Book Reviews for Fall 2010
The Ghost of Milagro Creek
By Melanie Sumner (GRS’87) Fiction (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
Death in all its varieties—natural, accidental, self-inflicted, and ultimately, homicidal—drives the interconnected narratives in Sumner’s novel. Set in the barrio of Taos, N.M., a community that blurs the boundaries among Latino, Native American, and Catholic cultures, the book inhabits a forgotten world of drunk mothers, absentee fathers, and the occasional suspicious gringo.
“The danger out there,” one priest warns another, “is that you will fall into their beliefs…At first it will jump right out at you—sun gods, saints dressed up like dolls, peyote buttons, nudity… After a while, you start to see it how they see it.”
This cultural confusion suits town oddball and Apache healer Ignacia, who narrates much of the book from beyond a fresh grave, just fine. Less well adjusted is Ignacia’s charge and teenaged grandson, Mister, who is trying to heal the scars of abuse and abandonment.
When Ignacia dies, a grief-stricken Mister invokes the childhood suicide pact he formed with his best friend, Tomás, who has hidden motivations of his own. Their botched attempt leaves a man dead and allows Mister an opportunity to reflect on the values of the cultures that produced him. A confessional box becomes “a coffin. That was the shape of religion.” Given a chance to redeem himself, Mister remembers Ignacia’s words: that despite the four corners of “the white man’s church,” “life is a circle.” ~Katie Koch
High Before Homeroom
By Maya Sloan (CFA’99, GRS’07) Fiction (Gallery Books)
Doug Schaffer, a smart, sexually frustrated 16-year-old, is desperate for street cred at school and for attention at home. He wants to win the heart of a bad-girl mall employee, but quoting Leaves of Grass just isn’t cutting it. His single mother spends her days fretting over his brother, a high school football hero stationed in Iraq. This being Oklahoma, not Holden Caulfield’s New York, Sloan’s antihero decides methamphetamines are his ticket to a more “promising future.” He concocts a meticulous plan to become a drug addict, go to rehab, and return with brooding mystique.
Sloan captures the thought processes of a kid with more intellectual ambition than life experience. His mother’s college paintings are, according to Doug, “obviously derivative of early Pollock, which I know because I saw a documentary about him on PBS.” He scoffs at guys who carry beat-up copies of On the Road just to score girls: “I did buy [mine] secondhand, but I underlined all the passages myself.”
Just as Doug’s experiments with sex, drugs, and Kerouac-style road-tripping begin to unravel, a twist brings the story back down to earth: Doug’s meth-fueled benders aren’t exactly what they seem, and neither is his war-hero brother. ~KK
The Lake Shore Limited
By Sue Miller (GRS’80) Fiction (Alfred A. Knopf)
Like those preceding it, Miller’s latest novel is on solid, absorbing ground as it navigates the everyday logistical and internal struggles of contemporary characters, most of whom try, at times poignantly, to be decent and true. Few writers rival Miller in her pitch-perfect capturing of the small moments that pile up to form a life—a fateful dog walk, a dinner conversation laden with things unsaid, a woman in the grip of ALS cracking wise about Stephen Hawking. In one bittersweet subplot, a besotted man drives north to Vermont to claim his love, but turns his car back to Boston after seeing the woman and her husband through a window, sharing a domestic scene profound in its ordinariness.
But in The Lake Shore Limited, Miller extends her grasp to larger moments—including that pivotal moment, September 11, 2001. Avoiding mawkishness in the halting, intimate retelling of that event, she uses it as a reference point to ask a question largely ignored in fiction: how does it feel to be the grieving partner when love has already died? What is grieving, and its afterlife, like for a person who loses her lover in the most high profile of tragedies, when that person—a passionately driven playwright, in Miller’s story—was in fact plotting her escape, at the moment of her lover’s death?
This conflicted woman’s dilemma, which may not be as unusual as we assume, evolves into something more universal: how difficult, and elusive, honesty can be. “She would try not to lie, not to pretend what she didn’t feel,” writes Miller of Billy, whose new play, The Lake Shore Limited, is a thinly disguised meditation on 9/11. “But in the end it seemed to her that there wasn’t a truthful gesture she could make. She felt cottoned in falsity.”
