REVIEWING

Wench

By Dolen Perkins-Valdez


Amistad/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers | 2010 | 290 pp

Reviewed by Janet Garber


author picure

What Time Hath Wrought


As bleak and “broken” as our prospects may appear in 2010, nary a one of us, I wager, Black or White, wants to return to the pre-Civil War era depicted in Wench. Nor do we have a hankering for the 1963 Mississippi of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, when relations between the races were only marginally better. So the first thought on reading Ms. Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel is inevitably, “how horrible,” and then, right behind it: “look how far we’ve come.”

Perkins-Valdez brings home the horror of slavery, and its very personal toll, by shadowing the day-to-day lives of four female slaves from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Georgia as they meet up on “vacation” over a period of several years. They have come to Tawawa, a resort hotel in free state Ohio that winks at slave owners bringing their “wenches” along with them, ostensibly to “cook” or “mend clothes” while the slaves and masters cohabit openly in cabins fanning out from the main house. Often the women arrive in chains.

The masters relax by fishing, camping and hunting and their slaves keep busy doing chores at the hotel and venturing out shyly into the neighboring woods. We share in the stark realities of these women and see why some will risk the run for freedom while others are held captive by more than just chains.

The story sputters a bit in the beginning or maybe just catches us a bit off balance. The opening chapter introduces an electrifying character, new to the hotel, Mawu, redheaded, pushy, and outspoken:

“What kind of woman you think I is?” Mawu folded her arms across her chest.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Lizzie said. . . .

“”Well, I can sho see what kind of womens y’all is.”

Sweet let out a high-pitched belch. “What?”

“You heard me. Y’all ain’t talking about nothing, ain’t doing nothing. You probably run behind your men’s all day sweeping up they dirt.”

Well, that about sums it up (!) and we look with relish to Mawu to be the showstopper: a Huck Finn-ish, prototypical American trailblazer, and rugged individualist. But no, abruptly the focus switches and the real star is revealed to be Lizzie, a young slave of some status – at home she is allowed to live in the Big House with the master and his wife rather than the cramped slave quarters.

Singled out early by her master, “culled from the herd,” she becomes his mistress at 14, bearing him the children his own wife is unable to give him. Better fed and better dressed than the other slaves on the plantation, she is able to be with her children and get an occasional pass to see her sister. She believes the relationship she has with her master is one of Love.

From this point on, the four slaves are seen through Lizzie’s eyes; Mawu, who loathes her brutal master, serves as a catalyst and prime mover. Sweet, and pregnant with her sixth child, she seems, like Lizzie, to have a relatively benign master. The older Reenie is stuck in an incestuous union with a hated half-brother who occasionally rents out her “services.” Flashbacks take us pretty much through the life of Lizzie; we learn only little bits and pieces about the history of the others.

What is clear is that the bonds between the women are what sustain them through the crises (rapes, fires, lashings, suicides, deaths, and cruelties) and, to some extent, the perceived kindnesses of the masters. In every coloured person, Reenie says, is a survivor; the women must battle to choose life over despair.

As the women return year after year to Tawawa (a real-life resort that catered to both Northerners and Southerners), the suspense lies in seeing what actions, if any, they will take to fight back against constant humiliation, suffering and loss.

We watch them grow, not always in ways that we would like them to. By choosing as the protagonist Lizzie, rather than Mawu, Perkins-Valdez has achieved a subtler book than the one we might have expected, with more unexpected truths. She avoids sensationalism by mercifully placing most of the violent action offstage.

This discretion deepens the emotional impact, especially in our 21st century world, which is so quick to graphically depict every wound, and bathe in the glare of every perversity.

Instead, we get to study Lizzie at length and watch as she slowly catches on to her situation - the limits of her master’s love for her, and the limits of her ability to effect a change in her environment or destiny.

