Hiding in Plain Sight

By Nuruddin Farah

Riverhead Books: New York | 2014

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

If you are a novelist with a newly-published book, you had better pray that I don’t review it, because I’m the Attila the Hun of book reviewers! When I was young I read novels voraciously, hoping that one day my novels would grace the tables of bookstores and the shelves of libraries. That was before I attended a seminary in the 1970’s, where I was required to read a great of history, particularly biblical history. In so doing, I developed a taste for reading history and lost my enthusiasm for reading novels…

I no longer wanted to read fiction, which I often saw as arch and pretentious; I want to know the truth of what has happened in times past and find that more instructive. I became so critical of novels that if in reading one I happened upon an inconsistency or a false note, I would pounce upon it with a vengeance. Sometimes I would put down a book when only a quarter of my way through it because my sense of verisimilitude had in some way been offended and then nothing could induce me to resume reading... I had in effect become a “novel policeman.”

But, when Neworld Editor Fred Beauford gave me Hiding in Plain Sight, I was interested because the author is a Muslim from Somali, and all things Islamic interest me.

Nurrudin Farah is a prominent Somali novelist, who, in 1998, was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He was born in Baidoa, but in 1963, three years after Somali’s independence, when the country had descended into tribal warfare and when the government planned to arrest him because of some of comments made in A Naked Needle, he fled into self-imposed exile; for the next 22 years he kept his “country alive by writing about it” while living and teaching in the United States, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the Sudan, India and Nigeria.

Most of the action for Hiding in Plain Sight is set in Nairobi, Kenya—so many Somalis, fleeing the violence, have settled in Kenya that they now consist of about 20% of Kenyan population…

I had already formed my impression of Somalian character as proud, practical and hardy from reading some time ago Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s first memoir, Infidel. I loved it when Mr. Farah would insert Somalian aphorisms into his story, things like that a parent become child to his children, that caution against outsiders placing themselves between “the penis and the vagina” of a couple, and that you love the jinn of the person you adore (though I’m not sure I understand this last one.)

Ms. Ali spent her childhood in Somali, as did Mr. Farah—she too was part of the Somalian diaspora in the wake of tribal violence, and her family also fled to Kenya, where they resettled in Nairobi.

When her father arranged for her to marry a Somalian who lived in Canada, Ms. Ali had other ideas. When her plane to Canada landed in Germany, she left the airport and made her way to Holland, where she lived as an expatriate, who made herself useful to the Dutch authorities as an interpreter, and eventually won a seat in the Dutch parliament, where she advocated for women’s rights (particularly denouncing the practice of female circumcision that is still practiced in some African countries and in their expatriate communities.) And, she denounced the anachronistic aspects of Islam. She participated in the making of the film by Theodore Van Gogh that precipitated his assassination by a Muslim radical in Amsterdam, and she was compelled to go into hiding in the United States because death threats against her. She continues to make her voice heard and is a lady whom I greatly respect.

In Hiding in Plain Sight Belle’s older brother Aar, a UN representative, has been killed in a terrorist attack in Mogadishu, leaving his teenage children, Salif and Dahaba, fatherless. They were rendered motherless when their mother Valerie left years ago to live with her lover, Padmini. Belle is a successful photographer living in Italy; at the news of her brother’s death she returns to Nairobi to care for her niece and nephew. The plot thickens when Valerie and Padmini also return to Nairobi, and Valerie now wants to lay claim to the children whom she previously abandoned…

It took me a while to settle into the story as I was busy raising doubts as I am wont to do when I read novels, things like, didn’t Belle ever eat anything more substantial than yogurt or a latte and a croissant? Was she mourning Aar’s death in the manner I thought appropriate? (Islamic custom dictates that a dead person be buried on the same day that he died, so Aar was buried in Mogadishu shortly after he died. I was disturbed that there was no funeral or memorial service to honor him, a man whom all agreed was an exemplary human being.) Why did Valerie show so little remorse for having left him and her children? And so on…

After a while I grew tired of my nit-picking and settled into the story. Belle reminded me of myself in that she is basically a good person if a little straight laced and humorless, intent, as she was in providing a safe haven for her beloved niece and nephew,


rather than to make Valerie into an insufferable villain who deserves to be punished, so that we readers can root for Belle and wish for her downfall, Mr. Farah begins occasionally to present her a sympathetic light, and Belle wisely seeks to become friends with her and Padmini.

Whereas this might be a wonderful lesson in openhearted diplomacy, it doesn’t make for much dramatic tension.

rHowever, I had grown fond of the characters Mr. Farah created, particularly Belle, Salif and Dahaba, and I welcomed the insights he gives into the Somali character.


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By René Steinke

Riverhead Books | 2014 | $27.95 | 350 pages

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Oil and Ennui

I think of Texas as a guilty pleasure, at least when it comes to watching John Ford- style Westerns on late night television, and that often  translates to novels set in Texas, too.

