A provocative and revelatory debut, filled with stories about losing faith and trying (often in vain) to find purpose, mainly set amid the sparsely populated Mormon country of the rugged Northwest.
Raised a Mormon and now a columnist in Spokane, Vestal combines formal invention and spiritual depth—even when those depths are dry with spiritual estrangement—in nine stories that establish a unique vision. All but one of these stories has a first-person male narrator, generally one who is struggling with faith or has fallen from it, often one who is drifting without direction. When the all-but-destitute loner narrating the title story says that “[t]he vistas were wide, wide open, like the view from the middle of the ocean,” what he sees as promise strikes the reader as more like emptiness. Broken families, abandoned by the father, fill these stories as well. Two of the narrators are dead; one is in the afterlife (where “the food is excellent....You eat from your own life only. You order from memory, as best you can”), another’s spirit somehow coexists within the consciousness of a young Mormon veteran, returned from World War I, driven mad by his sinful memories. God is mostly invoked in these stories through his absence. “I have tried again to pray,” writes a man, fallen from faith in the early 1800s, following the death of his wife. “Five months since Elizabeth has gone, and I remain unable to find the language....I fear for my soul, for I am angry at Him, and He is silent.” Yet hell is very real, often a hell of the narrator’s own making, with sin central to the human condition. In “Families Are Forever!” (a title that is more threat than promise), a compulsive liar and his girlfriend visit her Mormon parents (with whom she feels tension complicated by faith). “[S]omething about it made me want to change myself entirely,” he says, but he sees through the eyes of her father that “he knew all he needed to know about me—that I was false in my bones.” And he asks, like others in these stories might, “Couldn’t I be someone else, for once?”
Plainspoken stories filled with profound ambivalence and occasional flickers of redemption.
The story of a distinguished journalist's search for his father's war.
Pulitzer Prize winner Maharidge's (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; Homeland, 2011, etc.) father was a Marine sergeant who fought on Okinawa, where he suffered brain damage in an explosion that killed one of the men in his command, Herman Mulligan. Among the souvenirs the elder Maharidge brought home was an omnipresent photograph of himself and Mulligan, as well as sporadic explosive rages that terrified the author throughout his childhood. Maharidge received no diagnosis or treatment for his injury and refused to talk about the war to the end of his days. After his death, the author, "a person obsessed with the past and what I could not heal," set out to discover the truth about his father's wartime experiences, learn who Mulligan was and, if possible, locate his inexplicably unidentified gravesite. He conducted interviews with almost 30 elderly members of his father's company, and he presents 12 of them at length. He also traveled to Okinawa to visit the site of his father's injury and meet with civilian survivors of the battle in an effort to lay his father’s demons to rest. The result is a moving memoir of the war by someone who wasn't there but who suffered from wartime injuries just as surely as his father had. The veterans' interviews are sensitively conducted, powerful and disturbing, graphic descriptions of brutal and largely unnecessary combat with a suicidally determined enemy, and frank accounts of atrocities committed by both sides. Equally importantly, some also explore the men's difficulties in re-entering civilian life, placing in context the elder Maharidge's often unsuccessful struggles to live with his experiences among people who could not imagine or understand them.
A powerful narrative of the dark side of American combat in the Pacific theater and the persistence of resulting injuries decades after the war ended.
A woman tussles with memories of her brother, a rock ’n’ roll cult hero, in a sharp, challenging novel about identity and family history.
