By Lalita Tademy
Warner, 420 pp., $24.99
By Gayle Brandeis
Ballantine, 270 pp., $23.95
Seducing Harry: An Epicurean Affair
By Judith Marks-White
Ballantine, 384 pp., paperback. $13.95
Pop lit encompasses all sorts of fiction, as evidenced by these three novels. The first is a serious and moving historical novel, painstakingly researched. The second is a provocative social commentary disguised as light fiction. The third may be social satire, or it may be just an old-fashioned saucy novel, depending on your point of view. Or it may be both.
In "Red River" Lalita Tademy fictionalizes her family history, as she did in her impressive first novel, "Cane River," the story of four generations of African-American women, her maternal ancestors, from slavery to the 1930s. It's not unusual for writers to turn to family stories as inspiration for fiction, but Tademy goes further, using her forebears as characters, building on what she may know of them -- in some cases next to nothing -- and imagining their lives. Tademy, a former vice president of
"Red River" is the story of her father's family during and after what became known as the Colfax Riot. In fact, it was no riot, but a massacre of more than 100 black men, most of them newly freed slaves wanting to claim their rights as US citizens. The massacre was the work of the White League, a forerunner of the Ku Klux Klan . Sam Tademy and Israel Smith, former slaves and the author's ancestors, were among the few who survived the massacre. The author tells their stories, and the stories of their descend ants, most of whom spent their lives farming the Bottom, a flood-prone African-American settlement on the outskirts of Colfax, La. The first half of the novel, an account of the massacre, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath, is riveting. The second half is an exhaustive, emotional saga spanning more than 60 years. The Tademy and Smith families, bound by shared history and intermarriage, struggle to survive in the segregated South. "Red River" is a remarkable historical fiction, illuminating a shameful episode of American history and giving voice to people who might otherwise never have been heard.
Gayle Brandeis's "Self Storage" is a deceptively simple-seeming novel about love and friendship, morality and responsibility, tolerance and compassion. The narrator of this intricately constructed story is Flan (short for Flannery), a ditzy young mother who feels a spiritual bond with Walt Whitman. She treasures an ancient edition of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," left to her by her mother, who died when Flan was 7 . She turns to it for comfort and inspiration, quoting lines from "the greatest poem in the world" when it seems appropriate, and sometimes when it doesn't.
Flan earns money by going to self-storage auctions, bidding on the contents of unpaid units, and selling the stuff she scores at yard sales. She lives in academic poverty in University of California-Riverside married-student housing with her two young children, Noodle and Nori, and her husband, Shae , a perpetual graduate student who spends more time watching TV soap operas than working on his doctoral dissertation, "Televisual Abstractionism and the Postnarrative Origins of Virtual Selfhood." The story is set just after the 9/11 attacks. Fear and xenophobia have penetrated the normally peaceful multicultural enclave. The hostility centers on Flan's Afghani neighbors: Raminullah , a biochemist, and his wife, Sodaba. Racial tension escalates when Sodaba, driving without a license, accidentally hits and seriously injures 2-year-old Nori, who has wandered off while Flan and Shae are making love. Angry protesters use the accident as an excuse to picket the Afghanis' house; Raminullah is spirited away by the FBI as a suspected terrorist; Sodaba is faced with deportation. Flan must decide if she will break the law to help her. She turns to "Leaves of Grass" and finds her answer there.
"Seducing Harry" is a funny, jaded tale set among the wealthy and self-indulgent. Coco Plotnick Hollander Harding, who narrates her story, is on the far side of 40 and reasonably happy in her second marriage. Parker Harding is almost everything a woman could want -- personable, kind, handsome, wealthy. Unfortunately he's a dud in the bedroom. When Coco, a columnist for the Seaport Gazette, is assigned to write a story about a Chaine des Rotisseurs dinner, she meets Manhattan plastic surgeon Harry Troutman, a connoisseur of food, wine, and women. Coco and Harry launch an affair that combines their shared passions for sex and food.
Judith Marks-White is a columnist for the Westport News in Connecticut. A selection of her columns is woven into this novel, her first. She has a sharp eye for absurdity and excess, and she is particularly good as describing the habits of people who have more money than they know what to do with.
I expected "Seducing Harry" to be a murder mystery, probably because it begins with the line "The minute I met Eclaire I wanted to bump her off." Eclaire is Harry's flawlessly gorgeous wife, a dedicated spa-hopper who makes a career of self-enhancement. Eclaire probably deserves to be bumped off, although no more so than any of the main characters in this novel. They're all more or less dislikable, which is refreshing. There is a murder, but it comes late in the novel and it's not much of a mystery. Marks-White describes both sex and food with great gusto, in lip-smacking detail. She writes more convincingly about the sex than the food, where she sometimes seems on unsteady ground. For example, if you are going to write about foodie culture, you should know that it's Julia Child, not Julia Childs.
Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.