Not that René Steinke’s new novel, Friendswood, bears any overt resemblance to places where cowboys saunter into the saloon with six-shooters blazing, but a reader gets the sense from writers such as Steinke and her most famous predecessor, Larry McMurtry (I’m talking strictly literary Texas), that even today, out there in those vast dry plains where tumbleweed rolls along and towns seem to have lost their reason for being, the law is capricious and honor is a matter of split-second, life-or-death decisions.

Lives look small against the sweeping landscape, so as a writer you have to endow  your characters with big psyches and big attributes like honor and moral courage to make them stand out against the window dressing of ten-gallon hats and big hair and big cars and big swaggering

The wild wild West according to early Hollywood was all about the immutable qualities that make a character noble when a big shot is pointing a gun barrel in his face.  Honor could be an especially lonely—and deadly— state of existence in the lone star state.

In the 1950’s Texas that Larry McMurtry depicted in The Last Picture Show, heroic loneliness gave way to restless ennui. The town —based on the real Archer City, where McMurtry grew up—was dying, the movie theater the only emissary from the world outside and the town couldn’t even support that.

In reality and in two sequels, Texasville and the tellingly titled Duane’s Depressed, the high price of oil saved Archer City and its fictitious counterpart from economic death in the 1950s and 1960s, then the town went bust again. In the fiction version, life seemed to grow ever more pointless as the restless teenagers grew into even more restless adults.

Steinke’s novel has approximately equal parts of both of these sides of Texas. With nice spare prose that nevertheless meanders through  a  fairly weighty 350 pages, she captures a lonely town with the unlikely name of Friendswood, with several desperate residents who collide with one another like SUVs on a throughway, but then move on down divided roads, banged up but undefeated.

It is Texas as a larger-than-life reflection of the Everyman and Everywoman of our times—a party animal in youth, a consumer of things at every age, but otherwise a mostly empty shell who gets into a car every day without ever actually going places.

Steinke mines this territory with skill, yet ultimately her characters never haunted me the way Jacy, Duane and Sonny of The Last Picture Show still do, decades later, or the way John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom series,  the gold standard for American lives of no consequence beyond their own sphere, continues to occupy a spot in my thoughts.

It’s too bad that Friendswood  falls just slightly short of being haunting, because Steinke does tell a wonderfully bleak tale that pulls in so much of what’s wrong with life in America in the early 21st century.  She is from Texas but left there, and now lives in the writers’ mecca of Brooklyn.

I don’t know if her old neighbors would like to run her out on a rail if she went back after the publication of this book, but the saddest thing about America, and the thing she depicts so realistically, is that most likely the townsfolk would never reach a consensus about their native daughter because they’d never gather together in one place.

In this small-town America what’s most oppressive isn’t so much local gossip as local indifference; sure, people gossip in Friendswood, but  all that really seems important is their personal pod in which their nuclear family dwells.

The hero-protagonist, Lee, is a woman of honor precisely because after circumstances invade her nuclear family and blow it up she won’t let go of the town’s dirty secret. She is out to see justice done in a place where everyone else would prefer to forget about the slick black gunk that is pictured dripping down like a curtain descending on the book’s cover.

The novel begins with a prologue set in 1993, a summer evening in the development where Lee lives in a nice suburban house with her husband, Jack, and their 12-year-old daughter, Jess. The key word here is development. Their development, not to be confused with neighborhood, is called Rosemont. It’s a pleasant night, to be sure. Jess rides a horse, Lee and Jack even wander over to another family unit’s home, where a party is going on.

Still, the landscape seems to sweep on with no soul. In fact it has something else at its core, something bubbling up from below ground that’s like a stand-in for all that’s toxic in suburbia. The last part of the prologue looks forward from that summer night: “The air did not yet smell of dead lemons. The red and blue sores hadn’t yet appeared on anyone’s neck. The black snakes hadn’t wriggled up from the ground. And [Lee] had no idea that this world was not without an end.”

The story picks up again in 2007. The development is empty now.  There were babies born in the 1990s, a boy with an arm that ended at the elbow and a girl who had no reproductive organs. People developed liver problems. Jess came down with a sore throat that wouldn’t’ go away, then died of leukemia while still in her teens.  Grief, the great destroyer of marriages, has torn Lee and Jack apart.

The story flashes back to when Lee found the oily sludge that she thought was a snake, but it smelled of petroleum and left her skin red and stinging when she touched it. Lee still lives in Friendswood and is now on a crusade, battling the Environmental Protection Agency and a local developer, Avery Taft, to prove the toxins haven’t evaporated.

Ultimately, though, it’s the intersection of people that makes for the most toxicity in literature, and that is where  Friendswood begins to fall short. There are the aforementioned lives that collide, but a kind of old-West style rugged individualism triumphs over poetic tragedy.

