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Dive Into Fiction: Five Picks From Alan Cheuse

Jun 28, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian The Astral by Kate Christensen All The Time In The World by E.L. Doctorow Vonnegut Novels & Stories: 1963-1973 by Kurt Vonnegut

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It's summertime, that time out of time, when the heat, the air and the stillness at certain good times of day make for easy reading. With a little luck and perseverance you might carve out some hours to keep company with some new books.

Whether you approach summer reading as a picnic, barbecue, smorgasbord, buffet or sit-down dinner, these books will leave you hungry for more — in the best sense of the words.


Miss New India

By Bharati Mukherjee; hardcover, 336 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price $25

Miss New India, Bharati Mukherjee's latest novel, gives us a picture of India as we've never truly seen it before, as a country as up-to-date — and as traditional — as any place in the world. Mukherjee employs a classic plot: A village girl goes to the big city, where she throws off most of the old ways and discovers her new identity. In this case, the village girl is Anjali Bose, a Bengali girl from a less-than-thriving town in central India who rejects her family's plan for an arranged marriage after suffering rape and humiliation by a suitor.

Anjali feels as though she is "part of the bold new India, an equal to anywhere, a land poised for takeoff," and the metaphor seems apt; with the help of an expatriate teacher, she leaves home and heads to Hindi-speaking Bangalore. Her new home, a call-center metropolis, sports a breed of men and women who are her contemporaries, yet whose English she can scarcely understand. But she turns all of her energy into becoming a new person, settling in to a rented space in the sprawling, decaying home of an elderly British matron and finding a new life as "Angie."

Around her, all of her call-center friends work hard to sound American and hip as hell, while "Angie" struggles to keep up with them. Novelist Mukherjee captures the drama of her protagonist's life with ease, making a thoroughly American novel about her former home that proves (with serious dramatic verve and passion) that going home again may be difficult for any of us.


Three Stages Of Amazement

By Carol Edgarian; hardcover, 304 pages; Scribner, list price: $25

In what may well be the most serious and the most entertaining domestic novel of the year, San Francisco writer Carol Edgarian delivers a new turn on Tolstoy's old chestnut: "Happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." She calls her book Three Stages of Amazement and sets it in San Francisco toward the end of the "dot com" craze. We meet Lena Rusch, an appealing but harried mother of two whose surgeon husband has been trying, with middling success, to found his own medical device company. The novel deftly dramatizes questions about the essence of married life and throws in a mystery about Lena's origins for good measure. But there's no mystery as to how Edgarian keeps us going — deep insight into human behavior, coupled with the right language to describe it.


The Astral

By Kate Christensen; hardcover, 320 pages; Doubleday, list price: $25.95

"Love" and "aging" are the operative themes in award-winning novelist Kate Christensen's new book, The Astral. Christensen's main character, a once well-known poet named Harry Quirk, has reached his late 50s and finds himself at the end of both his marriage and his rope. Luz, Henry's wife of many years, mistakenly believes he has cheated on her and has thrown him out of their apartment in an old Brooklyn building that has the same name as the novel. We ramble around the neighborhood with Harry, who drinks sorrowfully, rolls around on his bike in search of a new place to live and tries to write a long narrative poem with the title — you may have guessed it — "The Astral."

As the novel shifts into a higher gear, Harry tries desperately to keep the peace with his lesbian daughter, who lives as a "freegan" in Brooklyn, where she forages food and such from local Dumpsters. With his daughter, he endeavors to save his son from the clutches of a Long Island Christian cult. Meanwhile, Harry himself is seeking some sort of transcendence in life, the same kind he hopes for in poetry. Good luck, Harry. (But how fortunate dear Harry is to be created by a writer as gifted as Kate Christensen, who knows her men better than some male writers believe they know their women!)


All The Time In The World, New And Selected Short Stories

By E. L. Doctorow; hardcover, 304 pages; Random House, list price: $26

The conventional wisdom about short fiction tells us that where novels open time up, short stories compress it — and reveal something new to us about the main character and the world along the way. Much-lauded novelist E.L. Doctorow works with that convention in his new collection of stories, All the Time in the World, allowing us the sense that by the end of any of his short pieces he will reveal new things to us about the character's life, and with a little luck, about our own.

The situations in the collection are varied; in "Willi" an old man recalls the murderous family incident in his childhood that changed his life forever, while "Wakefield" introduces us to a conventional suburban commuter who decides he is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. "The Writer in the Family" is the most traditional of the stories, and in many ways the most resonant, because it gives a sharp account of how a budding artist, residing normally in the bosom of his family in the Bronx, discovers his great powers.

But these stories also work on another level by revealing news not just about the world, but also about the mysteries that lie at the heart of human behavior. In doing so, they bring us near to the resonance at the heart of ordinary life. In the title story, set in Manhattan, the narrator notices the beauty in the everyday with a sharpness that makes every page a revelation:

A shaft of sunlight lights up the street from a crack in the black sky. The clouds blow off, the air is all at once warm and humid ... water drips from the apartment house canopies, gurgling rivulets run along the curbstone. I feel as if I've risen from one element to another ...

Read these fine stories, and you may find you'll have that same feeling.


Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories, 1963-1973

By Kurt Vonnegut; hardcover, 848 pages; Library of America, list price: $35

I didn't know what was going to happen when I opened the pages of the Library of America's reissue of Kurt Vonnegut's novels. So much of what I remembered as the really great stuff of my early reading days just hasn't held up the second time around. But here's Vonnegut with all his breezy pessimism — or should I call it pessimistic breeziness? — that, in spirit, calls up the spirit of Mark Twain.

