Sunday, December 28, 2008

Best Books of 2008: Fiction

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow) 960 pages
Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a weighty tome which completes, in part, his spelunking through the underpinnings of the current century. The avout live in a Concent regulated by time. It becomes necessary for one of them, Erasmus, to venture into the world where he discovers that some of the core beliefs are based on untruths and comes into contact with aliens who ask the same questions that he does. It concludes the philosophical explorations of the Baroque Cycle, but begins more questions than it has answers. Set in the far future on a world which is earth-like, this is Stepehnson’s most deeply envisioned landscape in terms of characters, land and language and manages to read differently each time. Weighty but worth the effort. -- Iain Emsley

Arkansas by John Brandon (McSweeney’s) 224 pages
Drug-running gangsters are at the heart of Arkansas, John Brandon’s debut novel from McSweeney’s Books; however, as the title reminds us, the shady business is carried out not in Harlem, Miami or Vegas but the rural Southeast. This allows Brandon to indulge in the kind of quirky writing that distinguishes Southern grit-lit and, true to its McSweeney’s roots, this neo-noir novel is cynical and hip. Kyle Ribb and Swin Ruiz are petty criminals who, for lack of anything better to do, start working for a black-marketeer named Frog in the land of trailer parks and deep-fried breakfasts. The two run packets from an Arkansas state park where they have phony cover jobs as assistant park rangers. Brandon keeps the pace brisk and tense. The violence, when it comes, surfaces quickly, snaps at us in the space of a paragraph, then recedes just as fast. -- David Abrams

Beside a Burning Sea by John Shors (New American Library) 448 pages
Over two weekends at the pool last June, I lost myself in the wondrous Beside a Burning Sea, by John Shors. Set during World War II, just after a medical ship is torpedoed, nine survivors make their way to a nearby island. Sure, the set-up sounds a bit like the TV series Lost -- but Shors takes this almost conventional conceit to rare heights, casting his novel with castaways who a perfectly opposed to one another. The nurse sisters, the Japanese POW, the heroic doctor, the mysterious loner, the innocent girl. Each has a deep inner life the island sets afire -- again, very Lost-like. The love story that blossoms against very bitter prejudice propels the tale, allowing the characters to define themselves according to their loyalty (or lack thereof) to the POW. The question isn’t whether these people will ever get rescued; truth is you don’t want them to because this is such rich territory for fiction. The ticking bomb is that Japanese forces are combing the area for places to settle troops. So are they coming here ... or aren’t they? If they do come, will they free the POW and capture the others? Dramatic stuff, but what makes this novel sing isn’t the threat that these people will survive the Japanese, but whether they’ll survive each other. With love scenes, gripping action and miraculously telling character details it all blends brilliantly to create a novel that’s easy to admire and impossible to dismiss. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey (Harper) 502 pages
I came to Bright Shiny Morning fully prepared to loathe it. How could it be otherwise? Frey had gotten his shot with a couple of well-published and well-promoted biographies. He’d gotten his shot and blown it in a grand and noisy style. Shouldn’t Frey, in the tradition of historical wannabes everywhere, just go off with his tail between his legs and leave us alone on our various paths to finding books that matter? But he did not. Instead, he took himself quietly off and emerged with a stout and ambitious book. Inevitably, fire was drawn. Like many others, and with an admittedly jaundiced eye, I started to read. And was astonished. Bright Shiny Morning is not perfect. There are weirdly wide flaws. But it is utterly, completely original. More: the book’s flakey, broken narrative and bumper-to-bumper pace captures the feeling that is Los Angeles while its sharp little vignettes grab some of the context. -- Linda L. Richards

Death: A Life by George Pendle (Three Rivers Press) 250 pages
“My earliest memory is of my mother. She was a heavyset lady, the size of a small mountain. Everyone knew her as Sin.” So begins Death: A Life, a clever, thoughtful and surprisingly funny quasi-autobiography of the grim reaper. “My father was Satan. He was Mother’s father, too, which led to some awkward introductions at parties.” These snippets from the very first chapter (“The Beginning of the End”) capture the spirit of Death: A Life quite perfectly. It is, of course, a novel -- it’s all made up -- even though it’s delivered just like a biography. Death is even given a bio on the back cover (though, alas, no author photo). Death is darkly funny, surprisingly moving, deeply charming. It’s an enjoyable -- albeit unlikely -- read. But don’t expect a sequel. As good as it is, once is probably enough. -- David Middleton

