actively and inadvertently–inadvertently because they brought with them diseases for which these populations had no resistance. Today, it is Western society that is threatened by diseases for which we have no resistance, viruses transferred from monkeys to man in Africa and then brought–by plane–to new shores.

Mann, an extremely lively writer, gives us fascinating portraits of some of the little known figures responsible for the spread of specific plants, animals, people and germs.  And he warns us about the most frightening consequences of the Columbian Exchange–not just the spread of diseases, but climate change and the destruction of ancient species.  “On the one hand,” he writes of our Age of Homgeneity, “people want the wash of goods and services that the worldwide market provides.”  But on the other hand, “Things feel changed and scary.”

You can say that again!

Enter to win Then Again, Diane Keaton’s new memoir by leaving a comment below.

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Contest closes December 15, 2011 at midnight E.S.T.