"Gob's Grief, "Ella in Bloom," and "The True History of the Kelly Gang." 

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Two fine books about life and death and an Australian outlaw
Though the setting for this memorable debut novel, "Gob's Grief," (Broadway Books, $24.95) by Chris Adrian involves the Civil War and the shaping of America during Reconstruction, this book can't be categorized as traditional historical fiction. The sorrow of the principal character, George Washington Woodhull, nicknamed "Gob," is symbolic of the gaping wounds permeating a young nation recovering from war. Gob Woodhull, son of flamboyant feminist, Victoria Woodhull, is a respected physician and scientist with one obsession — the total abolition of the inevitable reality of death. This preoccupation originates from the premature death of his brother, Tomo, who at 11, lies to join the Union Army as a drummer and is killed at the battle of Fredericksburg. It is this void in his spirit which causes him to become a willing apprentice to a reclusive, refugee doctor, who is convinced that by harnessing the untapped powers of the intellect, death can be banished forever. This book contains a series of intense episodes where unconventional science and spiritualist practices constantly intersect. The eventual concept of a mechanical engine, which can reverse death's devastation, represents Gob's triumph because this machine would combine a technological efficiency with an ability to exhibit depths of passion and human empathy. The reader will meet a gallery of characters who stand with Gob in his resolve. There is Walt Whitman, poet, living in NewYork to fill the inconsolable grief of losing a close friend in a military hospital; Will Fries, Civil War veteran turned doctor who is constructing a glass house to memorialize Civil War dead; and Maci Trufant, who finds solace in the feminism of Victoria Woodhull. Finally, there is Victoria Woodhull herself, brazen suffragette, clairvoyant and presidential aspirant. Gob represents a collective burden the country carries but does not know how to correct. The book gleans from the supernatural and the unexplained but does not resort to horror in creating an effect both chilling and wondrous. The author never spares the reader the raw memories of warfare and bereavement, but projects a tone of reassurance that the rational mind, coupled with an unstoppable compassion, can lay the groundwork for a kinder future where past mistakes need not be repeated. Chris Adrian must be a remarkable person. He Has written this successful novel while he has been in medical school where he is now a senior, and an excerpt from the book has been published in The New Yorker. — Bruce Simon No one has a life free of struggle and pain.
That is what makes Shelby Hearon's "Ella in Bloom" (Knopf $23) so good. Hearon has done a fine job of writing a realistic and fun-to-read novel. Although "Ella" has a slow start, soon readers will not want to put the book down. The story involves a family mourning a death that has changed their lives forever. Ella is the youngest daughter, having had an older sister who was always the favorite. Ella's mother refuses to forgive her for running away and marrying a man who does not meet her mother's approval. Ella's older sister remains the favorite even after she dies. Throughout the novel, Ella recalls moments from her past where she remembers her late husband, the birth of their daughter, the days her sister was still alive, and time spent with her sister's husband. One thing she never remembers is having the approval of her mother. "Ella" focuses on the struggles of being a widow, a single parent, and, most of all, being a daughter. But she will never please her mother. Hearon's descriptions of Austin, Texas and Old Metaire, La., also are captivating. There is nothing worse than a complicated book, but there is nothing better than a complicated plot. "Ella in Bloom " passes this test and is a novel that catches your heart. It reminds you that no one's life is perfect, that you have to make the best of life while you're living. Remember — don't be put off by the sluggish beginning. You'lll soon become so involved that you'll feel the book ends too soon. — Melissa Jones "The True History of the Kelly Gang" — Peter Carey (Knopf $25) is Ned Kelly's "confession" to his daughter. Kelly was a notorious criminal in the early days of Australia who is seen as a bit of a folk hero Down Under. Carey, who won the Booker Prize for "Oscar and Lucinda," has fictionalized him and given him a voice. His book made it into the top 10 of this month's list of the best books in the independent bookstores' publication Book Sense. — Kelly Justice

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