A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini | [3.5 stars]
REVIEWED BY SUE CORBETT
CRITIC'S CHOICE
FICTION

Hosseini, whose bestselling first novel, The Kite Runner, gave millions of readers a riveting look at Afghanistan, returns to Kabul for this insightful portrait of two women whose dreams are shackled by violence, patriarchy and political strife. Forced into an arranged marriage, Mariam initially finds Rasheed's insistence that she wear the burqa—because "a woman's face is her husband's business only"—makes her feel treasured. But when she fails to produce a son, Rasheed becomes abusive. Enter Laila, a beauty who loses her entire family to war and, in desperation, becomes Rasheed's second wife. Mariam overcomes the shame she feels to befriend and later defend Laila. Hosseini sets his story against the backdrop of Afghanistan's 30-year ordeal—the Soviet invasion, the emergence of the Taliban—but it's the soul-stirring connection between two victimized women that gives this novel its battered heart.

Falling Man
By Don DeLillo | [3.5 stars]
REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DURBIN
NOVEL

Don DeLillo's great success in this novel is his terribly accurate portrait of the emotional emptiness and hazy desperation New Yorkers felt during the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks. At the book's opening—on that sunny Tuesday morning—Keith Neudecker, a lawyer who works at the World Trade Center, walks away from the disaster and into his ex-wife's home. From there, the book offers an impressionistic look at his life: He begins an affair with a former colleague's widow; his ex develops an obsession with a performance artist known as "Falling Man"; their son plays games that involve "Bill Lawton" (the boy's mishearing of bin Laden). The characters' only security comes from the knowledge that insecurity is a constant: "She wanted to be safe in the world and [Keith] did not." DeLillo's writing is brilliant, but this is a difficult read, a literary work of uncommon power that speaks to the reality of 9/11 in a way that journalism never could.

Later, at the Bar
By Rebecca Barry | [3.5 stars]
REVIEWED BY PORTER SHREVE
STORIES

The gritty town in upstate New York goes nameless, but its bar, Lucy's Tavern, links these 10 tales together, stirring their assorted lovelorn characters into the same luckless brew. Lucy's is never closed because Rita, the bartender, lives upstairs, and nearly everyone in this novel-in-stories longs for stability and genuine connection, but continually fails. Bill Kane, the cook at Hank's diner, attempts to compensate for his emotional reserve by putting his heart into the bountiful meals he serves. Advice columnist Linda Hartley, full of opinions about relationships, is stuck on the biggest tomcatter in town. Harlin Wilder returns from jail with new resolve, but falls back into his pattern of drinking and brawling, while trying to rekindle the flame with his ex-wife Grace. And Grace, though newly remarried, can't help but lead him on. In this funny, bittersweet debut all the barflies have stories, and they're well worth listening to.

Dishwasher
By Pete Jordan | [3.5 stars]
REVIEWED BY ANDREW ABRAHAMS
MEMOIR

Call him Suds Terkel. In this amusing memoir, Jordan charts his adventures washing dishes in nearly all 50 states, a stunt he undertakes as a lark. You may clutch your gut reading about him grazing on the Bus Tub Buffet—the untouched grub left by diners—but who knew there was a "dish Olympics" in Oregon where "pearl divers" (sailor talk for dishwashers) go plate-to-plate in heated competition? Jordan (now a bicycle mechanic) even finds romance. It must be true love to fall for a man who says his driving ambition is to "start out on the bottom rung—and stay there."

The Empty Nest
Edited by Karen Stabiner | [3.5 stars]
REVIEWED BY JOANNA POWELL
ESSAYS

Anyone dreading, savoring or recovering from their child's entering the "train station of adulthood," as mom Ellen Goodman calls the college drop-off, will recognize themselves in these bittersweet, boldly personal essays from more than 30 parents. With heartrending honesty and red-faced humor, well-known writers including Anna Quindlin, Harry Shearer and Lee Smith address the emotional fallout associated with freshman separation anxiety, offspring marriage or, in Rochelle Reed's case, helping your son pack for Iraq.

Quindlin cops to visiting her children's vacated rooms to touch their books. Letty Cottin Pogrebin embraces what she calls "Empty Nest Oblivion": that blissful feeling of no longer waiting up to hear the key in the lock. When his son headed off to college, Douglas Foster tried "to restrain myself from calling every half hour" and acting like an "overeager suitor."

Packed with hard-earned wisdom and snippets of advice, this comforting collection by pining parents softens the blow of the inescapable and reminds us of the Navajo proverb cited by Reed: We raise our children to leave us.

Free Food for Millionaires
By Min Jin Lee | [3.5 stars]
REVIEWED BY THAILAN PHAM
NOVEL

Disparity—whether of beauty, talent or income—is at the center of Lee's expansive debut about the difficulties faced by succeeding generations of Korean-American immigrants. Her story centers on Casey Han, a 22-year-old Princeton graduate with "fantastic nerve," raised in Queens by long-suffering parents who work six days a week at a dry cleaner's. A fight with her old-world father sends Casey out on her own, cursed with mounting debts. Starting off under a friend's roof, where she feels ashamed of "grabbing an egg to thicken [her] 39-cent ramen noodle soup," she barely stays afloat in an assistant position. She considers a career in banking but can't seem to escape career limbo, even as she longs for the good life her first-generation parents never dreamed of achieving. Featuring subtly drawn characters and sensitive to the nuances of race and class, Free Food is a first-rate read—a book you finish feeling certain the lives inside will go on long after the final page.