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REVIEWING

Zone One

by Colson Whitehead


Doubleday | 2011

Reviewed by James Petcoff


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"Zombie See And Zombie Do, He's Here With Me And You" -Turn That Heartbeat Over Again-
Steely Dan

The first time I saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, I was reminded of Matheson’s story and its core element – the real monsters are not simply mindless automatons. They are the human survivors, who, released from all moral ethical constraints and fueled by self-preservation, let their inner monster run rampant.  Colson Whitehead’s Zone One take on the Zombie Apocalypse is not new to the genre but introduces a new type of protagonist into the mix in the person of Mark Spitz, a low rent Odysseus, survivor of the plague that has turned the population of the world into skels (rabid zombies), stragglers (catatonic dead that stand in a stupor at a place they may have frequented in life), and survivors.

Mark is a slacker who, up until the plague, lived a life of diminishing returns at his parents’ home on suburban Long Island. The plague forces him and other survivors to make simple choices – survive or become food. He is in no way heroic and neither are the others he meets during his odyssey.  He is, however, all too human in the negative content of his character.  Mark takes a job as a sweeper once he finds refuge in a survivor camp. A sweeper is a paramilitary who terminates remaining skels and stragglers, those not disposed of by regular military forces. While terminating skels on I-95 Mark has an epiphany:

“He was a mediocre man. He led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre rendering him perfect.  He asked himself: How can I die? I was always like this. Now I am more me. He had the ammo. He took them all down.”  

The world of the future is in the hands of Mark and the other survivors of this bleak desolate landscape.  The unseen authorities located in Buffalo, New York, have deemed it right and proper that they should take back Manhattan, the logic being – If you can jump start Manhattan, you can do anything!

Mark transfers to a sweeper unit in lower Manhattan where his unit picks off the skels and stragglers the Marines have left behind. This Is Zone One. His comrades in arms are Kaitlyn, their unit leader and ex-debutante, and Gary, a rural farm boy and only survivor of a set of triplets.

Block by block, building by building, they search their grid of the zone putting down skels and straggler alike, all the while speculating about the world to come once the plague is eradicated.  Mostly they talk about the banalities that they miss and will return to again once things are brought back to normal. What they fail to realize is that the world of Zone One and the waste land around them is the new normal. Mark knows that there is no going back despite what the politicians in Buffalo decree. Mark is the new order of disorder.

Colson Whitehead has taken the zombie/horror genre, transferred it from film to prose and infused it with wit, insight and the pathos of dystopian novels worthy of Matheson, Orwell or Philip K. Dick.  Underneath the blood, gore and body counts there is a disturbing examination of a society that would make icons out of monsters.

Like Odysseus, Mark Spitz meets his Circe and his Calypso, but there will be no home coming, no Penelope waiting for him at the end of his odyssey.  Mark Spitz knows there will be no victory, no rising of The New America Phoenix. To survive is to keep moving. Attachments slow you down and to slow down is to eventually be caught by skels, bandits or by one’s own sense of futility as to this new world order.

I am reminded of the Man and the Boy from Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. The Man and the Boy engage in a Socratic dialog as to the nature of good and evil throughout the book. In Zone One, the dialog is at once banal and revealing as to the state of dumbness the world has sunk into even before the onslaught of the plague.  Colson Whitehead has given us a Swiftian allegoric analysis of American culture reduced to the pulp fiction grind house values of a society without values. What is really chilling is that everything about Zone One, except for the zombies, are spot-on real and a rude infringement on daily life in our own time and space. Bring on the dead…some might even say they are already here.



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REVIEWING

The Art of Fielding

by Chad Harbach

Little, Brown, and Company | 2011 | 512 pages | $25.99

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

chad harbach

Forceful Grace

Reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is just plain fun.  You enter a world that to many will be immediately familiar—namely the small liberal arts campus.  In this case, the campus is Wetish College, a venerable institution overlooking Lake Michigan. 

College campuses are naturally rife with drama.  As insular worlds, characters can take on larger-than-life positions.  The jock.  The intellectual.  The sleazy professor who sleeps with his students. 

