by Nick Hornby (Putnam)
Funny, empathetic, morally aware, attuned to popular culture and lingo, Hornby has always had the makings of a “young adult” novelist. His first foray into the genre features the poorly timed fatherhood of a likable teenage skateboarder. The product of a teenage relationship himself, our boy is more worried about telling his mother than about the consequences for his life, and, it turns out, rightfully so. As always in Hornby’s world, just stepping up to the plate goes a long way, and though our hero ends up more overscheduled than he’d like, this is hardly a cautionary tale. Young-adult readers are in for the treat of Hornby’s wit and warmth, but legions of more mature fans will be disappointed. This book lacks the counterpoint of melancholy and wistfulness that makes the humor of Hornby’s adult novels so rich—the vague and troubling sense of time lost, never to be recovered, and of experience that forever leaves a dark mark. After all, how bad could anything be when most of life is still ahead?
A Free Life
by Ha Jin (Pantheon)
This engrossing chronicle of the contemporary Chinese immigrant experience is far more loosely structured and wide-ranging than Jin’s National Book Award–winning novel, Waiting—for better and worse. But admirers of Jin’s work will recognize his direct, unaffected style and slightly foreign rhythms, which suit his subjects. Jin decided to make America his home just after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and he uses that incident here as an impetus for his characters (a brooding man with literary aspirations and his wonderfully resolute wife) to break with China and make their lives in the United States. As the narrative moves the couple down the East Coast, trying out various jobs and circumstances, it accumulates the details of modern American life and illuminates the gradual maturation of a man’s vision of freedom and success.
Cheating at Canasta
by William Trevor (Viking)
In this pensive short-story collection, the prolific Trevor exposes, with precision and grace, the complex motives underlying his characters’ behavior. A wide range of voices—from teenage Irish working girls to urbane English gentlemen—create a fully realized world, discrete in its particulars but universal in its concerns. Clarifying without ever simplifying, Trevor is at his best when trafficking in guilt, doubt, deception, and shame. And though darkness pervades these stories—murder and blackmail, illness unto death, adultery, sins both careless and malicious—it never overwhelms them. Instead, it’s tempered by hope, mostly in the form of human understanding and love, whose strength here owes far less to romance than to forgiveness and tolerance.
Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture
by Peter Kobel, foreword by Martin Scorsese, introduction by Kevin Brownlow (Little, Brown)
Despite its lofty title, this is chiefly a picture book. The text thinly surveys the development of silent film in somewhat arbitrary sections—“Promotion and the Press,” “The Art of Film,” “The Stars.” But, to quote the introduction by Brownlow (whose classic account The Parade’s Gone By probes the subject far more profoundly), the book makes “an ideal introduction to the silent cinema,” chiefly because of Kobel’s delight in his subject and the splendid pictures from the Library of Congress’s film collection—production stills and portraits, lobby posters, et al.; more than 400 illustrations in all—most of which will be new to readers.
The Great Funk
by Thomas Hine (FSG)
A sequel of sorts to the successful Populuxe (which smartly considered cultural curlicues of the 1950s and ’60s), Hine’s latest social history is half as satisfying. Taking the form of a quixotic quest, it strives—discursively—to vindicate the ’70s by showing what the decade bequeathed to posterity (big cars and bad clothes, apparently—oh, and Annie Hall). A noble experiment, perhaps, but one that too often tests tendentious hypotheses: While it’s hard to dispute the period’s societal-nadir status (crime, oil, war, etc.), it’s easy to dismiss the notion that Jaws is a post-Watergate allegory. Hine manages some nifty observations (particularly with regard to fashion and design), and his clean prose is never less than engaging, but it’s all in the service of a thesis as scattershot as the “Me Decade” itself.