House of Leaves by Mark Danielowski (Random House)
This current cult hit with the young bohemian literary crowd is part "The Blair Witch Project," part connect-the-dots Borges. What makes it hard to put down is the "Blair Witch" element, and what made me reluctant to pick it up to begin with is its "postmodern" presentation, a daunting, higgledy-piggledy mess of various typefaces (some upside down, others backwards) and nested footnotes. Turns out the scrapbook style is unnecessary, but far from a deal-breaker, and the delicious creepiness -- the book is set in a house where vast, mysterious corridors appear in the living room walls -- doesn't let up.
The Gravity of Sunlight by Rosa Shand (Soho)
I got completely sucked in by this dreamy novel about white people in Africa, set during the time of Idi Amin's rise to power. The heroine, Agnes, is married to John, a humorless Lutheran deacon, but she's stopped loving him. The plot revolves around an affair Agnes has with one of John's colleagues, but there's really not much of a sense of forward motion and no real closure at the end. The pleasures of this book are in Shand's economical evocation of an atmosphere of political and social unrest, her keen insight into the differences -- and similarities -- between Africans, Americans and Europeans, and her descriptions of the Ugandan setting as it hovers between lushness and menace.
In the Gloaming: Stories by Alice Elliott Dark (Simon & Schuster)
Beneath the decorous prose of these decorous stories, mainly about upper-middle-class club women in suburban Pennsylvania, lie startlingly ugly impulses and furiously repressed bad manners. The title story, about a mother who finally gets to know her son as she is watching him die of AIDS, is quiet and lovely. Others are quiet and lethal.
Recent books praised by Salon's critics
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Tuning in, turning on and dropping out -- in the 1890s.
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