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Three for the read 

A trio of books worth picking up

Accepting a long-overdue National Book Award for his ninth novel, The Echo Maker, Richard Powers had this to say: "We live in dangerously convinced times, where many are increasingly eager to simplify all complex readings. My thanks to ... all those writers, publishers and readers who, in these times, keep alive the rich strangeness of many books against the certainties of one."

We find our share of "rich strangeness" in Echo; the plot revolves around an unusual case of Capgras Syndrome, which causes sufferers to believe their loved ones are impostors. Powers focuses on Mark Schluter, who wrecks his truck on an icy road and wakes up in the hospital, convinced his sister and his border collie are fakes. Around that one event, the author weaves a story that takes in everything from the annual migration of half a million blood-red sandhill cranes to a famous neurologist who comes to believe the negative reviews about his books.

Powers refuses to tie all these ribbons up into a tidy bow, and he doesn't need to. The language he deploys -- tender and scientific, poetic but grounded -- rewards the effort invested in spades. -- Cooper Levey-Baker

Where Zadie Smith's first novel, the feisty and compulsively readable White Teeth, found its strengths -- issues of class, race and assimilation all transformed by the author's wacky prose -- her third (available in paperback) takes on the same themes and squares them with a welcome literariness.

The novel uses E. M. Forster's Howards End as a template for its tale of two families passively opposed to one another. In the States, English émigré Howard Belsey is a frustrated Rembrandt scholar who can't finish his book and instead passes time either delivering lectures at Ivy stand-in Wellington College or philandering.

Meanwhile, the Kipps family is headed by Montgomery, also a Rembrandt scholar and a brilliant foil for Howard: a conservative Trinidadian native whose work in London may have earned much professional fanfare, but whose family has never felt further away.

Sparks begin to fly when eldest Belsey son Jerome, disgusted by his father's affair, travels abroad to stay with Monty Kipps -- his father's greatest rival -- and falls for Kipps' daughter Victoria. When Monty scores a visiting professorship at Wellington and brings the whole family to Massachusetts, things get rougher as the two clans are forced to confront the very secrets and insecurities that had once held them together.

Stripped of Smith's provocative scene work, this all sounds more contrived in short summary than it actually reads. But as literature, On Beauty raises important questions about family, trust and identity -- and in its best passages, this beauty stings as much as it soothes. -- Joel Rozen

It might be pointless to try to dig out a thesis statement from the 1,085-page pile of a novel that is Against the Day, but a speech on page 828 by a multilingual Sarajevo spy named Danilo Ashkil gives us a clue as to what Thomas Pynchon is up to in his sixth novel.

Ashkil calls the powers of northern Europe "administrators, who manipulate other people's history but produce none of their own. ... Lives as they are lived, deaths as they are died, all that is made of flesh, blood, semen, bone, fire, pain, shit, madness, intoxication, visions, everything that has been passing down here forever, is real history."

It's a tremendous statement -- almost a manifesto -- and reveals a lot about both the massive novel and the rest of Pynchon's magnificent work. Like his other three "big" books (V., Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon), the usual adjectives apply here: sprawling, ambitious, difficult, etc. But what unites Pynchon's projects is the man's depiction of the fallout of human freedom -- the confusion, the violence, the debauchery -- against the overwhelming tide of history with a capital H.

This time around, characters scramble around the robber-baron West, fall into anarchist gangs and traipse around Europe, all while the hammer of World War I is about to demolish it all. As a chronicler of the unending conflict between the life drive of the individual and the death drive of the masses, Pynchon is simply unparalleled. -- CLB

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