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April 09 - May 09 Book Reviews

Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Sweet Land Stories: The Piano Teacher:

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Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays
by Eula Biss. (Graywolf Press, $15). This is a most interesting and challenging work. Although it is autobiographical, the book is set forth in an unusual way. The subject of race underlies the entire presentation. Author Biss, a teacher, opens the book with an account of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. The story then takes off. We travel with the writer to New York, California and the Midwest. We meet men, women and children of all ages, sizes, shapes and races. Biss sets forth her reactions to encounters in various places and situations. She is unsparing of herself in relating these reactions. For the most part, we can both empathize and sympathize with her. As we retrace her tracks, we begin to see as she sees and think as she thinks. Even though much of what we see and hear is troubling, an underlying element of optimism runs through all the pages. Because we Americans are honest in facing our less-than-perfect past, we can at last look forward to what our founding fathers envisioned long ago: a more perfect union. The last part of the book, titled, “Notes,” is a rehash of the background for each of the chapters. The book is an excellent read, made to order for historians, psychiatrists and everyday citizens.—Emily McCormack

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (Dial Press, $22). This book hijacks the reader down a rabbit hole into the rarified island world of Guernsey, a Channel Island off England. Written as a series of letters—a format that was a bit off-putting at the start—the novel magically transports the reader into that uniquely English world, populated with eccentrics of all stripes, with the glaring exception of the “Perfect Man.” Though the book will not make the reader smarter or more knowledgeable of the 21st century world we live in today, it might just expand the reader's empathy and understanding of the rich diversity of humankind that populates the imaginary Guernsey in that moment of time. Beginning in 1946, the reader follows the protagonist Juliet as she dithers and spins her wheels (like Chicagoans in the snowy streets), debating with her colleagues and friends about what to do next with her work and her life. Through letters flying to and fro (in those pre-email days), Juliet’s curiosity takes her down many dead ends until she encounters a book club that was created on the spur of the moment to cover a pork dinner. Through her love of stories (and books), Juliet goes behind the veil of the microcosm of the residents of Guernsey to learn more about the depredations (and transitory joys) of WWII, which had occupied the land. A lovely meringue of a read, the only spoiler is there is no recipe offered for that potato peel pie. But then, today we do have Google.—Candace Drimmer

Sweet Land Stories by E.L. Doctorow. (Random House, $12.95). Immensely satisfying and unnerving, the five stories of Sweet Land are peopled with characters whose circumstances might in real life tempt you to keep your distance. A religious cult follower, baby kidnappers and an aging FBI agent chart through their chaotic lives alongside an abused woman’s evolution from one type of violence to the next, while a mother and son start a new life on an idyllic farm that is not even close to what it seems. Their fascinatingly awful situations are as real as the year’s news and as close as our own mysteries. How worthwhile, then, to open up these lives for the rewards of a good read. The stories are masterful, well thought-out pieces (what else to expect from the author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate) and each brings a different part of American landscape to the interior life of its central figure. And as with Doctorow’s essays and novels, the collection journeys through ideals that seem particularly American when juxtaposed: ambition, survival, exploration, spirituality and loyalty. From the birth of a new century in the first story to the final piece's cynical political revelation, one senses that an unraveled American life is best understood inside the details of its culture and history.
—Valerie M. Wallace

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee. (Viking, $25.95). Shifting back and forth in time between the early 1940s and 1950s, The Piano Teacher examines two different love affairs involving the same man and different women. In the 1950s, Claire Pendleton moves from England to Hong Kong with her new husband and is seduced by both the exotic atmosphere and Will Truesdale, a chauffeur for a wealthy family. As she begins to fall in love with this remote, yet charming, man, Claire longs to learn more about his life in Hong Kong during World War II. The reader learns that he loved Trudy Liang, an unconventional Eurasian in the months immediately preceding the war. Will ultimately ends up in an internment camp in Hong Kong, while Trudy must battle the corrupt system established after Japanese occupation in 1941. A subplot involving a desperate hunt for British historical treasures means that the relationship between Trudy and Will is destined to end badly. Lee’s first book is a knockout and with its focus on a little-known aspect of world history, the occupation of Hong Kong, reveals the costs of love and the price men and women are willing to pay.—By Susan E. Zinner


Published: April 04, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue