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What We're Reading: March 3-8

Novelist Tash Aw takes us to Indonesia on the eve of violent civil war; a history of Austen appreciation, Jane's Fame, traces the author's rise from obscurity to ubiquity; Sam Lipsyte brings the funny to academia in his latest satire; and Enlightened Sexism aims a Buffy-style stake at the media's warped portrayals of "girl power."

'Map of the Invisible World'

Map Of The Invisible World

A Novel

By Tash Aw

Tash Aw's highly anticipated sophomore release since his acclaimed debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, is set in Indonesia on the eve of its bloody civil war in the mid-1960s. The regime of authoritarian leader Sukarno is coming apart and the military begins its crackdown on suspected "enemies of the state," including Communists, foreigners and dissidents. The story follows Adam de Willigen, a 16-year-old Indonesian boy searching for his adoptive father, a Dutchman named Karl. Along the way, we meet a well-intentioned but naive American anthropologist, her violently radical graduate student, a CIA operative and others.

What Tash Aw did so well in his first novel, he manages to replicate easily in Map of the Invisible World. Though fans of Harmony Silk Factory might find the characters in this book slightly disappointing and far less complex, Aw's clear, crisp writing more than makes up for it. He has been compared to Graham Greene and even Joseph Conrad for obvious reasons: Aw writes about the post-colonial world. But like those writers, he uses words sparingly. Descriptions are straightforward. The prose is so unfussy that he must have fussed and fussed to get it that way. 'Night falls quickly in these islands,' reads his description of a remote village. 'And once it arrives you can see nothing. If you light a lamp it will illuminate a small space around you quite perfectly, but beyond this pool of watery brilliance there is nothing. The hills, the scrubby forests, rocky shoreline, the beaches of black sand — they become indistinguishable.' This is signature Tash Aw. He manages to capture a time, a place and a feeling without beating us over the head. — Guy Raz, weekend host of All Things Considered

Hardcover, 336 pages; Spiegel & Grau; list price, $25; publication date, Jan. 5

'Jane's Fame'

Jane's Fame

How Jane Austen Conquered the World

By Claire Harman

Award-winning biographer Claire Harman's lively compendium of all things Austen is suited for neophytes as well as scholars. She tracks the author's phenomenal arc of fame with a sure hand and provocative insights. In the beginning, Harman notes, Austen was writing for her small circle of family and friends. In 1869, 52 years after Austen's death, her nephew's Memoir of Jane Austen created the first of endless Austen revivals, seeding the notion that Austen appreciation was a litmus test for taste and intellect. The Janeite cult of the late Victorians included Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, William Dean Howells and E.M. Forster. By the time Austen's novels — love stories with clear-cut heroes and heroines and lots of knowing satire — were adapted to film and television, Austen-mania spanned the globe. The rise of the Internet has only expanded the influence of the "Divine Jane."

I read the Austen classics as a teenager (I found Emma racy), and revisited them in graduate school and later in my novel group. Jane's Fame was a delicious surprise, adding immensely to my understanding of the Austen legend. Harman shows why Jane Austen has enchanted readers for two centuries — why her fame has grown exponentially from her anonymous first publication in 1810 (Sense and Sensibility, by 'A Lady') to last year's quirky mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Harman crisply analyzes Austen's long-lasting appeal to readers — her clarity of language, her realistic descriptions, her skill at dissecting the social web and revealing the heartbreakers and dissemblers. She devotes most of Jane's Fame to putting together the pieces of the Austen puzzle, showing how Austen repeatedly hit the breaking wave of literary fashion. And she is particularly eloquent at describing the missing pieces in the Austen legend. Austen wrote for 20 years before publishing her first book and went to her grave as an anonymous author. Most of her letters and manuscripts disappeared in the years after her death, and her work would have gone out of print if her nephew hadn't written his intimate memoir. Jane's Fame is a cautionary tale: Without the intervention of biographers and critics, Jane Austen's work might have disappeared, virtually unread. Imagine that! — Jane Ciabattari, NPR book reviewer

Hardcover, 304 pages; Henry Holt; list price, $26; publication date, March 2

'The Ask'

The Ask

A Novel

By Sam Lipsyte

It's been six years since Sam Lipsyte's novel Home Land first started causing isolated bursts of laughter on various forms of public transit. Lovers of quiet commutes should gird themselves for a renewed affront: in Lipsyte's new novel, The Ask, protagonist Milo Burke is a frustrated artist/sad sack recently fired from his position as a development officer raising funds for an unremarkable New York City university, where people pay "vast sums of money so that their progeny [can] take hard drugs in suitable company." When the school is contacted by one of Milo's oldest — and now insanely successful — friends, they give Milo a second chance: Get this guy to donate, and donate big, and you can have your old job back.

Home Land was one of those books that made you want to accost passersby and read entire paragraphs to them. Sure, Lipsyte was on to something when he constructed that novel as an extended, soaringly funny, bitterly honest rant to an alumni newsletter ('Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out'), but what you really fell for was his sure, muscular prose, so packed with energy — and good, solid jokes. The Ask adopts a more conventional narrative structure than Home Land, and the book's plot frankly takes its own sweet time to kick in. But while you're waiting you're treated to language like this: 'I stared at my own hands, soft, expressive things, gifted, even, like specially bred, lovingly shaved gerbils.' I love how Lipsyte blithely frontloads that sentence with all those momentum-killing adjectives and adverbs, because he knows his kicker — the terminal noun gerbils — is so strong. Comedy is a function of rhythm, of cadence, and just as I did with Home Land, I find myself admiring how effortlessly Lipsyte not only brings the funny, but factory-installs it into every sentence. — Glen Weldon, NPR book reviewer

Hardcover, 304 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; list price, $25; publication date, March 2

'Enlightened Sexism'

Enlightened Sexism

The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done

By Susan J. Douglas

Susan J. Douglas is a cultural critic whose earlier books include Where the Girls Are and The Mommy Myth. In her new book, she continues her spirited exploration of women's status in America, arguing that the media in the new millennium are promoting the contradictory ideas that feminism has succeeded and is no longer necessary, and that the sources of real "girl power" are beauty and consumerism, not economic and political clout. Taking on the gamut of American popular culture, Douglas reveals how it promotes false images of women in power, and how these images undermine real women's progress.

The fact that the media can be sexist and unrealistic is hardly news. Yet Douglas offers a cultural critique that is fresh, scathing, insightful — and often very funny. This is a woman who's probably seen every episode of Gossip Girl; she finds our escapist culture delicious even as she sounds the alarm. Enlightened Sexism is a brilliant jeremiad against the myths about equality, ambition and femininity that are currently being served up as 'reality' in America. Douglas drives a Buffy-style stake through the heart of a multitude of culprits — from TV shows and tabloids to toy companies — challenging their insistence that feminism is outmoded. Best yet, Enlightened Sexism proposes creative solutions. It's a call to action as well as a blueprint. A must read. — Susan Jane Gilman, reviewer for All Things Considered

Hardcover, 368 pages; Times Books; list price, $26; publication date, March 2

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