We know less about the other characters, as their portraits are a trifle thin and often their motivations are not fully understood. Some plot lines are not followed through on – is there a suggestion of a romance between Philip and Mawu? Is the Quaker woman part of the Underground Railroad? Does Lizzie’s master really care about her and their children or are they just “property” that he’s proud to possess? What are the prospects for Lizzie as she ages? Perhaps the author was unsure how to weave some of the subplots into her main story. Or, maybe this seeming fault is reflective of life itself, where we don’t always learn the answers to all of our questions.

There are moments of ineffable sadness in this book. We want to push characters such as Lizzie, Mawu, Reenie and Sweet to take action before it’s too late. Reluctantly, we reconsider how complex their situation is and how elusive any escape might be.

While Wench lacks the shock, scope, and the poetry of a masterpiece like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it is not afraid to dwell upon an aspect of slavery rarely talked about – the human interactions that took place between man and woman, owner and slave, and their many offspring, who had no clear place in a black and white world.

It asks us to examine whether love can exist where such inequalities govern, and convinces us that mutual affection, at least, did. Some slave-owners were undoubtedly kinder than others, but a jailer is a jailer is a jailer…

We know how the story of slavery turns out – there’s a whisper here of abolition in the air, though no indication that a full civil war is due to erupt. Lizzie, reluctant heroine that she is, finally takes responsibility for herself and the consequences of her decisions. Before our eyes, she grows up as a woman, though not in the way anyone thought she would. Surprise! The author tells us a story and not the one we thought we signed on for.

Perkins-Valdez has given us a wonderfully thoughtful, evocative look at how people lived in the States before the Civil War, how they interacted with one another and how they felt about themselves and others. Wench is a great companion piece to Stockett’s The Help – a century apart, yet the divisions between the races still seem to be set in stone.

But maybe the lesson we should all be learning is that things do evolve in the right direction, but so slowly that we almost cannot perceive the movement. That comes later, when writers and artists look back and capture for us the flickering images.

Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.



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REVIEWING

Wild Child

By T. C. Boyle


Viking, 2010 | 304 pp | $25.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


tc boyle

One could say that the stories in T.C. Boyle’s new collection, Wild Child, are all about forces of nature. There are mudslides, a feral child, wild cats, and rain—lots of rain. But other themes emerge in these stories as well—the fragility of our lives and how off-kilter they can become in the blink of an eye; the mad desire for bodily perfection and the way we navigate the world with myriad choices at every turn.

Boyle’s characters veer between being narcissistic and heroic. They stand knee-deep in their inner dramas, barely leaving them time to observe the outer world until they are forced to acknowledge it. Although the “hero” in La Conchita drives a vehicle which carries the liver for an organ transplant in his truck, he does not seem “noble,” but rather cocky and egotistical, as he swerves recklessly down the highway. It is not until he is stalled by a terrible accident that his compassion and humanity is revealed. Even then—when a woman whose husband and baby are buried in the mud begs him to help—he is, at first, a bemused outsider, viewing the situation with a sort of blasé humor. This runs through his mind: “…she was going to grieve, this hot young woman, this girl in the muddy shorts and soaked-through top.” Maybe this is not humor, but distance—the distance to notice the woman’s attractiveness, even during this natural disaster. However, he soon begins to claw maniacally at the mud, drenching himself and forgetting himself in the process.

In these stories, the collective unconscious is more present than the individual. Boyle is more interested in capturing the zeitgeist, rather than plumbing the nuances of the individual soul. Although the characters are given names and several stories are written from the first person, the characters tend to blur together, their problems emblematic of our times.

Boyle’s characters seem to expect a sort of uniformity of thought, and are surprised when the opposite view is presented to them. His characters are left-leaning, nature loving, recycling folk who are not exactly purists, but who expect others to follow suit, as if this perspective is universal and obvious. One of the strengths of these stories are when these characters—men and women alike—are forced by circumstance to confront characters with opposite points of view.

