Katherine Wyrick

Editor's note: Each month we see lots of books. This is one of the more curious arrivals.

It's two-tiered, it's bi-leveled, it's the hairstyle with an identity crisis (is it long or short?). We are, of course, referring to the mullet, the ultimate hair-don't that's short on the top and long in the back. We've always called it a ridla, short for riddle, as in What's short on top and long in back? and Why would anyone willingly wear their hair that way? Our personal favorite, however, is the shelby, which we learned from our cousin in Arkansas.

Whatever you call it, one thing's certain: it looks bad real bad. So bad, and so widespread, are mullets, that they are deserving of their own book, and that's just what Mark Larson and Barney Hoskyns bring us with The Mullet. Subtitled "Hairstyle of the Gods," this book is a hairography of sorts, a history of mullets in their many incarnations. Wrestlers, hockey players, misguided musicians, they, and maybe even someone you know, have them. Think Hulk Hogan, Jaromir Jagr think Billy Ray Cyrus, the country star the authors rightly deem king of the mullets. His carefully coifed Kentucky Waterfall is indeed a mullet that commands respect.

This is the book we've been waiting for; it's the ultimate tribute to mullet madness and that's the long and the short of it.

Editor's note: Each month we see lots of books. This is one of the more curious arrivals. It's two-tiered, it's bi-leveled, it's the hairstyle with an identity crisis (is it long or short?). We are, of course, referring to the mullet, the ultimate hair-don't that's short on the top and long in the back. We've […]

No, this is not a Zen koan. The answer to this, and to almost every other question about American Buddhism, can be found in the comprehensive and enlightening book, The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. This unique reference book, an expanded edition of Buddhist America, features articles by today's foremost Buddhist teachers, detailed listings of over 1,000 meditation centers in the U.S. and Canada, and more.

Editor Don Morreale proclaims in the foreword that "Buddhism has gone mainstream," a popular refrain in innumerable recent articles on the subject. Morreale goes on to provide an in-depth exploration of this trend and its relationship to the ancient, multi-faceted roots of this religion.

Divided into four sections, representing different traditions, the book lists centers and meditation groups and provides addresses, phone numbers, information on the facilities, programs, and retreats offered, and, yes, even e-mail addresses. Buddhists are high-tech too, you know.

I was impressed by the sheer number of sanctuaries, especially those that have sprung up in the unlikeliest of places. For instance, the Vietnam Buddhist Center in Sugarland, Texas, a beautiful oasis, does not exactly conform to our image of a Texas landscape or way of life. But then again, if there is one thing that I've learned from this book and from my own, limited, experience with Buddhism, it is truth can be found when expectations are not met.

No, this is not a Zen koan. The answer to this, and to almost every other question about American Buddhism, can be found in the comprehensive and enlightening book, The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. This unique reference book, an expanded edition of Buddhist America, features articles by today's foremost Buddhist teachers, detailed listings of […]

Most parents are familiar with the figurative “landmines” of childhood: scraped knees, hurt feelings, unsuccessful playdates. But few, at least in the West, have to worry about actual ones. Landmines are but one of the hazards that Alexandra Fuller, author of the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), had to contend with while growing up in war-torn Rhodesia in the 1970s.

With her latest memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller returns to Africa and her endlessly fascinating family. In this follow-up, which easily stands alone, Fuller revisits familiar terrain, but with a vastly different perspective—that of someone a decade older who’s now a parent herself.

While her first memoir chronicled her Rhodesian childhood, this one focuses on the lives of her intrepid parents, Tim and Nicola Fuller, who resolved to make a life for themselves on their African farm despite personal heartbreak and political upheaval. At its core, however, Cocktail Hour is the story of Fuller’s dynamic mother, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she is sometimes known. Fuller recreates scenes of her mother bumping across treacherous terrain in a Land Rover, an Uzi lying across her lap, and striding across the land with an assortment of dogs in her wake. Fuller interviewed both her parents extensively for this book, especially Nicola, whose voice she has captured with remarkable precision.

Born “one million percent Highland Scottish” on the Isle of Skye and raised in Kenya during the 1950s, Nicola rode a donkey to school, where she endured harsh treatment at the hands of the nuns; became an accomplished equestrian at an early age; and married a dashing Englishman before settling down on a farm, first in Kenya, then Rhodesia, where the author and her sister Vanessa were born in the late 1960s. When a civil war broke out in the mid-1970s, Fuller’s tenacious parents decided to dig in rather than leave Africa. We follow the young Fullers as they traverse the continent, fleeing from war and unspeakable heartache, hopscotching from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia.

When the girls moved away as grownups (the author lives in Wyoming with her American husband, a river guide), their parents procured a fish and banana farm in Zambia, where they remain to this day. It is here that Fuller returns at the end of the book to sit under the legendary Tree of Forgetfulness, where, according to local lore, ancestors reside and villagers meet to resolve disputes.

Fuller brings Africa to life, both its natural splendor and the harsher realities of day-to-day existence, and sheds light on her parents in all their humanness—not a glaring sort of light, but the soft equatorial kind she so beautifully describes in this memoir. She renders this portrait of her family with both humor and compassion—from Nicola and Tim’s early years, awash in that fragrant Kenyan air, to their later ones in the Zambian valley where they seem to have finally found home.

