Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What's on My Night Stand These Days

I've been on a bit of a fiction run with my reading lately. Just finished reading Adam Haslett's novel Union Atlantic, which I quite enjoyed (although there was one plot line I could have done without, but it by no means diminished my enjoyment of the book). The main character is an ambitious young banker who eagerly bends the rules (ok, maybe flat out breaks them) to ensure ongoing huge profits -- on paper, at least -- for his bank (sound familiar, anyone?). The book also involves a retired history teacher whose dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X, and a troubled teenager who gets drawn into the worlds of both the banker and the retired teacher.

Esquire magazine says of Union Atlantic, "It's big and ambitious, like novels used to be," and the Washington Post says Haslett "may be our F. Scott Fitzgerald." Haslett's first book, You Are Not a Stranger Here, a collection of short stories, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

Now I'm reading Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, a debut novel by British writer (although she currently lives in Washington DC) Helen Simonson. I must admit what first drew me to this book was the cover, an illustration from the cover of Life magazine (March 27, 1924), showing two coats and two hats, a man's and a woman's, on a wooden coat rack. But the characters and story line quickly drew me in.

Major Ernest Pettigrew leads a quiet life after the death of his wife, valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. His brother's death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the recently widowed Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?

Ron Charles, of the Washington Post, calls the book "a smart romantic comedy" and adds "if Simonson can keep this up she could be heir to the late John Mortimer." And the Christian Science Monitor had this to say: "Lots of books try to evoke Jane Austen, as if naming a character Darcy were all it took. But Simonson nails the genteel British comedy of manners with elegant aplomb."

The author says that she hopes her novel "suggests that you can have many chapters to your life and that it is never too late to begin a new passion." The book took her about five years to write. "I am astonished, when I go into a bookstore, by the amount of time and craft represented in the books on a single table."

The next fiction book on my list to read is the second book in the Flavia de Luce series, The Weed that Strings the Handman's Bag, by Alan Bradley, the follow up to the debut book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I loved the first one and am quite excited to read the second. But I might have to take an interruption in my fiction swing to dive into Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which as of Sunday has hit #5 on the NY Times Nonfiction Bestseller list! Go Rebecca!!

I know it's a cliche, but it seems never more true than now: so many books, so little time. But I'll take that over the opposite any day.

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