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Good grief! ‘Peanuts’ among new fiction

This spring's fiction roundup includes books by authors both established and new.
/ Source: msnbc.com

You're forgiven if you've never heard of Chang-rae Lee until now. But if you're a reader, you'll be hearing a lot more about him in the years to come. His third book, "Aloft," is one of the more talked-about works in our fiction roundup this spring.

Anne Tyler's name may be more familiar. The "Accidental Tourist" author's latest book is "The Amateur Marriage," which explores the question: What if you'd married the wrong person?

Fans of the late Charles Schulz may want to buy a new bookcase — the first of 25 volumes of "The Complete Peanuts" comes out this spring. Every six months for 12 1/2 years, a new book will come out, collecting two years of "Peanuts" half-century in the funny pages.

“Aloft” doesn’t quite reach the heights
“Aloft” ($24.95, Riverhead) marks a change of pace for author Chang-rae Lee ,whose first two novels, “Native Speaker” and “A Gesture Life” dealt primarily with the immigrant experience. The new novel tells the story of 59-year-old Jerry Battle, a man who seems more comfortable flying his small Cessna above his life than participating in it.

Battle’s girlfriend has just left him for a more successful childhood friend, his father is deteriorating in an old-age home, his son may be torpedoing the family business, and his daughter is pregnant.

That's a lot of plot, but for the most part, Lee treats it with a light touch. Because Battle himself is sort of floating through his own life, readers don’t feel bogged down by some of the more melodramatic elements.

The novel, obviously influenced by Richard Ford and Richard Russo (particularly Russo's “Straight Man”), might work better if Lee let the novel be more humorous. You almost get the feeling that Lee has a true comic novel in him that’s waiting to be written. Scenes between Battle and his daughter feel a bit forced — as if Lee is trying to make his character behave in a certain way instead of letting Battle do what he wants.

This is not to say that the novel isn’t funny. In the scenes between Battle and his father, who is the curmudgeon we can only imagine Battle himself will eventually become, Lee creates wonderful banter. And a scene where Battle engages his romantic rival in a furious tennis game is hilarious, while simultaneously revealing the insecurities and stubbornness of both men.

Here’s hoping next time Lee goes all the way with the comedy he obviously has the talent to produce, leaving some of the more stock dramatic elements on the shelf.     —Paige Newman

“Marriage” gone awry
Anne Tyler’s latest novel, “The Amateur Marriage” ($24.95, Knopf) poses the question, What if you married the wrong person? What kind of a family would you produce? And could the wrong person become right if you stayed together long enough? The marriage in question is between Pauline and Michael Anton, who are thrown together in the early days of World War II, swept up in the romance of that era. But when Pauline almost backs out of the marriage on their wedding day, the reader realizes that things may not be as ideal as they seem.

The novel moves from the 1940s to 2002, and while some authors might have trouble covering this time span, Tyler handles it deftly. She jumps from one narrator to the next, each one giving not only a fresh perspective on current events, but also a different perspective on what’s come before. There are large time gaps that Tyler skips over — the death of a major character is simply told in retrospect — but readers don’t miss that moment-by-moment coverage.

Tyler also doesn’t label either Pauline or Michael the bad guy. At different times, both play that role. Pauline can be hysterical in her need to be a drama queen, while Michael’s need for sameness and safety can make him seem the blandest of men. Chapters where they are seen through the eyes of their children are perhaps the most illuminating.

If I have any hesitation about the novel, it's that Tyler almost seems to want to prove something about a bad marriage and what it produces. At times it feels almost as if she’s attempting to prove something to the reader. It’s a bit of a loaded deck since she’s asking and answering her own questions, but the novel as a whole is still a compelling read.    —P.N.

“Bandbox” plays onIt’s easy to picture Thomas Mallon’s  “Bandbox” (Pantheon, $24.95) as a movie. The story of rival men’s style magazines “Bandbox” and “Cutaway” in 1928, the book features quick dialogue and colorful characters that actors like Tom Hanks or Renee Zellweger could have a great time playing.

Anyone who’s seen “His Girl Friday,” may find themselves picturing Rosalind Russell when they encounter Nan O’Grady, the copy girl who finds her way to the big story. The book also has the kind of coincidences and misunderstandings that fueled the screwball comedies of the 1930s.

Mallon creates his characters with a light stroke, characterizing them with just a sentence. As with researcher and duchess Daisy DiDonna’s motto: “Always be faithful, always be looking” or with the description of “bachelor life” columnist Stuart Newman, “Stuart’s last dates were always recommending his next ones.”

Mallon juggles a lot of characters here, including a proofreader who wants to save a koala; a vaudeville writer who spends his days soused in the back of theaters; and “Bandbox” editor Jehoshaphat Harris, who turned around the magazine’s fortunes in one quarter and now worries that his underlings are getting ready to jump ship.

It’s a fun book to read because Mallon keeps the pace fast and the dialogue faster. Nothing that happens is too surprising, but it’s all pretty enjoyable.   —P.N.

