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Pan Am 103: The Bombings, The Betrayals, and a Bereaved Family's Search for Justice
Susan and Daniel Cohen
New American Library
279 pp.


On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 (bound for New York) exploded almost six miles above Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 269 people on board. One of the victims, a twenty-year-old college student named Theodora Cohen, was returning home after spending a semester abroad. In Pan Am 103, her parents, Susan and Daniel Cohen (professional writers who have collaborated on more than thirty books), take turns telling her story--who she was, how she died, and why we should remain angry about the attack twelve years later. Reading their account is emotionally devastating, to say the last.

As investigators discovered, the bomb had been placed on the plane in Frankfurt, and Pan Am's negligent security policy was at least partly to blame. Indeed, the McLaughlin Report (which was released in May 1990) determined that the bombing had been preventable, and the FAA, the State Department (which had failed to tell the public that it had received a tip that a bomb would be planted on a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt) and Pan Am itself were criticized. Unfortunately, the report was largely ignored by the Bush administration, and as the Cohens write, "Many of the shortcomings in airline security that the report exposed are still with us over a decade later."

Pan Am didn't escape unscathed, though. Its stock fell precipitously, and just a few days shy of the third anniversary of the bombing, Pan Am ceased operations. (As the Cohens observe, various attempts to revive the Pan Am name and symbol have failed.) Finally, on July 11, 1992, a Brooklyn jury found Pan Am guilty of willful misconduct.

What comes out most powerfully in the Cohens' account is their almost indescribable pain and the anger that built rather than dwindled as time passed. Early on, unlike many of the other victims' families, the Cohens decided to meet the tragedy with dogged defiance because they believed that their silence would only insure that the public forgot the bombing. And to their credit, the Cohens have stayed angry to this day, while the Bush and Clinton administrations have maneuvered carefully around the disaster and its unwanted repercussions in Middle East policies. (The Bush administration, for example, was quick to dismiss Syria as a suspect after they formed an alliance of sorts with the U.S. during the Persian Gulf War.)

The Cohens' account is not an objective history, nor (I'm sure) would they write one. At times, their anger comes close to overwhelming their text (particularly when they deal with the groups that formed among the survivors and when they summarize the Bush and Clinton administrations' reactions to the investigations), but they were right not to edit that anger out of the book. As it stands, Pan Am 103 is a searing testament of two parents' undying anger at having lost a child needlessly. It is harrowing, necessary reading, I think.

--Woody Arbunkle

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After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path
Jack Kornfield
314 pp.



Jack Kornfield, who was trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma and India and who has taught meditation since 1974, sets out in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry to do something that seems unprecedented in the literature of the mystic tradition: he explores at length the false expectations individuals often have when seeking enlightenment, and he delineates the limitations of what enlightenment can actually do for the individual who 'attains' it.

Of course, most books written about the mystic tradition talk primarily about how long, arduous and even incomprehensible the path to enlightenment is. And in the first half of his book, Kornfield does too. In clear, elucidating language, he walks his reader through the stages of initiation and enlightenment, and you can feel the years of speaking to initiates coming through his prose. For all the justified talk about the arduous and incomprehensible nature of initiation, Kornfield does a splendid job of making the parameters of the initiate's experiences apparent. And by drawing copiously from a wide spectrum of personal accounts, from Zen masters and Sufi poets to Christian monks and nuns, Kornfield makes his text more approachable for readers with differing backgrounds. As Kornfield writes, "The same eternal themes arise: the need to face death, the requirement of forgiveness, the finding of energy and courage, and the seeking of truth. These tasks resonate in the heart of all who follow a path of awakening."

But it's the second half of Kornfield's book that makes it exceptional, I think, because there he explores what happens after enlightenment--and, in some cases, what happens despite enlightenment. Enlightenment will not, for example, make you a different person. If you're an introvert before an awakening experience, you'll be one afterwards as well. Indeed, in Kornfield's estimate, we should more properly speak about enlightened moments rather than enlightened people. The enlightened moments "may bring transformation," Kornfield writes, "but they pass."

The issue thus becomes less a matter of how to enter 'enlightened retirement,' than how to redefine what we should expect of enlightenment--and thereby, perhaps, experience transformative moments more readily. To this end, in the last chapters of his book, Kornfield calls for an enlightenment of a simpler sort, one that doesn't require us to visit distant lands (and one which doesn't allow us to declare our enlightenment 'achieved'). Like the Zen masters who point to the simple tasks of our daily lives as the path to enlightenment, Kornfield wants to make us realize that the transformative experiences are there before us, if we simply open our hearts: "If we quiet ourselves from the clamor and greed of modern consumer culture, we will find the intimate whisperings of what we are to do. That voice will tell us whether we are to start a garden project, write a letter for Amnesty International, comfort a crying child, or contribute a stone to the great cathedral, though we may never live to see its completion."

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry is truly a compelling, uplifting work, particularly with its depiction of spiritual growth rooted in loving, open-hearted gestures within our own daily lives. It is highly recommended to both novices and advanced practitioners, and it should become a classic of the mystic tradition.

--Charlie Onion

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What We Don't Know About Children
Simona Vinci
Alfred A. Knopf
161 pp.



A group of teenaged boys finds an abandoned shed in a field a few miles beyond an Italian village. For two months, the younger children watch the boys leave each day for their secret hideout. Then most of the boys stop going, leaving only a group of three to go: Mirko (fifteen years old), Luca (fourteen) and Matteo (ten). Soon, they invite two of the younger girls--Martina and Greta (both ten)--to visit the shed with them. There are things, Mirko tells the girls, that girls should know about too.

