Giving Up America, Pearl Abraham's second novel, probably
shouldn't be read by someone contemplating marriage. Even the
best couples might seem hopelessly mismatched after reading it.
And whatever else they do, newlyweds should keep copies of the
book away from their parents and in-laws--reading it would only
confirm their worst fears about their offspring's marital choices.
Even Deena Stern, Abraham's rather stubborn protagonist, might
have avoided marriage, had she gotten an advance peek at her
Of course, her marriage didn't start out badly--at least,
as far as she was concerned. Indeed, she really believed
she could defy her Hasidic father's deterministic notion that
doctrinal differences can't be overcome. Her hope to prove him
wrong, he tells her, is distinctly American. (America, he says,
is "a country that believes differences can be overcome.")
This notion--that fate can be thwarted--is a foolish, even dangerous
thought, he warns her. But Deena, like most young people, rejects
the proffered parental wisdom, and she marries Daniel Binet (an
Orthodox Jew), despite her father's protest that numerology foretells
doom for their marriage.
After six relatively happy years of marriage, the couple buys
a sixty-year-old colonial-style house and undertakes an extensive
renovation on their own. (For thematic interpretation, of course,
'early American' can be read in place of 'colonial.') The house,
Deena hopes, will help contain and unite rather than merely overcome
the polar opposites her father abhors. (Night, she tells herself,
is upstairs in the bedroom; day downstairs in the bright living
But the marriage tests her own willingness to change and blend.
Daniel is rule-bound and willing to do something simply because
Orthodox Jews have done it for generations in the past. Deena,
on the other hand, wants to be more flexible--she refuses to
attend the synagogue, for example, and she resents her husband's
steadfast observance of the Sabbath. Or at least, she resents
his observing it without a greater sense of joy to balance out
his severity. Her father (a distant but powerful presence throughout
the novel) had warned her about this, of course:
Orthodoxy without the delight of Hasidism...is a very dry
thing. The commandment is to serve God with equal parts of love
and fear. Orthodox Jews incline toward fear. Hasidim err perhaps
on the side of love, which is emotional and therefore more powerful.
You were brought up with this love; without it, I fear for your
Not surprisingly, when Daniel discovers that he does in fact
want to do something new (learn how to dance and visit clubs),
it doesn't appeal to Deena--particularly when Daniel gets too
close to a co-worker who is in training to compete in the Miss
America contest (there's that pesky 'America' again). Deena prefers
to stay at home, to grow enough to fill the new house, to form
a family. She wants something more, not merely something
else. Ultimately, Deena learns that her father is right,
and America is wrong: some differences can't be overcome,
even when people change, if only because they're bound to change
in different ways. (The reason, Abraham suggests, lies in what
the individuals are leaving: for Daniel, abandoning Orthodox
rules means cutting loose with increasingly aggressive transgressions,
something that doesn't resonate strongly with Deena's more relaxed
Of course, a novel about a couple's irreconcilable differences
risks overstatement and didacticism. But Abraham is an immensely
talented writer, and she writes with a spare, understated voice
that nudges her themes toward us subtly with an attractive artfulness.
(An example of her beautiful use of light and dark imagery to
suggest that opposites might be enjoyed together: "Walking
in the dark under the tracks, with here and there the shafts
of harlequin light, Deena remembered the old souk in Jerusalem,
dark and cool after the dry, hot sun."). But perhaps the
novel's strongest trait is Deena herself. She's a wonderfully
drawn character, and her voice will stay with you long after
you've finished the novel.
But trust me: if you receive this book as a bridal shower
gift, you're getting a hint that it's not to late to back out.
Back to Archived Short Takes
and the Quest
for the True Self
In Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope
set out to write the sort of book--"a Baedeker," as
he calls it--that he would have found useful when he began practicing
yoga thirteen years ago. As he points out, there were plenty
of 'how-to' books on the market, showing the yoga postures and
explaining the breathing techniques that accompany them. And
there were also a fair number of 'esoteric' books full of "nearly
incomprehensible Hindu metaphysics" that explored yoga's
deeper, hidden aspects. "But where," Cope asked, "were
the descriptions of neurotic Western seekers like myself? Where
was my story?"
Of course, there's a good reason why a Westerner's Baedeker
wasn't available: books that attempt to assimilate and explain
the joining of two traditions--here, Eastern yoga and (for lack
of a better phrase) Western psychotherapy--are exponentially
more difficult to write than ones that simply convey one tradition,
untranslated. In a very real sense, Cope undertook something
akin to translating a big, rich, complicated book from one language
to another. And like any good translator, he had to know as much
about the language he was translating into as he knew about the
language he was translating from.
