ABLUTIONS: Notes for a Novel by Patrick deWitt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23.
“Discuss the regulars,” begins Patrick deWitt’s slim debut. Many paragraphs in Ablutions start this way: “Discuss your wife,” says the book’s third section. In deWitt’s second-person prose, a nameless bartender in a fading L.A. bar watches the downward spiral of his colleagues, his customers and himself, his eye sharp and unforgiving, even when he’s drunk. Jameson Irish whiskey fuels a skid that eventually finds the bartender left by his wife and ostracized by the regulars whose flaws are all too apparent to the man behind the bar. DeWitt’s characters are disasters, their lives ruins of drink, drugs, poor decisions and the occasional burst of sex or violence.
DeWitt’s constant use of “you” is consuming and instructive: You look because he tells you to, not because you want to. Discuss the brevity, the terseness of deWitt’s narrator’s view of the world; discuss the way his whiskey-soaked, exhausted, not-yet-hopeless mind finds things to imagine or latch on to, from a car’s magical powers to a lonesome horse to a bottle-rattling ghost. Discuss the way these things modestly and quietly sustain the bartender, their existence a crack in his life’s darkness. Discuss the way everyone in this book is a mess, and often a deeply unpleasant mess, yet you still want everything to come out all right. Discuss compassion and ill regard, and the odd way deWitt places them hand in hand, marching grimly and surely through his spare pages. — Molly Templeton
ASTA IN THE WINGS by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Tin House Books, $14.
Asta Hewitt is 7 years old. But Asta’s narration, in Jan Elizabeth Watson’s debut novel, is that of neither child nor adult. Her voice rests in both places: a girl learning new words and a grown woman considering the strangeness of her childhood. Asta, her brother Orion and their mother live in an isolated house in Maine, the windows papered over, the doors carefully locked against the sickness their mother says is outside. “There are times when we must take actions that are entirely of our own making,” their overprotective, deluded mother — who’s been reading As You Like It — says on the day she doesn’t come home on time, setting in motion Asta and Orion’s awkward exodus. The outside world, snowy and full of people, is confusing, mean and strange — not what Mother said, but not entirely unlike her stories, either.
Hovering around Asta is the small media circus the siblings’ emergence into the world conjures up, but Watson barely glances at the story from an outside viewpoint, ignoring the sensationalist possibilities in favor of her main character’s steady and unusual voice. Resourceful, young, bright, wide-eyed and imaginative, Asta picks her way carefully through a world she’s never been prepared for, her viewpoint precise, her missteps inevitable as she begins to see the gap between the world her mother created and the world in which she and Orion have to live. Watson’s story sends her young heroine from an extraordinary existence into the incredible, ordinary world, and her novel reaches unexpected heights in the process. — Molly Templeton
BOILERPLATE: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett. Abrams, $24.95.
In this beautiful coffee table tome, Portland-based husband-and wife team Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett have created a steampunk visual confection serving as both a charming sci-fi adventure and a gentle antiwar polemic. Imagine a straight-faced history of Gilded Age America, with one weird addition: a clanking, pacifist Tin Man-inspired robot.
Like his namesake text from the printing world, Boilerplate the android can be inserted into virtually any situation. The book excels when presenting (manipulated) historical photos and (make believe) movie posters and postcards. Here’s Boilerplate at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; there’s Boilerplate searching for gold in the Klondike; this is Boilerplate ready to take on the Germans in WWI, and so on.
If it sounds strange — and it does — that’s only because Guinan and Bennett are so completely, wonderfully, geekily absorbed in the alternate history they’re piloting that the reader can’t help but go along for the pneumatic, steam-powered ride. Along the way the book explores (and quietly critiques) a great deal of real American history … or does it? In the chapter on Teddy Roosevelt and Boilerplate leading the charge in the Battle of San Juan Hill, for example, which episodes are real, and which imagined? The effect is as engaging as it is disorienting.
Boilerplate makes a great gift for adults who appreciate being immersed in a fantasy world just a shade removed from our own, or maybe even for a precocious, robot-crazed kid ready to graduate from the George Lucas empire. There are worse ways to learn about, and reflect on, our nation’s past. — Aaron Ragan-Fore
BONESHAKER by Cherie Priest.Tor, $15.99.
