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11.25.09

3 Great Reads for Thanksgiving

Looking for some appropriate post-tryptophan entertainment? Novelist Taylor Antrim recommends three great books that readers might have missed this fall.

Not to be a scold, but is it really such a good idea to sack out in front of the TV all Thanksgiving afternoon? Double helpings of turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie mean physical exercise is pretty much out of the question. But keeping the brain ticking while the body goes into a caloric stupor can’t be such a bad thing, physiologically speaking.

This means skipping Raiders-Cowboys, the National Dog Show, and, you know, Road House on VH1 in favor of a good book (and make it fiction; this is vacation). Corollary benefit? Alone time. If you’re like me, the social demands of family holidays must be counterbalanced by recuperative intervals of solitude. Reading is, blessedly, a solo sport.

Plus, fall happens to be the publishing industry’s marquee season, so there’s a smorgasbord of top-flight new fiction to choose from. Here are three of my favorites, each a slightly below-radar pick, each transporting enough to provide the necessary dose of holiday escapism.

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Spooner. By Pete Dexter. 480 pages. Grand Central. $26.99. ()

It’s been a crowded few months for big novels from literary stars (Orhan Pamuk, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Powers), but I’d call National Book Award-winning Pete Dexter’s uproarious roman à clef Spooner the best of the bunch; no contest it’s the funniest. From the moment of his troubled birth in small-town Georgia in 1956, Warren Spooner displays a boyish talent for chaos. He’s expelled from kindergarten, pranks his neighbors, and struggles to win, in his rambunctious way, the love of his stepfather. That would be Calmer Ottosson, an officer drummed out of the Navy after an episode of hilariously bad luck. Ill fortune will dog both men throughout their lives, the spans of which give the novel its pleasurably shaggy structure. Spooner goes from baseball phenom to accidental newspaper columnist to novelist/husband/father, but he never, endearingly, grows out of his tendency toward misadventure, nor his yearning for Calmer’s acceptance. Calmer, a reticent, strenuously decent schoolteacher, doesn’t quite know what to make of his stepson. Dexter’s approach here is episodic, picaresque, and nakedly autobiographical (he admits as much in his amusing, nine-page Acknowledgements). Colorful, supporting characters abound, but Dexter’s villains are especially good: There’s Spooner’s fearsome, asthmatic mother, his barbarian high-school football coach, a scheming trust-fund neighbor. As in his earlier novels, such as Train and Paris Trout, Dexter keeps readers turning pages by building conflicts to the point of violence. But Spooner isn’t nearly as severe and brutal as Dexter’s previous work. This is a resolutely warmhearted, even gentle novel, albeit sad in its conclusions about men and the limits of their capacity for intimacy.

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The Man in the Wooden Hat. By Jane Gardam. 289 pages. Europa Editions. $14.95. ()

I’ll admit I’d never heard of Jane Gardam, despite the fact that her new novel is her 17th work of fiction, despite the fact that she’s won numerous awards in her native England, despite the fact that she’s as skilled and nimble a chronicler of class and manners in English life as Mansfield or Waugh. No matter, The Man in the Wooden Hat makes a splendid introduction. A companion to her 2006 novel Old Filth, this one tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers and wife Betty from Betty’s point of view (the previous novel was largely the husband’s story). The two meet and marry, precipitously, in 1950s Hong Kong. Edward is an up-and-coming barrister, nicknamed Filth (“Failed in London Try Hong Kong”) in need of a wife, and here’s what he knows of Betty: “a good sort. Very attractive.” Likewise, Betty, formerly a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, is only faintly acquainted with Edward. He proposes by letter, and he is successful, good-looking, a member of her class, and why not? She grew up an orphan in Japanese internment camps and has a flighty streak. Edward, also an Empire orphan, born in Malaysia, could be the solidity she needs. Her friend Amy counsels caution: “Don’t do it Bets. Don’t go for a forty-watt bulb because it looks pretty. You’ll get stuck with it when it goes out.” Such talk—brisk, witty, urbane—animates the novel, as does Gardam’s sure-handed and evocative descriptions of expatriate Hong Kong. Edward and Betty’s match isn’t exactly happy—nor is it tragic. In 230-odd fast-moving pages, Gardam gives us the whole life of a marriage, its rich contradictions, its consolations and heartbreak. Before you know it, Gardam has covered 40 years, and Betty and Edward are an aging couple in the English countryside, still harboring secrets from each other as well as nurturing a hard-won love. It’s a sophisticated, terrifically entertaining novel that is over much too soon, but good news for the uninitiated—there are 16 more where this one came from.

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There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. 224 pages. Penguin. $15. ()

The fact that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is Russia’s premier writer of fiction today proves that the literary tradition that produced Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Babel is alive and well. This new English translation of Petrushevskaya’s work by novelist and n+1 editor Keith Gessen and Slavic scholar Anna Summers is thrillingly strange, a collection, culled from 30 years of her output, of short, mostly supernatural stories that reveal the simmering nightmares of a nation still recovering from a century of tyranny and bloodshed. There’s little explicit history or politics in these pages, rather an omnipresent sense of impending violence and threat. In the brilliantly disturbing “Hygiene,” a mysterious plague has taken hold of a Russian town. One family barricades itself inside a squalid apartment hoping to ride it out. In “Revenge” an unmarried women tries to murder her close friend’s child by laying a pot of boiling water, a container of bleach, and a box of needles in the hallway of their communal apartment. In “The Miracle,” a mother whose son has robbed her and attempted suicide consults a local drunk, his body covered in sores, for advice. The stories, most of them very short, have the blunt, evocative effect of parables or campfire tales. More than a few resist simple interpretation—for instance, in “There’s Someone in the House,” a woman who seems to be both a mother and her own daughter is menaced by a kind of poltergeist. Or is she going insane and wrecking her own apartment? And what about her chillingly lifeless, death-haunted cat? Readers won’t always know what to make of Petrushevskaya’s work, but her stories have the power to disturb and unsettle all the same.

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Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.