RELATED CONTENT
Interview with Alexandra Fuller for Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

Most parents are familiar with the figurative “landmines” of childhood: scraped knees, hurt feelings, unsuccessful playdates. But few, at least in the West, have to worry about actual ones. Landmines are but one of the hazards that Alexandra Fuller, author of the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), had to contend with while […]

Not your Run-of-the-mill parent
Run DMC is humming a different tune these days. The rapper turned preacher and father, once famous for singing "Walk This Way," now preaches the parenting gospel, or, as we like to think of it "Parent this way." Rev Run and wife Justine Simmons, the stars of MTV's hit reality show "Run's House," share their advice for raising grounded kids in Take Back Your Family. They know a thing or two about this subject considering that they have six. Sure, there is the obligatory fancy crib that all celebrity-reality-TV families have (as in "Hogan Knows Best" or "The Osbournes"), complete with pool, tricked-out cars and electronics galore. But Rev and Justine have made it their top priority to bring their kids up with the right values and without a sense of entitlement. Rev issues a challenge to American parents with his title, and then shows you how to do it.

Solid as a rock
Rose Rock, mother of actor/comedian Chris, must have a lot of energy. She certainly has a lot of sound advice, having raised 10 kids in addition to 17 foster children. In Mama Rock's Rules, Rose discusses boundaries, discipline and how to keep it real in today's crazy culture. Helpful throughout are sections labeled "Mama's Mojo," in which Rock distills bits of wisdom into easily digestible bites. This supermom doesn't mince words, but she does suggest mincing an onion for her "Rock Style Beans and Franks" (the recipe is included along with a few other Rock family favorites). Maybe the secret to a happy childhood isn't fried chicken and biscuits, but, let's face it, comfort food helps. Both Rock and Rev Run stress an attitude of gratitude and a strong spiritual foundation. We shouted a big amen to the chapter "Reading Is Righteous." That applies to Mama Rock's book, too.

Blog baby
There's a trend afoot, or underfoot depending on your perspective, and it is this: the blogosphere and the world of publishing are beginning to overlap. Mom bloggers, and there are a lot of them, who've birthed and raised their little blogs, are now seeing them grow up into books. One of these blog babies is Jen Singer's You're a Good Mom (and your kids aren't so bad either): 14 Secrets to Finding Happiness Between Super Mom and Slacker Mom. Tips like "Don't answer the phone when the class mom calls" and "Your kid's birthday party isn't your coming-out celebration" are right on target. In the section "Wedding Vows You Wish Your Husband Had Made" we find this: "I will never pretend that I can't hear the kids at night. I'll even start to get out of bed long before you sigh angrily and throw the blankets off." This guide is for both the perfectionist mom, laminated flash cards at the ready, and the mom who genuinely believes that Pop-Tarts are a healthy breakfast choice.

The good fight
Letters to a Bullied Girl, subtitled "Messages of Healing and Hope: One Bullied Girl, Two Sisters Who Cared, and Thousands More Who Opened up Their Hearts," is both a heart-wrenching and heartwarming story. Today's bully isn't just the punk who steals your lunch money on the playground; the contemporary bully is a lot scarier, and armed with technology. Olivia Gardner, a young girl from Northern California, was relentlessly harassed by classmates, online and otherwise, for more than two years. Her story became a sort of rallying cry for anti-bullying advocates nationwide. What's uplifting about this story is what happened next – two sisters, Emily and Sarah Buder, began to write to the traumatized Olivia in an effort to help her. Though sometimes painful to read, this collection is for teachers and parents who have been touched by what has become an epidemic in schools across the country.

The food fight
If you can relate to the following insight from food writer and mother of two Betsy Block, you just might have a picky eater yourself: "I'd always thought food was pretty straightforward: you're hungry, you eat; you're not, you don't. Then I became a mother." Block's book The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World provides humor and hints for the mother who's feeling disheartened about her family's eating habits. Block tries to fight the good fight when it comes to healthy eating, and to do that she has to get creative, and we don't just mean cutting sandwiches into enticing shapes. But it's an uphill battle with a son who thinks candy is a food group and a daughter whose dietary repertoire consists only of white bread. Block's tone is casual and her writing accessible. With The Dinner Diaries, she's dished up a funny, candid portrait of a family trying to eat, and live, more consciously.

Father knows best
Parking Lot Rules & 75 Other Ideas for Raising Amazing Children by Tom Sturges reads like an informal letter to fellow parents, just one dad sharing a "lot" of advice with another. Sturges lost his father, filmmaker Preston Sturges, when he was a child, and writing this book was a way for him to heal old wounds as well as share his own experience of being a father. Rule #1 is, no surprise, The Parking Lot Rule: whenever you are in a parking lot – or any dangerous place – yell out "Parking lot rules" indicating your child should come immediately to your side. (Wouldn't "Heel!" be shorter?) This directive encapsulates Sturges' overall message, namely that remaining closely connected to your kids is of the utmost importance.

Sex sells, and kids pay the price
On a recent trip to Target I picked up what I thought was a pair of plain shorts for my six-year-old daughter (the only ones I could find that weren't obscenely short) only to discover the word "Rockstar" written in glitter across the bottom. No, thank you. I prefer clothes that are all cotton, preferably organic and made of 100-percent non-tacky material. Am I the only parent who doesn't want her daughter to look like a Poison groupie? Then why all the Bratz dolls, age-inappropriate outfits and disturbing TV images? Barbie is starting to look wholesome by comparison.

