Jane Ciabattari

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.com among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.

Huck Finn and Jim set out from Hannibal, Mo. on a July afternoon in 1835 aboard a raft. But this is not Mark Twain's tale: In Norman Lock's brief and brilliant fabulist novel The Boy in His Winter, Huck and Jim sweep down the Mississippi toward the Gulf of Mexico as though in a dream, caught in mythic time. "We were held in the mind of the river, like a thought," Lock writes.

The central drama in Susan Minot's fourth novel comes from a real-life episode in October 1996, when 139 girls at St. Mary's College in Aboke, Uganda, were abducted by guerillas from the militant Lord's Resistance Army. The school's Italian headmistress followed the rebels into the bush and retrieved all but 30 of the girls — hence the title.

In August 1837, a group of girls aged ten through fourteen in a one-room Shaker schoolhouse received "signs from the world beyond." One by one they began singing, jerking, chanting, and reciting Latin. This miraculous phenomenon went on for hours. Elder Sister Agnes, the schoolteacher, witnessed it all. Thenceforth these and other Visionists — the name given to those deemed to be "chosen instruments" of Mother Ann, the Shakers' founder — "were allowed to make things that were not simply functional but beautiful, for they had created them under divine inspiration."

Remember Brick's frequent trips to "Echo Spring" in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Echo Spring, Olivia Laing reminds us in her illuminating new book, is a nickname for the liquor cabinet, drawn from the brand of bourbon it contains. Symbolically, she adds, it refers to something quite different: "perhaps to the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze."

Family secrets, life-changing betrayals and the paradox of wondering about the old country while belonging to the new are at the heart of Amy Tan's work. She enthralled readers of her phenomenally successful first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), with the interlocking stories of four Chinese-born mothers and their four California-born daughters. Tan followed up with equally enduring portraits of fierce immigrant mothers who withheld secrets of the past while pushing their daughters forward in The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), and The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001).

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