This familiar trope—the worn out older person (coach, teacher, administrator)—who finds love in innocent, beguiling youth and thereupon ends up in a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching mess is embarked upon in The Art of Fielding, but with a twist—in this case the college president, one Guert Affenlight, who has always been straight, falls for the endearing, intellectually curious Owen.  I love this aspect of the book. 

Why?  I love it because author Harbach does not have Guert act cautiously.  At all.  Maybe he should considering how Guert might get fired, but instead he is just plain fired up for Owen.  The way he worships every move and body part of Owen’s is reminiscent of puppy love, not the love of a “sophisticated” college president, but Guert just can’t help himself.  We’ve all been there. 

Harbach creates this headlong dive into lust (no matter what the consequences) with great skill.

But I should not be just talking about this part of the book. I want to talk about Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz.  Although the book does spend time with all the characters, at the heart of the book is the complicated, compelling relationship between Henry and Mike.  And the book is about baseball, of course.   

Mike Schwartz is the captain of the baseball team, a giant of a man who comes from humble beginnings.  In essence, sports have saved Schwartz and he feels gratitude and even love towards his college. 

When he sees Henry, a skinny high school shortstop, playing a game, he feels that he must recruit him to play for Wetish.  When I say must, I mean that Mike will do anything in his power to get the wonder boy from South Dakota to come to his college, even if this is the last thing Henry has ever envisioned for himself.

But he does lure Henry to the school and goes about transforming him into the perfect shortstop with grueling, five AM runs, bucket loads of muscle building protein powders, and rallying speeches.  In Henry, he creates the perfect athlete and Henry seems destined for greatness as agents and professional teams begin to show interest in the best baseball player Wetish has ever produced.

In the meantime, another story unfolds, one about the daughter of Guert, Pella Affenlight, who has left her effete husband in San Francisco to come live with her father.  Although the girl arrives fragile and exhausted, with barely more than a swimsuit in her bag, she soon becomes a part of Wetish.  She gets up early in the morning to do dishes in the cafeteria (a grueling job she fights her Dad over—he thinks she should just study, but she wants independence) and she begins to date the burly Schwartz, whose sturdy body and straight forward manner is in contrast with her overbearing husband. 

But just as Pella gains confidence and self-awareness, Henry starts to lose it.  After he makes a disastrous throw, which injures Owen, he becomes unglued, even paralyzed by thoughts of failure.  What had been so natural before—throwing a ball perfectly (it was as if he were made to throw a ball perfectly)—becomes hard.  Not only hard.  Impossible.

As time goes on and the play-offs are near, Henry becomes worse and worse.  He second-guesses himself and psyches himself out.  He can’t seem to gauge when to throw the ball and when he finally does, the throws are way off. 

As he begins to deteriorate (he walks off the team, feels nauseated by the smell of food and begins to take on anorexic qualities), he begins to question his very existence.  Who is Henry if he’s not a baseball player? (Similarly, Schwartz is facing his own breakdown when he gets rejected from all the law schools he applies to.)

The Art of Fielding poses some interesting existential questions here.  Are we all actions, or is there a “self” beyond what we do and accomplish?  Do we owe it to ourselves (to society?) to do what is “natural” for us?  What choices do we have?  What are our so-called “destinies”? 

Many books rely on fate as a vehicle; in this book we see the characters making choices.  Of course in every book characters make choices, but in this book there seems to be a deliberate attention to the psychological churnings of Henry, Schwartz, Pella, Owen, and Guert.  As they weave in and out of each other’s lives, we see how they influence each other, but we also see how ultimately they are responsible for their own lives.

I should warn readers who aren’t tempted by a book with lots of baseball in it that, believe me, a book about baseball is the last thing in the world I would think about reading.  But, like many good books, baseball here acts as a metaphor even as real games and practices are described.

In fact, after reading the book, I want to like baseball and may even watch some games (I never thought I would write those words; credit Harbach with writing so convincingly about the game). I appreciate how he writes with such exactness about the sport. 

The book not only creates a believable world out of Wetish College, it also creates a fascinating world out of baseball.  Books that hinge on a specific job or locale can be fascinating as you find yourself entrenched in a world you may have never considered.  This is one of the successes of The Art of Fielding.  Much has been made of this book (if a lot hadn’t been made of the book, I never would have read it because I was not clamoring to read about baseball), but after reading about Harbach’s struggle with the manuscript in Vanity Fair magazine (and his subsequent huge pay-off), I wanted to get my hands on this much-talked-about book.

And then it would be easy to dismiss the book as unworthy of all the hype.  But this book is good. Very good.



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REVIEWING

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

by Bill Bryson

Anchor Books, a division of Random House | 2011

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

bill bryson

Be careful what you ask for, because you may get it  – a kind of paraphrase of the original “wish for” and having nothing to do with the “Law of Attraction.”  I asked to review Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home: A short History of Private Life, because I am a major Bill Bryson fan. A burly American now living in England, his wit, exuberance, love for the outdoors and unbridled curiosity about every bit of minutia in the universe, has captivated me continuously throughout seven of his previously published 14 books.

 

But I was hoodwinked on two counts: A “short” history is deceptive nomenclature when one is facing a deadline and holding a 532 page paperback, (plus 44 pages of bibliography, picture credits, index, and floor plans). And voyeur that I am, Private Life really suckered me in. But I am here to tell you that there is nothing in these pages that is private. Bryson has chosen to take his reader on a room by room scavenger hunt, albeit to some very “private” places.

He has combined his tour with several detours into historical trivia, as we roam leisurely with him throughout his home, a former Church of England rectory of the Victorian era, in the easternmost part of England, a house he purchased from a Mr. Marsham, (to whom he often refers) a country parson responsible for the original building of the structure.

I was grabbed by Bryson’s introductory explanation of this project …” I thought it might be interesting…to consider the ordinary things in life and treat them as if they were important, too … I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me … Sitting at the kitchen table one day, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two …. So I formed the idea to make a journey around it (the house) … to consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life.“

Think not that he exaggerates when claiming to visit “room by room.” In addition to the standard rooms one expects to find, Bryson treats us to explorations of the attic, the hall, the cellar, the garden, the stairs, the dressing room, the scullery and larder, and lest the Fuse Box should feel ignored, he included that, too, in details worthy of its contribution to “the good life.”

What exactly does he “do” you might ask. Let’s take the Dining Room, which he describes as being 30 feet long, big enough to accommodate up to about 20 guests, a huge number for a country parson. Bryson then conjectures that in the original house, there would have been an object of costly elegance atop the table, something known as an epergne (“ay-pairn”) which he describes in detail.

Why was it called an epergne? “No one remotely knows. The word doesn’t exist in French. It seems to have popped to being from nowhere.”     We are then treated to a plethora of information about the condiment racks, the cruet stands, their contents and a brief musing about the reason for the endurance of salt and pepper as a table staple, diverting the reader to the bloodshed and suffering and yea, even woe, “attached to the twin pillars of your salt and pepper set.”

He spends about 28 pages on nutrition, spices, vitamins, dietary deficiency, scurvy, Vasco da Gama’s various voyages, coffee and sugar, and he reformats history like no history teacher you ever had. It is all delectably readable, and fun, replete with the staccato of his language and the blade of his wit.

Of course, you’ll want to know about the bedroom, a site considered “strange” by Bryson as he plumbs it for illness, retreat, joy and dread, not to mention its work toll on anyone turning and plumping mattresses, as well as defying the weight of 40 pounds of feathers in the typical feather bed.

Okay, okay. I know you’re waiting for the sexy part. Let not your hopes be raised. “For men, the … preoccupying challenge was not to spill a drop of seminal fluid outside the sacred parts of marriage -- and not much there, either, if they could decently manage it … seminal fluid, when nobly retained within the body enriched the blood and invigorated the brain.”

And get this!“The consequences of discharging this natural elixir illicitly was to leave a man literally enfeebled in mind and body. It was therefore concluded, (by some anonymous dumdum) that males needed to be spermatozoically frugal, and therefore he (or possibly she?) recommended intercourse as a maximally monthly occurrence.”