This jarring of sensibilities adds wonderful tension and verve to the stories. For example, in Bulletproof, the main character is amazed that his old high school is embroiled over a discussion of teaching Creationism in school. As he stands in an auditorium, crushed against the masses, (described as wet, fecund, excited), he finds himself next to a pretty woman. He just assumes, for no particular reason that she is on his “side,” rather than on the side of the “Bible thumpers” he so disparages. However, this provocative woman turns out to be the mother of a prim, “Bible thumping girl” who speaks up at the meeting. Unknowingly, the narrator even murmurs, “Jesus freaks” to the woman. Later, after helping the woman with her car, he begins to date this “Jesus freak.” The narrator is startled to be with someone with such opposing views, yet is also tantalized.

Similarly, in Question 62, a beautiful, melancholy story, the protagonist, a night nurse verging on the alcoholic, sleeps with a gun-hungry soul who shows up at her trailer trying to get her to sign on to his “position,” which is to make it legal to hunt cats. The woman, who is a vegetarian and whose husband was killed by a gun, is repulsed by the notion of killing cats, yet she still sleeps with this creepy stranger. Meantime in the story, her sister in California is “hunting” for snails in her garden, smashing them nonchalantly, when she sees a tiger stalking in her garden. The sweep of this story—from a tiger tripping over the grass to the cats lurking under a shaky trailer in the northeast during a rainstorm, is full of earthly delights and leaves the reader with questions, rather than answers—what are we responsible for, what are we capable of, when does our yearning gain power over our heart?

I have always been oddly drawn to desperate, morally suspect characters in literature, those who flounder and fall due to their own greed and short sightedness, such as Madame Bovary and poor George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie.

The scoundrel featured in The Lie also delighted me. In this story, Lonnie, a film editor, calls in sick only to say his daughter is terribly ill. Then, during the day while his wife, Clover, struggles away (his daughter is at the babysitter’s) he drinks and hangs out. Who doesn’t want to take the day off, and who hasn’t lied? And yet Lonnie takes things farther than most, continuing to lie, continuing to drink, and eventually entrapping himself. This story is full of skilled irony and dark humor. I wasn’t surprised to read on T. C. Boyle’s website that this is the story he reads when on tour. Part warning, part farce, I would love to be in the audience listening to this one.

Although the gist of the stories explores the outer world rather than the inner, Boyle’s range is still remarkable. He writes from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl, an older doctor, a woman in her mid-thirties seeking Botox treatment, and two historical figures—the 1950’s singer Johnny Bandon and Victor, a feral child in the title story, Wild Child.

It would be remiss of me if I did not discuss the story Wild Child. This story is about the life of a young child who was abandoned by his parents and survived by foraging for berries and old potatoes. Boyle writes in such a way that evokes great sympathy for his character. Although the boy has a kind-hearted doctor caring for him, he cannot be tamed of his wild ways and he continues to horde his food, defecate on the floor, and he cannot learn a language.

Like the “freak” child in Sin Dolor, all of France seems attracted to the “savage,” the “boy beast.” Wild Child shows how we are both enthralled and repulsed by what we deem wild. We want to be close to nature and perhaps nature can save us; on the other hand, nature can be a nasty force, uncontrollable, unpredictable and scary.

When the Wild Child doesn’t become the young genteel gentleman the state had hoped for, he is essentially abandoned. If we can abandon such a boy, what else on this earth can we so carelessly use and abandon? In this collection, Boyle discusses these timely issues—what we can save, what we can give up, and what will always be sacredly wild.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.



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REVIEWING

Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim

edited and with an introduction by Mark Cohen


Foreward by Dan Wakefield

Syracuse University Press | 236 pp

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


seymour krim

Missing a Beat is an apt title for the recently released collection of essays by Seymour Krim, a Beat writer and early acolyte of New Journalism, who has been lost to contemporary readers in the inevitable winnowing down of literature that occurs as time passes and the wheat is separated from the chaff. By no means does Krim ever climb to the level of Mailer or Ginsberg (although his bluntly titled essay Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head! shows how much he longed for those heights), but nevertheless, there are more than a few kernels of his work that are worth preserving for future generations.