Cherie Priest’s latest novel is a zombie steampunk Western alternate history family adventure — one that tumbles forward with as much zombie-killing, machine-inventing, history-tweaking charm as such a book should contain. In 1863, inventor Leviticus Blue created a machine meant to drill for gold in the Klondike. But its maiden voyage tore through downtown Seattle, emptying bank vaults and opening a vein of “blight gas” that turned everyone who breathed it too long into a rotter, mindless and ravenous. Downtown was quickly walled off — so quickly that some folks were left behind.
Sixteen later, Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, finds herself heading into the walled city after her son, Zeke, who wants to clear his father’s name. Family history both helps and hinders Briar and Zeke once they’re inside Seattle’s 200-foot walls, where a ragtag population resides: a community of Chinamen, a handful of loners, a tough-as-nails barkeep and her regulars and a mysterious inventor are among those surviving in the dead city. Refreshingly, Priest’s characters are always quite prepared for rotter attacks; no idiot behavior here, except by an old drunk or two. While a few of the elements of Boneshaker’s plot slip almost too neatly into place, Priest keeps things moving at a gripping and breakneck pace (in perfectly appropriate sepia-toned ink, no less). Her unusual mother-son protagonists are refreshing; her rewrite of Seattle history is clever; the creative ways the outsider populace find to exist in a deadly, neglected city are inventive and their face-offs with the rotters get downright scary. Dreadnought, a second book set in what Priest calls the Clockwork Century, is due next year. It can’t come soon enough. — Molly Templeton
by Colm Toíbín. Scribner, $25.
Toíbín’s genius work The Master and his affecting, gorgeous short story collection Mothers and Sons didn’t prepare me for this rather more conventional novel that ends with bleak disconnection. The tale of Eilis, a young Irish immigrant, Brooklyn seems at first to have a 19th-century setting — a familiar narrative of a Catholic girl propelled by her sister and a priest into leaving rural Ireland for the U.S. and employment in an Irish enclave in New York. That confusion in time becomes part of Toíbín’s underlying point: A young Irish woman living in the late 1950s still had few choices. Her days in Brooklyn were surveyed and controlled by everyone from her bosses to the boarding-house mother to the same priest who brought her to the States.
This oddly Foucauldian existence, in the midst of the teeming, busy city, doesn’t give Eilis much freedom, not even when events conspire to take her back home again for a bit. She’s a different person after a couple of years in the U.S., but her social class hasn’t really changed. In a way, she hasn’t really changed either: She still can’t say, or do, what she wants; she can’t form connections; she can’t figure out how to deal with hard choices. Toíbín’s lovely evocation of 1950s Brooklyn (oh, the Dodgers!) goes some way toward alleviating the grating nature of his narrator and her situation, but by the end, I only hoped that in a few years, Eilis would start reading Betty Friedan — and making nearly a century’s leap in seizing her own destiny. — Suzi Steffen
THE DEATH OF BUNNY MUNRO by Nick Cave. Faber & Faber, $25.
Bunny Munro sells beauty products by appointment, but his real pursuit is sex, real or imagined. His grasp on reality is already tenuous, and following the suicide of his wife, Bunny must somehow care for his 9-year-old son, of whom he is only dimly aware most of the time.
After his wife’s death, their house becomes a creepy monument to Bunny’s guilt over his endless, disgusting exploitations. He senses his wife’s presence in every corner, even through a heavy haze of drugs and alcohol. So he does the only thing he can — he and Bunny Junior hit the road, with his customer list in tow. We know from the title and from Nick Cave’s music with the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds that this won’t end well.
While father and son drive into their future, we follow the pair to a painful confrontation with Bunny’s father, Bunny Senior. The news media follow a knife-wielding murderer in red face paint and plastic devil horns as he accosts women throughout northern England. Though he appears in only a few sentences, this man brings the hope of redemption to even the demented Bunny. And when Bunny finally meets his demise, we can’t help but feel sympathetic. But the most tender moments of the book are the views of Bunny Junior — no matter how wretched his dad gets or how scary the other adults are, Bunny Junior’s love remains pure. — Vanessa Salvia
THE EARTH HUMS IN B FLAT by Mari Strachan. Canongate, $14.
Welsh librarian Mari Strachan’s debut novel is distinctly set in a tiny Welsh village in the 1950s. 12-year-old Gwenni Morgan is a curious, observant, honest girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman. Her best friend is growing up faster, but Gwenni still thinks boys are unpleasant and believes she can fly. It’s during a nighttime flight that Gwenni sees a man floating in the baptism pool — an image that stays with her as things in her small town shift in strange ways. A local man disappears, and Gwenni wants to know what happened — not just where he went, but why people act as they do when he’s gone. Why will no one help her investigate Ifan Evans’ disappearance? Why does his fate so rattle her mother? Why is Mum so concerned with people thinking Gwenni is odd? When answers come, they tumble free a bit too quickly; the end of Strachan’s novel is a tangle of family history come to light a bit more easily than is believable. But what’s revealed isn’t easy at all.