And so on into the 532 pages of fascinating trivia that will do very little to elevate your mind, but may indeed create a more intense critical eye as you wander in and out of your own life awakening the lethargy, indifference and possible blindness to your surroundings.

Fun as this was, personally, I preferred being with Bryson during his travels to Australia, and his trek through the Appalachians. And you can be sure that I would never use that old cliché: That’s what makes horse races.



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REVIEWING

Death Comes to Pemberley

by P.D. James

Alfred A. Knopf | 2011 | 304 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

pd james

Pride and Prejudice Revisited

Fresh from rereading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the first time in xx years, and crying, "More, more," what a treat it was to slip so seamlessly and shamelessly into P.D. James's "sequel," Death Comes to Pemberley.

For women of a certain age, for countless numbers of fans worldwide - Austen's book has often been rated the most popular novel ever written – P & P evokes fond memories: discovering Elizabeth Bennet's witty, independent, modern spirit so like our own; following breathlessly the boy-meets-girl, boy-shuns-girl, girl-slaps-down-boy, boy-loves-girl, girl-spurns-boy, girl-loves-boy, girl-gets-boy and (whew!) boy-gets-girl plot, and inevitably falling for the elusive Mr. Darcy ourselves.

How we hated to bid goodbye to sister-confidante Jane, the other three silly airhead sisters, that embarrassment of a mother, the cool and rational, drama-avoidant father hiding out in his 19th century man cave/library, and even the devilishly handsome and suave Wickham, serial seducer of underage girls!

If you're the type who wants to know what happens after the “And they lived happily ever after” moment, you will want to investigate James's version. Of course, as was to be expected, this renowned British author of murder mysteries has turned Pride and Prejudice into one, too (with apologies to Austen). It shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. She’s genre jumping from formal balls where accomplished young ladies perform at the pianoforte, to gruesome happenings in the Woodland, which takes some inner adjustments of the time travel variety – on the reader’s part.

     Some gambles work better than others.  Deeply satisfying is James’s tidying up of Austen’s loose ends.  She so thoroughly understands the Bennets and entourage that she’s able to flesh out the original story line, explain why certain people acted as they did, offering up psychological motivation in a few places where it was sorely needed.  Then she picks up the threads and weaves them into a whole new tapestry.  The reader delights in being able to spend more time with beloved characters and to see in which directions their lives take them.

Less satisfying: the murder mystery itself, even with its gothic flourishes, and its insights into the British court procedures of two centuries ago.  We now have a comedy of legal manners which is less engaging than the ballroom variety, at least to this reader’s eyes. Being British herself probably facilitated James’s ability to fully enter the times she’s writing about and to create a setting of utmost plausibility and verisimilitude.

However, following the twists and turns of the plot to the conclusion does not yield much payback.  While the details of the mystery are not unveiled until the final moments, certainly some suspicions were justified and others, just not that surprising.

The biggest letdown of course is that this “sequel,” for all its merits, is not another Jane Austen creation.  As wonderful as the setting and tone that’s been recreated for the pleasure of Austen fans, is the disappointment that sets in when we see what James has decided to do with the cast, and how she squanders their rich potential.  Where is the feisty Jane that we love?  She appears to have settled into married life (with children) and to be leading an utterly conventional existence with Darcy, with whom she scarcely spends any time in this novel.  While we’re told that she shocks his sister with her teasing (but loving) approach to her husband, we sadly see (or hear) none of that.  

Likewise we are told that Bingley and Jane are happily married, also with kids, but . . . was Tolstoy right?  Are happy families all alike?  Dull?

     This reader longed for a more domestic scene and more . . . romance, to be frank.  The original is told from Elizabeth’s point of view and that was a rich viewpoint, imbued as it was with prejudices of which she was not even aware.  Her gradual awakening as to the true nature of those around her – Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliams, and Darcy – her maturing and taking bold steps to correct her mistakes are what fuels the novel and captivates the audience.  Taking that away and giving us a murder mystery instead?  Not a good move.  (Disclosure: I am not a reader of mystery novels, with the exception of Ruth Rendell.)

