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Picks and Pans Main: Books

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by Allen Shawn |



In the highly articulate ’50s household where Shawn grew up, much remained unspoken. Anything “tasteless…lurid…unreasonable,” for instance. Or the truth about his parents’ marriage: His father, New Yorker editor William Shawn, carried on a decades-long affair with a staffer. Hardest for young Allen, though, was the prevailing silence on the subject of his twin sister, Mary, who suffered from autism and was institutionalized at age 8. In this touching memoir, the 62-year-old composer traces the effects of Mary’s existence, as well as her absence, on his life. His crippling phobias (described in his last memoir, Wish I Could Be There), began soon after she left; he turned seriously to music, seeking expression and escape. Despite the pain, his lifelong yearning to imagine his twin’s “subjective experience” clearly helped hone the probing intelligence on display in these pages. Shawn still visits Mary at her residential home, bringing the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups she loves and acknowledging a bond that transcends words. “I am more relaxed in her company,” he writes, “than at any other time.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua |



Chua’s humorous yet chilling chronicle of parenting the Chinese way-or, as she would argue, the right way-insists that if you love your kids, you demand excellence. No TV. No sleepovers. Practice your instrument six or seven hours a day. True, it’s tough to argue with success. Yet the story about rejecting her 4-year-old’s birthday card because it’s not well-made enough is so upsetting you’ll cheer when, at 13, that daughter explodes after her mom tries to shame her into eating a food she hates. Chua isn’t easy on herself, but there’s a lot of self-justification too. In the end, we’re happy her children are the lovely, driven women they’ve become. We are also happy we’re not her children.

The Empty Family

by Colm Toibin |



In this powerful (if sometimes graphically sexual) story collection, prize-winning Irish author Toibin (The Master) strips open the inner lives of contemporary people separated from home and longing for love. Many are expatriates whose easy mobility disguises their emotional dislocation. On a job in Dublin, an L.A.-based film-set designer rediscovers memories of a long-ago romance. A gay city dweller returns to the small town where his beloved aunt is dying. A Pakistani worker in Spain seeks “family” in a forbidden affair with a fellow countryman. As one disillusioned character says, “It was lucky…no one would ever realize how apart people were…how deeply and singly themselves…” Only brief moments of connection, Toibin suggests, can relieve our aching emptiness.