Happily, as an articulate, well-read psychotherapist, Cope
is as qualified to define the Westerner's "self-estrangement"
as he is qualified to describe yoga's potential to heal it. Indeed,
many Western readers (particularly those who are outwardly successful
and over the age of thirty-five) may feel as if Cope is describing
their own secret feelings of emptiness with an eerie prescience--as
well they should. While he occasionally offers allegorical tales
that exemplify Eastern philosophy and is more than willing to
draw from Hindu and yogi teachings for clarification, Cope overwhelmingly
favors easily digested anecdotal and personal stories of his
fellow Westerners' own experiences (as well as his own) to drive
his text. That they are all, in their own ways, undertaking what
Jung called "the night sea journey" to the true self
underscores the universality of the spiritual quest. (Cope has
quite a bit of material to draw on from his years of studying
and teaching at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox,
Massachusetts,. With seventeen thousand students, it is the world's
largest yoga center.)
In the end, Cope manages brilliantly to, as he puts it, "build
a bridge between a sometimes complicated and esoteric theory
and an essentially very straightforward and down-to-earth practice."
Yoga and the Search for the Self is a beautifully conceived
and executed book, and it should be the first text people reach
for when they want to begin practicing yoga.
Back to Archived Short Takes
I Am Finally Old Enough
In the burgeoning genre known as creative nonfiction, a debate
continues to rage unresolved--what should be the standard of
"truth" in a work labeled nonfiction? For some, the
word "creative" implies a license to embellish and
even fictionalize deliberately and freely. For others, the very
effort to define the nature of narrative truth and remain faithful
to it becomes the driving energy of the genre, in much the way
that a poet finds challenge, satisfaction and unexpected insights
in working within the strictures of a particular poetic form.
In Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough To Tell,
veteran fiction writer Ellen Douglas stakes out the divide in
four intriguing, sometimes charming, sometimes disturbing essays
whose subject is the tangled, insular world of extended family
in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South. In each of these pieces,
Douglas concludes that truth is elusive and the past an enigma,
and that we are nonetheless compelled by an almost irresistible
need to shape and reshape experience into coherent narratives.
"It is impossible to make sense of stories that purport
to be true," she writes. "Something is always missing.
To give them form, extract their deepest meaning, one has to
turn them into fiction...."
Even the title of the book is ironic: the truth she seeks
is obscured by deliberate deceptions, faulty memories, insufficient
records and the willful blind eye. She revisits the genteelly
impoverished years of her childhood and beyond to the Antebellum
and Reconstruction worlds, inhabited by an interwoven cast of
aunts, cousins, grandparents, and the black men and women who
served them first in slavery and then as sharecroppers and hired
She finds: questions without answers, stories with irretrievably
lost endings, maddeningly incomplete historical documents, and,
not infrequently, conspiracies of prevarication and obfuscation
meant to preserve appearances and reputations. As she struggles
almost fruitlessly at one point to uncover the brutal details
of the deaths, by lynching and lashing, of a group of slaves
accused, on slim if not nonexistent evidence, of plotting a revolt,
she finds herself musing "on remembering and forgetting,
on history and fiction, on the lies we live by." It is fitting
to note that Douglas herself is a kind of fiction; "Ellen
Douglas" was a pseudonym taken on, at the beginning of the
author's career, "to protect her family's privacy,"
explains the book jacket.
Douglas has a gift for the difficult art of writing deceptively
simple prose, for laying out the essential in plain language.
"What do you do at four o'clock in the morning with your
dead uncle cooling toward rigor in his bed and a swarm of bees
on the door?" she writes in the first essay. Amid the frantically
arty mannerisms of too much contemporary writing, her lyrical,
clear-eyed meditations are a welcome tonic.
Back to Archived Short Takes
Seven of the thirteen stories in this superb collection (Francis's
first short story collection in a thirty-nine book publishing
history) have appeared previously, in newspapers and magazines
ranging from the London Times to Women's Own. (Francis's
first short story, written in 1970 for Sports Illustrated,
is included in the collection.) The six remaining stories are
making their first appearance here, although in at least one
case ("Dead on Red"), the story was written some time
As usual for Francis, all the stories are carefully crafted
and wonderfully paced, with strong, easily imagined characters.
