Brunt's first novel elegantly pictures the New York art world of the 1980s, suburban Westchester and the isolation of AIDS.
Fourteen-year-old June and 16-year-old Greta travel to Manhattan every few Sundays to be with Finn, their uncle. Finn is a renowned artist, dying of a largely unknown disease, and claims he wants to give them this last gift, though more likely it is the contact he craves. June and Finn have an intense relationship—he is charismatic and brilliant and takes her to special places; he is part magic and part uncle, and June adores him. Greta is jealous; she feels Finn favors June and stole her away. When he dies, June is devastated. At the funeral they see the one not to be mentioned: Finn’s lover, Toby. June’s mother refuses to admit him to the service and blames him for her baby brother’s disease. Slowly, June and Toby develop a secret friendship, indulging their grief and keeping Finn alive through the exchange of memories. What she thought was simply Finn’s apartment she discovers was their shared space, and much of what she loved about the place, and Finn, belongs to Toby. As she and Toby embark on Finn-worthy adventures, Greta is slowly falling apart, hiding in the woods drunk, sabotaging her chance at a summer stint on Broadway. Finn’s portrait of the girls, worth nearly $1 million, is kept in a bank vault, and every time June visits (only she and Greta have keys) she notices additions to the painting that could only come from Greta. With Toby dying and Greta in danger, June lifts the covers off all of her family’s secrets.
There is much to admire in this novel. The subtle insight on sibling rivalry and the examination of love make for a poignant debut.
Book-club spotlighting is bound to introduce Irving's particular brio to its largest audience yet; his newest book is characteristically broad and eager, Heir to a shoe-manufacturing fortune and a Wellesley dropout, Jenny Fields becomes a nurse, which isn't quite the thing for a girl of her station. Girls of her station also have some use for men, while Jenny uses one man for one purpose only and only once: she calculatedly gets herself impregnated by an accidentally lobotomized war-veteran patient, Technical Sergeant Garp. Moreover, Jenny defies convention by writing and publishing, late in life, a memoir (entitled "A Sexual Suspect") that quickly becomes a feminist bible. Her son, T. S. Garp (named for his father), grows up meanwhile with writerly instincts of Ids own; Jenny whisks him off to Austria for an education richer in life than college would afford, and Irving shuffles Jenny offstage in order to concentrate on young Garp: his marriage to bookish Helen, his two young sons, Helen's half-hearted affair with a graduate student, and then a grotesque accident involving the entire family that maims one son, kills the other, and (by plot-tinkering) literally dismembers the cuckolding grad student. Also offered are samples of Garp's manuscripts during this time, presumably objective correlatives to Garp's life at the time, but more like a handy hole for loose and incompatible prose efforts the book would not otherwise graciously host. Jenny comes back near book's end, getting herself assassinated at a feminist political rally, but it's Garp's (and Irving's) version of the world that's in control by then. That version is richly anecdotal—almost a brocade of digression—and mostly involved with the same basically inert topics that Irving's earlier books were made of: Vienna, wrestling, wife-swapping, boy's schools, novelists. Despite the withit trappings (feminism, etc.), Irving's wild stylistic scrabble up and down the keys resolves itself into a few leaden theme chords that his veteran readers will wish that he'd broken free of by now. But this hint of staleness will be all but totally disguised to first-time readers: Irving's style and zest remain superb, and his fondness for children—his anxiety over them and their welfare—is as rare and fine and affecting and pure as Heller's or Cheever's.
A hugely ambitious, wildly imaginative novel by Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, 2008, etc.) about a dead 18th-century French Jew brought back to life as a fly in 21st-century America.
Having died at age 31 in 1773 Paris, Jacob Cerf thinks he’s been turned into an angel when he first “wakes up” hovering above Leslie Senzatimore in front of his Long Island home. But Jacob is no angel, although his supernatural powers include reading thoughts, traveling through others’ memories and perhaps implanting ideas. He quickly understands Leslie, who has coped with his life’s traumas, including his father’s suicide and his son’s deafness, by becoming a gentile mensch. The volunteer firefighter is a devoted husband and father who supports his extended family of losers even when his boat repair business is struggling through the recession. Leslie’s genuine goodness reminds Jacob of his father, an observant Jewish peddler unhappy at Jacob’s lack of interest in Torah, so Jacob wants to topple Leslie from his pedestal of righteousness. Accompanying Leslie on a hospital visit, Jacob wanders off and lands (literally) in the room of Masha, a lovely 21-year-old Orthodox Jew with heart problems and a secret desire to become an actress (theater is a leitmotif throughout). Falling for Masha, the first Jewish woman he ever loved, Jacob decides to enhance her opportunities by separating her from her family’s religious Orthodoxy. He travels between Masha and Leslie planting ideas within their brains until their fates intersect. Meanwhile, Jacob tells his own story: his disastrous arranged marriage, his flirtation with Hasidism, his desertion of his Jewish identity to become the valet of a libertine count, his sexual escapades. The three characters live in different genres: Jacob a comical, absurdist picaresque, Leslie a domestic tragedy and Masha a bittersweet coming-of-age melodrama. Yet the parallels, particularly between Masha and Jacob, are unmistakable. Miller forces readers to consider the dangers along with the values of assimilation and pits moral choice against fate.
A challenging read, yet remarkably entertaining and ultimately gripping.
The Great War, as experienced by 20 ordinary people.
There is no shortage of histories of World War I written from the viewpoints of the generals and statesmen who drove the grand strategies. Swedish historian Englund (The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltova and the Birth of the Russian Empire, 2002, etc.) takes a different approach, creating a history of the war as perceived by 20 individuals scattered across the globe. Among them: an Australian woman driving ambulances for the Serbian army; a Venezuelan soldier of fortune in the Ottoman cavalry; the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, whose home was wrecked and then turned into a hospital for typhus victims by the occupying Germans; a French civil servant; a Scotsman fighting Germans in East Africa, a 12-year-old German girl, and a dozen others. The war began for them in an explosion of optimistic patriotism but descended inexorably into cynicism, horror, suffering, privation and exhaustion. Through it all they endured, trying to make sense of it and bear up with their dignity and humanity intact. There are adventures and battles, of course, but also many moments of quiet contemplation with closely observed details of street scenes, restaurants, railway stations and deserted battlefields. Englund unobtrusively includes helpful background information within the text or in footnotes. The text is based largely on diaries, letters and memoirs, from which the author quotes copiously, but most of the narrative is his own, an artful condensation of his source materials into brief passages faithful to the experiences and emotional states of his subjects. Largely written in the present tense to maintain the sense of immediacy, it is by turns pithy, lyrical, colorful, poignant and endlessly absorbing.
Up beyond Asheville, near where Gunter Mountain falls into Tennessee, evil has come to preach in a house of worship where venomous snakes and other poisons are sacraments.
Cash’s debut novel explores Faulkner/O’Connor country, a place where folks endure a hard life by clinging to God’s truths echoing from hardscrabble churches. With Southern idiom as clear as crystal mountain air, Cash weaves the narrative from multiple threads. Jess Hall is the 9-year-old son of Ben and Julie and beloved younger brother of gentle Stump, his mute, autistic sibling. Clem Barefield is county sheriff, a man with a moral code as tough, weathered and flexible as his gun belt. Adelaide Lyle, once a midwife, is now community matriarch of simple faith and solid conscience. Carson Chambliss is pastor of River Road Church of Christ. He has caught Stump spying, peering into the bedroom of his mother Julie, while she happened to be entertaining the amoral pastor. Julie may have lapsed into carnal sin, but she is also a holy fool. Chambliss convinces Julie to bring Stump to the church to be cured by the laying on of hands. There, Stump suffers a terrible fate. Cash’s characters are brilliant: Chambliss, scarred by burns, is as remorseless as one of his rattlesnakes; Addie, loyal to the old ways, is still strong enough to pry the church’s children away from snake-handling services; Barefield is gentle, empathetic and burdened by tragedy. Stump’s brother Jess is appealingly rendered—immature, confused and feeling responsible for and terrified by the evil he senses and sees around him. As lean and spare as a mountain ballad, Cash’s novel resonates perfectly, so much so that it could easily have been expanded to epic proportions.
