THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER; By Stephen Chobsky; (MTV Books: 214 pp., $12)
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” written as a series of letters to an unnamed friend by a 15-year-old boy, is not really a coming-of-age story. Think of it more as a portrait of the saint as a young man. Charlie is such a completely good, pure human being (the way we were supposed to come off the production line) that you wonder how he sprang from the imagination of an ordinary adult author. There’s a lot he doesn’t understand (and that cloud of unknowing is the source of sadness)--like why his Aunt Helen died while buying him a birthday present, or why his gay friend Patrick is so badly treated, or why his sister falls in love with a guy who hits her. But his loving instincts are very strong. Again and again throughout the book he exhibits that pure wisdom we all like to read about and witness. And Stephen Chobsky doesn’t let us down. The language is plain and springy and blunt like the nobility of teenagers. “I really think,” Charlie writes of the Christmas presents he gives his best friends, “that everyone should have watercolors, magnetic poetry, and a harmonica.” In this culture where adolescence is a dirty word, I hope nothing bad ever happens to this kid.
THE FIRES; By Rene Steinke; (William Morrow: 256 pp., $23)
Spooky young women write spooky first novels. Sometimes they write them while they are in the process of figuring out what it is--what family story, what genetic heritage--that makes them unique (these things, in turn, make their books unique). Sometimes they write them when they think they have some answers or a metaphor that explains their uniqueness. These books have a Eureka! quality and often leave their heroines on the brink of adulthood with a truth that must be tested. The reader, out here in the cold, experiences either solidarity (the Oprah response) or powerlessness, like a therapist must feel after an hour of transference, not knowing where to dump all the foisted emotion. In Rene Steinke’s novel, the metaphor is fire. Her heroine, Ella, was badly burned when she was 4, in one of those terrible, inevitable moments when her good mother wasn’t watching. Ella’s scars not only make her different, but they burn and itch, provoked by terrible truths--like when she learns about her grandmother’s and aunt’s flirtation with the KKK. In young adulthood, she is a pyromaniac. She takes humiliating sexual risks. Steinke’s writing has a hard, sad grace to it: “The dry grass in the yard buckled and waved in a lake of needles. The clouds in the sky collided.”
THE IDEALISTS; By Henry Carlisle and Olga Andreyev Carlisle; (St. Martin’s: 288 pp., $23.95)
“Yellowed antimacassars, the fringed standing lamp, the upright piano with its melancholy shawl and sheets of French chansonnettes in the scrollwork rack, the chromalithograph of the tsar,” these are the artifacts of the monarchy in Russia, and they decorously litter Henry and Olga Carlisles’ novel, set in Petrograd in 1917-18. Only a literary thriller could combine these rich details with the revolutionary passion of the socialists, and only the Carlisles, who have professionally lived and studied this period, could write it.
Vasily Nevsky, a romantic socialist leader, his daughter Marina (who narrates the novel) and his wife Anna are roused from 10 years of exile in Italy to return to Petrograd, where Lenin has appointed Nevsky to the provisional government. When popular opinion turns against the government, the Nevskys are hounded by Chekists and Bolsheviks; revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries. Luminous characters like the poets Akhmatova and Blok make cameo appearances. Rumors move like tides through the city. Marina’s young man, who once so appreciated her Chekhovian beauty, abandons her for a fierce revolutionary, only to return to save her family. If it were summer, one could read this on the beach and not be at all ashamed, in winter a roaring fire on a chilly evening will have to do.*
HEADS BY HARRY; By Lois-Ann Yamanaka; (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 320 pp., $24)
“No emotion when you mount,” says Toni’s father, “that’s the number one rule of taxidermy. You have to distance yourself from the subject, okay, Toni ma dear?” This is just about the opposite of what Lois-Ann Yamanaka, born and raised in Hawaii, does with her collection of locals, haoles and members of the Yagyuu family, who live above Harry Yagyuu’s taxidermy shop in downtown Hilo. In “Heads for Harry,” as in Yamanaka’s other novels, the pidgin is thick, but by page 40, you’ve mastered it, and it feels like new music, a new language. Toni is the middle child. Her older brother Sheldon studies cosmetology and her younger sister, Bunny, has a personality too large for her age. Toni has one foot in the life of a wild pig hunter and one in college, but there’s more humor than angst in her disposition. One doesn’t often get to read about growing up in Hawaii, much less pig hunting and taxidermy, which makes this funny novel a rich crash course in all of those art forms.
A FIELD GUIDE TO THE SOUL; By James Thornton; (Bell Tower: 288 pp., $23)
When James Thornton goes into the wilderness with a question, like “Who am I?” or “How can I face my demons?” or “Can I survive alone?,” he gets an answer. When he says, “Give me a sign,” the mountains or the coyotes or the birds oblige. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Luckily, he’s generous, and in “Field Guide,” he shows us, in plain language, how to pick the woods and the question and, perhaps more important, how to receive the answer. “We describe our conflict and look for comfort,” he writes. “We dissipate the energy that our experience had accumulated to teach us something. When we are alone, we learn to listen to ourselves and take our own counsel. We come to trust ourselves, and the lessons offered by our life emerge.” Thornton offers tips on how to listen, how to trust in the answers we receive, how to still the mind and achieve a balance with the heart, how to offer your experience, your feelings and your efforts up to the Divine, how to practice loving kindness and how to give up the fruits of your actions. Participating and even changing the world has always been important to Thornton, so this is not a book about dropping out and perfecting yourself. It’s about confidence and change; the joy of discovering wisdom in everyday life.