Although it feels cowardly, Billy decides to indulge others’ need to interpret her every word and action as potent gestures of grief. Again and again in her fiction, Miller ponders, through her thoughtful characters, the cost of being true to oneself. At the conclusion of The Lake Shore Limited, Billy’s and Miller’s small repertory of troubled, essentially good people finds a kind of peace with themselves and one another. ~Susan Seligson
By Jenna Blum (GRS’98) Fiction (Dutton)
Weather may be one of the most overworked metaphors in fiction. But the events that unfold over Blum’s dark and stormy nights and days are set in a fanatical subculture of tornado chasers, brought freshly to life by the author’s exacting, occasionally lavish prose. Author of the widely praised novel Those Who Save Us, Blum here returns to the fraught relationships between siblings. The story is told through the eyes of Karena, a tormented, occasionally self-loathing, smart-as-a-whip young journalist, who, for reasons that become increasingly apparent, will not forfeit her role as her brother’s keeper. Missing for much of the novel, Charles is Karena’s twin, and until he appears, the reader knows only that he is seriously mentally ill and that he’s been obsessed with chasing storms since childhood. When Karena gets a lead on his whereabouts, she sets off from Minneapolis in her Jeep Laredo, soon to become a character in itself, to Kansas and surrounding states, alternately chasing, skirting, or finding herself in the deadly grip of storms real and metaphorical.
Without sacrificing the forward momentum of the story, which embraces elements of detective drama, chick lit, and high adventure, Blum, who taught at BU for five years and was fiction editor of the literary magazine Agni, offers the reader a tour of weather world. And a wacky world it is, with online storm stalking, wild fickle skies, lethal pressure gradients, and moments of barreling full speed in blinding rain alternating with languid vigils at motels and truck stops. In the drive time between these tempestuous or ominously still stretches, Karena falls in love, locates and reins in her manic twin, and comes to terms with their unsavory secret, a teen-age accident and its aftermath that condemn both Charles and Karena, each in his and her own way, to bear the burden of karma. The story’s conclusion, which Blum offers up tenderly, is truly the calm after the storm. ~SS
Wherever You Go
By Joan Leegant (LAW’75) Fiction (W. W. Norton and Co.)
A former attorney who divides her time between the United States and and Israel, Leegant does not tread lightly through the thicket of Middle East politics and faith. What begins as a gently paced tableau of spiritual and family ties gradually gains steam and becomes, by its final, intricately plotted pages, a fully engrossing thriller. In a novel that feeds an appetite for the tender and poetic as well as the urgent and politically compelling, she takes her time fleshing out her three characters, each struggling to define his or her Judaism, whose narratives converge in an act of terrorism. By imagining an incident driven so completely by a combination of testosterone, ignorance, and folly, Leegant reminds us that fumbling acts of violence have the same consequences as those that are efficiently executed.
She creates a memorable character in the secular American Yona, who feels compelled to linger, uninvited and unwelcome, at her estranged, eternally pregnant sister’s West Bank settlement in hopes the Orthodox Dena will forgive a wrong Yona committed against her in their youth. Leaving Yona in her self-imposed limbo in Jerusalem, the author veers between Mark Greenglass, a former drug dealer turned Talmudic scholar, and Aaron Blinder, the tormented son of a Holocaust survivor who has gained fame by turning his ordeal into soulless best-selling novels. In assured, far-reaching prose, peppered here and there with Hebrew, Leegant is equally adept writing about, for example, Yona’s reluctant softening to a man she might love and an unnervingly ominous Israeli prison interrogation. She describes a room through the eyes of a man waking from a coma, and places the reader just steps from an exploding bomb and its eerie aftermath. The story is infused throughout with humanity and heart, and the sense that we are all victims in some respects, perpetrators in others. ~SS
By Ann Malaspina (COM’81) Fiction (Lee & Low Books)
Our five-year-old started kindergarten this fall, and like many kids, he approached it with about the same enthusiasm he musters for a flu shot. Especially for such kids, Yasmin’s Hammer makes a great read. This lushly illustrated morality tale reminds young and old readers of the preciousness of education.
