By Alison Smith
Smith's vigorously Catholic family might not have been accomplished, but they certainly knew how to keep the faith. In their loving but insular world, not believing in God was "like saying you didn't believe in oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity." Fifteen-year-old Alison and her older brother Roy would wake up each morning as their father blessed them with holy relics, and Alison routinely had visions of Jesus, whom she considered her most intimate friend.
But her faith is horribly challenged when, weeks before he plans to start college, Roy is suddenly killed in a car crash. This intimate and quietly piercing memoir describes three years of Alison's adolescence in Rochester, N.Y., as she struggles with her grief. At first she is unmoored—refusing food, compulsively reading and aimlessly roaming the halls of Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls, where the nuns prescribe prayer and a stint at the state hospital teaching lobotomy patients how to sew. A respite comes from the ancient Sister Aggie, who shows Alison how to put her head down the laundry chute and uncork a good, therapeutic scream. But it is not until she begins a clandestine love affair with a more worldly girl at school that Alison starts to emerge from her brother's shadow. With a clear eye and an unsentimental heart, Smith writes a deeply moving elegy about devastating loss and how it can be redeemed.
By John Grisham
Tapping into the spirit of such revered fish-out-of-water flicks as Doc Hollywood and My Cousin Vinny
—come on, you know you love 'em—Grisham's latest follows the travails of a 23-year-old college dropout from up north, Willie Traynor, who buys a small-town newspaper in 1970s Mississippi. The paper is a money pit when this cocky do-gooder takes over, but thanks in part to his gutsy editorial applause for racial integration in schools, he gets circulation skyrocketing. The death threats, on the other hand, are a bummer.
Grisham can be preachy, but here, in his best book in years, he is funny, clever and charming. To appease the bestseller gods, his title has the appropriate stink of legalese, and indeed, there are courtroom theatrics. But the story's big, beating heart is the hero's friendship with a black mother of eight who is negotiating formidable racial barriers. Weepy readers, prepare: By the end, Willie comes of age, but not without a jarring and genuinely moving last-page shot to the heart.
By Sarah Dunant
Sixteenth-century Florence may have been long ago and far away, but as Dunant adroitly demonstrates, its political and religious turmoil—and debates about homosexuality—have eerie parallels in the present day. In 1528 Tuscany, an elderly nun seemingly dies of a tumor, but it's a phony made of pig entrails. She also turns out to have a lewd snake tattoo.
The nun leaves behind a testament revealing her backstory before she fled to the convent: She is Alessandra Cecchi, the fiercely intelligent daughter of a wealthy Florentine merchant. As a sheltered teen, she yearns to be an artist and schemes to get time alone with a reclusive painter. But she allows herself to be talked into wedding a much older man who burdens her with a dangerous secret. At the same time, reactionary friar Savonarola and his brutal Taliban-style enforcers begin to denounce and oppress sinners, especially women. Venus is abroad mural bursting with color, passion and intrigue. It's also a rousing wake-up call for anyone who snoozed through Renaissance history.
Clinton's Joke Writer
If you think Bill Clinton was witty-as Presidents go—give some credit to Mark Katz, 40, who penned gags for about 20 of Clinton's speeches and cracks wise in a new book, Clinton & Me. Here are some one (or two) liners:
ON HANDLING MONICAGATE We could do jokes about the investigation, but not about what caused it. For example, at a Gridiron dinner: "Kindly withhold your subpoenas until all jokes have been told."
ON LIFE AT THE CENTER OF THE STORM There was a time in 1998 and 1999 when I was the only humor writer in the world not writing Monica jokes. I regretted that because it looked like a lot of fun.... Those were, without a doubt, the darkest days of my career as a Democratic operative. And that's coming from someone who worked on the Dukakis campaign.
ON JOKES WE NEVER HEARD Even as I was writing it, I knew he would never say [this joke]: "I've made a terrible mistake. Traditionally, Presidents raise money in the Oval Office and have sex in the Lincoln bedroom." I knew it would never get off my hard drive.
ON OTHER SENSITIVE TOPICS Asking him to do a joke about McDonald's was to invite a small tirade about the fact that he hadn't been there since he took office.
ON WHAT MOM THINKS After [Clinton] got done congratulating me and talking me up to Mom about how funny I am, she said, "Mr. President, you just complimented Mark for the same thing I used to spank him for."
ON HIS AMBITIONS I'm willing to send jokes to all the [Democratic candidates] in hopes one of them wins. I still want a ride in Air Force One.
- Ellen Shapiro,
- Sean Daly,
- Bella Stander.