Fiction and nonfiction releases from Paul Auster, Lewis Black and James Kaplan.
Making suggestions for your book club can be gratifying — or terrifying. If everyone loves the book, you're a hero. On the other hand, if your pick is a turkey, it takes a while to live it down. I had a pretty good run in my book club this year. All my suggestions seemed to get a warm reception. Then I recommended Ian McEwan's Solar to the group. Though McEwan has written some great novels, this was not one of them. But I found it amusing, and I thought the subject matter would interest the group. As it turns out, they were interested in the subject (a man at wits' end trying to harness the power of the sun), but they pretty much hated the author's take on it. And where I chuckled at the main character's excesses, most of the group seethed. I've been lying low ever since — but that is not going to stop me now. So here are a few books that might get you talking. You might even like some of them.
Parrot And Olivier In America
By Peter Carey; hardcover, 400 pages; Knopf, list price: $26.95
This novel is a riff on Alexis de Tocqueville's famous book Democracy in America, and, like its source, it is an insightful look at post-revolutionary America. But it is also a delightful romp with of two of contemporary fiction's most memorable characters. There's Olivier, a sickly and overprotected young aristocrat raised in the ever-threatening shadow of the French Revolution, and Parrot, the son of an itinerant British printer, who suffers an early tragedy that spins his life in unexpected directions. When the two become unlikely companions, they bicker and grumble their way through America until finally realizing that this new world really is entirely new and completely different. The aristocratic Olivier thinks he has found love. The plebeian Parrot wonders if this is a place where he can finally rest. For those who like to fall into a big, sprawling novel and get lost, this book is for you.
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez; hardcover, 304 pages; Amistad, list price: $24.99
Of the many inexplicable aspects of the institution of slavery, one of the hardest to fathom is the relationship between slave owners and the slaves they took as mistresses. It is this relationship that Dolen Perkins-Valdez explores in the novel Wench. She sets her story mostly in a resort in the free state of Ohio, revealing a little-known slice of slave life — the phenomenon of Southern slave owners vacationing with their mistresses. The false air of normalcy and the tantalizing proximity to freedom that results has a profound effect on four women whose lives are utterly dependent on the mercy and whims of their owners and lovers. For one of these women, the hint of freedom is also an invitation to escape, upending the carefully constructed lives of both owners and slaves. This is a fascinating and tragic story that is also a compulsive read.
By Tana French; hardcover, 416 pages; Viking Adult, list price: $25.95
In Faithful Place, Tana French takes readers into a corner of Dublin where families do their best to suffocate dreams and cops are to be avoided at all costs. Detective Frank Mackey escaped from there long ago, but the discovery of a body in an abandoned house brings him back to the old neighborhood. When the abandoned body turns out to be a girl Mackey thought had jilted him on the night he ran away years ago, he is forced to face his past and the family he hoped he had left behind forever. French has a way of creating characters whose own lives are as mysterious as the crimes they are involved in solving, a reason her books can be interesting even to readers who are not normally attracted to detective stories. Faithful Place is as much as study of the complexities of family relations as it is a crime novel, and as everybody knows, families are endlessly fascinating and always surprising.
By Tom Rachman; hardcover, 288 pages; The Dial Press, list price: $25
This kaleidoscopic look at a Rome-based English language newspaper is both hilarious and surprisingly moving. Through a series of interlocking stories, we glean the life of a newspaper from its heyday to its decline. From the young publisher who inherited his role and has no idea what to do with it to the obit writer who discovers his own ambition in the worst of possible ways to the avid reader who is years behind in keeping up with the news, we fall for this cast of characters and the paper that has sustained them over the years. If you still harbor a secret love for the days when news wasn't delivered instantaneously, and also accept the fact that the people who brought it to you were neither villains nor cardboard heroes (but merely flawed humans), then you may find a place in your heart for The Imperfectionists.
By Paul Auster; hardcover, 320 pages; Henry Holt, list price: $25
At a time when lawns are littered with for sale signs and lives are being devastated by foreclosures, it's noteworthy that a writer like Paul Auster would use the nation's housing crisis as a backdrop for his latest novel. As Sunset Park opens, its main character, Miles Heller, is working for a company that "trashes out" foreclosed homes, getting rid of the things families left behind in their haste to abandon what they once called home. Heller has been living in self-imposed exile from his own family in New York, but soon enough circumstances force him to return home. He takes up an offer to squat rent-free in a dilapidated house with a group of young people and is reunited with his estranged father, who has longed for his return. All this provides Auster with the material for a meditation on the meaning of home and the fragility of life with, or without, a safety net.
When the writer Paul Auster turned 50, he started thinking about his own mortality, and his writing reflected that obsession. Now, Auster says, he is more interested in the problems facing young people today. In his latest novel, Sunset Park, he uses the nation's housing crisis as a backdrop for the story of a group of young people who are squatting in a house in a down-at-the-heels section of Brooklyn, not far from the tree-lined, prosperous neighborhood where the author himself resides.
