By John Updike
Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95
I have a hard time using the past tense when talking about John Updike, who died this past January. Word is that My Father's Tears and Other Stories is his last book. In March, Knopf released what we may assume is his last collection of poetry, Endpoint and Other Poems. And his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick (2008), was a heady contemplation of aging and death, an early postcard from the other side.
Now, this collection appears, and it is also valedictory. Most of the stories here offer main characters in their 70s or 80s. Gone are the swingers from Updike's early work. And many of these elderly folks are looking backward, totting up their pasts, not so much with nostalgia but with an eye toward connecting those pasts with their final days — drawing a line, weighing their lives, sometimes with regret, sometimes with acceptance. In "Personal Archaeology," the protagonist broods over objects from his youth: Old Gold cigarettes, brass candlesticks, a shaving mug: "What did [these objects] mean? They had to mean something, fraught and weighty as they were with the mystery of his own transient existence."
It is this transience that drives the reflective tone. How temporal, how temporary are our lives. In "The Road Home," a man returns to his hometown but gets disoriented driving around. The well-known ways of his youth have given way to a modern tangle, and his getting lost comes to symbolize the loss of one's past, a breaking away from the familiar.
Updike has always been a writer who gets the details right. He finds the particulars that make his stories universal, the concrete that shapes the reveries of his characters and connects them to the reader. One story here, "Kinderszenen," reads like a litany of things gone, forgotten, like Mason jar rubber rings, a trolley, a barrel for burning leaves, even expressions like "the child has the wim-wams." Updike delineates these elements, as if preserving them in amber, and he does it with warmth and an uncanny perceptiveness. He knows that a deep contemplation of simple things opens the door to the timeless.
Updike's first lines often hold the kernel for the truths of his stories. "I saw my father cry only once," begins the title story. And the final story here, "The Full Glass," begins: "Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately." And since the book presents these stories in chronological order, we could say that the title of Updike's last story here accords us a little hope. — Corey Mesler
By Lisa See
Random House, 336 pp., $25
The novel Shanghai Girls is the harrowing story of sisters May and Pearl Chin, who call upon a fierce will to live and a strong bond to survive the throes of World War II and the dawn of the Red Scare. There is no question why this, Lisa See's third in a string of successful novels, quickly rose to the best-seller lists. The plot is an irresistible mix of love, loss, and betrayal, tied to an intriguing portrait of Chinese culture. It also offers a sharp critique of America's post-World War II policies toward Chinese immigrants.
But where the novel succeeds in driving the plot, it falls short of challenging the reader or providing fresh, inventive prose. Much of the narrator's language is simplistic, and as she gives endless commentary and analysis, she breaks the fiction writer's rule: "Show, don't tell." This and the introduction and definition of various words in Sze Yup (a Chinese dialect) give the reader the feeling of being led by the hand through a lesson on life, death, and Chinese traditions. While many of See's descriptions are very detailed, the metaphors used to enhance them are indulgent, if not trite ("life flows like an endlessly serene river"; "stubbornness ... as harmless as rain on a summer afternoon"; "a will as strong as jade").
The story opens in Shanghai, "the Paris of Asia," just before the Japanese bombardment of 1937. The Chin sisters flourish in this cosmopolitan city, but the combination of family debt and the Japanese invasion forces them to seek asylum in the United States. Slowly making their way from Shanghai to San Francisco Bay, the girls experience a shocking shift from being "beautiful girls" to barely alive, and their problems do not end there. Upon their arrival in the U.S., they meet with a host of further setbacks: racism, assimilation, the struggle to preserve their Chinese traditions, the pressure to produce sons.
Such tribulations pull the plot together, and the final pages offer not an end to the suffering but a resolution to continue the struggle. The prose is middling, but the story of Chinese immigrants in the fallout of World War II is gripping, heartbreaking, and worth reading. — Hannah Sayle
By T.C. Boyle
Viking, 451 pp., $27.95
An appraisal of Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy marks the 50th anniversary of his death this year. The Guggenheim's exhibition "Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward" celebrates the genius of the Manhattan art museum's design. Wright died six months before completion of the Guggenheim, which was 16 years in the making. Yet revisiting Wright's achievements is almost ho-hum compared to the originality of T.C. Boyle's fictionalization of the world-famous architect in The Women.
In his singular, characteristically effervescent fashion, Boyle renders Wright through the eyes of Sato Tadashi, a Japanese apprentice working and living at Wright's Wisconsin home, Taliesin. Tadashi is fond of anecdotal footnotes, often humorous, as he weaves Wright's narrative. (Asked in court to cite his profession, Wright said, "The world's greatest architect." How, the judge asked, could you make such a claim? "I am under oath," Wright replied.)
Wrieto-San, as he is known to Tadashi, offers a banquet of personal contradictions, foibles, and endearing qualities, magnified no doubt because the focus of this novel is the women in Wright's life: his mother, mistresses, and three wives. A stalwart teetotaler and cheapskate (except for his own personal indulgences), Wright is nothing but exuberant about women and moves from one to another with alacrity.
Wright's first wife, Catherine Lee "Kitty" Tobin (and mother of his six children), receives scant attention from Boyle. Instead, Wright's second wife, Maude Miriam Noel, for whom the appellation "drama queen" is too reserved, proves irresistible.
Miriam was born in Memphis in 1869. Sophisticated, well-educated, and well-traveled, Miriam, who was fluent in French and couldn't believe her "genius" didn't know the language of romance, was living in Paris in 1914 when she read of Wright's personal tragedy: the fire and murder of seven at Taliesin. She reached out to Wright in a letter and soon ensnared the bereaved architect.
Miriam delighted in French cuisine, fine wines, and a generally cultivated existence. Wright insisted on plain prairie food and a highly disciplined schedule. Soon she was escaping more and more with her "pravaz" — her morphine addiction fueling her naturally outrageous behavior. Between Kitty and Miriam fall Wright's involvements with the feminist author Mamah Borthwick Cheney and, after Miriam, his third marriage to Olgivanno Milanoff.
Always, in The Women, there is the tantalizing foreshadowing of the fire and murderous rampage at Taliesin, which took Mamah's life, her two children, and four others. This harrowing episode concludes Boyle's novel — that and a closing vignette of Miriam! — Lisa C. Hickman
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf, 336 pp., $24.95
The novel Commencement, by New York Times staff member J. Courtney Sullivan, is about four young women a few years after their graduation from Smith College. But it is just as much an exploration of feminism after its graduation into mainstream culture. An engaging read, Commencement follows radical activist April, Southern Belle Bree, sophisticated Sally, and Catholic Celia as they become friends in college and then move apart to begin their "real" lives.
It's four years after graduation, and Sally is getting married to a man her friends don't think is smart enough for her. Bree, who came to college engaged to a good ol' boy, is in a relationship with a woman. April is making documentaries about female oppression. And Celia is slutting it up as a single woman in New York. The plot rests on Sally's marriage and a tragedy that brings these four friends closer together but threatens to tear them apart.
These are characters who grew up in a world where "we girls can do anything, right, Barbie?" and where many women don't consider themselves feminists or see a need for it. But as graduates of a women's college, presumably the last bastion of feminism in this country, the characters struggle with the issues and controversies that linger in the movement: abortion, race, sexuality, sex work, marriage, motherhood, and men. All of that, however, is packaged by the author in a way that makes Commencement, by turns, funny and heartbreaking. — Mary Cashiola
By Anita Brookner
Random House, 235 pp., $26
In my book club, I'm the curmudgeon, so much so that at our last meeting, my friend Patty quipped, "Is there any book you like?" Too bad I hadn't yet read Anita Brookner, a prolific novelist from England whose work I've missed, even her Booker Prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac published 25 years ago. Next time Patty asks, I'll point to Strangers, Brookner's new novel set in London that turns burdensome themes (loss, isolation, disappointment) into elegant, almost magical, thinking.
Paul Sturgis is the book's retired protagonist who lives a routine and solitary life in a small, tasteful apartment. He reads a lot, cooks a little, and walks along the river in the afternoons. He is, by his own admission, intelligent, boring, and overly polite.
To avoid a Christmas visit with his distant cousin, Helena, Paul travels to Venice where he meets Vicky, a free-spirited younger woman recently divorced. They continue a sporadic friendship after returning to London, where Paul also reconnects with a woman he loved decades ago, Sarah, now frail and widowed.
The two women ruffle Paul's lonely and contemplative life. At first, both are disappointing. (Vicky is too irresponsible; Sarah is too sad.) But when Helena dies unexpectedly, leaving her apartment and belongings to Paul, he craves companionship, however insignificant. Over time, Paul realizes that relationships, even imperfect ones, allow him to forget his past, change, and shape his future.
Be forewarned: Strangers is not a book driven by plot twists or clever dialogue. Rather, it is a novel about self-reflection and the occasional insights that catch us by surprise, much like Brookner's writing, which is so fluid and thoughtful readers will wonder, "Is Anita Brookner inside my head?" — Pamela Denney
By Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, 370 pp., $23
"Being kidnapped is never quite the way you imagine it will be."
