Addiction by G.H. Ephron, reviewed for Boston Magazine
The Duck Tour meets "Murder, She Wrote" in the newest Peter Zak mystery, "Addiction," one of the finest offerings from area authors this fall. Against a very local backdrop – jogs along Memorial Drive, bowls of Toscanini’s best, townhouses in Back Bay – psychologist Zak is forced to undertake the analysis of a murder.
Yanked from his usual perch in the forensic expert’s witness seat, Zak is tossed headlong into the role of psychosleuth after he discovers the lifeless body of his colleague Dr. Channing Temple. Nearby stands Temple’s Ritalin-addled daughter, smoking gun in hand. The police cry family foul, but Zak doesn’t buy it. Soon he’s obsessed with a three-pronged mission: Save Temple's posthumous reputation, keep her daughter out of jail, and unmask the real killer before it’s too late.
G.H. Ephron is the pseudonym for forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Don Davidoff and journalist Hallie Ephron.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative: A Novel by Hannah Crafts; Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., reviewed for Boston Magazine
In 1982, Gates and his literary bulldogs at Yale rediscovered Harriet E. Wilson’s "Our Nig," the first novel ever published by a black woman. Nearly 20 years later Gates has achieved another scholarly coup, this time for team Harvard. Gates and company accomplished a feat of extraordinary sleuthing last year to uncover the facts behind the fictional "The Bondwoman’s Narrative." Experts believe the book might well be the first novel written by a woman who had been a slave. Presented in unedited draft form – Gates remains faithful to the last misspelled word – the book tells the story of Hannah Crafts, a house slave desiring freedom. Part slave narrative, part 19th century sentimental novel, "The Bondwoman’s Narrative" engages readers with two compelling stories: Crafts’s search for independence and Gates’s search for Crafts.
The Bostons by Carolyn Cooke, reviewed for Boston Magazine
Summer brings the migrating flocks of Brahmins, who brush off city dust and settle down for temporary respite along the rocky coast of Maine. Briefly, they share space and time with the natives, who dub them “the Bostons” and treat them with according reserve. In her first collection, O. Henry Award winner Cooke lures us into the vague spaces that exist between native and “Boston,” man and woman, father and child, life and death. An ailing man finds perfection in the fantastic motion of a train; an elderly painter fumbles towards mortality and, more immediately, assisted living. In each glimpse, Cooke teases telling bits of existence from her subjects – sometimes with humor, sometimes with regret, always with grace.
The Camera My Mother Gave Me by Susanna Kaysen, reviewed for Boston Magazine
This is a tale of a throbbing vagina. Susanna Kaysen’s localized burning sensation engenders discussion with her friends, confusion among her doctors, and contemplation within. The escalating pain and increased scrutiny reduce her existence to hyper-contemplation: a study of her vagina and its moods.
What in the abstract sounds either clinically dull or vaguely pornographic is actually an engrossing examination of pain and the psychology and philosophy used to confront it. Kaysen’s lack of conceit and straightforward prose keep her story clean and absorbing. The Cambridge author of "Girl, Interrupted" successfully avoids the self-pity that often seeps into contemporary memoirs.
Eve Ensler stole the vocal virginity from proper Bostonian lips last spring when her “Vagina Monologues” pulled a private part out from under the covers. Kaysen dives back in, taking readers with her for a closer look. Even those who still blush when they utter the “V” word will find themselves completely enveloped.
Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid, reviewed for Boston Magazine
In each of Jamaica Kincaid’s previous novels, the female narrator inevitably gazes into a mirror and the image that stares back offers glimpses of Kincaid’s own past: girlhood in the West Indies, flight to America, omnipresent mother, barely present father. The stories are different, but the narrators all are engaged in transitional self-exploration. Now Kincaid, who teaches at Harvard, returns to fiction after a six-year hiatus, and to her birthplace, Antigua. Mr. Potter is told by yet another self-aware narrator, Elaine, who, like her predecessors, shares elements of the author’s personal history. But unlike her predecessors, Elaine is telling someone else’s story – that of Mr. Potter, her absentee father, a man who does anything but examine his life.
