Something for every reader

Summer books - the old, the new, the light, the serious, and all good

Short Reviews

May 25, 2008|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,special to the sun

Whether heading for the beach or the back yard, these books will enhance the sultry summer days. Some are hot off the presses, others newly out in paperback or paperback originals. All are undeniably memorable reads.

What is summer without some sharks? The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall (Canongate / 448 pages / $24) is an elliptical tale of lost memory and concomitant mystery. Eric Sanderson awakes disoriented to find he's lost three years of memory and the love of his life to a scuba diving accident. Suffering from dissociative disorder brought on by the horrific event, Sanderson discovers that there are metaphoric sharks that devour the consciousness and memory in addition to the literal creatures of the deep. Amazingly complex, The Raw Shark Texts is part Mary Shelley, part Sigmund Freud, part thriller, part Hegelian dialectic and totally engaging.

Beaches are forever a locus of romanticism and desire as well as lurking doom. In Ian McEwan's brilliant On Chesil Beach (Doubleday / 203 pages / $22) Florence and Edward spend the first night of their honeymoon on a beach, at the brink of consummation, each feeling acutely alone. They discover, over the long night that is the entirety of the novel, that passion is not inevitable, that it is tantalizingly intangible and often inaccessible. One of the most gifted British writers, McEwan's keen, uncompromising ear for the lamentation of loneliness within everyone rings pitch-perfect in this exceptionally sad novel.

Posthumously, Robert Frost has become one of America's most beloved poets. Few poems have the easy, poignant grace of his Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a poem perfectly evocative of the New England winters that so defined his life. That poem and others form the nexus between Frost's life and art in Brian Hall's deeply moving and exquisitely wrought new novel, Fall of Frost (Viking / 340 pages / $25.95). Frost's life, with its hardscrabble tragedies, has been well-documented by various biographers, but Hall's novel - an episodic, non-linear narrative - brings Frost vividly to life for those who knew him only as the old man who spoke at John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

Khaled Hosseini lived in exile from his native Afghanistan until recently. A Thousand Splendid Suns (Penguin / 384 pages / $25.95) details the lives of two women married to the same man in the ever-war-torn Afghanistan at the precipice of the Taliban's initial rise to power. Mariam is a childless first wife, married for 20 years - since she was 15 - to a man 25 years her senior. Laila, the new second wife and also a teenager when Rasheed marries her, bonds with Mariam over their shared and intolerable plight. Like the biblical Ruth and Naomi, these two are held together by the inescapable misery of their lives as women in a country where women are less than nothing. Horrifying, heroic and almost unbearably sad, A Thousand Splendid Suns depicts the chattel world in which untold numbers of women live with a heartfelt acuity that is as breathtaking as it is painful.

Newly out in paperback, Katherine Weber's brilliant novel Triangle (Picador / 256 pages / $14) will resonate long after the pieces of this intricate puzzle come together in one of fiction's most haunting endings. This fascinating and incomparably moving story weaves the lives of several New Yorkers together with a moment in history that forever altered the lives of women sweatshop workers: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The novel begins with the reminiscences of Esther Gottesfeld. At 106, she is the last remaining survivor of the fire and as such the subject of a feminist scholar's interest. The manner in which Weber intersects personal tragedies with the overarching symbol of the fire is nothing short of genius, with characterizations as deft as her plot.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon's new novel is a gem: potboiler mystery, historical revisionist text, slapstick black comedy, flamboyant tour de force. The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Harper Perennial / 418 pages / $15.95) features Meyer Landsman as a cop on a mission to find a killer in ... Alaska. Alaska being where Franklin D. Roosevelt has decided to ship the Jews post-World War II and establish a Jewish homeland. Only a writer of Chabon's intensity, intellect and wit could envision this plot with its rogues, rabbis and chippies in a happily successful Jewish world that is about to be reclaimed by the American mainland. This is pure pulp fiction of the fast-talking, repartee-snapping Sam Spade variety and as such, pretty near perfect.

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