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Friday, November 24, 2006
Books (and a Song)

New York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year will be released in print this Sunday, out now on the web. From the fiction list, , of what I've read, let me recommend (the comments are from the list):

By Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday. $22.95.) In this parablelike novel, a commercial nomenclature consultant" is hired to name a Midwestern town, and his task turns into an exploration of the corruption of language.

BROOKLAND. By Emily Barton. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) A tale of 18th-century sisters, one with a dream to bridge the East River.

(Scribner, $27.50.) The themes of Hempel's unsettling and blackly funny vignettes — mortality, desire and fear of human connection — are threaded with only the slenderest hopes of redemption.

GALLATIN CANYON: Stories. By Thomas McGuane. (Knopf, $24.) McGuane's portraits of American manhood have the capacity to astonish.

By Jennifer Egan. (Knopf, $23.95.) Old grievances drive the plot of this novel, set in a castle and a prison. Egan deftly weaves threads of sordid realism and John Fowles-like magic.

ONLY REVOLUTIONS. By Mark Z. Danielewski. (Pantheon, $26.) A structurally experimental road-trip novel with a road like a Möbius strip.

By Irène Némirovsky. Translated by Sandra Smith. (Knopf, $25.) Before dying at Auschwitz in 1942, Némirovsky wrote these two exquisitely shaped novellas about France in defeat. But the manuscripts came to light only in the late '90s.

And finally, what I think may be the most important post-911 American novel yet written:

By Richard Powers. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) This novel's heroine tries to help her brother after a mysterious truck crash leaves him with a rare form of amnesia.

Margaret Atwood reviews Powers in latest NYRB:

If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century, which writer would he be? He'd probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big. Moby-Dick sank like a stone when it first came out: it had to wait almost a century before its true importance was recognized. Given Powers's previous interest in devices like time capsules, I'd hazard that he has the long view in mind: open him up in a hundred years, and there, laid out before you in novel after novel, will be the preoccupations and obsessions and speech patterns and jokes and gruesome mistakes and eating habits and illusions and stupidities and loves and hates and guilts of his own time. All novels are time capsules, but Powers's novels are larger and more inclusive time capsules than most.

It's a sign of how hornetized I get with politics that I read the novel, amongst the many themes its develops, as an allegory for the United States post-911 (and Powers leaves enough clues that he means it to be read as such - probably not as much as I do, but as such): disoriented, disjointed, paranoid and self-recriminating, not recognizing other Americans as family, not recognizing America as America, unable to define who one is in an country that cannot be defined.

Atwood again (and her review is generous in scope and only begins to scratch the surface of the novel):

But The Echo Maker may be read on yet another level: What is wrong with the "self" of America? Has the true America been taken away, has a fake America replaced it? Are the characters—and by extension the reader— situated in a sort of Stepford America? Are we "living in the age of mass hypnotism," as Weber's wife says of corporate America and its Enron-like smoke-and-mirrors economic shams? Is "America" now a phantom limb, like the ones discussed by Weber— long gone, but still hurting? What are the essential ingredients that give a place or a country its identity, and that make a person a true version of him- or herself?

A brilliant, vital novel. Best I've read in years.

* * * * * * * * * *

Speaking of the tenuousness of recognition, have this cover: