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Courier Article by Andrea Wannemuehler
Sunday, July 24, 2011

Titles Add Some Magic to Summer

Though the summer always brings new publications and a vast array of promising titles, the books that I have been quite taken with this season have been out for some time and may in fact be collecting dust on the shelf. These books could all fall under the genre of magical realism, where realistic places and ordinary people mix with supernatural or illogical elements. But what is more important is that they hold their own; they're captivating, poignant and present a unique perspective of the human experience.

I was initially drawn to Lauren Groff's "The Monsters of Templeton" because of the cover. From where I sit at the library's information desk, I could see the scrawl of the scherenschnitte paper-cut design from the top shelf of the "Goh-Guo" aisle. Encased in the black twisting branches of a tree are scenes punctuated with red, scenes that were revealed to me as the monsters of Templeton as I read the book.

The novel's premise: Wilhelmina "Willie" Upton ventures to her hometown of Templeton, N.Y., after an affair with her doctoral professor goes bad while on an archaeological field study in Alaska. She wishes to find peace and direction with her entangled, seemingly failed life. If she finds the refuge she seeks, it comes with a price; her once Bohemian mother, Vivienne "Vi" Upton, lets slip that her father wasn't from her illustrious commune days, as Willie grew up believing, but is in fact a citizen of Templeton. Even a citizen Willie knows.

Vi refuses to outright reveal his identity; Willie must discover on her own, searching for the clue that will lead her through generation after generation of her family history. In this process, the story changes narrators from Willie to the voices of the past she uncovers: Marmaduke, the town's colonial founder; his wife, his mistress and his children; Willie's great-great-great aunts, who in secret letters reveal themselves to each other as arsonists and murderers; and other beautiful, disturbing and always compelling stories.

But the novel's intrigue does not stop there. Willie's arrival home parallels the discovery of a prehistoric creature in Templeton's Lake Glimmerglass, when its enormous, foreign body is found one morning floating atop the water. The presence of the lake creature - referred to as Glimmey - is an enchanting thread that runs throughout the novel. The people of Templeton respectively mourn the loss of their beloved creature. Even if for centuries its presence was elusive and unknown, its absence creates a tangible void in the town.

Groff creates an entire world that despite, or maybe because of its dual clandestine and forthright nature, is both captivating and real.

Another selection that possesses a sense of mystery is Susanna Clarke's "The Ladies of Grace Adieu." This anthology of eight short stories is set in a fantasy England and is complete with witches, magicians, shadowy figures, dark woods and stormy nights. Clarke adds richness to the stories by writing in a distinct language and diction. One might feel the story is centuries old instead of a contemporary creation.

One of my favorite stories within the collection is "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse." Clarke draws upon Neil Gaiman's fictional world created in Stardust, where the Duke unintentionally crosses from the English town Wall into a fairy world in search of his wondering horse. Here he meets a lovely maiden whose embroidery tells the future - which just so happens to include the Duke. Other noteworthy figures who make an appearance are magician Jonathan Strange, from Clarke's novel "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," who encounters three lady counterparts in the title story, and Mary Queen of Scots in "Antickes and Frets," who tries to kill off Queen Elizabeth by sewing spells into her skirts.

Another wonderful collection of short stories is Karen Russell's "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves." These ten fables are narrated by some rather precocious young people who are trying to find their place in the world.

In the title story, a pack of girls raised as wolves is herded into St. Lucy's, an institute that will socialize them into functioning people. They were sent to St. Lucy's by their werewolf parents (whose traits skip a generation, as the narrator explains) so they could have a better life, one that is not in limbo between the human and animal world with such different means for survival. This story, like the others, is unsettling, amusing and will certainly stay with the reader long after the book is gone.