There is Hal the sad-sack real estate agent who is barely getting by. Friendswood isn’t an easy place to sell houses, even beyond Rosemont, and Hal  lacks the gift of salesmanly blarney.  He prays for prosperity.  Working for Avery Taft would be the answer to his prayers.  Avery, a quintessential Texan in blue snakeskin boots and pressed jeans (not a complaint, I know these archetypes is plentiful), wants to build a new development about  quarter of a mile from the edge of Rosemont. “And to tell you the truth I’ve got my eye on the old Rosemont property too,” he tells Hal.

There’s a teenaged girl named Willa, the most provocative character of them all and the one you most want to run after and urge, “Get out! Get out” Get out from her Christian fundamentalist family, harness her magical—albeit probably schizophrenic— visions of sequined dresses flying and children reaching out and words appearing on her own skin, and turn it into poetry. She does write poetry, but she doesn’t know what to do with it.

There is Dex, the skinny teenaged boy who lives in a trailer park. He likes Willa but she likes Cully, Hal’s son. Cully is a football star, and anyone who’s ever lived in a small American town will understand the coach’s dilemma when a high school football star skips classes to get drunk and doesn’t show up for practice; the stakes are as high locally as if this were the National Football League.

Cully does worse, in fact. He invites Willa to lunch at another football player’s house, where the afternoon revelry includes a  pal in the group who sells pharmaceuticals, and slips a drug into Willa’s drink. She doesn’t remember what happened, but the rumors around the school fill the gaps: Willa, the kids say, let Cully and no one is sure how many other guys gangbang her. That’s where Willa’s story becomes agonizing— yet ultimately anti- climactic beyond what you’d think would happen when a girl from Christian fundamentalist home is gang raped.

Willa’s mother is so utterly understanding— you have to tell the doctor about it, she tells her, rather than you have to pray the demon out – the reader breathes a sigh of relief for the girl, yet the story begins to grow a bit pale here. It’s as if the religion in Willa’s family is there just for Texas color rather than as the warp and woof of the story.  And therein lies another unexplored tragedy;  the possibility that Willa will find a lonely place for herself in Friendswood and grow up to be just a local crazy lady instead of a tortured poet in Brooklyn.

Cully, on the other hand, just when you most want to see him rot in prison, turns out to score well for complexity of character. We see him start to do penance and think for himself  in spite of the noxious influence of his father sucking up to Avery.  Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say Cully has a collision with Lee that tests his wild-West honor in a very split-second- decision way, along with the fate of the land.

As for Lee and her noble mission, the oil slick feels a bit too much like a substitute for the kind of human bonding that people often manage to do in spite of living in suburban houses.  Sometimes that’s through friendships, or affairs, sometimes  through lewd  thoughts involving another human—there’s that pesky Rabbit Angstrom again, reminding me how painfully and repugnantly deep the thoughts of an ordinary mortal can go, and how well we got to know Rabbit thanks to what today we call  TMI (too much information).

I would have liked to have spent more quality time in the inner chambers of Lee’s psyche.  In what is for the most part a heartbreaking and finely rendered story, Lee is more a product of her mission than a complicated, Texas-sized hero.

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Best Food Writing of 2014

Holly Hughes, editor

De Capo | 2014 | 373 pages

Reviewed by Jane Smiley

Around nine a.m. every morning, I decide what I will cook for dinner. This puts me immediately in a good mood, even if what I choose, as I did yesterday, is a rib-eye steak salt-seared in an iron pan with onion rings and spinach salad (the steak looked fatty when I bought it, but by the time it was on the table, the fat had sizzled down to perfect salty brown bits).

This afternoon, I will be extruding some homemade pasta and serving it with a tonno sauce. I can’t wait. After dinner, I will make some peppermint ice cream and stir Christmassy chocolate peppermint chunks into it.

My mother would have been floored that I turned out like this. When I was a child, I would eat four things--a plain hamburger from Steak-n-Shake, chicken rice soup, Wonder Bread peanut butter sandwiches (ONLY strawberry jam), and popcorn.

But picky eaters learn to cook, and then they learn to eat, and then they read The Best Food Writing of 2014 and wonder if a cockroach might be worth trying.

I sometimes marvel at the variety and expansiveness of today’s literary world--even as new forms are being explored, plenty of old dead writers are being unearthed, retranslated, reprinted--there is more literature to enjoy than maybe at any time in human history, and don’t let the spoilsports spoil your sport--much of it is terrific and fascinating, and evidently this is true in the world of food, too. De gustibus non est disputandum--why bother? Just enjoy.

Let me get the important stuff out of the way: every eater of good conscience should read Eli Saslow’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Waiting For the 8th,” a part of his year-long Washington Post series about living on food stamps. Raphael Richmond has six children and $246 dollars per month with which to feed them, cut by Congress (a body that knows the meaning of pork) from $290.

Frozen beef patties and boxes of mac and cheese only go so far. Food pantries run out of everything but sweet potatoes, bread, and onions.

