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Further Under the Radar: More Books Not to Miss

Aug 13, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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In May, Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl pored through her shelves and pulled down several books that are read by a few but deserve wider attention. Well, there are more where they came from. Pearl is back with another armload of what she calls "under-the-radar" books.

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

About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

'Dingley Falls'

Dingley Falls by Michael Malone, paperback, 640 pages
One of my favorite novels was written more than a quarter-century ago, and yet each time I read it, which I do every couple of years, I fall in love with it all over again. Michael Malone has written many terrific novels, including Foolscap, Time's Witness and Handling Sin, but for some reason it's Dingley Falls that I go back to time and time again. For me, Dingley Falls is the uber-soap opera as novel, or novel as soap opera — take your pick (this makes a lot of sense because for many years Malone was one of the writers on that uber-television soap opera One Life to Live). It's one of those novels in which you're immediately drawn into the world the author has created, so that when the book ends — and it's not a short book by any means, thank goodness — you're left feeling bereft, as though you've somehow been banished from a familiar and well-loved place.   The seemingly bucolic Dingley Falls, Conn. (the sort of town in which being a nut and an egghead are nearly synonymous, Malone tells us), is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the year of its founding, and strange events are occurring. Love is on everyone's mind, as are a series of very nasty anonymous letters, strange lights in the sky and an uncommonly large number of deaths from heart failure. Evil is afoot in Dingley Falls, and no one is quite sure what to do about it, except, perhaps, 16-year-old Polly Hedgerow, who's wiser than her years might indicate. The novel is a bit racy in places, with some somewhat raunchy sex occurring both behind closed doors and in the woods surrounding the town, but Malone's descriptions are offered in such good humor that it's all simply irresistible. And how could you not love a book that begins not only with a map, but also a four-page alphabetical listing of all the characters, with short identifying phrases: Sidney Blossom — town librarian and former hippie; Louie Daytona — gorgeous bisexual sculptor and ex-convict befriended by Tracy Canopy; and Polly Hedgerow herself — a bookworm, gossip, and sleuth.

'Gertrude Bell'

Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell, hardcover, 481 pages
Gertrude Bell has been called both the female Lawrence of Arabia and the woman who invented Iraq. Both descriptions, as we learn from Georgina Howell's riveting biography, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, are justified but they suggest only a part of this remarkable woman's life. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she had a life full of firsts for her gender: she was the first woman to achieve a First in Modern History at Oxford; the first to win a prize from the Royal Geographical Society; and the first female British intelligence officer. After graduating from Oxford, she visited Tehran, and, much as T.E. Lawrence did, fell in love with the Middle East. Gertrude Bell ended up devoting a good portion of her life to understanding the region's complexities and shaping its future. (She was also an intrepid mountain climber — there's a pulse-pounding account here of one of her ascents in the Alps. Plus, she organized the care of the wounded in France during World War I, and, somewhat surprisingly, spoke out passionately against women's suffrage in England.)   She taught herself to speak and read Arabic and Persian and, in the years leading up to World War I, explored the desert terrain by camel, always accompanied by a devoted group of servants who toted along everything that might be needed by a proper British lady on such a journey, including pistols, a canvas bath, tea sets (one imagines they were Spode, or Wedgwood), evening gowns, fur stoles, and Zeiss telescopes to serve as gifts to the tribal leaders she met along the way. Following the War to End All Wars, she drew up, on behalf of the British government, the boundaries of a new country to be carved out of the sands of Mesopotamia, and picked Faisal, son of a tribal chief from Mecca, to be Iraq's first king. Howell, who clearly fell in love with her subject while she was researching and writing this book, gives us a compulsively readable (and information packed) account of the life of one of the most fascinating women of the last 150 years. Highly recommended for biography fans, history buffs, or any reader with an interest in the deep background of events playing out in the Middle East today.

'The Grand Complication'

The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil, paperback, 368 pages
The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil's clever and often laugh-out-loud funny second novel, is ostensibly about the search for a watch supposedly made for Marie Antoinette. The main character is Alexander Short, a reference librarian in Manhattan who carries around a notebook "tethered" to his waist just as the monks of old used to carry their journals around. His attachment (literally as well as figuratively) to girdling — obsessively writing notes about everything that occurs to him — is described by his "shrimp" (as Short's French wife refers to his therapist) as "a buffer against shame offering the precarious semblance of order to an emotionally blocked, obsessive young adult male." Despite (or perhaps because of) being obsessive and blocked, he's hired by Henry James Jesson III, a wealthy bibliophile and aesthete, to research the whereabouts of the aforementioned watch. The search wreaks havoc on his relationship with his wife, who doesn't trust Jesson at all.   As you page through this novel, you'll see that Kurzweil has filled this intellectual romp with delightful wordplay, hilarious scenes set in the library (including a contest, "Class Struggle," to see who can attach the correct Dewey Decimal number to the most abstruse subjects — the winner is invariably the building's janitor), a real-life mystery (the actual watch in question, which disappeared in Jerusalem in the 1980s, and has never been found), and some wickedly entertaining characters. A must read (and perfect gift) for anyone who loves books, and most especially anyone who has lately despaired of finding an intelligent and humorous novel to read.

