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Pearl's Picks for November 2008

Oxygen by Carol Cassella (2008)

The main character in Carol Cassella's very readable first novel, Oxygen, is, like Cassella herself, an anesthesiologist in Seattle. Dr. Marie Heaton finds her life gone badly off track when what should have been a pretty routine surgical procedure goes wrong, and eight-year-old Jolene Jansen dies on the operating table. Jolene's mother files a malpractice suit against Marie as well as the hospital, and guilt, grief, and fears about her future as a physician begin to take their toll on Marie. She turns for support and reassurance to her colleague, Dr. Joe Hillary, an ex-lover who's now her best friend. At the same time that she's trying to come to terms with the possibility of losing her license to practice medicine, she must also deal with her aging father and an iffy relationship with her sister. Marie is an appealing character - intelligent but vulnerable, emotionally scarred by her past but determined to succeed in the present. But what makes Cassella's novel shine (and stand out from others in this genre) is how she opens the unfamiliar world of doctors and hospitals, with its intriguing intertwining of Hippocrates and Mammon, medicine and business, to the general reader.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Gregor the Overlander, Suzanne Collins' first novel, is one of my all-time favorite fantasies. A brave 11-year-old hero, page-turning adventures, moral dilemmas, and a super ending made it a perfect book for middle-grade readers. Now, in The Hunger Games (the first volume of an intended trilogy), Collins has written a remarkable and thought-provoking novel for teens about the oppression and dehumanization of its citizens by an all-powerful central government, evoking George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. At the same time, it's an impossible-to-put-down action-adventure-romance story. Panem is a wealthy and powerful city in post-apocalyptic North America; it's surrounded by 12 outlying, poverty-stricken districts that serve, in effect, as colonies providing the resources needed to maintain the capitol's wealth. Sometime in the past the districts attempted a rebellion, which Panem brutally put down. As a reminder to the districts of their powerlessness, the Capitol requires each one to choose, by lottery, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the annual Hunger Games, the ultimate TV game show, a fight to the death on live TV, in which the last contestant alive wins fame and fortune. The Games are treated as a huge celebration in the Capitol, with pre-game up-close-and-personal interviews of each "Tribute," betting on, and opportunities to send aid to, one's favorites, and round-the-clock watch parties. The story is told in the voice of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who we get to know and care about deeply during the course of the novel. When her beloved 12-year-old sister, Prim, is chosen by lot to be the girl tribute from district 12 (formerly know as Appalachia), Katniss bravely, and to the astonishment of all (but within the rules of the game), volunteers to take her place, and sets off on the most dangerous, and exciting, "adventure" of her life. And the reader gets to accompany her every step of the way. One of the things I found so remarkable (and disorienting and disturbing) about this book is the way it was able to pull me, emotionally, into the excitement of the celebration and the adventure of the game itself, almost as if I were experiencing it as a wealthy citizen of the Capitol, even though I knew, intellectually, that what I was reading about was a government forcing children to kill other children. The Hunger Games, surely destined to be a classic of teen literature, is a superb choice for book-discussion groups of all ages.

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner (2008)

I'm pretty sure that Katie Hafner's A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano deserves credit for a slight up-tick in circulation at my local library: when I started reading it I was so intrigued that I immediately went to the library and checked out CDs of several of Gould's recordings, which, I have to think, is what Hafner intended. Perhaps the best way to describe this solid and engrossing tale is as a triple biography. Primarily, of course, it's the story of Glenn Gould, including the growth of his phenomenal talent (which manifested itself at a very young age), his quirks (among them, an excessive fear of germs and consequent dislike of shaking hands with people), and the series of concerts and recordings that made him a household name among classical music aficionados. But it's also the biography of a piano - a Steinway CD 318 concert grand, an instrument that was the love of Gould's life, and of Charles Verne Equistar, the nearly blind piano tuner who probably loved that particular piano with a passion equal to Gould's. I don't think you need to be a classical music aficionado to appreciate this book. Heffner's writing is so fluid and her grasp of Gould's world is so sure that it's a book that will appeal to anyone who loves delving into somewhat arcane topics. Think Mark Kurlansky writing about music, rather than cod or salt, and you'll get the idea.

Open Line: A Novel by Ellen Hawley (2008)

Ellen Hawley's Open Line is the perfect choice for those looking for a satirical novel that doesn't take itself too seriously. Annette Majoris, born Annie Minor, is the host of a late-night radio call-in show in Minneapolis, but has ambitions for a larger stage. One night, in response to a caller, she jokingly speculates that perhaps the Vietnam War was simply a hoax cooked up by the government--an evil and elaborate game of mind control, devised for some sinister purpose. To her surprise, her (now exponentially expanding) audience takes up her supposition and runs with it. Many Vietnam vets weigh in on the issue, in agreement or disagreement, but a growing number express relief that, and take comfort in, the idea that their horrible memories were of events that never really happened. Politicos of every stripe from major and minor political parties come calling, each hoping to capitalize on Annette's "theory," and, of course, she's all too willing to play along. As the media and political machinery kicks into high gear, Annette's career takes off. Her show is syndicated and she leaves Minnesota for bigger markets and paychecks. When events spin out of control, as they inevitably do, Annette is forced to devise her own future. That she does so in a way that will come as a shock to most readers (it certainly did to me) is another example of Hawley's total control of her material. Hawley's characterizations are flawless, and her dialogue is lively and realistic. Open Line (Hawley's second novel) may be a sad commentary on the political/media complex, but it makes for an entertaining reading experience.

