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November 19, 2008

Book Smart: Book Reports

Between Here and April
By Deborah Copaken Kogan. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; 277 pgs., $23.95.

Despite this novel’s Harlequin Romance-like title, it is anything but. In fact, those four words comprise the only phrase in the book that’s less than pitch-perfect. It’s worth pondering, though, why someone in the editing chain-of-command decided on such a title — perhaps because “Infanticide” would not win over the same kind of readership as a book cover showing a park in springtime? The public might go mad for a fictional show called “Homicide,” but for infanticide, not so much. This is a shame, because Kogan has written a powerful, compelling story.

It opens with Elizabeth Burns (an ex-war-correspondent) and her husband on a date to the theater, a rare break from nonstop work and parenthood. They’ve chosen to see, of all things, a Greek tragedy. During the climactic scene, as Medea begins slaughtering her two children, Elizabeth flashes back to the disappearance of her best friend in first grade. She panics and ends up fainting in the aisle.

While this may suggest a schematic beginning, we are nonetheless immediately caught up in Elizabeth’s attempt to get to the bottom of why she reacted so dramatically to “Medea” and the memory it triggered. With her therapist’s encouragement, she begins researching what happened to the girl she knew for only two months in 1972. She finds a newspaper story describing a woman who murdered her two children (the April of the title and her sister, Lily) and then committed suicide. 

What we end up with is a sensitive, sympathetic probing of what has driven mothers throughout history to such desperate acts: “Because that was the problem, really, wasn’t it, with being human? You couldn’t just be, couldn’t just stand, couldn’t just live and exist without dragging your feet through the mud. You had to communicate, congregate, collaborate, cohabitate. You had to corroborate. Copulate. You had to co-this, co-that, co-bloody-everything, and if you weren’t cooperating, you were operating without the co, which was a declaration less of independence than of relativity. You could only really exist in relation to others. No matter what she did, Adele would always be her mother’s daughter. Her daughters’ mother. People clung to you, like burrs.”

 

The Jewel of Medina
By Sherry Jones. Beaufort Books; 432 pgs., $24.95.

Here, in the ol’ land of the free and the home of the brave, there are still some books that should be banned — not because of their political content or their power to offend religious believers but because they are so lame that, omigod, why waste the trees, the ink, the delivery trucks?

You know you’re in trouble when Random House decides, after the book has already been printed, not to publish it. You know you’re in bigger trouble when the book is then picked up by the outfit that published O.J. Simpson’s memoir. But you know you’re in the biggest trouble of all when you go to Amazon and read the author’s interview with herself, brimming with exclamation marks, ending with the phrase: “The secret is out: A’isha rocks!”

The secret is out: A’isha (child bride of the Prophet Muhammad) is completely without credibility. Also, she talks like a history book being narrated by a robot. Do you know any 13-year-olds who talk like this? “On the anniversary of our defeat at Uhud, it was time for us to reclaim our dignity. Not content with winning one battle, Abu Sufyan challenged us to meet again at Badr, hoping to firmly establish that his army was superior.”

England, rejoice that this book is not available across the pond.