BRICK LANE

By Monica Ali (Simon and Schuster, $25) The dealthe big dealwith Monica Ali is that not only was she selected as one of

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This Week's Reads

Monica Ali, Adam Haslett, Jonathan Lethem, and Cathleen Schine.

BRICK LANE

By Monica Ali (Simon and Schuster, $25) The dealthe big dealwith Monica Ali is that not only was she selected as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, but she was bestowed with that decennial honor before she even published this debut novel. Ali had previously worked in advertising and only flirted with the idea of being a writer when, all of a sudden, she became a famous one. The pressure could cripple some novelistsand crush some novelsbut Ali and Brick Lane easily shoulder the weight. Lane tells the story of Nazneen and her confused, muddled, and mostly unhappy memories of her upbringing in Bangladesh, along with her equally unhappy adult life. Early on, Nazneen is sent off to Thatcher's U.K. to marry a British Bangladeshi who has a "face like a frog" and too many annoying qualities to list here; but believe me, Nazneen goes off on the guy. Although both Nazneen's marriage and subsequent family life remain joyless, Ali's restrained, dry humor makes the situation quite often hilarious. Even the most tragic details of Lane are limned with the thin black brush strokes of comedy. Throughout the book, Nazneen's disgraced sister, Hasina, writes her letters from back home in Bangladesh that are so weirdly cryptic, error-ridden, and naive that, even though she describes some horrible atrocities, they swell with a strange comedic sweetness. Both she and Nazneen are lonely and heartbroken in crumbling, contemporary worlds that are too close to their childhood for true comfort but too far from it, too. Along with the two separated sisters, Lane offers a stew of pungent supporting characters, including the other Bangladeshi women in Nazneen's apartment building, Hasina's neighbors, and, mostly through memories, the sisters' family. Lane is incredibly rich with these faces, kind hearts, and cruel spirits. It's one of those rare books that do what books really are supposed to do: escort you to another land and show youwholly, completely, and honestlyaround. LAURA CASSIDY Monica Ali will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Wed., Sept. 17.  

Author-lawyer Haslett.

photo: Brigitte Lacombe YOU ARE NOT A STRANGER HERE

By Adam Haslett (Anchor Books, $13) A young Ivy League lawyer, but far from the Grisham mold, Adam Haslett should consider quitting his day jobliterature needs him. Usually you can toss out several titles in a debut collection of stories (Stranger is new in paper) but not so here. All wrestle with lost souls, stifled urges, melancholia, manic depression, and outright madness. The unifying effect is like leafing through the pages of a physician's handbook, linking case studies with medications. In "Notes to My Biographer," there's a manic 73-year-old inventor fleeing his family and stealing Saabs; his motto is "Never finish anything that bores you." In "The Good Doctor," a meth-case teen chops off his mother's fingers. In "My Father's Business," a biblio-nut scholar goes off his meds, begins audiotaping interviews with his friends and family as therapy, then ends up in a Mobius loop of philosophical references and his own disordered thoughts: " . . . do you really spend the day in a ghastly neurasthenic haze, and just what are those things you've started to draw on the wall that look vaguely like the symbols of some primitive religion. . . . " Occasionally there's a whiff of English stuffiness to the football pitches, sideboards, and china (Haslett is half Brit), but the author also has a keen sense of the quotidian and American. In the collection's longest and best story, "The Volunteer," an alienated teen who visits a mental-home patient "imagines he's the only kid at high school who gets his romantic advice from a schizophrenic." At the same time, we learn how enterprising lads turn a kitchen sink and cut-off milk jug into an improvised bong. Ah, youth. A protege of Jonathan Franzen, Haslett has been knocked for a certain patness to his stories (particularly their endings). Unlike so much deeply felt, unstructured junk clogging present-day lit mags, his traditionalism hews to the formula that so endeared his mentor (initially) to Oprah: sophisticated thoughts and powerful feelings free of fussy formalism. Literature ought to be accessible to Oprah watchers. So, yes, Haslett is trad, but he's not O. Henry trad. I'd love to read his briefs. BRIAN MILLER Adam Haslett will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 18.  