Thankfully, there is So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. This is the must-read parenting book of the bunch. In it, the authors explore how sexuality in mass media affects our children. They also offer strategies for counteracting the negative messages our kids are receiving – and not just girls. One of the many laudable things about So Sexy is that it explains how boys are targeted, too. Written by two internationally recognized experts in early childhood development and the impact of the media on children and teens, Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., So Sexy So Soon is an invaluable and practical guide for parents who are alarmed by the media's assault on girls and boys. The authors understand that we can't escape our commercial culture, but, they argue, we can be agents of change. Here they provide strategies for a counterattack, like encouraging more imaginative play and setting limits on TV and other media when your children are at one another's houses.

The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, by M. Gigi Durham, cites pop culture – and advertising in particular – as the cause of multiple societal ills. She offers helpful strategies for empowering girls to make healthy decisions about their own sexuality.

Not your Run-of-the-mill parentRun DMC is humming a different tune these days. The rapper turned preacher and father, once famous for singing "Walk This Way," now preaches the parenting gospel, or, as we like to think of it "Parent this way." Rev Run and wife Justine Simmons, the stars of MTV's hit reality show "Run's […]

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides presents readers with his valentine to the love story in My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. In the introduction, he writes, "When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name."

OK, so maybe love isn't always a bed of roses and a box of chocolates, but what kind of collection would you expect from the author of the acclaimed, offbeat novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex? Here, Eugenides chooses disparate stories from an eclectic group of writers, and the result makes for exceptional reading. Some of the pieces are challenging, like Robert Musil's "Tonka," others hilarious like George Saunders' "Jon." These two stories appearing in a collection together is pretty funny in itself, and it's just this sort of pairing that makes this anthology so remarkable. Eugenides also includes "How to Be an Other Woman," a piece by that master of human emotion, Lorrie Moore. Her first directive: "Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night." Written when she was a mere 24, the story already demonstrates Moore's expert ability to strike that fine balance between pathos and humor.

What, you ask, does a dead bird have to do with love? The unusual title of this collection comes from a 2,000-year-old poem written by the Latin poet Catullus, who, in Eugenides' words, "did more than anyone to create the form we recognize today as the love story." Inspired, at age 15, to become a writer upon reading Catullus' work for the first time, Eugenides remains besotted with it. The titular phrase refers to the death of a pet bird belonging to Catullus' beloved, a passing the poet both mourns and celebrates. Alas, Catullus' love was doomed from the start, for his tweet-heart was already married to someone else.

The title alone is intriguing enough to lure readers in, but My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead is also a book with a cause: All proceeds from its sale benefit the free youth writing programs offered by 826 Chicago. 826 Chicago is part of the network of seven writing centers across the U.S. affiliated with 826 National, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides presents readers with his valentine to the love story in My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. In the introduction, he writes, "When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. […]

Paulette Kouffman Sherman is a dating expert and psychologist with a holistic approach to finding a mate. In her practice, she noticed that her clients' negative thoughts were actually driving away the partners they desired. Therein lies the genesis of Dating from the Inside Out: How to Use the Law of Attraction in Matters of the Heart. In this guide, Sherman claims that the pathway to an enduring, fulfilling relationship begins with "setting clear intentions for love, and learning to be the partner they wish to attract." It's no secret, Sherman insists, that if you live consciously, love will follow. Meaning, know thyself and love thyself before you ask someone else's self to do the same. Anyone who's heard of that not-so-secret book The Secret will find themselves on familiar terrain here.

DESKTOP DATING
According to Leslie Oren, top Hollywood publicist and author of Fine, I'll Go Online!, finding someone you click with might be just a click away. Internet dating is no longer considered a mysterious, shady endeavor; instead it is, in this day and age, an accepted and legitimate way to meet a mate. But there are rules in this ether-world and a certain protocol to follow. Oren intends this guide to be both entertaining and informative. If anyone knows about effective marketing, which she surmises is just what the dating game is all about, it is Oren. Here she shows readers how to create an image, "the best possible version of your authentic self," for online dating. She outlines how to write the perfect online profile, why you must post a photo, what not to write in an e-mail, why the first date should only be meeting for coffee or a drink and what constitutes online dating success. If this book had a theme song, it might be something like "Lookin' for love in all the MySpace pages . . ."

LAUGHING MATTERS
There really is a guide for everything. Having survived the wilds of the dating world, you now need help navigating those early years of matrimony. In There's a Spouse in My House Peter Scott, author of Well Groomed: A Wedding Planner for What's-His-Name (And His Bride), shows us how to achieve and maintain marital bliss—well, if not bliss, at least some semblance of harmony. (If he writes a sequel, may we suggest the title There's a Crib in My Crib?) Chapter topics range from cohabitation to the challenge of staying in shape after the wedding. Scott has clearly learned a thing or two about being a good husband, judging from chapter titles such as "So, These Hand Towels are Merely Decorative and Never to Be Used, Right?" Laughter is key, the author insists, and if you need an infusion of it into your relationship, this book is a good place to start.

