A collection of journalistic pieces that remain provocative, or at least interesting, even if the subjects that inspired them have faded from memory.
In his 10th book, pop-culture contrarian Klosterman (But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present as If It Were the Past, 2016, etc.) suggests that he has matured more gracefully than many of those he has written about. He built his career as the anti-critic critic, the guy who embraced hair metal and didn’t care much for a lot of what music critics claimed to love. Or, as he writes in one of his more recent introductions to older pieces, “one of the things I love about covering uncool artists is that groups widely described as ‘hated’ are almost always more popular than groups who are described as ‘beloved,’ ” referring to a piece on the critically reviled Creed and Nickelback. On that same page, he remarks, of a longer retrospective, “I don’t expect most people who buy this book will read a ten-thousand-word essay on KISS. It is, however, twice as good as a five-thousand-word essay on KISS.” Though it has been tempting to dismiss Klosterman as a one-trick pony, claiming black where others (in print at least) see white, the best work offers insight into the relations among artist, art, and audience that goes considerably deeper. The profiles of Taylor Swift, Kobe Bryant, and Jonathan Franzen will leave readers with fresh appreciation for both the subjects and the journalist, who understands how the three are similar in terms of what they have accomplished and what challenges they have faced in terms of popular perception. It is possible that nobody has ever understood Swift better on the page, while the Franzen piece falls a little short of that for reasons Klosterman explains: “We are both working writers with vaguely similar lives. He, however, is more talented, more successful, and considerably more respected….There was a power imbalance, recognized by both of us.”
Even those who only dimly remember Royce White, Pavement, or Gnarls Barkley will find the reflections on them engaging.
A fierce new memoir from the essayist and longtime New York Times contributor.
In her debut, Poser (2011), Dederer trained her keen eye and penchant for dry self-deprecation on yoga and motherhood. Here, the author turns to other topics, primarily sex and aging. It seems she had no choice. Ensconced in her apparently perfect life—comfortable house, kind husband, loving kids, career success and recognition—Dederer found herself intermittently and uncomfortably aware of her “chaotic past,” of the “disastrous pirate slut of a girl” who was “breathing down my neck.” One day when she was 44, for reasons not entirely clear, though maybe as simple as the encroachment of middle age or the scent of nostalgia in the air, the latent hungers and preoccupations of her sexually active youth came rushing back, “as if a switch is flipped,” and refused to disappear. A disruptive, unbidden kiss from a man who was not her husband widened the crevice in the wall between her libidinous past and relatively contained, conventional present. Informed by her own diaries—20 of them recovered from boxes scattered throughout the basement—the author dedicated herself to considering the “horrible girl” she once was, examining her from a variety of angles to face her head-on and bravely mulling disquieting questions of identity and purpose. With candor and humor, Dederer dives deeply into her sexual history, which began with an unwelcome encounter at age 13, continued through her teenage explorations based around Seattle’s University Avenue in the early 1980s, and into her unhappy time at Oberlin and beyond. Along the way, she contemplates power and victimhood and the battle, or balance, between freedom and safety. Dederer is unstintingly honest and unafraid as she excavates her motivations and reservations, her fantasies, and the implications of the choices she has made – and those she has yet to make.
Insightful, provocative, and fearlessly frank, Dederer seduces readers with her warmth, wit, and wisdom.
In the Hollywood Hills, a smart, damaged mother of two hires a nanny so she can work on a memoir—but the younger woman is no less a piece of work than she is and intent on an art project of her own.
Lepucki’s (California, 2014, etc.) third work of fiction is a stylish dramedy in he said, she said style. One narrator is Lady Daniels, who has just sold a memoir based on a magazine article she wrote about her 18-year-old son, Seth, a charismatic child who's never spoken though he has no disability and can communicate with irony and insight using American Sign Language, his iPad, and his Twitter feed. Now she needs someone to take care of Devin, her extroverted toddler, so she can work on her book—and it won’t be his father, Karl, since she just kicked him out of the house. He’s staying with his famous-artist sister, who took the revealing photo of Lady titled Woman No. 17. The other narrator is Lady’s new nanny, a recent college graduate whose real name is Esther Shapiro but who's going by S Fowler. Among the many things S does not reveal in her job interview is the fact that she's just begun a conceptual art project devoted to impersonating her mother as a young woman—even though her mother was and is an impulsive, unbalanced alcoholic. Lady and Esther have much in common (to the point that you sometimes forget which one you’re reading). Both had terrible mothers, both lie easily and often, and both are obsessed with Seth. These things draw them together less as friends than as self-involved dervishes on a collision course.
Always enjoyable if not always believable, this novel succeeds by staying light on its feet. Or, as one character puts it, “Please don’t monetize my bunny.”
