Books

in brief

Four new nonfiction books

What Comes Next and How to Like It

By Abigail Thomas

Scribner, 240 pp., $24

Abigail Thomas wrote novels first — three of them, deftly wrought stories that were funny and sad in equal measure — but it is as a memoirist that she may be remembered. In “Safekeeping” and “A Three Dog Life,” Thomas told her own true stories, alternately wise and witty, of love and loss. Here, in her third memoir, she returns to topics of motherhood, romance, and friendship (as well as dogs, cocktails, and art), but against the backdrop of her big, messy, complicated life she highlights one particular narrative: her longtime relationship with her best friend, Chuck, a man 10 years her junior.

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“I am aware of my cavalier attitude toward men,” Thomas writes. “I wittily describe them as single-celled organisms.” But she doesn’t feel this way about her son or grandsons, or her late husband, or Chuck, to whom this book is very much a love letter. “I don’t think of Chuck in a sexual way,” she adds, allowing that “sometimes there is something in the air that adds spice to conversation.” A nearly unforgivable betrayal in the middle of their long friendship somehow didn’t end it — in fact, Thomas writes, “We have built something sturdy out of the wreckage” — and it’s this spirit of stalwart love and loyalty that makes Thomas’s work so moving. What’s more, here she confronts her own mortality, mostly in the form of gentle grumbling about having to give up her favorite habits: “Napping is divine, but I no longer have all the time in the world.” The result is a book that reads very quickly, but lingers long after.

All Who Go Do Not Return

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By Shulem Deen

Graywolf, 288 pp., paperback, $16

There’s nothing new about memoirs of religious doubt and seeking — St. Augustine wrote his 1600 years ago — but so many (Augustine excepted) seem to follow the same meandering map, tracing a series of internal struggles of little interest to anyone other than the author. In particular, it can be difficult for an outsider to understand what’s really at stake if this or that believer stumbles on the road to the divine. Not so with Shulem Deen’s new memoir: Raised in a claustrophobically orthodox religious community, Deen’s choice to leave carries with it the heartbreaking possibility of losing not only his community and friends, but also his wife and children.

The author’s parents had grown up as secular Jews — mom was a Beatles fan, dad had done psychedelic drugs in San Francisco — but joined the Hasidim to raise their own family. As a boy, Deen considered the more familiar Breslovers and Satmars before choosing to attend a Skverer yeshiva and make his life in a small village in upstate New York among people who “appeared to live exactly like the pious and modest folk of the old European shtetl.” One arranged marriage and five children later, Deen found himself chafing at the limits of his ultra-orthodox world; it made his wife very uneasy (“I don’t want these trayf, goyish books in my home!” she yelled when he returns from a nearby library), and his encounters with the village’s power brokers are harrowingly recounted. Deen’s wishes are fairly modest — all he wants, he writes, is “a world in which I was not lying or hiding” — but what it takes to achieve them illustrates just how much power religion can wield.

Rust: The Longest War

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By Jonathan Waldman

Simon and Schuster, 304

In 1980, an act of political vandalism exposed the structural weaknesses bedeviling the Statue of Liberty. After protesters climbed her copper robes and unfurled a banner on behalf of prisoner Geronimo Pratt, New York officials found that Lady Liberty, no matter how anyone felt about the country she represents, was riddled with rust. Even though most of us only think about it when pondering our car’s undercarriage at the end of winter, rust is a pernicious force. According to Jonathan Waldman, “rust threatens our health, safety, security, environment, and future” — even worse, some attempts to defeat it have led to their own dangers, as the current concern over BPA in food packaging indicates.

A science journalist with a predilection for hands-on reporting, Waldman does his best to tell an interesting story about a process — corrosion — that most of us would prefer not to know anything about. The book’s at its best when Waldman is out in the world, whether profiling artist Alyssha Eve Csük, who trespasses in steel mills to photograph rust patterns, or in finagling his way into Can School, where he learns about how can manufacturers innovate to keep one step ahead of corrosion. In the end, though, despite the topic’s obvious importance and the author’s stylish prose, the book can’t quite wring poetry from this most prosaic of scourges.

Bookmarked:

Reading My Way from Hollywood to Brooklyn

By Wendy W. Fairey

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Arcade, 288 pp., $25.99

“I have lived my life refracted through novels,” writes Wendy Fairey, “they have shaped the terms of my existence.” As the daughter of Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham, who wrote of her love affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fairey grew up with a rich and complex relationship to literature — in the end, she became an English professor – and an even more complicated life story, one that dovetails appealingly with her favorite books, the English novels of the 19th century.

At times, truth and fiction make for uncomfortable juxtapositions. A man Fairey knew since childhood as a family friend was later revealed to have been her biological father, lending an odd note to his gift to her, at age 11, of a copy of Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” “What was he thinking,” she asks, “of giving his secret daughter . . . this story of seduction, betrayal, and illegitimate birth?” In the end, Fairey’s book is an eloquent argument on behalf of novels and their power to both reflect and enhance our lives.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.