The two very different families of an engaged couple meet for a prenuptial dinner in the garden of the groom's parents' home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
"The excitable flower beds toss light and color to one another and toward the weathered shingles of the house, but the brilliance of the sun causes the rooms inside to appear cavernous and dark. Ecstatic chopping noises come from the kitchen, the staccato pulse of knife on wood, scallions mostly, mint." Former biologist Mazur's (Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination, 2010) novel wafts in on a heady cloud of flowers, fragrances, and jewellike descriptions, redolent with overtones of Virginia Woolf and A Midsummer Night's Dream and finishing notes of Julia Glass. Generously, the author begins by sharing the seating plan devised by the hostess, Celia Cohen, for her party of 25. It's a face-off between the Cohens, a family of academics, poets, and world travelers, including their cosmopolitan 91-year-old matriarch, and the Barlows, a sedate family of lawyers, with their mildly demented and unpredictable 89-year-old grandpa. Perhaps the author's sympathies lie a little too blatantly on the side of the Cohens, or maybe those Barlow people really are just that insensitive, stuffy, and adulterous. To get through so much happening to so many in just 240 pages, the novel is very light on its feet, whisking us through a slide show of mostly delightful scenes, both live-action and in the minds and memories of the characters. There is a naked badminton game, a hilarious rundown of the dietary prohibitions of each of the guests—"Yellow? You can't be allergic to yellow. Not to a color. That makes no sense"—a moving moment in Logan airport, and lots of interesting information about bugs, plants, and ancient Babylonian recipes. Some of the more complicated fictional gambits, involving interfamily relationships, are too rushed to be fully believable. As for the final vignette, which takes us off to another time and place, well, it wasn't the dessert we were hoping for, really.
A stirring defense of “identity politics” and the need to reclaim narratives as well as a powerful account of the transformation of a journalist into an activist.
The old adage says that the personal is political (and vice versa), and it is the personal that elevates this above the typical activist broadside. Roychoudhuri combines the reporting chops of an experienced journalist with literary flair and a conversational, common-sense approach that seems far more heartfelt than dogmatic. “My primary identity is not as a first-generation Indian-American,” she writes, after recounting her frustrations with an agent interested in her fiction who suggested she make it more “Jhumpa Lahiri-sh.” “I identity more as an ambiguously brown American—one who decided to learn Spanish in part because so many people assume I’m Latina.” As such, the author establishes that she is emblematic of the “marginalized majority” in a country where appeals to reach the “average American” generally connote one who is white and male and where “working-class American” is similarly misrepresented given “the fact that the majority of the American working class is part of an ethnic or racial minority.” Throughout, Roychoudhuri gives voice to those whose voices are too little heard. She finds great hope in “solidarity and intersectionality in protests,” showing how #metoo, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and other movements of the supposedly marginalized have moved into the mainstream. “Marginalized Americans are at the heart of the movement,” she writes. “And they always have been.” Along the way, the author recounts her progression from a reporter more comfortable observing from the sidelines to an activist in the middle of the fray as she tackles myths of subjectivity and objectivity that can distort the reality.
There have been plenty of books covering similar territory—and there will be many more in the years to come—but rarely are they as persuasive and engaging as this one.
Cycling, family life, illegal substances—Reed twines them all together in his exceptional debut.
