Contents May Have Shifted

As any reader of the stories in her early-'90s collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, could tell you, Pam Houston was an early master of the art of rendering fiercely independent, brilliant women in love with the wrong men. Her protagonists share a lack of self-pity, a driving passion for adventure, and a love of dogs. It would never occur to any of them to ask for help.

That characterization holds true for Pam, the narrator of Houston's latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, which has 144 mini-chapters, 132 of which are named for their settings (Alaska, Turkey, and Texas, among others). The twelve remaining scenes take place on airplanes. Leading a comfortable and nomadic life, Pam (like Houston) teaches writing in Davis, California, owns a Colorado ranch, and answers only to herself and her dogs. After decades of cramming herself into undersized relationships, Pam has embraced freedom with her "arms swung open wide." Then she meets Rick, "a man who loves Don DeLillo and the NHL." Even with his complications, including a young daughter and a narcissistic ex-wife, Rick offers compelling reasons for Pam to tether her life to his, and to find at home what she'd been looking for all over the world.

Fractured into so many vignettes, the narrative can feel distractingly nonlinear, but on its own each tiny chapter shines. Houston's talent for needling out moments within moments, like nesting Russian dolls, testifies to the truth of Annie Dillard's proverbial notion: how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. Of real interest are details: flashes and exchanges with which Houston constructs a mosaic. The result is quietly funny, poetic, and authentic -- a thoroughly rewarding trip.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).