Yasmin and her family—mother, father, and sister—flee their cyclone-leveled rural village in Bangladesh for life in big-city Dhaka. Yasmin’s father pedals a rickshaw, and her mother cleans rich people’s houses. Their daughters supplement the parents’ meager wages by hammering bricks in a brickyard run by Bangladesh’s version of Scrooge. The work is grueling. “Red dust fills the air and sticks in my throat,” Yasmin narrates. “I spit out the grit in my mouth and rub the ache in my shoulder. ‘Work!’ the boss tells us. ‘Don’t be lazy.’”
Yasmin yearns to attend school, and her parents yearn to send her. But the family needs her earnings, and “not yet” and “maybe next year” become the parental mantras. When Yasmin’s sister suffers the inevitable occupational hazard and hammers her thumb, Yasmin resolves to change their situation. She ferociously attacks bricks with her hammer, pleasing Scrooge and earning extra money to buy a picture book. She and her family stare in mystified wonder at the words, and the family decides the girls must attend school. They all do extra work to earn the money. On the last page, Yasmin’s father and his rickshaw ferry them not to the brickyard, but to school.
The book teaches several virtues in addition to its lesson about education: hard work (while making it clear that the brickyard boss’ unfeeling demands brand him as an ogre), tenacity (Yasmin never gives up on her dream), and thrift. The oil-painted illustrations by Doug Chayka ably reinforce the text, especially the red-and-orange-hued depictions of the brickyard and its atmosphere of dust and chips. The book won’t erase all of a child’s trepidations about school (at least, it didn’t eliminate our son’s), but it’s a handy and touching tool to reinforce the message that there’s a reason for those five days a week in front of teacher and blackboard. ~Rich Barlow
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great
By Rick Meyerowitz (CFA’65) Nonfiction (Abrams Books)
The National Lampoon was spawned during the Vietnam years by a trio of creative, fearless, and moderately demented Harvard graduates whose parodies skewered enough sacred cows to keep their readers in kebab for years to come. From “Norman Rockwell’s Erotic Engravings” to “The Undiscovered Notebook of Leonardo DaVinci” to the gleeful evisceration of the Nixon family in “Washington Romance,” the Lampoon combined chaotic, often outright disgusting illustrations with rigorous, spot-on parody at a time when America needed as many laughs as it could get. As its franchise expanded—it was Lampoon writers who brought us the indelible movie romp Animal House—the magazine’s crew would surge and recede with some of the 20th century’s most gifted humorists and illustrators. One of them was Meyerowitz, an accomplished, widely published illustrator responsible for the iconic “Mona Gorilla” Lampoon cover and the New Yorker’s post-9/11 “New-Yorkistan,” created with artist Maira Kalman. Lampoon founders Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Rob Hoffman were joined along the way by the likes of now widely known wits George Trow, Christopher Cerf, John Weidman, and P. J. O’Rourke.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is neither a definitive history nor a logical compilation. As Meyerowitz intended, it is a diverting jumble, illuminating, he says, “contributors such as Gerry [Sussman] and Charlie [Rodriguez], who made the magazine so unforgettable,” and those he believes to be “the best and funniest of the editors, writers, and artists at the Lampoon.” As for the accompanying anecdotal text, he fesses up to the fact that “when the truth was not available, a good story was, and I made use of it.”
This hefty coffee table book is packed with treasures graphic and verbal. There’s “Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries”: “We are posing as a Mexican mariachi band…Unfortunately, one of the customs officials discovered that our bass-fiddle case contained a Russian-made YD-47 heavy mortar. Thinking quickly, I put my mouth to the barrel and, with no little difficulty, improvised a few bars of ‘Besame Mucho’…” The photo essay “Stranger in Paradise” has a Hitler impersonator languishing nude on a tropical beach. In Beard and Weidman’s classic “Law of the Jungle,” a parchment “lex biologica” offers gems such as, “For example, in the junction between microbe law and plant law, there are an incalculably large number of nitrogen-fixing cases, a criminal matter taken very seriously by most vegetation.” A spread of famous drawings by longtime New Yorker cartoonist Sam Gross depicts a frog amputee on a cart wheeling past restaurant patrons near a sign urging, “Try Our Frogs’ Legs.” Selections from the Lampoon portfolio of artist M. K. Brown, one of the handful of women among the magazine’s regular contributors, include the schoolmarm getting down in the “White Girl Twist,” and Sigmund Freud attempting to learn what women want, only to throw up his hands: “You see? There is no point in pursuing this further…I leave it to history.”