Duma Key by Stephen King (Scribner) 592 pages
In recent years, Stephen King has begun to be accorded the respect he deserves. For example, in 2003, he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Even so, one can still draw concerned scowls when one mentions his name among certain factions of the literati. I’ve never really understood this. Many of the books King writes have frightening elements, but I’ve never been tempted to dismiss him as a horror writer. King is a fabulous stylist and a wonderful storyteller. He wields a mean metaphor and he always finds the right word. And if I have to get frightened in order to read him, so be it. Through the years I’ve often said that I would read King no matter what he chose to write about. One gets the feeling that, if Stephen King decided to write about light bulbs, the journey would be satisfying: he’s just that good. And he is once again that good in 2008’s Duma Key. There are shards of King’s own 1999 accident in Duma Key, where we meet Edgar Freemantle, the owner of a successful construction company who meets with a life-altering accident on a job site. When, while he is recovering, Edgar’s marriage collapses, he rents a house in the Florida Keys where he intends to learn to deal with his injuries and teach himself to paint. Longtime fans might be reminded of King’s earlier vacation-gone-bad book, The Shining, but Duma Key is a much better book. The author has more miles on him: he understands human nature better these days and he understands his talent. It’s tough to say this is King’s best book ever -- there are so many good ones, after all. But Duma Key is quite, quite wonderful. A masterwork from a journeyman at the very top of his game. Bravo! -- Linda L. Richards

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (Random House) 368 pages
Niccolo Vespucci, aka Mogor dell’Amore and sundry other aliases, arrives at the court of Akbar the Great, “the Great Great One,” descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and emperor of the Mughal empire that encompasses vast swathes of 15th-century India. Vespucci, a Florentine, has a story to tell that only the emperor can hear, as it concerns the fate of his relative, the Princess Angelica of legendary beauty, and the adventures that befell her when she abandoned the subcontinent for the western world of the Near East and Europe, all for the love of the indomitable warrior Argalia. If that sounds like something from The Arabian Nights, then that’s the intention -- Rushdie’s latest novel is a multifaceted fairy tale that embraces mythology and history, legend and fact, fictional characters and historical figures, magic, illusion and self-delusion. The novel fully deserves the accolade of tapestry, so finely woven and dazzling are its constituent parts. The prose, of course, is beautifully detailed, but Rushdie leavens the erudition with coarse dialogue that is at times hilariously profane and blasphemous. Above all, what leaps off the page is Rushdie’s sheer enjoyment of storytelling just for the hell of it. This is an exercise in imagination, an artful and irrepressibly playful cornucopia of tales, myths, digressions and narrative non sequiturs. Even the peripheries of the story teem with vibrant, larger-than-life characters straight from myth. It’s a sumptuous read, fabulous in both senses of the word. The deceptively simple art of storytelling may have fallen out of favor among self-consciously literary writers, but Rushdie is determined that we should not forget its pure joys entirely. -- Declan Burke

Exit Lines
by Joan Barfoot (Knopf Canada) 336 pages
Dark and funny and dangerously nuanced, in Exit Lines Joan Barfoot manages another notch on an already impressive double bandolier of high impact Canadian novels. Four new guests at a retirement home form a pact of “pleasurable rebellion.” The concept is funny and, on the surface of things, the approach is lighthearted. However, Barfoot deals here with topics most of us would much rather skate past: mortality, morality and a diminished twilight as a footnote to a vibrantly lived life. As in her previous novel, the Giller-finalist Luck, Barfoot captures humanity in a way that both resonates and makes one wonder at a world slightly askew. Barfoot’s vision is always worth watching, and there’s no exception to that rule in Exit Lines.
-- Monica Stark