Spiotta (Eat the Document, 2006, etc.) claims Don DeLillo as one of her mentors, and her third novel bears a resemblance to DeLillo’s classic Great Jones Street (1973). Both novels are concerned with the invention of pop-culture personas, and Spiotta shares DeLillo’s plainspoken, often clinical style of observation. It’s best not to draw too close a connection between the two authors, though: Spiotta’s blend of human portraits and big-picture thinking is wholly her own. Denise, the novel’s heroine and occasional narrator, has had a long love-hate relationship with her brother, Nik, an L.A. rock musician who flirted with mass popularity in the 1970s but more often shunned the spotlight. Using various pseudonyms and working in various styles, he produced a host of self-released albums and kept a regular set of “Chronicles” about himself filled with invented news stories and reviews. Spiotta’s theme of crafted personas is clear (Nik’s most popular band was called the Fakes), but Denise’s wry, mordant character moves the novel beyond a philosophical exercise. The siblings’ mother increasingly succumbs to dementia, which adds human detail to Denise’s musings about what connects us outside of shared memory. She has strong reactions to news of far-away events (the book’s title comes from the name of a tragedy-struck New York Amish community), which gives an emotional pitch to her thoughts about mediated experience. But for all its hard thinking, this book has plenty of novelistic energy: It’s filled with in-jokes about pop, punk and new wave music, and Denise’s character engagingly echoes the music’s tone of irony and defiance.
A fine novel about heartbreak. Spiotta keenly understands how busily we construct images of ourselves for the public, and how hard loved ones work to dismantle them.
The story of a 30-something college student who employed an array of digital weapons to attack her writing professor, who loved her writing but rejected her amorous advances.
In a tale that sometimes seems more like a script for a horror film, novelist and short story writer Lasdun (It’s Beginning to Hurt, 2009, etc.) approaches his subject from a variety of perspectives. First, he provides a brisk narrative of the principal events: In the fall of 2003, he was a part-time teacher at a New York college (he changed the name); he greatly encouraged one of his students, an Iranian immigrant he calls Nasreen; after the course was over, they became email correspondents, and he helped her look for an agent and a publisher for her work; when her interest became more romantic, he backed off. And with her continued harassment, his hellish life commenced. Lasdun then pauses, returns to think about the classroom situation and to ask himself what he’d done—or not done—that might have contributed to this grievous misunderstanding. He looks for analogies (and solace) in literary works—among them Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which he summarizes at great length about a third of the way through, Macbeth, Strangers on a Train and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Penitent. Nasreen’s emails grew ever more crude and threatening (the author reproduces many of them), so Lasdun tried the FBI and the NYPD but with no real success. She posted vicious material on Amazon, Facebook and Wikipedia; she wrote to all of his publishers and to the institutions where he’d worked, accusing him of having sex with his students and stealing her material—even engineering her rape. She also forwarded in his name obnoxious and noxious material. A later section deals with Lasdun’s explorations of family roots and anti-Semitism.
A horrifying cautionary tale that reveals the vast dimensions of our vulnerability in the cyber age.
A high-class meal provides an unlikely window into privilege, violence and madness.
Paul, the narrator of this caustic tale, initially appears to be an accomplished man who’s just slightly eccentric and prone to condescension: As he and his wife prepare for a pricey dinner with his brother and sister-in-law, he rhetorically rolls his eyes at wait staff, pop culture and especially his brother, a rising star in the Dutch political world. The mood is mysteriously tense in the opening chapters, as the foursome talk around each other, and Paul’s contempt expands. The source of the anxiety soon becomes evident: Paul’s teenage son, along with Paul’s brother’s children, was involved in a violent incident, and though the videos circulating on TV and YouTube are grainy, there’s a high risk they’ll be identified. The formality of the meal is undone by the parents’ desperate effort to keep a lid on the potential scandal: Sections are primly titled “Aperitif,” “Appetizer” and so on, but Koch deliberately sends the narrative off-menu as it becomes clear that Paul’s anxiety is more than just a modest personality tic, and the foursome’s high-toned concerns about justice and egalitarianism collapse into unseemly self-interest. The novel can be ineffectually on the nose when it comes to discussions of white guilt and class, the brothers’ wives are thin characters, and scenes meant to underscore Paul’s madness have an unrealistic vibe that show Koch isn’t averse to a gratuitous, melodramatic shock or two. Even so, Koch’s slow revelation of the central crisis is expertly paced, and he’s opened up a serious question of what parents owe their children, and how much of their character is passed on to them.
At its best, a chilling vision of the ugliness of keeping up appearances.
