Sunday, January 27, 2013



Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up: The Best Books You Never Heard Of #4

The Orphan Master by Jean Zimmerman

As a longtime book reviewer, currently the reviewer for Good Housekeeping, I am always being asked, "What should I read next?" In this year-end series, I answer that question while also calling attention to some under-appreciated books. 

It's always a bit awkward when two books come out in the same year with the same—or a very similar—title. It's happening in 2013, within mere days of each other (March 26 and April 2), unless one of the publishers blinks and makes a change: two novels called Life After Life, one by Jill McCorkle and one by Kate Atkinson, and both look good. It also happened to two good books in 2012. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson is getting all the love, and though I haven't read it, I'm sure it's worthy. The one I read is The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman, and it is a juicy historical mystery love story social commentary which takes place in a time and place that I didn't think would have any appeal for me: 1663, in the Dutch-American colony of New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). Oh, was I wrong about that.

One of the best things about this book is the heroine, a bad-ass 22-year-old single woman who runs her own fur-trading business, riding fearlessly into Algonquin territory and haggling with the best of them. Then there's the dashing British spy sent from Europe to track down an enemy of the crown hiding out in the colonies. And orphaned children, Dutch, African, and Indian, going missing, turning up dead. What the fur trader and the spy have in common, besides fearlessness and good looks, is a strong conscience. So they pair up to find out who or what has taken these children—and if the orphanmaster or a local legend of a demon are involved.
In the background is the growing tension between the two colonizing nations, about to erupt into the Second Anglo-British War, and the hustle and bustle of life in the new-world villages they've established. Zimmerman recreates the rugged colonial town with such vividness you can smell the dirt. But the real coup here is how she captures the nuances (and not-so-nuances) of the power dynamics between men and women, children and adults, British and Dutch, whites and Africans and Indians, as old and new world cultures collide. While the Europeans reinvent themselves in the Americas—and make a place for an independent, property-owning woman like our heroine—the Native Americans, of course, are forced into changes as well. Opportunity for one is often loss--or worse--for another, no matter the where or the when.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up: The Best Books You Never Heard Of #3

American Ghost by Janis Owens

This is a powerful but not preachy novel about race and racism centered in a Florida swamp town famous for a horrific 1938 lynching and based on a true incident. This is a fascinating insider's depiction of the insular and entangled world of southern “crackers”—poor whites, often Pentecostal, some with Native American blood—and the strict, convoluted rules of engagement between poor whites and poor blacks. This is a story mingling the past with the present to depict the lingering cultural, economic, and psychological impacts of slavery. It's a look at how class and race overlap. And it is a revelation about ties that bind, and codes of silences, and the simple fact that ignoring something does not make it go away.

But it couldn't be about all these Big Important Things and still be a captivating novel unless it was also about individual people and their desires crashing up against each other. And so, it's also a love story, about a fierce and exceptional young white woman, Jolie Hoyt, the preacher's daughter, who is both proud and ashamed of her people and their ways. The young man Jolie falls for is not only an outsider, a Jew, and a college boy, but he is also harboring a secret past of his own: his great-grandfather, a shopkeeper, was shot and killed during the 1938 incident. With these four strikes against him, it's only a matter of time before he, too, get shot—though not killed, he is run out of town. Then, years later, he gets recruited to help an elderly black businessman who's got his own connection to the lynching—and who's headed back to Hendrix to settle some old wounds before he dies.

A Florida native and daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, author Janis Owens has crafted a page-turning story with compelling characters that dramatizes essential truths—about cruelty and injustice, and also about the deep human need for love, connection, and closure.