STRESS TEST
Now if you really want to shed some light on those issues you've just made light of, John Gray's new book, Why Mars &andamp; Venus Collide: Improving Relationships by Understanding How Men and Women Cope Differently with Stress, is the next stop on the love train. Gray's writing career was launched into the stratosphere with the publication of the original Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and the follow-up Mars/Venus books. The latest in that galaxy of bestsellers builds on Gray's previous work and examines how traditional male and female roles have evolved and how this evolution contributes to stress, which in turn affects relationships. He explores the different ways men and women approach their problems and then offers a practical program to get those planets aligned. Looking at the science of the sexes, he examines the roles testosterone and oxytocin play in our daily lives and relationships. The information therein is both thought-provoking and illuminating.

DOWN AND OUT
The aforementioned guides are bent on creating lasting partnerships, but, alas, not every love story is a success story. Thankfully, there's Ben Karlin, who offers us Things I've Learned from Women Who've Dumped Me, an homage to failed relationships. Karlin, best known as the former executive producer of both "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," knows what's funny, possibly with the exception of Neal Pollock's off-color essay involving his cat (mee-EWWWW). Here Karlin invites some of today's greatest comedic minds, or dare we say hearts, to pontificate about heartbreak. Not sentimental or touchy-feely (unless by touchy-feely you mean actual groping), this anthology offers insights from the likes of Stephen Colbert, Andy Richter and Nick Hornby.So this year, put on that novelty tee that says "I'm with Cupid" (arrow pointing sideways), and fall in love—with a tall, dark and handsome book.

Paulette Kouffman Sherman is a dating expert and psychologist with a holistic approach to finding a mate. In her practice, she noticed that her clients' negative thoughts were actually driving away the partners they desired. Therein lies the genesis of Dating from the Inside Out: How to Use the Law of Attraction in Matters of […]
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Anyone who has ever been part of a book club knows that it's not just about the books. It's about the wine and cheese and desserts and endless digressions. Sure the books are important, the glue that binds the thing together, but peel the metaphorical cover back and many stories unfold. That's because a book club is also about the people, their lives both inside and outside the group. Karen Joy Fowler, an expert observer of relationships, knows this. And in The Jane Austen Book Club, she invites readers into the living rooms—and into the lives—of her colorful characters.

There's the energetic Jocelyn, a single, middle-aged dog breeder and creator of the Jane Austen book club. ("It was essential to reintroduce Austen into your life regularly, let her look around," she says.) There is Jocelyn's best friend, Sylvia, recently separated from her husband of 30-plus years; Allegra, Sylvia's daughter, a lesbian, chic, beautiful and adventurous ("Always good to know what the lesbians were thinking about love and marriage," remarks one member); Prudie, the youngest at 20-something, married and a high school French teacher who annoys the others by lapsing into français; Bernadette, who, at the age of 67 "recently announced that she was, officially, letting herself go"; and finally, there is the token man, the enigmatic Grigg, who bravely joins the group having never read Austen.

When the novel begins, the book club is meeting for the first time at Jocelyn's house, in California's Central Valley, to discuss Emma. This quirky group meets over six months to discuss Austen's novels, one by one, and, of course, ends up discussing much more.

During a morning call to North Carolina where Fowler, a California resident, is writer-in-residence at a small college, the author's voice has a warmth suited to her Southern surroundings. The obvious question, of course, is why Austen? What makes this 19th-century mannerist still compelling today?

"I've always loved Austen. I read her books over and over again," Fowler says. "The reasons I've been a big fan have changed pretty dramatically over the years. When I first read her I just responded to the romance and the happy endings, and it took me several readings and several years of my own life to realize that they're not actually all that romantic and that a lot of the happy endings are problematic."

The idea for the novel came to Fowler when she attended a friend's book signing and saw a sign that read "The Jane Austen Book Club." She assumed that it was a novel, and upon realizing it was, in fact, a book club, felt disappointed. Being the enterprising sort, she decided to write the book herself. (So much for her claim that she "completely lacks self-discipline.")

Don't, however, let the title intimidate you. Even if that copy of Pride and Prejudice hasn't left your bookshelf since college, you'll still find it easy to slip into the lives of Fowler's characters. "I hope that it is very accessible for those who haven't read her at all or haven't read her recently." It is. Though Austen's novels themselves obviously play a key role in Fowler's book and provide much of the subtext, Fowler's characters are the heart and soul of the story. Her favorite character is the group's oldest member, Bernadette. Not at first sight your typical wise woman, she comes to occupy a special place in the club. She's by far the most amusing of the bunch, and proves the point, so often made in Austen's work, that appearances can be deceiving, and first impressions aren't always accurate.

Austen's presence resonates throughout the novel. There are the awkward dances of courtship, the social gaffes and comedic misunderstandings; there is also irony and humor. (Austenites will immediately recognize a library fundraiser as the modern day equivalent of an English formal ball.) Also like Austen, Fowler possesses a genuine affection for her characters and an understanding of their complexity.

Fowler says laughingly, "One of the things I love about Austen is that her work is so layered and complex that she just gets better every time I look at her. The smarter I get, the smarter she looks." The same could be said for Fowler's novel. The plot may seem pretty straightforward, but beneath the surface, love affairs blossom, friendships hang in the balance, and grief coexists with joy. In other words, life happens.

