THE DESCENDANTS | By KAUI HART HEMMINGS | Random House
The Descendants was one of the best first novels I have read for years (and the first book I have ever read that was set in Hawaii). Wife in coma, husband copes with his wayward teenage daughters thats the premise, but the greatness of the book lies in Hemmings impeccable control of tone. Its deadpan, hilarious and moving. If under-publicized means not yet published in the U.S., then I would also include Andrew Anthonys polemical memoir The Fall-Out (Cape), an account of the impact of 9/11 and its aftermath on the consciousness of a middle-aged English journalist of liberal disposition. It is also a brilliantly accurate and unflinching diagnosis pathologists report, actually of what L.A. resident Tim Roth rightly calls a disgusting wreck of a place (a.k.a. contemporary Britain).
THE LONG EMBRACE: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved | By JUDITH FREEMAN | Pantheon Books
If you think theres nothing more to be said about Raymond Chandler, just read this eccentric, beautifully written exploration of the great crime novelists mysterious relationship to his much older wife, Cissy. Chasing the ghost of their obsessive, peripatetic marriage they lived in nearly 30 places in L.A. alone Judith Freeman not only helps us see Chandlers work in a new way, she does the same for the city he mythologized. This is a great book about Los Angeles, made all the greater because this crack literary shamus goes down these mean streets with bracing curiosity, riffing on whatever catches her fancy gimlets, weird signage, corrupt cops, downtown architecture, storefront churches, even the 1920s vogue of women doing housework in the nude.
SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU | By PETER CAMERON | Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus and Giroux
For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Peter Camerons astonishing novel is being sold as a Young Adult novel. Granted, the charmingly neurotic and endearing, proto-gay, boy-genius, first-person narrator, James Sveck, is 18 and muddling through a long hot summer before hes supposed to matriculate at Brown (and, of course, he doesnt want to go), which is to say a ripe angsty hero for YA readers; and granted, as YA fiction (where lately so much innovative and risky literature is being published), the book will open up city living, the gallery world, online dating, existential geekdom and the conundrum of sexual identity for its target audience in fresh new ways. But my fear is that Adult Adult readers will overlook what is possibly one of the all-time great New York books, not to mention an archly comic gem (thats LOL to the YA set). Sveck leapfrogs Holden Caufield into the 21st century, and its about time Peter Cameron, the urbane, astutely observant author of Andorra, The City of Your Final Destination and The Weekend gained the wider audience he richly deserves. So I take back what I said: With young folk facebooking each other about STPWBUTY, maybe theyll end up igniting a Cameron craze.
TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS | By JANE SMILEY | Alfred Knopf
While Jane Smiley can hardly be called an under-publicized writer, her novel Ten Days in the Hills was largely blown off by the critics as a windy, bloated snore about some navel-gazing Hollywood types who get stuck in hellishly boring conversations about movies and George Bush for 10 days straight, while cooking and screwing and noshing on vegetarian fare in a house in the Hollywood Hills (think The Decameron on coke). No one I talked to could be bothered reading it. Too bad. Its a witty book, full of fun and a scathing condemnation of Bushs utterly immoral war. Smiley also managed to write some of the best sex scenes ever penned by a woman, hot and sweet, and so frankly stimulating it made me want to just put the fiction aside and get down to the real thing.