NOVEL

by Tobias Wolff

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Tobias Wolff, the short-story writer and author of the beloved 1989 memoir This Boy's Life, has finally given us his first novel. This artful and moving work takes place at a posh New England boys' boarding school during the JFK era, when literary celebrities still possessed the glamorous aura of rock stars.

Like many of his privileged fellow students, the novel's appealing and morally complex narrator (he is never named) longs to be a writer. "Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me," he writes, "that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class." When three famous authors are invited to visit the school, he sees a chance to be initiated into, and embraced by, the intoxicating world of words. Each of the visitors is to choose a story or poem by one of the students, who will then be rewarded with a marvelous prize: a private chat with the author. After losing out to a friend for Robert Frost's approval and falling feverishly ill while preparing for the visit of Ayn Rand, he finds himself blocked by the idea of writing for his idol Ernest Hemingway. His hunger to meet Hemingway at any cost leads to a series of shattering lessons that have as much to do with life as with literature—revelations about honesty and deception, identity and loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness, and about the crucial difference between fiction and falsehood. Not a word is wasted in this spare, brilliant novel about the way that reading changes and forms our lives, and about how one learns to become a writer—and a conscious human being.

by Tracy Chevalier

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Fans of Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, the 2000 bestseller and now a movie, will no doubt enjoy her new book. Once again Chevalier takes a famous piece of art—in this case the unicorn tapestries at the Musée Nationale de Moyen Age in Paris—and imagines the social and emotional realities of its creation in rich period detail. Chevalier meticulously describes weaving techniques, wool dyes and guild rules. But the new novel lacks the psychological tautness of Girl, which zeroed in on the relationship between the artist and his model. Lady ranges over abroad cast of characters, not all of them likable: a Paris nobleman, his pious wife, a rebellious daughter and the philandering painter who tries to seduce her while also wooing the weaver's daughter. But to use a comparison that Chevalier invokes a bit too often, if the earlier book was like an oil painting, this one is more like a tapestry: flatter and without the piercing immediacy of a Dutch master.

NOVEL

by Kate Atkinson

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The lines between conventional and eerie are delightfully blurred in this collection of 12 interconnected short stories set in London and Edinburgh. Atkinson deftly juxtaposes reality and magic, mythology and pop culture in conversational, matter-of-fact prose. She is as likely to mention Korn or Air Stewardess Barbie as the ancient Greek name of the North Wind (Boreas). Her subjects are equally eclectic, with mixed results. Those who like their fantasy enchanting and light might be uncomfortable with the sinister notions of a TV critic who has an evil double or a single woman who brings home a stray cat that becomes much more. But they'll cheer when a millennial Mary Poppins rescues the son of a self-absorbed celebrity. At her best, Atkinson does a masterful job with dysfunctional family dynamics, finding in single mothers and children mutual emotional deafness.

THRILLER

by Robert Harris

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It's August of 79—not'79—on the Bay of Naples, and Attilius, a young aqueduct manager, or aquarius, has just arrived at Misenum, where his predecessor has vanished. Worse, a water crisis has erupted. Sulphur tainting the water forces Attilius to close down the aqueduct. The problem, he deduces, originates near Mount Vesuvius. To repair it, he seeks a scouting party from the Roman admiral in command of the area, who happens to be Pliny the Elder, author of Natural History and the smartest man in the world.

Harris (Fatherland) is terrific in describing the grandeur of the aqueducts, inviting the reader inside them—Attilius is thrillingly trapped by onrushing water at one point. And the blast from Vesuvius kicks ash, as rocks and pumice rain down vividly. But posteruption heroics turn melodramatic. Attilius is in love with the daughter of a crooked tycoon in a toga who calls to mind any number of modern plutocrats—and cliches. That brainiac Pliny, however, enlivens every scene he's in, though even he hasn't a clue to the disaster that's coming.

Give your car horn a rest. Getting stuck in the slow lane will be a little less exasperating if you settle in with one of these audiobooks on your daily commute.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Performed by Jim Dale Dale must have invested heavily in throat lozenges while portraying all the characters, doing Dudley's snarl, Dumbledore's rasp and Hagrid's growl on this 23-CD, 27-hour set that should satisfy everyone's inner wizard.

The Pythons by Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and the rest of the Monty Python crew discuss their beginnings in never-before-heard interviews that waver between raucous and sober. The two-disc set includes clips of famous bits like "The Parrot Sketch."

The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin Martin introduces readers to his obsessive-compulsive hero Daniel, then follows his search for love.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri The story of an immigrant Indian family living in Massachusetts spans decades as the son Gogol looks for his place in the world.

David Sedaris: Live at Carnegie Hall

Hearing Sedaris read his essays on Dutch holiday traditions, the benefits of peeing in your pants and working in France turns chuckles into laugh-out-loud moments on this 70-minute disc.

The John Cheever Audio Collection Performed by Meryl Streep, George Plimpton and others This six-disc set contains 12 of Cheever's best short stories, bringing to life the New York City he knew in the '40s and '50s, complete with battling spouses and snobby country clubbers.

The Funny Thing Is... Performed by Ellen DeGeneres DeGeneres imagines exercising in prison, brunch with Eminem, Paula Abdul and Ed Begley Jr., and flipping off John Travolta in her trademark isn't-this-absurd? style.

  • Contributors:
  • Francine Prose,
  • Lee Aitken,
  • Amy Waldman,
  • Edward Karam.