"Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays Etc."
By David Sedaris
If there's ever been an author who is consistently forgiven for his trespasses, it's David Sedaris. In "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls," he has abandoned France for the English countryside, where his life of leisure is only occasionally interrupted by sojourns to China, Australia and Japan.
How do you describe having your laptop stolen in Hawaii or purchasing property in West Sussex and evoke the same relatable pathos and longing that you conjured as a confused gay kid growing up middle class in North Carolina?
Sedaris pulls it off, not only by throwing in plenty of fresh stories about his youth but also by adhering closely to the emotional heart of each tale. Whether he's unearthing the ribald humor of Amtrak bar cars or analyzing the condescending political attitudes of the French, there's always an unexpected moment of poignancy or a forlorn bit of melancholy in the mix.
If you browse media coverage of Sedaris without reading his work, you might get the impression that he writes kooky little tales about his misspent youth. In fact, the author is a remarkably skilled storyteller and savvy essayist.
He weaves together vivid images and sensations - the medicinal smell of his father's gin, the swampy funk of the sea turtles' aquarium, the way the turtles' shells started to soften - into a coherent whole that packs a serious emotional punch.
Although he has been criticized for embellishing his stories with entertaining exaggerations, Sedaris remains a trustworthy narrator primarily because he never shies away from offering up his deepest shame and mortification for our perusal.
He has more than earned the right to experiment. He can indulge himself all he wants - in fictional soliloquies, in obsessive rubbish-gathering, in extended journeys across the globe - and we'll wait patiently for more. Yes, David Sedaris really is that good. And, based on this latest collection, he's getting only better.
"The Famous and the Dead"
By T. Jefferson Parker
"The Famous and the Dead" is billed as the final installment in T. Jefferson Parker's six-volume saga about Charlie Hood, an earnest young Los Angeles lawman hellbent on reducing the illegal trade in firearms along the California-Mexico border.
As the story opens, Hood is still haunted by a shipment of Love-22s, a fictional, fully automatic handgun with silencer, that he let slip into the hands of a Mexican drug lord in an earlier book. He's still grappling with the profoundly evil Mike Finnegan, his primary tormentor. And he's ready to give up trying to reform Bradley Jones, a brilliant but crooked young cop and the son of Hood's lover, who died violently in the series' premiere novel, "L.A. Outlaws." These characters have so much history together that readers who haven't read the earlier books risk getting lost.
The new novel, like the series as a whole, is ambitious, daring and at once both brilliant and maddeningly uneven. Quirky, well-drawn characters mix with stereotypical government officials and cartoon villains. Superb prose, including lyrical descriptive passages, clash with sometimes wooden dialogue.
Parker grounds his story in the well-known problems plaguing the border - Mexican drug cartels, street gangs and gun smuggling - peppering the tale with real events. Yet he mixes realism with bizarre invocations of the supernatural.
With the latter he goes all in in "The Famous and the Dead," introducing us to an army of demons hellbent on wreaking havoc and a band of angels struggling to undo the damage.
With Parker's human characters fully capable of creating a mess on their own, the demons and angels feel like intruders from a bad horror movie.
Parker has always chaffed at the edges of the crime-fiction genre, creating wildly inventive characters and surprising storylines. His risk-taking alone makes all of his work, including the Charlie Hood series, well worth reading.
By Jennifer Gilmore
I imagine Jennifer Gilmore - who teaches writing at Princeton - giving herself an assignment. After surviving an endlessly nasty, hope-killing adoption experience and writing many astonishing essays about it, she wants to see whether this material works as a novel.
It definitely works.
Yet "The Mothers" retains certain aspects of nonfiction. There's a desultory listing of facts whether or not they move the plot, a tenacious focus on sequence rather than action. Lovely as it is, the novel feels like a memoir - a memoir in which random, arbitrary details have been changed.
The story revolves around a couple, Jesse and Ramon (doppelgangers for the real-life Jennifer and Pedro), feverishly shopping for a baby before it's too late. Jesse, a New York-based writing teacher, is fast approaching 40. She's a cancer survivor who is desperate to be a mother but cannot carry a baby.
She and Ramon enter the labyrinth of the "open adoption" system - that barbaric popularity contest in which vulnerable women choose adoptive couples like lottery winners.
Theirs is a brutal but believable story, a 15-month ordeal from which there appears to be no escape.
Then the birth mothers parade through, each more scheming and evil than the last. One of Gilmore's essays (a New York Times piece from 2011 titled "My Bridge to Nowhere") is included here nearly verbatim: a vignette in which a probably not-even-pregnant woman arranges to meet Jesse at a restaurant in New Jersey, scams a meal and some exotic lotions from the couple, and then wanders off into the adjoining mall.
For all this pain, though, "The Mothers" is surprisingly easy to read, clipping from one obstacle to another with humor and insight.
Heather Havrilesky, The Los Angeles Times Bruce DeSilva, for The Associated Press Ann Bauer, for The Washington Post