An evocative work about love, fate and redemption.
"There's got to be something wrong with somebody who'd do a thing like that." This is Perry Edward Smith, talking about himself. "Deal me out, baby...I'm a normal." This is Richard Eugene Hickock, talking about himself. They're as sick a pair as Leopold and Loeb and together they killed a mother, a father, a pretty 17-year-old and her brother, none of whom they'd seen before, in cold blood. A couple of days before they had bought a 100 foot rope to garrote them—enough for ten people if necessary. This small pogrom took place in Holcomb, Kansas, a lonesome town on a flat, limitless landscape: a depot, a store, a cafe, two filling stations, 270 inhabitants. The natives refer to it as "out there." It occurred in 1959 and Capote has spent five years, almost all of the time which has since elapsed, in following up this crime which made no sense, had no motive, left few clues—just a footprint and a remembered conversation. Capote's alternating dossier Shifts from the victims, the Clutter family, to the boy who had loved Nancy Clutter, and her best friend, to the neighbors, and to the recently paroled perpetrators: Perry, with a stunted child's legs and a changeling's face, and Dick, who had one squinting eye but a "smile that works." They had been cellmates at the Kansas State Penitentiary where another prisoner had told them about the Clutters—he'd hired out once on Mr. Clutter's farm and thought that Mr. Clutter was perhaps rich. And this is the lead which finally broke the case after Perry and Dick had drifted down to Mexico, back to the midwest, been seen in Kansas City, and were finally picked up in Las Vegas. The last, even more terrible chapters, deal with their confessions, the law man who wanted to see them hanged, back to back, the trial begun in 1960, the post-ponements of the execution, and finally the walk to "The Corner" and Perry's soft-spoken words—"It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize." It's a magnificent job—this American tragedy—with the incomparable Capote touches throughout. There may never have been a perfect crime, but if there ever has been a perfect reconstruction of one, surely this must be it.
Exceptional memoir by the most famous of the West Memphis Three.
In 1993, Echols (Almost Home, 2005) was convicted, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., in the case of the sadistic sex murders and mutilations of three young boys in the woods around their hometown of West Memphis, Ark. The state’s case was based almost entirely on the confession wrung out of Misskelley, who, writes the author, had the “intellect of a child” and who recanted soon afterward. Witnesses’ testimonies to Echols' “demonic” character sealed the defendants’ fates. Baldwin and Misskelley each received life sentences; Echols, perceived to be the ringleader of an alleged “satanic cult,” was sentenced to death. Over the next decade, an HBO trilogy of documentaries on the case, collectively titled Paradise Lost, helped spark an international campaign to free the West Memphis Three. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Peter Jackson were among the celebrities who became personally involved in the case; thanks to their efforts, and especially those of Echols’ wife, Lorri, whom he met during his prison term, the three were released in August 2011. Those bare facts alone would make for an interesting story. However, Echols is at heart a poet and mystic, and he has written not just a quickie one-off book to capitalize on a lurid news story, but rather a work of art that occasionally bears a resemblance to the work of Jean Genet. A voracious reader all his life, Echols vividly tells his story, from his impoverished childhood in a series of shacks and mobile homes to his emergence after half a lifetime behind bars as a psychically scarred man rediscovering freedom in New York City. The author also effectively displays his intelligence and sensitivity, qualities the Arkansas criminal justice system had no interest in recognizing during Echols’ ordeal.
Essential reading for anyone interested in justice or memoir.
The author of the prize-winning Hap and Leonard series (Devil Red, 2011, etc.) charts a course that may remind you of a distaff Huck and Jim.
