by Adam Haslett
Adam Haslett's first book, the collection of stories You Are Not a Stranger Here, was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His follow-up novel, Union Atlantic, is the story of a bank on the verge of failing owing to a high-risk and highly irregular gamble by of one of its most arrogant and ambitious young lions. In one scene, a Fed official tells bank officials that Union Atlantic will be allowed to fail rather than being bailed out — a bluff, as it turns out. But Haslett wrote that passage, and others like it, well before most Americans had any idea our major financial institutions could be so vulnerable. Haslett sounds as surprised as anyone that his fiction dovetailed so neatly with reality. "It was an uncanny experience," he told Lynn Neary. "The week I finished the manuscript and sent it off was the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed. ... I felt both scooped and validated at the same time — and a little disoriented."
368 pages, $15, Anchor Books
The Three Weissmanns Of Westport
by Cathleen Schine
Cathleen Schine's twist on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility substitutes divorce for primogeniture as the event that abruptly reduces a woman's material circumstances. When Joseph Weissmann tells his wife of 48 years that he wants a divorce because of "irreconcilable differences," 75-year-old Betty finds herself exiled from their sprawling, elegant Central Park West co-op to a borrowed beach shack in Westport, Conn. Her two grown daughters, also at loose ends, rally around for support. Joe's "irreconcilable difference" turns out to be an avaricious younger colleague named Felicity, "although Betty referred to her, pretending she could not remember the correct name, sometimes as Pleurisy, more often as Duplicity." A master of the modern domestic comedy, Schine lobs zingers at divorce lawyers, McMansions, infomercials, insecure authors, adult sibling rivalry, and easily bamboozled old men, among other targets.
304 pages, $14, Picador Books
The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag
by Alan Bradley
Eleven-year-old amateur chemist and detective Flavia de Luce first captured readers' hearts last year in Alan Bradley's debut mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. This follow-up finds the young English girl embroiled in another mystery. When a famous puppeteer visiting Flavia's village is electrocuted during a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, the junior sleuth refuses to believe it was an accident. With the help of Dogger (her father's handyman), Gladys (her bicycle), and a well-stocked chemical laboratory, Flavia rides in circles around the skeptical but indulgent townspeople and local law enforcement — except when she's being tormented by her insufferable big sisters.
400 pages, $15, Bantam Books
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky
Inside the Doomsday Machine
by Heidi Durrow
Author Heidi Durrow has often felt like she's had to straddle two worlds. She is the daughter of a black GI and a white Danish mother. Her own personal search for identity inspired her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, which has received breathless critical acclaim and was awarded the Bellwether Prize for fiction that addresses issues of social justice. The story revolves around a biracial girl who moves across the country to live with her grandmother after surviving a family tragedy. As it unfolds, the reader discovers just how unfathomable this tragedy was: Her mother, brother and baby sister all died after leaping off a Chicago apartment building — a jaw-dropping turn of events that was actually based on a real story.
278 pages, $13.95, Algonquin Books
The Facebook Effect
by David Kirkpatrick
David Kirkpatrick spent a considerable amount of time with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg while writing The Facebook Effect. Zuckerberg, Kirkpatrick tells NPR's Deborah Amos, is adamant in his belief that the world is becoming more open. "He sees the world as moving very rapidly toward transparency and very rapid sharing of data between individuals in all sorts of ways, on and off Facebook," Kirkpatrick says. "And from the day he first created his system, he had this ethos of sharing that he strongly believed in." For Zuckerberg, that ethos means sharing everything. He disagrees with the notion that people have different identities. To him, the idea that someone is different at work from at home, or at a rock concert, is dishonest. Says Kirkpatrick, "He believes that he will live a better life personally, and all of us will be more honest, and ultimately it will be better for the world if we dispense with that belief."
372 pages, $16, Simon & Schuster
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag .
Adam Haslett likes old-fashioned novels that take a sweeping look into the corners of society, using carefully imagined characters to explore the relationships between the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the good and the bad.
"The idea of the novelist in the world trying to tackle the complexity of contemporary life is something that I take seriously," Haslett says.
And his own debut novel, Union Atlantic, sometimes reads as if Haslett was listening into the private conversations that led to the economic collapse and the bank bailouts that followed.
Yet the remarkable fact is that Haslett finished the novel well before the real-life events took place. In the late '90s, Haslett was reading about the Federal Reserve and some of the economic problems that were just beginning to stir.
"It struck me that there were these people who had enormous amounts of power over the economy, the whole economy," Haslett says. "And yet we didn't really understand what they did, they weren't elected, people didn't have an opportunity to make anyone answer for anything. And, of course, it's easy to make a political judgment about that but as a novelist what I wanted to do was take the reader into those people's minds to find out for myself and then also maybe for the reader what drove people in those positions."
