NOVEL

By Mary Doria Russell

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Because her third novel brims with priests and peasants and aristocrats who risked their lives to shelter Jews in Italy during the last, ugly months of World War II, Mary Russell knew that some might peg it as sentimental. So in an appendix, she supplies the historical evidence that while the world's attention was fixed on the Russian front and the beaches of Normandy, extra-ordinary feats of armed resistance and humanitarian rescue were accomplished in the mountains near the French border. With little outside help, an ad hoc network of ordinary Italians sheltered not only the Jewish families who had been their neighbors for generations but also the stream of northern European Jews who fled across the Alps. Russell reimagines this drama with a complex cast of characters including an urbane Jewish-Italian aviator, crippled by guilt over a misdirected bomb in the Abyssinia campaign; sly nuns who defy both the Nazis and an indifferent Vatican to hide Jewish orphans; and a remorseful German doctor nursed back to health by a rabbi's wife. They can all seem like romantic cutouts until it becomes clear that Russell will not be supplying the happy endings that would inevitably reward such heroism in a more clichéd book. A Thread of Grace is a rich, old-fashioned read.

NOVEL

By Tim Guest
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Tim Guest was 4 years old in 1979 when his mother became a follower of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose acolytes wore clothing in the colors of the sunset and adopted Sanskrit names. Guest's memoir, My Life in Orange, maps the odyssey that led him and his mother from England to communes in India, Oregon and Germany—and finally back home. As some parents searched for enlightenment through ecstatic dancing, sexual freedom and group rituals that occasionally involved violence and abuse, Tim and other commune children suffered from neglect. Only when the Rajneesh movement fell apart amid charges involving embezzlement and conspiracy to commit murder did Guest's mother come to understand the damage that she'd done to her son and begin the painful process of reconciliation. Guest's compelling book is remarkably evenhanded, amusing, forgiving and wise as it charts the terrible shortsightedness and foolishness that can occur in the name of higher understanding.

MEMOIR

By Kalisha Buckhanon

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Upstate is where New York's prisons are, and where one of the protagonists in Buckhanon's affecting first novel spends most of his early adulthood. Living in Harlem during the 1990s, Natasha, 16, and Antonio, 17, are separated when Antonio is arrested for killing his brutal father. His punishment: 10 years upstate. Their reactions to the crisis, as revealed in letters, are fairly predictable: Antonio swears his innocence and demands fidelity, while Natasha finds temporary solace with a boy at her part-time job. Inevitably the letter-writers gain perspective as they grow older: Becoming downright callous toward Antonio, Natasha nabs a scholarship to an elite college; in the meantime, Antonio, who is probably just as bright, struggles not only with the hellishness of prison (where he earns a GED) but with the feeling that he has ruined his life. Because the novel is told in their own voices, in language full of slang and youthful posturing, one feels impatient with the fecklessness of these characters yet more compelled by their later achievements. Clearly this author accomplishes what she sets out to do--creating a realistic love story that's set against an urban backdrop as gritty as its characters are memorable.

NOVEL

By Curtis Sittenfeld

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Indiana teen Lee Fiora falls for the well-manicured images in a glossy brochure and applies to a posh New England prep school, even though the tuition is way out of her family's reach, in this painful-to-read but finely written first novel. Straight As get Lee into the Ault School on scholarship, but fitting into the Abercrombie crowd is tougher. Determined not to seem desperate for acceptance, she retreats into introspection so deep it nearly paralyzes her. Only in hindsight does Lee recognize that the same quest for popularity she scorned in others led to her humiliating treatment by jauntily named heartthrob Cross Sugarman, who sneaks into her dorm for sex but ignores her otherwise. There's not much of a story here, just the wiser now insights of a sympathetic protagonist. Readers who would rather have acne again than revisit their high school years probably won't find those epiphanies to be enough, but teenagers and freshly minted grads will gobble up this voyeuristic trip inside an enclave of privilege.

NOVEL

By David Israel

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From the proud lineage of neurotic Manhattan bachelors comes Israel's endearing 28-year-old aspiring screen writer/borderline loser who ruminates on the origins of mini carrots and wisecracks his way through a string of girlfriends. Sound familiar? The scenario maybe warmed-over Seinfeld, but Israel's hero, despite the obligatory snarkiness, has a warm and gooey center. (Ironically, however, he never has a name; Israel calls him "Everyman"—a conceit that, along with the second-person narrative, could be seriously annoying if it weren't leavened with heart and humor.)

As it happens, Mr. Everyman is really an old-fashioned guy, wanting nothing more than marriage, kids and Hollywood megastardom. Things look up when he meets grad student Sonja—even if she has Epstein-Barr and lives with her folks on "please god nooo, Long Island"—and it's not long before their ups and downs provide grist for his budding screenplay. But can he finagle a happy ending? The answer is visible a mile away, but Israel's debut still manages to disarm with loads of menschy charm.

By Nancy Rawles

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My Jim is a harsh, powerfully personal portrait of slavery as told by Sadie Watson, a slave introduced by Rawles as the romantic partner of Huck Finn's raftmate Jim. Sadie's tale—set mainly in Missouri slave cabins and fields where masters beat and bed the people they trade-is transcribed by her granddaughter in language that's evocative and musical. The most memorable scene: After running to freedom, a sorrowful Jim returns to try and buy his wife. There's much about Mark Twain's young slave that you may remember but haven't really felt until now. Sadie's story will change all that.

Delivered from Distraction

Authors of the 1994 bestseller Driven to Distraction, which put Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) on the cultural map, Hallowell and Ratey have ADD themselves. In their new book Delivered from Distraction, they offer the latest on getting "the most out of life" with ADD. Here, sample questions from the book's quiz for screening adults for the disorder.

•Do you love highly stimulating environments like newsrooms...or emergency rooms? •Are you a maverick? •Do you enjoy flirting more than the average person? •Do you have a sense of humor that is unusual, zany, macabre or otherwise out of the ordinary? •Do you love basements and attics, even if yours are messy? •Do you feel a great deal of secret shame about how disorganized you are?

Still with us? The authors write that the quiz is not "diagnostic," but that "the more 'yes' answers...the more likely you have ADD."

  • Contributors:
  • Lee Aitken,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Anna Shapiro,
  • Sue Corbett,
  • Ellen Shapiro,
  • Moira Bailey.