New Fiction at the Libraries, Dec 14

December 14, 2010 – 8:19 AM

Driving on the Rim by Thomas McGuane
PS3563.A3114 D75 2010

The unforgettable voyager of this dark picaresque is I. B. “Berl” Pickett, M.D., whose die was probably cast the moment his mother thought to name him after Irving Berlin. Other insults piled on apace thereafter: the spasms of Pentecostal Sunday worship; the social debilitation of following his parents’ itinerant rug-shampooing business; the erotic initiation at the hands of his aunt. It’s hard to imagine what would have become of him had he not gone to medical school, thanks to the surrogate fathering of a local physician and bird-hunting loner.

But there must be meaning to existence beyond professional accreditation, and though scantly equipped, Berl Pickett has been on a mission to find it, despite being charged with negligent homicide in the death of his former lover, a business that lays bare the true benefits of small-town living. Fortunately, Berl will find deliverance in work and in the few human connections he has made, wittingly or not, over the years. The Montana landscape, too, will furnish, if not a certifiable epiphany, at least a semi-spiritual awakening for the inglorious hero of Thomas McGuane’s hilarious and profound illumination of the threads by which we are all hanging.

Snakewoman of Little Egypt: A Novel by Robert Hellenga
PS3558.E4753 S63 2010

Jackson Jones is trying to decide whether to remain an anthropology professor in his small Midwestern town, or to return to doing fieldwork among the Mbuti people, in their African Garden of Eden. His ruminations are interrupted by the arrival of a late friend’s niece, who has just been sprung from jail. Sunny admits that she shot her husband, an evangelical pastor from the Little Egypt region of Illinois, but he had it coming after forcing her to take on a rattle snake. As an anthropologist, Jackson is curious about Sunny’s experiences with The Church of the Burning Bush; as a man, he is not immune to her backwoods sassiness. Although Sunny is pleased to be with a kind partner at last, she is also serious about her belated education–funded by her late uncle–at Jackson’s university. French and herpetology compete for her attention, and Jackson’s plan to take her to Paris to propose marriage are waylaid when she decides to travel to an academic conference with her biology professor instead. Jackson is crushed and heads for Little Egypt in Sunny’s absence, to get to know her ex-husband and to study the snake-handling ceremonies at his evangelical church. Complications ensue, including Jackson’s near-death experience and Sunny’s murder of her ex, but fate is a positive force for all in the end. Packed with both information and emotion, Snakewoman of Little Egypt delivers Robert Hellenga at the top of his form.

Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes by Daniel Kehlmann
translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway.
PT2671.E32 R8413 2010

In the first of Fame’s nine stories, the technician Ebling whose high point of the week is the Wiener Schnitzel on the office canteen menu, at last succumbs to the blandishments of the mobile phone and through an error is assigned the number of the actor Ralf Tanner. Soon he is taking Tanner’s calls, making his decisions and talking to his girlfriends without any responsibility with disastrous consequences. Other characters in Fame are the writers Leo Richter and the mortally ill Rosalie; we also see numerous staff of the mobile phone business, and even a thinly veiled version of a famous feelgood writer in his Rio Penthouse, with a gun in his mouth as he contemplates his valueless oeuvre, a title of which appears irritatingly in each chapter to console or infuriate. The main theme of the novel is switching identity amidst the effects of modern changing technology and the confusing game of deception played between reality and fiction. The characters fear obscurity, they dream of recognition and of being the inspiration for famous stories…

The Trestler House by Madeleine Ouellette-Michalska
translated by W. Donald Wilson.
PQ3919.2.O83 M3513 2009

In this postmodern novel about shifting views of history, a young journalist covering the visit of a French prime minister to Quebec becomes fascinated by a newspaper photograph of historic Trestler House. Curious about how such a landmark sheds light on the difference between personal and national identity, he decides to research the history of the grand old building. As he tours the house and gathers documents, its many rooms become symbols of various historical narratives that describe place and time. Asking whether history can truthfully depict every aspect of an event, the novel considers the intrusion of memories and sensations into historical accounts and wonders about the hidden meanings that are not immediately apparent. The result is an intriguing story that shows how multiple approaches—including fictional narrative—often yield the most authentic history.