So if, as the narrator believes, we all have "a private Austen," who is Fowler's? She says her Austen is "very, very different than when I first read her. But the more I've become a writer and the more I think about writing and I look at books in terms of how they're put together, the more I'm interested in her as a writer. One of the things that appeals to me now is the kind of incredible cheerfulness with which she appears to have collected all the criticism of her friends and relatives of the middle books. She's got lists of people's responses, and some of them are just withering. But she seems to have enjoyed that and enjoyed the fact that people were reading her." It is in this spirit that Fowler includes more than 20 pages of criticism, contemporary and from Austen's day, in the back of the book, along with clever, tongue-in-cheek "Questions for Discussion" posed by the characters themselves.

At present, Fowler is busy teaching and working on another novel, which she's been kicking around for a couple of years. She's still at the "too afraid to talk about it stage," but does confide that it has a chimpanzee in it. From Austen to apes—if anyone can make the transition, Fowler can. The author of Sister Noon (a PEN/Faulkner finalist), she also writes historical and speculative fiction.

Though Fowler takes Austen as her inspiration, she clearly possesses her own unique voice and gift for storytelling. She shares Austen's keen eye for the subtle dynamics at play in relationships, and she proves Austen's relevance even now. So don't be afraid to pluck that old Austen paperback from the shelf. Just make sure you've got The Jane Austen Book Club in hand, too.

Katherine H. Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Anyone who has ever been part of a book club knows that it's not just about the books. It's about the wine and cheese and desserts and endless digressions. Sure the books are important, the glue that binds the thing together, but peel the metaphorical cover back and many stories unfold. That's because a book […]
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Relationships are complex things—especially those of the familial sort. Defining yourself within and apart from parents and siblings can be a life's work, at turns painful and liberating. This is one of the themes that Nancy Reisman, an award-winning writer of short fiction, explores in her beautiful debut novel, The First Desire.

During a midday phone call from Ann Arbor, where Reisman teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan, the author discusses home, family and the ties that bind. Her manner is easy, and the voice that floats over the line sounds both soft-spoken and assured.

Though she currently resides in Ann Arbor, Reisman's home, and the setting of her novel, is upstate New York. Reisman is acutely aware of the pull of home the gravitational force that it exerts on our lives. "Isn't that true of places where you grow up? I think the mark they make on you seems so distinctive, even compared to other places where I've lived for long stretches of time," she says.

It is the tension, the paradox the longing for home, and the longing to leave that she writes about so eloquently, and with such keen insight. "It's a huge conflict, certainly for [the] characters, but I think it's something that a lot of people experience at one moment or another in their lives," she says.

The novel begins on a glorious summer morning in Buffalo. The year is 1929. Sadie Cohen, now the married Sadie Feldstein, is enjoying the quiet and solitude of the early hour until her brother Irving arrives with some disturbing news—their eldest sister, Goldie, has disappeared. With this event, we are drawn into the life of the Cohen family, and into the life of the changing city itself. Reisman brilliantly evokes another era as she takes us through the Great Depression, World War II and its aftermath. She tells the story through different perspectives—those of the Cohen sisters, their brother Irving and their father's mistress—and forms these into a seamless narrative. That she accomplishes this ambitious feat so successfully is a testament to her talent.

Reisman says she chose this period in which to set her novel, in part, because it's a moment when the family and the collective unit was very, very important. The family matriarch has already died when The First Desire opens, but her presence looms large over the novel and in the lives of those she left behind.

"I think the mothers are really the secret heart of the book," she says. Reisman is quick to add that, although men have an important role as fathers, she's interested in "how [the maternal bond] shapes peoples' lives."

Reisman has a strong relationship with her own mother, like her mother before her. Perhaps, then, this closeness is something inherited, passed down through generations. "Whatever the reason, it's something that has been really vital in my own life," says Reisman. She is interested in how women negotiate relationships "with their mothers, their relationships with their daughters, with their sons, all of these family relationships . . . and the daily tragedies of the lack of connection. In some ways the power of those relationships is mysterious, but it's undeniable."

The life of a city fascinates Reisman perhaps as much as her characters' lives. The Buffalo Reisman knew in the 1970s has suffered since its time of economic prosperity earlier in the 20th century. In order to create an accurate portrait of the era, Reisman spent time in the Buffalo area, visiting public libraries and historical societies, reading newspapers, menus and the city pages (phone directories of the day) and studying photographs. She also interviewed people who knew the city at that time.

"Though the novel takes place in another time, the themes are universal. The characters are in part bound by social mores of the time and the place, but they also transcend them. That mix of continuity and change is something that I'm really interested in exploring and I don't know that it can ever be definitively nailed down. I think it's something that shifts."

Which brings us to the title, The First Desire, and the implications it has for Reisman's characters. She illustrates desire in its many forms—the longing to be known and understood, sexual desire, the wish for a life not led. The title, says Reisman, "does have all these other resonances . . . I do have that association to a kind of maternal connection or familial connection and a kind of idyllic one. I think for Goldie, it's the sort of fantasy of being alone with her mother and the happiness of that and the peace of that. That's the one that's most powerful for me."

Reisman may be a first-time novelist, but she's an acclaimed author of short fiction; her collection House Fires won the 1999 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 2001. When we ask if writing a novel presents a unique challenge, Reisman laughs. "Yes. The simple answer is yes. The challenge was simply scale, working with so many characters, such a span of time."