The bad seed/nurture vs. nature theme updated as a teenaged sniper’s mother tries to understand the why behind her son’s criminality, in a series of letters to her not so mysteriously absent husband.
Two years earlier, when he was not quite 16, Kevin Khatchadourian went on a murderous rampage and now lives in a juvenile facility, where his mother Eva visits him regularly if joylessly. Although she has won a civil suit brought by a grieving mother who held her parenting responsible for Kevin’s acts, Eva does not doubt her accountability any more than she doubts Kevin’s guilt. Is she a bad mother? Is he a devil child? The implied answer to both is yes. Eva and her husband Franklin were happily married until she became pregnant in her late 30s. The successful publisher of bohemian travel guides who loves her work, Eva is more ambivalent than Franklin about the prospect of parenthood. When Kevin is born, her lack of instantaneous maternal love is exacerbated by Kevin’s rejection of her breast. The baby shows—or she sees—plenty of early signs that he is “different.” He refuses to talk until he’s three or toilet train until he’s six—a matter of choice, not ability. Babysitters quit; other children fear him. Franklin, a bland, all-American type about whom Eva talks lovingly but condescendingly, notices nothing wrong. He defends Kevin against all accusations. When Eva’s daughter Celia is born, the contrast between the children is startling. Celia is sweet-natured, passive, and a bit dim, and Eva is amazed how naturally she and the girl bond. Meanwhile, Kevin grows into a creepily vicious adolescent whose only hobby is archery. The impending disaster is no surprise despite Shriver’s coyly dropped hints. Eva’s acid social commentary and slightly arch voice only add to the general unpleasantness—which isn’t to say Shriver lacks skill, since unpleasantness appears to be her aim.
Not for the faint-hearted or those contemplating parenthood.
An observant, gutsy journalist immerses herself in the lives of marginal Bronx residents.
Freelance writer LeBlanc wanted to understand a nearby culture different from her own, so she won permission to enter the lives of a Bronx family, and stayed more than ten years. Her story begins in the mid-1980s, as 16-year-old Jessica cruises Tremont Avenue, hoping to attract young men amid the drug trafficking and otherwise colorful street life on corner after corner. In the first of 39 densely populated chapters, newcomer LeBlanc introduces Jessica's extremely extended family, including her 32-year-old mother Lourdes; brother Robert, with whom Jessica shares a biological father; half-sister Elaine; half-brother Cesar; and Big Daddy, the 25-year-old meat-market butcher who fell in love with Lourdes after Jessica, the original object of his desire, introduced the couple. Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, partners in crime, law-abiding friends, law-enforcement personnel, social workers, and merchants—all make cameo appearances, disappear, then sometimes reappear in dizzying fashion. LeBlanc’s narrative style, heavily reliant on novelistic techniques, is almost always gripping, although the storyline occasionally becomes confusing. Jessica’s never absent for long as the connecting character, but with so many supporting players in this real-life soap opera, a refresher on who’s who and who did what is often needed. Near the end, in 2001, as Jessica walks through the neighborhood, she is no longer a man magnet. She is many pounds heavier, self-conscious about her figure, but alive and doing better than just getting by, thanks to a security job in a bank. It is now Jessica's 16-year-old daughter Serena and Serena's friends who draw the attention of the men along the street. How will life turn out for Serena? LeBlanc has some thoughts that she works subtly into the narrative, but this is one saga the author can’t control.
Comparisons to Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here (1991) are inevitable and warranted.
Imaginative stories elevated by creative renderings of tropes from genre fiction.