The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 196 pages

The successful short-short story, also called “flash fiction,” operates like an elite military commando team: get in, get out, take no prisoners. Writers have a particular challenge when trying to create believable plot and characters in stories which typically range from just a few sentences to a few pages. How do you reduce a universe of meaning to something the size of a breadbox? Etgar Keret makes it look so easy. In his previous collection, The Nimrod Flipout, and now with The Girl on the Fridge, the Israeli writer hits us with one flash-bang surprise after another. These perfect little gems range far and wide across the human experience. While some are strange and off-kilter, Keret never leaves us scratching our heads in bewilderment. The short-shorts take us to places we recognize, but then detour our assumptions in the space of a single word. -- David Abrams

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (Morrow) 720 pages
While a case could be made that Lehane’s fat new novel belongs in the crime fiction and mystery section of bookstores (the main characters are cops and the story could not exist as it does without the crimes involved), it probably doesn’t. The author has done a great deal to burnish the reputation of the detective story; his five Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro private-eye novels (including 1999’s Prayers for Rain) have been celebrated widely. But he’s been moving farther away from the genre ever since Mystic River was published in 2001, and followed by Shutter Island in 2003. The Given Day is a large-canvas historical yarn about Boston and Boston cops, which may remind some readers of Robert B. Parker’s underappreciated 1994 novel, All Our Yesterdays. While Parker’s compass pointed him in the direction of early 20th-century violence and cynicism, Lehane steers a more twisted and intriguing course through a post-World War I America that’s preoccupied with racism, sports and fear of communist incursions, beset by disease and divided by class. In these pages, he tells parallel stories about Luther Laurence, a young black man -- smarter than most people think -- who falls in with the wrong crowd in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and flees both murder charges and a pregnant wife, landing in Boston and the employ of the Coughlin family. The Coughlins aren’t long off the boat from Ireland, but they’ve established themselves within the local police ranks. In addition to Laurence, Lehane focuses here on Danny Coughlin, a rather idealistic but far from naïve young cop, the rising son of an influential police captain, who supplies a window through which we witness the misnamed “Spanish flu pandemic” of 1918 to 1919; the Woodrow Wilson-era campaign against radicals; and the notorious 1919 Boston Police Strike. Lehane even manages to mix into his story the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, though I understand he eventually edited out much of that subplot. There’s so much story in The Given Day, that the reader may have trouble keeping a handle on it all. But Lehane does an exceptional job of moving his plot along, whether with the romance between Danny Coughlin and a young Irish woman holding too many secrets; or the low-boil confrontation between Laurence and powerful, conniving cop Eddie McKenna; or the rivalry between Boston’s mayor and Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, who would eventually ride his much-inflated role in ending the police strike directly to the White House. And the author’s portrayal of baseball star Babe Ruth, who winds through this yarn like a lazy river, popping up periodically for comic relief or to assist in illuminating the era’s culture, is marvelous. If Lehane ever gets around to writing a Given Day sequel (he is reportedly writing another Kenzie and Gennaro novel first), I hope he’ll find a place in it for the Babe. He’s a character who often seems as if he could only exist in fiction. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (Alfred A. Knopf) 528 pages

In 2001, Rabih Alameddine’s novel I, the Divine was published. I still haven’t read it, but I love the idea: the novel is a series of first chapters about the life of a woman. Like the opening minutes of Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, she keeps revising the way she tells the story, yet each way reveals something more about her. The Hakawati, Alameddine’s new novel, is equally fascinating: it’s a long tale about a teller of tales, a hakawati. At its core, this is the story of three generations, a son, his father and his grandfather -- and the familial conflicts that define their lives. Osama al-Kharrat and other family members gather as Osama’s father is dying. Written in a sort of magical realistic style, Alameddine layers the history of this contemporary family with the history of Lebanon -- including generous helpings of regional folklore -- and the result is a stunning, unforgettable tour de force. Ultimately, Alameddine creates a delicious soup that almost overwhelms you. But in a good way. Self-deprecatingly, Alameddine calls this book a “story,” but he might just as well have called it a “tale.” As for me, I call it a big, sprawling epic that begs to be savored slowly and considered deeply. No matter what anyone calls it, it’ll leave you tingling. -- Tony Buchsbaum

