16 December 2016


I’ve been way behind in postings, and writing, but I have been reading and wanted to share a few novels worthy of your time. I will publish my own “best of” list in the new year, but in the interim, there are two lists especially interesting: Maria Popover at Brainpickings favors non-fiction and her taste is impeccable, and NPR put together a critically acclaimed list not for the average reader. Whatever you choose, happy reading and happy new year.
Writers like Melanie Finn rarely get the attention they deserve. Published by small press ,Two Dollar Radio, with the tagline Books too loud to Ignore, THE GLOAMING is a literary mystery with a big heart. Pilgrim Jones, has been abandoned by her husband for another woman, while traveling in Switzerland. Reeling from the punch, she tries to process how she had been so mistaken about the solidity of their marriage, until she learns her husband wants the children she refused. To add insult to injury, Pilgrim is subsequently involved in the death of three children, but she has no recollection of the accident nor can she fathom the consequences. How can she? She is in the grip of despondency and confusion, and in that despair, everything seems more oppressive, more furtive and mysterious. And then there is the curse of the witch doctor… but no spoilers here. Pilgrim takes off impulsively, and remains, in a small town in Tanzania, where she becomes embroiled in all sorts of secret histories. The novel is a journey toward redemption that involves several odd, equally down and out characters struggling to survive in a foreign culture. Just as Pilgrim takes halting steps towards a new future, she goes missing, and the characters in her midst take up the story. With subtle but steadily increasing tension, the narrative shifts time and place and voice, but the story remains cohesive. Make sure to read every word, as this Kenyan-born American writer is one to watch [this is her second novel]. Even when she slips into the abstract, or especially then, her descriptive language is a delight for the literary reader.
THE MOTHERS is a great title for this debut novel, for though it relates the story of two young women, and the man they share, the legacy of absentee mothers hovers over them. And, in a brilliant turn, author Britt Bennett deploys the collective voice of church mothers as if a Greek chorus, framing the narrative as the great church ladies can. The mothers of the fictional “Upper Room” congregation, in Oceanside, California, have seen all and know all. You might even believe you stepped into Flannery O’Connor’s deep south, except for all the familiar coastal references. In a community bounded by church and military, adolescent Nadia, the only child of a mother who has recently committed suicide, is running a bit wild until she is anchored by the wounded wild-son of the Pastor. Bright and determined to fulfill her mother’s wishes for a larger life, Nadia finds solace with Luke as she bides her time until college and keeps her secrets. From the point of view of plot, there is little new in this novel. We’ve read about young women in the grip of grief, and we’ve read about the trauma of accidental pregnancy, and we’ve also read about the type of wounded and innocent young woman who forms the third angle of their love triangle. It’s not the story that makes this book so good, it’s the telling. I was captured by the simplicity of descriptive prose, the realistic and compelling characters, the natural dialogue, and the propulsive narrative. Bennett is a writer to watch.
I am an unabashed fan of Colum McCann, a New Yorker with Irish roots. His fictions stand up to the legacy of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and often blend the real world and the underworld. If you somehow missed the National Book Award winner LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, make sure to read this exquisite homage to NYC pre-9/11. Now, in 13 WAYS OF LOOKING, he presents an inventive grouping of one novella and three stories, all captivating. The title novella, based on a Wallace Stevens poem, which includes excerpts of that poetry at the start of the thirteen segments, introduces an old man, his caretaker, his abhorrent son, and an assorted cast of restaurants workers where he regularly takes his lunch. We know from the start a homicide has occurred but not sure who or why. Not an uncommon set of characters, or set up, but an uncommon series of events, and an unexpected, perfect ending. Police detectives are meticulous in their search to solve the crime, and McCann said in an interview with the NY Times they work like poets. The story What Time is it Now, Where you are? deftly depicts the writer’s dilemma: how to match the words to the reverie? A writer agrees to contribute a story to a holiday edition of a magazine, and expects the task to be easy enough, until he finds himself distracted, disenchanted with his own work, and generally captive to daily living. In the end, of course, his process reveals the very essence of creativity. I recommend to aspiring writers as well as readers. Sh’Khol describes the terrifying day when a mute thirteen year-old boy goes missing, and every doubt his adoptive mother has ever had haunts her. The final story, Treaty, is simply astonishing. Something one of the great Colombian writers might have written. An elderly nun, who as a girl was brutally tortured and held sexual captive, sees her captor on television, now a famous peace negotiator. Talk about irony. She revisits every horrific moment in her mind and resolves to confront him. No spoilers – read it! One of the most amazing endings I’ve ever read.

