This week’s book reviews


“Be Safe I Love You” by Cara Hoffman; Simon & Schuster ($26)

Beautifully written and unflinching in its honesty, Cara Hoffman’s provocative second novel offers a window into events we’d prefer to see less clearly. A soldier, Lauren Clay, returns from her tour of duty in Iraq. She struggles to adjust to civilian life. Her family and friends strive for jovial fakery because they cannot bear to consider what she has experienced. We might do the same.

“(T)hey were supposed to pretend … even as they lived in the shadow of the base, and heard reports from places like Fallujah, or read about disastrous brutal homecomings, they were supposed to pretend that what she did was some angel’s work in hell.”

A former investigative reporter who’s currently teaching at Bronx Community College, Hoffman has a knack for getting to the heart of critical contemporary issues. Her haunting first novel “So Much Pretty” _ about a young woman who goes missing in a rural town _ is a devastating look at violence against women and the complicated landscape of vengeance. Disguised as a crime story, it presents the sort of rigorous moral questions that have no easy answers and sear themselves in your memory for a good long time.

“Hyde” by Daniel Levine; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($24)

As Grendel is to Beowulf or Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz, so Hyde is to Jekyll and Hyde.

Levine makes it somewhat difficult for contemporary readers by writing in the same style as Stevenson, which sounds stilted and overly formal to modern ears, at least mine. Still, one can’t deny the powerful, bloody exuberance of the violence and gore, however, which sometimes makes “The Walking Dead” seem like a walk in the proverbial park.

We’re barely on Page 4 before we get a vivid description of a wound that’s likened to “a blood-gorged spider at the heart of its web, its abdomen a-throb. … Look at what he’s left me. What he’s made me do. All those experimental powders, those double injections _ and for what? The end is the same.” Welcome to my nightmares, thank you very much.

“In Paradise” by Peter Matthiessen; Riverhead ($27.95)

Toward the end of the late Peter Matthiessen’s novel “In Paradise,” Clement Olin, a 55-year-old American academic, takes one last look around the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he has been on a two-week retreat with a group of 140, including descendants of both perpetrators and survivors. He imagines the not-too-distant day when the land is reclaimed by commerce and time:

“The last barracks, the last guard post, all that barbed wire and broken brick, will be stripped off and scavenged … the weather will transform the ash pits into lily ponds, and fresh meadows will be suitable once more for butterflies, wildflowers, children’s voices, Sunday strolling, picnics, trysts. … Even its picturesque old name, Brzezinka, can only enhance the marketing potential of the grand development to follow. The Birches? River Meadows? And what will happen to its strange power?”

To capture that “strange power” was the last literary task undertaken by this three-time National Book Award winner. (Matthiessen died at 86 on April 5.)

“The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” by Matt Taibbi; Spiegel & Grau ($27)

Matt Taibbi’s heart is in the right place. He’s outraged that, all over America, the little people are getting screwed by the banking and criminal justice systems, while Wall Street executives get away with the financial equivalent of murder.

There’s probably a pretty good book in this paradox. Unfortunately, “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” isn’t it. That’s a shame, because the contrast he highlights in this extended rant is real, and it’s tragic.

“The Divide” oscillates between stories of wrongdoing by fabulously well-paid financial chieftains and systemic abuse of the poor, but the effort is undermined by shallow thinking and hasty notebook emptying. It’s worth examining the book’s shortcomings in detail to understand the real nature of the problem and how it might be remedied, or at least palliated.

Bear in mind throughout that, at some deep level, Taibbi and the more coherent critics of Wall Street, financial regulation and the criminal justice system are right about the essential unfairness of our current arrangements. And Taibbi vividly describes some outrageous cases of police abuse. But passion in a just cause isn’t enough to explain, let alone solve, major social and political problems.

“Doing Harm” by Kelly Parsons; St. Martin’s Press ($25.99)

Kelly Parsons’ highly entertaining debut delves deep into the ethics and competitiveness of the medical profession while exploring why doctors choose their careers. “Doing Harm” starts strong and never loses its momentum throughout the energetic plot infused with an intriguing look at modern medicine without being overwhelmed by the intricacies of the profession.

“Doing Harm” also will scare anyone who has to go to the hospital.

 

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