Our narrator, Solomon, is a professional cyclist racing in the Tour de France. His wife, Liz, is a research biologist with an “interest in adaptive theory.” They are both ambitious, devotedly searching for “a right way to do things, a sense of control.” But Sol is not racing to win; his job is “to get our team leader, Fabrice, across the twenty-one stages of this tour in as little time as possible.” To properly perform this job, and to remain competitive against their likewise unscrupulous rivals, Sol and his teammates dope—a practice Sol uneasily supports: “I am no fan of the danger of the process, but when I consider the way the team has got into me—altered my chemistry to my own advantage—I am grateful.” The novel unfolds over several days midtour. Sol’s team has a bit of good luck, and a lot of bad, and eventually Liz, who’s driving in from England to watch the race’s later stages, is drawn into the doping scheme…then further into it, then further. “Just one little thing more,” she says. Reed’s first novel lives squarely within Don DeLillo’s sphere of influence. In addition to their mutual preoccupation with systems—the systems we live beneath, the systems we design for ourselves—Reed shares with DeLillo certain aspects of pacing, voice, and character: Sol’s wryly thoughtful narration is reminiscent of Jack Gladney’s in White Noise; Rafael, the team’s coercive and brilliantly rendered directeur sportif, could be a relative of Gladney's friend Murray Jay Siskind. But Reed relies more heavily on plot than DeLillo, and the effect is remarkably successful: Alongside the ideas and the jokes, there is real suspense and human drama. Reed shows us the allure of conducting our “days...not for their own sake but for the light that will be cast back upon them by success”—and then he shows us how awful this method of living can be when things go wrong.
“We are doing all this for a bicycle race?” Fast and smart, funny and sad, this is an outstanding sports novel, and Reed is an author to watch.
These outstanding autobiographical essays explore solitude, traumatic events, and a deep commitment to place.
Auvinen (Film/Univ. of Colorado Boulder), former Colorado artist-in-residence and two-time Academy of American Poets award recipient, charts a decade of life “ordered by weather and wildlife” on the Front Range of the Rockies. She prized her independence, funding her writing with three part-time jobs and finding companionship in her husky mix, Elvis. But when her cabin burned down, destroying all her work in progress, she had to accept help and discovered that her small town was a true community. After the fire’s climactic prologue, the book gracefully fills in events either side: her early years and how she rebuilt her life. Growing up, Auvinen felt oppressed by Catholic doctrine and her Air Force father’s slaps. She gives excellent pithy descriptions of her family dynamics: “In my family, women were parsley on the plate—accessories”; “Men did things, women watched.” When her parents’ marriage ended, she and her mother and sister banded together; she even took her mother’s maiden name in a power play that alienated male relatives. In the post-fire years, her mother’s health problems were a major concern, as was Elvis’ decline into old age. Anyone who has ever cherished and lost a pet will agree with her that this kind of love “is no small thing.” The turning seasons (“March was thick with anticipation—the pendulum between winter and spring”) and rhythms of small-town life form a meditative backdrop. Nature—whether gardening, camping, or close encounters with bears and a fox—speaks of wonder and solace. Toward the close, Auvinen writes of diving into a relationship with artist Greg Marquez, the book’s illustrator, and a place enjoyed in solitude became one freely shared. The author has served a long apprenticeship—sensing life’s patterns, becoming embedded in a human community, learning to give and receive love—and the result is a beautiful story of resilience perfect for readers of Terry Tempest Williams.
Always thoughtful and often aching, the 11 sharp stories in Patel’s debut find his characters—mostly first-generation Indian-Americans; usually young, or youngish; often in Midwestern cities—navigating love, loss, and disappointment.
In “god of destruction,” which opens the collection, an unhappy interior designer has a one-night stand with the 22-year-old cable guy after a botched internet date. “No one ever told me that happiness was like a currency: that when it goes, it goes, and that few people are willing to give you some of theirs,” she reflects. Later, she’ll write the incident out of her history. In “just a friend,” a 22-year-old college dropout meets a handsome married dentist at a Chicago gay bar only to find out, after a romantic weekend together, that the man isn’t who he seems. The title story is both the simplest and the showstopper, about the troubled relationship between two brothers, told from the perspective of the high-achieving youngest, now a doctor. It’s an empathetic family portrait, exquisitely subtle, without villains; their falling out, when it happens, triggered by a comment over a white girlfriend, is about nothing and also everything. The silence between them lasts for 10 years. The collection ends with an unexpected pair of linked stories following a boy and a girl who met as kids and again as adults, both of them having become items of community gossip. When they reconnect in their Illinois hometown, in his story, she’s newly and scandalously divorced; he hasn’t matched for a residency after medical school. Her story picks up years later, after both of them have achieved something like success. At the core of Patel’s stories is a sense of loss, more powerful for its quiet restraint. Not every story is an equal knockout, which is a hazard of the format, but Patel’s deep sense of empathy—and infuriatingly relatable characters—shines throughout.
