Book reviews for this week

Here are condensed versions of this week’s book reviews that didn’t make it to the physical newspaper:


“Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief” by Tom Zoellner; Viking (384 pages, $27.95)

The routes American railroads follow were laid out almost exclusively in the 19th and 20th centuries, when trains were symbols of modernity and industrial power. And today, riding a train — especially in the United States — can feel like stepping into a time machine.

Tom Zoellner enters this time machine again and again in his highly entertaining, lucid and perceptive travelogue “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.” It’s an account of Zoellner’s travels on six legendary rail lines, but it’s really much more than that: It’s a train lover’s celebration of the great epic story of rail travel itself.

“We live in a society that was made by the railroads in ways we never think about anymore,” writes Zoellner, a Chapman University professor and author of books on topics ranging from uranium to Gabrielle Giffords. We owe to railroads, he says, “our abstract notion of time and our sense of everyday connection with people who may live out of sight but are made neighbors through mechanical means. Under the skin of modernity lies a skeleton of railroad tracks.”

The industry that gave us standardized clocks lives on in the industrial and riverside landscapes where trains run today. With his cinematic eye and encyclopedic rail knowledge, Zoellner shows how you can see that history today, from the windows of an Amtrak passenger car or a Spanish bullet train.


“Chance” by Kem Nunn; Scribner (322 pages, $26)

Is it too much to compare Kem Nunn to Raymond Chandler? Both have used the loose frame of genre to write enduringly and resonantly about the dark side of the California dream. For Nunn, this has meant an exploration of boundaries, both actual and metaphorical; his last novel, “Tijuana Straits” (which won a 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize), traces the shifting landscape of the physical borderland.

At the same time, there is also a willingness to take risks, to play against expectation, which marks both Nunn’s fiction and his TV work on “John from Cincinnati” and now “Sons of Anarchy.” His writing has been characterized as “surf noir,” but really, that’s just a convenient placeholder, going back 30 years to “Tapping the Source,” in which a teenage boy’s search for his sister leads him to the unexpected fringes of a Southern California beach community.

Like Chandler, Nunn’s great subject is what lies beneath the surface, the desolation that infuses us at every turn. As Eldon Chance, the central character of his sixth novel, “Chance,” reflects, “What difference would any of it make when all was said and done? When entropy and darkness had had their way?”

“Chance” is very much a book about entropy and darkness. It also takes its share of risks, beginning with the name of Nunn’s eponymous protagonist, a forensic neuropsychiatrist in San Francisco who “made the better part of his living explaining often complicated neurological conditions to juries and or attorneys.” Such a formulation can seem contrived, especially in a novel like this one, which is, at heart, about uncertainty.

“I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War” by Jerome Charyn; Liveright (480 pages, $26.95)

Charyn has taken the audacious step of writing in the first person, as Lincoln. That’s fraught with danger, and a bit of mystery: Can Charyn bring this off?

It’s impossible to know how people conversed in the mid-1800s; we have no recordings, of course, and it’s doubtful that conversations in novels give us an accurate picture.

It is tough to pin down exactly how Charyn makes Lincoln’s observations sound of another time without sounding artificial. The secret, perhaps, is that he sprinkles in just enough period references (pantaloons, prairie schooners, crushed crinolines and suchlike), has his characters speak ever-so-slightly more formally than we might. He doesn’t so much shove us into the past as suggest our presence there.

One tic, it must be said, is obtrusive: Charyn’s seemingly random use of italic type. If there is a pattern, I couldn’t fathom it; if it’s meant to suggest 19th-century writing, or if the tic is actually Lincoln’s, I don’t think readers are going to get it.

Still, it’s a minor aggravation, and Charyn’s writing sometimes rises to a lyrical level that washes any quibbles aside.

What we end up with is a deeper understanding of Lincoln as a flawed and haunted man, not just a character flattened between the pages of a history textbook. Charyn’s Lincoln is a real human, and someone, in the end, who enriches our lives for having known him.

“The Museum Of Extraordinary Things” by Alice Hoffman; Scribner (368 pages, $27.99)

Alice Hoffman’s storytelling magic is on abundant display in her new novel, which folds a romance and a tightly plotted mystery within a brilliant portrait of the splendors and miseries of New York during a pivotal year in the city’s history. It’s a pleasure to report this return to top form by Hoffman, a gifted but uneven writer whose penchant for excess marred such recent works as “The Third Angel” and “The Story Sisters.” “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” is more disciplined, yet it exudes the same appreciation for the fantastical and the marvelous that echoes throughout Hoffman’s work.

