Book Reviews

The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)

The Group (1963), is arguably American author Mary McCarthy’s best-known work. Known for trenchant works of fiction and nonfiction, McCarthy likely would not have chosen this juicy, gossipy novel, with elements of autobiography, to be a great part of her lasting legacy, as we’ll see later.

The Group hit the New York Times Bestseller List several weeks after its publication and stayed there for nearly two years. Considered rather scandalous for its time, it touched on issues of contraception, abortion, mental illness, male chauvinism, and lesbian relationships, as experienced by young women in the 1930s.

The book was banned in several countries, but that didn’t deter it from being a huge international hit. The film version of The Group premiered in 1966, featuring a stellar cast (including a breakthrough role for Candice Bergen) and direction by Sidney Lumet. Read More→

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Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (1925)

Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (1880 – 1970) is the best-known novel by this immigrant writer whose work reflected the Jewish immigrant experience in America of the early 1900s. To set this kind of story down with a female perspective was a rarity in her time, reflecting the author’s chutzpah and determination.

At the age of ten, in 1890, Yezierska arrived with her family to New York City’s Lower East Side. A product of the immigration wave of the late 1800s, she never quite shed the feeling of being an outsider.

Longing to rise above her circumstances, she was somewhat hampered by her brittle personality and a measure of self-loathing. In her final book, the autobiographical Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950), she wrote: “With a sudden sense of clarity, I realized the battle I thought I was waging against the world had been against myself, against the Jew in me.” Read More→

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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1956)

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith is a 1956 novel introducing Thomas Ripley, the sociopathic anti-hero who went on be the central character of four subsequent books. The five novels came to be known as “the Ripliad.” The first installment was followed by Ripley Under GroundRipley’s GameThe Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley Under Water.  

Like many of Highsmith’s characters, Tom Ripley is a con artist and murderer. Highsmith described him as “suave, agreeable, and utterly amoral.” He’s cultured, charming, and often portrayed as likable, which puts the reader in a moral bind — just as the author intended. 

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Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy by Leslie Brody

It’s still so relevant—a writer with her mouth “open in horror all the time” at “the state of the world” and all the “social injustice, prejudice, and poverty” around her. That’s how Louise Fitzhugh describes feeling in the mid-1970s—toward the end of her life, in a letter to a friend—in Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy (2020), a biography by Leslie Brody.

In the five years following its publication in 1964, Harriet the Spy sold about 2.5 million copies; that number nearly doubled by 2019. Decades have passed, but she remains relevant: readers continue to freshly fall for—and renew their acquaintance with—Harriet. Read More→

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All-of-a-Kind-Family by Sydney Taylor — Jewish Joy, Family Ties

All-of-a-Kind-Family by Sidney Taylor (1951) is the first of a series of children’s books about the everyday lives of a tight-knit Jewish family at the turn of the 20th century. Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie are young sisters who live with their parents in the Lower East Side of New York City.

This story and its sequels smooth the rough edges of immigrant life, but the warmth and strength of the family unit sends the message that love and mutual respect can overcome many of life’s challenges. The girls occasional bicker, but their love and loyalty for one another is evident.

The five sisters love to do everything together, whether it’s going to the library to choose each week’s treasured books, interacting with peddlers in Papa’s junk shop on rainy days, or going on the rare outing with wise, patient Mama. Read More→

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