One of the greatest—and most controversial—athletes of all time gets a well-balanced biographical and historical treatment.
Jim Brown (b. 1936) is arguably the best football player in the history of the sport, a truly larger-than-life figure who may have also been the best lacrosse player ever. “From the moment he stepped onto a playing field,” writes Nation sports editor Zirin (Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, 2014, etc.), “the operative emotion expressed in describing Jim Brown has been reverence.” Few would argue, but as always in Zirin’s books, the playing field is only one element of the narrative equation. The author ticks all the biographical boxes—multisport star in both high school and college; tumultuous career at Syracuse, where he truly began to understand the scourge of racism; Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Browns; up-and-down forays into Hollywood; lifelong activism—but what is most refreshing about this book is Zirin’s focus on Brown’s character, both awe-inspiring and highly flawed. Brown has spent his life fighting racism and advocating for economic and social justice for the black community, but he has also been accused of rampant misogyny and instances of violence against women. He has brought together rival gang members in his own home but also managed to shut out some of those closest to him due to stubbornness to remain on top in a “world of competing male egos and unfettered ids.” As Zirin notes, for Brown, maintaining his manhood—however he conceives of it—has been the most important driving factor of his life. Brown simply refuses to be “soft” in any way, and he is not shy about criticizing the current athletes who, writes the author, “have fumbled the baton passed to them and surrendered an awesome opportunity to affect seismic social change.” Zirin, who spent considerable time with Brown, deftly navigates this rocky terrain, providing ample room for Brown to tell his own story and for others to weigh in as well.
A truly rounded, fully fleshed portrait of a significant 20th-century figure.
Headley, a writer of juvenile fiction (Aerie, 2016, etc.) and fantasy, steps into the adult world with this spot-on reimagining of a classic of Old English literature.
Think “mere” as sea, as in the Old English, and not just as some dismissive term. Think of the world as the author of Beowulf did, where sea caves shelter monsters and great mead halls harbor mighty warriors who melt away when the monsters make their way inland. Headley recasts the geography of a place that’s most contemporary, a suburb of cul-de-sacs and playgrounds, meant to be a community but full of people who live their own isolated lives, while up on the bordering mountain of which the brochures boast, strange things are afoot. Willa has her doubts about the planned community of Herot Hall —“I always thought it might be a mistake to leave the back of the houses unfenced,” she frets—and for good reason, for within a cave on the mountain live Dana, a PTSD–scarred returned soldier, and her son, Gren, who are definitive outsiders. Unsocialized, wild, brown-skinned Gren has learned from Dana that Herot Hall is a place of monsters that “tear people from limb to limb,” but Gren is infatuated with Willa’s son, Dylan, who dares play outside and shows no fear. The fraught friendship of the two throws the carefully constructed worlds of Willa, who keeps weekly menus taped to her refrigerator, and Dana, who is never far away from military-grade weapons, into a spin; Herot Hall may be a “toddler empire,” but it is now a place of amber alerts and armed patrols, all courtesy of a combat-ready cop named Ben Woolf. Things do not end well in Herot Hall or on the mountain either: “There are sirens,” writes Headley with lyrical assuredness, “and then more sirens, like God has come down from heaven and called out for every church to lay tribute.”
There’s not a false note in this retelling, which does the Beowulf poet and his spear-Danes proud.
A fascinating investigation into the role of football in American Samoan culture and the role of Samoans in American football.