Originally, the boys had tried to build the shed into a party house of sorts. With the help of an older brother, they had managed to retrieve enough mattresses from a local dump to line an area of the floor with them. The girls discover that the shed also holds "pillows, rugs spread over the bare floor, a warped and wobbly table, a ghetto blaster, half-burned candles in a ceramic plate." The girls sit on the mattresses together, holding handing tightly. Then Luca walks over and tells them they're about to see something new, "something they couldn't possibly have imagined." And while the girls watch, Mirko takes a stack of pornographic magazines from his backpack. Although no one realizes it at the time (innocently, the girls think they are looking at comic books at first), this is the first in a series of increasingly sexually charged explorations the children will make in the shed, and they will end horrifically for each of the children.

Simona Vinci's first novel, What We Don't Know About Children, is undeniably about the loss of childhood's innocence, but it shares virtually nothing with the gently metaphorical novels that one associates with the genre. This is not Catcher in the Rye or even, to take a more recent example, Benjamin Lebert's Crazy. Here, we don't find children supporting each other against the adult world; in Vinci's novel, the older children exploit the younger children, and the only adults who play a part in the novel are the ones who show up in the porn magazines the older children use to initiate the younger ones into increasingly dangerous games. Parents--mothers, grandmothers, fathers--appear in the text only briefly and ineffectually, when they wonder why their young children seem so distant, so lethargic.

Vinci's voice is appropriately understated and quiet; she lets the story reveal itself only indirectly, with a surprisingly strong control of her story's rhythms. And her settings and the individual children's characters are well-drawn. But some of her most significant accomplishments lie in her complicated, nuanced explorations of the children's (particularly the girls') motivations. Counterintuitively, the two girls readily agree to visit the shed, even after the 'games' lose the slightest vestige of innocent, youthful curiosity. It isn't desire that drives them, and it's not quite curiosity either. And that's what's most disturbing: it's their confused, empty-eyed look into our own adult world that drives them blindly on.

The children also find, Vinci tells us, something darkly familiar about their games, as if they're drawing the sexual experiences from a previously unconscious well of understanding: "A lot of things seemed to happen in this way--coming out of a deep, dark place. Things you didn't know you had inside of you, but that came out when they had a reason to." Vinci's children, in a very real sense, are thus floating in a strange in-between world--in between child and adult, conscious and unconscious--and our inability to save them (our own natural instinct) is unnerving, to say the least. And yet they seem, to the reader's mind, to hover within range of rescue for much of the novel, despite its grim momentum. Indeed, this might be Vinci's greatest achievement as a novelist here: she manages to suggest, quite powerfully, that the children's fate is not determined, either by Vinci or the children themselves. After passing a comparatively innocent night in the middle of the fields, Vinci writes, the children would think back to it and


think that the whole story might have gone in another direction if only they had stayed on the banks of the lime pit at night, or in the courtyard in the afternoon, coming together gradually, teasing each other, maybe even wrestling before kissing on the lips, quickly, close-mouthed. Their hands tucked deep into their pockets.


For all of its impressive accomplishments (made more impressive by Vinci's relative youth--she was born in 1970), What We Don't Know About Children is often a difficult book to read, particularly in its unflinchingly grim final scenes. It may be an accurate account of the dangerous world facing today's children, and its heartfelt, searing message may need to be told (though one fears the book might be misinterpreted woefully). But it's certainly the saddest, most disturbing book I've read in quite a while.

--Daphne Frostchild

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The Cigarette Girl
Carol Wolper
Riverhead Books
275 pp.



Elizabeth West, the narrator and struggling hero of Carol Wolper's The Cigarette Girl, is a twenty-eight-year-old screenwriter who makes a living writing (and re-writing) action films. "You want Little Women or Waiting to Exhale," she tells us, "don't hire me. Estrogen movies, I call them. All emotion, no edge. Not my thing." She is, by her own reckoning, a tough chick. But when it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff--or, in West's terms, separating the Mr. Maybes from the Maybe Nots--she's "just a semi-tough girl in a totally tough town."

The fact that she's entered the 'zone'--occupied by women between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty-five--where husbands and even children become overwhelming thoughts doesn't help.


Before my twenty-eighth birthday hit, I was perfectly happy to live my single life. Work. Work out. And sex. That's all I needed. Maybe that's a little on the shallow side, but I live in Los Angeles. Shallow is politically correct here. Besides, Southern California is all about velocity and optimism, which has everything to do with its two most glaring characteristics: freeways and sunshine. They do something to you. You start believing that "it," whatever "it" is, will all work out. That is, until you hit the zone. Then it doesn't matter how fast you're moving or how beautiful the day, you start believing that whatever "it" is, it'll never work out and you were crazy to believe in "it" in the first place.

The zone changes everything. It confuses everything. Sometimes you can talk yourself into believing something's on track until you're so far into it that the realization that it isn't can't stop the runaway train.


A tight spot for a semi-tough chick, no? Among the Mr. Maybe candidates are her producer boss (Jake) and his architect friend (David). But Jake--whose middle name is undoubtedly 'Testosterone'--plays the field too fast to settle down, and David seems to be a SCU (self-contained unit). So what's a girl in the zone to do?

Wolper is herself a screenwriter who has worked for Simpson-Bruckheimer Productions and Bruckheimer Films, and she knows her territory--from LA Lakers games and Oscar parties to Hollywood pitch meetings and test screenings. Of course, the subject being Hollywood, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there's no heavy lifting in The Cigarette Girl, and attentive readers will notice that nothing truly unexpected happens. But Wolper knows how to structure her story and hit her marks, and her narrative voice is likeable and smart enough to make The Cigarette Girl a fun, effortless read--especially for beachgoers with a hankering for an inside-Hollywood peek.

--Daphne Frostchild

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