Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2010

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By Joyce Carol Oates
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 176 pp., $22

As the title suggests, this is a kind of fairy tale. Oates has worked in this mode before and knows well how to manipulate her familiar characters and stock situations.

The maiden is Katya, 16 years old, working class, knowledgeable about her limited surroundings but ignorant of the greater beauty of the world. She meets Marcus Kidder, an older, wealthy, cultured man. He expresses some interest in her and she is dazzled by his luxurious home, his fine manners, his art, music, books.

But her curiosity and cupidity are tempered by suspicion and fear. Nonetheless, she is drawn in, begins spending time with him, eventually agreeing to serve as a paid nude studio model. What the old man actually wants turns out to be beyond her simple, youthful imaginings.

Oates mixes the British ballad of Barbara Allen with the Arthurian tale of the Fisher King, skillfully transporting the two stories from “Scarlet Town” and a “Kingdom by the Sea” to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey - an ancient, dying hero seeking a kind of redemption through the presence of a young, fair maid. The ordinariness of Katya’s small world is folded neatly into Oates’s larger, mythic scheme.

By Kevin Sampsell
Harper Perennial, 256 pp., paperback, $13.99

Written as a “memory experiment,” this memoir of growing up in small-town Washington state feels improvised. As an investigation into his poorly blended family - a brutal father, passive mother, a hidden, unknown half-sister, two older absent half-brothers, and one black half-brother - it is naively accepting of second-hand accounts by family members of events and motivations.

As a child and an adolescent, Sampsell is obsessed with the usual - superhero comics, sports statistics, pop music, and pornography. Becoming a d.j. and losing his virginity are his goals. After these dreams are realized, he forms a punk rock band, “Neon Vomit.” But he develops higher aspirations, which lead him to broadcasting school in the big city, Spokane. Soon he is regularly getting laid, publishing poems, shooting films, riding motorcycles.

All this is told in brief snippets of bland prose. Sampsell’s voice and experiences feel authentic, but authenticity doesn’t guarantee sensitivity, insight, or interest, and this memoir is finally, like pornography, unsatisfying.

MEMORIES OF MUHAMMAD: Why the Prophet Matters
By Omid Safi
HarperOne, 352 pp. $24.99

“For most of the past few years, the majority of Muslims have had to spend far too much time discussing what Islam is not about: Islam is not about extremism, Islam is not about terrorism, and Islam does not sanction the oppression of women,’’ writes Omid Safi, a University of North Carolina professor, in his corrective to these popular western misconceptions.

Taking this point in history as a prime teaching moment Safi makes his argument by simply and beautifully narrating the life of Muhammad. Beyond offering a biography of the spiritual leader, Safi explicates his spiritual teachings and describes how he has been remembered by Muslims over 1,400 years.

Safi securely locates Islam as a continuation and return to the monotheism of Abraham, from which both Jews and Christians trace their origins. He also rebuts the notion that Muhammad preached extremism, emphasizing that the Koran does not negate the earlier revelations of the Jews and Christians.

This volume is clearly intended to serve as a much needed counterpoint to the unfortunate ongoing polemic against Islam - that it is violent, that it denigrates women’s rights, that is unable to accept modernity or to recognize the rights of religious minorities. The memory of Muhammad, as presented here, is one of mercy, justice, peace, and beauty.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance writer who lives in New York.