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Books to Read for in April 2011

Written by eastern writer on Monday, April 18, 2011

Please Look After Mom
By Kyung-sook Shin
256 pages; Knopf

This best-seller set in the author's native Korea examines a family's history through the story of the matriarch, mysteriously gone missing from a Seoul train station.

Started Early, Took My Dog: A Novel
By Kate Atkinson
384 pages; Reagan Arthur Books

Retired detective Tracy Waterhouse is not prone to heedless action—until that day at the mall when she makes the mother of all impulse buys. One minute she's watching a little girl being mistreated by her junkie mom, feeling "despair and frustration as she contemplated the blank but already soiled canvas of the kid's future." The next she's asking: "How much for the kid?" So begins Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog (Reagan Arthur), the latest novel to feature private investigator Jackson Brodie, first seen in the author's 2005 Case Histories. Set in the English city of Leeds, the book alternates between the present and 1975, when then-rookie policewoman Tracy discovered another mistreated child, who eventually becomes part of Jackson's current investigation. While their lives only briefly intersect, they are kindred souls. Both Tracy and Jackson are tough, decent, appealingly vulnerable, and, in middle age, more than a little wistful about the choices they've made. (As Tracy contemplates her Faustian bargain, she thinks: "She could have someone to love but it would cost her everything.") Mixing wry wit and gritty realism, Atkinson deftly smudges the border between literary and detective fiction—with complex, compelling characters negotiating a maze of grisly violence, dark secrets, and shadowy dangers.

The Free World
By David Bezmozgis
368 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

How dreamy—summer in Rome and the nearby seaside with family and friends. Except that the Soviet Jews thrown together there in David Bezmozgis's electrifying debut novel The Free World (FSG) are immigrants and refugees stranded in 1978 as they await visas to their Promised Land, wherever that may be. Canada? The United States? Australia? Bezmozgis, himself a transplant from Latvia to Toronto, displays a quicksilver empathy and quiet, burning admiration for the strong women attached to three generations of Krasnanskys, a family that Roman exile threatens to break apart. The matriarch, Emma, is a "simple creature" sidelined by the chaos of change. Her daughter-in-law Polina, a Christian among Jews, contends with a wayward husband, Alec, the handsome, slippery lover boy at the story's violent core. Both women have lost children, a bond that unites them despite the differences in their marriages, their ages, and their experiences of Rome. As for the men—oy: criminal mishaps, misguided love affairs, and a stubborn refusal to let go of a Soviet past even though it betrayed them with anti-Semitism, famine, and war. Along with the darkness, though, there is beauty here: "Dmitri led them out of the necropolis, past a statue of a headless, armless man in a toga, and along a street of bleached stone ruins, with their exposed floors mutely resigned to the whims of the sky." These are the charms of the ancient city, but for the Krasnanskys they can't compare to the lure of a new life.

You Think That's Bad
By Jim Shepard
240 pages; Knopf

"Cinematic" is one way to describe Jim Shepard's collection You Think That's Bad (Knopf). Each story takes you to a different place and time; from a British cartographer's circa 1930 exploration of the Arabian desert to a futuristic take on global warming, these exterior worlds are as fantastically fashioned as the characters themselves. In "Netherlands Lives with Water" (included in Best American Short Stories 2010), right before the sea swallows Rotterdam, a husband thinks about his wife: "We told each other I think I know when we should've said Lead me farther through your amazing, astonishing interior." Shepard's cataclysmic renderings are both terrifying and awe- inspiring. There's a word for that, too—sublime.

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World
By Tina Rosenberg
402 pages; W. W. Norton & Company

Here are some things we know peer pressure can cause: smoking, driving drunk, buying stuff we don't need. Here are some things Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg has seen peer pressure do: increase math performance among minority students, help prevent the spread of HIV, contribute to the demise of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic's repressive regime. In her smart and earnest book, Join the Club (Norton), Rosenberg, a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, debunks the popular notion that peer pressure is always bad and argues that by helping people find positively persuasive cohorts, we can change the world. One unforgettable example: a stop-smoking campaign in Florida that convinced teenagers it was more rebellious and cool to confront the tobacco companies than to use their products. "Peer pressure is a mighty and terrible force—so powerful that, for the vast majority of people, the best antidote to it is more peer pressure."


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