Paddling a makeshift raft down the Sabine River, they flee East Texas, a New York minute ahead of their pursuers. There are four of them: tough-minded Sue Ellen Wilson, at 16, the stuff of natural leaders; Jinx, Sue Ellen’s lifelong black friend who, if she knows anything at all, knows she’s better than the bigotry she’s endured all her life; angry, resentful Terry, not wholly reconciled to the fact that he’s gay; and Sue Ellen’s alcoholic mom Helen, who’s quite forgotten how pretty she still is. Flagrantly ill-treated, consistently undervalued, they’ve been brought together by a murder. May Lynn Baxter, “the kind of girl that made men turn their heads and take a deep breath,” is pulled from the river, her bizarre death clearly no accident. It’s an event that provides the restless four with both a mission and a pretext. May Lynn always wanted to go to Hollywood. They will usher her ashes there, a task that provides them with a more or less credible reason for doing what they’ve been longing to do: run.
The river, the raft, a stash of money coveted by bad guys, nonstop adventures that edify, terrify and deepen the bond between Sue Ellen and Jinx. A highly entertaining tour de force.
Hands across the border: In this odd couple story, a Mexican woman fleeing for her life is sheltered by a reclusive Californian while the bad guys hover.
Dawn in the sand dunes, on the US side of the fence. Sam Fahey is out tracking some wild dogs when a young Mexican woman, badly beaten, collapses at his feet. An unlikely Good Samaritan, Sam takes her to his trailer. Now the backstory, taking us to the novel’s halfway point. Sam is a worm farmer, a grizzled loner. He inherited his small property near the border from his hateful, homicidal father. His glory years were his teens, when a legendary surfer (and surrogate father) taught him how to ride the swells. After that it was all downhill: drug-running and jail time. Now he barely gets by, popping pills, guzzling beer, suffering panic attacks away from home. As for the Mexican, 23-year-old Magdalena works for an attorney in Tijuana, building a case against a major US polluter. (This storyline goes nowhere, though Nunn [The Dogs of Winter, 1997, etc.] doesn’t let us forget the polluted landscape.) She also volunteers at an abortion clinic, which brings us to her assailant Armando, who has tried to kill Magdalena in revenge for her helping his abused wife to abort their child. After all this set-up, the story’s second half shows the strengthening bond between Sam, whom we know inside-out, and the fuzzily sketched Magdalena. Armando and his henchmen cross the border to hunt her down. A long chase sequence with random killings is not lean enough to qualify as suspense. The villains are dispatched, and Sam, rehabilitated by the influence of a good woman, finds the strength to rescue six illegals from the pounding surf and to ascend the Mystic Peak, mother of all waves.
Uneven: the violence is tainted by lurid excess, but the relationship between Sam and Magdalena is quite touching and not overdone.
In Walker’s stunning debut, a young California girl coming-of-age in a dystopian near future confronts the inevitability of change on the most personal level as life on earth withers.
Sixth-grader Julia, whose mother is a slightly neurotic former actress and whose father is an obstetrician, is living an unremarkable American middle-class childhood. She rides the school bus and takes piano lessons; she has a mild crush on a boy named Seth whose mother has cancer; she enjoys sleepovers with her best friend Hanna, who happens to be a Mormon. Then one October morning there’s a news report that scientists have discovered a slowing of the earth’s rotation, adding minutes to each day and night. After initial panic, the human tendency to adapt sets in even as the extra minutes increase into hours. Most citizens go along when the government stays on a 24-hour clock, although an underground movement of those living by “real time” sprouts up. Gravity is affected; birds begin to die, and astronauts are stranded on their space station. By November, the “real time” of days has grown to 40 hours, and the actual periods of light and dark only get longer from that point. The world faces crises in communication, health, transportation and food supply. The changes in the planet are profound, but the daily changes in Julia’s life, which she might be facing even in a normal day, are equally profound. Hanna’s family moves to Utah, leaving Julia without a best friend to help defend against the bullies at the bus stop. She goes through the trials and joys of first love. She begins to see cracks in her parents’ marriage and must navigate the currents of loyalty and moral uncertainty. She faces sickness and death of loved ones. But she also witnesses constancy and perseverance. Julia’s life is shaped by what happens in the larger world, but it is the only life she knows, and Walker captures each moment, intimate and universal, with magical precision.