In the Light of You by Nathan Singer (Bleak House Books) 238 pages
I used to think that the 1998 film American History X was hardcore, that it pushed the envelope and was a really brave story about what hatred can do to you. But then I read Nathan Singer’s masterpiece. Now American History X seems like a Disney flick. In the Light of You takes place during the mid-1990s, around the time of Los Angeles’ Rodney King riots, the Rampart police scandals, and O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. It features Mikal Fanon, a 17-year-old kid in a nameless Ohio city. He has no identity and a very scary home life, with distant and abusive parents. He craves an identity, the comfort of people like him. Now, most teenagers put on different identities like a snake sheds skin; but Mikal makes the very unfortunate decision to be friendly with the local skinhead, a charismatic young man named Richard Lovecraft. Lovecraft is the leader of an up-and-coming skinhead gang called the Fifth Reich, and author Singer doesn’t shy away from exploring that subculture. Now, I have to go back to American History X, because that’s what this story will most likely be compared to, once it gets the attention it deserves. In that movie, we’re shown what today’s skinheads look like, but we never live with them, never feel their filth or understand why young people enlist in their ranks. Singer uses first-person narration in In the Light of You, so we’re with Mikal every step of the way. The biggest myth is that the leaders of modern neo-Nazi organizations are stupid. Wrong and ignorant and very often evil, yes, but they’re not stupid. To build their numbers, they have to be smart and charismatic. They have to sell their dream of racial pride and segregation. Lovecraft repeats often that he doesn’t want black people killed, just separated from the whites. In one very interesting scene, he calls a black preacher an intelligent man, because he preaches about living away from white society. He is a good salesman, and Mikal buys in slowly but surely. Lovecraft finds out at one point that the kid is interested in the environment, so he concocts a story about how Adolf Hitler was very concerned with preserving nature and Earth’s health. In another scene, so intimate that it approaches the erotic, Lovecraft shaves Mikal’s head and gives him his uniform, promising that he’ll be tattooed to signify that he belongs to his new “family.” This is very much a coming-of-age story. Mikal is like every other sarcastic American teenager out there, angry and confused, but also humorous on occasion. You have to ask yourself, how could such a funny kid take part in so many ugly things, just because his leader says it’s the right thing to do? This should be required reading for teenagers, but only if they can talk with their parents about what happens in it. It’d be educational for both sides. -- Cameron Hughes

The Joker by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo (DC Comics) 128 pages
It’s a myth that murderous psychopaths are actually diabolical geniuses like Hannibal Lecter. They’re really more like Ted Bundy or the BTK killer, smart enough to blend and charming enough that you’d expect nothing. But in a comic-book world, it is perfectly acceptable that the Joker could talk his way out of the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane by convincing the doctors he was cured. It’s a neat idea and while I’m pretty sure it’s been done before, it’s never been done this well. The Joker is a hard villain to write. Use him too often, and he loses menace (much like Lecter, who isn’t nearly as scary, now that we know more about his origins); write a bad story about him, and you wonder why he’s held up as the ultimate Batman villain over the last 68 years. Brian Azzarello, creator of the brilliant neo-noir conspiracy comic 100 Bullets, likely knew these facts about the Joker as well, and set out to make him a scary character again. I knew it was going to be a different kind of story right from the start, because it begins not with the Joker, but with a low-level mobster sent to pick him up, who also serves as our narrator and guide through the Joker’s triumphant return to Gotham City. The Joker’s plan is very simple: he will gather allies and promise them big things if they help him become the king of criminals again. Our narrator, Jonny Frost, is seduced by this idea. He’s on the fast track to nowhere with his current crew, and Joker promises him big things. This could very easily be a sequel to the film The Dark Knight. Azzarello’s Joker is clearly the same character, complete with mouth scars and pancake make-up and old, ratty, but weirdly formal clothing. What we’re offered here isn’t “I have an insane plan” Joker; this is a grounded Joker with very clear goals. Writer Azzarello is smart with his pacing; you expect the Joker to snap and do something evil, but instead, his actions grow progressively worse and worse. In a stroke of genius, Azzarello has him snap at about the same time as Batman shows up. And at the same time Jonny realizes just how sick his new boss is, we’re sucker-punched by what the Joker does. I’d be a fool not to praise Bermejo’s illustrative work on The Joker as well. It’s dark and moody with enough flair that it achieves a sort of hyper-reality; his designs for characters such as Killer Croc and the Riddler are the traditional looks of the characters, while still real enough that you almost think they could be real. I now know why Johnny Depp is considered the perfect choice for the Riddler -- it’s such an obvious spin, that I can’t believe I ever doubted the idea of that casting for the villain. Who knew that the Joker could star in his own story, let alone be really great? I certainly didn’t. Bravo. -- Cameron Hughes

