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updated 09/03/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/2007 01:00AM

LEARNING TO SAVE YOURSELF
SONGS WITHOUT WORDS
by Ann Packer |

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REVIEWED BY JILL SMOLOWE

CRITIC'S CHOICE

NOVEL

Competent and steady, Liz, a northern California mother of two, has always been there for her emotionally fragile, bohemian friend Sarabeth. Now, a mental health crisis involving her teenage daughter has upended Liz's world and suddenly she's the one in need of support. But Sarabeth lets her down. Though she hears her friend's cry for help, she finds herself paralyzed: Liz's ordeal reminds Sarabeth of the devastating trauma of her own youth—her mother's suicide.

Welcome back to Packer country, a richly psychological terrain where finding the balance between responsibility to others and obligation to oneself is never obvious or easy. But unlike in her bestselling debut novel The Dive from Clausen's Pier, this time around Packer's characters make no attempt to flee their distress. Instead—while Liz stews in bewilderment and anger at her friend's failure and Sarabeth sinks ever deeper into the guilt and fear that keep her away—each woman confronts her personal limitations head-on. Engrossing, forgiving and quietly wise, Songs never makes a false step as Packer keeps both the pages and her readers' minds turning until the very end.

Circling My Mother
by Mary Gordon|

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MEMOIR

REVIEWED BY MICHELLE GREEN

A "cripple" and a "drunk," in her daughter's words, Gordon's mother, Anna, was a woman whose body was destroyed by polio and her soul by alcohol. By the time she died at 94, writes the novelist, Anna had disappeared into senile dementia, spending her days "with her head in her hands, rocking...." In an eloquent exegesis of her mother's life that parallels The Shadow Man, her book about her elusive father who died when she was 7, Gordon, now 57, not only examines how Anna was defined by her infirmities, but she also parses Anna's close relationships. Empathetic and nuanced, Circling is more meditation than memoir, a moving look at the ways love and hate and time can distort one's perception of a parent.

The End of the Alphabet
by CS Richardson |

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NOVEL

Alphabet is a dazzling exercise in understatement that centers on a seemingly grim topic: the final 30 days in the life of Ambrose Zephyr, a 50-year-old London ad man—and the end of his passionate union with his wife, Zappora, a fashion magazine editor. Stricken with an unnamed disease that will kill him within a month, Zephyr (who is fixated on the alphabet) persuades Zappora to join him on a tour of great cities from Amsterdam to Istanbul. He takes in the strange magic of it all; she's battered by love, anger and terror. In 119 pages, Richardson offers a compelling look at an enviable marriage—one that just happens to be coming to an end.

Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe
by Mike O'Connor |

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REVIEWED BY PORTER SHREVE

MEMOIR

Growing up, veteran journalist O'Connor felt like a fugitive. His mother and father, a traveling salesman, continually moved with their three kids—from Texas to Mexico to California and often back across the border—claiming the family was in danger. They never said why or who was chasing them, and O'Connor wouldn't discover the truth until after his parents died, when he'd become a reporter for the New York Times and NPR. Part memoir, part investigative journalism, this riveting, deeply felt book exposes the destructive power of family secrets.

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