A product of New York City’s Jewish Washington Heights neighborhood, Krim migrated down to the Village early in the 1940s. Divorced and lacking much biological family—his father died of a heart attack and his mother threw herself off a six-story building when he was ten—Krim hurled himself wholeheartedly into the emerging Beat scene. Predominantly a freelance writer, over the years, he wrote for such diverse publications as the New York Herald Tribune, Partisan Review, and, most importantly, the Village Voice. In 1961, he published the sole book of his career, Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, a collection of essays—the genre that Krim had come to accept as his home.

Editor Mark Cohen has done an excellent job of giving some shape to a broad swath of Krim’s work, dividing the essays into the categories of “Intellectuals,” “Whites and Blacks,” “Success and Failure,” and “Jews.” Even these distinctions blur, however, in the individual essays, given the fluidity with which Krim approaches each subject and, indeed, the art of writing itself.

This fluidity may seem more commonplace to the contemporary reader who has been weaned on a steady diet of blogs, but in Krim’s day, this first-person, relativistic approach to writing about the human experience was profoundly revolutionary. The term “New Journalism” was coined during the 1960s to describe this type of writing. One of its hallmarks was its denial of journalistic objectivity. Often penned in the first person, New Journalism emphasized that its writers did not merely observe a scene, but were themselves in the thick of it, interacting and bringing their preconceptions and idiosyncrasies into play in producing an account of the events. Ultimately, this very postmodern perspective led to a blurring of the lines between traditional journalism and fiction writing.

Krim’s essays show no confusion between reality and fiction, but he does employ narrative structures to drive his essays. One of the most representative passages in the collection can be found in Milton Klonsky, My Favorite Intellectual, in which he describes his initial interactions with Klonsky as two literal cats sniffing each other out. The literary technique belongs to fiction, but no other method of retelling could so neatly sum up the personalities of narrator and narrated, nor the atmosphere of the times.

It is, however, this extreme subjectivity and passion for elaboration that can hurt the quality of Krim’s writing the most. Krim readily acknowledges his disproportionate focus on himself—in Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head! he notes his “sober insistence on being my self, using only the ‘I’ as a literary credo.”

There is an honesty in the approach of laying bare that part of human experience that one has trodden the most thoroughly. But when an author writes about externals and others, there is only so much that he or she can ever know. Thus the “other” imposes a sort of structure on a piece of writing: a finite set of knowledge exists, to be arranged as the author best sees fit.

When writing about the self, however, Krim knows everything there is to know, and because his self-knowledge is so deep, and his ideas so plentiful, his writing easily topples into excess. His context, too, in the midst of the Beat movement (never known for its restraint) can lead to reeling passages in which he appears to forget his reader.

Consider the following description of the title man from “Milton Klonsky”: “…there was no waste, and when you were walking or jiving with him and heard him throw out his verbal steel that his mind manufactured in its ceaseless Pittsburgh foundry, you were aced, man, it went through you like a blade, its concentrated truth made a standard from which you could no more squirm or dodge than JC from his cross.”

There is simply so much going on in this brief passage that it is hard to believe that Krim approached his writing with any sense of discrimination.

Of the essays of the first section, What’s This Cat’s Story is easily both the best and the worst in this respect. Here, his excess is on full display, but the deliberation with which he employs it signifies an authorial control over his creation. As the essay tracks his gradual development as a writer, his prose becomes honed and streamlined, creating a neat parallel between language and subject. Near the end of the piece, the simplicity of his sentences packs a heavy punch: absent the verbal fireworks, his profundity suddenly shines through. In one poignant moment, he notes that despite the extravagance of the Beat scene, even then, “the desperate and often simple needs of the soul went on as they always do, under and quite disproportionate to the big ideas that were borne aloft on the fuel of fanatical ambition.”

Finally, Krim drops his masks to reveal the man beneath.