An Afghani-Australian teen named Mina earns a scholarship to a prestigious private school and meets Michael, whose family opposes allowing Muslim refugees and immigrants into the country.
Dual points of view are presented in this moving and intelligent contemporary novel set in Australia. Eleventh-grader Mina is smart and self-possessed—her mother and stepfather (her biological father was murdered in Afghanistan) have moved their business and home across Sydney in order for her to attend Victoria College. She’s determined to excel there, even though being surrounded by such privilege is a culture shock for her. When she meets white Michael, the two are drawn to each other even though his close-knit, activist family espouses a political viewpoint that, though they insist it is merely pragmatic, is unquestionably Islamophobic. Tackling hard topics head-on, Abdel-Fattah explores them fully and with nuance. True-to-life dialogue and realistic teen social dynamics both deepen the tension and provide levity. While Mina and Michael’s attraction seems at first unlikely, the pair’s warmth wins out, and readers will be swept up in their love story and will come away with a clearer understanding of how bias permeates the lives of those targeted by it.
A meditation on a timely subject that never forgets to put its characters and their stories first
. (Fiction. 12-17)
In the year 2045, Singapore-based Interpol agent Kenneth Durand's campaign against black-market gene editing is set back when he's injected with a synthetic "change agent" that transforms him into the spitting image of his evil nemesis.
That would be Marcus Demang Wyckes, ruthless head of the human-trafficking Huli jing cartel. What makes Durand's transformation shocking and spectacular is that the only known altering of DNA segments has been performed on embryos, to meet parents' desires for healthier, smarter, or more attractive offspring. Jabbed with a needle by one of Wyckes' men, Durand has his entire genomic code rewritten, a procedure that takes months to complete and leaves him in a coma from which he was not meant to recover. The plan was to have him die looking like Wyckes so people would think the cartel head was dead and Durand's successors wouldn't keep pursuing him. Durand escapes but finds himself chased by both bad guys who want to kill him and law enforcement agents who think he's Wyckes while he heads to Malaysia to have a black-market geneticist restore his original DNA via a risky reverse edit. Along the way, we are introduced to ultrasophisticated police drones, tiny Shrimp cars, and drug printers that produce synthetic opioids from mundane ingredients. While the action scenes are plenty lively, the best thing about the book is its depiction of a troublesome future in which people can change physical identities the way they change clothes. The tattoos that appear on Durand's arm when he's angry and recede when he isn't are only one of the novel's cool details.
A natural at making future shocks seem perfectly believable, Suarez (Influx, 2014, etc.) delivers his most entertaining high-tech thriller yet.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Powers (Mark Twain: A Life, 2005, etc.) presents two searing sagas: an indictment of mental health care in the United States and the story of his two schizophrenic sons.
Having previously published notable books in the realms of biography, media criticism, small-town ethnography, investigative journalism, and memoir, the author once again demonstrates his versatility. The unforgettable title of his latest book derives from a callous comment made by a politician in 2010. As Powers demonstrates through in-depth reporting and his own personal experience, even when those in positions of authority sincerely believe in the importance of helping those who are mentally ill, meaningful care tends to receive short shrift at budget time. The author never wanted to write a book about mental health because of the nightmares that would arise discussing highly personal matters. However, he decided that the urgency for improved mental health policy and funding in this country compelled him to forge ahead with a manuscript. By the time of his decision, nearly a decade had passed since his younger son, Kevin, had hanged himself in the basement of the family home a week prior to his 21st birthday. Then, as Powers and his wife continued in the grief and healing process, their only remaining child, Dean, began to show signs of schizophrenia. A psychotic break on a Christmas morning melted away the author’s resolve to refrain from writing this book—and readers are the beneficiaries. Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.”
This hybrid narrative, enhanced by the author’s considerable skills as a literary stylist, succeeds on every level.
Hamid (Discontent and Its Civilizations, 2014, etc.) crafts a richly imaginative tale of love and loss in the ashes of civil war.
The country—well, it doesn’t much matter, one of any number that are riven by sectarian violence, by militias and fundamentalists and repressive government troops. It’s a place where a ponytailed spice merchant might vanish only to be found headless, decapitated “nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort.” Against this background, Nadia and Saeed don’t stand much of a chance; she wears a burka but only “so men don’t fuck with me,” but otherwise the two young lovers don’t do a lot to try to blend in, spending their days ingesting “shrooms” and smoking a little ganga to get away from the explosions and screams, listening to records that the militants have forbidden, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible, Saeed crouching in terror at the “flying robots high above in the darkening sky.” Fortunately, there’s a way out: some portal, both literal and fantastic, that the militants haven’t yet discovered and that, for a price, leads outside the embattled city to the West. “When we migrate,” writes Hamid, “we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” True, and Saeed and Nadia murder a bit of themselves in fleeing, too, making new homes in London and then San Francisco while shed of their old, innocent selves and now locked in descending unhappiness, sharing a bed without touching, just two among countless nameless and faceless refugees in an uncaring new world. Saeed and Nadia understand what would happen if millions of people suddenly turned up in their country, fleeing a war far away. That doesn’t really make things better, though. Unable to protect each other, fearful but resolute, their lives turn in unexpected ways in this new world.