Good grief"Peanuts" fans, buy another bookcase now. You're going to need it. Twice a year for 12 1/2 years, Fantagraphics Books is going to release another volume in "The Complete Peanuts" ($28.95), covering two years of daily and Sunday strips per book. The first book, covering 1950-1952, comes out in May.

Fantagraphics Books

In the early days of "Peanuts," Charlie Brown and Snoopy hung out mostly with Shermy and Patty (not Peppermint Patty, this Patty was the blonde one). Charlie Brown didn't wear his distinctive zigzag shirt at first, and Snoopy walked on all fours and didn't talk.

But the germs of the modern strip were still there — Charlie Brown often got the short end of the stick, Snoopy's personality far outshone that of your average pup, the kids lived in an adultless world where they delivered great philosophical statements along with cute jokes.

To me, the strip hit prime-time in the 1970s, when Marcie and Peppermint Patty had major plotlines (the ice-skating contest that was really on wheels), and Snoopy's brother Spike and Linus and Lucy's little brother Rerun were introduced. Your mileage may vary.

While it would be nice to collect the entire series as if it were encyclopedias, one can't be faulted for picking and choosing the volumes you like best. That said, I'd recommend all fans pick up this first volume, which includes an introduction by Garrison Keillor, an essay by Schulz's biographer, and a 1987 interview with Schulz himself. And if the early strips seem a bit pedestrian, hang in there. Charlie Brown finds his place right about the mid-'50s and never loses it again.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Wild and woolly
If there were a genre of Western noir, “Cottonwood” ($23.95, Ballantine Books) by Scott Phillips would sit happily in the middle of it.

Set in a fictitious Kansas town in the 1870s, it tells the story of farmer-turned-barkeep Bill Ogden, a quick-tempered classics scholar and photographer. Ogden has a way with women (except his wife) and yearns to be part of the town’s prosperous future once the railroad comes through. Along with Ogden’s story, Phillips interweaves the tale of the Benders, a murderous family of outlaws, based on a true-to-life family of the same name.

The town is full of colorful characters, such as married couple Herbert and Renee Braunschweig, each of whom only has one good eye. Of them, Phillips writes, “…her left eye was bad and his right was gone, and the fact that their good eyes met when they faced each other made things seem preordained.”

Phillips has a wonderfully rambling style, like a leisurely trail ride, and doesn’t let the story keep him from elegantly sketched details and pleasant good humor.  He succeeds in letting Ogden be the scoundrel that he can be without making him too repentant, while also keeping him likeable enough so that readers will be glad to follow him.    —P.N.

What's cooking?
What is there to like about a curmudgeonly former playboy who rejects his wife and daughter, covets his brother’s would-be girlfriend, pays a hitman to bump off a perceived foe, and refuses to quit smoking despite the fact that he’s dying of rare disease? A lot, actually.

In Kate Christensen's witty new novel “The Epicure’s Lament,” (Doubleday, $23.95), ladies' man and wannabe writer Hugo Whittier is waiting for death. Unfortunately, he keeps being interrupted. Holed up by himself in the family mansion, he’s first set upon by his brother, Dennis, whose wife Marie has decided she no longer loves him. To Hugo's horror, Dennis not only remains set on remaining at the mansion, but he’s also decided to do some refurbishing.

Then Hugo’s wife and would-be daughter show up and before he knows it, he finds himself bedding the wife and driving the girl to school, even though what he’d really like is for them both to leave. In the meantime, he and Dennis find themselves both obsessed with a married friend of Dennis’ wife.

The novel is unpredictable and fun, primarily because a character like Hugo has license to say and do nearly anything that comes to mind. Christensen lets us see aspects of Hugo's personality that even he doesn’t, but never gets to the point of openly making fun of him.

Even in all Hugo's absurdity and bravado, you end up caring about what happens to him. Despite his paranoia and arrogance — or maybe even because of it — he is a delightful character to follow.    —P.N.

Want a new 'Drug'
With the merest hint of melodrama, "Love is the Drug" by Sarahbeth Purcell (Atria, $23) opens with the narrator's halfhearted suicide attempt, which takes place in a drainage ditch and utilizes a beer bottle shard. Sadly, the story's largely downhill from here.

Purcell's fledgling novel is rife with amateurish mistakes. There is awkward exposition: the narrator's best friend asks of her, "Tyler, how did you end up with this guy again?" solely in order to allow a history to be filled in through Tyler's answer (it's really the reader who's wondering about the genesis of Tyler's obsession with a washed-up, Everquest-addicted session musician). There are innumerable top ten lists composed by Tyler in lieu of actual storytelling, such as "Top Ten Reasons My Father Cannot Die Yet."