The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Dutton) 416 pages
I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up Selden Edwards’ The Little Book. All I knew were two things: that I liked the soiled-old-photograph-like cover (designed by Ben Gibson), and that the author had spent 33 years on his manuscript, beginning when he was still a young English teacher in 1974. Such labors of love either turn out to be masterpieces of development or messes of over-thinking. Fortunately, The Little Book is one of the former. It’s part of a subgenre of unlikely time-travel tales, like Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back (1990) or Allen Appel’s Time After Time (1985), in which the “how” of transportation through the years is pretty much ignored in favor of appreciating the consequences of the journey. In Edwards’ story, teenage baseball star-turned-California rock musician Stan “Wheeler” Burden, attacked by an unknown assailant in 1988 San Francisco, tumbles backward to 1897 Vienna. There, he must adapt as best he can, striking up the most unlikely association with Sigmund Freud, encountering Mayor Karl Lueger (who advocated racist policies and would be an inspiration to Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism) and meeting not only his own father -- another victim of this time dislocation -- but his grandparents as well, who did happen to be in the Austrian capital all those years ago. In addition to discovering more about his father’s life and that of a former mentor, Burden helps fill out a vivid picture of Vienna before World War I, when it was still considered the intellectual capital of Europe. He must also contend with one moralistic dilemma after another, as he falls in love with a woman from his future and considers the opportunity of killing Hitler while he’s still a boy. Author Edwards obviously had fun in contriving the lengthy arc of circumstances that will lead to Burden’s attack in 1988, but he shows even more delight in re-creating a long-ago and ostensibly promising era. If it took him 33 years to write The Little Book, I fear we won’t see another work of fiction from this author. Thank goodness his first novel is so memorable. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster (Henry Holt) 192 pages
Paul Auster writes so quickly, seeming to release a novel a year, that you’d be tempted to think the man just can’t have any more ideas. But rather than a fiction factory primed to pump out surface ideas for our momentary enjoyment, Auster instead reaches deep into the human psyche every time, finding new ways to express the humanity we share and lacing his novels with ideas we wrestle with long after the last page is turned. Man in the Dark is a stunning meditation on loneliness. A man lies in the dark, assessing his life, and imagines the life of another man caught in what seems to be a time warp, dropped into a spot where he recognizes little except the shell of the life he used to have, What’s more, he’s on a mission he doesn’t fully understand -- but we understand that he’s been tasked with the murder of the man in the dark. This all-too-brief cat-chasing-its-own-tail novel is startling in its simplicity and remarkable in its depth of character and action. It’s further evidence that Paul Auster isn’t just one of our most effective novelists, but also one of our most insightful thinkers. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House) 288 pages
Olive Kitteridge is the kind of woman you would duck across the street to avoid meeting. She’s abrasive as sandpaper rubbed across a scab and unapologetically rude. In the hands of Elizabeth Strout, however, the retired Maine schoolteacher is one of the year’s best tour guides to the human heart. The novel is a series of linked short stories, any one of which can be plucked at random and enjoyed in their own right. Just as she did in her previous two novels, Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me, Strout distills universal human behavior down to the miniature scale of one particular town and its residents. -- David Abrams

On Account of Conspicuous Women by Dawn Shamp (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne) 320 pages
Dawn Shamp’s debut effort takes place in Roxboro, North Carolina mostly in the early 1920s. It focuses on the lives of four young conspicuous women who are moving from girl to womanhood at a time of great change. And so we see the first time American women may vote, we see racial strife and inequity as well as the introduction or increasing acceptance of inventions that will change the world -- telephones, motion pictures, automobiles -- all from the safe vantage of the eyes of these four young women who really have much more important things on their minds. On Account of Conspicuous Women is the exact opposite of an epic novel. It is quiet, unassuming, even gentle yet ever so worthwhile. In one way, it is more like a tool for time travel than almost any book I’ve ever read, offering up a simple -- and, yes, sweet -- peek into the lives of four conspicuous women in a very different time. -- Linda L. Richards