Find yourself a quiet space during this holiday season, and all the busy seasons of our lives, and read these powerful and sensitive fictions. Relish each one and reflect on how fragile we are, and redemptive we must be.

23 October 2016

The Odd Woman and the City

A woman, in her eclectic hometown and the parade of people and thoughts that inspire her.

Vivian Gornick is an expository writer of tremendous gifts – a memoirist, biographer, historian, literary critic and essayist. The memoirs, the remembrances of a life-long flaneur, are her best works, and the latest is the best of the best.
            Gornick turned 80 years old recently and she mines a long life of experience and observation with a pen turned even sharper with age.
            Anyone with years, and a bit of grit, anyone with a penetrating curiosity and an appreciation for the eclectic, will love reading this memoir. If you also happen to come from or find comfort in the street life of New York City, this little book is a must read. If you are an aged feminist, all the better.
            Multiple interesting characters and one charming, and touching, tale after another fill these pages, interspersed with the sarcasm and wit of conversations with her alter ego, a character named Leonard [imagine the sharp-eyed Leonard Cohen channeling the jaded Oscar Wilde.] He forms a sort of chorus for Gornick’s reflections, and their shared despairs, a kindred New York spirit with an unembellished perspective that is often quite amusing. 
            I appreciate their friendship as I have a friend like Leonard, whom I also treasure, even when I want to shake him and say, snap out of it!
            If I were to reprint all the passages I marked, I would include at least half the book. I offer these as examples of sharp writing and the keen sense of perspective Gornick brings to her observations. 
            The children of working-class immigrants who had neither the time nor the inclination to pay us the attention that was needed, out in the street we were wild to feel ourselves in the responses we could evoke in one another. Our games were not really games, they were exercises in which strength, smarts, cunning, ingenuity, daily determined where each of us stood in the hierarchy of value and respect in the only society that mattered: that of the kids on the block.
            On Fifty-Seventh Street, one boyish looking man says to another, “I didn’t realize you were such good friends. What did she give you, that you miss her so?” “It wasn’t what she gave me,” the other replies, “it was what she didn’t take away.”
            Our inner lives, William James announced, are fluid, restless, mercurial, always in transition. The transitions, he speculated, are the reality and concluded that our experience “lives in the transitions.”
            New York isn’t job… it’s temperament. Most people are in New York because they need evidence – in large quantities – of human expressiveness; and they need it not now and then, but every day. That is what they need. Those who go off to the manageable cities can do without; those who come to New York cannot.
            The longer passages are even better but too long to reprint. Read this elegant smart memoir as a palette cleanser between book groups or to neutralize the political rhetoric. 

17 September 2016

An Extra in One's Own Life

A novel by A. B. Yehoshua

A. B. Yehoshua stands tall among contemporary novelists and in the company of wonderful Israeli writers like Amos Oz and David Grossman. They paint personal portraits of compelling characters, and, in Yehoshua’s case, often women, who face universal challenges – intimacy, family, the tug between near and far – always as a reflection of the challenges of their homeland.

Israel is unique. A tiny country, only 68 years old, dedicated to Judaism but largely secular, forever on the defense for aggressively defensive tactics, and a country being steadily taken over by the ultra-conservative, due in no small part to their birthing rate: orthodox Jews take their mandate to go forth and multiply quite seriously.

So it is no surprise that Noga, the fiercely independent protagonist of this novel, a harpist, an instrument so often in the background, has chosen to remain childless, to the chagrin of her parents and the humiliation of her husband, who left her nine years earlier for this reason. 

At the start of the novel, Noga’s father has passed away and her mother, urged by Noga’s brother, has to choose to either stay in Jerusalem, in an area of the city being overtaken by the orthodox community, or to move to a senior center in Tel Aviv, a lively cosmopolitan city. Noga, who migrated to The Netherlands many years before and is featured with the symphony there, returns to Israel for three months to live in her mother’s apartment while her mother tries on the arrangement, because the apartment is rent-controlled and will otherwise revert to a greedy landlord.

To pass the time and to earn a little money, Noga works as an extra for films and theater there, a perfect setting as she has become an extra to her own life. Her relationships are not satisfying, she rarely sees her brother and mother, and she has been disconnected from her Israeli roots. During this time, she develops unexpected relationships with old and new neighbors, encounters a husband still struggling with her choices, and a number of other extras with challenges of their own.

