New paperbacks from Hanan al-Shaykh and Nancy Bachrach

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

For years the novelist Hanan al-Shaykh circled the story of her mother, creating characters like her -- Arab women vying for personal freedom -- in books such as "Women of Sand and Myrrh" and "The Story of Zahra." "Why are you still nibbling from other people's dishes," her mother, Kamila, said of these books, "here I am, right in front of you!"

Indeed, her mother's story is dramatic: As an impoverished 14-year-old in 1930s Beirut, Kamila was forced to marry her widower brother-in-law. After a long-term illicit love affair, she finally was granted a divorce but lost custody of her two daughters. Al-Shaykh barely knew her mother. "It was as though she was a wild, chaotic neighbour," she writes in The Locust and the Bird (Anchor, $15.95), the memoir of her illiterate mother. Billed as a biography but narrated in Kamila's voice, the book reads like a novel. In al-Shaykh's hands, Kamila is the brave, long-suffering heroine of a Cinderella tale with a bittersweet ending. She is observant, eloquent and remorseful about letting go of her daughters: "Their little eyes watched me as the bus pulled away," she says of their parting. "I bit my finger. For the first time I realised exactly what I'd done."

Kamila, who died in 2001, told her daughter that telling her story was a relief "better than a hundred Prozac pills." In return, her daughter seems to have given her something even greater: forgiveness.

Upon reading about herself in her daughter's memoir, The Center of the Universe (Vintage, $15), Lola Hornstein remarked, "I don't think you liked the mother very much." It was a wild understatement from the star of Nancy Bachrach's book, a manic-depressive who loved "the lift of a good lie" and whose erratic behavior -- haranguing rabbis and summer camp counselors (sometimes in riddles), wielding a knife at her husband -- sent her in and out of psychiatric care and left her three children bewildered. "I am as weightless as dust," Bachrach writes of her childhood, "sucked into her vacuum."

The tale of Lola's instability alone would earn this book a prize spot among the ever-growing genre of crazy-mother memoirs. But this one also has a can-you-believe-it twist straight out of daytime TV: When Lola was in her late 50s, her brain function was altered in a carbon monoxide accident that killed her husband. She not only became less manic; she forgot that she ever was. Hence her response to the memoir: It wasn't clear to her that she is the mother in question.

Thankfully, Bachrach plays such moments for laughs. Rather than wallow, she rolls her eyes and jokes through the absurd and poignant details of her mother's mental illness and its effect on her family. She even maintains a sense of humor through Lola's final scene-stealing moment: appearing at a bookstore and insisting on signing copies of the book.

From our previous reviews:

-- In The Art of Making Money (Gotham, $16), Jason Kersten tells the story of master counterfeiter Art Williams. "Crowded with colorful characters, straight from the pages of Elmore Leonard," Liaquat Ahamed commented, the book "reads like the script for a caper movie."

-- Fordlandia (Picador, $16), by Greg Grandin, is "a thoroughly researched account" of Henry Ford's "ill-fated attempt" to establish a rubber plantation in the Amazon. It was a place Ford imagined as "a utopia complete with New England-style cottages and a golf course," according to Aaron Leitko, yet it "failed to produce a single drop of latex."

-- Embellished with drawings, maps and other marginalia, Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Penguin, $16) is a "genre-breaking" novel about "a comically precocious 12-year-old boy on a secret trek to Washington, D.C., who speaks in a mixture of Victorian formality and eighth-grade goofiness," Ron Charles wrote.

-- In American Passage (Harper, $16.99), Vincent J. Cannato examines the history and mythology of Ellis Island, "the place where a deep conflict in American beliefs has been played out," Jonathan Yardley wrote.

-- The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday (PublicAffairs, $15.95), by Neil MacFarquhar, offers "a window into the private debates among the intelligentsia and political classes of the Middle East," according to Wendell Steavenson.

-- Craig Nelson's account of the Apollo 11 mission, Rocket Men (Penguin, $17), captures "the drama and chaos of July 1969 . . . so vividly that the engrossed reader isn't sure that Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin are going to make it," according to Joel Achenbach.

-- The State of Jones (Anchor, $16.95), by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, explores the legend of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who deserted the Confederacy and began an uprising against it. Stephen Budiansky called the book "an important story that personalizes what remains abstract and counterintuitive in much of our received history of the Civil War."

Krug is The Post's monthly paperback columnist.

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