Short Takes

July 6, 2013 

Fiction

Sisterland

Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 416 pages

To characterize Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, “Sisterland,” as an ideal beach read isn’t meant as an insult. She is a skilled storyteller.

Her new novel isn’t as sappy as the jacket description implies. It’s the story of identical twins – Kate and Violet – who are raised by an emotionally absent father and a depressed mother and share the gift (or curse) of “senses” – or an ability to see people’s secrets and events before they happen.

While one sister embraces the gift and uses it to her advantage socially and financially, the other sister hides it and consciously ignores it.

Sittenfeld delivers a well-told, compelling story about characters so real they settle into your psyche like old friends. The relationships between the sisters and between Kate and her husband feel both loving and realistic.

It’s a novel about growing up, making big choices and living with mistakes and regrets.

It’s not perfect – Sittenfeld asks her readers to suspend disbelief more than once and swallow circumstances and situations that seem unlikely to happen in real life – but it’s a fast, smooth, guilt-free read.

Associated Press

Nonfiction

Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey

Peter Carlson, PublicAffairs, 288 pages

Among the tens of thousands of books written about the American Civil War, there are dense histories of campaigns, profiles of leaders, compilations of battlefield photos or soldiers’ letters home. Then, once in a while, you run across just a really good yarn.

That’s what Peter Carlson has written in his nonfiction account of two New York Tribune reporters’ unique experience of the war. They witnessed fighting or its aftermath at Shiloh, Antietam and other slaughters. They met Abraham Lincoln more than once. But mostly this is a story about their capture and 19-month imprisonment by Confederates, how they survived and, amazingly, how they plugged into a complex network that risked all to help prisoners escape to seemingly unreachable Union lines.

At the heart of this buddy story are two distinctive characters, close friends who sometimes infuriate and often help each other.

Junius Browne comes off as a bit of a dilettante, classically educated and always ready with a bon mot but not necessarily ready to meet deadlines. Although he produces some dispatches that rightly make his reputation in New York, we also see him missing one major battle altogether and concocting a detailed but largely fictional account.

As a journalist, Albert Richardson is Browne’s opposite: tireless in his reporting, gifted and comfortable as an interviewer, and elegantly spare in his writing.

In the end, each produces a best-selling book about their shared ordeal, and Carlson mines these rich veins and many others to chronicle the two men’s lives and the trials they get through.

Associated Press

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