'In the Woods'

In the Woods by Tana French, hardcover, 448 pages
Tana French's intense debut novel, In the Woods, is part whodunit, part psychological thriller (à la Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith), and wholly successful. Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are Dublin police detectives who are called in to investigate the murder of a young girl. For Rob, the murder forces him to remember the central event of his life — the woods where Katy was found are the same woods where his two best childhood friends disappeared. All he remembers from that awful day is that he was found terrorized and traumatized, with his sneakers filled with blood. Following that event, Rob's parents sent him away to boarding school, and when he does return to Ireland to work for the police force near his childhood home in a Dublin suburb, it's with a new name, a posh accent, and a well-hidden secret. Rob has shared his connection to that cold case of the missing and long presumed dead children with only one person: his partner and best friend, Cassie.   As past and present crimes collide uneasily, French's plot twists and turns will bamboozle even the most astute reader, and the scene, close to the end of the novel, in which Cassie interrogates a suspect, will remain in your mind long after you finish the book. Because these characters are so well drawn, I almost wish French would write another novel about them, but a more sensible voice (my own) tells me that it wouldn't be the same and I should just be delighted to have found such a well-written, expertly plotted thriller.

'Then We Came to the End'

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, hardcover, 400 pages
Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End is one of those novels that slowly grew on me. I enjoyed it right from the beginning, but it wasn't until I turned over the last page that I was struck by just how good this first novel really is. The story begins as the economic boom of the 1990s is beginning to head south. The writers and designers in a rapidly failing Chicago ad agency are just waking up to the reality of a world marked first by austerity measures (no flowers in the lobby), and then layoffs and firings, which are known in the agency's parlance as "Walking Spanish down the hall," a reference to pirates' treatment of their prisoners (and a Tom Waits song). Told in the first person plural (the "we" voice is my favorite narrative style when it's done well, as it is here), Ferris' novel is about work and identity — the extent to which we define ourselves by how we make a living — and how people behave (often badly) in the face of change, particularly change for the worse.   There are the rumors flying, the infighting, the paranoia, and the incessant gossip around the water cooler about who's in and who's out, who's doing what to whom, who's going crazy, who's brought a gun to work, who's still showing up at the office (even though he was fired weeks ago), whose marriage won't make it through the downturn, not to mention the endless pettiness. One unforgettable series of scenes involves the machinations the characters go through in order to capture a particularly coveted chair that belonged to one of the first people fired. But Ferris goes beyond the work, exploring how people cope with change. In one very moving section (for which he switches to the third person), he writes with compassion about the ramifications of one character's bout with breast cancer, leavening the inherent oppressiveness of the situation with humor. Reading Then We Came to the End made me feel good about the state of contemporary fiction.

'The Unknown Terrorist'

The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan, hardcover, 336 pages
If what you're looking for is a good beach read, you can safely skip The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan's deeply unsettling new novel. However, if you're interested in first-class writing, a central character whose past and present will tear your heart in two, and a plot that carries you inexorably along to the last sad and awful climactic scene, this is definitely the book for you. In his previous novels, including Gould's Book of Fish, Death of a River Guide, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Flanagan has never shied away from depicting the wretchedness and sorrows of his characters' lives. But his newest novel ratchets things up considerably. The morning after a nightclub pole dancer known as "the Doll" picks up a man named Tariq and spends a cocaine-laced night with him at his apartment, she discovers her face splashed all over television and the newspapers: She's been linked to a group of terrorists rumored to be planning to bomb Sydney's Olympic stadium.   As the media frenzy grows, egged on by a self-serving sleazebag television journalist, and as the police narrow in on her identity and whereabouts, the Doll tries desperately to figure out how to save herself. Should she turn herself in? Can she manage to leave Australia? Once you start this book there's no way to stop reading it, nor do you have any doubt in your mind that there is no way this can end well. You know, with the Doll, that she's "... alone in a world without divine saviors, without rules, a world in which she could see nothing and everyone could see her ... that her life was no longer what she made of it, but what others said it was." And, at that moment, we understand, as the Doll herself understands, her fate.

'After'

After by Jane Hirshfield, paperback, 112 pages
The poems in After, Jane Hirshfield's newest collection, reflect and refract on her Buddhist practice of many years. In these gorgeously wrought poems, each word somehow feels as though it were handmade for the particular purpose of being part of that particular poem. How we experience ourselves, how we experience the world around us, the actual sensations of being in the world, the language we use to describe our experiences, the death of friends, the very lives we choose to live — all of these become part of Hirshfield's poems, transmuted, through her quiet genius, into something very close to wisdom. From the first poem, "After Long Silence," to the last, "It Was Like This: You Were Happy," I predict you won't be able to stop.