Indeed, that last quality--and more particularly, the way
he draws his characters--distinguishes Francis most clearly from
American mystery writers (who too often hack away at their characters
with feigned macho strokes), to say nothing of the minimalists
(who give us the merest sketches of character, which seem front-loaded
for universal projection, as if their readers were a psychic's
gullible rube). His portraits have a certain gracefulness about
them, particularly in the way they fit so smoothly into the rhythm
of his storytelling, and their near-novel-level completeness
belies both the stories' fast pace and their relatively short
As one might expect, the stories are traditional in structure
and voice. Think of Roald Dahl's short stories and you've got
a fair idea of Francis's own approach: often wry and told by
an omniscient narrator who seems to be winking at his reader,
with neat, well-crafted plot twists and tidy though satisfyingly
surprising endings. It should go without saying, of course, that
the stories all deal, in their various ways, with crime and horseracing.
"The Day of the Losers," one of the previously unpublished
stories, is particularly strong, though there isn't a dud in
Back to Archived Short Takes
of the Proper Sinner
Nicola Maiden has just refused a marriage proposal from Julian
Britton, a nice guy with an eroding inheritance, when she disappears
during a solo camping trip on the English moors. When she fails
to show up for a date, Britton doesn't have the courage to tell
her parents about the marriage refusal--it's more a matter of
saving them the disappointment than anything else. But then Nicola's
body is found near a prehistoric ring of stones, and the body
of a teenaged boy--dressed entirely in black--is found brutally
murdered in the center of the henge.
Luckily, Nicola's father is a former officer in Scotland Yard's
secretive Crime Operations Group, and he pulls strings to get
the murder investigation started at the highest level quickly.
But it's not an easy case. Nicola was beaten to death with
a rock; the teenager--whom Nicola's father doesn't recognize--was
stabbed. The teenager had no camping equipment with him, and
they were found some distance apart. The chances of two unrelated
murders happening in the same general area of woods are slim--but
how exactly are they related? And who, exactly,
was Nicola? Was she really the girl her parents thought her to
be? Of course, once the investigators start asking questions
about Nicola's character (and finding out things her parents
really don't want to know), Britton's innocent deception about
the engagement starts to look...less innocent.
But, in a book crammed with characters hiding dark secrets,
he's hardly the only suspect.
Elizabeth George was born in the Midwest and grew up in the
San Francisco Bay area, but her readers would probably never
know it because she's a devout Anglophile with a good ear for
the 'old chap / bloke' lingo we like to think Brits speak. Essentially,
she writes well-constructed country manor mysteries with a grim,
modern edge. The corpses are more gruesome, and the detectives
more complicated in their hierarchies and political infighting
than you'd ever find in Agatha Christie, but George's mysteries
still have that wonderful fireside appeal. She's not one to rush
a plot along, but most readers won't complain.
This is a good, solid whodunit.
Back to Archived Short Takes
Red 71 Press
A lot of first-time novelists come out of the chute packing
power. But how many pack so much power that a publishing company
was founded in order to make sure he was read?
That's what happened to Zak Mucha, who by day was roaming
through the houses and offices of Chicago as a furniture mover
and at night was sharpening his prose until it had the edge of
a straight razor. It took seven years for every major publishing
house in America to send handwritten notes turning down The
Seven years. That's longer than many presidencies and
most Gabor marriages. In time, though, the manuscript caught
the eye of crime novelist Andrew Vachss, who saw Mucha's potential
as a writer. So with a few others backing him, Vachss formed
the Red 71 Press, and Mucha became their first published author.
Although Joseph Askew, the hero of The Beggars' Shore,
is being raised by a religious cult, he has no religion except
the prayer to fit in. So one day he simply walks out and takes
up residence with the hookers, drunks, glue-sniffers and chicken
hawkers who make their homes in cheap rooms, unused apartments
and the alleyways that line the streets.
Soon, Joseph meets a girl named Amanda, and the two of them
become squatters in an unused apartment, where she spends most
of her time strung out on low-grade smack. She's spiraling downward
while Joseph tries to hold on. Everyone in The Beggars' Shore
dreams of the big score--the one chance to make it big and escape
to the real world. Dreams of what will be (and--for a select
few--what once was) occupy almost everyone's waking moments.
Be prepared: this is not the sanitized skid row of bad movies,
where every wino has a heart of gold. Trust me: if one of Mucha's
winos did have a heart of gold, another one would come along
and cut it out of his living flesh. This is a bleak landscape,
where life holds little currency. Sex is not confused with love,
respect is earned with strength, and the only two choices life
seems to offer are the jailyard or the graveyard.
