{Book Expert} A beach read that’s anything but sunny.

A book about a pedophile-child relationship its not what you’d normally refer to as a “beach read,” but you might want to reconsider. According to FOF Linda Wolfe, Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger, is, like the best beach reads, impossible to put down. Unlike many beach reads, however, it’s also impossible to forget. Here’s why….

(Plus, enter to win a copy of Tiger, Tiger when you answer this question in the comments below: What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?)

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One of the most compelling books I’ve read recently is Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tigernot to be confused with the controversial Tiger Mother or the precocious Tiger’s Wife (not to mention the Broadway show Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo – what is it with tiger titles lately?)  Fragoso’s book is a memoir, the astonishing story of how, at the age of seven, she was seduced by a man more than forty years her senior, a once-jailed pedophile with whom she maintained a secret, intimate relationship until she was twenty-two, and he, at the age of sixty-six, committed suicide.

Perhaps in the previous sentence I should have said “why” she was seduced and “why” she remained in the relationship instead of “how,” for this book, explicit, insightful, and elegantly written, has much to tell us about what makes certain children easy prey for pedophiles.

In Fragoso’s case, her earliest childhood years were wrenching.  Raised by an explosive, alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother, Fragoso grew up fearing her father, having to mother her mother, and longing for what all children want: attention, encouragement, praise.  She meets Peter Curran, the man who will give her these things, while bathing at a neighborhood pool with her mother. Watching him splash and play with two little boys she assumes are his sons, she paddles up to him and asks, “Can I play with you?”

Curran obliges, includes her in his games with the boys – who turn out to be the sons of a woman in whose house he rents a room  – and several days later invites her and her mother to visit the family and the house.

It’s a place that’s vibrant with life: in addition to the boys and their mother, the house is home to a large furry dog, a tankful of iguanas, a cage full of rabbits, and even a small baby alligator. Both Margaux and her mother are enchanted, and become regular after-school visitors.  Curran calls Margaux “princess” and “angel,” tells her how talented she is when she writes little stories or  puts on little playlets, and patiently plays whatever games she proposes.  He also introduces games of his own choosing: “an enhanced version of Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Mad Scientist” and “Tickle Torture Time.”  Then one day he takes Margaux down to the basement to check on the health of Fiver, a sick rabbit, and asks her to look at his penis.

In a shattering scene, Fragoso describes her eight-year-old reaction to Curran’s request.

“I climbed into the cart with Fiver and said, ‘Look, Peter!  I’m a rabbit!’

“I started to drink from the water bottle, tasting the sweet metal and the sweet, warm water.  I picked up [Fiver’s food], offered it again to him, and when he refused it, I ate it myself….Peter came and picked me up gently, placed me on my feet; but I instantly sank again, to my hands and knees, to crawl on the ground like a baby, to feel the cold hard floor beneath my hands.

“‘I’m a baby now, not a rabbit.  No, wait.  I’m a baby rabbit!  Chase me!’”

Curran ignores her agitation and, dropping his pants, exposes his genitals.   “The whole contraption looked like a bunless hot dog with two partly deflated balloons attached,” Fragoso writes.  But, afraid to offend this man who has become the affectionate  male figure her life has so lacked, she tries to conceal her disgust and say something nice about the disturbing sight. “It kind of reminds me of….an ice cream cone,” she says.

I’ll spare you what happens next.  Suffice it to say that Curran makes her his sexual toy.  But after years of being abused by him, when Fragoso becomes a teenager, she turns the tables on him.  By then, aging and in ill-health, he’s become dependent on her, and knowing this, she torments him, mocking him for his weakening legs and toothless mouth and maintaining the relationship even as she begins dating boys.

Throughout this disturbing tale, Lolita from Lolita’s own viewpoint,  the author is unflinchingly honest, aware of her own complicity in the abusive relationship.  It makes her book absolutely mesmerizing. Fragoso’s insights into pedophiles and the damage they inflict on the children they entrap are profound.  But just as importantly – arguably even more importantly — she is a profoundly talented writer.  This is a book you won’t be able to put down, and once you’ve finished it, won’t be able to forget.

Enter to win a copy of Tiger, Tiger when you answer this question in the comments below: What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

(See all our past winners. See official rules. One winner is chosen at random from all those who ask a question. Contest closes July 7, 2011.)

{Book Expert} A Human Look at Libya

Need a crash course on Libya? FOF Linda Wolfe reviews In the Country of Men, a “page-turner” that provides an inside look at this nation in the news.