If Krim does occasionally lapse into self-indulgence, he also exhibits one of the most acute and, ironically, objective social senses that I have ever encountered, particularly in relation to black/white relations in an urban environment. Black English, Anti-Jazz, and Ask for a White Cadillac are simply some of the most honest writing that I have seen on the subject of black American culture, written by a non-black. On this subjects, Krim seems to have established the perfect authorial distance: he is close enough to black culture to understand and respect its intricacies (and his eye for detail is used to great effect in noting urban slang, patterns of dress, and even the rituals of prostitution), but not so personally involved—not being black himself—that he becomes tangled up in it.

He accomplishes the nearly impossible feat, in America’s hyper charged racial atmosphere, of neither romanticizing, vilifying, nor academicizing, black culture. Even more unusually, he turns his keen eye to examine his own interactions with blacks, and his evaluation of his increased self-confidence in the streets of Harlem as a product of his socially established status as a white man among black men is incredibly courageous.

How many writers today would pen the following sentence: “So oddly enough my Harlem experience made…me feel like a southern white, understanding for the first time the tremendous impregnability to the cracker (every white man has a built-in colonel-kit!) in having an ‘inferior’ class beneath him.” It is no wonder that James Baldwin, as the introduction notes, praised Krim as “almost the only writer of my generation who has managed to release himself from the necessity of being either romantic or defensive about Negroes.”

It is in essays such as these that Krim truly breaks new ground in literature. Based on passages such as the previous one, he is one of the few writers writing about race even today, who is able to observe a social hierarchy without internalizing it, or losing sight of the fact that it is a created structure, imposed on a mass of struggling, wildly diverse human beings.

One final note for women like myself, who come to Krim’s work for the first time: as progressive as he may be on racial issues, Krim is hopelessly reactionary in his attitude towards women. Rarely do they appear in the pages of this collection in any role beyond wife, “lay,” or prostitute. Women’s lib was obviously not a point of interest for Krim. Nevertheless, writers cannot address every issue—although they might wish to—and we should feel lucky to still encounter the contributions that Seymour Krim has made to the literary and nonliterary worlds of both yesterday and today.

Sarah Vogelsong is an editor and freelance writer living in Washington, DC.



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MEMOIR

Foxy: My Life in Three Acts

by Pam Grier with Andrea Cagan


Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell


pam grier

Most Becoming Legend


What makes a woman a legend? Is it beauty? Is it brains? Should she be multi-lingual? What about sexy? Suppose she’s Pam Grier, and she’s all these things and more? The answers are in the questions. Grier, queen of, and a survivor from the blaxploitation film era, continues to be one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. Yet her talents have been barely tapped. In Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, A Memoir, she outlines the gifts that brought her fame.

It begins with humor about what could have been a fatal accident involving the infant Pam Grier and her entire family. “…our Buick flipped over three times and came to a stop at the side of the [New Jersey] turnpike, its wheels beneath it. …That was my first stunt.” While she admits the story was recounted to her, her tongue in cheek humor comes across. Her commitment to family is also evident early in the book. Grier was an army kid because her father was a life-long soldier. He moved his family from bases around the country and the world. As a result, Pam picked up various European languages and a love of many peoples and cultures. Her parents were of multi-racial backgrounds and raised their children to be unbiased and accepting of others.

In some ways, this attitude made Grier a target. She describes her love of books and learning. Clearly a bright child, she was also curious and trusting. When asked to come into a room where some of her male cousins were playing, she went. Her cousins raped her. She was six. As she explains later in the book, this was the first time she was raped. There is a disclaimer at the beginning that speaks to this: “I have modified the identities and certain details about some of the individuals described in this book.”

This is a chilling statement. Clearly, it was designed to protect the family from the kind of shame brought on by young boys like this. Years later, when she was 18, Grier was raped again. This time it was by a boy called Brian on a prom date. He is described as a kind of “church boy,” meaning he had deceived people into believing he was a good kid

Although the trauma of both rapes made her a stutterer, she never lost her love and trust of those who were worthy of both. In her descriptions of everything from the men in her life to her career, Grier comes across as forgiving and spiritual. As she outlines it, her way of coping with trauma was to befriend animals. In particular, she developed a love of horses.

