Monthly Archives: June 2013

** The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud


Having been unable to finish The Emperor’s Children (a story of self-absorbed twits, I thought uncharitably),  I opened The Woman Upstairs with some trepidation, and I’m glad I did. The woman of the title is a lonely retired school teacher but would-be artist and her tale is told in flashbacks to a dangerous and ultimately disastrous relationship with the family of one of her students, along the way telling us the story of her mother, a frustrated housewife, and revealing the political pettiness of elementary schools and art galleries alike. Dark and well told.

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* The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore


The Mothers reads like a memoir of a woman who, with her husband, wants to adopt a child through an open adoption.  The story details the bureaucracy, the stilted process to qualify as an adoptive parent, and the schemes of birth mothers and others who pray on the parents. The book would stand quite well as a memoir, I thought, but it did not work as a novel. It’s boring: we know that it’s hard for a childless couple to witness others’ pregnancies and children. We can imagine that being scammed by a birth mother must be very painful. But we’d like, I’d like, a little more from a novel: a different twist, perhaps, a complex moral dilemma (beyond whether to check all the races’ boxes on the application), or a good climax of some sort. None of that here, beyond the very funny scenes of the adoption workshops where the would-be parents eye each other to decide which of them will be chosen first.

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** Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki

With a funny cover and upbeat narrative, Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World covers a serious topic, sexual behavior in the Arab world, mostly in Egypt and other Mediterranean countries, in a serious way. She shows how the gap between current religious constraints and the freedom of the internet makes for frustrated husbands (and would-be husbands) and confused wives, superficial morality coupled with women’s exploitation, and a very, very difficult life for anyone who is not strictly heterosexual. Along the way we discover an Egypt of contrasts between modernity and archaism, where contraceptive pills can be bought over the counter in pharmacies, for instance, but husbands may not be examined at all when there is a failure to conceive, where IVF is subsidized but bloody sheets are still required on wedding nights. The author trained as a physician and is not afraid to tackle sensitive topics. Her stories of talking with Egyptian women about their intimate lives are particularly interesting.

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* Clean by David Sheff


Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy is written by the author of Beautiful Boy, in which he described his son’s struggles with alcohol and drugs. I found the memoir interesting, but this new book was puzzling. First, the intended audience and message are not clear: is it an opinion piece on how to treat addiction or a practical handbook for parents and families of addicts seeking treatment? The book seems to waver from one to the other, losing the reader’s interest. Second, the book makes repeated statements without justification, such as the weird noises heard by gas-hufffing addicts are the sounds of brain cells popping. Really, now? We don’t expect the author to be a scientist but it would be good to consult one before making baseless statements. Third, and perhaps most important, the main thesis of the book is that addiction is a disease and should be treated as such, rather than as a failure of self-control. Fair enough, but I found myself (maliciously?) looking for counter arguments on every page. If it is nothing more than a disease, then why do behavior-modification programs work, at least for some people? And for that matter why recommend long rehab cycles?

A bust, at least for me.

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*** No Name by Wilkie Collins

Having greatly enjoyed The Woman in White, I picked up No Name, by the same author and with a similar genre of literary mystery. This story revolves around the legal imbroglio of a late-in-life marriage invalidating a will and two sisters, who now have no (last) name, setting about to reconquer their fortune, one daringly and the other meekly following due legal process. The plot relies heavily on perfectly timed letters and movements and resonates oddly with our age of telephones and emails, which could be the reason I did not enjoy this book as much as the first one. (Or, perhaps, it’s because the more daring of the two sisters ends up not only thwarted but back to a period-appropriate but nevertheless disappointing surrender to the stronger males around her). Still, the thickly entwined plot makes for excellent summer reading.

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*** Still Points North by Leigh Newman

On the surface, Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home is a standard story of growing up between two divorced parents — but one lives in Alaska, where she was born, and takes her on wondrous and dangerous adventures in the wilderness, which gives the book a memorable spiciness. But it’s more than the exotic locale that makes the book a delightful experience. The author does a great job of telling the story from the perspective of the child she was, whether she is listening to her parents’ guests’ tall tales of wilderness mishaps, trying to escape her mother’s budgeting woes, or the joy of shooting guns. And she also captures the essential awkwardness she has always felt when she gets close to others, whether a friend’s parents or her own husband. Used to being on her own, shuffled between two parents who could not get too close to her for too long, she finds close relationships rather disorienting. A great book about families and children.

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*** The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

Sure, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II is not perfect: the breathless, fake-excited tone is a bit much, and the almost-exclusive focus on the women who worked at the Oak Ridge facility seems forced, since there were many men there, too. But these are nits. The author does a marvelous job of recreating the eerily closed world of the uranium-enriching facility, where almost no one knew that it was, in fact, a uranium-enriching facility, and the minutiae of the work that needed to be done manually just a few decades ago — all those dials that needed monitoring, paperwork to be typed by hand, statistics to be computed manually!

A great counterpart to the history of Los Alamos, reminding us of the unique opportunities for women’s work created by the war, and the many hardships endured because of it.

 

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