Book Review – November-December 2012

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book review

By Susan Taylor

I have two new novels by best-selling authors and a non-fiction tome by another best-selling author that looks intimidating, but is surprisingly readable—I hope you’ll find something suitable either to read yourself or for holiday giving. Thanks for reading!

Andrew Solomon’s last book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, was published in 2001. It won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer.  His new book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, might very well do the same—it is a compassionate, lucidly written treatise on children with extraordinary attributes (deafness, Down syndrome, autism, genius, transgender, and more) and the parents who raise them. Excluding the introduction and conclusion, it is divided into 10 chapters, each of which highlights a specific “horizontal” identity, as Solomon terms the difference that is at odds with the family’s “vertical” identity. Don’t be daunted by the book’s size—despite its 700+ pages, it is easily consumed, chapter by chapter, with each topic providing so much to think about that I put it down for a day or so before picking it up to read the next section. As a gay man, Solomon identifies with children who are different from their parents. His stories of these parents, whose situations might seem insupportable to the reader, are awe-inspiring. A large majority of parents of exceptional children seem to grow both emotionally and spiritually in caring for them, despite the ongoing physical and bureaucratic hurdles they face. My copy of the book has slips of paper marking particularly moving stories, especially cogent observations, and just plain brilliant writing. Parents, social workers and teachers should take special interest, but I urge everyone to read Far from the Tree—Andrew Solomon has written another thought-provoking gem.

Barbara Kingsolver has a new novel out, just in time for the holiday season. Flight Behavior is classic Kingsolver—set in rural Appalachia, peopled with salt of the earth characters who strive to do their best under less than ideal circumstances. When Dellarobia Turnbow discovers a valley populated by a rare species of butterfly, far from its usual stomping grounds, her hometown is inundated with gawkers, journalists, religious fundamentalists, and, most importantly for Della, scientists come to study the aberrant behavior. Torn between her loyalty to her family and her desire to understand and preserve the butterflies, Dellarobia must walk a tightrope between her traditional past and the possibility of a more educated, less constrictive future. As always, Kingsolver does a superlative job of presenting religious, scientific, political and corporate points of view in a narrative that never reads like a diatribe. Both fans and those new to the author will enjoy her newest tale.

Ian McEwan’s new book caught my eye because of my recent obsession with British spies and MI5. Sweet Tooth is the story of Serena Frome, a gorgeous young woman recruited into MI5 by her married lover who is her college English professor and a former WW2 intelligence agent.  Her first assignment? To infiltrate a group of young writers whose politics align with the government’s and encourage them to produce more pro-government literature with the help of  grants and prizes dispensed by ostensibly independent organizations which are really funded by MI5. The operation’s code name? Sweet Tooth.  Narrated by Serena, Sweet Tooth presents a story of a rather naïve young woman with conventional yearnings and middle-brow taste in literature thrown into a sophisticated world of deceit and treachery. McEwan’s writing is intelligent and witty; his depiction of Serena is generous despite her failings. The surprise ending was a true surprise that cast the novel in an entirely new light—an excellent trick! A most enjoyable treat. 

Susan Taylor has been in the book business since 1982.
 

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