The only deviations from the nakedly autobiographical (a failed relationship, a road trip) are flighty detours into the highly improbable, e.g. a rock star on his tour bus rescues Tyler after she blows a tire on a Texas highway, and is immediately and hopelessly enamored of her. Later, when she slits her wrists, Tyler survives because a wounded armadillo she nicknames "Petey" drinks her blood -- the cause-and-effect are murky here, but what is meant to be a spiritual revelation instead comes off as more than a little laughable.

Occasionally, a glint of wisdom shines through the muck: Tyler writes of her recluse boyfriend that "He is pretending every day is the same so he doesn't have to age." Perhaps with a few more years of adulthood and sobriety under her belt, Purcell will be able to consistently pen such observations. Right now, she's trying out for Elizabeth Wurtzel's job, and Wurtzel's not quite ready to retire.    —Kim Rollins

Cultural clashLayla, the Indian Muslim narrator of Samina Ali's "Madras on Rainy Days" (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24), has succumbed to familial and cultural pressure to enter into an arranged marriage. What she has concealed from everyone is that she is no longer a virgin. The young Layla divides her time between her parents' homes in two countries (she is an outsider in both, considered Indian in America and American in India), and has had a single dalliance with an American lover.

Returning to India for her wedding, Layla lives in anxiety of rejection by her betrothed, Sameer, since she could be put to death should he renounce her. She is ignorant that her new husband harbors a secret as well. As their marriage stretches into weeks and remains unconsummated, Layla blames herself for repelling Sameer, but his avoidance is not her fault. In its climactic chapters, the novel takes a hairpin turn.

Prior to this the plot thickens only very slowly, but the pace befits the ancient culture the story inhabits. If the action seems somehow stifled and limited (the female characters only rarely leave home, their interactions curtailed to family and servants), this only serves to underscore the strictures that Islam places on its women.

Some of the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed — a sacrificial lamb at the wedding, and a bird that beats itself to death in its attempt to escape the enclosing walls of a house, make appearances — but overall, Ali's writing is as complex and delicate as the intricate henna designs that grace Layla's hands. She has a particular gift for setting a scene; her depiction of modern India is a landscape for all five senses, rife with color, dust, and magic.    —K.R.

Myth-mashAlthough the idea of voluntarily settling down with a book about Odysseus may be anathema to those who remember wearisome ninth-grade literature classes, “Odysseus: A Life” (Hyperion, $23.95), by classics scholar Charles Rowan Beye, is a provocative read.  The author draws on the ancient tales of Odysseus set forth in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” but meticulously fleshes out the storylines of these works with factual details of life in the second millennium B.C.E., including hunting, architecture, dress, shipbuilding, and seafaring.

Beye also puts into a historical and sociological context aspects of the stories that may have confused Homer’s modern readers, who were previously left wondering why, Menelaus resumed his marriage with Helen after she’d cuckolded him.  Familiarity with Homer is, however, a prerequisite for appreciating “Odysseus”; although a prefacing chapter very, very briefly summarizes the Trojan War and our hero’s subsequent wanderings, it will be an incomprehensible hodgepodge of Greek names to anyone who nodded off during class.  Beye assumes that he is augmenting his reader’s understanding of Odysseus, not introducing him.

While individual passages hold the reader’s interest with their rhythmic prose, this quasi-biography is sometimes unevenly paced. 

Occasionally there is an apparent crescendo that leads an expectant reader nowhere—for example, page upon page is devoted to the construction of the Trojan horse, but the actual sacking of Troy falls short on the hoped-for gory details.    —K.R.

What's it all about, Ali?Ali Smith’s short-fiction collection “The Whole Story and Other Stories” (Anchor, $13) is difficult to distill. The question “What’s it about?” is almost unanswerable, in much the same way that it is impossible to pinpoint what some foreign films are “about.” The plotlines tell you little: A death on the tracks shuts down a train, and a commuter irrationally chooses to walk home though it takes all night; a child touches a painting at an art exhibition and is reprimanded.

The book is “about” no more or less than humanity itself, and Smith’s illuminated, Joycean prose is heart-stoppingly beautiful. “The Universal Story,” peels away the layers of the mundane, revealing the secret histories we walk among every day and overlook: the life-cycle of a housefly, a used novel that passes through many sets of hands. It reads like a series of false starts, as if the world were so rife with amazing complexity that Smith could not bring herself to settle for telling merely a single tale; instead she turns many interconnected ideas over and sets each one down reverently.

In “May,” a character falls in love with a tree in an old woman’s yard. The story reveals the central irrationality of infatuation, and encourages us to ask why we so often give our hearts to those who are not only transparently unsuitable for us, but entirely indifferent to our affections. Like some of the other pieces, this one has a dual narrator, a matched pair: the one who adores the tree, and his or her lover. By confining herself to gender-neutral first- and second-person pronouns, Smith confidently allows the reader to make some of his own decisions about who these people might be. Few books that are not plot-driven are so compulsively readable.    —K.R.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor, and Paige Newman is MSNBC.com's Movies Editor. Kim Rollins is a freelance writer living in Seattle.