Will Noga remain an extra or establish primacy over her own life? Will her mother choose to stay put or put the past behind her? What does it mean to defy convention in a country defined by tradition? These are some of the matters Yehoshua takes on in this lovely translation by Stuart Schoffman, all of which resonate no matter where we live or what our traditions. All of us facing the challenges of the old and the new as we irrevocably move forward. 

25 July 2016

A Not So Virtuous Woman: Margaret Sanger

A fictional memoir of Margaret Sanger
Most of us recognize Margaret Sanger as the mother of birth control in this country. Turns out, that’s all we know about her, and there’s a whole lot more to her story.

Sanger was not only a force for change she was a force of nature. Born in 1879, by adolescence she relished challenging norms. A charismatic beauty, and a nurse by trade, she was a naturally inquisitive and sensual young woman who morphed into a political activist and writer who spent a lifetime fighting for sexual freedom and family planning.

She learned at the feet of her elders. She watched her impoverished mother whither away raising eleven children and burying others who died in infancy. She nursed desperate women who risked their lives in attempts to eliminate their own pregnancies rather than bring another hungry child into the world.

You might say Sanger promulgated what in later years became known as free love. She opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 and founded Planned Parenthood. Keep in mind that until 1960, when birth control pills were approved, birth control was in the hands of men alone, and illegal for women to undertake in any way. Sanger died just a few years later, in 1966, having realized her dream.

In the early years of the fight, under indictment for publishing a magazine promoting family planning, she fled to Canada and on to Britain for many years before returning to the states to continue her battle. She left behind three children and their father, whose voices, among others like social reformer Havelock Ellis, are included in this page-turner about Sanger’s remarkable life and many loves.

Telling a true tale in fiction often reveals greater truths through the literary license of dialogue and reflection. Feldman does an excellent job taking the reader on the ride that was Sanger’s life, including love affairs and friendships with some of the greatest thinkers of the age, and the heartache of children and husbands left behind as she pursued the greater good.

Ellen Feldman has crafted a well-told story of a well-meaning woman who made the hard choices women of that time were not permitted to make, and women and families today are all the better for it.

10 June 2016



Graham Swift has a way with words. Truly. One of those terse and elegant British writers who evoke time and place through character. Never more so than his new novella "Mothering Sunday." Talk about packing a punch.

The time: 1924. The place: Beechwood, a suburb of London. Families are still reeling from their WWI losses and the divide between aristocracy and the underclass is famously wide. Jane is an orphan, a house maid, having an affair with the bon vivant who lives nearby. She delights in their subterfuge as they tryst at all sorts of places, but on this day, the English Mother’s Day, when all the house staffs visit their mums and families are dining together elsewhere, she is invited for the first time to his estate where, on the opening page, she lay naked enjoying the sense of adventure and an erotic radiance.

But she watched him now move, naked but for a silver signet ring, across the sunlit room. She would not later in life use with any readiness, if at all, the word “stallion” for a man. But such he was. He was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. And he was even what you might call a thoroughbred, although she did not have that word then…

The trick of the novel is that Jane stays naked throughout most of the day as she lingers at the homestead while her lover leaves for lunch with his fiancé. Yes, he is soon to be married. Their end is in sight. 

He has invited her to stay. And as she wanders the house, as liberated as a housemaid every gets, in every sense of the word, she examines paraphernalia, indulges in fresh pie, discovers lifestyle in the details and imagines stories of lives before or those to come. 

All the scenes. To imagine them was only to imaging the possible, even to predict the actual. But it was also to conjure the non-existent.

The delight of the novel, which the reader learns early on, is that Jane evolves to be a famous storyteller. But we don’t know that just yet. Her imagination has already been cultivated by the master of her own house, who has invited her to freely use his library. She chooses, to his surprise, adventure and nautical tales which fire her imagination with all that seems impossible to an orphan girl. However to this orphan, a clean slate for a fertile mind.

“…I was left on the steps of an orphanage – in some sort of a bundle. There were places in those days where that sort of thing could happen. 1902. It was a different world. Not the start in life any of us might wish for. But then in some ways” – the glint would appear again – “the perfect one.”

No spoilers now. I will just say the story unfolds in one day and captures a lifetime. A fascinating lifetime. And a divine evocation of the nature of writing.