On the 2nd, there is almost nothing in the house, and relatives are kicked out to fend for themselves; tempers are short. The 8th arrives, the pantry is stocked, and Raphael realizes that she and Congress are in a tug of war--if they continue to cut her SNAP payments, she will retaliate by sending her eligible children to get their own benefits, thereby upping the family total.

Jobs? There are none (but we know that). Balancing Saslow’s piece is Dan Barber’s “The 16.9 Carrot,” not really about eating (although the 16.9 part is a Brix measure of the carrot’s flavor--most carrots get a score in the single digits), but about soil--how what we eat is a living thing that is borne of that other living thing that is the soil.

“To bypass,” he writes, “the network of living things is to deprive the plant’s roots of the full periodic table of the elements the soil provides. But it also deprives the soil elements of their food source...‘The idea that we could ever substitute a few soluble elements for a whole living system is like thinking an intravenous needle could administer a delicious meal.’”

Exactly this substitution is the subject of a third important essay in Best Food Writing of 2014 from Wired, Ben Paynter’s “Monsanto is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie,” which opens with three Monsanto executives in St. Louis tasting a caprese salad (tomatoes, basil, lettuce, plus mozzarella). No introduction of alien DNA, only crossbreeding, but plenty of DNA mapping in order to understand precisely where sweetness or durability is located on the genome. Nor, apparently, are any of the scientists paying attention to the composition of the soil, which is located in on an experimental farm in Woodland, California, eleven miles north of Davis.

Paynter is suspicious of Monsanto’s business plan, which, as far as industrialized crops are concerned, has leaned heavily on making farmers entirely dependent on Monsanto inputs and aggressively deflecting any consumer choice when it comes to GMO crops. With those profits, it has acquired a greenhouse in Guatemala, a greenhouse seed company, and a weather data company focused on climate change. Together, these three informative essays invite us to not only fear, but also contemplate and maybe plan where our food world might be headed.

But Best Food Writing 2014, is so various that the reader ends up deciding that in fact there are no bests. Gusti abound, and all of them are interesting. Where would I like to go? To the woods of South Carolina, to spy on a group of men who are making sugar cane juice over an open fire in a kettle that is five feet in diameter.

Jack Hitt, the author of “”The Forgotten Harvest,” makes me feel an affinity with this traditional amber syrup, and not only because his very first line paraphrases the first line of Pride and Prejudice, one of the best first lines ever.

I love sweets and jokes--the men tease each other and make fun of themselves, while Hitt cogently explains the history of this lost art, related to sugar making and maple syrup, but still a food tradition all its own.

Or I will go to a Connecticut beach, where Bun Lai, a New Haven chef, is gathering provisions for his restaurant that specializes in “invasivore” cuisine--Rowen Jacobsen, in “The Invasivore’s Dilemma” is straightforward: “Worrying about the impact that climate change may have on a region’s ecology while ignoring the work of invasive species is kind of like fretting over next year’s crops while Vikings torch the harbor.”

Afterward, I will follow Chef Lai to his restaurant and try the Trash Fish Dinner and the Asian carp cakes, breaded and deep-fried (cakes are best because, according to Lai, the fish is so boney that it is like “a hairbrush smeared with peanut butter.”  

I am not an adventurous eater, so if I go to Copenhagen, I will be happy to watch customers at Noma eat “fried reindeer moss, hay ash, twigs, ants, and seaweed,” but it would take a lot of encouragement to get me to try the bee-larva granola or the grasshopper garum.

Even so, Daniella Martin, the author of “Learning How to Taste” almost convinces me, not just to accept that insects are the haute cuisine of the future, but that the tarantula I saw crossing the road here in California last spring has something to offer in addition to dread.

And as for Bangkok, where the street food is some of the best in the world, according to Matt Goulding’s “The Lions of Bangkok Street Food,” where’s my ticket? I much prefer street food to fancy restaurants (my own favorite item of 2013 was the Burger Theory burger I had in Adelaide, Australia--blue cheese, caramelized onions...excuse me, I need to take a break).

Goulding relates his final meal: hurrying from stand to stand, buying and eating mini-crepes “as thin and crunchy as a candy shell,” followed by chicken meatballs on bamboo skewers with chili sauce, followed by a “salad of green papaya, chilis, and dried shellfish, pestle pounded into an electric mix of spice and sweet and ocean umami.”

He then grabs some crispy hot fried chicken and, which burns his fingers but is delicious. And he still has half his allotted funds, 150 baht, about $5, left.

Best Food Writing of 2014 includes a few recipes in addition to the essay (quite funny) by Irvin Lin, “How to Boil Water.” I will not be trying “The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie,” but I appreciate the care and precision with which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt pursued his researches.

I like my own chicken cutlets, which I cook very much as Albert Burneko does, and I agree that they do give you “A Reason to Keep Living.”