I expect that like me you’ve been thinking a good deal about Libya lately. So although I generally review new books, I thought I’d call your attention to a haunting novel about Libya that came out in 2007 and some of you may have missed. An extraordinary work, In the Country of Men by Libyan exile Hisham Matar, is the story of a nine-year-old Libyan boy whose businessman father is involved with a group of activists who, back in 1979, are trying to overthrow Muhammar Gaddafi.

Young Suleiman is unaware of his father’s secret activities. Nor does she comprehend the climate of suspicion, sadism, and terror that surrounds and threatens his friends, neighbors, and family. When his beloved mother takes to drinking whenever his father goes away on a “business trip,” Suleiman accepts her explanation that she is sick, and that the clear liquid she consumes in copious quantities is medicine. When his best friend’s father, a gentle art historian, is suddenly arrested and viciously beaten, Suleiman goes along with the neighborhood boys who call the man a traitor, and so great is his boyish desire to be accepted by the other kids that, siding with them, he taunts and shuns his best friend.

Suleiman eventually awakens to what is really going on in the world around him, but not before his childish blindness and his all-too-human desire to belong cause him to engage in increasingly dishonest and cruel behavior, and eventually – inadvertently – to betray his father. That betrayal will in turn cause his father, Baba, to betray not just his beliefs but his friends, the men to whom he has always been closest. The “country of men” is one in which inherent goodness and loyalty are not only stamped out but inwardly suppressed, subsumed by the need to get by, to survive

Matar’s own father, while in exile in Egypt, was kidnapped, tortured and imprisoned by Gaddafi in 1990 and has not been heard from in over fifteen years. A brilliant writer, Matar portrays the “madness that is Libya” in a series of swift, subtle, and utterly devastating scenes. Yet this is not merely a political novel. It far transcends that genre by being a deeply psychological work, an exploration of how a boy matures. Important in Suleiman’s development is not only the growth of his sense of right and wrong, but his moving from a boy’s initial love object – his mother – into the world of men. At first it is Suleiman’s mother, not Baba, who is the center of his universe. “If love starts somewhere,” he writes of her, “if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.” She bore him at fifteen, after being forced into marriage by her father because she was seen having coffee with a boy. No matter that the marriage is a success and his mother loves Baba. Suleiman longs to “change the past, to rescue that girl from her black day.” There is a deep Freudian undercurrent in the novel, a hint at the unspeakable idea that Suleiman betrays his father not only out of innocence and ignorance, but in an Oedipal quest to rid himself of his competitor for his mother’s love. Hidden and even subconscious motivations can be manipulated by an evil society.

The emotional depth of this novel make the work far more sophisticated and subtle than, say, The Kite Runner, of which it may at times remind you.

Complex and gripping, In the Country of Men is a searing page-turner, a book that you will keep you on the edge of your seat and which you – like me – will never be able to forget.

NOTE: Matar has a new novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, coming out this August.

Portrait of Hisham Matar via Good Reads.

{Book Expert} Linda Wolfe: Review of A Widow’s Story

In A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’s describes the painful year following her husband’s sudden death. FOF book reviewer Linda Wolfe, a widow herself, praises Oates’s warmth, but questions her sincerity.

A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about her first year of widowhood after the death of her husband Ray Smith, a scholar and editor to whom she’d been married for almost fifty years, is bound to call to mind Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.  Since hardly a book lover over fifty hasn’t read the Didion work–and you must be a book lover if you’re reading my FOF reviews–I’ll get the comparisons out of the way right upfront. Where Didion was concise, precise and poetic, Oates is verbose, expansive, and prosaic, inclined to give us everything and the kitchen sink, from reporting her terrors about entering her empty house and running out of death certificates, to reprinting emails the complete emails she exchanged with friends. Nevertheless, this is a warmer work than Didion’s, more intimate, more straightforward, and truer to the actual day-by-day, minute-by-minute thoughts and experiences of the newly-widowed woman. (I’ve been there myself, so I know the territory.)

Every widow will recognize herself in Oates’s thoughts and experience. Take her anguish about being left alone:  “When you are not alone, you are shielded,” she writes, “from the stark implacable unspeakable indescribable terror of aloneness. You are shielded from the knowledge of your own insignificance….When you are loved you are blind to your own worth; or, you are indifferent to such thoughts.”