Matrimony: A Novel by Joshua Henkin (2007)

Given the title, it will come as no surprise that Matrimony by Joshua Henkin is about marriage. What is surprising is that this quiet novel limning the complications of a particular relationship can leave such a powerful impression on the reader. It's a novel in which the payoff--when you realize just how much the book had to say to you - comes when you finish the book, and you find that you're spending a lot of time thinking about the lives of the characters, wondering what's happened to them after you turned the last page. Julian and Mia pair up when they're undergraduates at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and after graduation, Julian, whose ambition it is to write fiction, follows Mia to Ann Arbor. While she pursues her degree in psychotherapy, Julian is more or a less a househusband, trying (without much success) to write his first novel. During a visit with his best friend (and writing rival) from college, Carter reveals a secret that sends Julian into a tailspin from which it will take years to recover. This is not the novel of choice for readers looking to find larger-than-life characters, fireworks, and high drama. Rather, the pleasure here is in the Henkin's fine use of language, his honesty in portraying Mia's and Julian's strengths and weaknesses, and the exploration of love, betrayal, and loss.

Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard S. Marcus (2008)

Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature, by Leonard Marcus, is an essential read (and perfect gift) for anyone working in the field of children's literature, but it also offers much pleasure to anyone who enjoys children's books, or was, at one time, a child who enjoyed them - i.e., almost everyone. It's an engaging (occasionally gossipy), informative, and animated account of the people, issues, and events involved in the history of children's literature--and who would have thought there could be so much sturm und drang involved? The question around which the book is framed is "What should children read?," and the answer to that takes Marcus (and us) on a whirlwind tour from the American Colonial period to the present. Along the way we're introduced to luminaries like Anne Carroll Moore, who was named the head of the New York Public Library's first consolidated children's department in 1906; Ursula Nordstrom, the incredibly influential Harper Collins editor who published the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder among many other iconic children's books; and Bertha Mahoney Miller, the first editor of the influential magazine about children's books, The Horn Book, whose first issue appeared in 1924. We'll also hear about the origin of the Newbery and Caldecott medals (and an answer to why the Laura Ingalls Wilder books never won the former); the controversy over the books produced by the Stratemeyer syndicate (Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are only two of the many examples); the evolution and publishing history of books like Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and so much more. As someone whose ambition since the age of 10 was to be a children's librarian, Marcus's lively history made me feel as though I were spending time with a group of old friends, even though I knew none of them personally.

The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll by Pat McKissack (2007)

Writer Patricia C. McKissack and artist Jerry Pinkney collaborated on two previous children's books: Goin' Someplace Special (which won the Coretta Scott King Award) and Mirandy and Brother Wind (which was both a Caldecott Honor book, as well as winning the Coretta Scott King Award). Their latest collaboration lives up to the standards set by their previous books. The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll is the story of an impoverished family living in the rural south during the Great Depression. The first sentence nicely sets the stage - "Christmas always came to our house, but Santy Claus only showed up once in a while." All that Nella, snug in the middle between her big sister, Eddy Bernice, and little sister, Dessa wants for Christmas is a Baby Betty doll, and she writes Santy Claus telling him so. On Christmas morning the three girls not only receive sacks containing walnuts, a peppermint stick, an orange, and a box of raisins (the most Christmas they'd ever had, says Nella), but also, miraculously, a single Baby Betty doll. But which of the three sisters is the doll for? How Nella learns that sharing beats selfishness is communicated in a way that seems entirely natural, unforced, and not preachy - making it a perfect choice for parents and teachers who want a way to convey that message to their children. Pinkney's superb watercolor illustrations amply display the warmth of family life in the midst of difficult economic times. The back cover displays Nella's letter to Santy, as well as a picture of Baby Betty - images both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Evening by Susan Minot (2007)

Susan Minot's stylish and assured Evening was made into a movie (of the same title) featuring Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave. Although I am admirer of both Streep and Redgrave, I resisted going to see the film. For me, what distinguished Minot's third novel and fourth work of fiction was how confident and yet restrained the writing was. I found it immensely difficult to put the book down, despite the depressing story it tells. As 65-year-old Ann Grant Lord lies dying of cancer and drifting in and out of morphine dreams, she looks back over her eventful life and its two defining moments: her all-too-brief love affair with Harris Arden and the death of one of her sons at the age of 12. Minot weaves the present and various points in the past together in a seemingly effortless fashion; her handling the complexity of the passage of 40 years of Ann's life is striking in how easy she makes it look, despite how hard I know it is to achieve that sort of ease. As friends and family members come and go from Ann's bedside, I was struck by the truth of William Faulkner's statement that "the past is never dead. It's not even past." I remember being moved by other novels about the end of a life (Iris Murdoch's Bruno's Dream and Kate Phillips' White Rabbit come to mind), but the blend of plot and style in Minot's novel is a potent mixture.