Most of Vonnegut's novels seem just as vital, perhaps more so, than the first time I picked them up. Choose your own favorite. I elected to reread Slaughterhouse-Five, which is included in the collection, along with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle and some of Vonnegut's better-known short stories. First published in 1969, Slaughterhouse introduces us to a World War II veteran named Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim is a survivor of the monstrous Allied firebombing raid on Dresden, where he was interned as a German POW in the spring of 1945.

He suffers what we now recognize as PTSD, and, as he describes it, has come "unstuck in time." Unstuck, indeed! The novel swings with great panache back and forth between Billy's youth, his wartime encounters with death and destruction and his post-war life — a life spent not only on Earth in mental hospitals but also on the planet Tralfamador, where, as he tells us, he will enjoy a good part of eternity having been scooped up and taken there by a crew from an intergalactic spaceship.

Zooming back and forth in time in a novel that swings back and forth from realism to science fiction and back again, Billy's cracked vision of war and peace helps us see ourselves in our own place in time a little more clearly than we might have before. This is a wonderfully understated little satire. And, over 40 years after its initial publication, we can still respond to its cry for sanity and appreciate Vonnegut's famous four-word refrain signifying the trivial and the devastating passage of all things: "and so it goes."

Picnic, barbecue, smorgasbord, buffet, sit-down dinner — all here in this Vonnegut retrospective, perfect for summer reading.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Titles Recommended On-Air

The Mother Who Stayed: Stories by Laura Furman
You Think That's Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard
Three Stages of Amazement: A Novel by Carol Edgarian
If Sons, Then Heirs: A Novel by Lorene Cary
The Secret Soldier (A John Wells Novel) by Alex Berenson
No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf by Carolyn Burke
Also recommended: Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

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The Astral, by Kate Christensen ( )

'The Astral': A Tedious Ode To Breaking Up

Jun 9, 2011

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Kate Christensen is the author of six novels. In 2008, she was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Great Man. Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian The Astral by Kate Christensen All The Time In The World by E.L. Doctorow Vonnegut Novels & Stories: 1963-1973 by Kurt Vonnegut

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Kate Christensen's sixth novel, The Astral, charts the long and whining road toward a new life for Harry Quirk, a down-and-out poet whose fierce, staunchly Catholic wife of 30 years has thrown him out of their home in the legendary Astral apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Convinced that Harry has been cheating on her with his recently widowed best friend, Luz has gone ballistic. She destroyed his laptop and the notebooks containing his latest poems, a cycle of sonnets about imaginary lovers she's convinced are real.

The Astral charts Harry's initially wretched adventures in his forced new singledom, as he wanders through the streets and bars of his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, landing in a series of dicey situations, bleak rentals and comfortingly repetitive jobs. His family and friends provide little solace. His son has been sucked into a fundamentalist cult on Long Island that has named him their messiah. His daughter, a bleeding-heart Freegan, thinks she can solve the world's troubles, including those of her family. A rich friend is generous with advice and employment, provided Harry feeds his "emotionally vampiric nature" with piteous bloodletting.

Although he insists that he's innocent, everyone but Harry recognizes that innocence is besides the point. The point — which analytic Harry articulates often in his saga of being forced to start over at 57 — is that Harry "needed to be propped up" in both his poetry and his life. "Perhaps I needed someone else's external, imposed will, because internally, I had none," he comments. In his writing, Harry says, "I shackled myself to the most ironclad poetic forms." In his life, he willingly bound himself to Luz, a Mexican-American nurse with a nonnegotiable nature. Long the family's principal breadwinner, Luz has withdrawn her support because she wasn't getting what she wanted in return — Harry's unwavering devotion.

If that seems a simplistic reduction of a complex marital dynamic, it's one that Harry makes himself — repeatedly. As anyone who has gone through a painful breakup knows, obsessive dissection is a primary byproduct. Unfortunately, it's no more fun to read about than to experience, and Christensen, such a sharp writer in novels that include Trouble (2009) and The Epicure's Lament (2004), does little to alleviate the tedium of Harry's doldrums. Even Harry comments, "Here I was, going around in these same circles again with no way out." When we finally get to his showdown with Luz, it is woefully anticlimactic because we've already heard it all multiple times.

Christensen has written about artists before. The Great Man (2007), which won the PEN/Faulkner award, featured a vibrant portrait of three women in their 70s and 80s who were liberated by the death of "the great man" who had overshadowed them in his life — a painter who resisted 20th-century abstraction the way Harry resists free-form verse. But Christensen fails to give us a convincing sense of Harry's talent, and when he confesses that he has "lost the egomaniacal steam that powered the whole enterprise," we're as indifferent as he seems to be.

Like his late-lamented, tightly constructed sonnets, Harry's tale begins and ends in the same place, with him staring into the toxic waters of Newtown Creek. Although Harry makes some emotional headway over the course of the novel, The Astral, like this sadly polluted estuary, feels dismayingly stagnant.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Titles Recommended On-Air

The Mother Who Stayed: Stories by Laura Furman
You Think That's Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard
Three Stages of Amazement: A Novel by Carol Edgarian
If Sons, Then Heirs: A Novel by Lorene Cary
The Secret Soldier (A John Wells Novel) by Alex Berenson
No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf by Carolyn Burke
Also recommended: Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

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