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up: The Best Books You Never Heard Of #2

The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan
In one slim chapter, eight and a half pages long, this accomplished novelist describes the unraveling of one family's American Dream in the financial crisis that was strangling the country as George Bush the younger left the White House. All the chapters in this little book are named after odds; this one is called “Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17.” For Art Fowler, and, apparently, one in seventeen others, the elements of a perfect storm collide, as his easy success and comfortable suburban life with grown kids and a slightly boring marriage run into greedy banks, low borrowing rates, and corrupt mortgage regulators, as well as his own hubris, denial, and unfounded optimism. Add in an extra-marital affair, and a wimpy inability to accept his own failure, and what do you get? A trip to Niagara Falls, of course, in a last-ditch effort to save the house and the marriage by gambling everything he's still got at the casino.

Look, I didn't think I'd be interested in a suburban marriage-mortgage story either. But this is witty and pithy, and full of a) insights into marital dynamics, b) unexpected plot flips right up to the final moments, and c) absurdities that one can easily imagine happening in real life. On the verge of divorcing Art, Marion Fowler accompanies him on a road trip to the honeymoon-capital-of-the-world instead, because, well, “She was tired of moping around the house, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. Maybe Art had the right idea—why pretend anymore? If they were going down, they might as well do it in style.” Indeed, in the chapter titled, “Odds of a black number coming up in roulette: 1 in 2.06,” she goes all in. “Yet instead of terrifying, their recklessness was weirdly exhilarating, like the fights they'd waged over [his mistress], elemental, all pretense of normal life abolished, the false past gone, the future uncertain.” 

This is a fast read with lots of contemporary relevance, but what I enjoyed most was watching these two staid middle-aged people discover the devil-may-care attitude at their core.

2012 Wrap-Up: The Best Books You Never Heard Of #1

Me Who Dove Into the Heart of the World  by Sabina Berman 

On I.Q. Tests, Karen Nieto scores between idiot and imbecile, but, as the heiress to a Mazatlan tuna-fishing business points out, “I have three virtues, and they are big ones” which give her “a big advantage over standard humans.” Those virtues: she doesn't know how to lie; she doesn't fantasize and so is not worried about things that don't exist; and, “I know that I only know what I know.” 
The heroine of this short, stunning Mexican novel (translated from the Spanish) has got another virtue: She sees and expresses things so directly they seem skewed, in the twisted way that is often the only way truth can emerge. Like Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncy Gardiner, her wisdom is ignored (shunted, in Karen's case, as her family keeps her in the basement), then heralded. But Karen's insights really are insights, not just phrases repeated and misinterpreted. For instance, she describes “the standard human world” as “a bubble where...only what's human matters and everything else is either background, or merchandise, or food.” And her take on happiness: “In order to be happy, all you need to do is listen to your senses and not to Descartes.” As for communication, she says, “...I don't allow metaphors in my language system. Metaphors undermine the truth of your information. Why the hell can't you people live without metaphors?”

When Karen is a teenager, her family dies off, leaving the fishing business to an aunt, Isabelle, who returns from the U.S. to run it. The first thing Isabelle does is let her niece out of the basement, recognize her odd brilliance, and begin her grooming and education, eventually enrolling her in college. Soon Karen is donning a wet suit (as with many on the autism spectrum, she finds the tight binding soothes her nerves) and swimming with the fishes, who she understands better than she understands her own species. So when the industry is threatened by Greenpeace's objections to its inhumane practices, it's Karen who develops the plan to save it, and, in partnership with a predatory businessman, creates huge profits.

Sounds like the plot of a feel-good story about multiple intelligences and how differently-abled people could contribute to society if only we'd value their differences, right? Well, OK, maybe it is. But it never feels like it. There is not one drop of sentimentality or pleading or arguing or convincing or anything else that would turn this into an agenda instead of a story. There's lots of funny moments of Karen's world colliding with “the standard human world,” including the time she refers to as “How I Got lost in a Tokyo Bathroom and Had What I Believe Was My First Sexual Encounter,” when she discovers toilets with water-spraying jets in a high-end hotel. Then there's her fabulous temper, which makes her do the kind of poetically-justified things—like finally picking up and tossing said predatory businessman off the pier and into the ocean—that we only wish we could do. And throughout it all, there's her voice, curious and assured, calling out the contradictions of the world, discrepancies so obvious that standard humans like us can't see them. 
Read this if you like your quirky underdog stories with a whiff of the impossible. And if you're a film producer, maybe the one who produced Amelie, buy the rights and turn this visual and sensory novel into a movie.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012 Best Books: 3 x 3 x 3

As a longtime book-review editor for national magazines, and the current book reviewer for Good Housekeeping, I'm on every book publisher's mailing list, and receive an average of five pre-press book galleys every week. That's about 250 books every year. But I only get to review a fraction of these, and even those I review--well, there's a lot more that could be said about them if space restraints were removed. So once again, I'm taking the opportunity of year's end to do what everyone else does this time of year: write up my own Best-of 2012 list.

Actually, I've got three lists, each with three books: Best Books You Never Heard Of; Next-Best Books You Never Heard Of; and Books I Wish I'd read.

In my next post, I'll start at the top, with my favorite book of the year...

Monday, January 2, 2012

#5 Best of 2011: A Half-Dozen Books That Blew Me Away


The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

How strange, that this one profession should be so associated with loneliness, virginity, female desperation.” --Rebecca Makkai

The problem is that ten-year-old Ian Drake is more interested in girl stuff than boy stuff. Also, he'd rather read than play. Actually, the problem is that his conservative religious parents want him to be more interested in boy stuff than girl stuff. To that end, they enroll him in anti-gay classes with a celebrity pastor who claims to keep children on the straight and narrow. The Drakes also give town librarian Lucy Hull a list of the types of books Ian is allowed to check out (nothing with wizards, Halloween, or the Theory of Evolution, for instance). Not much gets a librarian more upset than censorship—especially if said librarian is the daughter of a Russian who came to the U.S. precisely because of the freedoms promised in the First Amendment. So what is the twenty-six-year old librarian to do when Ian runs away from home and she finds him the next morning camped out in the library? I mean what is she supposed to do after he gives her the wrong home phone number, the wrong address, and, when she finally gets him in the car and is driving around trying to find his house, catches sight of him “crumpled up on the floor of the backseat, his arms up on his head like in a bomb drill....his whole body heaved with crying or vomiting”? She keeps driving, of course.

This is a charming story about a road trip that might be a kidnapping or might be a rescue. What's so impressive about The Borrower is how author Rebecca Makkai negotiates the ambiguities, how she balances the charm with the serious weighty issues that lie just underneath. So on the surface, we have this smile-inducing quirky-independent-film relationship: lovable creative prepubescent boy who figures out how to smuggle censored books past his mother, meets his soul mate, a librarian who wears a Violent Femmes T-shirt under her cardigan and shares his love of books and likes him for who he is. But even as we're smiling, we have to ask, as the increasingly anxious Lucy does, hard questions about parental rights and overstepping bounds, and how to do the right thing when you can't figure out what's the right thing to do. Think Thelma and Louise picks up Little Miss Sunshine and meets To Kill a Mockingbird at a rest stop.

In her own words:
And so they set off, our comrades the librarian and the bright-cheeked lad, as the sudden winds bent the grass in the fields and raged against the car, seeming almost to lift it from beneath and carry it down the street. When the clouds finally parted and the winds died down, the still-rising sun slid beams of red light through the windows, shining on their hair so it looked for all the world as if they were on fire. There were several roads nearby, but it did not take them long to find the one painted with yellow lines and dotted with weathered billboards. Within a short time they were driving briskly toward the west, the boy navigating with directions that came from no place but the lovely magic of his imagination. The sun shone brightly and the birds sang sweetly and Library Lady hummed as she drove on the black and sparkling road, and although (truth be told) her face betrayed some anxiety about the journey ahead, she did not feel nearly so bad as you might think.”

Next Up: Another extraordinary child gets an audience with the Sultan...