As for Laurie Colwin’s Tomato Pie (eloquently beloved by Ann Hood), I think I would rather reread one of her terrific novels--maybe Happy All The Time followed by A Big Storm Knocked It Over. I will be trying Molly Watson’s turkey recipe (“How to Cook A Turkey”), while appreciating her amusing, no-nonsense attitude. At the end of this review, I will get back to you about how it worked out.

Every one of the fifty pieces included in Best Food Writing of 2014 is worth reading. Every one is thoughtful and idiosyncratic and full of information. Editor Holly Hughes has great range and great taste--both literary and culinary. You can sample it as a buffet or you can sit down to a fifty-course meal. You’ll be glad you did.

Post-Christmas turkey addendum: Molly Watson is opinionated about her turkey roasting ("How to Cook A Turkey") and she is not going to put up with your desire for a little precision.

How big is your turkey? Up to you. How long should you cook it? Play it by ear, or leg--just keep wiggling that leg until it is so loose it nearly falls off the turkey.

How do you coordinate this with the mashed potatoes and the dressing? Molly isn't saying. The main points are that the turkey should be dry dry dry and well-salted, that you should smear it with butter or, preferably, bacon (my choice), and that you should let it sit for at least a half an hour after you take it out of the oven. Here is my judgment: 1. The dark meat was very tender and delicious, maybe the best ever. 2. The breast meat was a little dry (the spatchcocked turkey out of Saveur, November 2014, was preferred in our household for this reason). 3. Letting it sit for a long time worked very well. 4. The gravy was extremely salty, so no salt in the mashed potatoes. 5. Not knowing how long to plan the cooking time drove me bananas. 6. The bacon was wonderful, just as she says it will be.

In 2008, Jane Smiley was a finalist for the Bert Greene Award in food writing. She also writes novels. Her latest best seller is Some Luck: A Novel

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Nora Webster

By Colm Tóibín

Scribner | 2014 | 373 pages | $27.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

What’s in a Name?

Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Sister Carrie—three classics with single-name titles, suggesting a psychological portrait or at least a character sketch of a woman—all written by men.  Now there’s another book to add to the list—Nora Webster by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín.

I’m sure there are countless other books with single names and I can think of a few, but I suggest these three because they have entered our collective conscious, in a sense, and have been adapted numerous times.  In other words, we look to them as reflections of ourselves.

In Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser explores the rise of the innocent, yet determined Carrie Meeber, a farm girl who arrives in Chicago with little more than the clothes on her back.  Eventually she becomes a successful actress. 

As Carrie rises, her lover, Hurstwood, who first appears as a successful tavern owner loses everything when he lets his passion for Carrie surpass all his accomplishments. 

This is a classic tale of American capitalism, written in a naturalistic way.  I am especially drawn to the fall of Hurstwood (rather than the rise of Carrie) because Dreiser describes his “fall” in a single moment when Hurstwood considers stealing money from a safe and fleeing the country to live with Carrie on the run.  This turning point is described in such detail and with such suspense.  It is heart-wrenching to witness the character’s anguish.

Similarly, there are moments in Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert that crackle with intensity.  Whereas, Carrie rises through sheer will, hard work, and imagination, Emma Bovary is trapped in her own malaise.

The wife of a country doctor, Emma has the necessities of life, and yet she wants more.  She falls into the trap of having affairs and spending money to ease her restlessness.  Like the “moment” in Sister Carrie where Hurstwood considers embezzling the money, the moment when Madame Bovary first embarks in an affair is carefully described. 

The ennui Madame Bovary feels throughout is perfectly rendered and anyone who has wondered Is this all? about life can surely relate to the book.

I won’t get into Anna Karenina because this is a book I haven’t read for a long time (Sister Carrie and Madame Bovary are both near-at-hand so I can read them on any melancholy afternoon), but let’s suffice to say that this book also ends in tragedy for a heroine who wants the ephemeral “more.”  And so this brings us to a new book of this “genre,” if you will, of a portrait of a woman. 

Let’s just say I am drawn to this form.

Nora Webster, written by Colm Tóibín examines the life of a recently widowed mother who lives in Wexford, Ireland in the 1960s.  Unlike the other books I have mentioned, Nora Webster does not hinge on somewhat melodramatic moments, but instead is presented with a steady hand by Tóibín. 

Sometimes this does not make for a “hair raising” novel, and yet the accumulation of the small moments makes the book genuine and full in its own way.  The book is subtle and I commend Tóibín for his subtlety.  The young widow, Nora (she is in her forties) does not become paralyzed by the death of her beloved husband, Maurice; rather she has to march on to secure the future of her young sons (and college-aged daughters).

The book does give us flashbacks of her life with Maurice, especially when Tóibín describes past summer vacations that appear idyllic, but does not become weighed down by the past.  Rather the book looks at the now.

One aspect that is clearly a concern for Nora is how she is going to make a living.  Before she married, Nora worked at a local company, but she did not miss the job at all when she got married.  In fact, she loved the luxury of being able to stay at home all day and take care of the children.  Unlike Madame Bovary who found the life of a “housewife” pitiful, Nora relished the time she could spend by herself during the day and found joy in raising her children.

