After Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, 7-year-old Kien's fair hair and light eyes marked him for discrimination on top of the woes that befell the ravaged nation. As the product of his mother's liaison with an American, he was a reminder of the hated West.
As Kien recounts in a painfully evocative memoir, the next decade brought horror upon horror. Shunned as a "half-breed," he endured abuse by his mother's boyfriend, a failed attempt to escape the country by boat and imprisonment in a work camp—all by age 14. No one comes off clean, not even Kien himself, who admits he was willing to sell out his own two siblings for a ticket out of Vietnam. After years of petitioning, the whole family finally emigrated to the U.S. in 1985.
Now a New York City dentist, Kien began writing the book as a way to deal with terrifying dreams about his former life. Since he finished it, he writes, "I don't have the nightmares anymore." (Little, Brown, $24.95)
Bottom Line: A remarkable tale of survival at all costs
by Louise Erdrich
Old Father Damien has a secret. Fifty-one years ago a nun confessed a murder to him. Now deceased, the nun is being considered for sainthood for miracles attributed to her, and the priest feels he must tell the church what he knows. He doesn't want to jeopardize his other secret, though: He's really a woman named Agnes DeWitt. Meeting a traveling priest who died en route to a Minnesota Indian reservation, the then-young Agnes took his place and, in disguise, learned to play priest to the Ojibwe tribe as well as any man.
Part Ojibwe herself, Erdrich (The Beet Queen) tells a complex and imaginative story, weaving together the mysticism of the Native American world and the raw emotions surrounding Agnes's masquerade. Though dense with the tribe's dark troubles (murder is the least of them), the novel's lighter moments are quite funny; among Agnes's 10 tips on how to act like a man: "Admire women's handiwork with copious amazement." (HarperCollins, $26)
Bottom Line: Lyrical, mystical novel that touches the soul
by Terry Ryan
Book of the week
Had Evelyn Ryan, the real-life heroine of this delightful, inspiring memoir of the '50s, been born 30 years later, she'd likely be pulling in six figures at a Madison Avenue ad agency. Instead, saddled with an alcoholic husband and a brood of 10, she used her self-described "knack for words" to keep her struggling family afloat. Evelyn's strategy? To furnish the house with the prizes—everything from frying pans to a Triumph TR3 sports car—she won in hundreds of jingle-writing contests for products like Lipton soup ("Seasoned right for season-round zest/ Cents and minutes are all you invest") and Lucky Strike cigarettes ("Send me laundry, send me dough/ Send me Luckies to send my beau..."). Ryan's daughter Terry, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, presents Eisenhower-era America in prose as warm as oatmeal. The author and her siblings are given their due—as is their abusive, whiskey-soused dad—but the book's sturdy center is Evelyn (who died in 1998), a woman whose can-do spirit honored her aptly named hometown. (Simon & Schuster, $24)
Bottom Line: Nabs first prize in the memoir genre
What hath Oprah wrought? So predictable are the diva of discussion's literary preferences that one suspects Gwyn Hyman Rubio crafted this 1998 debut novel just to please Ms. Winfrey, who obligingly tapped it for Oprah's Book Club. Female protagonist struggling for self-acceptance? Check. Painful, illuminating journey to independent womanhood? Check. Triumphant emotional climax and spiritual closure? Check and check. Icy Sparks is an orphan growing up in rural Kentucky in the 1950s. Like her self-consciously quirky name, Icy is a paradox: a sweet, yellow-haired girl who can unexpectedly become "mean as a striped snake." In fact, the tics and curses that she tries to suppress are symptoms of Tourette's syndrome, a disorder that goes undiagnosed throughout Icy's trying adolescence. The relationship between Icy and her patient grandparents is nicely understated, but the book's overcooked symbolism grows tiresome. By the time Icy declares, "Ain't one of us perfect, but still the good Lord loves us," you'll wish Winfrey would pick a juicy whodunit next time. (Penguin, $13.95)
Bottom Line: Lacks spark
- Julie K.L. Dam,
- Jennifer Wulff,
- Michelle Tauber.