The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment (Pantheon: New York) $23/hardcover
This slim, lyrical novel is about the imprint of experience on our bodies and souls. Having fallen into poverty, Sara, a Depression-era artist, and her husband Philip, leave New York for the Pacific South Sea island of Ta'un'uu, famous for its death masks and tattooing. The ship that is to take them back home never returns, and they find themselves stranded among a mysterious tribe. When Philip and half the tribe's men are killed in a massacre by Japanese soldiers during World War II, Sara turns to her painting, in the form of tattoos on her own body, to make sense of it all. Restrained in tone despite its exotic subject matter, Ciment's book is a frank and refreshing discourse on art and artifice, and the unexpected path of an authentic life.
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Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth by John Hubner (Random House: New York) $25.95/hardcover
While working the juvenile court beat, investigative reporter John Hubner, now regional editor at the San Jose Mercury News, repeatedly heard about the Giddings State School in Texas. There, hardcore juvenile offenders undergo intensive treatment in a residential setting and are offered another chance at life if they move successfully through the rigorous rehabilitation program. With open access to Giddings, Hubner immerses himself in the riveting therapy sessions of young uncompromising offenders, following a boy and a girl through the process of accepting responsibility, facing their pasts, reconciling their shortcomings and learning how to function differently in a world that has criminally shortchanged them from an early age. Last Chance in Texas is a tough read about lives we don't want to think about, but its conclusion is a message of hope. This program works. These kids are changed. It can happen anywhere.
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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf: New York) $23.95/hardcover
With her clean prose and clear insight, master essayist Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem) gives us her most personal work yet. The Year of Magical Thinking is a chronicle of the year that followed her husband John Gregory Dunne's unexpected death on Dec. 30, 2003, during which their daughter Quintana Roo lay unconscious in a New York City hospital with pneumonia and septic shock. Didion digs deep to explain the codependent nature of her 40- year marriage -- she and Dunne were nearly inseparable, sharing the same workplace and family, and maintaining similar careers -- and the toll of shock and grief she experienced trying to hold things together for her daughter while falling apart over the loss of her husband. "In times of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control." So she studies grief and categorizes her own as "pathological," generously cracking the door on that most private of subjects. Didion fans will grieve with her. Those not indoctrinated might find this an excellent entry into her remarkable body of work.