Because Grier’s maternal grandparents owned a farm, she often rode the horses there. One horse in particular helped ease her pain after the first assault. He was too big for most of the adults to ride, yet Grier felt a kinship with him. One day, she climbed up on a fence and mounted the horse as he grazed on the family’s property. “Big Horse walked over to a massive oak tree and stopped there beside a small pond. I was amazed when I looked into the water and saw my reflection—a tiny girl on top of a huge horse that stood at least eighteen hands.” Think of a dinner plate on top of a refrigerator, and you’ll get the picture.

Nearly 20 years later, her love of animals stood her in good stead. Fortunately, Grier has worked as a stunt woman with and without animals. In the Italian movie The Arena (aka, The Naked Warriors), she accidentally rode another horse of near mythic proportions. For reasons never made clear, a handler caused the horse to gallop almost to his death and to take Grier with him. Because of her work with animals and her martial arts training, she was able to “tuck and roll” when the horse threw her.

Renowned director Federico Fellini was filming a movie nearby and saw her galloping over various movie sets. He was impressed with Grier’s riding ability. The two promised to talk about making a film, but the discussion never happened.

Although it was not to be, Grier had nothing to worry about in terms of career opportunities. To begin with, she sings and plays the piano. In the chapter “Going Gospel,” Grier talks about her love of gospel music and the racist teachers who refused to teach her to read music, sing, or dance. She learned all three skills despite them.

After her parents’ divorced, Grier, her mother, and younger brother struggled with financial and racial obstacles. The small family settled in Denver. Mrs. Grier, a nurse, was determined that her children get the things they deserved. She attempted to enroll Grier in horseback riding lessons, but the teacher refused to teach her. Luckily, Grier had already learned from her grandparents.

Still, when it came to piano lessons, the problem of finding a teacher seemed insurmountable, until a woman named Mrs. Heinemann stepped in. According to Grier, Mrs. Heinemann overheard one teacher refuse to teach Pam because she was Black. “I’ll give your daughter private lessons,” she told Grier’s mother, “if you can get hold of a piano.” Grier’s grandfather, a semi-pro musician, owned a piano. Thus began her private piano lessons.

She describes Mrs. Heinemann as an accomplished musician and a respected teacher who often arranged for recitals for her students. When she tried to arrange recitals for Grier, they were refused. Grier was talented enough, but white bigots didn’t want to hear a Black child play the piano. Happily, Grier’s mother was undeterred again. She got her daughter involved with gospel music. This led to singing and playing gospel and later to touring with a gospel choir.

Years later, her singing skills earned her a place as a backup singer for Sly and the Family Stone and as part of Wonderlove, Stevie Wonder’s backup group.

Whether singing or working clerical jobs, Grier’s work ethic was strong as this book testifies. She proudly explains her willingness to work at whatever job she could to support herself and to attend college.

Her initial career goal was to be a veterinarian. Without money, she had little chance of achieving her dream, or so she thought. Consequently, she often worked two or three jobs at once to save money. Finally, she followed a suggestion to enter a beauty pageant because she would earn enough for college. She won. In some respects that pageant changed the course of her life.

She eventually went to Los Angeles, still in pursuit of college, and landed a job working as a receptionist for a Hollywood agent. One day, another agent stopped by her desk and suggested she audition for Roger Corman, the head of New World Pictures.

“I walked into the audition room shyly and said a quiet “Hello” to Roger, Jack, and a few people who were assisting them. Then I read the words on the page they handed me. …Roger offered me the role on the spot.” This was the early 1970s and the beginning of her movie career. Her two most famous movies from that period, Coffy and Foxy Brown are considered classics of the genre. Numerous movies, plays, television shows, and stunts were to follow in rapid and regular succession.

As her career was on the upswing, her love life was on the downswing. She describes in detail the rise and fall of her relationships with Kareem Abdul Jabar, Freddie Prinze, and the most horrific, with Richard Pryor. In the chapter, “An Unlikely Couple,” she talks about the man behind the celebrity. Pryor was also raped at age six and molested often in the whore house in which he was raised. Because he only went as far as the sixth grade, she tells us, Pryor was nearly illiterate. Yet, he was a comedic genius. Sadly, he was also a drug addict. So strong was his addiction to cocaine that he carried it in his sperm.