With Maurice dead and the fear of financial strain approaching, she decides to work at the local company again, but when she goes back to work she has to overcome the feeling of shame she feels and has to swallow her pride when she works with her old nemesis, the frightful Miss Kavanagh. 

As she begins to work, she doesn’t embrace it, but she gracefully rises to the challenge of being a single mother in the tight-knit Irish community.

Another concern for Nora is her family.  She has two daughters who are young women away at college and two sons who live with her at home, Conor and Donal.  Both are scarred by the death of their father. 

One gets the sense that Nora has completely ignored them throughout the horrific ordeal of her husband’s death (indeed, she sent them away to live with relatives) and now she is scrambling to repair ties with them, just as they are recovering from the death of their father. 

Both boys have reacted to the death in their own way—Donal has developed a debilitating stammer and Conor is afraid of all the little intricacies of life (is there enough fuel, where is Nora going?).  When Nora tries to reach out to her children, at first they are too shell-shocked from the father’s death to receive her care.  In fact, the small village is seen as protecting Nora from her loss, while at the same time gossiping about her as she tries to move forward.

In one telling scene, Nora decided to get her grey hair colored.  Feeling a bit guilty about getting this done so soon after her loss, she anticipates the scorn she will receive from the community, and in fact she is scorned. 

As she goes about her business after getting the hair wash, she is greeted (almost comically) by the sudden interest in her hair.  Nora makes changes to her life that would probably not occur if she were still married. 

For example, she renovates her house (her frugal husband would never have wanted this), she begins singing again and takes lessons with a local eccentric, and she becomes more political (offering her opinions on Irish politics in a way she never did when her husband was alive).

Similarly, Donar ends up going to boarding school, an event that would certainly not have taken place if her husband were still alive.  The book does not pretend to suggest that life became fuller or better for Nora after her husband died—just different.  Because of her husband’s death, of course her life would be different and Tóibín examines this difference.

I could not complete this review without referring to an event in the book that I find extremely puzzling.  Towards the end of the novel, Maurice appears as a ghost.  Nora is eager to talk to him, but what he says is mysterious.  She asks if everyone will be all right and he replies that most of them will be OK.  Here is a bit of the conversation:

“Will we be all right?”

He did not reply.

“Will Fiona (their daughter) be all right?”

“Yes, she will.”

“And Aine, will she be all right?”

He nodded.

“And Donal?”

“Yes, Donal.”

“And Conor?”

He lowered his head and seemed not to hear.

“Maurice, will Conor be all right?”

His eyes appeared to have filled with tears.

It goes on for a bit like this and then comes the part that was confusing to me:

“Maurice, is there something else?”

“The other one.  There is one other,” he said.

“You mean Jim?”





“The other one.”

“There is no other one.”

“There is.”

And so ends this revelatory part of the conversation.  I thought the answer would appear at the end of the book, but it never does.  Is Conor ok after all?  Who is the “other one”?  It is awful not to know.  It is awful, but I can also lie in this space of mystery.  Or maybe another reader will illuminate me on this subject.

There are books featuring a single person and then there are books in which the lives of two characters are explored such as Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter.  Interestingly enough one of our great American writers, Marilyn Robinson has just written a book called Lila.  It seems we will never tire of examining the psychology of a character, whether it be with Madame Bovary, published in 1856 or with Nora Webster published in 2014.

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A Backpack, a Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka

By Lev Golinkin

Doubleday | 2014 | 307 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Nothing But What They Could Carry

Life’s regrets: as I read this book of escape from Soviet Russia in 1990, the height of Soviet Jewish emigration, I thought back to a Russian Jewish friend I had during that epoch.  He had just turned 40 and was still stumbling around in New York, finding his way, professionally and personally.

He seemed to be confused about many things, including just how Jewish he wanted to be.  Certain holidays, he took himself to Crown Heights in Brooklyn to dance with the Hasids, which he described as quite joyful.

Other times he was content to be a secular Jew.  Little by little he divulged a few sad stories from his childhood: the teasing he endured as a refugee for wearing sandals to school in Connecticut, the scarring (emotional) caused by his father’s insistence that he be circumcised as the ripe age of 12, the devastating loss of his mother to cancer.

I listened, I hope with sympathy, but as a third generation Jew, I was too far removed from the experience to relate to his troubles.

Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, a Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka is simple straightforward prose, leavened with humor. It traces each step of his own family’s escape as pariahs in Kharkhov in the Ukraine to their new lives as American citizens.  He was 10 at the time and spent most of his time in the Ukraine home from school, “sick.”

Eventually the reader catches on: Lev’s mother diligently obtains sick notes of longer and longer duration to protect Lev from the daily beatings and ill treatment he endures at the hands of his anti-Semitic classmates and sadistic schoolteachers.

