BLESSED BY THUNDER: Memoir of a Cuban Girlhood; By Flor Fernandez Barrios; (Seal: 256 pp., $25)
Do you think you understand the Cuban revolution? Now that Castro has resurfaced like Richard Nixon at film festivals and fund-raisers, does anyone remember the suffering caused by that revolution? This childhood memoir of Cuba in the 1960s is only one point of view, of course, and that of a relatively well-to-do gusano, a term used by the Communists to describe those not supportive of the Castro regime, but it has that wonderful lens of childhood--eyes not on politics but on the family, school, the new foal, the friend who is a lesbian, the favorite foods, the fears and impressions. Flor is 4 in 1959, already showing signs of becoming a curandera (healer) like her grandmother and her nanny. When she is sent away at age 10 as part of the "School Goes to the Countryside" program (child labor camps for tobacco picking, in which any pretense of evening classes is shed after a week), she learns how to defend herself but also how to control her anger and how to invoke the saints her grandmother used for a different kind of healing. Flor Fernandez Barrios' writing has high color and texture. She has made that rare thing--a memoir that reads like fiction.
A PRAYER FOR THE DYING; By Stewart O'Nan; (Henry Holt: 196 pp., $22)
Stewart O'Nan is a brave writer--in his novels he often takes on the death or abandonment of children, guilt in all forms and the vagaries of faith. "A Prayer for the Dying" is the mercifully brief but condensed and horrifying tale of a man who is both the constable and the preacher in Friendship, Wis. In retrieving a murdered soldier from the woods (the book is set in some gothic period, maybe after the Civil War), Sheriff Hansen unwittingly spreads diphtheria through the town, killing just about everyone, including his own wife and 1-year-old baby. Knowing all this will not relieve the terror of reading the novel because the tension between a good man's faith, kindness, respect for the dead and sense of duty and the very fact of death, the science of death, is what makes this novel turn its own pages. It's about how thoroughly the human spirit can be crushed, step by step. In case you picked up the book for pleasure, O'Nan has written it in the second person singular. You are Sheriff Hansen. And you have really blown it.
TIME OUT OF MIND: The Diaries of Leonard Michaels, 1961-1995; By Leonard Michaels; (Riverhead Books: 214 pp., $24.95)
So often, journals are a waste of time, a pathetic record of various drooling, moaning, failures at consciousness. Leonard Michaels' gives me hope. He has edited his own voluminous journals down to a digestible volume with a coherent, touching wisdom to it, though, as a character in his own journals, the author bears a fearsome resemblance to Camus' "L'Etranger." In this 34-year period, Michaels' midlife, he has, if I counted correctly, three wives, writes six books (the most well-known of which was the "The Men's Club"), has three children, at least five university teaching jobs and drives back and forth across the country, New York to San Francisco, about 10 times. The journal changes very little in tone, even as the events of his life, such as his first wife's suicide, swirl around him. "Time Out of Mind" has a refreshing lack of earnestness. In 1982, at a point when he feels the need to see a psychiatrist, Michaels writes, "My problem is moral, not psychological. I don't know how to live." Several of the entries are written in retrospect (could be a day later or months or years). "Personally," he writes at the very end of the book, "I'm more interested in the past than in visions of the future." Even as Michaels lives a moment, it is already in the past. He hurtles toward endings in his life and his writing.
THE GIRLS' GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING; By Melissa Bank; (Viking: 274 pp., $23.95)
The Age of Innocence is over. Gone are the literal and metaphorical corsets for teenage girls, the guidelines for life, love and whatever else they could elbow their way into. These days, we muddle along, raising ourselves (with the help of Mother's negative example), trying to take our cues, wanting what we're supposed to want, wearing what we're supposed to wear. Rarely falling in love with the right people.
Melissa Bank would gag at this earnestness. She gives the muddling through a great deal of style and humor. She makes it seem not so terrible for a girl to make her way to womanhood without guides. Muddling can land a girl in some painful, if instructive, detours, from which she must rouse herself, as this collection shows. In the screamingly funny title story, Jane gives in to a friend's advice and buys a book to guide her, a book with the disgusting title of "How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right." Here are some of the principles she finds in this silly book: play hard to get, don't be funny (it indicates the depth of your neediness), wear your hair long, etc. When Robert, somewhere around the fourth date, tells Jane that she reminds him of someone from high school, the buzzer finally goes off. She should trust her instincts. Bank writes like John Cheever, but funnier. Give her a few decades to come around to the sorrow of love. In the meantime, prey on her equanimity and vigor.
FOREVER ENGLAND; By Beryl Bainbridge; (Carroll & Graf: 176 pp., $22)
"Forever England" is an only slightly ironic title for a book that describes the cellular and geographic fissures in British society. After reading about the three families interviewed in this nonfiction account of the differences between life in the north and south of England (originally for a BBC series that Bainbridge did a few years ago with the same title), this reader was astonished that the country holds together at all.
Bainbridge writes that her departure from her native Liverpool to work in the South "was an act of betrayal as well as folly. In the South they rode to hounds and went to Ascot; in the North we kept pigeons and raced greyhounds. When we had our tea, people in London sat down to their dinner dressed up as if they were off out to a Masonic hot-pot supper."
Bainbridge is a vivid character in her own interviews. And as a novelist, she has good reason to ponder the effects of culture on the imagination. We aren't born with imaginations, she argues. "It must surely grow with us, built from lost conversations and forgotten events, dependent on impressions and sensations which fall through the mind like shooting stars."