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Excerpt: 'Dingley Falls'

by Michael Malone
Jul 24, 2007

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Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.

CHAPTER I

There was something the matter with Judith Haig's heart. That was why she had to quit her job at the post office where she had sorted the lives of Dingley Falls for eleven years. Mrs. Haig was only forty-two years old. She didn't drink or smoke, and she was slim enough to have worn her daughter's clothes if she had had a daughter. So it seemed to be simply bad luck that her heart murmured. She was in Dr. Otto Scaper's office now, waiting to be told how careful she needed to be.

The post office wasn't really the problem. All she did there was raise, then lower the flag, weigh packages and sell stamps, slip into their slots the rare letters and regular government checks that sustained those (very few) too indigent to have homes to which the postman, Alf Marco, could take their mail. The problem was the dogs. Mrs. Haig was afraid of the dogs that lived in the trailer park and gathered in packs to wait for her when she left her home north of the Rampage to cross the bridge into downtown Dingley Falls. Waited to tear out onto the bridge and snarl at her ankles. They never quite bit her. But they scared her, and troubled her heart.

Her husband, John "Hawk" Haig, police chief of Dingley Falls (and the neighboring borough of Madder), did not believe his wife. The one-day he had walked with her to work, there had been no dogs at all on Falls Bridge. They knew that she was afraid of them, and that her husband wasn't, and so they hadn't bothered to come. Mrs. Haig was most afraid of horrible thoughts that she couldn't keep out of her mind. Among them, unavoidable premonitions that these dogs wished and planned to ravage her. This fear, and her belief that the dogs knew she understood what they wanted, she did not tell her husband.

For years Chief Haig had wanted her to quit her job anyhow. Everyone knew there was no reason for her to be working, not with his salary, and with no children to support. And they had their house of fiat new bricks shoved up against the shoulder of the highway above Dingley Falls and Madder. She might as well stay there and enjoy fixing it up.

Now Mrs. Haig watched huge Dr. Scaper come out of his office with the lawyer Winslow Abernathy and pat the patient on his long, thin back. "Well, you never can tell about the heart," roared the seventy four year old physician. "How long you plan to be up in Boston then?"

"Just three days. Meanwhile, I'd rather not let Beanie know about this, I think. I'll give you a call, Otto, thank you." Abernathy nodded his vague, frowning smile at Mrs. Haig, whom he knew from the post office but failed really to see. The door closed quietly behind him.

"Be with you in one minute," Dr. Scaper yelled at Mrs. Haig. "Got to use the facilities." He shuffled over to whisper, "Call of nature, go in there to smoke. Ida here's against it."

Through the sun splintering window next to her desk, the doctor's nurse saw Polly Hedgerow pedal past in a rush of red on her bicycle. "Fifteen years old," sighed Ida Sniffell, "and I don't believe she's thought to buy herself a bra." Judith Haig tried to reply with a smile, but returned to the magazine she wasn't really reading-so she didn't learn that in this Bicentennial year Betty Ford, and other rich and famous women in America, had their problems, too.

Without hands, in a private bravura performance, sixteen year old Polly Hedgerow cruised the freshly tarred rotary that circled the little town green. In its center, a granite Elijah Dingley sat stiffly in his marble chair, and in the stone arms of the statue snuggled Joy Strummer, languidly reading a movie magazine in the shade of a giant copper beech.

Elijah Dingley had founded the town on which he imposed his name three hundred years ago, when he banished himself from Providence, Rhode Island, in disgust at the emotional displays of Roger Williams and on his way to New York, got lost. Dingley Falls was in Connecticut, east of the Hudson and west of Hartford, in low mountains and beautifully situated on the Rampage River, a branch of the Housatonic. Joy Strummer was Polly's best friend.

"Joy!" she yelled as she flew past. Joy's little spaniel jumped up and barked at her.

The pretty town of Dingley Falls was well off and white bricked. Dingleyans had watched the riotous sixties on television and were happy to have missed them. They were proud that in 1976, as all around Great Societies puffed themselves up and blew themselves away, here in Dingley Falls the true America had been safely preserved, like an artifact in a time capsule. They had lost nothing but their elms. Here there were no disaffections, no drugs or delinquency, no pollutants or impoverishments to trouble repose. The town's polities were Republican, its income private, and its houses Federalist. Some of these homes had black shutters, some had gray, and Mrs. Ernest Ransom had painted hers bright orange. Priss Ransom was Mrs. Vincent Canopy's best friend. "Priss has always insisted on defining herself," explained Tracy Canopy.

