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Notable books

Notable Books | Four recent novels reviewed by Susan Olasky

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

The Postmistress

Blake's great storytelling begins with an aging war correspondent reminiscing about a World War II postmistress who chose not to deliver a letter. The novel then flashes back to interlocking stories of Frankie Bard, the war correspondent; an American doctor who leaves his wife on Cape Cod and volunteers in London; and the folks back home who wait uneasily for war to come. Bard's radio accounts from London disrupt their ordinary lives by bringing into their homes eyewitness accounts of the Blitz and other war horrors. Bard's desperate desire to rouse her fellow Americans against the Nazis drives her to risk a train crossing of occupied France, interviewing Jewish refugees along the journey. Cautions: some language and sex.

A Fierce Radiance

This engaging historical novel includes plenty of period details and appearances by historical figures such as Claire Booth Luce and her husband, Time owner Henry Luce. The book begins with a man dying of pneumonia at the Rockefeller Institute in Manhattan where researchers are testing a new drug, penicillin. That story fascinates Claire Shipley, a Life photographer, because her daughter died from an infection that developed from a scrape on her leg. When her editor spikes the story, she learns that Washington has taken over the penicillin project as part of its WWII effort. The novel is a historical medical thriller that follows nations, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies competing to develop a cure for bacterial infections endemic in war and ordinary life. Some language and sex.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The chief pleasure here is McCrumb's depiction of big city reporters flocking to a tiny Blue Ridge Mountain hamlet in the 1930s to cover the sensational trial of a schoolteacher accused of murdering her drunken lout of a father. As the train carries them from New York to Virginia, we see them sketching out the story, deciding how to portray the accused and the local "yokels." Their basis for writing is not truth or eyewitness reporting but the demands of their readers, their editors, and their own egos. Although a local reporter goes after the truth, his editor can't figure out why his stories don't match those of the bigger, prize-winning journalists. One book in McCrumb's lyrically written Ballad series.

The Cookbook Collector

Goodman's novel Intuition captured life at a medical research lab, the conflicting motives of the researchers, and the temptations they face. Goodman turns her wonderful narrative powers to the dot-com era, when programmers, entrepreneurs, academics, and secretaries became multimillionaires overnight. She captures the frantic energy, creative rivalries, greed, and irrational exuberance of the period by focusing on the relationship of two sisters, one a high-tech entrepreneur and the other a philosophy graduate student, and the competition between two start-ups, one run by one of the sisters and the other run by her fiance. Goodman's characters are all looking for meaning and purpose by pursuing tangible and intangible things. Some language and sex.

Spotlight

Martha Mason wrote her memoir Breath (Bloomsbury, 2010) while on her back, encased in an 800-pound iron lung in which she spent 61 years until she died last year at age 71. The first 10 years of her life were full of typical childhood fun. She was energetic and smart, living a carefree, rural life during the 1940s. Then in September 1948-three days after her brother died of it-Mason contracted polio, which took away her ability to breathe on her own. After a year's recovery, her doctor told her, "You're basically an excellent mind and an exuberant spirit locked inside an inert body-a prison. Can you live with that?" She was 12 years old. She answered him, "No . . . but I can live above it." Her memoir describes how she kept that audacious promise, including graduating at the top of her Wake Forest class. She writes with humor and insight, especially concerning her parents' deep biblical faith and remarkable care.

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