Reisman says she joked with friends, "Okay, the next novel is going to be one point of view: My Summer Vacation." Whatever follows, readers will be clamoring for it after a taste of Reisman's remarkable first novel. In luminous, unsparing prose she allows us to inhabit the inner world of her characters, experiencing their moments of joy and the way old wounds can inhabit the current moment. She understands the effect of things gone unsaid and that we all are made of many selves, some secreted from view. Reisman knows that home, though often sweet, can be sorrowful, too, and that our family relationships inform who we are, are bound up in the process by which we come to know ourselves.

Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

Relationships are complex things—especially those of the familial sort. Defining yourself within and apart from parents and siblings can be a life's work, at turns painful and liberating. This is one of the themes that Nancy Reisman, an award-winning writer of short fiction, explores in her beautiful debut novel, The First Desire. During a midday phone […]
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Meet your new best friend Sophie Applebaum of Surrey, Pennsylvania. She’s smart, insightful and outrageously funny. She’s also both self-assured and self-effacing (a rare and delightful combination). In other words, she’s someone you’d like to spend some time with and get to know better. Sophie is the latest creation of best-selling author Melissa Bank, of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing fame. Like that runaway hit, The Wonder Spot is the kind of book that is so laugh-out-loud hilarious you’ll quote it to friends (wishing you could take credit for the witty one-liners). Composed of story-like sections, each focusing on an important point in Sophie’s life, The Wonder Spot displays wisdom as well as humor.

Speaking to Bank from her New York apartment, with her dog whining and the sounds of the city in the background, it’s hard not to think of her as interchangeable with Sophie. Bank has the same easy way about her, the same throaty laugh, that a reader imagines Sophie might have. After the huge success of Girls’ Guide, Bank says she felt an obligation not to disappoint readers with her second novel. My publisher didn’t pressure me, I wasn’t worried in the usual way. What worried me was that I’d earned the trust of readers, and I didn’t want to let people down, she says. With her gift for capturing the moment, Bank has returned with a book, dare I say, even better than the much-loved Girls’ Guide. When we’re first introduced to Sophie, she’s a preteen who already stands out from the pack. Bank captures perfectly what it feels like to be an outsider looking in. As the book progresses, over the course of two decades, we watch Sophie evolve as she comes into adulthood, and into her own. After attending an unimpressive college (she’s bright but not a stellar student), Sophie moves to New York where she teaches herself how to type, a Herculean endeavor, and lands a job in publishing and later advertising. She’s not the most ambitious employee, which somehow makes her even more endearing. (She tells a friend, The good thing about being nowhere in your career is that you can do it anywhere. ) We travel with her as she navigates the often perilous terrain of work and relationships, and relationships that need work. The Wonder Spot is as much the story of Sophie’s family as it is her own, and we see the Applebaums weather life’s ups and downs, experiencing their share of grief and happiness. Part of Sophie’s search for identity involves seeing her parents as people, apart from their role as mother and father. As an adolescent, Sophie feels that her mother is uniquely, painfully annoying. When being teased by the cool girls at school, known as the Foxes, Sophie says, I’d known my mother couldn’t help; she pronounced clique the French way, CLEEK, and would just tell me that the Foxes were jealous and ignore them. It is only later that she comes to know and appreciate her mother in a different way.

Generally girls and women are so much easier on their fathers than they are on their mothers, Bank observes. Sophie wants to be more like her father than her mother. Her father is so self-possessed . . . I don’t know, but I imagine that girls always have felt like they’d do anything not to be their mothers. In my generation there was almost a social mandate not to be like your mother, she says.

Of marriage, Bank muses, It’s not a goal anymore for women the way it once was. I think a lot of women still really do want to get married, but I think a lot of women also just want to find a good place in the world. Your life certainly isn’t over if you don’t get married. Sophie’s grandmothers wouldn’t agree and endlessly harasses Sophie about settling down, in scenes that are some of the funniest in the book. When asked if she was drawing from her own life, Bank says emphatically, I absolutely am. Grandmothers are supposed to be just loving bundles of appreciation; mine were nightmares. Bank also writes with sensitivity about relationships with friends. We see some pass through Sophie’s life while others stay. There’s no real mechanism to end a friendship, Bank says. It’s not like you break up easily with a friend. You both decide, well, we’re moving on. There’s something so uneasy about ending a friendship, especially with a childhood friend. One of the many refreshing things about The Wonder Spot is that it doesn’t follow a formula girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, boy and girl get married and live happily ever after. It’s more open-ended and true to life. The title of the novel refers to a Brooklyn diner that Sophie visits, but Bank was inspired by a postcard she came across almost 20 years ago. It was a card from the ’30s picturing a bench with a sign above it shaped like a glider, and the words Wonder Spot written on it. The sign offered an invitation to sit down in that place.

Bank explains, I like the whole concept of a wonder spot,’ and I feel like a lot of the stories are about that. There’s something that happens, or a revelation, where Sophie sees herself or sees what’s going on, or realizes something, or has a feeling of just belonging on the planet. She goes through so much trouble, those wonder spots’ are sort of what she gets as a reward. Bank notes that, throughout the novel, Sophie doesn’t have a religious identity, or one she gets from work, or from a boyfriend. It’s not about looking at yourself from the outside but about being yourself, the author says. It’s also about the connections we make with others, whether it be a family member, friend or romantic interest.

