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My New American Life, I Was a Dancer, U is for Undertow, The Lacuna, The Immortal Life, Face the Winter Naked, The Help, and Swa

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My New American Life by Francine Prose. (HarperCollins, $25.99). Much as she did in A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which unsentimentally examined the sacred cows of liberal politics and our higher education system, Prose writes from the point of view of an Albanian refugee, Lula, who finds much to love and much to criticize in her new homeland. Hired to be a nanny to a high school student, Lula is truly a stranger in a strange land. Unable to comprehend why her young charge is unhappy in a palatial home and why his dad appears lost since abandoned by his mentally ill wife, Lula nonetheless becomes a valued family member. When some Albanian thugs show up to ask her to hide a gun for them, she unwittingly becomes a reluctant part of a plot which could have serious ramifications for her and the two people who have become to feel like her family. While casting a critical eye at life in general in the U.S. for its wealthiest members, Prose nonetheless captures the similarities between an Albanian immigrant who wants nothing less than to fit in and  Americans who aren’t even aware of the great divide between the haves and the have nots. Often hilarious and always on target, Prose has written an outstanding critique of life in America.—Susan E. Zinner

I Was a Dancer by Jacques d’Amboise (Knopf, $35.00). If you’ve ever seen the calloused feet of a ballerina, you know it takes hard work to master the delicate art of ballet. Jacques d’Amboise put in similar time and effort over the last 10 years to write the incredible story of his rise from the streets of the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan to principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for more than three decades.
   D’Amboise credits his tough French Canadian mother, whom he affectionately calls “Boss,” with sparking his love for dance. When he was seven, she forced him to attend his sister's ballet classes—not to participate, but to keep him off the streets. He went from fidgeting on the sidelines to out-jumping everyone in the class. Six months later he joined George Balanchine's School of American Ballet and by 15 was a member of the New York City Ballet. By 17 he was a principal dancer, and by 21 he had starred in movies (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Carousel”) and performed on Broadway.
   “I’ve always been happy,” d’Amboise says in this expansive book brimming with optimism. His writing is warm and conversational, and lacks any hint of the haughtiness one might expect from one of the world’s most celebrated classical dancers. He’s clearly still that kid from the Heights, which makes his tales of renowned performances, prima ballerinas and temperamental choreographers such as Jerome Robbins fun, interesting and accessible even to readers unfamiliar with the dance world.
  D’Amboise also recounts times when the grandeur of ballet intersected with 20th century pop culture. He appeared several times on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and was approached back stage after one performance by 60s counterculture icon Janis Joplin. “Hey dancer,” she said, “I like you and I like the way you move.” Joplin invited him to a party that night, but he went home instead and asked his wife, “Who’s Janis Joplin?” He also spent several months disco dancing with John Travolta to perfect his moves for “Saturday Night Fever.”
  Above all, this is a book about the transformative power of art by a man who is still in awe of having landed center stage in one of the most vibrant and prolific periods in ballet. If “dance is the song of the body,” as choreographer Martha Graham believed, then I Was a Dancer is the song of a remarkable life.—Den Pope

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27.95). In 1988, twenty-seven year old Michael Sutton arrived unannounced at private detective Kinsey Milhone’s office in Santa Teresa, CA. He had recently read a newspaper article that retrieved a long-forgotten incident from his memory. Twenty-one years earlier, four-year old Mary Claire Fitzhugh was abducted from her parents’ home and was never seen again, despite a ransom payment (which was never picked up) being made.
  At age six, Michael had stumbled upon two “pirates” who were digging a hole to bury their treasure,” which he remembers being wrapped in a blanket, not hidden in a chest. Was the “treasure” Mary Claire? Would he and Kinsey be able to locate the burial site after all this time?
  Sue Grafton, the master of suspense has crafted yet another page-turner, rife with plots and subplots and various twists and turns that keep Kinsey putting together the pieces of a puzzle, which will eventually comprise a complete picture of a long-dormant cold case.—Colleen Fahy