Mr. Potter is meticulous with his appearance, careless with his seed, and totally ignorant of himself and the world beyond Antigua, a tiny Caribbean island just south-east of Puerto Rico. His “biography” begins mid-life, when he is working as a chauffeur. Small-island success, defined in financial terms, is the only motivation offered to the illiterate Mr. Potter by his “betters,” so it is the sole motivation for his existence. He unquestioningly submits his will to the task at hand – driving - while hoarding his earnings until he can afford his own fleet of cars. Always dressed in "well-ironed pants" and "beautifully polished shoes," he meanders through his life earning money and fathering children, all of them female. Never ruffled, never deeply angry, sad, or happy, he is content with the path of least resistance.
But complacency makes him incapable of connecting with anyone, including himself. As the story ebbs and flows in time, Elaine renders Mr. Potter's passionless life under the harsh, bright island light – his abandonment by a young mother who commits suicide; Elaine's brief childhood introduction to her father, when he pretends he can’t see her; Mr. Potter’s father, a fisherman so frustrated by a lack of fish that he invites God to kiss his ass. Finally, Elaine pushes the narrative forward to the present, when Mr. Potter is dead and “unable to affect the portrait of him [she] is rendering here.”
Mr. Potter's detached existence buffers him from life's emotional realities: obligation. to his daughters when they come begging for money; frustration, when a lover (Elaine’s mother) steals his life’s savings; guilt, when he effectively usurps his former boss’s business. But Mr. Potter does not suppress the disturbing elements of his existence on purpose. Rather, circumstances have made him emotionally illiterate, unaware of his desires and motivations. He is pitifully incapable of examining himself.
Kincaid, with her gently rhythmic prose, has painted another searing portrait and has done so with typical brilliance. Mr. Potter’s shortcomings are evident, yet he remains sympathetic. In Kincaid's hands and through Elaine's eyes, an honest appraisal of one’s self and one’s relationship to others is not only vital to self-knowledge and even to life, but is also an act of deep love. In narrating Mr. Potter's "biography," Elaine embraces her father, offering to him, to herself, and to the reader the beautiful gift of a life examined.
Shackling Water by Adam Mansbach, reviewed for Boston Magazine
Words tumble off the pages of "Shackling Water" and bump against your brain. Strung out and strung together, they pull you into passages so rhythmic that for the first few pages you want to stop the meaning from leaking through. You want only to say the words out loud, hear the syllables roll off your lips, let them echo in the quiet, and then, electrified, catch them again as they snap back through your ears. First-time novelist Mansbach’s love of language and music mixes the two into something both ancient and immediate – a story and a song, a new riff on the old tale of a young man and his journey into jazz.
A Woman’s Education by Jill Ker Conway, reviewed for Boston Magazine
Along with a leafy campus and a century of tradition, Jill Ker Conway inherited a talented but obstreperous staff when she was named president at Smith College in 1975. Various factions emerged, which Conway delineates with frustratingly simplistic stereotypes: grumpy old men fiercely guarding a way of academic life better suited to the '50s; well-mannered, minutiae-obsessed “lady scholars” devoting careers to “intellectual petit point”; old-school liberal professors indulging themselves by occasionally fondling the student body; supportive feminists embracing a modern women’s education. While Conway fails to shine true analytical light onto any one group or issue, her reflections on the inner workings of one of New England’s academic bastions still prove worthwhile for readers interested in the history of higher education.
Bad Advice by Karin Goodwin, reviewed for Publishers Weekly
Like Goodwin's first book, “Sleeping with Random Beasts,” her sophomore effort stars an indecisive, self-centered heroine who can't get her act together. Judith, in her mid-30s, has fled the East Coast and is living in Tucson, Ariz., working as a waitress and sleeping with her married landlord. While out for a jog, she injures a man she believes is going to attack her. When she realizes that he isn't dangerous, the two form a friendship that meanders towards love. Judith and the man, Scratch, are moral and geographical vagrants desperately in need of a home base, and each looks to the other for stability. Back east, Judith's older brother David is more grounded but involved in a loveless relationship. A charged encounter with a bisexual stranger named Iris leads him into an unfamiliar, impulsive realm. He and his new obsession hit the road, heading west toward a possible meeting with Judith, whom David hasn't seen for two years. As other friends and family members – all battling dysfunction across the psychiatric and physical spectrum – join the siblings for an explosive reunion, the story starts to spin out of control. Goodwin's wry sense of humor and sharp dialogue compete with a slack, colloquial narration ("She looked like a brain, in disguise for the evening as an almost-babe.") Her primary talent seems to lie in creating unpleasant characters who are ultimately likable; the dual plot line works nicely, but when its various satellites come crashing down, narrative overload may leave readers unimpressed.