But with all that said and done, this novel remains a good read and will delight fans who long to live in that world just one more time.  This reader feels the way she did when she saw the movie, The X Files: I Want to Believe in 2008 (see my review here: http://www.seniorfilmfiles.com/the-x-files-i-want-to-believe). It’s so good to be in the company of well-loved characters again that she could put up with the mediocre story line.  The “reunion” was/is worth the price of admission! 



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REVIEWING

Traveling in Space

by Steven Paul Leiva

Blüroof Press | 2012 | $14.99 Trade Paperback | $2.99 Kindle

Reviewed by Russell Blackford

steven paul leiva

Science Fiction with intellectual content and laughs

It is little wonder that the master of the genre, Ray Bradbury, gave his endorsement to Steven Paul Levia's Traveling in Space.  In form it's a science fiction narrative, but not one that presents space-opera-style battles, or one that aims at verisimilitude in the manner of hard sci-fi.

Instead, we're given a satirical story in the tradition of books such as Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, with which it shares something of a common sensibility, or even Gulliver's Travels.

Look for elements of Menippean satire, such as a fragmented narrative, philosophical debates, and pervasive mockery of both sacred and "commonsense" ideas.

Traveling in Space is sufficiently sprawling and complicated to require a list of dramatis personae to help sort out its characters, which you can do on Leiva's blog (www.stevenpaulleivasthisnthat.blogspot.com/), as well as find out quite a bit more about the book and its author. 

The book's satirical force is generated by contact between two mutually baffled intelligent species: a bunch of extraterrestrial aliens traveling in space far from their home world, and human beings here on Earth, whom they encounter and try to understand.

This opens up all sorts of possibilities. The aliens are not bug-eyed monsters, but humanlike beings from a vastly older, technologically superior civilization. They immediately strike Earth men and women as physically gorgeous and fascinating. For their own part, the aliens find us equally fascinating, although physically repulsive.

Many of the aliens' encounters with human beings are downright funny. They see the idiocy of many of our institutions and practices, whether it be religion, war, or prudishness about the body. As the narrative continues, however, and they are confronted by the facts of race, hatred and genocide, the satire takes on a different tone. The aliens still struggle to understand what they're seeing, but their denunciation grows increasingly more bitter (even when the horrors are filtered through the perceptions of the aliens, who examine human conduct in a rather clinical way).

All of this is familiar, of course — many authors have used contact with earthly or extraterrestrial aliens to satirize the ways of human beings — but Traveling in Space takes on an extra layer of complexity as the aliens themselves change, in one way or another, in response to their interactions with us, and as some aspects of their civilization are also shown to be corrupt, unjust, and unsavory.

If, as readers, we start out thinking that the aliens are a noble, uncorrupted people who make humans seem like yahoos by comparison, we soon learn that the situation is not at all so simple.

Both species have something to learn from contact with one another, as it turns out, and the most important learning takes place on the aliens' side. Complications such as these give us much to think about, and I'm sure that Traveling in Space will play on my mind for some time to come.


Russell Blackford is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology and a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle in Australia. He also writes about Science Fiction. His new book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State has been published by Wiley-Blackwell.




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REVIEWING

The Marriage Plot

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Read by: David Pittu

Macmillan Audio | 2011 | Running time: 16 hours | 13 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

jeffrey euenides

Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the acclaimed The Virgin Suicides and the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex, has completed yet another masterful work in The Marriage Plot, in which he explores the lives of three college students at Brown University leading up to and following a little over a year after graduation day.

The Marriage Plot takes its namesake from the driving storylines of some of the great Victorian novels (Madeleine, the female lead, writes her senior thesis on the death of this theme in literature), while Eugenides writes the antithesis in this novel, a story of exploration of the self both within and outside of marriage and other interpersonal relationships. The story is set in the early 1980s, but the economic, political, and social climates of the novel make it feel eerily contemporary.

Madeleine is an English major from an educated, well-to-do family (her father was the president of a small college in New Jersey). Her love life had not been extensive or particularly rewarding until she met Leonard, a bright, intellectual Biology major in her semiotics class during her senior year.

