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Bestselling books

Notable Books | Four bestselling hardback novels - reviewed by Susan Olasky

Nineteen Minutes

Plot: Armed with several handguns and explosives, a high-school junior takes revenge on those who have bullied him since kindergarten.

Gist: In this novelistic exploration of events leading to a school shooting, Picoult primarily blames a persistent pattern of bullying by popular kids (athletes, of course). She also faults non-intervening teachers, busy and clueless parents, guns, violent movies, and video games. But in the face of great evil, none of the characters even asks a spiritual question-which isn't true-to-life or convincing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Plot: In a Lahore café, a young Pakistani tells an American stranger his life story.

Gist: Who is this American and what is he doing in Lahore? Why does the waiter keep looking at him? Does the American mean trouble for the Pakistani or the other way around? As suspense builds, the Pakistani recounts his life pre-9/11: Princeton education, job in a top NYC financial firm, and love. Then it all crashes and he sees himself as a traitor to his own Pakistani culture-but what then?

What the Dead Know

Plot: A mysterious lady wrecks her car and flees. When she's caught, she claims to be one of a pair of sisters missing and assumed dead for 30 years.

Gist: Is the woman who she says she is? This novel jumps back and forth from the day of the disappearance (told from different perspectives) and its aftermath, to the present. Police have to figure out who she really is and why she won't reveal details of her life from the past 30 years. Lippman is a fine storyteller, though some readers will object to the foul language used by several characters.

The Castle in the Forest

Plot: A middle-management demon (shades of The Screwtape Letters) explains how Satan was responsible for the conception and formative experiences of Adolf Hitler.

Gist: Why would a Jewish literary lion in his 70s write a novel (The Gospel According to the Son) that takes Jesus seriously, although wrongly? Why, in his 80s, in his first novel in 10 years, would he fixate on the reality of pure spiritual evil? Some brilliant passages within this uneven book raise profound questions about life and the author's consciousness.

Spotlight

True story: Deborah Rodriguez was a hairdresser in Michigan married to an abusive man. Facing personal disaster, she took a course in mass disaster relief. Soon after she finished it, terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers and she went to help. A year later, the now-separated Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a medical team but wondered, as doctors and nurses introduced themselves, what use she could be. Then she identified herself as a hairdresser-and the beauty-starved relief workers in Kabul greeted her with cheers.

After that beginning, and her discovery that the Taliban had shuttered the country's beauty parlors, she decided to set up a beauty school. How she went about it, and her experiences in the secret world of Afghan women, is at the heart of Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil (Random House, 2007). Her chatty narrative provides a sympathetic look into the lives of her Afghan friends. It doesn't take seriously the religious questions raised by her willingness to enter a polygamous marriage as the second wife of a Kabul businessman.

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