By Jennifer Egan
Egan's novel is inventive, suspenseful and more than a little weird. It begins with a cruel joke at a family picnic: A teenage boy named Danny lures his nerdy cousin, Howie, into the depths of an underground cave, then abandons him without a flashlight. Howie is found alive three days later, but each boy is, in his own way, traumatized by the prank. Fast-forward 20 years: Howie is a wealthy bond trader retired at 34, and Danny is an underachiever with a seedy employment history. Long out of touch, they reunite when Howie invites Danny to help renovate his new purchase, an isolated and rather ghoulish German castle. Could Howie be plotting revenge after all these years? That's the obvious guess, but the clever Egan (Look at Me) complicates things by inventing a parallel story set in a US prison and teases us by making the plot lines meet, then diverge, then turn back on each other again. The execution isn't seamless, but she has such a good time keeping all the balls in the air that we felt giddy just to be along for the ride. It's an addictive book, and good company on a hot summer day.
The Man Who Heard Voices
By Michael Bamberger
Bamberger, a writer for Sports Illustrated, refers to director M. Night Shyamalan as “Night” throughout this book, reminding us repeatedly that 1) Shyamalan took “Night” in preference to his real name, Manoj, which endured “rituals of death” on its way to becoming an initial; and 2) Bamberger first met Shyamalan at a party and liked him, which must account for the admiring tone in these pages. This is the story of Lady in the Water and its transformation from a bedtime tale Shyamalan told his kids to the recent (and widely panned) film. It's also a story about Hollywood politics, artistic ego and the self-importance that big success (in Shyamalan's case, The Sixth Sense) breeds. The latter is illustrated when Shyamalan's assistant is dispatched to LA to distribute the Lady screenplay to Disney executives, an assignment undertaken with such gravity and paranoia that you'd think she was transporting plutonium. Bamberger offers an entertaining look at the making of a big-budget movie, but its portrait of the director will be hard for Shyamalan to live down.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
By Marisha Pessl
The early chapters of this first novel come at you in a rush, so cluttered and hyperactive that in just a few pages you'll find a hundred reasons to stop reading. But don't. Behind the bulk (514 pages) and the hoo-ha there's a voice to be reckoned with, a talented writer with a dazzlingly unpredictable story to tell. Throughout the book, Pessl fairly wallows in literary references and gimmicks. Indeed, she presents her novel as a literature class, with chapters titled Othello and Madame Bovary, line drawings meant as visual aids and a final exam at the end. At heart, though, it's really a mystery. Its narrator, Blue Van Meer (she was named after a butterfly) tells us of her nomadic life with her father, an academic lecturer, after her mother's death in a car crash, her senior year at a North Carolina boarding school, the students she comes to know there and the glamorous and enigmatic teacher whom Blue finds dead, hanged with an electrical cord in a pine forest. Was Hannah Schneider's death a suicide? Was it a murder? The best surprise of all in this audacious and flamboyant book is that we can't wait to find out.