All Souls by Christine Schutt (2008)

Readers of contemporary fiction will probably have noticed that there are more and more collections of linked short stories being published. I find evidence of this on the "new book" shelves of virtually every library I visit. C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series and other fiction and nonfiction, would not be happy. He once said, "You can't get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." While I, myself, am somewhat saddened by how few traditional novels are being written, I am heartened by the undeniable quality of so many of these "novels-in-stories." And Christine Schutt's All Souls is certainly among the best I've read in recent years. In a tony private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side, everyone is reeling from the news that one of their own, senior Astra Dell, is in the hospital with a rare form of cancer. Throughout the school year, as exams are given and taken, colleges are applied to, crushes develop and hearts are broken, Astra's illness affects, overtly or subconsciously, those connected to Siddons School. We meet Astra's best friend, the anorexic Carlotta Forrestal, who writes letters to Astra that she never sends; her father (still in mourning after the death of his wife, Grace, and now forced to confront mortality once again in the face of his daughter's perhaps fatal illness); and her classmate Marlene (who knows that the other girls in the senior class alternately despise, pity, and ignore her, and says, as if to comfort herself, "But there's always got to be one person to hate in every class, right?"); the sexually experimenting Lisa Van de Ven and the temporary object of her attention, if not affection - her teacher, Miss Wilkes; and other students, teachers, and parents. In these gorgeously wrought tales, characters and situations are presented in economical, magical prose. Here is how Schutt describes Astra, around whom the stories revolve: "that pale girl from the senior class, the dancer with all the hair, the red hair, knotted or braided or let to fall to her waist, a fever and she consumed." Schutt, who teaches in a private school in New York (not unlike, I suspect, Siddons School) demonstrates just how deeply she understands not only adolescents, in all their pettiness and grace, but the pettiness and grace of life itself.

Sleeping Arrangements by Madeleine Wickham (2008)

Madeleine Wickham is probably best known for her Shopaholic series, written under her nom de plume, Sophie Kinsella. That's a bit of a shame, because the novels she writes under her own name are light and diverting--grand antidotes for any gray, rainy day, or one in which you may be suffering from a fit of the dismals. Her latest is Sleeping Arrangements, the story of two English families much in need of a vacation. Chloe Harding's relationship with her longtime partner Philip has hit a rough patch, and she's desperate for some time away from her job of making wedding dresses (especially as Philip has no interest in marriage, and she's therefore unlikely ever to wear one of her own creations). Her friend Gerard, trying to be helpful, invites her and Philip to spend a week with their sons at his luxurious villa in Spain. Hugh Stratton is getting awfully tired of working impossibly long hours to try to satisfy the material needs of his wife, Amanda, who never saw a piece of clothing or objet d'art she didn't want. His old friend Gerard, always the most helpful of men, suggests that the Strattons spend a week at his luxurious villa in Spain. When both couples arrive on the same day, they realize, to their dismay, that their host had accidentally invited them both for the same week. Or was it an accident? And if not, what, exactly, did Gerard intend? Amusing dialogue, a fast-paced plot filled with twists and turns, and charming, nicely drawn characters add up to an entertaining confection.

Title available via inter-library loan

The Best of Technology Writing 2008 by Clive Thompson (2008)

Even the most technophobic reader will likely find much of interest in Clive Thompson's The Best of Technology Writing 2008, a selection of 15 essays drawn from a wide variety of magazines, including Wired, Popular Science, Information Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review, and The New Yorker. Some of my favorites include Julian Dibbell's "The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer," which describes a specialized job that could only exist in the wired world in which we live--real workers are hired, and paid real money, by companies involved in the mega-popular online fantasy game, World of Warcraft, to search for virtual gold in the virtual world of the game, which then accrues to the virtual wealth of their employers. There are some interesting philosophical questions to ponder here regarding what's happening to the line between the "real" world and the "virtual" world(s) made possible by increasingly powerful computer technology. Another favorite is "Doctor Delicious," a profile by Ted Allen of Dave Arnold, who is a combination of scientist, chef, and engineer, and the guru of high-tech cooking, better known as molecular gastronomy (the scientific study of the physics and chemistry of cooking). He's the man whom chefs call on when they want to create, for example, a dish that defies the laws of gravity. Emily Nussbaum explores the whole concept of "living in public," through blogging, MySpace, YouTube, Flicker, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other applications available to savvy technophiles today. Other essays - invariably interesting, sometimes mind-boggling, and frequently eye-opening - include Jeffrey Rosen's "The Brain on the Stand," a discussion of the increased use of neuroscience in law; Caleb Crain's elegiac "Twilight of the Books"; and Thomas Goetz on how the new technology of decoding an individual's DNA has entered the business world.