As wealthy Southern Jews, Gunst and her family were both targets of and participants in racism. Gunst's simple prose powerfully illuminates her childhood awakening to racism's injustices as well as her adulthood dismay at the discovery that her great-grandfather helped the Ku Klux Klan foment a massacre of blacks in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. The weakest part of "Off-White" is the description of Gunst's early adulthood fascination and, some might say, overidentification with Jamaican Rastafarian men. Her lack of self-examination leaves the reader a little embarrassed for the author. However, Gunst's subsequent odyssey to discover and connect with the relatives of her beloved nanny, Rhoda Lloyd, erases much of the reader's discomfort and carries the book to a tender conclusion.
Overall, "Off-White" is a sweet and challenging book that will satisfy most readers. Richmond-area readers will enjoy the added bonus of familiar landmarks and neighborhoods, and perusing the skeletons hidden in a local family's closet. Mary Mullins
"The Time of the Uprooted" (Knopf, $25), the latest novel from Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel, bounces through a long series of flashbacks and memories from the life of a Hungarian-Jewish World War II refugee named Gamaliel. The protagonist's dark and painful past is called back to him when, at the request of a friend, he visits a critically burned and unconscious stranger on her deathbed in a New York City hospital. Gamaliel is struck by the feeling that the woman is someone from his past, and his meditations on this possibility send him reeling through memory.
While it is the major events of his life that give shape to Gamaliel's heart-wrenching story his struggle to survive the Nazi occupation, the loss of his parents, a trio of doomed love affairs, his alienation from his daughters the writing itself acts as something of an anesthetic and somehow, unbelievably, manages to make his story largely unmoving. Loaded with stock characters and stereotypes such as the wandering Jew, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the ingenue, the miracle worker and the jokester, the interplay between these characters feels arid and tired, even at moments that should be humming with tension or otherwise engaging the reader with a larger meaning. Wiesel's inventiveness with the plot and the natural cultural landscape of the novel do their best to keep things interesting, but the prose suffers acutely from telling instead of showing, and the indelicate dialogue lacks a subtlety necessary to achieve even a modest believability.
The high expectations of a writer as acclaimed as Elie Wiesel, are unavoidable, but unfortunately in this case, they largely serve to underscore the shortcomings of "The Time of the Uprooted." Hutch Hill
Chekhov would be pleased with Virginia Tech professor Edward Falco's "Wolf Point" (Unbridled Books, $23.95). As Falco tantalizes the reader with the promise of sex and murder in the first act, by the last he has not failed to deliver. The character around which the plot revolves is T. Aloysius Walker, an intellectual mixture of Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, without any of the humor but all of the lechery. A sexy young temptress in red leather pants and her deadbeat guitar-toting boyfriend lure T into picking them up off the side of the road and taking them to a semi-deserted cabin called Wolf Point. The fact that T fails to drop this clichéd duo when he discovers their goal is to rob and kill him is what drives the plot beyond the first chapter. The dangerous hitchhikers, the unkempt cabin in the woods and the foggy, misted-over river encircling the scene draw to mind a combination of a classic horror film and a bad joke.
The onslaught of this reckless scenario is tempered with musings on one man's history of love, failure, seduction and sexual deviancy. T's sudden thrust from isolation into the wild unknown by joining paths with explosive strangers results in a story that is difficult to put down but equally difficult to love. Valley Haggard
"The Best of the South" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $15.95) is a quintessential collection of Southern short stories. Reading its 316 pages is a balmy and entertaining ride down the Mississippi.
The collection opens with Marcia Guthridge's "The Host," a bizarre tale of a Texas woman determined to eat a tarpon she catches despite her husband's objections and the party boat captain's repeated warning that "it ain't good eatin'." It ends with Stephanie Soileau's "The Boucherie," in which a neighborhood comes together to butcher a cow that wanders into a Sudanese family's yard in Baton Rouge. Between these two stories are tales of passion, coming-of-age stories, and accounts of living and dying everywhere in the South, from a Virginia retirement center to the middle of nowhere, Florida.
The side effect of placing 20 stories set in the South in one book is that about one out of every three includes a racial slur. In most cases, this is unnecessary, ugly set dressing, but in others, it illustrates a racial tension integral to the story, as in Gregory Saunders' "Good Witch, Bad Witch," in which the narrator is unable to forgive his favorite aunt's racist comments.
While the topics and themes of this collection are as varied as their locations, they remain true to their Southern roots with flowing narrative styles and a definite sense of place. Editor Shannon Ravenel is right, "The Best of the South" is exactly that. April Brown
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