Book bits

Review of "The Gravedigger's Daughter," three books about Scotland, recommendations from readers.

The Gravedigger's daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates

Rebecca Schwart started running before she was even born. Her parents fled the Nazis in 1936, and Rebecca was born on a boat in New York harbor.

But while they made it out of Germany, the Schwarts (as her father renames them) never fully escaped. The only job her dad, a former high school teacher, can get is digging graves, and he takes his fury out on his wife and three children. Rebecca's mother, formerly a talented pianist, sinks into depression and isolation.

The only moment of beauty during her childhood is the afternoon when she and her mother sneak a listen at their father's forbidden radio and hear Beethoven's "Appassionata" being played by Artur Schnabel. Her US citizenship ends up saving her life 13 years later, when her dad – twisted by resentment of the adopted country that barely tolerated him – takes a shotgun to his wife and himself. "You were born here. They won't hurt you," are the gravedigger's last words to his daughter.

Rebecca is a Joyce Carol Oates heroine, so that won't be the last instance of shocking violence in her life. Ten years later, fleeing the abusive thug she married with their small son, Rebecca changes her name to Hazel Jones – the name a stranger had mistakenly called her weeks before when he followed her home along a canal towpath. Letting a stranger who terrified her christen her new life is one of Rebecca's last acts of passivity. As Hazel, she is determined to save both herself and her small son, Niley, whom she renames Zacharias.

Oates is exploring familiar themes throughout the 600-page novel – male violence against women, anti-Semitism, assimilation, identity – and the setting is her familiar stomping grounds of upstate New York. The novel resolutely refuses to tidy up: Characters vanish never to return, Rebecca changes so much as Hazel that she might as well be a different person, and Oates strangely ends the book with a collection of letters that came from a recent short-story collection.

But Rebecca's story pulls a reader along, nonetheless. The novel's greatest strengths are Oates's prose, which can be almost vindictive in its ugliness, and its portrayal of a woman whose life is so defined by flight that she never even knew her real name.

– Yvonne Zipp

Three books about Scotland

"I knew when I married the man that I married the mansion," writes Belinda Rathbone in her evocative memoir The Guynd: A Scottish Journal about the years she spent as wife of a Scottish laird and mistress of his 400-acre ancestral home. Rathbone, a photography historian, brings to life both the pleasures and the pains of living among Scotland's aristocratic class and keeping up a splendid but aging manor house.

Travel writer David Yeadon and wife Anne spent 2004 on a small island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. In Seasons on Harris, Yeadon skillfully blends local history with local gossip and offers readers a feeling for both the region itself and the residents he came to know. He and his wife clearly enjoyed their rambles around the island and so will most readers. For anyone planning a trip to the Hebrides, "Seasons on Harris" might serve as a charming introduction.

Curious Scotland: Tales from a Hidden History is Scottish journalist George Rosie's compendium of fascinating, neglected stories from his country's history. If you're hungry to learn more about John Knox, Scottish witch hunters, or what took place in Scotland during World War II and like a fast and lively read, this could be your book. It contains a good bit of trivia, but also teaches much about Scotland.

– Marjorie Kehe

Readers' picks

A wonderfully intricate novel is now in paperback, Peter Pouncey's Rules for Old Men Waiting. History and romance mixed with survival tactics meld into the best book I've read in quite a while. A widower realizes that survival in a cold, decrepit old house calls for discipline. The rules he sets for himself require him to write each day, and we see his novel take shape even as he struggles against the odds of finishing it.

Esta Wolfram, Walnut Creek, Calif.

The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell chronicles the triumph of people power over vastly better armed military forces. It is particularly relevant to understanding the Vietnam War and especially the current military situation in Iraq.

Steven Branca, Racine, Wis.

Before the Fallout by Diana Preston recounts the history of the enthralling development of science and technology from 1898 when Marie Curie announced the discovery of radium to the development and construction of the atomic bomb in the early to mid-1940s. "Before the Fallout" is history at its best and compels the reader to consider the threats and moral dilemmas we all face in an ever more armed world.

Jack C. Scarborough, Chapel Hill, N.C.

I usually read several books at a time and currently am reading Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer and The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion's Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone by Daniel Meyerson. I am enjoying the Kinzer book and see clearly that history does indeed repeat itself. Regarding Meyerson's book I wish there were less "emperor" and more "linguist."

Theresse du Bouchet, West Palm Beach, Fla.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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