Table of Contents

 Archived Short Takes

 November 1999
Short Takes

Giving Up America
Pearl Abraham
Riverhead Books
310 pp.


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 own story.

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 room.)

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 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 soul.


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 Hasidic background.)

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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Yoga and the Quest
for the True Self
Stephen Cope
Bantam Books
360 pp.


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.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Truth: Four Stories
I Am Finally Old Enough
To Tell
Ellen Douglas
Plume Books
310 pp.


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 help.

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.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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Field of Thirteen
Dick Francis
Bantam Books
256 pp.


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 ago.

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 length.

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 the bunch.

Highly recommended.

--Daphne Frostchild

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In Pursuit
of the Proper Sinner
Elizabeth George
Bantam Books
596 pp.


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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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The Beggars' Shore
Zak Mucha
Red 71 Press
328 pages


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 Beggars' Shore.

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.

--John Porter

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The Last Judgement
Iain Pears
Berkley Prime Crime
278 pp.


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 get even.

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 is.

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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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The Mentor
Sebastian Stuart
Bantam Books
256 pp.


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 past.

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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