One More Year by Sara Krasikov (Spiegel & Grau) 229 pages
In a blurb for Sara Krasikov’s debut collection, novelist Yiyun Li said that Krasikov “treats every story as a novel,” which somehow sums up the collected work here ever so well. It is the rare writer who brings this kind of weight and importance to every short story character, yet I find myself, months after reading the book, casting my mind back again and again to Krasikov’s varied cast of the disenchanted and displaced. Like many of the major characters in One More Year, Krasikov was born in the former Soviet Republic. The current NYC resident is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has received the O. Henry Award and is a Fulbright scholar. If this is the first you’ve heard of Krasikov, I hazard that it will not be the last. -- Monica Stark

The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell (Algonquin) 320 pages
As The Resurrectionist opens, a pharmacist named Sweeny has just had his young son, Danny, transferred to the Peck Clinic, a place where they specialize in comatose patients. It does not take us long to realize that, though the Peck Clinic has a good record for awakening patients in comas, there is a lot swirling just below the surface: just slightly out of our grasp. There is more to Sweeny, too, than meets the eye. The Resurrectionist begins on a sharp and steady noir/crime fiction beat, and becomes ever more surreal until, by journey’s end, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s real and what is not. O’Connell’s work has been compared to that of Kafka, William Gibson and Wambaugh. While he does not suffer under such comparison, it isn’t entirely fair. While, for me, there were moments when The Resurrectionist bent under its own weight, this was a journey I enjoyed from end to end. More: while I read, there was no voice to whom I felt O’Connell’s must be compared. This is great stuff: and unlike anything you’ve probably ever read before. Highly, highly recommended. -- Lincoln Cho

Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost (Del Rey) 272 pages
Frost writes beautifully. Lyrically. He writes as though he’s going to a place there is no coming back from. It seems to me to be the only place from which fantasy should be approached. On his Web site, Frost describes the fictional place we encounter in Shadowbridge as “a world of linked spiraling spans of bridges on which all impossibilities can happen. Ghosts parade, inscrutable gods cast riddles, and dangerous magic is unleashed.” And… “Monstrous creatures drain the lives of children and for a price, you can sample their fleeting quintessence -- provided the creatures don’t sample you instead.” And, truly, aside from the whole fleeting quintessence thing, that works for me, as well. Frost, who is also the author of the virtuous and awarded collection Attack of the Jazz Giants, has been a finalist for pretty much every award offered in his field of interest. In Shadowbridge, he proves himself to be a powerful writer here at the top of his game. If you love the sort of vibrant fantasy that relies as much on the skill of its creator as the complexity of his imagination, you will love Shadowbridge. -- Lincoln Cho

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan (Viking) 320 pages
A teenage girl goes missing. Search parties are formed. Pale-faced parents speak to television cameras in quavering voices. Rewards are offered, flyers are taped to store windows, hopes rise and fall. By now, we’re sadly all too familiar with the unique cadence of events that follow an abduction. Most of us can pinpoint the exact moment when our optimistic faith turns to grim certainty the victim is not only missing, but murdered. In one of the best novels of his varied career, Stewart O’Nan charts the case of one family whose college-bound daughter vanishes into thin air while driving to work in a small Ohio town. With an almost forensic efficiency, O’Nan examines the effect of the mystery on the family, friends and the entire town. What happened to 18-year-old Kim Larsen is less important than how her parents and sister deal with the emotional aftershocks. -- David Abrams

