By Andrew Ervin
Sunday, April 27, 2008

LIGHT YEARS A Girlhood in Hawai'i By Susanna Moore | Grove. 195 pp. $19.95

Light Years alternates between Susanna Moore's memories of her seemingly Edenic early years and long passages by the authors who inspired her adventures and, later, her novels. The result is a unique mashup of big-L Literature about various exotic locales and a running, ruminative commentary.

It was an audacious decision to place her own writing among long excerpts from Melville and Herodotus, Frazer and Dickinson, and many others, but it totally works. That's largely because Moore's prose is lovely enough and smart enough to withstand the comparisons. It's a lush and beautiful book; her reminisces read in many cases like a series of dreams. "There were no fences, no locked gates, no marked boundaries or property lines, and we rode our bikes or roamed unconcerned through woods and plantations -- to swim at Jackass Ginger pond in Nu'uanu, it was necessary to pass through many private gardens before reaching the waterfall." Of course, considering the racial and social tensions of post-World War II Hawaii, Moore's entire childhood didn't exactly pass in idyllic contemplation of the natural world and the written world. Light Years artfully recalls a time when life often felt carefree, even when it wasn't.

GREETING FROM BURY PARK By Sarfraz Manzoor | Vintage. 269 pp. Paperback, $13.95

In this memoir, journalist Sarfraz Manzoor explains how songs by Bruce Springsteen, of all people, guided him through his turbulent teenage years as a Pakistani immigrant in England. A mix tape given to him by a Sikh friend came as a revelation: "The pop singers I knew sang about dancing on the ceiling and total eclipses of the heart, not their troubled relationships with their fathers." Obsessing over those songs -- and over American culture in general -- helped Manzoor create a personal identity independent of the competing cultural mores he faced at home and at school. His "messianic passion" for Springsteen sent him as far as Spain and New Jersey, where he ultimately found acceptance among other, equally rabid fans.

In testifying to rock and roll's power to spark personal and perhaps even social change, Greetings from Bury Park provides a fascinating look at one family's Westernization and at the pressure to assimilate that so many immigrants face. It also reminds us of the joyous liberation we felt when we discovered our own tastes and delighted, for the first time, in music our parents couldn't stand.

KINKY GAZPACHO Life, Love & Spain By Lori L. Tharps | Atria. 206 pp. $23

In her moving Kinky Gazpacho, Lori L. Tharps looks back at the challenges of being one of the few black students in her Wisconsin private school and later at college. Her unwillingness to brook the casual, institutionalized racism that still passes for normal is courageous. Sadly, it takes real inner strength to resist the slurs and slights that still find everyday expression. Tharps was clearly up to the task. Longing to go someplace where she didn't have to navigate between the "Are You Black Enough? police" and the "White People in Charge," she spent a year in Spain, where "the rules of who I was supposed to be as a Black girl in America didn't count." There, however, she found another culture seemingly blind to the racist imagery on candy bar wrappers and festival costumes. But she also met her future husband. Kinky Gazpacho is at heart a love story, though not the kind you might expect. Tharps's love for her family, for Spain and -- most important -- for herself make this an unforgettable and deeply affecting book.

A LONG RETREAT In Search of a Religious Life By Andrew Krivak | Farrar Straus Giroux. 321 pp. $25

Reading a memoir about another person's spiritual journey can be a bit like watching somebody else play a video game. Sure, you might pick up a trick or two that will help when it's your turn, but otherwise it's difficult to invest oneself on a visceral level. Sadly, Andrew Krivak's A Long Retreat is no exception.

He describes the trials and the glories of his Jesuit training but rarely invites the reader to actively share them, which severely hampers our ability to care. One particularly profound section, though, details the experience of following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and spending a month (mostly) in silence. During that time, Krivak came to understand that "when all of the distractions and attachments are taken away, it's not what you do or don't do, but why you do it." These rare moments of insight very nearly repay the reader's investment. But in choosing to focus on the minutiae of his workaday life among the Jesuits, rather than on the internal conflicts that led him to leave the order, he avoids committing to big ideas and so keeps the reader at arm's length.

ESCAPE FROM SADDAM The Incredible True Story of One Man's Journey to Freedom By Lewis Alsamari | Crown. 295 pp. $24.95

When Lewis Alsamari's barnburner of a memoir gets made into a major motion picture, the casting director won't need to look far for a leading man, as the author is also a professional actor. You may know Alsamari from "United 93," in which he portrayed a Sept. 11 hijacker. His life story reads like the plot of a terrifying action movie. While visiting his native Iraq after some time living in England, Alsamari got drafted into Saddam Hussein's army. He eventually went AWOL with the hope of making it out of the country again, but got shot while leaving the base. With the help of a kindly uncle, Alsamari disguised himself as a Bedouin and, chased by wolves, made it through the desert and over the border into Jordan. His family, however, was sent to Abu Ghraib as punishment. The most fascinating thing about the book isn't the palpable, edge-of-your-chair excitement it generates, but the insight it provides into the random violence and degraded conditions that average families were forced to endure during Hussein's reign. Perhaps inadvertently, Escape from Saddam forces us to wonder if the Iraqi people are really any better off today. ยท

Andrew Ervin's short story "The Phillie Phanatic" is in the current issue of Fiction International.

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