REVIEWS: 'Man Alive!' by Mary Kay Zuravleff, and 'A Good American,' by Alex George

  • Updated: March 10, 2014 - 10:54 AM

Man Alive, by Mary Kay Zuravleff

MAN ALIVE!

By Mary Kay Zuravleff. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 294 pages, $25.)

When Owen Lerner was struck by lightning, he experienced a moment of bliss, of existential clarity, of taking “a vacation from himself.” He also became convinced that Heaven smells like barbecue. When his wife finally, tersely, points out that what he smelled was his own burning flesh, he says he knows that, all the while “having rejected that notion a dozen times.” The discomfiting, compelling thing about Mary Kay Zuravleff’s novel of family life is how an utterly normal household can be reduced to cinders by a chance occurrence. Not quite cinders; she provides handholds for each character, but their grips are never far from slipping. Toni Lerner is grateful that her husband survived, but as the weeks go by and he remains happily unmoored (and increasingly carnivorous), she wonders where the man she married ended up. When a favored son finally falls, the question is whether Owen can come to terms with having remained alive, and get a grip on life again.

KIM ODE, Features writer

 

A GOOD AMERICAN

By Alex George. (Berkley Trade, 432 pages, $16.)

In “A Good American” by Alex George, the lives of Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer at the turn of the 20th century feel at once unique and universal. The unlikely couple, running from a disapproving parent in Germany, travel to New Orleans, then Missouri, with Jette already pregnant. Told from the perspective of James, one of their grandsons, the multi-generational tale plays out against the backdrop of events that shaped America, from Prohibition to women’s rights, from wartime to peace.

It features delightful turns of phrase and unexpected humor, like when Frederick pays a riverboat bartender to teach him his native language, only to discover in a most public way that he’d been actually been learning Polish. “A Good American,” out in paperback, is a rich and deeply satisfying novel that traces the Meisenheimer family’s fits-and-starts transition America, with high drama and serendipity shaping future generations in seemingly in equal parts. It’s a story that captures the yearning, and finally acceptance, that one family finds here, with an unexpected plot twist near the end which proves to James that perhaps he didn’t know his parents as well as he thought he did — and will likely send readers scurrying to re-read certain passages of the book.

COLLEEN KELLY, Mobile and Social Media Editor

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