One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.
Dread and lassitude twist into a spare and stunning portrait of a marital estrangement.
At the end of this unsettling psychological novel, the narrator suggests that “perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing.” Kitamura’s third work of fiction builds into a hypnotic meditation on infidelity and the unknowability of one’s spouse. In precise and muted prose, the entire story unspools in the coolly observant mind of a young woman, a translator. She is estranged from Christopher Wallace, her “handsome and wealthy” husband of five years. He is a relentless adulterer; the narrator herself is now living with another man. The novel begins with a phone call from Isabella, a hostile and unpleasant mother-in-law, petulant that she can’t reach her only son and ignorant of the separation. Christopher has decamped to rural Greece, and Isabella insists her daughter-in-law leave England to go after him. Thinking it time to ask for a divorce, she agrees. In the remote fishing village of Gerolimenas, there are grim portents: stray dogs, high unemployment, a landscape charred from a season of wildfires, and the hostility of a hotel receptionist who appears to have slept with Christopher. Each of 13 taut chapters turns the screw; at the beginning of the seventh there is a murder. Kitamura leaves it unsolved. Instead of delivering a whodunit, the author plucks a bouquet of unforeseen but psychologically piercing consequences. The narrator thinks, “One of the problems of happiness—and I’d been very happy, when Christopher and I were first engaged—is that it makes you both smug and unimaginative.” As this harrowing story ends, her life is diminished and her imagination is cruelly awake.
A minutely observed novel of infidelity unsettles its characters and readers.
“This world is the last thing God will ever tell us”: an aching, lyrical story of schisms and secrets in present-day Pakistan.
Nargis has something to tell, a secret that she has been carrying for a lifetime. “She had succeeded in concealing herself in the false story she had constructed,” writes Aslam (The Blind Man’s Garden, 2013, etc.), having already suggested why there are many good reasons to hide inside inventions in a Pakistan that is increasingly torn apart by sectarian strife, the muezzin’s call punctuated by denunciations of romance across religious lines as gentle young scholars rush to join the jihadis. There is much violence: Nargis’ Christian housekeepers are still mourning the loss of one of their own, murdered by a man just recently freed from prison as a reward for having memorized the Quran, and now Nargis must deal with grief herself, her husband caught in the crossfire of a gunfight involving a “large healthily built white man.” She has barely a moment to mourn when Pakistani military intelligence agents are at her door to demand that she forgive the American for the death—a demand that carries the implication that if she does not comply, her secret will come spilling out to destroy the rest of her family. Aslam’s story has all the gravity of a tragedy and one of many dimensions: Nargis’ island retreat, once a place of calm where a church and a Hindu temple stood alongside a mosque, is riven by people seeking difference in the place of similarity, as she wonders, “Which God or Gods had built that world?” And indeed, tucked away inside Aslam’s quietly unwinding narrative are snippets of and allusions to religious tales that speak to the wisdom of earlier days—the title itself is one of them—against the unwisdom of our own.
Brooding and beautiful: a mature, assured story of the fragility of the world and of ourselves.
Insights and images combine in a meditation on loss, grief, and the illusions of permanence.
Sarabande Books managing editor Radtke isn’t an artist who also writes a little or a writer who scrawls but a master of both prose narrative and visual art. Like memory, the narrative loosens the binds of chronology, playing hopscotch through the author’s girlhood, college, formative years as an artist, and apocalyptic fantasy of her current home in New York. A strain of heart failure seems to run in Radtke’s family, and the key to this memoir is the death of her favorite uncle, who was recovering from the surgery that ultimately killed him and whose death made the author and her family all the more concerned with the family medical history. The event also planted the seed for this book and its larger thematic focus, as Radtke became “consumed by the question of how something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” On her return home for the funeral, the author discovered an abandoned mining town that she would later revisit. During art school, she became fascinated by Gary, Indiana, a city in ruins, where she discovered the photos of someone whose attempts to document the city led to his death. She left a fiance and what she imagined to be a “stagnant future” for vagabond travels taking her from the ruins of Italy to the ravages of Southeast Asia, while her own heart condition gave notions of impermanence and loss a personal emphasis. “I couldn’t comprehend why the dead couldn’t be made undead,” she writes. “Why a heart that caved couldn’t be filled out again.” In a way, what she has done in this impressive book is to revive the dead and recover the lost while illuminating a world in flux, in which change is the only constant.
Powerfully illustrated and incisively written—a subtle dazzler of a debut.