Golinkin offers wry political commentary: Running a totalitarian regime is simple: tell the people what they’re going to do, shoot the first one to object, and repeat until everyone is on the same page. There’s no need to bother with platforms, debates, and that inconvenient din of opinions that forms the heart of democracy. The Soviet behemoth sprawled across eleven time zones, swallowing up one-sixth of the world’s landmass and scores of ethnicities, from dark-haired Chechens to blue-eyed Latvians.  Holding this bloated cultural Frankenstein together was one rule: no one leaves.

Lev’s mother is a well-esteemed doctor and his father, a brilliant engineer.  His sister, Lina, wants to be a doctor too, but her professors unfairly give her a B to ensure that she will not qualify for medical school.  Reluctantly, she follows their script and switches to a more acceptable major, engineering.

When Gorbachev loosens the reins on emigration of Jews to Israel, the family scrambles to get out in time, undeterred by the years they’ve applied and waited in vain for exit visas.

This time, along with hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews, they hit the jackpot. With the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and Joint (American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee), they make their way to Vienna and finally after a long wait, to West Lafayette, Indiana, where the local Jewish synagogue is waiting to welcome them.

Golinkin tells us at one point that Joint has exceeded its budget by millions and explains how the not-for-profit got away with it: Two thousand years of roaming the world are enough to humble any nation or what’s left of one. Two thousand years of fleeing an oppressive homeland only to be oppressed in the next one, have etched into the Jewish mind-set a keen memory of traumas past and a nervous premonition of traumas to come . . . .
        One consequence of this collective pain has been the development of the idea that every Jew is responsible for the welcome of every other Jew, because you never know — tomorrow may be your turn to run.

Joint and HIAS emerge as the heroes of this story, as well as the American Jewish community who lobbied for years to free Soviet Jews.

Landing in a small town instead of a huge urban hub with its pockets of ethnic groups ready to help new immigrants with language, jobs, lessons on navigating the complexities of daily life proved very stressful for the family.

They did not know how to shop in supermarkets, they had no drivers’ licenses, and they had a hard time letting go of their ingrained terror of the police or anyone in uniform.  

Against all odds and statistics, his father finds a job in an engineering firm in New Jersey; his mother tries to find work as a nurse or technician, but because of her poor language skills, she winds up as a security guard.

Golinkin follows his parents’ dictates, racking up academic successes, but shies away from people and relationships.  He confides now that he felt safest when running away from attachments, that he had no self esteem; to the contrary, he was filled with self hatred.  He could not look in mirrors, convinced he was hideous.

Back in Russia, he had asked his mother, after a particularly bad beating, when he could stop being a Jew.  Sadly, perhaps inevitably, he absorbed the message fed to him by others in the Ukraine that he was someone to be despised, a worthless Jew.

After graduation from Boston College, Golinkin feels lost.  A professor commands him to stop running away from his past.  So he returns to the holding area in Austria where he and his family spent six months to trace his family’s trajectory, write this book, and thank the aid workers who sheltered, fed and clothed them and the baron whose machinations prepared his father to secure employment in the States.

As the book ends, he hints that he has come into his own identity; hard as it is, he determines he must disappoint his parents and opt out of medical school, that being involved in charitable work and perhaps writing may be his true career goals.  By book’s closing, he says he has come to terms with his Jewishness too, though he does not go into details.

The reader gets the impression that he has done the hard work of digging through his past to unearth his essence and that the process of self-discovery has just started.

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JAMES BALDWIN: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

By James Baldwin (Author) and Quincy Troupe (Contributor)

Melville House | 2014 | 128 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Mr. Eloquent

James Baldwin’s fatal illness (stomach cancer) was advancing rapidly in 1987.   The author of classic fiction (Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and other novels) and legendary nonfiction (Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, and more) knew that his days were numbered.

Before it was too late, celebrated author Quincy Troupe (a noteworthy poet, journalist, and biographer who gained fame amid the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s) made his way to the South of France for the express purpose of recording a long, free form interview with the ailing Baldwin.

For the first time, that unexpurgated dialogue is now available, along with a valuable trio of other interviews collectively reminding us of James Baldwin’s mercurial personality, his amazing mind, and his incisive voice.

To call Baldwin eloquent is an understatement.  His impromptu statements could be as polished as others’ finished poems.  He famously ignored all of the established rules of public speaking, and not only galvanized audiences without manuscripts in front of him, but he scarcely even bothered to use notes.

As a man whose boyhood was entirely dominated by the milieu of the storefront churches in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s, the ecstasies of spoken prose were in James Baldwin’s DNA.

In fact, for three years in his life (between the ages of 14 and 17), Baldwin was a blazing young preacher himself.  That personal epoch informed not just his novels, essays, short stories, and plays, but also the captivating interviews preserved in this sterling new volume, which is part of “The Last Interview” series that the publishers at Melville House have made a priority. (Note: Others in the series include Hannah Arendt, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ray Bradbury, and David Foster Wallace.)

