Books

Books in Brief

Moving forward toward a better self

Falling: A Daughter, a Father, and a Journey Back

By Elisha Cooper, Pantheon, 160 pp., $23.95

It started when Elisha Cooper felt a little bump on his older daughter’s ribcage. She was 4, her little sister just 2. In this compact yet powerful memoir, Cooper tells the story of Zoë’s cancer and her treatment — more than that, he meditates on fatherhood, childhood, aging, safety, and love. A children’s book illustrator and author, Cooper writes with the plainspoken grace and sharp eye of an artist. Zoë’s doctor and nurses are friendly and cheerful, especially when hooking up the chemotherapy drip, lending the action “a slightly dissonant air, like someone singing a lullaby while loading a gun.” He wants his daughter to be safe and healthy enough to do things that are unsafe: “I want more broken wrists for her, more bruises, all the childhood scraped knees.”

Cooper’s an astute observer of his own reactions to Zoë’s illness, which made him “angry and protective and wild.” Because he’s a good father, he keeps those feelings from the children — but because he’s a good writer, he shares them with us, the readers. The result is something special, a tough, tender book that gets at the heart of what it means to make a family and a life.

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison

By Mikita Brottman, Harper, 272 pp., $26.99

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Meeting regularly with a group of convicts in an uncomfortable, windowless room isn’t an assignment most English professors would take on. But for Mikita Brottman, an Oxford-educated academic whose childhood was spent in gritty northern England among a family marked by an “underdog, outlaw mentality,” the prospect had appeal. “I can’t help but feel a powerful allegiance to those whose lives haven’t worked out so well,” she writes; this certainly describes the nine members of her book club, all of whom are incarcerated at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. These men, she realizes, might “have preferred to spend their time learning something practical: computer skills, car mechanics, or carpentry, perhaps. But literature is all I had.”

Each chapter finds the men reading a different book, from Shakespeare to Poe to Kafka. Brottman makes a lot of mistakes while leading the book club (she seems to take a certain perverse pleasure in noting her own errors, a strange but ultimately charming tic). For instance, one wonders whether, if she hadn’t so thoroughly eschewed discussion of race, colonialism, and history in talking about Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the prisoners might have found it more interesting. And when they read Nabokov’s “Lolita,” it’s Brottman who is guilty of misreading. While Brottman had been seduced by Humbert Humbert’s eloquence (she writes that she’d “never thought of [him] as a pedophile”), the prisoners set her straight: “These men, some of whom were guilty of terrible crimes, had immediately sympathized with twelve-year-old Lolita.” In the end, the club shows how reading literature can be a moral project, a workshop open to all.

Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives

By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $25

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What does it mean when a woman chooses not to wear makeup? How do you respond when a friend bemoans her cankles or muffin top? Is it really true that men prefer women with a waist-to- hip ratio of 0.7? Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who worked as a beauty editor in women’s magazines before launching her own blog, The Beheld, has thought deeply about these issues, and the result is “Face Value,” a wide-ranging, often entertaining look at how we feel about, well, looks.

“Beauty is a concept, not a fact,” the author writes, before noting that we still keep trying to both quantify and define it — whether in those glossy magazine quizzes or in scientific studies (she’s aptly skeptical of both). Whitefield-Madrano is alert both to feminist critiques of “the beauty imperative” and to the idea, raised many of the women she spoke with for the book, that beauty can also be an arena for artistry, self-expression, and confidence. Her goal, she writes, is to “close these gaps by challenging our assumptions, looking at beauty not only in terms of gender, power, and low self-esteem but sisterhood, ideology, and identity.” At times, the book wobbles under its own counter-arguments, but on the whole it’s a fascinating look at a surprisingly broad topic.

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