The Beggars' Shore is a remarkable debut, and Mucha
is as adept at depicting the scummier sides of life as anyone
who has ever tackled the subject. And that includes Charles Bukowski,
who managed to parlay his love of booze, whores, horses and fighters
into a lengthy literary career. Bukowski, by the way, also had
a publishing company founded to get his books into print.
Seven years is a long time, but the effort has paid off.
Back to Archived Short Takes
Berkley Prime Crime
John Argyll, an art dealer with slow sales in a weak market,
agrees to transport a mediocre 18th century painting from Paris
to Rome. A simple task, right? Not really, actually. First, someone
tries to steal the painting in the Paris train station. Then
the buyer in Rome decides he doesn't want the painting after
all, and after handing the painting back, he hires Argyll to
sell it for him. But the next day, the buyer is found murdered
in his apartment--with all his paintings methodically slashed.
Argyll's girlfriend Flavia di Stefano, who works in Rome's
Art Theft Department, is called in to help with the investigation.
Once she realizes who the victim is, she knows Argyll could be
headed for some intense questioning--especially since the homicide
detective in charge of the investigation is a disgruntled former
boyfriend who would readily lock Argyll up for a week just to
Meanwhile, Argyll discovers his dealer acquaintance in Paris
no longer has a phone number, and a man who claims to be a French
policeman calls and demands that the painting be given to him
because it's stolen. The reputed policeman doesn't show
up, though, and the French police aren't sure that the painting
is stolen, since they don't know who owns it. Still, they
ask Argyll to return the painting to Paris.
A simple task, right?
By now, you must know the answer: of course not. That
pesky Parisian policeman keeps showing up, and after a while,
Argyll isn't so sure he's not a policeman--which is bad
news, since both he and Flavia have assaulted him in the process
of ducking his questions. And the more they investigate, the
further they seem to get from a solution. Luckily for Argyll,
Flavia is better versed at detection (and deception) than he
This is Pears's sixth Art History Mystery, and it's a winning
entry: it's fast, witty and smart enough to make you feel edified
reading it but not so smart that you find yourself grimacing
at the author's smart-ass erudition. The plot is intricate at
times, but the pace is quick enough to keep you moving through
it happily. And perhaps most importantly, Argyll is a likeable,
modest character who behaves well but entertains darker (and
funnier) thoughts about Pears's more abrasive characters. Granted,
it's a standard device of British comedy (everyone from Evelyn
Waugh to Tom Sharpe has made mortgage payments with its cheap
labor), but it still works wonderfully here, though Pears's version
of it's decidedly gentler than the British nasties'.
All in all, it's to be recommended as both an intelligent
mystery and an entertaining, light comedy.
Back to Archived Short Takes
Is a great work of art worth killing someone over? Is a work
of art valid if it was produced by a moral monster? Those questions
propel Sebastian Stuart's debut novel--but he wisely doesn't
belabor the intriguing theme or let it get tangled in the tight
coils of his plot as it unwinds.
Charles Davis is an aging novelist set in the concrete of
what might be called the F. Scott Hemingway mold, a relic of
an era in which writers hunted a mythical beast called the Great
American Novel. (For my money, there's already a whole herd of
GANs grazing on the literary veldt, from Huckleberry Finn
to The Great Gatsby to Lolita, so there's no point
in looking for the big one.) Davis wrote a great novel in his
twenties but never again came close to bagging the big one. He
selfishly sacrifices everything to the cause of writing another
one, including his relationship with his wife, Anne. Anne's a
beautiful, turbocharged businesswoman whose catalog firm is in
trouble, and she, too, demonstrates that she'll do anything to
stay on top. There's nothing Davis wouldn't do to retrieve his
reputation from the bookstore remainder racks; there's nothing
his wife wouldn't do to save her company, including sleeping
with her top investor.
Motives for murder, anyone? Enter Emma, Charles's personal
assistant, who adds madness to the swirl of ambition, competition
and envy. It dawns on Charles that Emma is as gifted a writer
as she is seriously disturbed. By encouraging her to write, he
is creating a rival and, perhaps, prying the lid off an explosive
Having set up his situation, Stuart pulls enough plot twists
to keep the reader guessing. New York's scenery and cutthroat
literary scene are described with equal affection.
The Mentor is a fine, fast-paced thriller.
--Arthur Alexander Parker
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