Nicholson Baker’s zany new novel, The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster, $25), is a beguiling love story about poets that everyone who writes or reads lyrical verse will savor. Narrator Paul Chowder, a published poet, struggles against his writer’s block to compose a preface to a poetry anthology. In the process, he obsesses over poetry and life with humor and pathos: “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing….The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication.…Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next.” Chowder instructs his readers to write down and recite aloud every poem they encounter. I found in my reading that I was so enchanted with some of Chowder’s aphorisms that I was writing those down as well.
Patsy MacLemore is the perfect modern woman with her wit, brains, and recklessness. A history professor at a local college near Pasadena, she has a severe drinking problem. She wakes up in jail following a spree and discovers that she has killed two people. Convicted of negligent homicide she is sentenced to two years in jail. Much of Blame (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25) is about her prison years when she joins AA; after serving her sentence, she marries a much older man who is the den father to the local AA. Her struggle to locate herself and her feelings is aided by a wise therapist. Patsy’s story might seem clichéd if Michelle Huneven had not written such a lively, absorbing story with surprising twists and turns.
With his new novel, That Old Cape Magic (Knopf, $25.95), Richard Russo takes us back to New England and the intimate details of family life. Told through the filter of wedding weekends a year apart, this story unfolds like the best memories, simply at first, then quickly turning in on itself. Russo plays with dualities of all orders and, perhaps most strikingly, manages to capture the essential quandary of summer—the feeling of endless possibility mixed with inescapable impermanence. He shows us that experiences are almost always sweeter in the remembering; and that, for many of us, it’s the looking back that matters most.