Picks and Pans Review: Serena

updated 10/20/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ron Rash

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Returning to North Carolina with his bride, Serena, lumber baron George Pemberton is met at the station by the kitchen helper he's impregnated and her father, who's carrying a knife "sharpened . . . so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton's heart." From that arresting opening—only one man leaves the platform alive—the violence escalates along with the tension in this absorbing story about rapacious greed in Depression-era Appalachia. Both nature and people are expendable to the Pembertons as they race to clear-cut the forest before the government grabs their land to create a park. Though Rash paints Serena, an ice queen in jodhpurs, as nearly mythical, his loggers are human, laboring for little pay, often at the cost of life or limb. The story gathers momentum with a heart-racing denouement that pits merciless Serena against the kitchen girl who's borne Pemberton his only child. Thrilling stuff.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

by Elizabeth McCracken

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In the annals of grief memoirs, stillbirth stories don't figure big. How much is there to say, after all, about a baby who never drew breath? McCracken, who was days from her due date when her doctor failed to find a heartbeat, knows how much. In plain, affecting language, she tells her tale: how she and her husband, then living in France, playfully named their son-to-be "Pudding"; how his death's particular horror lay in the fact that "nothing had changed. We'd been waiting to be transformed." There's no wallowing here: She finds humor from the moment a midwife asks if they want to speak to a "nonne" (nun) and her husband hears it as "nain" (dwarf). Now mother to baby Gus, McCracken writes, "It's a happy life, and someone is missing." To her credit, readers will feel they know who.

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