The meaning of home (and homelessness) is at the core of Sunset Park — Auster says that home is a place where you should feel absolutely safe. "It's the place where you don't really have to defend yourself," the author says, speaking from his Brooklyn brownstone. "I think that's the idea everyone holds in his head, is that this is the place you are welcome no matter what you've done, no matter how rocky things have become for you. And unfortunately not everyone has this refuge."
Auster says that in the novel, he wanted to explore what happens when the sense of security that comes with home is taken away. The main character, Miles Heller, lives in self-imposed exile from his home and family in New York. As the book opens, Miles is working in Florida, clearing out the possessions of families who have been evicted. Circumstances force Miles to return to New York, where he takes up an old friend's offer to squat free in a rundown house in southern Brooklyn, a house that Auster based on a real one he saw in Sunset Park.
The neighborhood that captured Auster's imagination is an urban mix of small businesses, warehouses and residential buildings, with none of the charms of Auster's own tony neighborhood. It is not, as Auster says, "a desperate place," but instead he describes it as "mournful." The house that he channeled in the novel has since been demolished, but Auster remembers what it looked like the day he found it.
"It looked like a farmhouse from the Midwest built about 120 years ago," he says. "I thought this abandoned house would be the perfect place young people would want to break into and live there. And so I used that as the model in my head as I was writing the book."
The young people in Auster's imaginary house do break in and take over the house illegally, but do so for differing reasons. Bing, the instigator of the squatting, sees it as a political act. "Bing is a contrarian," Auster explains. "He's against everything that's happening, so he wants to strike a blow for some future world where there is more justice and more kindness. ... He conceives this as the best way to do it."
Auster touches on several political and modern-day issues in the book, squaring his fiction not only in a real neighborhood but in the middle of real-time events. At this moment in history, the author says, the sense of displacement in the book comes with the economic uncertainty that all too many people are experiencing.
"The germ of this book was the idea of someone being expelled, thrown out of the place where he lived," Auster says. "But the more I thought about it, the more I meditated, the more I saw that this problem was growing into an enormous social problem in the United States simultaneously. And so the inner condition of being dispossessed and also the outer condition of so many people living in this terrible flux of broken mortgages ... all coalesced into what the book became."
This sudden social consciousness is a departure for Auster, who is not known for addressing the issues of the day. Still, the novelist does not see Sunset Park as a deviation from his previous work. "History is present in all my novels," he says. "And whether I am directly talking about the sociological moment or just immersing my character in the environment, I am very aware of it."
Sunset Park: A Novel Read An Excerpt
By Paul Auster
Hardcover, 320 pages
List price: $25
Midway through Sunset Park, Paul Auster's exquisitely crafted, surprisingly tender new novel, book publisher Morris Heller eats breakfast on New Year's Day 2009 at Joe Junior's, a diner in the West Village where he last spoke with his estranged son Miles. The painful precision of how long it has been since he's seen his son — "more than two thousand seven hundred days ago" — resonates for anyone who has been on either end of a serious parent-adult child rift.
Sunset Park brings us a new Paul Auster, shifting from the intellectually exhilarating, elevating realms of metafiction and postmodern detective fiction to a story grounded in the potent emotions of love, loss, regret and vengeance, and the painful reality of current-day calamities like evictions and bankruptcies.
Miles Heller walked away from home one morning, at age 20, after overhearing his stepmother, Willa, say to his father, "He's a bright boy, I won't dispute that. But cold, Morris. Hollowed out, desperate. I shudder to think about the future."
After bouncing around the country, Miles has gone to work in south Florida "trashing out" houses after banks have foreclosed on their owners. He is doing a series of photographs of the abandoned things left in the wake of eviction, and living with a precocious 17-year-old named Pilar. (This relationship is the weakest link in the novel.)
Sunset Park is named after a section of Brooklyn, Auster's longtime home borough, a place he has written about at length — most recently in his 2005 novel, The Brooklyn Follies. Sunset Park is also among the more expansive novels in Auster's repertoire, offering half a dozen viewpoints (as opposed to the solitary writerly alter ego central to many Auster novels, beginning with his first in 1982, The Invention of Solitude).
So in addition to the Heller father and son, we hear from Miles' biological mother, a film actress who is staging a comeback on Broadway; his friend Bing, a "sloppy bear of a man" who runs the storefront Hospital for Broken Things, in Park Slope, and two women: Alice, a graduate student who works at PEN American Center in SoHo, and Ellen, an artist whose work is growing eerily more erotic. Bing, Alice and Ellen are squatters in a small frame house across the street from Green-Wood Cemetery. Bing calls at an opportune time, and Miles joins them.
Auster fans and newcomers will find in Sunset Park his usual beautifully nuanced prose and his unerring sense of structuring a story for dramatic intensity. This time around, his storylines converge in a tremendous crash bang of an ending.