Gwenni is full of possibility, prone to plain-speaking and learning, painfully, why adults tend to tuck away the truth in what they say. In Strachan’s confident, lyrical novel, she beings to understand the shifty, hidden language of adulthood — a language which sometimes has to be translated into the simplest terms in order to tell the most painful stories. — Molly Templeton
FLYGIRL by Sherri L. Smith. Putnam, $16.99.
War disrupts nations — and sometimes presents opportunities. In this work of young adult fiction, Ida Mae Jones, a light-skinned 18-year-old African-American farm girl, gets the chance to fly. Ida Mae learned crop-dusting from her daddy, whose death still hurts, and she longs to get out of her small town. The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) might offer her that opportunity, but at a high cost. Only white women get to be WASPs.
Ida Mae’s denial of her history, her self-policing, her nervousness about her hair and any hint of sun on her skin, cut to the bone, but worse is when her mother has to bring her some bad news. And there’s more. Like this year’s fantastic (and infuriating) nonfiction Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone, this work of fiction lays it out: Women pilots deal with a lot of shit from men who think they own the sky. Flygirl makes for a riveting tale that melds war history with one young woman’s guts, spunk and strength, delivering plenty of info about the WASP program along the way. — Suzi Steffen
A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore. Knopf, $25.95. A New York Times Top 10 Book of 2009.
Lorrie Moore is as identified with the short story as, say, the late Raymond Carver and the very much still alive Alice Munro. The short form, with its condensations and singular oomph, is the wry and observant Moore’s forte, her natural haunt. It’s been more than a decade, however, since Birds of America, the collection that many consider Moore’s best yet; that book, which contained one indisputable masterpiece in “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” found the author walking a tightrope between her innate cheekiness and the pathos of domestic drama. It was a stunning anthology, a comedy of manners for a smart but emotionally paralyzed generation of women flailing at love, marriage and parenthood.
So, after a decade of virtual silence save for some appearances in the New Yorker, what does Moore do? She releases A Gate at the Stairs, a sprawling, compelling but wildly uneven novel. The book registers as a coming-of-age epic that centers on the jarring experiences of Tassie Keltjin, a lonely college student returned to her Midwest family farm. On something of a lark, she decides to take work as a nanny for an eccentric and mysterious couple who, it turns out, are in the process of adoption. What ensues are a series of often shaggy dog revelations and romantic misadventures that propel Tassie into a kind of Salingeresque crisis, which includes involvement with a boyfriend who may be a terrorist and discovery of the deep, dark secret behind her employers’ adopting an African-American baby. Moore is a gimlet-eyed and hilariously funny satirist, and portions of the book contain some of her best writing. “They were sometimes interesting,” Tassie observes of children. “I admired their stamina and candor.”
If the book remains for the most part engaging, it also hits more than a few snags; momentum goes slack when it’s clearly meant to quicken, and Moore sometimes loses her grip on the empathic identifications that tempered her rapier wit, and made her previous skewering of certain characters both humorous and eye opening. — Rick Levin
MY ABANDONMENT by Peter Rock. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22.
Father just wants to be in the wilderness. Thirteen-year old Caroline just wants to be with Father. They are professional wanderers, Caroline and Father, survivors of urban forests, abandoned hotels and other wastelands.
When Peter Rock’s book opens, Caroline and Father live in a nature preserve outside of Portland, only venturing into the city once a week for groceries. When a passing jogger ruins their isolation, they’re living in idyllic, post-modern organic bliss with a nearly complete library of encyclopedias, a home underground and a garden. With the jogger comes the rest of the world. Caroline and Father flee from wilderness to wilderness, from both real and imaginary pursuers.
My Abandonment, inspired and informed by a true story, is beautiful, sad and provoking. Seen through the eyes of the perceptive but still young and confused Caroline, the landscapes and the people are dizzying, frightening and ambiguous. This is a book that reminds me why I don’t wander into dark, abandoned places in the middle of the night by myself. All the lost people of the world are waiting there somewhere, and life is never as simple, good versus evil, as we’d like it to be. — Katie Wilson
A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN by Kate Walbert. Scribner, $24. A New York Times Top 10 Book of 2009.
