Excerpt from The Readers' Choice by Victoria Golden McMains, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Readers' Choice

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By Victoria Golden McMains

The Readers' Choice
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  • Paperback: Jul 2000,
    288 pages.

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Fire on the Mountain, by Edward Abbey, University of New Mexico Press (paperback)

Fire on the Mountain is a story of both strength and simplicity, an inspiring tale about a New Mexico rancher trying to hold back the authority of the U.S. government as it lays claim to his land. Told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old grandson who has come to visit for the summer, Abbey's novel traces the actions of John Vogelin as he refuses to allow the neighboring White Sands Missile Range to annex his property.

Abbey's love of the desert and mountains comes through poignantly in his descriptions of cottonwood trees and riverbeds, grama grass and sand dunes. The tender-and-tough relationship between grandfather and grandson lends force to the story, emerging in the give-and-take of very effective dialogue.

The story's power is enhanced by the knowledge that Abbey's fiction was inspired by real events. John Prather, a New Mexico cattleman, waged a similar battle against the federal government when it tried to make his ranch part of White Sands.

Abbey, who died in 1989, has come to be known as a father of the modern environmental movement. Although he didn't like to be labeled an environmentalist, Abbey once called himself an "agrarian anarchist." "If a label is required," he commented, "say that I am one who loved the unfenced country."

Abbey worked for fifteen years as a park ranger and fire lookout for the National Park Service in the Southwest and also taught writing at the University of Arizona. In the early 1950s he was a Fulbright Fellow, and in 1975 he became a Guggenheim Fellow. He authored twenty books, nine of them novels. The Monkey Wrench Gang may be his most notorious fiction work: It is an account of an environmental group's attempt to blow up a dam in Arizona.

Abbey expresses deep love and respect for both the land and its older inhabitants. However, he is also clear about the compelling reasons why land might be co-opted for other uses. Does Abbey present any answers to the dilemma posed in the book, of nature versus people and their technology?

The Romance Reader, by Pearl Abraham, Riverhead Books (paperback)/p>

In the novel The Romance Reader, a young girl trapped within the confines of Hasidic Jewish culture tells what it is like to be surrounded by mainstream American life and yet be required to follow the narrowly defined rules of an ultra-Orthodox sect dating from the Jewish ghettos of eighteenth-century Poland.

Author Pearl Abraham weaves her own firsthand knowledge of Hasidism into the story of Rachel, a rebellious New York teenager of the 1960s who would like to wear sheer stockings, swim in a bathing suit, and read contemporary novels. Rachel's simple desires are shocking to her rabbi father, her dutiful mother, and their conservative community, who believe that women's heads should be shaved at marriage, that the female body should be hidden, and that the only books worth reading are religious in nature.

Abraham grew up in a Hasidic community and now teaches writing at New York University. She portrays the parameters of Hasidic life in a lively, moving way by detailing what Rachel cannot have rather than by writing a lengthy exposition on Hasidism. Rachel's daring forays to the public library to obtain books of classic American literature or her clandestine pursuit of lifeguard certification endear her to the reader. By our standards, her yearnings are innocent; by her family's standards, they are perfidious.

Abraham is also the author of Giving Up America, a novel that traces the disintegration of a marriage and continues her examination of Orthodox Jewish religion and culture.

Like so many others whose families are new to this country Rachel prefers to leave behind centuries of strict tradition to dive into the American melting pot. In doing so, she is forced to choose between offending her parents and freely embracing a new way of life. Does it seem to you that Abraham's novel presents a criticism of Hasidic life or simply a study of it?

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Copyright Victoria Golden McMains 2000. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Harper Collins

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