Here, those qualities are embodied in the exhibitions at the eponymous museum, a small establishment in Coney Island run by the shady Professor Sardie. His “wonders” include a Wolfman, Siamese twins and his own daughter. Coralie’s webbed fingers are dipped in blue dye, she’s clothed in a fake tail and displayed in a tank as “The Human Mermaid.” But by 1911, the museum’s attractions have been eclipsed by the gaudy amusements of Dreamland and Luna Park. We find Coralie swimming in the Hudson, unhappily complying with her father’s plan to foster rumors about a mysterious monster in the river. He will then fabricate his own monster and exhibit it to revive the Museum of Extraordinary Things.

Emerging from the Hudson in the woods of upper Manhattan, Coralie spies a young man cooking himself dinner over a bonfire. Like her, Eddie Cohen was a motherless child chafing under his father’s expectations. Unlike Coralie, Eddie walked away, abandoning life as an exploited garment worker to become a photographer of crime scenes and disasters.

Coralie falls in love with Eddie that very night, but she flees before he sees her in the underbrush; they won’t actually meet until the novel is two-thirds over. Hoffman expertly weaves the future lovers’ monologues with a third-person account moving through the spring of 1911 to create a wonderfully rich narrative tapestry.

“North of Boston” by Elisabeth Elo; Pamela Dorman Books (400 pages, $27.95)

Scent pervades Elisabeth Elo’s debut outing: expensive perfumes, the tang of fishing boats and the coppery smell of blood.

The thriller stars Pirio Kasparov. She’s a descendant of Russian parents who bought their Beacon Hill bona fides, but who feels more at home among Boston’s dockworkers and fishermen.

Pirio is heir to a perfume house founded by her parents. Her mother, who died when Pirio was only 10, took the secret of her signature scent to the grave.

Sent away to a boarding school for problem kids at the urging of her father’s new wife, Pirio learns to survive on her own. When she meets teenage Thomasina, a castaway from the wreck of her wealthy parents’ divorce, they form an adolescent bond that turns into a lifelong friendship.

Pirio has a lot of sharp, interesting edges, and she’s an easy narrator to like. She’s no pushover, but readily steps up as protector to the wronged and the innocent.

Elo, who teaches writing in the Boston area, plans more adventures with Pirio as the main character. If that does happen, I hope her father, Milosa, survives long enough to make his presence felt. His cigar-scented, hard-as-nails personality, while not the best father figure for a motherless child, serves as a remorseless reality check for the adult Pirio.

And Elo leaves a cloud of mystery around Pirio’s parents’ early partnership that could be a great subplot for a second outing.

“One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories,” by B.J. Novak; Alfred A. Knopf (276 pages, $24.95)

The guy from “The Office,” as most people think of B.J. Novak, has written a book — a fun and unusual one. Though “One More Thing” is subtitled “Stories and Other Stories,” only a few of the 63 pieces are stories in the usual sense. Many are fables, some are comedy monologues, others are nearly prose poems. A few are two-line koans. Almost all 63 of them are smart, quick and funny.

Many revolve around taking a common phrase and turning it on its head. The poor schlubs in “Great Writers Steal” have misunderstood Oscar Wilde’s advice — “good writers borrow, great writers steal” — imagining Bret Easton Ellis robbing liquor stores, and following suit.

The best pieces have characters and plots and some heartbreak along with the humor. “Sophia,” a story about a man who returns his sex robot because it falls in love with him — “Her” with a twist — almost made me cry. The most developed story in the book is “One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie,” in which a group of college friends has a reunion in Las Vegas with the secret purpose of staging an intervention for Willie, whose Facebook posts have led them to believe he’s gone over the edge, partywise.

In the Acknowledgments, Novak says his best advice is to “write for the kid sitting next to you.” If so — don’t change the seating chart.

“The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon; Doubleday (336 pages, $25.95)

Every small town has its ghost story that stems from an abandoned house that children avoid, a dark wood into which no one ventures, a graveyard where the fog seems to settle or an unsolved murder.

West Hall, Vt., has all that and more, in a tale that dates back to 1908 when Sara Harrison Shea and her husband, Martin, lived on an unproductive farm outside of town. Every day Martin sees the dying crops, the bare root cellar and feels “the sour creep of failure work its way … into his chest” while Sara believes their land is cursed. The bright spot in their lives is their daughter Gertie. When Gertie is found dead in an abandoned well, Sara is convinced that she can bring her child back to life. That story of Sara and her family resonates in the present day with 19-year-old Ruthie Washburne, who now lives in Sara’s former house. When Ruthie’s mother disappears, the teenager looks into West Hall’s dark past that includes a string of disappearances and unexplained happenings.

McMahon’s in-depth exploration of each character elevates “The Winter People,” making each aspect of the story believable, even when things go bump in the night. McMahon makes a smooth transition as she alternates the story between the past and the present.

After a series of several paperback thrillers that have landed on the New York Times, McMahon makes her foray into hardcover with “The Winter People,” one of the year’s most chilling novels.


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