A Short History of Women is a short history of sacrifice. “Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far. Mum said she had no choice,” begins Evelyn Charlotte Townsend, whose dying Mum, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, haunts the pages and the generations of Kate Walbert’s novel-in-stories. The first Dorothy’s sacrifice is clear, confrontational and mocked by friends and community. As the years go by, each successive generation sacrifices something else, often something more nebulous: a sense of possibility, a life unlived, a connection, a career, love. These choices are not overwrought, overworked or overthought, but simply part of life.
As Walbert traces through five generations of Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s descendents, she sustains a tone beautifully described by The New York Times Book Review, where Leah Hager Cohen noted that “Her writing wears both its intelligence and its ideology lightly.” In long, comma-laden, thoughtful sentences, Walbert circles around the internal lives of women during more than a century, setting their individual concerns against moments in history. The political is the personal, and the personal is fraught, complicated and uncertain for the Townsend women, even though they’re upper middle class, comfortable, privileged (race and class appear briefly in the life of Dorothy Townsend Barrett, at a feminist “rap session” in the ’70s during which her host is oblivious to the hypocrisy of shouting instructions at her black employee while seated white women talk about their lives).
Other lives are spun into these women’s stories, threaded through Walbert’s sentences and phrases like a carefully patterened rug. Often, those other lives are male: Father Fairfield, caught in a few instants in Evelyn’s recounting; Georgie, a husband who tells his wife, the day after marrying her, that he prefers men; Stephen Pope, with whom Evelyn has an unusual partnership for decades. The men make their sacrifices and their contributions in the margins and between the lines — pushed to the side, but never pushed aside completely. Though her book is brief, Walbert’s accomplishment seems monumental, the way the she moves from the Victorian shunting aside of women — a man gives a speech that shares a title with her book, as if he could actually sum up the history of women, dismissive and aloof, in an hour or so — to the tiny details of 20-year-old Dora’s present-day Facebook page, on which she is interested in men and women, and her heroes are almost all heroines, all the way back to her grandmother. “Color me Revolutionary,” she says. — Molly Templeton
THE SONG IS YOU by Arthur Phillips. Random House, $25. A New York Times Notable Book of 2009.
Phillips’ fourth novel is a gorgeously written, sharp and funny tale about music and aging that sags at the end, becoming another mid-life crisis novel about a wealthy white dude. But until then, it’s 80 percent joy, silly made-up band names aside. Julian, a 40-something, obsessive iPod listener whose wife left him after their young son died, happens across young, Irish singer-songwriter Cait O’Dwyer playing in a Brooklyn bar. Julian — who as a commercial director knows something about making people want things — leaves a set of coasters on which are drawn cartoons that explain how Cait might further her music and her career. When one of her new songs references a phrase the tipsy Julian scrawled on one coaster — “Bleaker and Obliquer” — they’re both hooked. He does his best to be her muse, at a remove; she continues her upward spiral, a smart, talented woman whose insecurities manifest in strange ways. They trade hints, lures, suggestions, drawing closer together, their unlikely relationship formed on the unreliable basis of pop music, a subject about which Phillips is sometimes painfully apt. He gets inside the skin of all of us who have ever found a piece of music speaking directly, uncomfortably, to us; he appreciates that feeling and understands the absurdity of it at once. The Song is You is a fan’s book and a music lover’s book — and the story of a relationship so precarious it can only thrive at a remove, the truth of it caught in the lyrics of a song. — Molly Templeton
BANG DITTO by Amber Tamblyn. Manic D Press, $16.
Amber Tamblyn says her book is about discovery, exploration, charting the uncharted and correcting the old maps. She writes about her family (“My mother is the news anchor / never allowing me to escape her natural disaster”), about her life as an actress (“my face runs its own nonprofit organization / to help my cheeks raise awareness / and fight laugh lines”), about studying for parts, about checking out Scientology (“I found myself entering the shack where actors get fixed: the Scientology Center of Toronto”) and about being her own particular version of female, as she sees herself and how others see her.
Tamblyn does not write easy poems. The book runs to 128 pages, each page filled with text: a lot of poem. Her metaphors are at once obvious and entwined. You can smell the deeply personal on them, and sometimes she lets you in. Other times, she releases such a fog of words and juxtapositions you know she has to be out there laughing while you stumble around trying to make sense of it all.
Entertaining, illuminating, and (oh gosh) inspiring, the poems are worth a few stumbles. — Katie Wilson