That's Flavia de Luce — age 11, summer of 1950 — speaking. Flavia is the younger sister of Ophelia and Daphne and the last child of Colonel de Luce and a mother mysteriously dead. She's also a resident of a sprawling English estate, and she's a budding chemist (specialty: poison).
Oh yes, kidnapping — it's the second time Flavia's been in this predicament, and predicaments are this girl's thing, particularly after stumbling on a dying red-headed man in a cucumber patch, which has something to do with old stamps and a bird smuggled from Norway inside a pie. What Flavia has to figure out is if the now-dead red-headed man has anything to do with her father, who's been accused of the murder.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie appears to be aimed at the Harry Potter set, and there's nothing wrong with that. The novel is fun, ever so slightly tinged with the macabre. It's packed with clearly, carefully researched chemical references and cultural touchpoints to set the time and mood. It falters only by being overstuffed, but it's the first in a planned series by author Alan Bradley. Best guess for book number two: Flavia goes looking for her dearly and weirdly departed mom. — Susan Ellis
By James Hannaham
McSweeney's, 300 pp., $22
James Hannaham, a longtime writer for The Village Voice, tackles some heavy issues in his first novel, God Says No. The book is about Gary Gray, a gay, black man from North Carolina who struggles his way through religion, sexuality, and coming to terms with who he really is.
From the beginning, Gary attempts to make sense of conflicting emotions: his desire to be a good man, husband, father, and Christian crashes headfirst into the feelings he has toward other men. Hannaham presents this conflict in a very real manner and allows the reader to delve into the character's mind.
Gary's other conflict, the color of his skin, isn't explored in detail, which is a good thing. Homosexuality and religion are two huge issues, and the author made a wise choice not to tackle race as a third. At times, the ever-present religious overtones are a bit cliché, but in the end, Hannaham manages to weave them into the story in a believable way.
Far from the simple story of a gay man, every reader can find something about Gary with which to identify, because, as Gary describes it, "Most everybody leads at least two lives, I bet. Generally, folks keep the second one locked up in their head, but without that dream life, you can't have a future."
Hannaham doesn't shy away from graphic details, but his ability to present reality in both its darkest and most comedic moments makes this novel an enjoyable read. Witty and raw, Hannaham's book is refreshing and leaves the reader looking forward to his future work. — Sarah Christine Bolton
By Elijah Wald
Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $24.95
"The more we think we know about a time, the harder it can be to see it clearly," writes Elijah Wald in his exhaustively researched, eloquently argued, and extremely persuasive history of American pop music.
Because we have only a handful of surviving recordings from the early 1900s and because we erroneously believe them to be representative of the strivings of the musicians and the tastes of the audiences, Wald argues that our conceptions of the pre-rock era are at best limited and at worst fundamentally wrong.
Aiming to resolve some of our misperceptions about the origins and development of ragtime, jazz, swing, big band, and rock-and-roll, Wald explores popular music not as it was played but as it was consumed as dance music or in the form of sheet music and recordings. Beginning with ragtime — "the first pop genre, in the sense that we have understood pop genres ever since" — he traces styles and fads as they rose to prominence and fell away, identifying crucial factors that have been lost, ignored, or misinterpreted. In particular, his dissections of gender as a driving innovative force convincingly upends our assumptions regarding that most powerful of demographics: the teenybopper.
Nevertheless, Wald's title is misleading in both its subject and its sensationalism. This is not another book about the Beatles. Although the analysis of their impact on pop is intelligent and instructive and although Wald delivers a much-needed critical comeuppance, the Liverpudlians play a relatively minor role in this history.
Whether discussing the widespread popularity of now-derided bandleader Paul Whiteman, the rise of recordings at the expense of sheet music, or the disruptive introduction of rock-and-roll, Wald's arguments are as nuanced as his scope is wide, which makes this a fascinating and useful volume — required reading for any fan of pop music. — Stephen M. Deusner
By Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
Fair Winds Press, 304 pp., $19.99 (paper)
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is the vegan Martha Stewart, and her latest recipe collection, The Vegan Table, is the Bible of cruelty-free entertaining.
This massive full-color volume contains 44 menus designed to feed crowds of any size — ranging from romantic meals for two to buffet-style appetizers for groups of 20 or more.
Unless you're entertaining the local vegetarian society, it's doubtful that all the party guests are meat-free. But luckily, Patrick-Goudreau's recipes tend toward classic veggie-heavy dishes rather than exotic vegan hippie food with unpronounceable ingredients.
For example, one of her seasonal spring menus calls for roasted asparagus soup, salad with creamy miso dressing, ratatouille with white beans, and wine-marinated strawberries for dessert. Even a diehard omnivore could get down with that lineup.
