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Fall Books: Fiction

From a graphic novel depicting a teen’s first romance to Douglas Coupland’s novel about a Columbine-like school shooting.
/ Source: msnbc.com

Some familiar names return in the books reviewed here. Douglas Coupland, he of “Generation X” and “Microserfs,” returns with a Columbine shooting-inspired book. Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the fiction collection “Interpreter of Maladies,” returns with her first novel. And journalist and non-fiction author Jill Nelson switches genres with an erotic, funny look at what happens when sex meets business.

ENVELOPING ‘BLANKETS’

AT CLOSE to 600 pages, Craig Thompson’s “Blankets” (Top Shelf Productions, $29.95) is the Cadillac Escalade of graphic novels. But not one sheet of paper was wasted. Thompson’s words and pictures tell the simple but exquisite tale of a kid named Craig (most likely a thinly veiled Thompson himself) growing up in Wisconsin with his kid brother and his religious parents. At church camp he meets Raina, his first love. When he loses her he begins to lose faith in the blanket of faith that has wrapped his entire life.

“Blankets” is a reminder that “graphic novel” does not equal “comic book.” Nothing supernatural happens to Craig, he has no special powers - if he did, he’d surely have picked a better life for himself. His parents, although they generally seem jovial, have their scary moments - his father once locks his brother in a crawl space when the two boys are noisy. Church members warn him not to go to art school for fear it will lead to homosexuality. Even after meeting Raina, he finds women as confusing to him as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. But because Thompson sketches out Craig’s stumbles and successes so eloquently, it’s hard not to root for him to find his way.

Like Lynda Barry’s before him, Thompson’s childhood memories are as sharply drawn as his black and white drawings. “Blankets” could have been released as a regular, non-graphic novel, but it would not ring as true or ache as strongly. -Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

A FATHER’S ‘FALL’

Stephen Goodwin’s “Breaking Her Fall” (Harcourt, $24) tells the story of Tucker Jones, a 44-year-old divorced father of two, who receives a call one night with shocking news about what’s happened to his 14-year-old daughter Kat at a neighborhood party. Confusion quickly turns to rage, and the events of that July night change each member of the Tucker family, as well as some of their close friends.

Tucker doesn’t start off as an easy character to like. The first-person narration feels heavy-handed, as if Tucker is trying to justify not only of his actions but also his abilities as a father. As he begins to lose faith in those abilities, and the simple rules he’s set up to guide his children’s lives, the narration loses that overbearing tone and the character becomes more human - and thus the book more readable.

The story doesn’t always go in predictable directions, At one point there’s a sense that the story’s about to become a courtroom drama, at another, a love story. The scattershot-nature of the plot echoes Tucker’s own searching and confusion as he tries to re-establish his bond with his daughter and his own place in the world.

There are elements of the story that don’t seem to work as well. The fate of Kat’s best-friend Abby feels a bit tacked on. And an extended chapter about a fishing trip doesn’t really fit with the rest of the book. At times, there’s a little bit of an “everything but the kitchen sink” quality to the plotting.

Regardless, the core of the story - a father mending a broken relationship with his daughter - will keep you turning the pages. This is Goodwin’s first novel since 1979. It’s nice to see him reemerge with such a winning tale. -Paige Newman

WINDOW ON THE WORLD

Nominated for the coveted Booker Prize for the best in British fiction, Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane” (Scribner, $25) tells the story of Nanzeen, a Bangladeshi woman who, through an arranged marriage, finds herself living in London, unable to speak the language, with a husband she hardly knows. Chanu, her husband, is an educated man who never seems to have enough money - his sole goal is to save enough so they can return to the Bangladesh he idealizes. Letters from her sister - who ran away from the family at 16 for a love marriage - are woven throughout the book. Through those letters, Nanzeen gets a truer picture of what life is like for a woman in Bangladesh, as she watches her sister’s circumstances get more and more bleak.

Ali takes her time letting Nanzeen develop as a character. She doesn’t instantly transform into an independent woman. It’s only through her role as a mother and then as a breadwinner for the family that she begins to recognize the possibilities for a life other than the one her husband wants. She watches as her daughters reject the rules that she’s had to adhere to and even manages finds love with a young Muslim activist. Yet even when Nanzeen begin to change, it’s never to the point that she stops being the person with whom we began the novel.

The novel is set in 2001, so we even see the Muslim community react to the events of Sept. 11 - their bewilderment at being portrayed as terrorists on the world stage. Ali gives a picture of immigrants cobbling together a community in another country, drawn together by their culture and common enemies and torn apart by gangs, drugs, and poverty.

It’s hard not to get completely drawn in to Nanzeen’s beautifully described world. -P.N.

UNIVERSAL ‘EVIDENCE’

In Marianne Wiggins’ “Evidence of Things Unseen” (Simon & Schuster, $25) a character quotes Clarence Darrow: “A pebble cannot be thrown into the ocean without disturbing every drop of water in the sea.” The novel is emblematic of the same principle; Wiggins illuminates the manner in which world events and universal unseen forces (radiation, electrical current - and the more nebulous faith and love) disturb every small human life.