The Wonder Spot proves to be an apt title in another sense: Bank’s perfect marksmanship, her ability to hit the bull’s-eye, sometimes with just one turn of phrase, in her portraits of Sophie and those around her. It’s a pleasure to meet them all, especially Sophie, a keen observer of life’s absurdities and truths. Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock.

Meet your new best friend Sophie Applebaum of Surrey, Pennsylvania. She’s smart, insightful and outrageously funny. She’s also both self-assured and self-effacing (a rare and delightful combination). In other words, she’s someone you’d like to spend some time with and get to know better. Sophie is the latest creation of best-selling author Melissa Bank, of […]
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Kaye Gibbons’ voice sounds much as one might expect from a North Carolina born-and-raised girl. There’s a lilt unique to that area of the South, the elongated vowels and the tendency to turn one-syllable words into two. It’s a beautiful voice, mellifluous and made for storytelling.

She stops our conversation before it starts, saying something about a flight being late, needing to take her shoes off and settle in a bit before continuing. When she returns to the phone she admits to lying about the brief delay, but promises not to lie again during our interview (words an interviewer is always heartened to hear). Gibbons then confesses the reason for excusing herself: to tape Dr. Phil. Turns out, Dr. Phil’s advice can come in handy when on a book tour, what with his straight talk on boundaries and learning how to say no without guilt, lessons sometimes hard for a gracious Southern woman to learn.

At the moment, Gibbons is in her New York apartment, many a mile from her other home in North Carolina. In Raleigh, I do laundry, and here I do literature. Among her many accomplishments is a lesser-known honor: receiving a knighthood from the French, a shocking experience (FYI: Sharon Stone was knighted in the same year). The knighthood certificate, along with some Southern folk art, adorns the walls of Gibbons’ apartment, her very own writers’ retreat. Here, she can indulge her Diet Coke addiction and Dr. Phil habit, and also get down to the business of writing.

"Crafting the best literature I can" is an all-consuming occupation for Gibbons, who burst onto the literary scene in 1987 with the publication of Ellen Foster, an astonishing little novel about a spunky, unloved 11-year-old that earned her legions of fans and became a modern-day classic (not to mention an Oprah pick). Gibbons was only 26 years old at the time, in college and the mother of a small child. Oh, yes, and she wrote the novel in just six weeks. Whether you’ve known Ellen from the beginning or haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting her, you will find that Gibbons’ long-awaited follow-up, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, is a rare gem of a book, one that marks the return of one of the South’s scrappiest, most endearing heroines.

In the original novel, Ellen pours out the harrowing story of a home life so horrible she is forced to find her own foster family. When we meet Ellen again in The Life, she’s 15, that pivotal age in adolescence. Though now part of a happy home, she still must sift through the wreckage of her past and come to terms with the death of her mother. While there are heart-wrenching moments, there is a generous dose of humor, too. The book opens with a letter from Ellen to the president of Harvard University, requesting early admittance. She writes, in typical Ellen fashion, " One of my mottoes is that nothing you think, feel, or do should be watered down, so when I decided to try out for college, Harvard sounded like the only place to be." She continues her story in the first person, addressing the reader directly, as if picking up the thread of a conversation she began long ago. Gibbons also introduces new characters and fleshes out those near and dear; there is the devoted Stuart, a tender-hearted boy smitten with Ellen, and, of course, there is Starletta, Ellen’s old neighbor and a constant in her life.

So what was it like for Gibbons to revisit her debut novel? Had the seeds of a second book been germinating all these years? Gibbons tells us it took time to rediscover Ellen’s voice, but when she did, the voice was loud and clear. Ellen is still trying to find her place in the world, and she says at one point, I didn’t know how to feel at home out in the world or at home either. "That comes from my heart so directly," says Gibbons. "Ellen’s task is what mine was, which was to learn how to be comfortable inside. That’s what you carry around with you." She doesn’t consider The Life a sequel, but rather the next book in a series, something akin to checking in with an old friend from time to time. Eventually, she intends to write six or more books about Ellen’s life, to grow her up in fiction. As writer and character evolve over time, they will find new themes to explore and challenges to meet.

GIbbons has already begun the third book, in which Ellen "attends a prestigious Ivy League college and runs into hard-core prejudice and [has] to discover how hard she’s going to work to prove herself." One of the reasons Gibbons enjoys writing from Ellen’s point of view is that she gets to go back in time and say things I wasn’t able to say. "I get to live twice in some ways or correct mistakes, and she can do things I was too timid to do. I just felt like I needed that girl in my life." A particularly poignant scene in the The Life shows Ellen sorting through a box of her mother’s things, touching the artifacts of her former life. Gibbons conveys this scene with a tenderness untarnished by sentimentality. Coming to terms with losing a parent through suicide is something Gibbons knows well.  "Before I started it, I knew I needed closure on my mother’s suicide. I wondered if writing this book would help, and it has . . . it’s not a constant in my life anymore."  For a while, Gibbons thought about trying to write a book about her mother, but it was just too close. Though she didn’t expect to at the outset, Gibbons began to heal through writing in Ellen’s voice. "Ellen did it for me,"  she says. "I’d be a fool not to keep revisiting her. It is, above all, Ellen’s distinct voice that will make readers want to return to her story. I’d like for her voice to be recognizable when she and Starletta are 80 and roaming around Bali or Tahiti somewhere,"  Gibbons says with a laugh. Now that, we’ve got to stick around to see.

Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

Kaye Gibbons’ voice sounds much as one might expect from a North Carolina born-and-raised girl. There’s a lilt unique to that area of the South, the elongated vowels and the tendency to turn one-syllable words into two. It’s a beautiful voice, mellifluous and made for storytelling. She stops our conversation before it starts, saying something […]
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Tademy plumbs family history for glimpses of a violent past Lalita Tademy’s journey to Red River began long before she left the corporate world and her prestigious job as vice president of Sun Microsystems. It began before she wrote her much acclaimed debut novel Cane River, which became a bestseller and an Oprah Book Club selection in 2001. It began when she was born a Tademy, a name that carried with it responsibility and inspired respect, a name that originated in the Nile Delta and was reclaimed by her ancestors.

To say that Lalita Tademy’s family history is rich and complex would be an understatement. As anyone who read her first novel Cane River knows, the author comes from a long line of strong women. In her debut, Tademy traced her family history on her mother’s side. Now, in Red River she turns her attention to the Tademy men and relates a disturbing, and until now, obscure chapter of American history. On one of her research trips to Louisiana, Tademy stumbled upon something that would alter the course of her genealogical research, and her life. She found herself in the small town of Colfax, near the center of the state, standing before a monument dedicated to three white men, Heroes, who died in the Colfax Riot of 1873. There is no mention on the monument of the 100-plus black men and boys who were slaughtered or their families who were terrorized and displaced afterward. No mention of how, on that Easter Sunday, white supremacists massacred blacks as they tried to protect their hard-won voting rights by taking a stand in the courthouse.

During a phone call to her California home, Tademy talked about making this shocking discovery. She says that initially, she was angry and perplexed; it was far removed from any way of living that she knew from her life in California. This is some anomaly, a wrinkle in the fabric of American life, Tademy recalls telling herself. She says, I did not want to be disrupted from my own life . . . [it was] something I would have preferred not to have happened. She felt strongly, however, that the task had fallen to her to tell this story and offer a different perspective on what took place on that fateful day and during the weeks that followed.

I could imagine the time, and that is what I try to do when I write. I try to transport both myself and a reader into the time . . . not as if you are looking backward but really as if you are there. With her powerful writing and attention to detail, Tademy accomplishes this, which makes Red River both a hard book to read and a hard book to put down. It is, at turns, heart-wrenching and transcendent.

Trying to get myself into that space was difficult, it still rankled, Tademy says, but as painful as the process was, she felt it was imperative for her to write about this episode in Reconstruction history. As Jackson Tademy, one of the heroes of Red River , tells his grandson from his deathbed, Names of men you never gonna know lay buried in the ground for you. . . . No matter how much time pass . . . you not allowed to turn your face to the wall, throw up your hands, forget. We need reminding, says Tademy. Younger generations don’t know that there was a time when we couldn’t vote. Getting information about what happened during and after the battle turned out to be more problematic than Tademy expected. She thought it would be as simple as asking people, but no one wanted to talk about it. She did, however, have a wealth of family stories to draw upon which were lovingly shared by surviving relatives. Tademy also did a lot of research in the public sphere, drawing on newspaper accounts and official documents, which, of course, were written by segregationists. She says it was a challenge trying to recreate a story, events, where there were certain things that you knew, and filling in all of the shading. Asked if she came across any surprises during her research, Tademy says that she made a jarring revelation. Late in the process, too late to include it in the book, the author discovered that her maternal great-great-grandfather was at the siege of the courthouse, fighting on the white side. Narcisse, who appeared in Cane River, is one of Tademy’s white ancestors who was a slave holder and a complicated figure. It was a challenge to try to write this and keep multiple points of view, she says. Narcisse did such harm and good at the same time. Though Red River focuses on the men in the Tademy and Smith families, the story begins with the voice of Polly, Sam Tademy’s wife. Tademy says Polly’s voice came easily to her. It was there, it was very strong, she was a strong young woman, and she was a strong old woman. She stresses that though women occupy a less central role in this book than in the last, they are there, they are the rock. When Tademy left the corporate world and began work on her genealogy just over 10 years ago, she assumed it was a singular personal attachment to finding out these stories. She was gratified to discover that so many readers would be drawn to her stories. I do think this is American history, and I am very proud to be able to offer American history with a different point of view, she says.

Though the characters in the book endure great suffering, Tademy was determined not to portray them as victims. One of the things I was mindful of was that I did not want there to be a victim mentality in this book, because these were people who went through unbelievable hardship and obstacles and they kept going. And they not only survived, they thrived. Her novel reveals the horror of racial violence, but also the strength of the human spirit. Particularly when it’s family pulling family and community pulling community, you get beyond, you move forward, and you get to the point where you can rise. It’s a book about a tough period of time, but it’s very redemptive to me, and I draw an enormous amount of strength from these people. Tademy’s readers will undoubtedly draw strength from them, too. Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock.

Tademy plumbs family history for glimpses of a violent past Lalita Tademy’s journey to Red River began long before she left the corporate world and her prestigious job as vice president of Sun Microsystems. It began before she wrote her much acclaimed debut novel Cane River, which became a bestseller and an Oprah Book Club […]

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