This morning Polly Hedgerow happened to be on her way to visit the man who, twenty seven years ago, had married Tracy to Vincent Canopy. He was Father Sloan Highwick, Rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and Polly's sidekick. Together they spied, like an unfallen Lear and Cordelia, on who was in, who was out, in their little town. First she circled the green three times, not only to avoid annoying powerful forces, but also to check things out for the Rector. As she pedaled, she panned the white brick and gray slate buildings, the civic and mercantile Stonehenge of Dingley Falls. As far as she could tell, nothing much was going on. The lawyer Mr. Abernathy stood on the sidewalk as if he couldn't remember where he was supposed to go next. Across the green old Miss Lattice scurried to Ransom Bank, probably to get change for her Tea Shoppe. In the doorway of Barnum's Antiques, Hobbies, and Appliances that creepy Mr. Barnum was ogling Joy Strummer, smacking his lips. The Dingley Day office still had a broken window; Mr. Hayes, the editor, didn't seem to care. And at the far end of the green the bespectacled Mrs. Vincent Canopy was driving the right front wheel of her Volvo up onto the curb, where she left it. Mrs. Ernest Ransom got out of the passenger door and laughed.

Leaning into a left turn, Polly sped away from the town center and gathered speed to climb Cromwell Hill. At its top, in his Irish country hat, Father Highwick was pestering his gardener, Sebastian Marco, was trying to transfer Red Sunrise dahlias in the solitude an artist deserves. The Rector had nothing to do, and for sixty six years he had never been able to bear being alone. So while Sebastian grimaced when the girl suddenly rattled into his garden, her wheels scattering his combed gravel, he forgave the barbarity, because as long as she kept Highwick company the gardener could work without having to rebut an erroneous homily on the gardenia or listen to an off key "Cantate Domine."

With the lovely smile of one who has never troubled himself, over life's perplexities, the Rector put an avuncular arm around his young friend; poor only child of a widowed agnostic, he sighed to himself, and with glasses and that unfortunate hair. His own hair, luxuriant and nicely brushed, looked as white and soft as angel's hair on a Christmas tree, and his eyes looked as bright as blue china cups. "Yes, Polly, dear?" he asked.

"There's something the matter with Mrs. Haig's heart," she told him. "That's why she has to quit her job at the post office."

CHAPTER 2

If anyone had asked Dr. Scaper's nurse who were the best housed, best bred, best off women in Dingley Falls, Ida Sniffell would have given the same answer as Father Sloan Highwick, or anyone else familiar with the town's social register. They were "Mrs. Winslow Abernathy. Mrs. Ernest Ransom. Mrs. Vincent Canopy. And oh, yes, Mrs. Blanchard Troyes." Unlike Judith Haig, these ladies did not go to Dr. Scaper with their problems, though Dr. Scaper had, as a very young man, seen three of them into the world. Instead they went to expensive doctors in New York. They went shopping in New York, and they were all best friends.

Mrs. Winslow Abernathy had once been Beanie Dingley. She was still big boned and buxom with generous features, thick, curly hair, and a rich roan coloring. Mrs. Vincent Canopy had once been Tracy Dixwell. She was still short, trim, and square faced, with green apple eyes and owlish glasses. Beanie and Tracy had grown up very pleasantly with petite, pretty Mrs. Blanchard Troyes when she had been, decades ago, petite, pretty Evelyn Goff. "The Three Graces of Dingley Falls," The Dingley Day had called them when they had been photographed embracing one another in their white dresses and huge horsehair hats the day the paper announced their coming out. The Three Graces had since moved through their lives together: Beanie at a healthy stride, Tracy at an efficient clip, and Evelyn in a dreamy float.

Beanie was a Dingley, but the ancestry of Tracy and Evelyn was more broadly distinguished. Beanie's forebear Elijah had, after all, simply founded a little town on the Rampage, while their thrice great-grandfathers Goff and Dixwell had been regicides, and there were still streets in New Haven honoring them for having had the audacity to lop off the head of Charles I and the perspicacity not to be in England when Charles II returned home. Dingley, Dixwell, and Goff were among the best names to grow up with in Dingley Falls, where the girls happened to grow up, so they were invited everywhere, and they went everywhere together. That is, until college. For then, to Tracy and Beanie's sorrow, Evelyn Goff had not come to Mount Holyoke with them. Instead, overcoming familial objections with the deadly tenacity of the fragile, she had floated off to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where she dreamed of singing Mini at the Met. "Evelyn has always confused life with an opera," explained Tracy at the time. "But oh, gosh, Tracy, we'll miss her," said Beanie.

At Mount Holyoke an elegant Bostonian had been drawn into the gap of the Graces. Her name was Priss (Priscilla) Hancock. Soon, with her tall glamour (all chic and sharp angles) and her ironic festiveness, Priss replaced the absent moony Evelyn as Tracy's confidante. And though the lacrosse playing Beanie was not exactly Priss's type, one could not be Tracy's friend without taking along her childhood companion, rather like as Priss said to someone else dragging out in public a shy St. Bernard. So for four years Tracy, Beanie, and Priss majored in French together and danced the fox trot and did their hair like Ann Sheridan. They all got married to men who had been officers in the war. First Beanie eloped with Winslow Abernathy, to her mother's disappointment (she'd hoped for a big wedding) and relief (she'd feared Beanie was too big to catch a man). Then Priss, in a moment of spite against a professor with whom she was infatuated, accepted the third and probably final proposal of Ernest Ransom, who had been Winslow Abernathy's roommate at Yale. Finally Tracy married Vincent Canopy of Manhattan, with Beanie and Priss as matrons of honor. The romantic Evelyn had already surprised them again by running off with her Italian violin instructor at the Peabody Institute, Hugo Eroica. He went to fight in the war, too, but, apparently, on the wrong side, leaving Evelyn alone and unwed in Paris, where, before her parents could rescue her, she met and married Blanchard Troyes, a French industrialist. Only after Troyes's death had she finally floated home to Dingley Falls.