Rather than organize recipes in traditional cookbook fashion with separate chapters for appetizers, entrées, and desserts, Patrick-Goudreau has conveniently arranged the recipes by serving size. There are chapters for romantic dinners (serves 2), casual meals (feeds 4 to 6), and formal dining (for 6 to 10), as well as chapters for special occasions, buffet-style parties, and holiday feasts.
Though extremely helpful for party planning, this arrangement can be a little daunting for the home cook wishing to make a single recipe. I had to halve the recipe for ratatouille when sampling the dish for myself, and I still got about four servings out of the deal. Fortunately, the book's index can help single guys and gals seek out recipes for everyday use.
The Vegan Table follows Patrick-Goudreau's popular dessert volume, The Joy of Vegan Baking. So it makes sense that The Vegan Table boasts tantalizing end-of-meal treats that would fool even the most skeptical meat-eater, like blackberry pecan crisp, chocolate cake with coffee ganache, and fruit sushi (no seaweed of course!) with a strawberry reduction sauce.
Next time you're planning a birthday or anniversary dinner, forget meat- and dairy-touting Stewart. Turn to Patrick-Goudreau for menus that will please vegans and omnivores alike. — Bianca Phillips
By Jason Starr
Hard Case Crime, 251 pp., $7.99 (paper)
With new releases coming every month for almost five years now, the mass-market paperback publisher Hard Case Crime has been an unceasing river of grift and graft, of sludge, sin, and despair.
Hard Case mixes resurrected out-of-print titles from the 1940s to '60s (from hard-boiled heroes such as David Goodis, Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain, Cornell Woolrich, and Erle Stanley Gardner) with brand-new genre works evocative of the masters (from authors such as Stephen King, Madison Smartt Bell, Roger Zelazny, and Domenic Stansberry). To top it off, the paperbacks are graced with gorgeous cover art reminiscent of the lurid traditions of Ellery Queen and other pulp-fiction platforms.
Fake I.D., Hard Case's June 2009 release, is a new work from a contemporary author, Jason Starr. In it, Tommy Russo chases his dream of making it in the competitive New York acting world. A bouncer at an Upper East Side bar by night and a regular at the horse track by day, Russo thinks he may have found his shot at easy street when he's propositioned by a fellow gambler: For a $10,000 stake, Tommy could co-own a racehorse and leave his starving-thespian days behind him. But how will he raise the cash?
Tommy's descent into crime is similar to the one chronicled in another Hard Case Crime, Lawrence Block's 1961 treat, A Diet of Treacle. The main difference is that the book's protag, Anita Carbone, is a purer soul from the start than Tommy, who's an inveterate gambler and luckless hothead when we meet him.
Starr has some fine writing moments, such as when Tommy is in the clinch with a despicable, alcoholic, sexy femme: "I kissed her hard, swirling my tongue around in her one-hundred-proof mouth."
Overall, though, Fake I.D. is missing something. The plot's pace steps too lightly, and the characters are a little undercooked. But, hey, next month there'll be another Hard Case to ponder. — Greg Akers
By Robert B. Parker
Hard Case Crime, 254 pp., $6.95 (paper)
After Fake I.D., Hard Case has decided to throw a real curveball with Robert B. Parker's Passport to Peril. Meaning: This is not THE Robert B. Parker of "Spenser" fame but a terminally obscure writer from the 1950s (unknowingly) stricken with a most unfortunate name. Landing on the racks in 1951, Passport to Peril is the third of three espionage thrillers that Parker published before succumbing to a heart attack at age 51.
Charming, somewhat inventive, and immensely readable, Passport to Peril is set immediately after WWII in Eastern Europe. Like most of what kept Passport company in the drugstores of the '50s, enjoyment of the book hinges on one's capacity to swallow implausibility, a taste for distractingly busy plots, and opening lines like the following: "It wasn't until the Orient Express was nearing the Hungarian frontier, about two hours out of Vienna, that I found I was traveling on the passport of a murdered man."
This is delivered by Parker's protagonist and alter ego, a former foreign correspondent known as John Stodder. Initially on a quest to find his brother's murderer, Stodder is soon followed by a perpetual cloud of bad situations and life-threatening insanity, much of it brought about by the obligatory femme fatale, who is introduced shortly after Stodder's aforementioned opening line.
