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Notable Books

Notable Books | Four novels that feature the famous reviewed by Susan Olasky

A Good Hard Look

It takes creative guts to set a novel in Milledgeville, Ga., and make Flannery O'Connor a central character. Ann Napolitano takes the risk with mixed results as she portrays ambitions, resentments, and lust beneath a placid surface. They combust into violence just as you might expect from an O'Connor story, the problem is the O'Connor character: Is she faithful to her namesake? I doubt it. This O'Connor is a lonely, bitter figure with a shallow, petulant faith. If you put aside the knowledge that the character with the peacocks is supposed to be a literary lion, you'll find a well-told, somewhat melodramatic story. One more quibble: How do you write a story set in Georgia in the 1960s and not deal at all with race?

The Last Dickens

Charles Dickens dies before he can finish his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His Boston publisher, trying to stay one step ahead of the publishing competition, is desperate to find out how the story was supposed to end. Thus begins a search that takes the American publisher, Osgood, and his pretty bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, to England to search for clues. The story flashes back to Dickens' last American tour, then jumps to India, where Dickens' son is a policeman charged with protecting the British opium trade. The novel is slow in parts and confusing in others, but the patient reader will be rewarded with a well-rendered and historically accurate picture of 19th century publishing, fame, and the opium trade.

The Little Women Letters

This lively novel imagines the descendants of the March sisters from Little Women-Emma, Lulu, and Sophie Atwater-figuring out life in modern London. The Atwaters resemble the Marches: Emma is sensible like Meg and Sophie is artistic like Amy. Lulu-a somewhat odd bird-finds in her parents' attic letters written by great, great, great grandmother Jo. They describe funny scenes, ponder matters of the heart, and express grief over Beth's death. In the letters Lulu finds a kindred spirit and guidance as she struggles to find herself. The novel is clean and fun, especially if you loved Little Women. A mild feminist thread weaves through the book, but it is accompanied by another thread that extols family and lifelong marriage.

Doc

Mary Doria Russell's compelling, sympathetic portrait of the brilliant, consumptive dentist from Georgia brings to life Dodge City, Kan., in all its lawless energy. John Henry (Doc) Holliday is a tragic hero in her telling, a man fallen from the life he was born to and trained for. Hints of that past life-before Sherman marched through Georgia, before his beloved mother died, before he contracted tuberculosis-are evident as he quotes Homer, enjoys fine food and clothes, and defends his honor. He turns to gambling to support himself and the prostitute, a minor aristocrat, with whom he lives. Increasingly he turns to brandy to get relief from his racking cough and pain. Note: If this were a movie it would be R-rated for language, violence, and sexual themes.

Spotlight

Once again it's Banned Book Week. Since 1982 the American Library Association and booksellers have chosen the last week in September to draw attention to books challenged or removed from school and public library shelves. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook will play a role this year, and YouTube users will be posting videos as they read from their favorite challenged books.

The American Library Association received reports of 348 book challenges in 2010. The 10 most challenged books: And Tango Makes Three; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Brave New World; Crank; The Hunger Games (series); Lush; What My Mother Doesn't Know; Nickel and Dimed; Revolutionary Voices; Twilight (series). All these books had to make it onto the library shelves and school reading lists before they could be challenged and removed.

In the 1960s libraries often didn't carry Nancy Drew because librarians didn't think the series was literature. Now, according to American Libraries magazine 243 libraries have decided to add to their collections a "decidedly adult bedtime-story parody" with an obscenity in the title-but woe to the person who might object because it's not age-appropriate.

Listen to Susan Olasky discuss these novels on the radio program The World and Everything in It.

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