There she found that her old friend Tracy (Dixwell Canopy) was also at home alone, because her husband, Vincent, had died and it made no sense to maintain a townhouse in Manhattan too. She found that her old friend Beanie (Dingley Abernathy) was home as well, because she'd made Winslow the lawyer for her railroad and her Optical Instruments factory. And there Evelyn found a new friend, Priscilla (Hancock Ransom), because Ernest Ransom, a native Dingleyan, was president of the Ransom Bank and the most influential man in town. So the Three Graces (with Priss added) were back together. They lived on Elizabeth Circle, they gave each other dinner parties, they played bridge and a little golf and tennis at the Dingley Club, they took one of Beanie's trains into Manhattan every Wednesday to see shows and shops and occasionally doctors. They had numbers of projects and belonged to many organizations. On Mondays, like today, they held meetings of the Thespian Ladies Club.

Now, over daiquiris at The Prim Minster, their efficient club president, Tracy Canopy, was reading aloud: "The Stabbo Massacrism Band, which in the last year has frenzied young British audiences with its filthy talk and spittle, found their entire tour canceled Thursday when towns throughout the United Kingdom learned of their having vomited on a member of the Royal Family during a private performance following the marriage of the Earl of Swithorne's daughter to the son of Sheikh Qaru of Grosvenor Square. "Rock and roll is all very well," commented the best man, George St. George Albans, "but really!" The bride's mother, Lady "Babs" Howard, wearing a quilted evening gown of embroidered pink and mauve roses, appeared a picture of composure as she was carried to her waiting limousine midst the enthusiastic cheers of loyal onlookers. Many of the hostile villagers then stayed at the estate gates to boo the first American superstars of thug rock, who defiantly pantomimed sexual perversities at them until removed by local constables.'

"Now really, indeed." Mrs. Canopy paused indignantly, looking over her glasses, then took up another clipping. "And just yesterday." She gave them now news closer to home. "In Argyle, listen to this: 'An elderly vagrant, who gave his name as Old Tim Hines, was arrested and held without bail Sunday, charged with molesting five suburban preschoolers, having first gained their trust by tap dancing for them with beer bottle caps tacked to his loafers. "Old Tim's nice," maintained one of the alleged victims, whose name was not disclosed.'

"Art is being sexually abused," concluded Mrs. Canopy, who, since her widowhood, had given her heart over to Art.

"Art who?" asked the playful Priss Ransom.

"Oh, dear, I hope not," sighed Mrs. Blanchard Troyes, ne Evelyn Goff, briefly of the Peabody Institute.

"I don't know what," confessed the president, her jaw as stubborn as Woodrow Wilson's. "But something must be done to save Art for future generations. Here we are in the most idealistic country in the world, but how can we hold up the torch to other nations if the torch is covered, well, if it is covered with spittle?"

The heart of Mrs. Canopy had been before jostled but not dislodged from its place in line before the ticket booth of Art, where she had faithfully stood alone since the main curtain of Life, as the Rector put it, had fallen on Vincent seven years ago. After Mr. Canopy had died in the reception line of their twentieth wedding anniversary celebration, Tracy had lent out to homeless painters their townhouse in Manhattan, that city to whose insatiable Art she and her husband had fed so many thousands of unearned dollars. Nor, to this day, could mistrust of her faith disabuse her: the masterpiece of Habzi Rabies, a Pakistani painter who had hocked her car for hash and then set fire to the summer house on Lake Pissinowno that she had lent him, the masterpiece for which she had provided both the money and the medium, continued to hang over the mantel of her Dingley Falls living room. Fingerpaint on a Widow's Fur was its title. "The primitivism of a child. So unspoiled," said Mrs. Canopy. "Sad the same is no longer true of your Russian sable," joked the sarcastic Priss to Beanie Abernathy with a wink. "What?" asked Beanie, who never got a joke.

"Artists are different from you and me," Mrs. Canopy always explained. She herself indulged in a little pot throwing and even wrote poems, which she placed in the finished pots and left on the Dingley Falls doorsteps of her many acquaintances. But she made no claims to Art and was not given to those excesses she allowed the Gifted. Nor did her concern today about this "sexual abuse" of Art derive from a squeamishness that might seem compatible with her age and heritage. Mrs. Canopy went staunchly off to be raped, by Art once a week. She was not afraid of Virginia Woolf, and while Oh! Calcutta! had cost her an involuntary struggle, she'd never let out a. scream. Neither was violence any less supportable. Ushers had carried away far younger than she when Porko Fulawhiski disemboweled himself with a palette knife in Dead on Red: Final Appearance of a One Man Sbow in SoHo.