The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson
PR6060.A245 W53 2010

A newly-widowed woman has done a runner. She just jumped in her car, abandoned her (very nice) house in north London and kept on driving until she reached the Norfolk coast. Now she’s rented a tiny cottage and holed herself away there, if only to escape the ceaseless sympathy and insincere concern. She’s not quite sure, but thinks she may be having a bit of a breakdown. Or perhaps this sense of dislocation is perfectly normal in the circumstances. All she knows is that she can’t sleep and may be drinking a little more than she ought to. But as her story unfolds we discover that her marriage was far from perfect. That it was, in fact, full of frustration and disappointment, as well as one or two significant secrets, and that by running away to this particular village she might actually be making her own personal pilgrimage. By turns elegiac and highly comical, The Widow’s Tale conjures up this most defiantly unapologetic of narrators as she begins to pick over the wreckage of her life and decide what has real value and what she should leave behind.

The News Where You Are: A Novel by Catherine O’Flynn
PR6115.F59 N49 2010

Set in Birmingham, The News Where You Are tells the funny, touching story of Frank, a local TV news presenter. Beneath his awkwardly corny screen persona, Frank is haunted by disappearances: the mysterious hit and run that killed his predecessor Phil Smethway; the demolition of his father’s post-war brutalist architecture; and the unmarked passing of those who die alone in the city. Frank struggles to make sense of these absences while having to report endless local news stories of holes opening up in people’s gardens and trying to cope with his resolutely miserable mother. The result is that rare thing: a page-turning novel which asks the big questions in an accessible way, and is laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely moving and ultimately uplifting.

Love Is like Park Avenue by Alvin Levin
PS3523.E79915 L68 2009

Alvin Levin, himself from the Bronx, captured life in the turbulent era of the 1930s in New York City. The stories are all told by an “outsider artist”, a writer who is never able to finish his long novel yet easily writes these small touching portraits about the poor who, in their dance halls and bars, long to live the high-life of the Park Avenue “swells” in dance halls and bars.

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh
translated from the German by Christine Lo.
PT2688.E28 S3513 2010

Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But their lives took divergent paths, as did their scientific views. Whenever Oskar comes to visit from his prestigious research post in Geneva, there is tension in the air, and it doesn’t help their friendship that he feels Sebastian has not lived up to his intellectual capacities, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy. A few days after a particularly heated argument between the two men, Sebastian leaves his son sleeping in the back seat while he goes into a service station. When he returns, the car has disappeared without trace. His phone rings and a voice informs him that in order to get his son back he must kill a man. As Sebastian’s life unravels, the only person he can safely reach out to is Oskar. Then Detective Schilf comes on the scene, with a most unorthodox method of uncovering the truth. With intelligence, wit, precision, and grace, Juli Zeh crafts a philosophical thriller which uses the clash of the ideal and the material worlds, the bending of reality, and the search for a definition of time to explore the ideas of guilt and innocence and the infinite configurations of love.

Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky
translated from the German by Tim Mohr.
PT2702.R658 S3413 2010

Broken Glass Park made a remarkable debut when it was published in Germany in 2008. Its author, the twenty-nine-year old Russian-born Alina Bronksy has since been hailed as a wunderkind, an immense talent who has been the subject of constant praise and debate.

The heroine of this enigmatic, razor-sharp, and thoroughly contemporary novel is seventeen- year-old Sacha Naimann, born in Moscow. Sacha lives in Berlin now with her two younger siblings and, until recently, her mother. She is precocious, independent, skeptical and, since her stepfather murdered her mother several months ago, an orphan. Unlike most of her companions, she doesn’t dream of getting out the tough housing project where they live. Her dreams are different: she wants to write a novel about her mother; and she wants to end the life of Vadim, the man who murdered her.

What strikes the reader most in this exceptional novel is Sacha’s voice: candid, self-confident, mature and childlike at the same time: a voice so like the voices of many of her generation with its characteristic mix of worldliness and innocence, skepticism and enthusiasm. This is Sacha’s story and it is as touching as any in recent literature.

Germany’s Freundin Magazine called Broken Glass Park “a ruthless, entertaining portrayal of life on the margins of society.” But Sacha’s story does not remain on the margins; it goes straight to the heart of what it means to be seventeen in these the first years of the new century.

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