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

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

Here are the books that were my favorites.

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

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

The Bone Clock
by David Mitchell

Random House. 624 pp.

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

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


{Book Critic & Giveaway} Summer Picks from Linda Wolfe

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

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

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

In The Light of What We Know
by Zia Haider Rahman

FSG. 497 pp.

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

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

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


{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.


{Giveaway & FOF Book Critic} Fab Reads for 2014

Just in case you forgot someone—or forgot to get yourself something wonderful to read in the dark days ahead—here are some terrific books: a jewel of a novel plus some gems in brief. Want to win a copy of The King’s Grave? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question: What was your favorite book from 2013?

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

A Sparkling Jewel

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt

Little Brown. 771 pp.

I took the longest time about getting to this one. Seven hundred and seventy-one pages! Who has time for that? But curiosity about all the raves got the better of me. So I plunged in. And found myself so absorbed I wanted it never to end.

It’s the story of 13-year-old Theo Decker, whose father, an irresponsible alcoholic, has abandoned Theo and his doting, artist-loving mother. Because of a sudden torrential downpour, Theo and his mother, heading elsewhere, take temporary refuge in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s the wrong place at the wrong time. While Theo and his mother are looking at 17th Century Dutch paintings, out of the blue a terrorist bomb suddenly explodes, leaving scores of severely injured people and quite a few dead ones, including, although Theo doesn’t know it at first, his mother. She’s not in the same gallery as he is when the bomb goes off and, fighting billowing clouds of smoke and chunks of crashing masonry, he’s trying desperately to find her. But he stops his search to tend to an old man with a bloodied head. Then, dazed, scared, unable to think clearly, and not sure why he does it except that the old man seems to be telling him to, Theo takes “The Goldfinch,” a tiny painting by Carel Fabritius, a contemporary of Rembrandt, down from the wall, shoves it into a bag, and attempts to make his way out of the unlit, debris-strewn museum. Brushing against unmoving bodies, stumbling past a disconnected limb here, a head without a top there, wanting only to be reunited with his mother, Theo finally finds a path through the wreckage, emerges onto a Fifth Avenue packed with ambulances, police cars, firetrucks, and hordes of panicked people. Another bomb is about to go off. Theo heads for home, sure his mother has decided to do the same and will be waiting there to rendezvous with him.


{FOF Book Critic} Top 10 Food Reads of 2013

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

Picture Perfect Parties
by Annette Joseph

Rizzoli. 224 pp.

Does this sound familiar? You’ve invited friends to your home for a festive party; you’d thought it was a great idea, but now it’s just a week away and you’re fretting over what to cook and how to make it special. That’s when a TV stylist would come in handy. But how many of us can hire one of those?

Have I got a book for you! Annette Joseph, Today Show entertaining expert, has just come out with a cookbook with insider tips on how to throw fabulous parties with little effort. As she says, “Keep it gorgeous and keep it simple.”

Without spending a lot, Joseph can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. For instance, she’ll ask you to hunt around the house for items like fabrics, candles and craft papers to help create magazine worthy “tablescapes.” Then she’ll show you how to build a total environment around a theme, including Cinco de Mayo, July 4th, and the Super Bowl. Joseph also has step-by-step sidebars with innovative ways to create memorable centerpieces as well as other ideas that make a party unique.

But wait! This is a cookbook after all. Inside are full menus for 16 parties including appetizing recipes for dishes such as Apple Cheddar Soufflés, White Bean Vegetable Farro Soup, Sun-Dried Tomato Grilled Flank Steak, Lemony Risotto, Mini Palovas with Strawberry Sauce and Pumpkin Bread Pudding.

And, each event has an “Elements” section that will keep you organized by listing everything you’ll need from serving pieces to platters. With Joseph’s help you’ll always be ready to par-tay!