What was it then that so disturbed her now about these clippings of Old Tim Hines and a relative of the Queen, the latter of whom she planned to lunch with this summer at the Waldorf across a crowded room of some seven hundred other Bicentennialists? "Mr. Nines may or may not be; but that band just simply isn't sincere. Or maybe I'm just getting old," she suggested with a brisk sigh. The cutouts describing the cutups of Hines and the Stabbo Massacrism Band introduced today's topic, "Sexuality and the Arts." Their guest speaker was Mr. Rich Rage, an obscene poet hailed by The Village Voice as "The. Baudelaire of the Bathroom Wall" who was also a visiting instructor of creative writing at Vassar College, where he had been obligingly seducing his class in roughly, alphabetical order. By the term's end he had progressed as far as the R's, which is how young Kate Ransom had persuaded him to come overnight to Dingley Falls both of them mildly anticipating her capitulation. Mrs. Canopy did not know of this private inducement; neither, for that matter, did Priss Ransom, who had lost track of her daughter Kate's maturation some years back.

Rage swallowed a roll whole, rose to his feet, and spoke from his heart. "Ladies, look, you gotta spread your legs, raise your knees, and open your cunts to art. Fuck the brain. Until art comes inside you so hard, the come shoots out your nose and ears, you haven't had art, and art hasn't had you. Now that's what Wordsworth and Coleridge said, and that's all that needs to be said, you follow me?"

"I think so, Mr. Rage," said the valiant Mrs. Canopy, whose memory searched in vain through a college course for anything resembling such startling remarks by the Lake Poets. Beanie Abernathy bit through the toothpick in her chicken club.

When Rage finished his brief but vibrant "Stare Up the Asshole of Art," he tossed all the half eaten sandwiches and fruit cups forgotten by the ladies in their attentiveness into his green canvas bag and flung it over his broad tweed shoulder. "Nobody ever finishes their food! The freedom to waste, that is definitely one of the glories of America!"

"Are you a Socialist then?" asked Mrs. Canopy, her eyes behind the round glasses as bright as flags. She was ready to bear it if he were.

"Oh, hell, no. I'm a monarchist. Love the House of Hanover and especially the hemophiliacs."

"No, please," said Beanie Abernathy, slipping her long feet back into her low heeled shoes. She had just been told by Tracy Canopy to escort Mr. Rage on a tour of the town until time for him to meet Kate Ransom at the Dingley Club. Tracy herself had to take to the Argyle bus station, seven miles away, a visiting Lebanese music student who had seen America for ninety nine days and was now going home. Tracy asked Beanie to drive Rage first to the post office, where he needed to mail some student grades, and then guide him through as much of historic Dingley Falls as he cared to see.

"Tracy, Prissie, Evelyn, don't leave me alone with him," Beanie bent to whisper at her friends. She stared at the poet in his warm brown turtleneck that was the color of his eyes. From across the room, where he was selling copies of his book, he grinned at her. His hair and beard looked like curly wheat.

"Oh, Beanie, don't he silly." Priss laughed. "Winslow won't mind. And you're bigger than Mr. Rage is anyhow." Indeed, Beanie was Juno esque of face and figure. Her form had been a drawback at twenty, except for her serving as goalie on the Mount Holyoke lacrosse team, but thirty two years later, age had finally caught up with her features, and now Mrs. Abernathy was quite something to see, though she'd never seen it. She still hunched over at cocktail parties to shorten herself, just as she had shrunk into a corner at birthday parties in the sixth grade.

"You take Mr. Rage then, Evelyn," Mrs. Canopy instructed the wispy Mrs. Troyes, as the group followed her into The Prim Minster's parking lot.

"Oh, I am so sorry, Tracy, but really I can't because I've already arranged to drive Father Fields to Argyle for his new contact lenses. Beanie, please, forgive me, I'm sure it will be fun, but I'm already late." And without waiting, Evelyn rushed to her Chrysler New Yorker. They saw her lovely prematurely blue gray head peering through the steering wheel as she shot out of the parking space and sped to an assignation with Reverend Highwick's beautiful young curate, Jonathan Fields.

"Fuck, that broad can drive!" whistled Rich Rage, who appreciated talent wherever he found it.

"Mrs. Troyes lived in Paris for twenty years," Tracy explained.

The lot emptied, except for Mr. Rage and Mrs. Abernathy and a stray dog, whose head Beanie scratched as she stalled for time. The dog, one of the pack that frightened Judith Haig, pushed his head up under Beanie's hand.

"Looks like they stuck you with me, huh?" Rage smiled. "Sorry," he shrugged. "Looks like we'll have to make the best of it."

