The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial, $16.99).
Kingsolver took a big leap with this novel, incorporating her love of history, art and stories of lifelong journeys. The book follows one American, Harrison William Shepherd, from 1929 to 1951. He's kicked out of military school, and winds up in the 1930s as a cook and typist in the home of Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as their "houseguest," Leon Trotsky. The latter is assassinated, and Harrison moves to Asheville, sliding into a career as a writer of swashbuckling historical novels. In 1951, he's hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (a young Nixon is present), where he defends himself magnificently; these scenes incorporate some of the finest writing of Kingsolver's career. The book's structure takes some getting used to, consisting in large part of diary entries, newspaper stories, and letters, but Kingsolver's patchwork-quilt technique works beautifully for this story. Kingsolver explores a dark period in North American history, one many would love to forget, but the author never turns morose, and instead turns her story into a guardedly optimistic plea for people of conscience to not only connect with the world as it is, but to work like hell to improve it. This novel won the Orange Prize as the year's best novel written in English by a woman.