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

I had a hard time deciding which fall books to review, because there have been so many terrific ones published of late that it’s been hard to choose among them. But here’s a half dozen fabulous reads, three novels and three memoirs, that will make you forget it’s turning cold out there because you’ll be cozily at home avidly turning pages.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, recently published her powerful book, My Daughter, Myself: An Unexpected Journey, in June. She has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years. Her latest reviews capture everything from 1960s Kabul to present-day hostages in Somalia.

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

First, the novels:

Claire of The Sea Lightby Edwige Danticat

Knopf. 238 pp.

I was blown away by award-winning novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat’s latest book, Claire of the Sea Light. It takes a writer—but only a supremely gifted writer—to give you a village, and that’s what Danticat has done here, given us the story of an entire Haitian village, told through the linked experiences of a fascinating a group of characters. There’s the girl of the title, Claire, a perceptive seven-year-old whose mother died giving birth to her and whose impoverished fisherman father, Nozias, hoping to ensure the child a better life than he can provide, wants to give her away to a wealthy townswoman. There’s the woman, Gaelle, whose own daughter has died and whose beloved husband has been the victim of a bystander shooting. There’s the owner of a private school whose son has failed to live up to his youthful promise, a hardworking restaurateur whose son has grown up to be an enterprising radio journalist, some corrupt policemen, careless gang members and a young housemaid raped and impregnated by a member of her employer’s family. The lives of all these people, and more, come together over time to provide a stunning portrait of Haitian life, one we never get from news stories about the island. Equally stunning is the technique with which Danticat handles the progression of time and the secrets that lie in time past, there for the taking if only we could make time run backward.

Danticat uses words sparingly, and to great effect. Here she is describing Haitian wives who prefer to live in antiseptic Miami but occasionally return to visit husbands stuck in Haiti by their businesses: “the so-called expatriate wives came back each time fatter and reeking of citronella, every mosquito and salad and untreated glass of water suddenly their mortal enemy.” Here she is, seeing Haitian youth through the eyes of the schoolmaster. “There was something tragic about a generation whose hopes had been raised, then dashed over and over again… Their leaders and elders—including himself—had made them so many promises that they’d been, for whatever reason, unable to keep.”

This small book—it’s only 238 pages long—more than holds it own against this season’s enormous doorstopper books. It’s tiny, but as exquisite as a gem.


{Giveaway} A Mysterious Collection of Books

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

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


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


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.

Would YOU still be working at 80?


Barbara Taylor Bradford received her highly-regarded OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2007.

You’re 80, have good health, a wonderful husband, a fabulous home and oodles of money.  Why, for goodness sakes, are you still working from morning to night?  Because you’re renowned author Barbara Taylor Bradford, that’s why!

What drives you, at this point, to keep writing?
But what would I do? I have no children, so therefore, no grandchildren. My husband goes to an office every day. He’s a very busy man. He makes most of the TV movies and the mini series of my books. He’s just planning a couple at the moment, which is why he’s in London now. I went to work at 15 1/2. Do you think I can sit here staring at the TV all day long or going out with women who like to lunch and then go shopping?

I’m easily bored. When I finish the book I’m writing now, which will be at the end of July, Robert and I will go away for a couple of weeks. And then we’ll come to New York and WHAT WILL I DO?

I can’t just sit. I don’t want to do what others want to do. I want to write books.

What is it that you love so much about writing?
Getting engaged in a complex story about people who don’t exist, and I create lives.
Someone said to me recently, ‘oh, but you lead a very lonely life during the day.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not lonely.’ I have a solitary occupation, or profession, if you like. But it’s not lonely. I’ve got all these people who I invent and they become real. They have lives I create and I sit there telling all these lies. It’s a great challenge to weave a story and create drama.

And there’s another thing. I actually really love being a best-selling novelist.
Creating people who don’t exist and making them feel real to the reader. Creating something from nothing, because that’s what it is. A novel is a monumental lie that has to have the absolute ring of truth if it’s going to be successful. And the lie, of course, is the story and the lives I invent and the dramas and the problems. And the underlying support that gives it authenticity is that I include a lot of real events and things that have happened in the world at different times. I use a lot of history.

