Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2010

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Jane Addams (1860-1935) led a life of moral excellence, transforming her personal social conscience into directed social action. Best known as the founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States, and author of “Twenty Years at Hull-House,’’ she fought for women’s rights, racial equality and world peace, advised eight presidents and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Raised in a prosperous Midwest family to be a proper self-forgetting and self-sacrificing woman, she struggled to express her nature, expand her intellect, and use what powers she had been given. She struggled to achieve humility and not succumb to a temptation toward self-righteousness and martyrdom. After achieving fame in Chicago for the success of Hull House, she joined numerous national organizations, fighting for the rights of African-Americans, for trade unions, for women’s suffrage, and for child labor laws. During World War I, she staunchly defended her pacifist position despite ugly attacks on her patriotism. At the end of her life, the progressive era had ended, and the two movements Addams most cherished — the peace movement and the women’s movement — were in disarray.

Louise Knight presents Addams’s impressive achievements as an ongoing unfolding of personal purpose and public power. She is especially sensitive to the conflicts within Addams’s nature but is reticent about exploring the long and loving relationship with her same-sex companion and partner.

At 662 pages, “Skippy Dies’’ is too much of a good thing. Skippy is a sorry 14-year-old at Seabrook College, Ireland’s oldest Catholic boys’ school. He and his pals — Ruprecht, a science nerd and the creator of M-theory; Carl, a nasty drug-dealing psychopath; and Dennis, “an arch-cynic whose very dreams are sarcastic” suffer from the usual adolescent pangs of lust, longing, love, and confusion. Their pranks, mostly involving the adjacent girls’ school, are made up of many strands, which unravel slowly, hilariously and horribly. Skippy’s death, which occurs on page 5 but is not fully explored until much later, becomes the “Tragic Event” that calls out for explanation. Sorting through the possibilities — benign accident, tragic love pact, suicide, murder, overdose, coverup — the boys flail about for some way of understanding and overcoming loss, grief, and death. Attempting to keep the boys under control while having difficulty holding his own life together is Howard “the Coward,” a Seabrook alum, who teaches history. At one generation removed, Howard is what the boys will become 10 years in the future and what their fathers were 20 years in the past.

Paul Murray moves gradually and gracefully from contemporary computer porn and string theory to ancient theories of the universe, the mysteries of science and spiritualism, the beauty of music, art and poetry. In the last third of the novel, Murray turns moves past the events leading up to Skippy’s death and concentrates on its aftermath. In this final part, he rescues the novel from sinking completely into the mire of adolescent angst, agitation, and ardor.

Nina Revskaya, 80 years old, wheelchair bound, and living in Boston, was once a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet in Soviet Russia. She has suddenly decided to put up for auction the many beautiful and costly jewels that were showered on her half a century earlier. Among the most valuable and unique pieces in the collection are a matching bracelet and earrings of precious amber. Once the list of pieces to be auctioned is published, an anonymous seller comes forward with a third matching piece of amber. How the three pieces came to be separated and how all three came to reside in Boston are the questions the novel then answers.

Nina asserts that the amber was given to her by her husband, the poet Viktor Elsin, the love of her life who fell victim to Stalin’s terror. She maintains this assertion to Drew Brooks, the curator from the auction house, whose job is to verify the provenance of the jewels. As Drew presses for the truth, Nina reluctantly tells the story of her life in Russia — an odd mélange of fame, glamour, fear and betrayal — concluding with her own daring escape to the West.

With sure and suspenseful artistry, Daphne Kalotay intersperses the unfortunate and tortuous histories of Nina, Elsin, and their artist friends with new discoveries and disclosures. The several stories draw together in a conclusion that is surprising, fitting, and satisfying.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at bfishershorttakes@

JANE ADDAMS: Spirit in Action

By Louise W. Knight

Norton, 352 pp., $28.95

SKIPPY DIES By Paul Murray

Faber and Faber, 662 pp., $28


By Daphne Kalotay

Harper Collins, 480 pp., $25.99