Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave
W.W. Norton & Company
Declaring oneself a “bad girl” in this era of naughty-bit-flashing celebrities and confessional blogs is practically passé. But the writers in this collection transcend tattoos, tequila, and transgressive sex, proving that “a bad girl won’t allow herself to be easily defined.” Joyce Maynard’s inner bad girl was unleashed not by her teenage affair with J.D. Salinger but by the memoir she penned some 20 years later, defying the author’s attempts to silence her. Writers like Susan Cheever, Erica Jong, and Daphne Merkin revel in innocuous lying, an epiphany atop the partially completed World Trade Center, and teaching a boyfriend’s perfectionist daughter to swear.
Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife
Opening with Billy Collins’s poem “Forgetfulness”—“Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye/ and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag”—this absorbing work of narrative nonfiction probes the shadowy recesses of the aging brain. Ramin’s three years of exhaustive research, mostly using herself as a guinea pig, unearthed a treasure trove of information about why mental agility wanes as we age. Experts in memory, neuropsychology, endocrinology, sleep, and sociology weigh in on the many thieves of cognitive dexterity, including early-childhood stress, common medications, and multitasking. There are drugs on the horizon that may help restore the brain’s youth, but the best remedy so far appears to be good old-fashioned mental exercise: trading John Grisham for James Joyce, learning a new language, playing chess, and resisting the lulling effects of routine.
Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou
This memoir begins as the ultimate fish-out-of-water story but morphs into a poignant narrative of spiritual discovery. When her husband accepts a teaching position in Baton Rouge, Moses—a well-educated East Coast Jew—is overwhelmed by the wilting heat, poverty, and have-you-been-saved Christianity of her new environs. Uprooted and facing a crisis of faith, she volunteers at an AIDS hospice and takes up Hebrew. Amidst a vibrant cast of characters—African-American AIDS patients, nurses, nuns, and prostitutes—who count God among their inner circle, she experiences a reawakening.
Degrees that Matter: Climate Change and the University
As physical and intellectual communities, universities are in a position to lead the charge against global climate change. They can focus scholarship on global warming, turn students into informed citizens and responsible leaders who can set environmental policy, and stem their own considerable emissions of greenhouse gases. Drawing on Tufts’ record as a “green campus,” the authors present steps to improve building design, lighting, and waste management that other types of institutions will also find useful.
David Mizner, A91
In Hartsburg, USA (Bloomsbury), a fading Ohio steel town stands in for the red-and-blue-swathed electoral map, pitting Wallace Cormier, a newspaper columnist and failed screenwriter, against Bevy Baer, a stay-at-home mom and born-again Christian, in a heated school board election. It’s David Mizner’s loose retelling of the 2004 presidential election: Bevy is a reformed party girl from Midland, Texas, and Wally is an elitist snob who struggles to seize upon a coherent message. Mizner, a political liberal, brings insight from his days working on congressional campaigns and writing speeches, op-eds, and press releases for political nonprofits. What distinguishes his sharp second novel, however, is its warmth. Hartsburg, USA humanizes partisans on both sides of the culture war, capturing in rich detail the life of a Wal-Mart-horizoned Anytown.
“I started writing the book the day after the 2004 election. It was a despondent time for liberals, but I was annoyed with all of the Democrats who were saying things like, ‘I’m moving to Canada. This country is full of idiots.’ Well, I don’t think this country is full of idiots, and I wanted to write about a liberal who said, ‘This is my country; I’m sticking around.’ Then I decided it needed to be told from both sides.
I wanted to explore the mindset of people who don’t agree with me. There are a lot of books about the so-called culture war, but very few that explore what it feels like to be a social conservative. I felt like that needed to be done, and I didn’t want it be a satire. I used to work for People for the American Way, where I watched a lot of Christian programming and went to a lot of conferences where I spoke to conservative Christians.
I felt like the book would be a disaster if there weren’t some semblance of balance. I knew that Bevy needed to be a lot like me, even though we hold different political beliefs. When I wrote the book, I was living on an island in Maine, and I infused her with my sense of isolation. Bevy is just as much me as Wally is.
For me, it was less about liberal versus conservative, or secular versus religious. It was about an examined life versus an unexamined life. Wally’s a little bit more clued in to his emotions, what he wants, and what he needs.
The book is in part a critique of liberal insecurity and cowardice. I tried to point out the moral and practical shortcomings of running scared. Republicans are a little bit bolder than Democrats. I don’t care what the polls say. I think there’s a good chance Republicans will win again. But the book ends on a note of hope for progressives.
I was frustrated by the lack of depth at which you can speak in politics. Telling the truth is not your mandate. Winning is. With a novel, on the other hand, you can capture nuance. You can convey a point and keep saying ‘but’ until you achieve something like the ambiguity of the real world.
The book is really about a common humanity. I think that liberals and conservatives are motivated by the same impulses: lust, fear of death, concern for our children. When I hear someone talking about the Rapture, my first instinct is, ‘Whoa, that’s whacked out.’ But I get it—they’re dealing with a universal fear of the abyss. Both Bevy and Wally are thinking about similar things. I didn’t think I was single-handedly going to bring peace to the culture war, but I did want to challenge both sides.”
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