Wiggins opens on the Great War and draws us through the subsistence farming of the Depression, the Roosevelt administration’s Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Manhattan Project. We experience history through the watery eyes of “phenomenologist” Ray “Fos” Foster, alongside his pale, observant wife Opal, and their friend Flash, a dissolute son of privilege. The story, like the Tennessee River that runs through it, is a continual, unified flow: paragraphs can last a page, sentences lead, Whitmanesque, with conjuctions, and dialogue is undifferentiated by quotation marks. The unity is also thematic; the terrible, fatal innocence that leads Fos to tinker with x-rays is shadowed by his unknowing assistance in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

Flash, a Gatsby-like enigma that the reader cannot help but adore, is abruptly eliminated from the shoreline at the book’s halfway mark. When a central character figuratively flings himself off a cliff, a novel either sprouts wings and soars or takes a precipitous drop. Wiggins’ recovery is beautifully graceful. Flash does reemerge in the book’s second-generation coda, as a sadder, wiser ex-con who helps Fos and Opal’s son remember his parents, reassembling their lives from a box of mementos. -Kim Rollins

GRACEFUL ‘GAZELLE’

Rikki Ducornet’s “Gazelle” (Knopf, $21.00) tells the story of 13-year-old Elizabeth, an American teenager living in Cairo in the 1950s. Her father, a professor of history, is obsessed with games of skill, like chess, and is overcome by the fact that he’s losing his wife, who has moved to a hotel after a series of dalliances with other men. Angry with her mother and sorry for her father, Elizabeth also begins to sense her own burgeoning sexuality. Entranced by an old copy of “The Arabian Knights,” she decides that a young girl needs to be with a man and finds herself drawn to a local perfumer who thrives on trying to recreate the scents of the past. In the meantime, her father decides that only a magician can help him get his wife back.

Not your typical coming-of-age story, “Gazelle” doesn’t dwell on the melodrama of the situation between Elizabeth’s mother and father. While we see Elizabeth get angry with her mother, we also see the similarities between them — things Elizabeth herself does not yet recognize. Elizabeth shares her mother’s need to be wanted by men. Ducornet allows Elizabeth to both sexually curious and morally indigent at the same time. The exotic Egyptian setting underlines both her growing detachment from her parents and the foreignness of her own new erotic yearnings. Poetically written in an almost day-dream-like style, “Gazelle,” transports you to another place, where you can almost smell the perfume. -P.N.

COUPLAND AT COLUMBINE

“Hey, Nostradamus!” (Bloomsbury, $21.95) is the latest of Douglas Coupland’s novels fed by the wellspring of his ongoing existential crisis. It’s a Columbine-aftermath-inspired story broken into four unequal parts, each written by a different character. As we move further away from the school massacre chronologically, the shifting narrators become more tangentially affected by the slaughter. We open with Cheryl, a pregnant, secretly-married teenager who is gunned down at her lunch table; then go to Jason, her widower, ten years later; then to his girlfriend Heather; and finally, briefly, to Jason’s twice-bereaved father.

The book’s central weakness is the shift in storytelling duties to Heather, whose voice is dully juvenile and incapable of carrying the weight of the penultimate chapter. (Heather writes of a beach: “The air was salty and nice, clean-smelling.”) Coupland also gifts several characters with bush-league psychic powers that make for unlikely dialogue and eye-rolling coincidences.

However, Coupland redeems himself with the occasional sentence (tossed down as casually as a business card) that simply glows off the page. The overarching theme of the novel, that loss can irreparably break a man and force him to live the rest of his life broken, is overwhelming in its truth and simplicity.

The story has its sordid elements - a concealed paternity, a drug deal gone bad, an innocent witness killed to keep a secret, and of course that cafeteria bathed in blood - that will make it engrossing even to those uninterested in Coupland’s take on the human condition. -K.R.

HOUSEHOLD ‘SAINTS’

Set in California, Malie Malloy’s “Liars and Saints” (Scribner, $24) tells the story of five generations of Santerre family, starting in the 1950s and ending up in the late 1990s. If four generations sounds like a lot for 260 pages, it is. The chapters are told from different points of view and have the feel of individual stories rather than a novel. This is not to say that the stories aren’t compelling — they are. This is a book that can be difficult to put down. The Santerre family is so full of secrets that you will find yourself wondering how they will be revealed and who will end up spilling the beans about whom.

Catholicism plays a large role in the novel as the characters keep bumping against the dilemma of trying to do the moral thing. When one character becomes pregnant at age 16, her mother decides to keep the baby a secret from her husband and raise it as her own. That son grows up to face his own set of choices, made even more complicated by the fact that he spends most of the book not knowing who his real parents are. Because there are so many characters to follow, some of them do end up getting a bit of a short shrift. You don’t find out, for example, much about the family patriarch, Teddy, other than that he’s a good Catholic with a terrible jealous streak. The writing is so fluid that you may wind up wishing Malloy had simply settled on a smaller set of characters and situations. -P.N.

