Picks and Pans Main: Books

updated 09/06/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Freedom

by Jonathan Franzen |

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REVIEWED BY KYLE SMITH

NOVEL

PEOPLE PICK

Industrious, sober, honorable and devoted, Walter Berglund may be the perfect husband. But sexy he is not. His best friend, a rocker named Richard Katz-coolly inscrutable and bewitchingly attractive-gives him someone to compare himself to and compete with. But Walter never fully understands that the two are competing for the attentions of Walter's wife, Patty.

In this epic tale of a marriage that begins in the '70s and continues until today, you will come to know Patty Berglund-a standout athlete in Minnesota who settles uneasily into a suburban homemaker's life-as well as your own family. As Walter becomes increasingly devoted to the public good, Patty's eye is trained on her secret longings and her frighteningly independent children. She's funny, smart, often depressed and heartbreakingly real, as is this novel, which explores how its characters collide with American notions of freedom (political, economic, sexual). It's the first novel from Franzen in nearly a decade. In its humanity, depth, dry comic observations and World According to Garp-like evoking of unspeakable sorrows and indelible bonds, it proves well worth the wait.

The Pain Chronicles

by Melanie Thernstrom |

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REVIEWED BY CAROLINE LEAVITT

NON-FICTION

Chronic pain, one of the most "serious, widespread, misunderstood, misdiagnosed and undertreated" diseases, affects more than 70 million Americans. So why can't we get some relief? Exhaustively researched, Thernstrom's book interweaves a chronicle of her own suffering following a neck and shoulder injury with insights into the history, mystery and science of agony (who knew that before the '70s, infants in surgery were given inadequate anesthesia because it was thought they felt less than adults?). Profound and engrossing, this exploration of pain is a pleasure.

The Last Talk with Lola Faye

by Thomas H. Cook |

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REVIEWED BY RICHARD EISENBERG

NOVEL

Luke Page, a spiritless, underachieving college professor who has been reduced to writing historical nonfiction of "startling mediocrity," is flabbergasted to see Lola Faye Gilroy show up at his St. Louis reading of Fatal Choices. Decades ago, back in Glenville, Ala., Lola Faye's tawdry affair with Luke's father had led her husband to murder him and then take his own life. So what does Lola Faye want now? And will she get it? Those questions ring eerily throughout Cook's Southern Gothic novel, which weaves elements of Poe and Double Indemnity over the course of a liquor-loaded conversation. Like two fleet-footed boxers, Luke and the mysterious Lola Faye spend the night taking verbal jabs, each suspicious of the other's role in the killing and trying to force a confession. Bit by bit, through a series of surprises, the truth emerges. For suspense fans, The Last Talk is a knockout.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

by Julia Stuart |

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NOVEL

The Tower of London's the center of this hilarious love story about Beefeater Balthazar, his wife, their tortoise and their eccentric friends. As Balthazar struggles to save his marriage, the rest of the cast carries on in a charming tangle, and when Balthazar is put in charge of a Tower zoo, hilarity breaks out. Sprinkled with fascinating Tower lore, the book will steal your heart.

How to Become a Scandal

by Laura Kipnis |

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REVIEWED BY JUDITH NEWMAN

NON-FICTION

What's going on with a politician who cracked down on prostitutes-while paying $3,000 a pop for their services? Media studies prof Kipnis offers up a theory of scandal-why people in high places self-destruct, and why we may need them to. A brilliant, funny take on our downfall-a-minute age.

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