Lethem: straight outta Brooklyn.

photo: Sylvia Plachy THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE

By Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $26) This new novel about a mother-deprived Brooklyn boy arrives with a bigger critics' hallelujah chorus than the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn. It isn't as good as The Corrections, but Jonathan Lethem is Jonathan Franzen's literary successor as the New Big Noise, vindicating his early promise with this heart-stopping doorstop of a book. Like Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it's about two comic-book-crazed kids with an urge to right society's wrongs, only it's not nearly so focused on the funnies. Mostly, it's concerned with racial tension and family woeshow the latter propel kids into the ambiguous clan of street culture, despite the fractiousness of the former. Everybody in the book lives in a fortress of solitude. (The original, of course, was the North Pole redoubt where Superman used to chill and forget his entanglements with humanity.) Its hero, Dylan Ebdus, age 6 circa 1970 in the first chapter, has an emotionally AWOL artist dad holed up in his studio making an abstract animated film resembling thousands of tiny, empty Rothko canvases. Meanwhile, Dylan's hippie mom sentences her son to Boerum Hill's mean streets and dire schools out of liberal guilt, then abruptly abandons the family for a commune. Enter Mingus Rude, son of a vanished mom and a black former doo-wop singing great now sinking into a private fortress of cocaine. The boys bond over parental neglect, Marvel Comics, and music (the novel's deeper preoccupation, which doubles as an emotional chronicle along Solitude's span from 1970 to 1988). In the book's oddest turn, they receive a fickle magic ring from a homeless man who falls from the sky that intermittently permits the wearer to fly or be invisible. Dylan and Mingus venture a few Superman-style raids on criminals but find that it's harder to sort out good guys from bad in Brooklyn than in comic books. The whole ring thing is sketchy and doesn't loom large in Solitude's largely realistic story. It's Lethem's Brooklyn childhood that does loom, marvelously and poetically evoked in profuse detail. Just as passionately, Lethem depicts the world of pop-culture references that modern kids inhabit as much as they do their physical neighborhoods. In one passage, a kid tries to impress the gang at CBGB in 1981 by citing who corresponds to each Beatle on Star Trek. ("Kirk's John, Spock's Paul, Bones is George, Scotty is Ringo. Or Chekhov, after the first season. [It's] an archetype, it's like the basic human formation.") I'm not sure which Beatle corresponds to which Lethem character, but Dylan and Mingus (plus a dozen or so walk-on characters) are masterfully rendered archetypes, not fully convincing individuals. The book is a generational bildungsroman, not a deep plunge into anybody's particular story: Cultural phenomena are the real characterspop, punk, disco, rap, weed, coke, graffiti art, Brooklyn schools, prisons, sidewalk playgrounds. The last part of the book sprawls and strains unmanageably, and its final resolutions are forced. Still, Solitude is the real deal: a major statement by an artist who's growing like the Incredible Hulk. TIM APPELO Jonathan Lethem will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 22.  

Cathleen Schine SHE IS ME

By Cathleen Schine (Little Brown, $23.95) Elizabeth is a mom. She's a mom and a daughter and a granddaughter. She's an academic, too, though a Hollywood producer is determined to make her a screenwriter. And she's a live-in girlfriend, though her boyfriend is determined to make her a wife. She Is Me, the latest from Cathleen Schine, is a novel about roles. When a producer comes across Elizabeth's paper on Madame Bovary and invites her from New York to Los Angeles to write an updated screen adaptation, Elizabeth knows it's a long shot. Still, she packs up her boyfriend and their toddler son and takes the plunge. The screenwriting gig represents more than a chance at fame and fortune; it's the excuse Elizabeth needs to move closer to her mother and grandmother, both of them stricken with cancer. In L.A., the double dose of illness hits the family hard and sends its members reeling in multiple directions. Elizabeth becomes caretaker to generations (two up, one down), while her mother is freed enough to stop mothering and starting livingeven when living means loving someone other than Elizabeth's father. Schine (Rameau's Niece) sketches fictional relationships with more clarity and insight than most of us can shed on the dynamics of our own real-life bonds. And her characters evince a real-world kind of lovemessy and unfashionable and loose, but not revocable, even when roles are reversed and redrawn. It's a love that rolls with the punches, and there's no shortage of punches in Me. In the midst of it all, Elizabeth's ill mother muses: "Life is full of surprises. . . . Why is that always so surprising?" KATIE MILLBAUER Cathleen Schine will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Tues., Sept. 23.

 
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