RETURN TO SENDER

Michael Kun’s “The Locklear Letters” (McAdam Cage, $19.95) is an epistolary novel that centers around letters written to Heather Locklear by Sid Straw, who we’re told went to college with her at UCLA. Through the course of the novel we see Sid’s downfall and redemption through a series of letters, not only those written to Heather Locklear, but also exchanges with his boss, a series of Heather’s angry lawyers, his parents and others. He loses his job, potential girlfriends, gets restraining orders filed against him all through a series of mishaps documented through the letters.

Kun does a good job of constructing a plot by just using letters, but this is a pretty thin premise for a novel and it wears out its welcome and uses up its humor in about the first hundred pages. And, yippee, there are still 240 pages to go. There is also a lot of repetition — perhaps the thought being that a joke just gets funnier the more times you tell it. The narrator is cheerfully delusional but rather than laughing at his mishaps, readers may find themselves just as exasperated by him as those who receive his letters. There are some humorous moments: a florist who always inserts rather unfortunate typographical errors into its cards (though, this too, gets repeated a few times too often), and his revenge on some of the people who he thinks have wronged him. Overall, however, there’s just really not enough story here to sustain an entire novel. -P.N.

IDENTITY CRISIS

Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning fiction collection “Interpreter of Maladies,” will not be disappointed by her first novel, “The Namesake” (Houghton Mifflin, $24). The novel is the story of Gogol Ganguli, the son of Bengali immigrants, living in Boston. As with the short-story collection, the novel tells the story of immigrants who don’t feel at home in America and of their American-born children who don’t want to be thought of as Indian. Even the way Gogol comes to receive his name - caused in large part by American insistence to name the baby before the Gangulis leave the hospital - feels both fated and accidental.

He’s named for the Russian author, who’s played a strange role in his father’s coming to America to begin with, but this is not the name his parents want him to use publicly - it’s to be their pet name for him. The naming becomes a good metaphor for identity. Can you change who you are and where you’ve come from simply by changing your name? For Gogol, this question has extra meaning, as his name is neither American nor Indian.

Lahiri’s strength as a writer is in the richness of her prose. She makes the wise move of making Gogol an architect, so that it makes perfect sense that his character would see the world in so much detail. When Gogol dates a woman who lives with her parents, Lahiri paints such a rich portrait of their home and their lives that it’s easy to see that he’s falling more in love with her life than his is with her. Yet, she doesn’t let the character see this. The ironies implicit in his struggle - the need to define who he is when he can’t even see himself clearly - make the book a satisfying read. -P.N.

‘HEALING’ LOOK

Dispelling two myths at once — the first being that women don’t want sex, the second being that women can find it easily whenever they want to - Jill Nelson’s “Sexual Healing” (Agate, $23.95) is an erotic, funny look at what happens when two shrewd African American businesswomen try to solve the problem of obtaining access to good, guilt-free sex. Though they have successful careers and beautiful clothes - the number of designers Nelson names can be a bit dizzying - what they don’t have are reliable men they can count on for good sex on a regular basis. Protagonists Lydia and Acey make it clear that sex doesn’t always need to lead to marriage or even a long-term relationship, that sometimes for women, it’s all about the pleasure and the healing.

After having a few too many glasses of wine one night, Lydia and Acey decide to open a spa that caters to the needs of African-American women. If by “spa” you mean “brothel.” And so begins the quest to find the men who will work there, to make the business run, and to deal with the social, political and racial consequences of starting such a venture. That may sound a bit weighty, but this book is about looking at those issues humorously. It’s a fun, light read that’s at its best when the characters are dealing with the practical questions of starting their new business venture.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nelson said, “I wanted to write a book where women win.” So she did. —P.N.

BOTTOM OF “WELL”

Matthew McIntosh’s novel “Well” (Grove Press, $23) is really more a collection of vignettes. Some of the vignettes are mere fragments of conversation while others are more traditional scenes. There isn’t really one story to follow — instead it’s a collection of voices that creates a community.

All of the tales revolve around people from Federal Way, Wash., a blue-collar suburb just south of Seattle. They also for the most part deal with the thwarted desires of the people who live there - if they’re even able to remember a time when they desired anything. The characters include a losing boxer, a boy who becomes obsessed with a girl on a pizza-store flier, a bartender who can’t seem to remember if he’s ever been in love, a boy who breaks up with his girlfriend after he realizes he’s not the kind of man who can stand up to her abusive father. You meet people in this novel and then they drop away. They may show up again 80 pages later or maybe they’ll never reappear. The fragmentary nature of the book echoes their lives, like broken pieces of a mirror.

The writing is reminiscent in some ways - perhaps in part because of the number of characters who do drugs - of Denis Johnson, who wrote the acclaimed “Jesus’ Son.” McIntosh doesn’t have Johnson’s humor, but he does evoke the same kind of pathos that Johnson does in his work. There is a sadness throughout the book, in part because we know it’s not going to get any better for these people. If anything, it’s going to get worse. —P.N.


Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Paige Newman are editors at MSNBC.com. Kim Rollins is a freelance writer living in Seattle.