Like the Lampoon in its long-gone heyday, Meyerowitz’s book is both a guilty pleasure and a fleeting antidote to grim current events and news, where only the nouns seem to change. Fred Graver’s searing “Tintin in Lebanon,” for example, is as timeless as its protagonist’s cowlick: substitute Afghanistan. ~SS
Stateless in Shanghai
By Liliane Willens (SED’60, GRS’63,’74) Nonfiction (China Economic Review Publishing)
Born in Shanghai in 1927 to stateless Russian Jewish parents, Willens spent the first 25 years of her life as a “foreign devil” in China’s most open city. Mischievous and politically minded in her youth, she recalls both daily life and major events in clear-eyed and exotic detail. She describes a childhood shaped by overlapping French, German, Russian, and Chinese influences and remarkably free of anti-Semitism. Shanghai may have been socially progressive for its time, but the cosmopolitan city still relied on caste. “Here it was the Chinese who were…second-class citizens in their own country,” she writes, destined to work for Caucasians or live in steep poverty.
In the 1930s, some 40,000 foreign nationals lived in Shanghai; by 1950, the number had plummeted to 400. Willens relives the marked decline of China’s international hub, from the heyday of Shanghainese capitalism to the hardships of Japanese occupation and World War II to the closing off of China under communist rule, a time when “the world had gone mad” and foreign nationals had no choice but to leave. Shanghai is again known as China’s “global city,” but Willens’ memoir reminds readers of the price it once had to pay for its colonial past. ~KK
The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words
By Peter E. Meltzer (CAS’80, LAW’83) Nonfiction (W. W. Norton & Company)
“Conventional thesauruses present ‘le mot juste’ far less frequently than they should,” writes Meltzer in the introduction to his entertaining alternative, conceived during a discussion with writer friends and colleagues about their longing for a resource that would prove less Boeotian, blandiose, invita Minerva, jejune, narcotizing, and downright de longueur than the usual suspects. An attorney in Philadelphia, Meltzer has turned out nearly 700 pages of words to dazzle, intimidate, or confound, from “scunner” to supplant “abhorrence,” to “hobbledehoy” to connote “youth” (of the clumsy variety). In the internet age, which puts synonyms.com and wordorigins.org at our fingertips, there is still a place on the shelf (make sure it’s a sturdy one) for volumes like Meltzer’s, which is as fun to flip through as it is a handy, last-ditch source for le mot plus juste. ~SS
The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today
By Jeanne C. Meister (SED’73) and Karie Willyerd Nonfiction (Harper Business)
The workplace of the future will have a CEO who blogs, employees who telecommute, and recruiters who tweet. At least that’s what Meister and Willyerd, cofounders of the consulting firm Future Workplace and bloggers for the Harvard Business Review, foresee. The 2020 Workplace is their conjecture about where the workplace is headed. Crucial to this belief are pioneering technology and the Millennial Generation (those born after 1977), who will lead the workplace of tomorrow.
That environment will be an “intensely personalized, social experience, where companies use the latest tools of the social web to attract, develop, and engage employees across all generations and geographies,” they write. Look at it like this: the next iPhone is still being developed. To prepare, managers need to start thinking today about how their company communicates and recruits. Maybe it means embracing today’s emerging technologies—the ones that future employees are growing up with, such as Facebook and Twitter. Or maybe it means investing in “lifelong learning,” something that smart companies and organizations, including the U.S. Army, are doing now and that the authors predict will attract the top talent of the future. It most definitely means paying attention to the global marketplace.
The message here: the workplace as we know it is changing—in gender and ethnicity and by generation. Smart business owners will adapt today to become leaders of tomorrow. ~Amy Laskowski