Parker was a lifelong newspaperman, and he wrote in a lean and workmanlike fashion that isn't too showy, even as Stodder finds himself in rapid-fire conundrums that are anything but subtle. — Andrew Earles
Maxime Valette, Guillaume Passaglia, and Didier Guedj
Villard, 288 pp., $15 (paper)
Today I read a really funny book filled with lots of one- and two-sentence anecdotes about everyday humiliations, run-of-the-mill shame, and average indignity. Then I discovered that reading the book was unnecessary because similar content is available for free at fmylife.com, a popular online destination that began as the French website (translated) Life Is Shit. So, as the commenters say at fmylife.com, after telling some story illustrating the barely bearable cruelty of being: "FML."
In a twittering time when anyone with a smartphone can access the most remote corners of the Internet from a cramped public toilet, F My Life, the book, just doesn't make much sense. Perhaps it would if it had been developed like some super-nice McSweeney's-style collectible, but that's not the case. It's pretty basic. And yet F My Life is irresistible. It's the Penthouse advice column for the schadenfreude set and addictive in any format. Here's a prime example of the kind of first-person micro-tragedies that make F My Life an essential life companion:
"Today I fell asleep on the train, totally wiped out after the previous night's party, which featured lots of booze and very spicy Indian food. I woke up and noticed a small boy in the seat in front of me staring back at me. I smiled at him, and then he turned to his father and said, 'Daddy, the farting man just woke up.' FML."
If that story doesn't have you laughing like a 14-year-old boy with a whoopee cushion, you're not fully human. We've all had days when we went around with toilet paper dangling from the back of our trousers, said something stupid to a boss, a crush, or a potential employer, or caught a whiff of our own pits. F My Life is a thorough, nearly commentary-free chronicle of these experiences. It reminds us that no matter how red our faces may be with embarrassment, someone else's face is a little redder. — Chris Davis
George Pelecanos Little, Brown, 323 pp., $24.99
George Pelecanos is probably more recognizable for his work as a writer for the late, great television series The Wire than for his now-considerable body of work as a novelist. But the D.C.-based "crime writer" has carved an interesting niche for himself, moving more and more away from his genre-fiction roots with each novel. Pelecanos' novels lack the vulgar verbal pizzazz of The Wire, but they have the same clear-eyed but empathetic feel for the same kinds of places.
Pelecanos' latest, The Way Home, focuses on a father-son conflict: Thomas Flynn, an ex-cop who owns a carpet-installation business, and his teen son Chris, a troubled kid who finds himself the only white kid in juvie when the novel opens. The Way Home chronicles Chris' integration back into the outside world and Thomas' feelings of both hope and disappointment about his son's life amid a constellation of nicely drawn supporting players with their own stories to tell.
Like other recent Pelecanos novels — The Turnaround (a diner owner and an ex-con overcome their troubled past), The Night Gardener (a serial-killer plot lurking in the background but more concerned about the daily life of a cop and his teen son), and Drama City (a former gangbanger trying to go straight as a dog catcher) — The Way Home generally avoids the structural trappings and sensationalism of the mystery/thriller genre Pelecanos is associated with, but it also lack the ambition (and pretensions) of literary fiction. Think of his books as neighborhood novels: street-level reports from diverse, working-class-when-there's-work neighborhoods. Crime factors in because it's an unavoidable part of life in the rough neighborhoods he writes about, but Pelecanos cares more about the people in these neighborhoods than the misdeeds they commit or confront. — Chris Herrington
By Karin Slaughter
Delacorte Press, 436 pp., $26
Karin Slaughter is known for writing about violence done to women. In her latest, Undone, horrific torture and mutilation have been inflicted upon two attractive overachievers, one of whom is struggling to survive while the other perishes attempting to escape the squalid cave where both had been held. When two more Atlanta women are abducted, determining whether all four are victims of the same madman becomes a priority for special agents Will Trent and Faith Mitchell of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The usual culprits impede the investigation: intrusive press, obstreperous local authorities, unreliable witnesses, the agents' personal problems. Of these, the last are vastly more believable and compelling than the others. Who could resist Will's bumbling efforts to end his relationship with a wayward undercover agent, all the while clinging to the battered cell phone only she is trusted to replace? And Faith must learn to deal with diabetes and another unplanned pregnancy.
Although heavy on romance, the novel is adequately balanced by attention to police procedural. For four days, Will and Faith ignore their own needs as they follow leads and conduct interviews to identify the victims and some rationale for their plight. With a well-placed suggestion from Dr. Sara Linton, a former medical examiner who is drawn back to criminology, clues develop into a picture that reveals the evildoer.
Noticeably missing from the narrative are glimpses into the mind and history of the criminal. These come during and after apprehension, and then they are piled on so predictably as to be almost comical. If you do the crime, Slaughter intimates, don't whine. — Linda Baker