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Dive Into Fiction: Five Picks From Alan Cheuse

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 23, 2011

It’s summertime, that time out of time, when the heat, the air and the stillness at certain good times of day makes for easy reading. With a little luck and perseverance you might carve out some hours to keep company with some new books.

Whether you approach summer reading as a picnic, barbecue, smorgasbord, buffet or sit-down dinner, these books will leave you hungry for more — in the best sense of the words.

Miss New India

By Bharati Mukherjee, hardcover, 336 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price $25

Miss New India, Bharati Mukherjee’s latest novel, gives us a picture of India as we’ve never truly seen it before, as a country as up-to-date — and as traditional — as any place in the world. Mukherjee employs a classic plot: A village girl goes to the big city, where she throws off most of the old ways and discovers her new identity. In this case, the village girl is Anjali Bose, a Bengali girl from a less-than-thriving town in central India who rejects her family’s plan for an arranged marriage after suffering rape and humiliation by a suitor.

Anjali feels as though she is “part of the bold new India, an equal to anywhere, a land poised for takeoff,” and the metaphor seems apt; with the help of an expatriate teacher, she leaves home and heads to Hindi-speaking Bangalore. Her new home, a call-center metropolis, sports a breed of men and women who are her contemporaries, yet whose English she can scarcely understand. But she turns all of her energy into becoming a new person, settling in to a rented space in the sprawling, decaying home of an elderly British matron and finding a new life as “Angie”.

Around her, all of her call-center friends work hard to sound American and hip as hell, while “Angie” struggles to keep up with them. Novelist Mukherjee captures the drama of her protagonist’s life with ease, making a thoroughly American novel about her former home that proves (with serious dramatic verve and passion) that going home again may be difficult for any of us.

Three Stages Of Amazement

By Carol Edgarian, hardcover, 304 pages; Scribner, list price: $25

In what may well be the most serious and the most entertaining domestic novel of the year, San Francisco writer Carol Edgarian delivers a new turn on Tolstoy’s old chestnut: “Happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” She calls her book Three Stages of Amazement and sets it in San Francisco toward the end of the “dot com” craze. We meet Lena Rusch, an appealing but harried mother of two whose surgeon husband has been trying, with middling success, to found his own medical device company. The novel deftly dramatizes questions about the essence of married life, and throws in a mystery about Lena’s origins for good measure. But there’s no mystery as to how Edgarian keeps us going — deep insight into human behavior, coupled with the right language to describe it.

The Astral

By Kate Christensen, hardcover, 320 pages; Doubleday, list price: $25.95

“Love” and “aging” are the operative themes in award-winning novelist Kate Christensen’s new book, The Astral. Christensen’s main character, a once well-known poet named Harry Quirk, has reached his late 50s and finds himself at the end of both his marriage and his rope. Luz, Henry’s wife of many years, mistakenly believes he has cheated on her and has thrown him out of their apartment in an old Brooklyn building that has the same name as the novel. We ramble around the neighborhood with Harry, who drinks sorrowfully, rolls around on his bike in search of a new place to live and tries to write a long narrative poem with the title — you may have guessed it — “The Astral.”

As the novel shifts into a higher gear, Harry tries desperately to keep the peace with his lesbian daughter, who lives as a “freegan” in Brooklyn, where she forages food and such from local dumpsters. With his daughter, he endeavors to save his son from the clutches of a Long Island Christian cult. Meanwhile, Harry himself is seeking some sort of transcendence in life, the same kind he hopes for in poetry. Good luck, Harry. (But how fortunate dear Harry is to be created by a writer as gifted as Kate Christensen, who knows her men better than some male writers believe they know their women!)

All The Time In The World, New And Selected Short Stories

By E. L. Doctorow, hardcover, 304 pages; Random House, list price: $26

The conventional wisdom about short fiction tells us that where novels open time up, short stories compress it — and reveal something new to us about the main character and the world along the way. Much-lauded novelist E. L. Doctorow works with that convention in his new collection of stories, All the Time in the World, allowing us the sense that by the end of any of his short pieces he will reveal new things to us about the character’s life, and with a little luck, about our own.

The situations in the collection are varied; in “Willi” an old man recalls the murderous family incident in his childhood that changed his life forever, while “Wakefield” introduces us to a conventional suburban commuter who decides he is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. “The Writer in the Family” is the most traditional of the stories, and in many ways the most resonant, because it gives a sharp account of how a budding artist, residing normally in the bosom of his family in the Bronx, discovers his great powers.

But these stories also work on another level by revealing not just news about the world, but also about the mysteries that lie at the heart of human behavior. In doing so, they bring us near to the resonance at the heart of ordinary life. In the title story, set in Manhattan, the narrator notices the beauty in the everyday with a sharpness that makes every page a revelation:

A shaft of sunlight lights up the street from a crack in the black sky. The clouds blow off, the air is all at once warm and humid … water drips from the apartment house canopies, gurgling rivulets run along the curbstone. I feel as if I’ve risen from one element to another…

Read these fine stories, and you may find you’ll have that same feeling.

Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories, 1963-1973

By Kurt Vonnegut, hardcover, 848 pages; Library of America, list price: $35

I didn’t know what was going to happen when I opened the pages of the Library of America’s reissue of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. So much of what I remembered as the really great stuff of my early reading days just hasn’t held up the second time around. But here’s Vonnegut with all his breezy pessimism — or should I call it pessimistic breeziness? — that, in spirit, calls up the spirit of Mark Twain.

Most of Vonnegut’s novels seem just as vital, perhaps more so, than the first time I picked them up. Choose your own favorite. I elected to re-read Slaughterhouse-Five, which is included in the collection, along with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and some of Vonnegut’s better-known short stories. First published in 1969, Slaughterhouse introduces us to a World War II veteran named Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim is a survivor of the monstrous Allied firebombing raid on Dresden, where he was interned as a German POW in the spring of 1945. He suffers what we now recognize as PTSD, and, as he describes it, has come “unstuck in time.” Unstuck, indeed! The novel swings with great panache back and forth between Billy’s youth, his wartime encounters with death and destruction and his post-war life — a life spent not only on Earth in mental hospitals but also on the planet Tralfalmador, where, as he tells us, he will enjoy a good part of eternity having been scooped up and taken there by a crew from an intergalactic spaceship.

Zooming back and forth in time in a novel that swings back and forth from realism to science fiction and back again, Billy’s cracked vision of war and peace helps us see ourselves in our own place in time a little more clearly than we might have before. This is a wonderfully understated little satire. And, over 40 years after its initial publication, we can still respond to its cry for sanity and appreciate Vonnegut’s famous four-word refrain signifying the trivial and the devastating passage of all things: “and so it goes.”

Picnic, barbeque, smorgasbord, buffet, sit-down dinner — all here in this Vonnegut retrospective, perfect for summer reading. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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