"Yes. I guess if you'll follow me," mumbled Mrs. Abernathy, the unwilling guide, as she led him to her car.

"Love it!" grinned the agreeable poet.

Copyright 1980, 2002 by Michael Malone

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About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

'Dingley Falls'

Dingley Falls by Michael Malone, paperback, 640 pages
One of my favorite novels was written more than a quarter-century ago, and yet each time I read it, which I do every couple of years, I fall in love with it all over again. Michael Malone has written many terrific novels, including Foolscap, Time's Witness and Handling Sin, but for some reason it's Dingley Falls that I go back to time and time again. For me, Dingley Falls is the uber-soap opera as novel, or novel as soap opera — take your pick (this makes a lot of sense because for many years Malone was one of the writers on that uber-television soap opera One Life to Live). It's one of those novels in which you're immediately drawn into the world the author has created, so that when the book ends — and it's not a short book by any means, thank goodness — you're left feeling bereft, as though you've somehow been banished from a familiar and well-loved place.   The seemingly bucolic Dingley Falls, Conn. (the sort of town in which being a nut and an egghead are nearly synonymous, Malone tells us), is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the year of its founding, and strange events are occurring. Love is on everyone's mind, as are a series of very nasty anonymous letters, strange lights in the sky and an uncommonly large number of deaths from heart failure. Evil is afoot in Dingley Falls, and no one is quite sure what to do about it, except, perhaps, 16-year-old Polly Hedgerow, who's wiser than her years might indicate. The novel is a bit racy in places, with some somewhat raunchy sex occurring both behind closed doors and in the woods surrounding the town, but Malone's descriptions are offered in such good humor that it's all simply irresistible. And how could you not love a book that begins not only with a map, but also a four-page alphabetical listing of all the characters, with short identifying phrases: Sidney Blossom — town librarian and former hippie; Louie Daytona — gorgeous bisexual sculptor and ex-convict befriended by Tracy Canopy; and Polly Hedgerow herself — a bookworm, gossip, and sleuth.

'Gertrude Bell'

Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell, hardcover, 481 pages
Gertrude Bell has been called both the female Lawrence of Arabia and the woman who invented Iraq. Both descriptions, as we learn from Georgina Howell's riveting biography, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, are justified but they suggest only a part of this remarkable woman's life. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she had a life full of firsts for her gender: she was the first woman to achieve a First in Modern History at Oxford; the first to win a prize from the Royal Geographical Society; and the first female British intelligence officer. After graduating from Oxford, she visited Tehran, and, much as T.E. Lawrence did, fell in love with the Middle East. Gertrude Bell ended up devoting a good portion of her life to understanding the region's complexities and shaping its future. (She was also an intrepid mountain climber — there's a pulse-pounding account here of one of her ascents in the Alps. Plus, she organized the care of the wounded in France during World War I, and, somewhat surprisingly, spoke out passionately against women's suffrage in England.)   She taught herself to speak and read Arabic and Persian and, in the years leading up to World War I, explored the desert terrain by camel, always accompanied by a devoted group of servants who toted along everything that might be needed by a proper British lady on such a journey, including pistols, a canvas bath, tea sets (one imagines they were Spode, or Wedgwood), evening gowns, fur stoles, and Zeiss telescopes to serve as gifts to the tribal leaders she met along the way. Following the War to End All Wars, she drew up, on behalf of the British government, the boundaries of a new country to be carved out of the sands of Mesopotamia, and picked Faisal, son of a tribal chief from Mecca, to be Iraq's first king. Howell, who clearly fell in love with her subject while she was researching and writing this book, gives us a compulsively readable (and information packed) account of the life of one of the most fascinating women of the last 150 years. Highly recommended for biography fans, history buffs, or any reader with an interest in the deep background of events playing out in the Middle East today.

'The Grand Complication'

The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil, paperback, 368 pages
The Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil's clever and often laugh-out-loud funny second novel, is ostensibly about the search for a watch supposedly made for Marie Antoinette. The main character is Alexander Short, a reference librarian in Manhattan who carries around a notebook "tethered" to his waist just as the monks of old used to carry their journals around. His attachment (literally as well as figuratively) to girdling — obsessively writing notes about everything that occurs to him — is described by his "shrimp" (as Short's French wife refers to his therapist) as "a buffer against shame offering the precarious semblance of order to an emotionally blocked, obsessive young adult male." Despite (or perhaps because of) being obsessive and blocked, he's hired by Henry James Jesson III, a wealthy bibliophile and aesthete, to research the whereabouts of the aforementioned watch. The search wreaks havoc on his relationship with his wife, who doesn't trust Jesson at all.   As you page through this novel, you'll see that Kurzweil has filled this intellectual romp with delightful wordplay, hilarious scenes set in the library (including a contest, "Class Struggle," to see who can attach the correct Dewey Decimal number to the most abstruse subjects — the winner is invariably the building's janitor), a real-life mystery (the actual watch in question, which disappeared in Jerusalem in the 1980s, and has never been found), and some wickedly entertaining characters. A must read (and perfect gift) for anyone who loves books, and most especially anyone who has lately despaired of finding an intelligent and humorous novel to read.