In the chapter, “The C Word,” Grier shares about her battle with cervical cancer. The chapter implies that Pryor’s semen caused this illness. She never blames him. He was a victim who never recovered, and Grier helps us to pity him. Because of her resources, financial and spiritual, Grier was able to embark on a healing program that saved her life. Her strongest support came from her mother and a network of friends. Part of the healing process was her incredible ability to not be bitter.

On the mend, she continued to act, receiving nominations and awards from the NAACP, Golden Globes, and others. Her take on the blaxploitation films that fostered her accolades is moving. “To me, what really stood out in the genre were women of color acting like heroes rather than depicting nannies or maids. We were redefining heroes as school teachers, nurses, mothers, and street smart women who were proud of who they were.”

Now, cancer free, her career moves at a steady clip. She is a mainstay on award winning television shows and regularly works in film and theatre. Hers is a remarkable life. Yet, throughout Foxy she is humble and grateful. She thanks the friends who have made her life full. She appreciates her mother’s love. She looks forward to each new adventure. In many ways, the book is a testament to the rewards of being a decent human being. There are good times and bad, but life is to be lived. Grier does so with gusto. That may be why she has achieved the status that she has.

Loretta H. Campbell is a writer, teacher and activist with the New York office of the National Writer’s Union.



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REVIEWING

The Global Forest

By Diana Beresford-Kroeger


Viking Press Publishing | May, 2010 | 166 pp | $24.95

Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve


book cover

“Trees copulate in copious amounts,” writes Diana Beresford-Kroeger in the essay, The Sexual Revolution, one of forty stories in her newest non-fiction project, The Global Forest. In this particular essay, she includes scintillating details of tree-mating habits and hones in on how trees “do it” when they please. But she doesn’t stop there. She takes the sexual appetite of trees one step further, writing, “For a plant such as a tree, sexual parameters are paramount to ensure a continuation of life.”

That’s the beauty of The Global Forest.

In her Irish-Gaelic, storytelling voice, Beresford-Kroeger hooks her audience by writing in a way they can understand. She leads them into this forested world by connecting two seemingly unrelated topics (in this example, trees and sex), then laces these two ideas together, exposing her audience to deeper needs: the cry of planet earth and humanity’s responsibility to that cry.

Beresford-Kroeger repeatedly does this throughout The Global Forest, using topics people resonate with: sports, dreams, visual art, ancient legends, music, stage performances, maternal instincts, fashion, mythical creatures, heroes, and economics. Using these common knowledge ideas, she illuminates this complicated, foreign world of trees.

After illustrating that connection for her audience in each essay, Beresford-Kroeger then displays what she’s drawn from the deep wells of science and spirituality and how that information relates to forests. She explains how trees function within the ecosystem, highlights how they provide medicinal healing and how trees should be considered almost as sacred as Holy Communion. She examines how forests offer a solution to global warming and reveals how trees operate more like a community than humans realize they do.

Through this collection, Beresford-Kroeger presents a new perspective on a well-known paradigm for the environmental debate, advocating solutions for the sustainability of the planet and warning that time no longer sits on humanity’s side for the salvation of vegetation. She even offers her audience a “bioplan,” a strategy for renovating the forests, but you’ll have to grab a copy of the book for the details.

Beresford-Kroeger, a botanist, lecturer and researcher, has staked her claim as an expert in the world of trees and with this collection of stories, she offers a more fireside-chat approach to the delivery of her expertise and ideology, rather than a textbook algorithm. However, in some instanes, I wanted a footnote or endnote, confirming a fact she offered.

