Right now I’m reading Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls, a collection of inter-connected stories that follow the lives of girls and women as they attempt to navigate the fraught minefield of sex, marriage, and motherhood. I’ve read five of the eight stories in the collection, and am savoring Schappell’s astringent tone and wonderfully tart aperçus: “There were pregnant women as far as the eye could see. Young and tattooed, graying and in clogs, fit and over thirty in T-shirts so tight you could see their belly buttons protruding like the stems of pumpkins,” is one. “Just a few weeks ago Ronnie had walked in on her with a tube of slice-and-bake Toll House cookie dough, eating it like it was cheese. She’d rather he’d seen her on the toilet.” Schappell’s eye is sharp and all encompassing. These characters speak for so many of us; it’s just that they are brighter, brassier and most honest than most of us could ever dare to be.
Yona Zeldis McDonough, fiction editor
In scouting out books for translation into Hebrew, I recently came across Ellen Feldman’s Next to Love (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), a meticulously-researched novel about the wives of three soldiers in World War II. Babe, the novel’s most affecting heroine, works in her local small town Western Union office, where she is responsible for process- ing the telegrams that “serve as a messenger of the angel of death,” informing the families of the deceased.
Her husband Claude is the only one of the three to survive the war, though, as she learns, no one survives a war completely intact. Babe’s best friend Millie, who loses her beloved husband and the father of her son, remarries a Jewish man named Al Baum; but her son, a victim of anti-Semitic schoolyard prejudices, refuses to take his new father’s Jewish last name. Feldman explores the complicated bonds of female friendship, while also taking pains to tell us what everyone is reading in the privacy of their own heads (“She spends the bridge afternoon reading East of Eden and feels vaguely guilty about it. Shouldn’t she be doing something useful?”); this is a novel for and about readers. A moving, inspiring story of personal transformation, this novel is also a sweeping chronicle of the transformations in American society in the postwar decades. Feldman makes a convincing case for her novel’s epigraph: “War, next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.”
Ilana Kurshan, book reviews editor
Although originally published in 2007, I found reading Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris extremely useful and fascinating. While Jessica Mitford’s expose of the funeral industry focused on greed, Harris is more concerned with the ecological consequences of our chemical pro- cessing of the dead and our unnatural disposal of bodies. While he does deal with the manipulation of the grieving, most of the book is about alternatives to the funeral parlor. He deals with cremation, burial at sea, incorporation of ashes in man-made reefs, doing it all at home, and natural cemeteries. He is respectful of Jewish Orthodox tradi- tions as ecologically superior. Since publication of the paperback in 2008, new green cemeteries have been created and more are in the planning stages as some of us turn away in disgust from the funeral industry.
Marge Piercy, poetry editor
I am an avowed, unabashed fan of Jeanette Winterson, who does magical things with words and has been hugely important for queer and women’s literature. Her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove Press, March, 2012) is the story of her childhood in a working-class English family and her struggle to come to terms with —and come out to —an abusive and obsessively religious mother. As expected, the writing is evoca- tive and raw —“I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.”Winterson relies heavily on the trope of her adoption to explain her subsequent struggles and feelings of displacement, but her writing is foundational and always worthwhile. As she told The Paris Review a few years ago, “As well as being a writer neither male nor female, I am a writer who is a woman. I am very conscious of that. I am conscious that the voice does get stronger all the time, the voice of the woman writing.”
Sonia Isard, assistant editor