I enjoy all of the razzmatazz that happens when a book comes out, especially in England. I go over to London where I promote the book and there are book and author events. People come to lunch, or a tea, or a coffee morning, and I give a talk. They buy a book. I sign the book. I love all that. My publisher in London always gives me a party. I’m very recognizable because I’m always in the paper. I’ve become a little bit of an icon, I suppose, after 35 years as a novelist. I did 58 interviews and 4 events on the last trip. So I love all the excitement, the parties and the fuss. That’s the bit of glamour that you get, when the book comes out. The rest of it is just the hard slog.

What’s your favorite book?
Of course, you always love your first published novel. I started about 4 or 5 novels that I never finished. I put them away and I didn’t like them until I had the idea for A Woman Of Substance. It’s sold 35 million copies worldwide and is still selling everywhere. It was a six-hour mini series and it spawned two other books, Hold the Dream and To Be The Best. You always love your first novel, I suppose, but the book launched my career as a novelist.

a-woman-of-substanceWhy are your books so popular?
I think the main thing is that I write about women very sympathetically so the reader has an empathetic feeling towards my protagonists. But I write about women who go out there and do it, who are women warriors, who conquer the world, who are women of substance, who go from being nothing to something important. And I don’t necessarily mean in work. I can write a novel about a woman who survives tragedy, like in Everything to Gain, the protagonist’s husband and children are killed in a carjacking and how she carries on afterwards and what happens to her and what she becomes. It isn’t always about a woman making money. That isn’t always the triumph. It’s also about overcoming adversity as well as making go of a career.

The women who I write about have become role models to other women, to the readers. Especially A Women of Substance, after reading it women will often say: ‘Oh, I decided to go out and go into the real estate business or I decided to sell my designs.’ Whole careers and lives have been built on some of that book. And I wasn’t sending a message. I just wanted to tell a good story.

What’s the best thing, Barbara, about having so much money?
I think we all want to have money. We have to pay our bills. I want to explain an attitude I have first. People say, ‘I think I can be a writer. I want to be rich and famous, just like you.’ I always say those are the wrong motivations. You won’t be if that’s what’s motivating you. You have to want to do the work and you have to want the challenge of doing your best work. Which is what motivates me.

Money lets you plan for your old age. I’m not old. I’m 49 actually, in spirit. And I don’t look 80 nor do I feel it. I was up at 4:30 this morning, dealing with my London editor. The best thing is that it gives you independence if you’re a woman. It’s nice to make money, if you’re working. I give to charity and do a little work for charities.
I am involved with Literacy Partners; Police Athletic League, which helps under-privileged children; Bob and I were one of the founding couples of the New York Pops and still support the orchestra; I am also on the board of the Authors Guild Foundation and give to that charity, too, and The St. George’s Society of New York, which is one of the oldest charities in the city. I also support charities in the UK, including one for missing and abducted children, called PACT.

Money gives you a certain amount of independence and security. Mind you, I’m married to a very successful man. We were never starving in the streets. It’s always nice to give a nice present to people you care about, to help them out if they have problems. It’s a nice feeling to be able to manage a lot of things without worrying.

What is your typical day like?
When I’m writing a book, I’m writing every day, seven days a week. When Bob is here, I get up at 5:30 or 6 and turn on the coffeepot and I get out his orange juice. And I have a coffee and a piece of toast and I come to my desk and I look it what I’ve written the day before because I try to always have some pages to edit because it pulls you back into the book.

I get him up at around 7:30 and I boil water and I stand and look at the clock as the eggs boil for 4 minutes. Then he gets his two boiled eggs and a kiss and then I leave him and get dressed. I’m in a dressing gown till then. I glance at the British papers, put them away (he’s got the American papers) and then I go to work. I start writing the minute I’ve given him his breakfast so I know I won’t be disturbed.