Haslett's first book, the collection of stories You Are Not a Stranger Here, was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. For the follow-up, he came up with the story of a bank on the verge of failing due to a high-risk and highly irregular gamble by of one of its most arrogant and ambitious young lions, Doug Fanning. Stepping in to save the situation is Henry Graves, president of the New York Federal Reserve.
Sections of the book read almost as if they were transcripts of meetings between officials at New York's Fed and failing banks, including one scene in which Henry Graves tells bank officials that Union Atlantic will be allowed to fail rather than being bailed out — a bluff, as it turns out. But Haslett wrote that passage, and others like it, well before most Americans had any idea our major financial institutions could be so vulnerable. And Haslett sounds as surprised as anyone that his fiction dovetailed so neatly with reality.
"It was an uncanny experience," he says. "The week I finished the manuscript and sent it off was the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed. And so I walked in and read the headlines and started reading about these meetings at the Fed in New York with the bankers and I thought to myself, 'Oh yeah, I wrote that scene a year ago.' So, I mean, I felt both scooped and validated at the same time — and a little disoriented."
Haslett says his concern for the book's reception quickly veered toward worry that Union Atlantic would be seen exclusively through the lens of the collapse.
"In a way I think it's about some broader cultural themes about the moral climate in the country and finance was the industry that I picked as a backdrop," he says.
To explore those larger cultural themes, Haslett created the character of Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher and the sister of Fed chief Graves. Charlotte still lives in their family home, which is now falling apart around her. She is forced to defend not only her real estate but her most cherished beliefs and values when the rogue banker Doug Fanning buys the property next door, tears down the woods that have stood for centuries and builds a huge McMansion. As Fanning's banking career starts imploding, Charlotte wages a legal battle against him and his house.
She watches the world she values — and her emotional investment in her land — betrayed by Fanning. And she lashes out at her brother when he tries to convince her to back down.
"Take a step back for a moment, and look at what's going on in this country," Charlotte tells Henry. "Tell me I'm wrong to want to make a stand. You can't. Not without betraying language, and I think you're better than that."
Just as Charlotte believes in the power of language, so does Haslett. Fiction, he says, gives us the time to contemplate where we are headed.
"The world is so insanely complex and fast and distracting, and one of the things I think a good book can do is slow the reader's attention down a little bit and give them a chance to think through some of the consequences of these changes which otherwise are so quick that all you can do is react," Haslett says.
So is literature the answer?
"It's an ameliorative," Haslett says with a laugh. "I don't think it's an answer, I don't think it will solve our problems but I think how we pay attention to the world matters and if you can spend time inside an imaginative world then there's a calmness and an ability to think."
The devaluation and degradation of values — monetary and moral, public and personal — are the focus of Adam Haslett's ambitious, energetic first novel, written with an urgent relevance more often found in newspapers or nonfiction than fiction. Haslett, a graduate of both the University of Iowa Writing Program and Yale Law School, scored the literary equivalent of a Wall Street bonus with his first book, the best-selling story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He's aimed even higher with Union Atlantic, which takes on nothing less than our bankrupt culture with its "reign of endless display" and "general encroachment of money and waste."
Against a backdrop of financial wheelings and dealings in the year after Sept. 11, 2001, Haslett pits a rapacious 37-year-old banker against a reclusive, unhinged, retired history teacher, on whose ancestral land he has erected his tasteless "casino of a house." Haslett assembles his novel with stunning efficiency; like a literary go-kart perched on a narrative hill, just a slight push sets it rolling to its speedy denouement.
The banker, Doug Fanning, is an easy-to-despise Master-of-the-Universe type driven by resentment of his deprived childhood with an alcoholic single mother. From a stint in the Navy during the Gulf War, Doug learns fearlessness and survival at any cost, integrity be damned. This serves him well in banking, where he's been doing a "ferociously good job" expanding the Union Atlantic commercial bank in Boston by "brazenly" taking advantage of the free-for-all deregulated environment facilitated by the repeal of New Deal reforms. Haslett describes the house-of-cards world of trading on margin and questionably securitized mortgages with the fluency of Kai Ryssdal's Marketplace.
While Fanning's flameout seems as inevitable as a Greek tragedy's bloodbath, his neighbor Charlotte Graves' descent into madness is a more disturbing spectacle. Haslett imbues Graves with a just cause — fighting the fire sale (to Doug) of land her grandfather deeded for conservation — and a worried brother, who, rather contrivedly, is president of the New York Federal Reserve. Charlotte, who not only teaches history but embodies it, is haunted by an unlikely pair of ministers, Cotton Mather and Malcolm X, who harangue her — hilariously yet tediously — through an even unlikelier source: her two dogs, a mastiff and a Doberman.
The seeds of Charlotte's character can be traced back to Haslett's masterful debut collection, which also features an addled patrician woman haunted by a ghost from the past who disapproves of society's increasing decadence. Similarities between Haslett's stories and his new novel don't stop there: both involve mental illness, close brother-sister bonds, parents lost to suicide and homosexual initiations with a sadomasochistic edge. But in tackling big issues like the costs of power and ambition and the relationship between war and commerce, Haslett has, in a sense, taken his company public. Unfortunately, in order to trade on the Big Board, he has sacrificed some of the tenderness that made his stories so moving. Nevertheless, this is a writer who continues to yield rich dividends.
Three novels of past and present: Lynn Neary reviews the "perfect" novel for our down economy — written before the banks failed. Steve Inskeep reads a tale of political infighting resonant of today, but that follows events in Cicero's Rome. And Alan Cheuse celebrates The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a novel both timeless and very modern.
By Adam Haslett
The fictional events in Union Atlantic dovetail almost perfectly with reality. Doug Fanning, an arrogant, ambitious veteran turned banker, plays fast and loose with his bank's money, driving the venerable institution, Union Atlantic, to the brink of collapse. Called upon to save the bank is good, gray Henry Graves, president of the New York Federal Reserve. His sister Charlotte, a retired history teacher who lives in the family home, which is falling down around her, has her own gripe against Fanning. He has built a huge, ugly, almost empty mansion next door, in the process destroying woods that used to belong to her family. As Henry works to salvage the damage Fanning has done to the financial system, Charlotte takes Fanning to court, their respective houses standing in as apt symbols for the clashing values of our culture.
Union Atlantic seems the perfect book for our times. The fact that Adam Haslett finished it before the full brunt of the economic crisis hit is remarkable, since some of the scenes in the novel sound as if they were written by someone listening in on the private conversations that led to the real bank bailout. But perhaps even more significantly, Haslett has created memorable characters whose dysfunctional lives seem to embody the frenetic craziness and moral confusion of the era. Haslett's portrayal of contemporary America is funny and insightful. At times it also breaks your heart, because the people who live in this fictional world are so real and so stubbornly human." — Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent
Hardcover; 320 pages; Nan A. Talese; list price: $26, publication date: Feb. 9
A Novel Of Ancient Rome
By Robert Harris
Robert Harris, a British political journalist turned novelist, has turned his talents on the life of the ancient Roman politician Cicero. Taking the well-documented life of the great orator as his starting point, Harris tells an old story in a way that easily resonates with our modern political debates. An earlier novel, Imperium, traced Cicero's rise to power in the Roman republic. The real-life events of the era included an attack by pirates on the port of Rome; as the outraged Romans abridge their own liberties and send out an avenging army, the reader is invited to make comparisons to Sept. 11. Conspirata tells the story of Cicero's tumultuous year as the Roman chief executive. In an NPR interview, the author cheerfully compares it to President Obama's term.
Harris does a wonderful job bringing Cicero to life, not as a white marble bust but as a very human politician making choices — some of them inspired, some of them mistaken, most of them a little of both. As Cicero struggles to realize his great ambition while preserving as much as he can of his principles, he tacks left and right like a ship sailing against the wind. The delight of Harris' plotting is the way that whenever Cicero takes a political shortcut, it comes back to bite him later. — Steve Inskeep, co-host of 'Morning Edition'
Hardcover; 352 pages; Simon and Schuster; list price: $26, publication date: Feb. 2
The Lost Books Of The Odyssey
By Zachary Mason
Nostalgia — literally the desire to return home — drives the great aristocratic warrior-hero of the Odyssey. Even if you haven't read Homer (yet), you'll get caught up in that powerful action when you turn the pages of Zachary Mason's delightful first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey. In chapter after chapter, our hero travels from one Mediterranean island to another, and again and again arrives home in Ithaca, sometimes finding chaos, sometimes discovering that all is lost in this antique world of multiple possibilities, sometimes even experiencing a peaceful homecoming. In one of these many sequences he arrives alone on an island in the middle of winter, and in a deserted cabin discovers a book that happens to tell "the story of Odysseus, soldier and diplomat, a man of versatile intelligence who connived to destroy a sacred city in the east, and made the long trip home over many trying years." This encounter, as all of this inventive novel, is Homer filtered through Borges, Calvino and John Gardner.
I felt, as I was reading, that I was having one of those mythical 'dinners of desserts.' Everything in the novel begins with Homer's epic, but the tone, which ranges from the insouciant to the wise to the elegiac, is thoroughly modern. Mason gives us not so much an homage as a web of anecdotes and imaginings and dreams and speculations on the character of one of the great characters in Western literature. This Odysseus is not just wily, bold and brave; he's sometimes tender and attentive, a soldier, a sailor, a poet, a king, a father, a husband — and a lost figure even as he arrives at the home he's been striving to return to all these years. Time contracts, time expands, and through it all Mason, a wonderful narrator, never loses sight of the knowledge that good fiction lives in its details. As when Athena gathers our hero close to her and he feels that 'her skin was very hot' and that 'she smelled like metal and summer.' Mason works with the tradition, and yet gives us a book unlike most any other we've read. And it smells like metal and summer. — Alan Cheuse, reviewer, 'All Things Considered'