Lit Up

Dream House
by Valerie Laken
Harper Collins Publishers, $24.95, 333 pp.

In her debut novel, Dream House, Valerie Laken tells it like it is: Personal fulfillment can only come from within, not via corporeal means.

Candidly reflecting on the sacrifices people make to maintain, achieve or, in some cases, avoid the American dream and all its trappings — a dog, a grill, lawn furniture, potted plants and the like — Laken delivers a keen account of how class, race and personal values shape the definition of family and home.

Set in Ann Arbor, the novel opens in 1987 to tragedy — a gruesome murder re-created through the eyes of scene cleanup-man Jay, a University of Michigan art major who succumbed to his girlfriend Claire's desire to have sex at the crime scene — that marks the malediction of the historic house on Macon Street.

That one hapless night sends Walker — a young guy trying to hold his dead father's dream together — to prison, drives his already fragile family, their home and neighborhood, and Claire into a downward spiral, and leaves Jay "knotted up somehow with the murder. He assumed part of it, swallowed it, carried it with him."

Fast-forward 18 years: A few blocks from Macon Street, U-M grads Kate and Stuart are drifting apart, their marriage flailing: Kate, suffocated by their shabby, cramped apartment, is ready to move on, while Stuart, content with their student lifestyle, has no desire to change.

A large monetary gift from Kate's wealthy parents spurs her forward, with Stuart's reluctant consent, on her search for the "dream home" that she's sure will mend both her marriage and her sense of self-worth.

Newly exuberant in her desire to climb back up the social ladder from whence she's fallen, little does Kate know that the run-down house on Macon Street is the catalyst that casts Stuart on an odyssey into the past.

The metaphorical house on Macon Street — haunted by its past — draws an unlikely trio together as they each seek their own version of the American dream: Kate on her quest for personal regentrification, Jay seeking absolution of Claire's demise, and Walker desiring the re-creation of his of his father's dream.

Laken's artful dissection of the human psyche — as starkly contrasted by the great divides of class and race, and the stereotypes that distinguish posh Ann Arbor, backwoods Dexter, and Ypsilanti with "the shops filled with liquor ... the college designed for dumb kids and black kids and poor kids" — compels the reader to take a deeper look into what truly constitutes happiness. —Christa Buchanan

The Purity Test: Your Filth and Depravity Cheerfully Exposed by 2,000 Nosy Questions
by Joselin Linder
St. Martin's Griffin, $14.95, 240 pp.

"Purity Tests," which measure exactly the opposite qualities of promiscuity and substance abuse, have been kicking around cyberspace since the ancient days of Prodigy and dial-up, offering bored dorm-mates the perfect opportunity to discover who was trashier than whom. And the naughty fun carries over nicely to the dead-tree medium.

Author Joselin Linder acknowledges up-front the time-honored lineage of these pervy pop quizzes, going back to the Kinsey-reported '50s, through Xeroxed copies passed around '70s summer camps, their early '90s Internet heyday and into the social networking future, where soon all the planet's dirty laundry will circulate.

Despite the familiarity of the lists, Linder deserves kudos for compiling the juiciest questionnaires into simple categories such as "Male," "Female," "Gay" and "Drugs," making for easy number-crunching as you subtract answers from 100 to determine purity or, um, the lack thereof.

The questions range from fairly innocent ("Have you ever kissed someone on the first date?") to more adventurous ("Have you ever tried to plan an orgasm at the peak of a nitrous rush?") to just plain eyebrow-raising ("Have you ever consumed alcohol that had been poured through someone's ass crack into a cup"?) And those are tame ones; some questions could get one arrested.

The quizzes are supplemented by fairly informative introductory pieces filled with useless but fun factoids such as "15: The average age at which Germans and Icelanders lose their virginity," and amusing little pep talks from "Richard the Purity Gerbil," who attempts to contextualize the results to determine what a freak you really are. It's cerebral junk food and a perfect toilet top time-waster, but such questions as "Ever had sex with a politician" might be more relevant than they first appear. —Corey Hall

The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Free Press, $24, 276 pp.

The White Tiger roars with the injustices of modern-day India, giving a voice to those in the slums and rural "Darkness" who silently and religiously contrast the corrupted elite of the "Light."

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is a novel of great reckoning, a tale of a servant who risks everything — his life, his family, his soul — to break out of his caste, the "Rooster Coop" in which the poor are "caged" into submission, and fulfill his desire for freedom and finally become "a man," which to him is more than just "dipping your beak" in a woman.

Born into the Darkness to parents "too busy" to name him or mark his birthday, Munna Halwai was transformed with each name bestowed upon him: his first, Balram, from his teacher, who, although corrupt, inspired Balram's desire for knowledge; then, the moniker White Tiger, "the rarest of animals ... that comes along only once in a generation," and a chance for a scholarship given to him by the wealthy school inspector who recognized his potential.

It's at this point, our hero laments, he realized that "the one infallible law of life in the Darkness is that good news becomes bad news — and soon."

Young Balram's opportunity is squashed when his grandmother forces him to quit school and go to work in a tea and sweets shop.

Written with gritty details of rivers of stinking sewage, caged prostitutes and inhumane treatment, offset by wry humor — "It's a known fact. ... The Japanese invented [cell phones] to diminish the white man's brain and balls at the same time" — White Tiger recounts the politically charged corruption and disenchantment of Indian "democracy" and family values that "forced" the titular character's hand to murder his boss, Mr. Ashok, and gave him his final identity: Ashok Sharma, "'The White Tiger,' a Thinking Man and an Entrepreneur," who upon hearing the Chinese premier is coming to tour India, has taken it upon himself to enlighten his "yellow" neighbors on both his and India's true identity.

Adiga tackles taboo subjects; political corruption, class and caste, prostitution, religion and racism with an intensely frank acuity in this sarcastic, unflinching account of a land and a man at once full of bountiful riches and deep despair. —Christa Buchanan

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