Mitchell turned to religious studies during his time at Brown. He had met Madeleine during his first semester there on an occasion he could not forget. These three characters, their interests, and interactions with each other form the base of the story.

Eugenides takes the diversity of his characters (their families, upbringings, personal baggage, issues, and interests) and weaves a compelling, intelligent, and realistic story.

From the subtle sensations of a blossoming interest in someone, to the bonds of affection and/or attraction, however seemingly unexplainable or inexcusable, The Marriage Plot effectively portrays many stages of the human condition with regards to relationships.

In Madeleine's relationship with Leonard, we see a progression in the face of adversity with no lack of doubt along the way. In Mitchell's search for religion and himself, without the love of the woman he's convinced himself he would marry, we see an unanswered but sincere journey. As the story rises and sets,  Jeffrey Eugenides has created a great novel in The Marriage Plot .The reader slowly comes to relate, hate, disagree with, or admire the characters as they progress through this honest effort to portray the human journey.

The novel may go to some weird places, but life can be like that.



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REVIEWING

Come In and Cover Me

by Gin Phillips

Riverhead Books | 2012 | $26.95 | 344 pages

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

gin phillips

Novels that tell the story of archaeologists uncovering the layers of their past while they sift through layers of dirt are common. Once the author introduces an archaeologist, the reader can be fairly certain that this digger has a troubled past, and that this past is bound to come to light over the course of the next 300-odd pages. Come in and Cover Me, the newest book by Gin Phillips, is no exception to this rule.

In this iteration of the story, Ren Taylor is a 37-year-old archaeologist who has made a career out of the discovery of an unusual set of Mimbres pottery believed to have been created by a single twelfth-century artist. One day she receives a call from a remote dig that has unearthed a bowl similar to her earlier finds. Naturally, Ren hits the road and joins the dig, seducing the hunky lead archaeologist, Silas, along the way.

So far, so good. But complications arise in the form of Ren’s permanently 17-year-old brother Scott, who died 20 years earlier. Unable to cope with his death, Ren has spent the last two decades rejecting emotional attachments and having visions of ghosts—usually Scott, but also Mimbres women, who indicate places where Ren should dig to uncover artifacts.

This isolated way of life has not hindered Ren much in the past, but it becomes an issue when she falls in love with Silas. As a further snag in the story, Silas and Ren’s archaeological methods conflict, fueling tension on the dig.

The set-up has potential, and Ms. Phillips does show some restraint in her use of ghosts as a plot device—a tricky element for any author. Where the novel breaks down, however, is its character development, which feels forced throughout. Few of the characters leave a lasting impression; in fact, the most fully realized and memorable character is Scott, and he is dead.

Ren herself is the biggest problem of the story. We are told that she is attractive to men and highly intelligent, but her charm is not obvious, and I remained unconvinced of her legitimacy as an archaeologist.

Eschewing more traditional scientific approaches, Ren relies almost entirely on the Mimbres ghosts’ guidance to conduct her excavations. When she and Silas do uncover artifacts, she shies away from conversation about the finds, reflecting that “she wanted to feel this, not think it.”

No serious scholar with 20 years of experience in a rigorous, science-driven discipline approaches her work in this way. Ultimately, Ms. Phillips’s research into the Mimbres culture might be both thorough and careful, but her research on the academic personality is faulty, and this deficiency weakens the narrative. Furthermore, by setting up a dynamic in which a woman presents frankly irrational arguments in favor of a personal, emotional approach to history while a man argues for reason and scientific methodology, the author presents the same tired picture of gender differences that has plagued our culture for centuries.

There are flashes of Ms. Phillips’ talent throughout: a striking scene in which the figure of Jesus breaks free of a church window and hurls panes of glass down on the congregation is truly powerful, although confusing in light of the author’s apparent insistence on the ghosts’ reality. Several passages describing the fears that suddenly sprout and multiply when a person falls in love are beautiful and have the ring of truth.

In the end, though, the novel’s distinguishing characteristic is competence, which is a cold sensation to derive from literature. Ms. Phillips might benefit from a less complicated plot (and fewer supernatural characters) in her next effort.



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