'In the Woods'

In the Woods by Tana French, hardcover, 448 pages
Tana French's intense debut novel, In the Woods, is part whodunit, part psychological thriller (à la Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith), and wholly successful. Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are Dublin police detectives who are called in to investigate the murder of a young girl. For Rob, the murder forces him to remember the central event of his life — the woods where Katy was found are the same woods where his two best childhood friends disappeared. All he remembers from that awful day is that he was found terrorized and traumatized, with his sneakers filled with blood. Following that event, Rob's parents sent him away to boarding school, and when he does return to Ireland to work for the police force near his childhood home in a Dublin suburb, it's with a new name, a posh accent, and a well-hidden secret. Rob has shared his connection to that cold case of the missing and long presumed dead children with only one person: his partner and best friend, Cassie.   As past and present crimes collide uneasily, French's plot twists and turns will bamboozle even the most astute reader, and the scene, close to the end of the novel, in which Cassie interrogates a suspect, will remain in your mind long after you finish the book. Because these characters are so well drawn, I almost wish French would write another novel about them, but a more sensible voice (my own) tells me that it wouldn't be the same and I should just be delighted to have found such a well-written, expertly plotted thriller.

'Then We Came to the End'

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, hardcover, 400 pages
Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End is one of those novels that slowly grew on me. I enjoyed it right from the beginning, but it wasn't until I turned over the last page that I was struck by just how good this first novel really is. The story begins as the economic boom of the 1990s is beginning to head south. The writers and designers in a rapidly failing Chicago ad agency are just waking up to the reality of a world marked first by austerity measures (no flowers in the lobby), and then layoffs and firings, which are known in the agency's parlance as "Walking Spanish down the hall," a reference to pirates' treatment of their prisoners (and a Tom Waits song). Told in the first person plural (the "we" voice is my favorite narrative style when it's done well, as it is here), Ferris' novel is about work and identity — the extent to which we define ourselves by how we make a living — and how people behave (often badly) in the face of change, particularly change for the worse.   There are the rumors flying, the infighting, the paranoia, and the incessant gossip around the water cooler about who's in and who's out, who's doing what to whom, who's going crazy, who's brought a gun to work, who's still showing up at the office (even though he was fired weeks ago), whose marriage won't make it through the downturn, not to mention the endless pettiness. One unforgettable series of scenes involves the machinations the characters go through in order to capture a particularly coveted chair that belonged to one of the first people fired. But Ferris goes beyond the work, exploring how people cope with change. In one very moving section (for which he switches to the third person), he writes with compassion about the ramifications of one character's bout with breast cancer, leavening the inherent oppressiveness of the situation with humor. Reading Then We Came to the End made me feel good about the state of contemporary fiction.

'The Unknown Terrorist'

The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan, hardcover, 336 pages
If what you're looking for is a good beach read, you can safely skip The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan's deeply unsettling new novel. However, if you're interested in first-class writing, a central character whose past and present will tear your heart in two, and a plot that carries you inexorably along to the last sad and awful climactic scene, this is definitely the book for you. In his previous novels, including Gould's Book of Fish, Death of a River Guide, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Flanagan has never shied away from depicting the wretchedness and sorrows of his characters' lives. But his newest novel ratchets things up considerably. The morning after a nightclub pole dancer known as "the Doll" picks up a man named Tariq and spends a cocaine-laced night with him at his apartment, she discovers her face splashed all over television and the newspapers: She's been linked to a group of terrorists rumored to be planning to bomb Sydney's Olympic stadium.   As the media frenzy grows, egged on by a self-serving sleazebag television journalist, and as the police narrow in on her identity and whereabouts, the Doll tries desperately to figure out how to save herself. Should she turn herself in? Can she manage to leave Australia? Once you start this book there's no way to stop reading it, nor do you have any doubt in your mind that there is no way this can end well. You know, with the Doll, that she's "... alone in a world without divine saviors, without rules, a world in which she could see nothing and everyone could see her ... that her life was no longer what she made of it, but what others said it was." And, at that moment, we understand, as the Doll herself understands, her fate.

'After'

After by Jane Hirshfield, paperback, 112 pages
The poems in After, Jane Hirshfield's newest collection, reflect and refract on her Buddhist practice of many years. In these gorgeously wrought poems, each word somehow feels as though it were handmade for the particular purpose of being part of that particular poem. How we experience ourselves, how we experience the world around us, the actual sensations of being in the world, the language we use to describe our experiences, the death of friends, the very lives we choose to live — all of these become part of Hirshfield's poems, transmuted, through her quiet genius, into something very close to wisdom. From the first poem, "After Long Silence," to the last, "It Was Like This: You Were Happy," I predict you won't be able to stop.

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