Depending on the statistic, Americans of Samoan descent are between 20 and 40 times more likely than any other Americans to play in the NFL. The Samoan diaspora has extended from the small Pacific island northeast to Hawaii, to the West Coast and inland to Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and elsewhere. Sports historian and documentarian Ruck (History/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game, 2011, etc.) combines historical scholarship, ethnography, sociology, travelogue, and reportage to tell the story of the growth of football in Samoa and among Samoans. Rejecting biological determinism, the author attributes the success of Samoans in football and other sports to “fa‘a Samoa,” the way of Samoa, which stresses the importance of hard work, discipline, competition, community, respect, pain tolerance, and a warrior ethos. Cultural explanations, too, can have their limitations, but Ruck generally avoids reductionism in telling myriad stories of Samoans who flourished both in college football and the NFL and also others who returned to Samoa to teach or coach or who became leaders elsewhere. The author provides a solid history of American Samoa while showing how American sporting impulses took over after World War II, with football holding particular appeal among Samoan boys. At the same time, he shows how contemporary Samoa faces myriad health crises, including extreme rates of obesity and associated issues like diabetes, kidney failure, and the like, as well as challenges to fa‘a Samoa. Further, he reminds readers that football’s downsides can be all the worse in a place where concussion baseline tests are unheard of, where players wear helmets sent from the mainland that would not pass safety tests, and where, for all of the successes (Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, and others), most players never get anywhere near a college or professional field.
A penetrating probe into one of the most intriguing and misunderstood sporting stories of our time.
A novel about the indignities, frustrations, and joy found in a Toronto public housing complex.
The Park is a sprawling complex home to thousands of residents struggling to find work, take care of each other, and get through another day. Like so many of the Park’s residents, Michael and Francis are the children of an immigrant single mother. Ruth came from Trinidad with dreams of becoming a nurse; instead, she’s working multiple jobs, riding buses for hours, and coming home too exhausted to even sleep. Michael and Francis are learning how to survive in the Park as young men. They know how to posture, which guys to avoid, and how to act when the police roll through. Chariandy’s second novel (Soucouyant, 2007) is a slender volume with the heart of a family epic. Alternating between Michael and Francis’ teenage years and a present time in which everything is darker, sadder, and Francis is nowhere to be found, Chariandy reveals a world of violence, frustrated hopes, and the delicate family bonds necessary for survival. The prose is beautiful and unflinching without giving way to sentimentality: “I know now that by the age of fourteen, you feel it. You spot the threat that is not only about young men with weapons, about ‘gangs’ and ‘predators,’ but also the threat that is slow and somehow very old. A mother lecturing you about arrival and opportunity while her breath stinks of the tooth she can’t just for the moment afford the time or money to fix.” When violence and an increased police presence enter the Park, the creeping sense of doom inches closer and readers can feel the oncoming tragedy in their guts. In the other storyline, set in the present, Michael and his mother stumble toward healing and a brighter day. Their journey, like the novel itself, isn’t always easy but it is absolutely necessary.
An important, riveting novel about dreams, families, and the systems holding them back.
A Southern California PBS journalist explores her relationship with her disturbed, likely schizophrenic father.
Things went south in her father’s life, Guerrero writes in this debut memoir, when a half sister edged him out of a managerial job in the family meat business. But his newfound addiction to hiding with an early-generation computer wasn’t the first odd thing he’d done; as Guerrero relates, he’d also tapped her mother’s phone in an act of jealousy—but also a fairly sophisticated bit of technological hacking. A mad genius and wild thinker, he got steadily worse: “The rare times Papi emerged from his bedroom, he sat on our living room leather couch, burping, staring at the turned-off television.” Then came the self-medication and the disappearances south of the border in episodes that, as Guerrero recounts them, had an alarming oddness—e.g., he wrapped his headrest in aluminum foil to keep from being zapped by unusual rays, then ran into an army checkpoint that, thankfully, failed to remark on the drugs and open bottles scattered throughout the cab. Investigating her father’s madness and charting his travels, Guerrero became a little unsettled herself: “Life is an accident,” she writes. “Any encounter with meaning is a delusion.” Her path also included some of that self-medication and plenty of that decenteredness. Guerrero relates all of this effectively, though there’s a grim repetitiveness to some of the madness. Readers may take issue with some of her suspensions of disbelief. In the end, she seems to think that it’s entirely possible her father had shamanic powers and that a line of sorcery extended throughout her family in Mexico, which lands us in Carlos Castañeda territory as mediated by a few hits of ecstasy.
With a little suspension of disbelief on his or her own part, even the hardest-nosed reader will find Guerrero’s decidedly centrifugal memoir fascinating.