It's a cliche but true that the world was different after September 2001," Richard Flanagan notes in the press release that accompanies his latest novel, The Unknown Terrorist (Grove Press). "The way I had of thinking about the world didn't seem to work anymore, and the way I had written books suddenly seemed no longer relevant."
Flanagan, a native of Tasmania, is referring to his disgust at the way Australia, post-9/11, bows to the dictates of the American government in its "war on terror." By "books," Flanagan's referring to his Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, and Gould's Book of Fish — all of them challenging.
For The Unknown Terrorist, Flanagan admits, he changed his style. He wanted something other than the "literary." He wanted the reader to "see straight into the story," so prepare for The Unknown Terrorist to be unlike Flanagan's previous work. Prepare to race through five days in the life of a Sydney pole dancer falsely accused of being a bomber. Then prepare to see her life unravel thanks to the Australian government, police, and media, which are, all three, operating on the flimsiest of evidence and the height of self-interest. You'll need all of two sittings to finish Flanagan's nonstop narrative. You need convincing such a story couldn't happen here?
By the time Leslie Garis reached adulthood in the mid-1960s, she'd experienced memory lapses in high school, suffered a nervous breakdown at Vassar, and in Paris undergone what she calls a "peculiar loss of consciousness." Signs of clinical depression? Hypersensitivity? An overactive brain? She admits to all three explanations in her memoir, House of Happy Endings (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), but as for her family, how's this for "happy"?
Leslie Garis' grandfather, Howard, may have been famous as the creator of the children's-book character Uncle Wiggily, but he ended up a town drunk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her grandmother, Lilian, may have met with equal success as the creator of the Bobbsey Twins, but she ended up a half-mad recluse inside the house of her son, Roger. Roger, Leslie's father, knew some fame too as a TV playwright in the 1950s, but success on the New York stage eluded him, and his mood swings increased. His use of barbiturates increased. When his irrational behavior reached the breaking point, he landed in some blue-chip psychiatric hospitals, until his caring wife had had enough. The marriage fell apart, but Leslie Garis did not.
She went on to marry playwright Arthur Kopit. She went on to a successful journalism career in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. And in The New York Times Magazine, her specialty became the literary profile. That helps to explain the sensitivity Garis shows and the dignity she grants her family members throughout the troubling times profiled in House of Happy Endings. But are we set to see a sequel? The author writes, near the end of this memoir, that in her 40s, depression "engulfed" her. Something says: Readers with a taste for real-life mental meltdowns, stay tuned.
Readers with a taste for common decency know to look no further than Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and a philosopher so keen on doing what's right in her professional and private life she's got her own series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, author as well of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series.
In The Careful Use of Compliments (Pantheon), the latest in the Dalhousie series, there's detective work too: Is Andrew McInnes in fact the artist who painted a picture Dalhousie admires, or is that work a forgery? Does or doesn't Isabel's niece, Cat, have good reason to hate her aunt's guts because Isabel took up with Cat's former boyfriend, Jamie? Is Christopher Dove, who's slated to assume editorship of the Review of Applied Ethics, as big a creep as he appears to be from the get-go? And finally, is there or is there not gin in the popular remedy for colic that Grace the nanny gives Charlie, the boy Isabel had by Jamie?
No word in The Careful Use of Compliments on the threat of terrorist attacks. Nothing about a family coming apart at the seams. Just Isabel Dalhousie doing what she does best and so winningly: the right thing in the long run.