Debut author Gonzales, executive director of The Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center, offers up a collection of 18 sparely constructed stories, rife with ingenuity and beholden to few rules. The opening story, “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” finds a journalist attempting to make sense of the fact that his hijacked plane has been circling the Dallas skyline for two decades. The title story is about a scientist who, after shrinking his wife to nearly microscopic size, finds himself at war with her. This leads to laugh-out-loud lines like this one, about his wife’s paramour: “So what else could I do but cover him in honey and seed and then feed him to the bird?” “One-Horned & Wild-Eyed” explores the rivalry that explodes between two friends—over the unicorn they’re keeping in a backyard shed. Still other stories infuse real emotion into nightmarish scenarios. “Life on Capra II” depicts a futuristic solider who pines for his lost love, even as he blasts away at swamp monsters and killer robots. In “All of Me,” we meet the zombie lurking inside an office drone, who wishes for nothing more than a date with a married co-worker and to devour the obnoxious guy down the hall. Others, such as “Wolf!” and “Escape from the Mall,” are more traditional takes on the monsters of our nightmares. But then Gonzales nails the reader with a roundhouse kick like “Farewell, Africa,” about a famous speech delivered in concert with the actual sinking of continents. The author also peppers his collection with five sinister obituaries that are quite fun, if superfluous to this inspired string of off-key hits.
A man’s collapsed marriage and growing madness imperils his young daughter in this bracing third novel by Gaige (The Folded World, 2007, etc.).
Narrator Eric Kennedy makes clear early on that he’s done something very wrong: At the behest of his lawyers, he’s writing his ex-wife to explain why he disappeared with their six-year-old daughter, Meadow, for a week. Like many unreliable narrators before him, he’s bathing in narcissism and has a hard time facing facts, but Gaige makes the discovery process at once harrowing and fascinating. Eric escaped from East Germany with his father as a child and changed his name (from Erik Schroder, hence the title). As an adult, he was a caring husband and father, but his erratic behavior (like keeping a dead fox in the backyard as a kind of science project for Meadow) sunk the marriage, and his limited visitation rights prompted him to effectively kidnap Meadow and take her on an extended tour of upstate New York and New England. Abductors are hard to make sympathetic, but Gaige potently renders the embittered fun-house logic of a man who’s lost his bearings. (“There was nothing in our parental agreement that said I couldn’t drive around the outskirts of Albany at high speeds.”) Gaige is interested in what widens and closes the gaps in our personalities between the past and present, madness and sanity, and she expertly works the theme like an accordion player until the climax, when Meadow is truly endangered, and Eric has a moment of clarity. The concluding plot turns are bluntly deus ex machina, and some characters, such as the aging muse for an ’80s pop hit, hit the split personality theme in an obvious way, but overall the storytelling is remarkably poised.
Smart, comic, unsettling, yet strangely of a piece—not unlike its disarming lead character.
Actor/playwright/filmmaker Akhtar makes a compelling debut with a family drama centered on questions of religious and ethnic identity.
In 1980s Milwaukee, 10-year-old Hayat Shah lives in a troubled Pakistani-American household. Father, a determinedly secular neurologist, has no use for the ostentatiously devout local Muslim community; his best friend is a Jewish colleague, Nathan, and he cheats on his wife with white women, a fact Hayat’s angry mother is all too willing to share with her son. The arrival of Mina, Mother’s best friend from home who has been divorced by her husband for having “a fast mouth,” brings added tension. Mina, a committed but nondogmatic Muslim, introduces Hayat to the beauties of the Quran and encourages him to become a hafiz, someone who knows the holy book by heart. But Hayat’s feelings for his “auntie” have sexual undercurrents that disturb them both, and his jealousy when Mina and Nathan fall in love leads him to a terrible act of betrayal that continues to haunt him as a college student in 1990. Akhtar, himself a first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee, perfectly balances a moving exploration of the understanding and serenity Islam imparts to an unhappy preteen with an unsparing portrait of fundamentalist bigotry and cruelty, especially toward intelligent women like Mina. His well-written, strongly plotted narrative is essentially a conventional tale of family conflict and adolescent angst, strikingly individualized by its Muslim fabric. Hayat’s father is in many ways the most complex and intriguing character, but Mina and Nathan achieve a tragic nobility that goes beyond their plot function as instruments of the boy’s moral awakening. Though the story occasionally dips into overdetermined melodrama, its warm tone and traditional but heartfelt coming-of-age lesson will appeal to a broad readership.
Engaging and accessible, thoughtful without being daunting: This may be the novel that brings Muslim-American fiction into the commercial mainstream.