- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

Halide Edib Adivar was a real person, the daughter of one of Sultan Abdul Hamid's most trusted advisors and civil servants. She grew up in the protection of a harem run by her grandmother; she married twice, became the sole female member of Mustafa Kemal's nationalist government in exile, taught English literature at Istanbul University and wrote 25 novels and numerous articles, plays and short stories.
Frances Kazan's new novel, Halide's Gift (Random House, $23.95, 345 pages) fictionalizes young Halide's early life. It is a rich portrait of turn-of-the-century life in Istanbul, a city rife with secrecy, plots and counter plots. It is a time when old Muslim traditions still prevailed Halide grew up in the women's quarters, veiled when she went out. Her beautiful mother died young and her father married Teyze, the former slave who raised Halide, but deserted her to take a new, younger wife. While the harem was Halide's safe world, it could also be a prison as she discovered when Teyze was held an isolated prisoner as punishment for becoming socially active.
Halide fell in love with a dedicated mathematician, married him with her family's approval and was happy until she learned of his Parisian mistress. (Most of the men in this novel betray the women who love and serve them faithfully.) The gift of the title is one of seeing into the future, which Halide inherited from her mother. It is through her writing that Halide's gift is realized.
Mrs. Kazan, widow of film director Elia Kazan, has an M.A. in Turkish studies. She has great empathy with her subject and makes the mysterious ways of Halide's world come alive. Halide is a passionate, interesting character, a mix of the traditional, Oriental world, and the European educated woman. "Halide's Gift" is a fascinating story, well told, about a world which has disappeared. Only the intrigue remains.

On a warm summer evening in August, 1911, a group of "good old boys" (aged 17 to 53) from Nickerly, Kan. ambushed Margaret Chambers, the pretty young schoolteacher, knocked her to the ground, ripped her clothes, smeared her with tar and threw feathers over her. Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to Presidents Reagan and George Bush (the elder), has taken this incident from his own family background as the subject of his first novel, Esther's Pillow (Public Affairs, $25, 256 pages).
Rural Kansas at the beginning of the 20th century was a place where farmers and ranchers worked hard, feared God and paid attention to their neighbor's business. In Nickerly, the wives, members of the Civic Improvement Association, saw to it that no one strayed far from the narrow path set out by the community.
Margaret Chambers was spirited, pretty and full of enthusiasm. Sponsored by Mrs. Garvey, the schoolteacher, she went away to college and returned to Nickerly to take Mrs. Garvey's place. But the town found her too attractive, too independent and soon rumors spread, including one that she was seducing a student. With the approval of the Civic Improvement Association members, the "boys" of the town, led by Ed Garvey, Jr. and Jay Langston, the preacher's son, decided to teach Margaret a lesson and run her out of town.
After her ordeal, Margaret does not leave town. Instead, she brings a charge with the district attorney against the men who abused her. Some plead guilty; others are tried and found guilty. All serve a short jail sentence. Upon their release from jail, they seek revenge on the prosecutor who took Margaret's case and is running for congress by accusing him of raping a teenager. He is acquitted in 15 minutes, but the reader is left hanging does he win or lose? What does Margaret do after the trial? Does she ever go to Kansas City to join Temp Dandridge, the newspaperman whose stories in the Kansas City paper made her famous? And what about Jay, Mr. Fitzwater's missing relative? The focus on him with which the story began is lost as the plot becomes unnecessarily involved in politics.
Mr. Fitzwater is a good, if not great, storyteller and "Esther's Pillow" describes the life and mentality of small town Kansas 100 years ago vividly. Unfortunately, the author loses the focus and momentum of his story.

Bo Caldwell's debut novel, The Distant Land of my Father (Chronicle Books, $23.95, 373 pages), reads like a memoir, a first-person account by a little girl living in the Shanghai in the 1930s with her parents beautiful Genevieve from Los Angeles and handsome Joseph Schoene, born in China of missionary parents. Joe is a millionaire, a businessman without scruples who buys and sells from and to anyone in the market.
Mother and daughter return to Los Angeles in 1938, where they settle near Genevieve's strong, capable and loving mother. Joe remains behind to finish up his business deals, but finds he cannot leave his beloved Shanghai. After initial alienation, Anna adjusts to life in Pasadena. She is thrilled when her adored father comes to rejoin them after the war and his imprisonment. But after 10 months, he returns to Shanghai. Anna, who has grown up, married and borne two daughters, never forgives her father for his rejection until he returns to California, impoverished and in ill health, after Genevieve's death. Ultimately, she recreates the bond between them and comes to know her father through the diaries she finds after his death.
Miss Caldwell has re-created prewar Shanghai in rich, vivid detail the city's smells, atmosphere, climate and life from the hard-working Chinese to the carefree society of the French Concession, from the buildings of the Bund to the sampans on the Whangpoo River.
It is hard to believe that Miss Caldwell didn't experience at first hand little Anna's life or Joe's imprisonment and torture under the Japanese occupation and then again under the communists. Even the transliterated Chinese phrases the author uses are realistically to the point. Unfortunately, when the locale shifts to Pasadena, some of the vibrancy is lost. Anna turns out to be a banal California girl, sensitive and loving, but not very interesting.

Patrick Wallingford, a handsome, passive television journalist for a disaster news channel, becomes the "lion guy" or "disaster man" when his left hand is gobbled up by a circus lion in India in the middle of a TV program. John Irving's new novel The Fourth Hand (Random House, $26.95, 313 pages) begins like a witty satire, a comedy of the absurd or a sex farce. No belly laughs, but lots of chuckles. Halfway through, it becomes a parable of wasted lives redeemed by love.
Mr. Irving knows how to tell a good story. "The Fourth Hand" is filled with bizarre, eccentric characters who engage in hilarious exploits and unconventional behavior. There is lots of sex, but little eros, as Patrick is beset by women, whom he finds impossible to resist, whereever he goes including a colleague who wants to have his baby and his job.
To ease his pain, Patrick is given a magical blue pain killer which not only dulls the pain but enables him to dream the future, a fantasy which comes to pass. Five years after Patrick's hand is devoured, an unhappy, very skinny Boston surgeon, Dr. Nicholas M. Zajac who specializes in hand surgery, offers to attach a new hand as soon as a proper donor is found. Zajac is a health nut with a son whom he sees only one weekend a month, a dog with bad habits called Medea and a sullen housekeeper with the name of Irma.
When Otto Clausen's wife, along with her husband, an avid Green Bay Packers fan, offers her husband's left hand Otto having accidentally shot himself dead in his beer delivery truck at the end of a Super Bowl game which the Packers lost to the Denver Broncos Patrick flies to Boston for the surgery. There are some curious strings attached to Doris' gift: She wants to meet Patrick and when she does, insists that he first impregnate her, a task her husband had been unable to accomplish. She also insists on visiting rights to the hand.
Both Dr. Zajac and Patrick have been married to haridans. Both fall in love with seemingly unsuitable women. Love transforms Patrick but only after he deliberately renounces his passivity, gets himself fired and becomes a father.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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