Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
Making Book on Your Holiday Gift List
December 8, 2016 -- The holidays are upon us again and it's the moment when many of us are faced with the recurring crisis of gift-giving.

If you are searching for something to give--by choice or obligation--to family, friends, neighbors, business associates or clients, it's never too late to consider the perfect present: a book. With so many print, electronic and audio formats, the convenience of online ordering and the speed of last-minute delivery, it's easier than ever to select and quickly send a "book."

Here are three of my recent favorites: a collection of short stories by a woman who achieved commercial success only after her death; a fact-based historical concoction and a novel from a well-known author.

Until a recent chance encounter with a volume of short stories entitled A Manual for Cleaning Women, I'd never heard of the compendium's author, the late Lucia Berlin (1936-2004). Although Berlin never achieved more than a cult following during her lifetime, this posthumous (2015) collection made The New York Times bestseller list in its second week after publication. A few weeks later, it outsold the sum of all of Berlin's previous books.

As I began to delve into the 43 stories, I was not particularly impressed and began to think of jettisoning the book. But as I learned about the author, it dawned on me that I was being offered what are generally considered autobiographical vignettes. The tales weave together an overriding theme--the day-to-day life of the working class--and are written with perception, clarity and a minimalist prose style. It wasn't long before I was hooked and I read thru the entries until literally the last impressive line.

I told myself, repeatedly, that Berlin, who really knew her craft, was also endowed with an ear for dialogue, writing in a voice that makes its points without ever once raising the volume.

Berlin's character development was subtle and engaging. Especially notable were two sisters who don't inhabit every one of the stories and occasionally appear independently. The older sister, who lives in Oakland, is a nurse. The younger sister is a divorcee dying of cancer in Mexico City. The older sister eventually spends a lot of time south of the border. The sisters' emotional journey is believed to parallel Berlin's own relationship with her sibling.

Berlin was an exceptional storyteller and this collection is an authentic foray into the lives of blue-collar workers written by a woman who actually held many such jobs. At one time or another, she may well have labored as a cleaning lady. Even if you're not an aficionado of the short story form, it's worth a trip into the world that Berlin created.

I've always been fascinated by the Mormon religion without really knowing much about it other than the polygamy and the religion's troubled voyage from New England through Missouri to Utah.

So I was somewhat intrigued by a book titled The 19th Wife. Published in 2008 (and made into a TV movie two years later), it is billed as historical fiction, but obviously adheres to some of the basic facts about the Mormon religion and lifestyle. Author David Ebershoff has devised a story that conveys a sense of authenticity about the everyday life of the Mormons--and the reality of polygamy.

It is based, in part, on the exploits of Ann Eliza Young. The real-life 19th wife of Brigham Young, she almost single-handedly vanquished polygamy, whose legal status had been questioned for decades. The book is so cleverly structured with what appear to be genuine footnotes and other archival records that it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Many of the characters, both real and fictional, come to life in conversation and in deeds.

Ebershoff's storyline jumps from the late 1800s to the present day and includes a make-believe murder mystery that takes place in a breakaway fundamentalist sect near Salt Lake City that allegedly still practices polygamy. The estranged mother of a former member has been charged with the murder of her husband. Her son, who has been cast out (allegedly for merely holding the hand of his half-sister), reads about his mother's plight and decides to come back and help prove her innocence.

On another front, we learn about the Mormon founder, the prophet Joseph Smith, and his disciple and successor, Brigham Young. Both claimed that polygamy was ordered by God to help propagate and spread His word to the apostate world. (Smith called it "celestial marriage," in which a man and woman are "sealed" as husband and wife for all eternity.) The reality, at least as Ebershoff sees it, is that polygamy was probably devised to aid and abet the interpersonal (read sexual) and social needs of those two Alpha males.

As Ann Eliza grows increasingly disillusioned, she finally decides to escape from Brigham Young and the fictional Firster sect. She sues Brigham for divorce and goes on coast-to-coast lecture tours to enlighten America about the sad, harem-like conditions in which many multiple wives survive. Her tours are a huge success, drawing the rapt attention of congressional leaders and, finally, that of President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. Although it is not totally erased, at least in Mr. Ebershoff's narration, Mormon leadership declares polygamy against Church teachings in the 1890 Manifesto.

Clever as it may be, Ebershoff's part-fact/part-fiction narrative makes it difficult to isolate what truly defines the Mormon religion. But I'm now motivated to find a book that will give me a nonfiction account of this interesting chapter in America's religious history.

Jonathan Franzen scored big with two earlier novels, both of which I've also reviewed. Now comes Purity, a protracted and sometimes confusing novel published last year. It's overwritten (576 pages in hardcover), filled with quirky philosophical and personal dialog and could easily have been edited down by a reasonable percentage.

Although Purity is hardly a page-turner, Franzen does have a way with words. Despite some bouts of boredom, he kept me engaged until the very last page. The resolution of the plot, which includes a murder and a fair number of revealed secrets, ultimately makes sense of the twists and turns that the author uses to connect his characters.

The central player in this farcical drama is a young lady named Purity Tyler, but called Pip throughout. Although she is absent for much of the story, Pip is onstage for many of the opening chapters and again for the finale.

The book spotlights Andreas Wolf, who heads up a fictional competitor to WikiLeaks. Wolf, in fact, is a shadowy duplication of Julian Assange who, incidentally, also appears in this contemporary tale. Born and raised in Communist East Germany, Wolf now operates from a paradisiacal valley in Central America. In a book filled with sexual exploits, Wolf's tastes might be said to border on perversion.

Then there is Penelope, Pip's mother, a reclusive former beauty who hides her identity as the daughter of a billionaire. She also declines to identify Pip's father, which drives Purity's frustrated quest to find him. Also involved: Tom Aberant, a successful online news publisher. He lives with Leila Helou, one of his most effective investigative reporters who remains married to her paraplegic husband.

Pip eventually leaves her hometown of Oakland and goes to work as a fledgling reporter for Tom's Denver-based company. It is quite possible that Tom still has the hots for his incredibly difficult first wife, although he would probably deny that allegation. If all of this makes no sense--and we've barely scratched the surface--may I suggest that you sample the first couple hundred pages and decide if you wish to continue.

A novel often based on coincidence, Purity leaves you with an ambiguous ending that has to do with the eternal subject of love. Does it heal all? It depends, Franzen concludes.

This column is Copyright 2016 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.