Or take her bouts of what Didion termed “magical thinking”:  remembering the times she traveled without Ray, Oates tries telling herself “with childish logic that if Ray were alive but not with me, that absence would be identical with this absence.”

Then there’s the  bursting into tears at odd moments. The inability to sleep at night. The depression that makes even simple chores seem impossible. The rage at having to secure documents just in order to access one’s money. The horrifying sensation that not just a beloved partner has been lost, but that one’s own self has been lost as well. Above all, the recurrent thoughts of suicide.

Many married women think to themselves–or even say aloud, as a friend of mine said to me just the other day–that if their partners were to die, they’d kill themselves. Oates always imagined she’d choose that course. “Frequently in the past,” she writes, “I had consoled myself that, should something happen to Ray, I would not want to outlive him. I could not bear to outlive him!  I would take a fatal dose of sleeping pills.”

Soon after Ray’s death, she does get out all the leftover sleeping pills and tranquilizers she’s been prescribed over the years, but she doesn’t take any of them. Their presence is reassuring, but she continues to have suicidal thoughts. To the widow, she says, “Suicide promises A good night’s sleep–with no interruptions. And no next day.”

Wrestling with her demons, Oates sets herself the modest goal of getting through each day.  And at book’s end, she declares,“Of the widow’s countless death-duties, there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think, I kept myself alive.”

Oates doesn’t tell us that besides keeping herself alive, within a year of her husband’s death she found a new partner, became engaged, and in a few months married him. I hate to sound cynical, but I suspect Oates is saving that story for her next book. Too bad. Leaving out this information, which is common knowledge in the literary world, makes this otherwise memorable book seem unfortunately disingenuous.

Linda Wolfe is a renowned journalist, essayist and novelist who happened to move to a new apartment right next door to the Faboverfifty offices. Now she writes brilliant book reviews just for us. Read more about Linda.

{Book Expert} Linda Wolfe: 7 Best Books of the Year

FOF Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle, picks 2010’s most unforgettable titles. Warm up your Kindle, whip out your library card or just snuggle in bed with a good old-fashioned paper version of one of these works of art.

NEMESIS by Philip Roth
292 pp. Houghton Mifflin. $26.
In the sweltering summer of 1944, the year before World War II ended, a polio epidemic spread throughout Newark, New Jersey, [click to read more]

destroying the lives of many young people, some of whom died, some of whom went on to live as lifelong cripples. Roth, in his thirty-second novel, writes vigorously about the effects of the epidemic on one man, Bucky Cantor, a youthful playground director who is viewed as almost godlike by the boys he teaches to play ball, do exercises, throw the javelin. Due to poor eyesight, Bucky has been denied what he most desires: a chance to serve in the war. But when the epidemic strikes he determines to keep to his post in the playground and care for his charges no matter their – and his – fears about polio. His girlfriend implores him to join her in the presumably healthier air of a summer camp, but he refuses. “This was real war, too,” he thinks, “a war upon the children of Newark.”
What happens to Bucky and the children of Newark is brilliantly evoked by Roth. The book is a triumph of style and sensitivity which culminates in a searing inquiry into the nature of God. The last few pages are among the most breathtaking that Roth has ever written.



OUR KIND OF TRAITOR
by John Le Carré
306 pp. Viking. $27.95
Le Carré, grandmaster of the spy thriller, has written his most suspenseful espionage story in years, [click to read more]

a book about the Russian mafia, international money laundering, stiff-upper-lip British intelligence agents, and two innocents abroad who get dragged–despite their better judgment–into dangerous cloak-and-dagger games. The innocents are Gail Perkins, a young barrister, and her boyfriend, Perry Makepiece, a literature professor and dynamite tennis player. On a much-anticipated Caribbean vacation, they’re approached by an enigmatic Russian bear of a man named Dimitri Krasnov–Dimi for short–who wants to play tennis with Perry. Turns out, he also wants Perry to contact the British government and arrange permanent residence for himself and his family in exchange “for certain informations very important, very urgent, very critical for Great Britain of Her Majesty.” It’s a roller coaster ride from there on in, a tale that will keep you or any of your book-loving friends biting your fingernails and sometimes – how does he do it? – tearing up at the same time.

MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins
390 pp. Scholastic Press. $17.99
This is the third and final novel in Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t
yet read the first two, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, you’ve been missing some of the most exciting fiction out there [click to read more]

– and even though the books are written for Young Adults, many of us older adults have been passionately devouring them. Not just to have a peek at what our teenagers are reading, but because the books are inventive, fast-paced, ethically provocative, and have an exceptionally charismatic heroine. She’s a moody, spirited sixteen-year-old, and although her adventures take place in a dystopian future society, she’s as true to life, as the girl next door – or in one’s own house. Mockingjay, for those who’ve read the first two books, is less tightly plotted than The Hunger Games, my favorite, but it’s equally compelling.

JUST KIDS by Patti Smith
279 pp. Ecco. $27.
She’s been called “the godmother of punk” and “punk rock’s poet laureate,” and it turns out she’s a terrific memoirist. [click to read more]

In Just Kids, Smith writes about being a pregnant nineteen-year-old “country mouse,” giving up her baby, and seeking a new life in the edgy bohemian world of sixties New York. Unsure of who or what she will become, she’s helped along her way by meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, the taboo-defying photographer who will become one of the most controversial artists of his time as well as Patti’s friend and lover. Her memoir is full of carefree moments and encounters with famous figures like Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol, but there’s a heartbreaking quality to the tale as, still “just kids,” Patti and Robert head toward the fame and fortune that will eventually strengthen one and destroy the other.

HALF A LIFE by Darin Strauss
205 pp. McSweeney’s. $22
A tiny, compact memoir, this book has all the thrust and power of a car crash, and indeed it’s about a crash [click to read more]

in his senior year of high school, novelist Darin Strauss accidentally ran over a girl on a bike. The girl, a schoolmate of his, died, and in a way, Straus died too. He would never be free from thinking about her, even when doing the most mundane things, like getting a can of soda: “Celine Zilke will never feel a can in her grip,” he’d think, and later, Celine would never go to college, get married, have a child. By the time he himself marries, he has come to feel he’s living for two. He changes from being a crass, book-averse teenager to an academic achiever and a writer of enormous talent. His story is a page-turner and a profound exploration of how we are shaped by, and must live with, the consequences of our actions.

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson.
622 pp. Random House. $30.
Starting in the early nineteen-hundreds, black people began leaving the Jim-Crow South in droves and settling down in the North and West. [click to read more]

These immigrants to a new world were not so different from those who fled oppression in Russia, Italy, and other European countries to make better lives for themselves in the freer atmosphere of America. Wilkerson gives us the story of the “epic migration” of blacks, focusing her account on the lives of three fascinating individuals she chose after interviewing more than a thousand people. You’ll learn things about America you never knew before. You’ll come to know her characters intimately (some of them may remind you of the characters in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help). Above all, you’ll be wowed by how readable and absorbing Wilkerson’s important work of history is.

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot.
369 pp. Crown. $26.
This is that rare thing – a book about science that is engrossing and understandable even to someone like me who got a “D” in biology. [click to read more]

Skloot, a science journalist, spent ten years tracking down the story of a woman who died of cancer in 1951 but whose cells, withdrawn from her cervix during a biopsy, became immortal by virtue of being the first ever reproduced successfully and in profusion in a lab. The woman was Henrietta Lacks, an illiterate mother of five, and the cells–dubbed “HeLa” from the first letters of her first and last names–have been flown to the moon and bought and sold around the world. They have helped with nearly every important advance in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization–you name it. But while every science student knows about HeLa cells, virtually no one knew anything much about Henrietta Lacks until Skloot undertook to find out who she was. She tells a whopping good tale about her nervewracking search, and writes with uncommon skill not just about Henrietta and her descendants, but about cell culturing, the interplay between race, poverty and science, the ethics of tissue collection, and the laws that are newly emerging to determine whether our cells belong to science or ourselves.

Meet our Fab Book Critic

FOF Linda Wolfe is a journalist, essayist and fiction writer who happened to move to a new apartment right next door to the Faboverfifty offices. Our brilliant neighbor has written hundreds of articles for publications including New York magazine, the New York Times  and Vanity Fair. She’s also written ten books, many of them about famous crimes, both contemporary and historic. WASTED, her brilliantly researched look at the infamous “Preppie Murder,” received an Edgar Award nomination and was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.”

For 12 years, Linda has been a judge for the National Book Critics Circle, an organization that bestows highly coveted awards to the year’s “Best” works of fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, biography, poetry and criticism. Naturally, we asked her to review books for Faboverfifty.  Luckily, she agreed.

You can read her fabulous recommendations, here.