Changes

05.13.13

This Week’s Hot Reads: May 13, 2013

This week, from a childhood interrupted by war in Sri Lanka to the glory days of food reviewing.

On Sal Mal Lane
By Ru Freeman

War threatens to shatter the innocence of children in Sri Lanka.

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‘On Sal Mal Lane’ by Ru Freeman. ‘On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel’ by Ru Freeman. 386 pp. Gray Wolf Press. $26. ()

Sri Lankan-American novelist Ru Freeman’s latest book, On Sal Mal Lane, turns to a charming row of homes on an ordinary road in Sri Lanka’s capital. During the years between 1979 and 1983, whispers of war fill the city. But on Sal Mal Lane, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Catholics live side by side in relative harmony. The street’s most beloved residents are the Herath children, four young siblings who together form a single unit—“every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together.” They troop to piano lessons, play cricket, and put on a variety show for the block. Their most important joint project, though, is protecting their youngest sister, free-spirited Devi. Born on July 7—a “luckless birthdate” associated with “many undefinable threats”—Devi seems fated for calamity. So her older siblings keep their guard up. Could Devi’s friendship with feeble-minded Uncle Raju put her at risk? Could Raju’s brooding nephew Sonna cause trouble? The most obvious threat is the one the children don’t know how to anticipate—war. After Tamil rebels kill 13 Sinhalese soldiers in the summer of 1983, riots break out in Colombo, upsetting the delicate balance of Sal Mal Street for once and all. The sudden violence casts a threat on the safety not just of Devi but of the entire neighborhood. Freeman handles the historical complexities of Sri Lanka’s conflict with skill. The Herath children’s father explains his political ideals in coolheaded, simple terms to his children, but the actions of his neighbors tell another story. The children absorb—and ignore—a little bit of each in this lovingly wrought story of youthful innocence lost.

—Mythili Rao

The Watch Tower
By Elizabeth Harrower

A portrait of domestic cruelty follows the fates of two sisters in 1940s Australia.

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‘The Watch Tower’ by Elizabeth Harrower. 335 pp. Text Classics. $15. ()

It’s hard to find a book like The Watch Tower these days. First published by Macmillan in 1966, Elizabeth Harrower’s fantastically incisive portrait of domestic cruelty follows the fates of two sisters in 1940s Australia. Laura, the oldest, is a standout student; she daydreams of becoming a doctor, or maybe an opera singer. But after the sudden death of her father, her prospects change. Their father was “not a practical man,” Mrs. Vaizey explains to her daughters. Laura and Clare are pulled out of boarding school and abandoned by their mother in a suburb of Sydney. Taking a job as a typist at a factory, Laura soon finds an unlikely benefactor in her employer. “I think you’d just better marry me,” Felix Shaw says when he learns of the girls’ financial situation, “and both of you come to live in the new house. I’ll fix everything.” Is this what Mrs. Vaizey imagined when she told her daughters “something very, very nice is going to turn up one of these days”? Unfortunately, life inside her new husband’s beautiful colonial house is not very nice for Laura at all. Felix is an erratic, controlling husband with a talent for manipulation. At first the girls attempt to hide their claustrophobia and desperation from each other; Clare, in particular, struggles with the complicity asked of her. For all the psychological torment Harrower subjects her protagonists to, Clare’s defiance brings a delectably feminist streak to The Watch Tower. Laura grew up reading books with “rainbow-colored” endings but Clare prefers books about distant lands and lives entirely unlike hers. They support her conviction that there is a way out of her domestic captivity, and arm her to act: “Nothing is this small,” she thinks. She is sure of it.

—M.R.

Fools
By Joan Silber

Interconnected stories of faithfulness and foolishness across continents and generations.

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‘Fools: Stories’ by Joan Silber. 256 pp. W. W. Norton & Company $26. ()

Is it weakness or wisdom that makes one a fool? Joan Silber’s sly, graceful new collection of stories takes up this question but doesn’t answer it outright. There were “a number of things a person could be a fool for in this life—a fool for love, a fool for Christ, a fool for admiration,” muses Vera, the narrator of the book’s title story. Her own foolish passion is anarchism, but her devotion to it creates the framework for a steady life, with a lasting marriage and children to raise. Her brand of anarchy in fact seems to have a stabilizing effect on other more volatile attractions in her life. But anarchy takes on a different meaning in a subsequent story about Vera’s grown daughter, Louise. In “Two Opinions,” Louise remembers visiting her anarchist father in prison. “Hey, muffins,” he calls to his children, with a “wince of mortification” at the whole scene. Louise and her sister Barbara are delighted with their mother’s post-visit reward of ham sandwiches with relish, and celery with cream cheese. The teasing at school is another matter. “None of this got easier as time went on,” Louise observes. She marries her high-school boyfriend, but when he gets a job teaching English at a school on a military base in Okinawa, she’s denied security clearance and must stay back in the U.S. while he moves to Japan. The separation slowly unravels their marriage without ever destroying it outright. It also frees Louise to lead an unconventional life—entirely unlike what she thought she wanted all along. Many years down the road, she thinks, “You don’t know what you’re going to be faithful to in this world, do you?” You don’t know what will make a fool out of you, either.

—M.R.

A Dual Inheritance
By Joanna Hershon

Two men, products of different genetic and cultural legacies, meet in 1962 Harvard.

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‘A Dual Inheritance: A Novel’ by Joanna Hershon. 496 pp. Ballantine Books. $26. ()

In Joanna Hershon’s sprawling fourth novel, it’s the fall of 1962 when college seniors Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley meet by chance in the fading daylight of Harvard Yard and find themselves drawn both to qualities tantalizingly unfamiliar and comfortingly similar in each other. Hugh’s WASP-y old-money wealth, lean good looks and ease with women contrast with Ed’s Jewish working class background, naked ambition and frantic pursuit of the fairer sex; they interlock like Tetris pieces, tidy but volatile. Hershon borrows the title from dual inheritance theory, which posits that human behavior is a product of two evolutionary forces: genetic and cultural. It’s a smart way to encapsulate the novel’s underlying currents (although socioeconomic standing would be a third major influence, if we are nitpicking). Hershon seldom wastes words in a story that careers through multiple generations of the two men’s families in 472 pages. When Ed’s and Hugh’s daughters meet by chance at boarding school and become best friends, the estranged Harvard chums are brought together again to confront their intermingled pasts.

—Sarah Stodola

Steal the Menu
By Raymond Sokolov

A former New York Times editor reminisces about the glamour days of food reviewing.

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‘Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food’ by Raymond Sokolov. 256 pp. Knopf. $26. ()

Former New York Times food editor Raymond Sokolov had the good sense in his new memoir to breeze through his early years growing up in Michigan and get readers straight to the mouthwatering glamour of a life spent chronicling (and indulging in) the world’s most impressive cuisines. Foodies have obvious reasons to love the book, with its recollections of three-Michelin-star restaurants in mid-20th century France, for example, and Thomas Keller’s rise from upstate New York’s La Rive to California’s French Laundry. But there’s enough substance to interest the less overtly meal-obsessed, as well. Sokolov was a careful observer not only of such things as the snobbery at New York’s La Grenouille during its golden age, but also of Claude Levi-Strauss’ seminal approach to the study of food culture. He gives the food scene an often fascinating historical context, most notably as he meticulously tracks the evolution and spread of nouvelle cuisine, the cooking style that has come to define dining references the world over. He also affords a glimpse into a bygone New York media world—where entry-level editors flaunted company American Express cards and freelancers filed their stories to the Times by calling a phone number and reading into a “monitored recording machine.”

—S.S.