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, $5.99) A lacuna is defined as “a gap or missing part, as in a manuscript, series, or logical argument.” Barbara Kingsolver has given us food for thought and a plot to keep you up all night in this book in which several levels of lacunae exist.
   Kingsolver introduces us to Harrison Shepherd as a young boy living with his Mexican mother. He meets Diego Rivera and begins working for him as a cement mixer, but is soon cooking for Rivera and Frida Kahlo, where he is part of their household during Trotsky’s residence and assassination there. These historical characters seamlessly populate the same world as the fictional characters. Harrison’s life takes a sharp turn when his mother dies and he is sent to Washington, D.C., into the custody of an American father he does not know. Left to his own devices by his distracted father during World War II, he becomes involved in sending “un-American” art out of the country. The U.S. is described as xenophobic, suspicious of all foreigners and immigrants, and steeped in mindless “American-ness” as opposed to justifiable patriotism. Following the war, Harrison discovers a passion for writing and publishes a series of adventure novels set in Mexico during Aztec times. Finding a haven in the South, the reclusive author meets and hires his amanuensis Violet Brown, an older Appalachian woman who has had the courage to leave the mountain world with which she is familiar.  She becomes his friend and a protector of both him and his work. Both Harrison and Violet are characters with whom it is easy to feel genuine affection.
   The word “lacuna” applies to a lost journal of Harrison’s, but he also becomes a lacuna himself by denying the press and the government access to his life. The press, unable to get interviews with Shepherd, distort the few facts available to them.  They label him “the most eligible man in America,” and also infer an affair with the very proper Mrs. Brown. The apolitical author is, in this time of McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of being a Communist by virtue of the time he spent in the Rivera household. The media fulfilled nature’s inclination to fill a void, causing his third novel to be a total failure because bookstores will not stock “Communist” authors and he refuses to respond to their accusations. In many ways, the political climate is similar to that of this second decade of the twenty-first century. Sound bites serve as news, cable pundits jump on stories before they are thoroughly investigated, some members of Congress call other members “un-American,” and immigrants are made to feel unwelcome. Kingsolver always manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Lacunae play a part in the book, but Kingsolver certainly leaves no gaps in this very readable and timely novel.—Cynthia Taubert

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, $26.00). In 1951 a surgeon in the “colored” section of Johns Hopkins Hospital cut tissue samples from Henrietta Lacks, a woman dying of cervical cancer. Permission from the patient or her family was not legally required and thus not sought. Growing with “mythological intensity” in the lab of a research scientist, Henrietta’s cells proved to be “immortal.” As such, these unique cells have made possible a long list of medical advancements—including the Salk polio vaccine, a treatment for HIV infection, and several breakthroughs in cancer research. Sadly, while her cells were engendering a multi-million dollar industry, Henrietta’s family continued unaware of the remarkable story until twenty-two years after her death—when her daughter-in-law accidentally learned of them. Henrietta’s children, living in poverty and unable to afford health insurance, were overwhelmed by the news. They have since vacillated between pride and resentment. Her son Zakariyya was especially angry at the misconception of “donated” cells—“Them cells was stolen!”
  Rebecca Skloot explains the scientific details in terms clear to a layperson and gives both sides of the controversy over “ownership” of cells. Without preaching, she communicates outrage at social attitudes enabling medical researchers to emerge guilt-free after exploiting African Americans as guinea pigs. Skloot’s greatest literary success, however, lies in evoking sympathy, understanding, and admiration for the Lacks family. Her portrayal of Henrietta’s brave and mercurial daughter, Deborah, is especially moving.—Kathryn Hilt

Face the Winter Naked by Bonnie Turner (available on Kindle and paperback, $16.35). “Daniel wasn’t good for anything except making babies,” Vera said. “He made another one and took off, leaving you to give birth and care for four children alone.”
  With these words, Vera, Daniel Tomelin’s outspoken and critical mother-in-law, states what many who read Turner’s novel may perceive as an obvious truth. But those having lived through the Great Depression and so understanding the desperate and even irresponsible measures a man might be driven to, will possibly see the behavior of Turner’s male protagonist as normal, inevitable even.
  Bonnie Turner’s Face the Winter Naked is a vivid but ultimately tragic story of desperation and adversity. In a time when many men, no longer able to face the helplessness of seeing their families go without, humble but prideful Daniel, his sanity threatened by memories of trench warfare and shamed by his inability to provide for his family, leaves Independence, Missouri in 1932. For more than a year he drifts about the country on foot and by rail in search of work. His wife, LaDaisy, is left to manage at home any way she can, often stooping to desperate measures to feed, house and clothe the children Daniel left behind, while at the same time fending off the advances of her sister’s terrorizing husband.
  As Daniel traverses the country, he meets others like himself, men crushed of spirit and purpose and dignity. Like George, who’s on his way home to die and is “just too tired to put up with myself anymore.” There’s also Walter and Chester, angry, disgruntled men whom Daniel meets at a veterans’ march in Washington, D.C., men willing to fight to get the bonuses due them from the government. LaDaisy, driven beyond her ability to cope any longer with her desperate circumstances, strikes out, bringing hers and the lives of all around her crashing down. Daniel’s journey comes to an abrupt end when he picks up a month-old newspaper in Kansas City, Missouri, and reads of a disastrous event at home.
  Face the Winter Naked, though a story of hardship and suffering, is also one of resiliency, courage, loyalty and, ultimately forgiveness. Turner, in blending factual history with one man’s fictional odyssey, is definitely a woman who has a story to tell and the ability to do so.—Barbara Weddle

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Putnam, $8.65). Generations of African-American women in the South raised the children, cooked the meals, and cleaned the houses of their employers. Often of necessity they spent more time with the children they cared for than with their own. The Help introduces us to two of these women—very different from each other—and the young white woman who becomes a catalyst for change in their lives.
   Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns to her home in Jackson, Mississippi following her graduation from Ole Miss in 1962 to find her cherished nanny Constantine has disappeared and no one is willing to discuss why she left or where she has gone. Her mother wants nothing more than for Skeeter to find an appropriate husband, while Skeeter’s ambition is to become a writer.
   She joins old friends in a monthly bridge club and learns that one of them, Hilly Holbrook, has launched a campaign to require separate bathroom facilities outside the house for “the help.” Aibileen Clark, the maid in the Leefolt home where they are meeting, overhears Skeeter say, “Why don’t you just build yourself one outside?”
   Aibileen, strong, quiet, dignified, and devoted to her toddler charge, Mae Mobley, remembers this when Skeeter comes to her for help with her new job, writing a household hints column for the local newspaper.  Skeeter can write, but knows nothing about housekeeping.
  On hearing that Aibileen’s late son had planned to write a book about black workers, Skeeter decides she would like to write a book about the lives of the African-American women who manage so many households with so little compensation or respect. A New York editor expresses interest. She enlists Aibileen’s assistance, and asks her help with recruiting other maids to anonymously tell their stories. The only one courageous enough to participate is Minny.  Minny’s sassy mouth keeps getting her fired, but her cooking—the best in town—keeps getting her new jobs. Ironically, year after year she endures verbal and physical abuse from her husband.
   There are some very funny moments in The Help. The most hilarious is how, when Hilly gets word of the book project and she threatens to sue for libel, a slice of Minny’s very special pie stops Hilly in her tracks. Minny takes over when she’s hired by a newlywed social outcast (read “white trash”) woman, only to find out she wants Minny to teach her to cook without her husband’s knowledge. She’s no Julia Child.
   Kathryn Stockett eloquently depicts the lives of the maids, Minny and Aibileen, who will stay with you long after you close the book. Their lives take different courses due to the success of Skeeter’s book, not unrealistically, but perhaps as a harbinger of the changes that began at this point in American history and continue today.
   Whether the movie version of The Help coming out next month is true to the book will rely entirely on the lead performances. If the women’s characters are portrayed well, it should be worth watching…. after reading the book.—Cynthia Taubert

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95). This much-touted first novel is a bizarre and fanciful book. If you can imagine Alice in Wonderland, Journey to the Center of the Earth, any novel by Carl Hiaasen, and Homer’s Odyssey simmered together in a rich broth, you might have some idea of its flavor.
  A native of Florida who graduated from Northwestern in 2003, Karen Russell is not yet thirty. Her one previous book, the story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, earned her numerous honors, such as inclusion on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list in 2010. Swamplandia! was recently long-listed for the prestigious Orange Prize.
   Set at an alligator amusement park named Swamplandia! on a mythical island off the west coast of Florida, the novel features the Bigtree family, who own and manage the park. The mother of the family, a celebrated aquatic dancer who for years drew in crowds for swimming with the gators, has recently died of cancer, and the park has fallen on hard times. The father, seeking financial bailout, goes ashore, leaving his three children, Ava, Osceola and Kiwi, aged 13, 16 and 17 respectively, to fend for themselves. Preposterous adventures, both epic and surreal, ensue, all of them populated with fabulous creatures: birds, reptiles, and some avian-reptilian humans.
  While this novel may tell you more about alligators than you want to know, it remains engrossing throughout. Sometimes the prose smacks of Dickens at his most ebullient; sometimes it is lyrical and naturalistic, as in this description from Ava: “Shells glittered on either side of us like defunct treasure, washed a pearly rose and dish blue that glowed against the sky. The water was as narrow as a hallway, lapping the tall white walls of shells, and the green column of air on the other side of the tunnel stood open like a door.”
   This strange coming-of-age novel itself stands open like a door, summoning us to wild revels. As Picasso said of art, it is a lie that helps us to see the truth.—Julie West Johnson.

Published: August 20, 2011
Issue: Fall 2011 Issue