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt (Henry Holt) 320 pages

Hustvedt’s exquisite, elegiac novel layers past and present, creating a complex story of loneliness and loss. Narrated by Erik Davidsen, a psychiatrist, The Sorrows of An American is a novel of secrets and ghosts: father Lars Davidsen’s ghosts, which follow him back to Minnesota after World War II, Erik, divorced, lonely, plagued by a patient’s suicide, his sister, the widowed Inga, who learns her husband, famous writer Max Blaustein, led a secret life during their tumultuous marriage. Even Sonia, Inga’s 18-year-old daughter, carries painful burdens, including what she saw from her schoolroom window on September 11, 2001. September 11th is one of many psychological traumas folded into the novel. Lars is haunted by the killing of a Japanese soldier who assumed a position of prayer rather than aggression; Erik treats several patients suffering the aftereffects of parental abuse. Inga is triply traumatized by Max’s death, September 11th, and the intrusive, threatening Linda Fehlburger, a reporter claiming to know secrets about Max. Continual subtle references remind us that those fighting Iraq war are enduring the same suffering. Hustvedt’s ability to incorporate so much material so seamlessly makes reading Sorrows like drinking a wonderful old burgundy: rich, complex, lush, smooth (I will refrain from comparisons to oak, honey, or long finishes). Memory, love, loneliness, death, dreams, ghosts, fame -- all are here in a beautiful story that deserves more attention. -- Diane Leach

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan (Random House Canada) 640 pages
Padma Viswasathan’s debut novel pads in on little cat feet and rips you along. You don’t realize you’re on an epic journey in the midst of a generational saga until you’re well along and it’s far, far too late to turn back. Not that you’d want to. Not that you even could. Inspired by the author’s own family history, we join Sivakami in a village in India in 1892, the year of her marriage to the healer, Hanumarathnam. She is ten. What astonishes here is Viswasathan’s virtuosity. In The Toss of A Lemon, we join India at a time of great social and political upheaval. Nevertheless, we experience this only at a distance. The way, in fact, Sivakami might experience it. Our concerns are more immediate, more domestic, though never more mundane. The marriage of a daughter, a granddaughter. The obedience of a son-in-law. The disturbingly progressive thoughts of a son. These concern Sivakami exclusively and, with her as our proxy, they are all that concern us, as well. -- Linda L. Richards

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf) 331 pages

Lahiri’s Bengali heritage informs this magnificent novel of linked stories, communicating worlds through the smallest of details. Saris fight slacks, a mother’s accumulated gold, intended for a future daughter-in-law, is lost to that most American of addictions, alcoholism. Food is a lush battleground of dals, rice, chocoris, bitter melon and Darjeeling tea. The drinking of tea or coffee represents more than taste; one is tradition; the other, cultural abandonment. Alcohol is tantamount to the worst kinds of assimilation, representative in all cases of disaster. But Lahiri’s God always reside in the details, transcending the particulars of immigrant experience to the universal. Ruma, of is adrift. She has married an American and is forgetting her Bengali. Her son speaks only English, eating with utensils rather than fingers. When her widowed father pays a visit, father and daughter, absent Ruma’s deceased mother, can communicate only in generalities. Sudha moves to London, where she meets Roger. The couple fall in love and get engaged. When Sudha returns home to inform her parents her news is overshadowed by Rahul, languishing at home. He vanishes soon afterward, his mother’s jewelry in his pockets. Sudha marries Roger and bears a son; the couple acquires a home. Rahul appears for a visit moving from auspicious to disastrous, as only visits from addicts can. Lahiri nails the hope, despair, and confusion of all families coping with the alcoholism’s immense destruction. The second half of Earth, “Hema and Kaushik,” is comprised of three linked stories, Hema narrating the first, speaking to Kaushik, the second by Kaushik, responding to Hema, “Going Ashore” bringing them together. The children of Bengali immigrants, Hema and Kaushik have known each other since childhood. Each has experienced the wrenching divisions of Bengali and American cultures. When Kaushik’s family returns to American from India, Hema’s parents welcome them for an extended stay, only to be shocked by their old friends, who wear American clothing and keep an open bottle of scotch nearby at all times. The ending is inexorable, dreadful, and made me weep. -- Diane Leach

Under Control by Mark McNay (Doubleday Canada) 310 pages

If you’re looking for a read that’s light and sunny to pull you through the winter doldrums, just keep skating on through: you’re not gonna find it here. Mark McNay’s second novel (after 2007’s Fresh) is muscular, hard and oh so bleak. Think Trainspotting meets Requiem for a Dream, then plop it onto the grimy streets of Norwich, England and you’ve got the basic idea. Especially if you can spin in some mental illness, drugs (of course, if you got the comparables) and dialog so sharp, watch out for papercuts. Under Control will not be everyone’s cup of English Breakfast, those that like this sort of thing, will like it a lot. -- David Middleton

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