Recommendations from Daniel Goldin at Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, Wis.
The Hour Between
The Hour Between, by Sebastian Stuart, paperback, 260 pages, Alyson Books, list price: $14.95
I love stories about friendship, particularly those in which friendship is recalled under a nostalgic haze. The madeleine in Sebastian Stuart's The Hour Between is a phone call. A friend alerts Arthur McDougal of a sighting of Katrina Felt, the girl who took him under her wing during a fateful year at a Connecticut boarding school. At school, Katrina was everything that closeted Arthur was not — the child of celebrities, secure in her persona as a glamorous rebel.
Set in the late 1960s, the book's action takes place at Spooner School, under the auspices of the Christian Science Church, run by a progressive but lax administrator. Their friendship intensifies, and Arthur's role morphs from Katrina's protege to her protector as her carefully created persona shows some cracks. At the same time, disagreements within the school's administration come to a head. I found the whole thing quite lovely, especially because just when things would get a little melodramatic for my taste, Stuart knows how to cut the pathos with some sharp wit. (Read Stuart's depiction of the moment his narrator first meets Katrina.)
Await Your Reply
Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon, hardcover, 324 pages, Ballantine Books, list price: $25
I'm not one for scares, but I can't resist interesting stories, especially when presented a construction as clever as Chaon's: a three-headed snake. Chaon's latest novel has three protagonists. Lucy Lattimore has run off with one of her teachers, Miles Cheshire is searching the frozen north for his missing brother Hayden, and Ryan Schuyler has recently been reunited with his birth father in the Michigan woods.
As it happens, Ryan's dad is running a little identity theft business, and identity is actually the thread that ties the stories together. Chaon's prose gives Await Your Reply the feel of a Stephen King or Peter Straub novel, and in a way, this is a horror novel, but without supernatural elements. There are even allusions to Thomas Tryon's cult favorite, The Other. And because it's the kind of book where you can't talk about the ending, in a sense it's a mystery, too, and part of the enjoyment is how you handle the twist. (Read how one of Chaon's characters loses more than just an identity: five digits.)
Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, hardcover, 288 pages, Simon & Schuster, list price: $24
Little Bee is a Nigerian girl who has escaped her home country only to find herself interned in a British immigration center. She's searching for a man she once met on the African coast, and she thinks he will help her, only we already know that won't be possible.
Quickly, the story jumps to the man's widow Sarah, a smart but somewhat unlikeable (correction: she's really unlikeable) woman caring for her son Charlie, a boy taken to running around in a Batman suit. Little Bee is another book with a secret, which I won't reveal here, but Cleave's book contains much I can talk about. It's a story about rebuilding family, about the gray morality of life and about tough decisions. It's a wise book, but one that doesn't take itself too seriously. And it's a book that reads differently to different people, with an ending that has led to seriously different interpretations. (Read Little Bee's musings on the British pound coin.)
Blame, by Michelle Huneven, hardcover, 304 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $25
To show just what a mess of a woman Patsy McLemoore is, our first glimpse of her is through the eyes of a young family friend who's about to be subject to a rather raw ear piercing. But then it's Patsy's story, and our piercee has nothing on Patsy, who's about to go to prison for running over two Jehovah's Witnesses. The prison scenes are brutal and set the stage for what follows, which is a meditation on overcoming obstacles.
In her writing style, Huneven reminds me of Richard Russo: somber, but laced with elements of humor, friendship and joy. She writes side characters so rich they could each carry their own novel. There's a twist here, too, but knowing it or not doesn't affect the joy that comes with reading this novel. And though Huneven's take on addiction and recovery makes Blame a great read for anyone dealing with these issues, it's also the kind of book that's perfect for someone who wouldn't normally touch a book on the subject with a 10-foot pole. (Read Huneven's description of Patsy's adventures in home piercing.)
Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life
Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, by Carol Sklenicka, hardcover, 592 pages, Scribner, list price: $35
I'm always afraid that literary biographies will be a bit dry. Raymond Carver's life is anything but. Carver was a man from a hardscrabble family who struggled with alcohol, financial problems, family quarrels and a turbulent first marriage. And though Sklenicka exhaustively follows sources, catching the details that figure into Carver's stories and poems, the 500 pages in her biography almost breeze by, a virtue of the major dramas in Carver's life.
The first is Carver's transformation from "bad" Ray to "good" Ray — if this story were fiction, you might not believe how quickly the writer's life and personality transformed. The other is the controversy over the editing of his stories. Is much of the minimalism of Carver due to Carver himself, or to Gordon Lish, the editor who cut so much detail out of much of his work? Not only did Sklenicka's book convince me to reread some Carver fiction, but I now also want to read it twice, once with each edit. (Read Sklenicka's description of how "Good Ray" and "Bad Ray" came together to make one complicated Carver.)