Contents May Have Shifted: A Novel

By Pam Houston

(Norton, $25.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Pam Houston likes to keep moving. The author of the best-selling “Cowboys Are My Weakness”  and other books, directs the Creative Writing Program at  the University of California at Davis but frequently flies to her ranch in Creed, Colorado.  (Flights, both routine and harrowing, play a large role in her latest novel.) Houston often writes for O, The Oprah Magazine, as well as for More and other publications.

What is this book about?

Pam the author has written a novel featuring Pam the character, a woman of about the same age who also is a writing teacher and ranch owner and is looking for love, spiritual sustenance and adventure in far-away (and some nearer) places. Think “Eat, Pray, Love” with a sharper eye and tongue.

This novel’s Pam could use a little more luck in the love department, first disentangling from the rather annoying Ethan and finally getting all wrapped up in Rick, who’d be perfect if it weren’t for the inconvenient truth of his ongoing emotional connection to his ex-wife and adorable little daughter, a girl whom Pam also comes to love. In between, we are treated to vividly described near-crashes in planes large and small, a fabulous armchair-travelogue to such places as Bhutan, Laos and Turkey and a revealing look at both Pams’ inner lives and childhood traumas, all told in 130 or so personal vignettes.

Why you’ll like it:

The short vignettes make this book feel as intimate as if you were reading someone’s personal journal, and the briefness of these scenes makes them easily digestible in a literary kind of way. The travel material is lively and insightful, and the romantic material, conveyed by a sadder-but-wiser narrator who has been around long enough to understand herself, but not so long as to have become too cynical to reach out, also has great appeal.

What others are saying:

“Unapologetic and empowering, Houston’s book hammers home the idea that if you don’t have problems, you probably aren’t living. Or, to use her metaphor, we all have baggage, so we might as well get used to traveling with it,” says Booklist in a starred review.

“…[Houston] has…concocted a tale so vivid, intricate, and intimate that it puts high-def TV to shame,” says Elle Magazine.

“Pam travels from Davis, California, where she teaches, to Creed, Colorado, where she owns a small piece of property, and then fans out to various locations around the world – to Alaska, to South Asia, to North Africa, to New Mexico and Wisconsin and Texas. She’s got an adventurous mind and soul. She loves to explore the exotic with a couple of guys with whom she’s having fairly disastrous love affairs. And she’s, like most modern folks, got a hole in her soul that she’s trying to fill with all this travel.

“If this sounds a lot like the storyline of the hugely popular book “Eat, Pray, Love,” that’s because it is. The difference is that Pam never seems to settle anywhere. But if she’s unlucky in love, she’s certainly lucky in prose. She makes everyday accidental details of nature fly vividly off the page…” says Alan Cheuse on NPR.

“The fragmented pattern of “Contents May Have Shifted,’’ much as it mimics our frenetic lives, is not for everyone. But there are rewards: a gradual unfolding of the knots of pain beneath Pam’s troubled back and emotional life; the artful ways in which the sections reflect each other; the steady revelation of multiple layers of wonder; the fragile connection that grows between Pam and Rick’s young daughter. And the near magical sense of completion in the final pages — the feeling you get each time a kaleidoscope clicks momentarily into place, revealing yet another beautiful form,” says the Boston Globe.

When is it available?

The book is available at the Downtown, Ropkins and Park branches of the Hartford Public Library.

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