I go and put on pants and a tee shirt and I work until 12 o’clock. I do force myself to get up and walk around a little bit because one should. You get very stiff sitting. I stay at the desk until around 4 or 5 pm. I have a bit of lunch, a tomato salad with some endive or a piece of smoked salmon and a piece of toast. I eat very light at lunch.

If we’re going out, I’ll probably have a rest for an hour on the sofa in my office. I actually do fall asleep. I am a great believer in naps, borrowing that from Winston Churchill, who always believed in a nap after lunch. I do not work at night. I’ve always been a daytime worker.

pa_dallas1Do you go out a lot or do you like to cook at home?
We do go out several nights a week. We like to go to the theatre and the movies, but we see most of the movies at home. I love to cook because I don’t have to think. I like to make a lamb stew or chicken in the pot.

Do you use a computer to write?
When I look at the screen, I freeze. I lose my creativity. The screen seems to demand that I write instantly and I can’t do that. I use a very modern IBM Personal Wheelwriter 2, by LexMark. Or I write in pen and then it gets faxed to a typing agency and they put it on a disk. I use a computer to do the research, but I find I can’t write. I do a lot of research myself. I do a lot of handwriting on a yellow pad and then I type that up and edit the page. People who are very into computers kind of get hostile with me, and they say, ‘You don’t use a COMPUTER!!! Why?’ My answer is that I do it the easiest way for me and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

They must be threatened by something else.

By my talent (chuckle).

What’s the best thing about being 80? The worst?

The best things about being 80 are the wisdom and patience that I’ve acquired from my experiences. There’s nothing I don’t like about it. I have lots of younger friends, in their 40s, 50, 60s and 70s, who are up on everything. Many 80 year olds want to lie in the sun and relax, but I have a typical English complexion so I’m not interested in doing that.

Have you had plastic surgery?
No, I haven’t. Oh, well that’s not true. A number of years ago, and I’m going back 30 years, I had my eyes done. If you touch your eyelid, beneath your hard brow, I had rather heavy lids so I had a lot of skin removed and I could see better and, of course, I look better because I had too much skin on my eyelid. I’ve had fillers. I’ve always had a frown. So I have Botox on the forehead and on the bridge of my nose, which is very narrow. I’ve had Juvederm, on the lines that come down from the nostrils to the lips.

I do use a lot of creams. Evelyn Lauder, who died of cancer about two years ago, was a friend of mine and she told me to use Night Repair, in a brown bottle, and Re-Nutriv. And there are a number of their creams that I put on every night before I go to bed. My father, who died at 81, looked 60. I’m lucky in that way. I do use a lot of creams and Botox and filler.

How long does it take you to write a book?
I have to have a book in every July. It takes about nine months to write.

Do you go to many doctors? Take medications?
I might take a Tylenol occasionally, if I get a headache. I take Vitamin D and I take some pills for bone density. I am a great believer in Vitamin D. It’s very good for the legs and for walking. I still wear high heels. They were 3-inches, but then I could only go in and out of a car with them. But I do wear 2-inch heels and a lot of wedges, which are comfortable. My foot doctor in New York said ‘no woman should wear flat shoes,’ after I got tendonitis from wearing flats.

I eat carefully and I don’t want to put on weight. I’m not thin, by any means. I’m 5’6” and I’ve got flesh on me because I don’t like bone-thin women. I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I eat fish and chicken. I take care of myself and I walk a lot. I’m lucky that I’ve got good health, as I knock on wood.

Do you go to London a great deal?
Last year, we went to London from September through December, but we don’t keep a home there. We live at The Dorchester Hotel and have for 25 years. It’s much easier; we always have the same suite there.

I read that you’re selling your New York apartment.

We live in the fifties. We put it up for sale because it’s just too big. It’s 14 rooms.

{FOF Book Critic & Giveaway} Read like an author

book giveawaylayout

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

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

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

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.

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.