by Colson Whitehead
REVIEWED BY KYLE SMITH

CRITIC'S CHOICE

NOVEL

The author of the hugely acclaimed novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, Whitehead is one of today's sharpest young writers and the winner of a MacArthur "genius" Award (large check, no strings attached). His short, satiric third novel is about a corporate whiz kid—a young black man who never tells us his own name—who earns big bucks devising names for consumer products. Presto, and a modestly hip clothing chain becomes Outfit Outlet. Bam, and we have Apex, for a kind of adhesive bandage that comes in flesh tones to match any race.

The consultant's biggest client is an entire town: Today it's called Winthrop, which smacks of "three martini lunches and cholesterol." But it's considering a change to something for the BlackBerry age: New Prospera—"the lilting 'a' at the end like a rung up to affluence and wealth."

Quiet wit ("Roger Tipple did not have a weak chin so much as a very aggressive neck,") is a tool that Whitehead uses to ease our way into symbolism about racial injustice. The narrator discovers, for example, that Winthrop isn't the original name of the town: It was founded by ex-slaves who dubbed it Freedom.

The send-up of branding experts is a sly way for Whitehead to introduce the idea that words can't cover up racial hurt; names are like thin bandages over festering wounds. But if the point is well-taken it's too simple for a writer who can see through any facade. Whitehead should broaden his scope and deliver a big, Tom Wolfe-style novel about everything.

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by Ken Dornstein
REVIEWED BY ALLISON LYNN

MEMOIR

Reading The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is a discomforting, often creepy experience. In part, it's the story of David Dornstein, 25, a wanderer and passionate writer who was a victim of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 22, 1988. But it's also the story of his younger brother Ken, who was 19 and at their father's house in Pennsylvania when that plane fell on Lockerbie, Scotland. After the crash, Ken was haunted by the intense letters that David—a mythic presence to the younger Dornstein—had sent him, and he appointed himself keeper of his brother's flame. During the ensuing 15-year struggle to piece together David's story, Ken pored over David's manic journal entries, which presented a frenzied, often sad, soul. (Convinced he was destined for fame, he had "prepared his 'literary estate' for posterity," Ken writes.) In the end, Ken even married David's college girlfriend. At times, this memoir feels like Ken's therapy: If he can just get the story down, he'll be able to have a life of his own. Still, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky offers a moving glimpse at the lengths it sometimes takes to make peace with the past.

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by Yannick Murphy
REVIEWED BY NATALIE DANFORD

NOVEL

An unnamed 13-year-old girl with a foul mouth narrates this present-tense stream-of-con-sciousness novel. The setting is the grungy New York City of the 1970s, and the subject is anything that passes through the mind of a girl with two sisters, a violent brother and parents who have split. Or as she explains it, "My father lives uptown with a short blonde he found on a set, porno or not, we don't know." Her French mother drinks too much and "sleeps the sleep of the accident dead." Disturbing vignettes of neglect pile up like garbage in the streets. With no pauses for reflection, the novel sometimes feels detached, but Murphy's startling language and imagery accumulate great power as they hurtle toward the reader.

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by Danielle Trussoni
REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DURBIN

MEMOIR

Raised by parents who eventually divorced in small-town Wisconsin, Trussoni recalls a childhood consumed by trying to understand her father, Dan, a Vietnam War veteran. She became his constant companion at his favorite bar, defended his indefensible actions to her mother and even, later in life, flew to Vietnam to try to comprehend how her father's tour of Southeast Asia had damaged him psychologically. (He had a severe case of posttraumatic stress disorder, which he never attempted to resolve.) This is a heartbreaking story of missed connections, made all the more painful by the author's refusal to indulge in self-pity. Quite the opposite, in fact: "Lying to my sister and brother and to myself, I created a Dad code. I told them Dad's annoyance meant he loved us more than words could express ... his coldness was a cover for intense feeling." In the end, this excellent memoir is much more than the sum of its parts. Free from melodrama, Trussoni's remembrance describes with painful acuity how war can come home in the most subtle ways.

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by John Boyne
REVIEWED BY NATALIE DANFORD

NOVEL

Marriage is murder, or at least it was for Cora Crippen, a music hall singer whose dismembered body was discovered in 1910 under the London house that she shared with her husband, a former slaughterhouse worker and imposter doctor. Boyne's fictionalization of the gruesome scandal combines the best of true crime and old-fashioned mysteries in an addictive tale. Boyne throws in plenty of delicious twists, and each chapter cuts off with a mini-cliffhanger. The punch-to-the-gut ending is both organic and completely surprising.

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by Ayelet Waldman
REVIEWED BY SUE CORBETT

NOVEL

This oddly engaging soap opera follows the travails of unlikable types including overindulged Manhattanite Emilia Greenleaf, her wealthy lawyer husband and his shrewish ex-wife. The death of Emilia's baby launches her into a bout of "obsessive self-pity" but she's not so sad she can't do lunch at Nobu or shop at Barneys. Though the plot moves at a nice clip, reading about professional whiners behaving badly is like listening to gossip about people you don't know.

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Fiction

Attention. Deficit. Disorder. by Brad Listi
In this unsentimental debut, Listi's film-school grad protagonist tries to divine meaning from a life that seems to have "no trajectory," as his parents are fond of saying. An ironic, often humorous take on the anomie of youth.

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
Alzheimer's patient Marina, a former museum docent who survived the siege of Leningrad, remembers her life through masterpieces by da Vinci and Rembrandt. Dean writes with passion and compelling drama about a grotesque chapter of World War II.

A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart
The author's fine writing and still-waters-run-deep characters prove hypnotic in this elegant and meditative novel about love, relationships and the meaning of home.

The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult
Another gripping, nuanced tale of a family in crisis from bestseller Picoult, who jumps on the graphic novel bandwagon and includes cartoons by artist Dustin Weaver. (His devil may seem familiar—Picoult told him she imagined Satan looking like Jack Nicholson.)

REALITY CHECK

Blame it on graying boomers, medical advances or Hollywood: Americans are spending billions a year trying to stay young. Snap out of it, urges Dr. Muriel R. Gillick, and focus on things like overhauling Medicare. Read it before scheduling that facelift.

Tails of Devotion

If pets spoke our language, what would they say? Author Emily Scott Pottruck posed the question; 50-plus replies—with photos—fill these pages. (All proceeds go to animal-welfare organizations.)