Beresford-Kroeger tailored this collection for horticulturists, agriculturists, and scientists. But because of her enchanting prose, she transcended the boundaries of those particular groups, making this collection easily accessible to everyone. I, a twenty-seven year-old creative writer, greatly enjoyed this work. I could delve into this mystifying world of greenery and latch on to the concepts she presented because of her commitment to provocative writing, as well as her commitment to the flora of the earth. I recommend this text not only because of the message, but also because of Beresford-Kroeger’s compelling voice.

So, grab a copy, dig into the woodlands with Diana Beresford-Kroeger, and you, too, can explore The Global Forest.



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REVIEWING

The Art of Choosing

By Sheena Iyengar


Little, Brown, 2010 | 352 pp

Reviewed by Ken Liebeskind


sheena Iyengar

Examining the concept of choice, from marriage to medical care.


Choice” seems like such a simple word, but when it’s thoroughly examined, it takes on the importance of “freedom,” a concept fraught with a deep-seated meaning that is one of the most fundamental tenets of social life.

In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia University, examines choice from a variety of perspectives. She starts with a personal discussion based on the story of her Indian parents, whose arranged marriage (they first saw each other on their wedding day), prompts her to remark, “My parents allowed such an important choice to be taken out of their hands. How could they do such a thing, and why?”

When Iyengar, a social scientist, examines arranged marriages, she actually finds they can lead to greater happiness than marriages based on love, because happiness often develops over time in arranged marriages, while it tends to peter out in marriages based on love (look at the divorce rate).

But arranged marriages also give Iyengar the opportunity to look at choice from a cultural perspective, which is a high point of the book. She compares individualist societies (the U.S.) with collectivist societies (Japan) to examine how choice is made in each. In the U.S. and other individualist societies, “it’s critical to determine one’s own path in life in order to be a complete person,” so choice is highly valued. But in collectivist societies, “individuals understand their lives more in terms of their duties and less in terms of personal preferences,” so individual choice isn’t as valued.

Collectivist societies are primarily Asian and affiliated with Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, but Marxism brought the collectivist idea to Europe and Soviet Communism ushered in a new form of government that curbed personal choice. Surprisingly, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, which liberated East Germany from Communism and instituted personal choice, hasn’t made its citizens particularly happy. Iyengar observes that “rather than being grateful for the increasing number of choices they have available to them in the marketplace, they are suspicious of this new way of life.”

Iyengar returns to America, which covers a major part of the book, examining choice in all walks of life, beginning with consumer choice and the number of products available in grocery stores. Here she finds that offering a limited number of products is better than a wide range, because it is easier to choose.

Later she examines choices in medical care, which has expanded since the decline in paternalism in medicine (when doctors exclusively made choices on treatment). She provides case studies of parents who had to choose whether to remove life support for their critically ill children. She concludes that “there are powerful psychological benefits to participating in the decision making process … however, choice can be punishing or destructive.” This conclusion was reached by studying French and American parents who lost their babies, with the French parents generally accepting of their situations after their doctors made the decisions, while the American parents experienced guilt for having chosen to take their babies’ lives.

Abortion, the issue that is most closely associated with choice in America today, receives treatment here, too, but on a very limited basis. Iyengar focuses on a case study of a career woman who had to choose whether or not to abort a baby. Unfortunately, she concludes the story with a few comments on choice that have nothing to do with abortion. A contrast of the Pro Life and Pro Choice movements would have illuminated the issue of choice in a more compelling way.

The last saga on choice concerns the decision of choosing to end one’s life. Iyengar tells the story of a 91 year-old woman who purposely overdosed on pills. She questions whether suicide is actually a choice, because if it was based on depression, one could surmise that the person may not have been mentally capable of choosing to die.

The use of the word art in the title is explained at the end of the book, when Iyengar writes, “choice remains an art … to gain the most from it, we must embrace uncertainty and contradiction.”

The book is written in conversational tone, which makes it easy to read, but the informality may demean the subject. In addition, by calling choice an art, it remains illusive or a “mystery,” as Iyengar concludes. In so doing, her findings lack certainty. Her book presents ideas about choice, but few concrete conclusions.

Ken Liebeskind is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Ct.



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