“Remarks are not literature,” Gertrude Stein once told young Ernest Hemingway.  Well, she never heard James Baldwin speak.  If she had, she’d have revised herself.

Issues of racial and spiritual strife, gender and stereotypes, sex and human desire, along with varied cultural and social permutations regarding politics, class, history at large and the very specific particulars of James Baldwin’s own life trajectory give this slim volume a heft that many 500-page tomes are lacking.

And it’s not just “The Last Interview” conducted between editor/contributor Quincy Troupe and James Baldwin that makes this book important.  Equally important is the chance to again see the transcript of Baldwin’s lengthy 1961 radio interview with Chicago-based host (and Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian) Studs Terkel.

The interview with Terkel is dynamic, wide-ranging, and very much of its time, as the two men discuss a slew of topics in relation to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement at the dawn of the 1960s.

References to Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy are in the present tense, and there’s a cautious note of optimism and a tough-minded yearning for progress shared between them.  The dreadful assassinations and the long, hot summers were years away.  Thankfully.

On the other hand, the book’s other interviews (especially “The Last Interview,” which finds Baldwin facing his own end in the autumn of 1987) chronicle the degree to which the collapsed dreams of the Sixties and the distress of the Seventies gave way to the awkward place that Baldwin occupied in the Reagan Era of the 1980s.

Although not elderly by today’s standards (Baldwin was only 63 when he died), it was a commonplace in the Reagan Eighties to find James Baldwin categorized as an icon of the past.  But his panoramic assessments of America and all of the issues that currently strangle the nation anew (especially racism, sexism, and myriad forms of religious hypocrisy) were simply out of fashion.

Baldwin’s urgent voice is now ultra-relevant.

The truth is that James Baldwin was not just very much a product of his times, but he was light years ahead of his time in relation to the knotty and ever-overlapping patterns of race and sex, in particular, here in America.  Here’s one of his insights:

“Homophobia . . . is simply an extreme example of the American terror that’s concerned with people growing up.  I never met a people more infantile in my life . . . [but] if Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.”

This pertinent, remarkable new book is replete with such astute observations.  And the volume is mightily enhanced by editor Quincy Troup’s personal essay detailing his odyssey in France in 1987, as he journeyed to record Baldwin’s last testament.

(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)

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A Colder War

By Charles Cumming

Read by: Jot Davies

Macmillan Audio | 2014 | Running time: 12 hours | 10 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

It takes a special mind to bring together all the minute details and the misinformation to create a successfully thrilling spy novel.

Charles Cumming has proved he has the special mind for just such a task, and rightfully so as he was himself recruited by MI6 (the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service).

He has written more than half a dozen books and received much acclaim.  His latest, A Colder War, brings back the spy Thomas Kell (from A Foreign Country).

Kell has been spurned as a result of his previous adventures, but in A Colder War, after a mysterious plane crash claims the life of a senior agent in Turkey, the head of MI6, Amelia Levene, feels there is no one better suited or that she can trust more than Thomas Kell.

He is eager to get back in action, but are his skills still sharp enough as he finds himself on a mole hunt?

I personally applaud Cumming for his work. I enjoyed the ends and outs and the ‘what is going on?’ that continually urges you on as a listener. Cumming may very well be at the forefront of today’s espionage novelists as some claim, and I think this very day I will purchase one of his previous novels because I trust his writing and instincts. (Also the synopsis of The Hidden Man has captured my interest.)

The one negative statement I will make about Cumming’s latest novel is: I had a trying time with the love affair. A Colder War strikes me as one of those stories that gets better with a second listen. Small details one might have missed come to light and the listener rejoices in the storyteller’s abilities.

I have a feeling that on further reflection, I would find myself agreeing that Cumming did a great job with the emotions and impulses of an intense and quickly formed attraction.

And one must remember that in a spy novel, motives and actions can never be trusted, but if we are experiencing this adventure with Thomas Kell, we must believe him if no one else. As I listened, I relished our hero’s relationship with his ex-wife, as ‘real’, more than I did his love interest in the novel.

I found it irritating that an aging spy, a man trained to play people, behaved like a schoolboy over a girl. Sure our protagonist has a conscience and desires a life free of the lives, but come on.

Enough about that because is it any reason not to listen to this audio book? I don’t think so, and if you have already listened or read any of Cumming’s books, I expect you will love this one too.

If you haven’t and you are into spy novels, Cummings may become one of your favorite authors.   Moreover, the reader, Jot Davies, has the patience and confidence of a spy as he brings a breath of life to Thomas Kell and does a convincing job with accents and tones to populate A Colder War with characters from Russia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, England, and America.

I look forward to reading more of Cumming’s work, and the word on his website is that the film rights for the first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country, have been acquired by Colin Firth’s production company. So we may be seeing Cumming’s cunning and thrilling work on the silver screen in years to come.

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