Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Pleasure of Their Company

"I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right? Just kidding." —High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

The sexiest woman I ever saw had a book in her hands. The way she chewed at her lower lip as she read; the way her forefinger made a lingering, thoughtful caress of turning over each page she finished, lead me to wonder what wild, sequestered fire burned between those covers. I hadn't quite managed the nerve to ask before I saw her reveal the answer. She closed the paperback around her thumb, drew it in close and gazed away: her eyes without focus, dreaming. I've never envied another human being as much as I envied the author of that book.

Every year, trade publishers spill their ink on millions of pages, thousands of books, all destined to be embraced or go unrequited, tossed onto remainder stacks. This column aims to bring you writing worth reading, to introduce you to good company. Anything book-related is fair game, too: like book-ish podcasts, reading accompaniments, notes on the book world, and random acts of literary merit. This time, we look at three novels that dust off old books, reanimate dead authors, and play in traffic at that odd intersection where our stories tell us what we mean.

The Book of Air and Shadows
Michael Gruber (Hardcover, William Morrow, $24.95)

For every former undergrad who recalls suffering the slings and arrows of that exquisite Elizabethan torture called Shakespeare, this novel will set you on the road to recovery. Really. Nothing, it turns out, is as good a nostrum for half-remembered misery than the thrill of seeing others go through worse. Examples: A Shakespearean scholar murdered — nasty! Intellectual property attorney hunted by Russian mobsters — zounds! Film school student working at a rare bookstore — um, bad things happen to him, too (and a bit of romance). All because a lost Shakespeare play written in the Bard's own hand may exist and lots of people are willing to kill for it. Honestly, could Shakespeare possibly have more to answer for? Gruber's book is well-researched, fast-paced (mostly), brainy (bits) and as captivating as it is cathartic of those iambic pentameter ghosts that haunt you still. Start your rehab today. You'll enjoy it.

The Secret of Lost Things
Sheridan Hay (Hardcover, Doubleday, $23.95)

Call me Ishmael. No — call me Rosemary Savage, transplanted Tasmanian (seriously), freshly-minted New Yorker, 18 years old, with $300 in cash and all the mad skillz to qualify me for an exciting career in — wait for it — a used bookstore! Backstory: Herman Melville writes a novel called Isle of the Cross. (True.) Publisher rejects it. (Also true.) The handwritten manuscript for same comes in for sale at Rosemary's bookstore. (Fictional premise.) Harrowing adventure ensues. Author Hay does a yeoman job of scripting bookstore oddballs, less so on the thrilly bits. Lost Things tacks back and forth among mystery, the fate of Melville's rejected book, and coming-of-age themes. If this one were a steak, however, I'd send it back for being just a tad undercooked.

Rebecca Stott (Hardcover, Spiegel & Grau, $24.95)

Move from the musty used book stacks to the ivy-besotted ramparts of academe and ask: What's a little murder among scholars? Historian Rebecca Stott knows the terrain here well and in this, her first novel, pulls together an engrossing tale. A roiling witches' brew of alchemy, mysticism, a controversial take on Sir Isaac Newton and a son's quest to complete his mother's work. This novel may rob you of sleep, but you may find it the most welcome and haunting thief you'll encounter this summer.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ship(wrecked) in a Bottle

"A lot of people ask me if I were shipwrecked, and could only have one book, what would it be? I always say How to Build a Boat."
—Stephen Wright

OK, paraphrasing: (Tolstoy had it right) — all happy families look like the same old sitcom; it's the unhappy families that provide the groundbreaking drama — and the opportunity for scoring some serious Emmy home decor. Every individual story, every life shipwrecked against its own expectations and circumstances feels the tidal pull and push that family sets in motion. Both strength and disappointment are learned young, outlining the shape of personal character an individual under stress will inevitably reveal.

What sort of history can be written of a time that insists some things are best forgotten? What sort of life can be cobbled together with only a handful of doubts and misinformation to work with? With South Carolina's Piedmont and Lowcountry as backdrops, two new novels give us strong female leads grappling with these questions in very different ways, yet each revealing how, for better or worse, their fathers shaped their sense of solid footing beneath them in a land of marsh and river courses.

Between The Tides
Patti Callahan Henry
(Trade paperback, NAL, $14)

On her 30th birthday, Catherine "Cappy" Leary finds herself tugged toward her future by the one task that will set her on a collision course with her past: to honor her father's last wish, she will have to return to Seaboro, South Carolina, the last place her family was intact, the last time her life made sense. Author Henry writes with a lyrical touch: we follow Cappy through the tale as though in dreamtime, moving between yearning and revulsion, hope and panic, toward reconciliation and ultimately, redemption. Her journey, in the tide pool of her own and her family's past, creates a resonance around her: joined in her return to Seaboro by her father's trusted protege and colleague, a relationship the author offers as focus and counterpoint to Cappy's relationship with her father. Fans of Mary Alice Monroe will appreciate Between The Tides both for its writing style and narrative arc.

What You Have Left
Will Allison
(Hardcover, Free Press, $23)

Will Allison's debut novel, shifting back and forth among narrators, gives us a wide-angle view of his tale, building it up from almost short story-like components. Only days after Holly's mother dies in an accident, her father Wylie abandons her and disappears. Holly grows up, fiercely independent, under the watchful eye of her maternal grandfather, Cal, on his dairy farm in the Piedmont. A final effort at reunion with her father in early adulthood ends with Holly writing off her loss and shifting her inner struggles to her new marriage.

Allison does not tug at the heart with his narrative but rather takes up the threads of his character's lives with patience and a keen eye for the telling detail. In a flashback, we hear Holly's mother summing up her life in a conversation with her husband, Wylie:

"My life is one big mistake," she said.

"No, it's not," he said. "It's a series of small mistakes."

The unsentimental tenderness of such moments is evident throughout the novel. In Allison's hands, even Holly's efforts to give up smoking profoundly reveal her character and the obstacles she must face.

Highly recommended.

Mr. Allison will be at Barnes & Noble in Mt. Pleasant's Towne Centre to sign and read from What You Have Left on Thurs. June 14 at 7 p.m.

Comments and book recommendations? Always welcome: Thanks for reading. Call your mother now and then.