Confronting Tradition: A Rabbi Returns, Women Campaign, Pearl Buck ResurrectedEdna O'Brien tells 11 tales of sex, love and death, and Steve Stern romps through 20th century Jewish history. Rebecca Traister surveys how the 2008 election changed politics for women, Darin Strauss absorbs a classmate's death, and Hilary Spurling resurrects Pearl S. Buck's life and fiction.
Don't look for twinkles in this new story collection by the grande dame of Irish letters. Darkness is everything in these 11 tales about matters of sex, love, home and death, whether set in Ireland or London or New York. The reason that love is so painful, O'Brien has one of her characters say, is that it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give.
Underappreciated novelist Steve Stern cleverly weaves together a zany search for spiritual meaning in a depraved society, in this wonderfully entertaining romp through the difficult history of Jews in the 20th century. At its center is a 19th century mystic rabbi encased in a block of ice during an out-of-body meditation. Shepherded from Poland to Memphis by succeeding generations of a beleaguered but indomitable family, he's finally discovered by sad-sack adolescent Bernie Karp in 1999, while rummaging through his family's basement freezer in search of a slab of meat with which to duplicate an outrageous feat from Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. The defrosted rabbi is initiated into overstuffed but undernourished modern culture by bingeing on television. He comments: "Shopping bazaars it's got, and Dodge Barracudas and Gootchie bags made I think from the skin of Leviathan, churches from Yoyzel it's got big as Herod's Temple, but it ain't got a soul."
Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women
by Rebecca Traister
Salon reporter Rebecca Traister brings a historically informed perspective to this survey of the 2008 presidential election, where women were key players, not only as candidates but also sometimes outspoken spouses of candidates, as well as reporters and pundits. She fastens a sharp eye on the cultural curveball that was Sarah Palin and her undoing — at least during the campaign — by the tag team of Tina Fey and Katie Couric, as well as her fellow conservatives. But far and away the longest and most eye-opening part of Traister's book is devoted to Hillary Clinton and her misadventures in "Campaigning While Female," as Traister puts it.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography in 2010, Darin Strauss' memoir Half a Life is painfully honest and inherently dramatic without seeming either precious or self-pitying. When the car he was driving hit and killed Celine, a high school classmate whom he knew only casually, Strauss' life was forever altered. Although he was held to be blameless in Celine's death, Strauss found that this event — which occurred nearly 20 years ago — has now shaped almost half his life. In prose that is introspective, evocative and unaffected, Strauss shares his musings on life, death, blame and self-doubt, and the haunting words of the dead girl's parent: "Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now. ... Because you are living it for two people."
Pearl S. Buck's 1931 blockbuster The Good Earth earned her a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, the first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an American woman. These days, however, it's her life story rather than her novels (which are now barely read in the West or in China) that fascinate readers. In making the case for reappraising Buck's fiction and her life, award-winning biographer Hilary Spurling transforms Buck from a dreary "lady author" into a female warrior. Having grown up in China at the subsistence level, as the daughter of a missionary, Buck had firsthand knowledge of war, infanticide and sexual slavery when she entered college as a charity student in Virginia. As Spurling deftly illustrates, that alienation gave Buck her stance as a writer, gracing her with the outsider vision needed to interpret one world to another.
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag.