Of Catholic guilt, silences, and secrets: an expertly spun family drama, a genre Sullivan (The Engagements, 2013, etc.) has staked out as her own.
Theresa and Nora, Irish sisters, have long since parted company, the break an event that neither has spoken of for half a century. Now, as Sullivan’s latest opens, Nora’s son Patrick has died, and as the family comes together to see him off, long-hidden secrets are unveiled. A whole constellation of them swirls around Theresa, explained away as “nothing more to Patrick than a distant aunt.” But how to explain the truth? How to make up for all the choppy water that has passed between the two sisters, separated by an unbridged Atlantic? How to forgive one another? Sullivan lets some of the critical details out early: Patrick was a drinker, and he died in a drunken car wreck. Theresa was a religious whiz kid, more Catholic than the pope; quizzed by the bishop, she reels off doctrine to the letter, prompting the cleric to say to her father, “You’ve got a very bright child there. Are all your others as sharp as that?” The answer, “Heavens no. We don’t know where she came from,” speaks volumes about the story that will follow, though for all her knowledge, no one really expects Theresa to wind up in the nunnery, torn up by the more or less ordinary events of adolescence and given to saying “a string of novenas for forgiveness” for her perfectly excusable transgressions—excusable now, of course, but not then, and not in the Ireland of the girls’ youth. Sullivan is a master at making a sideways glance or a revealed detail add to a larger picture that she takes her time in building, one that might just as easily bear as its title a wise remark in passing: “Loving and knowing weren’t the same.”
Sullivan often approaches melodrama, but she steers clear of the sentimentality that might easily have crept into this tale of regret and nostalgia.
In a nimble and substantial novel, Gregory (Harrison Squared, 2015, etc.) delves into the lives of the members of the eccentric and psychically gifted Telemachus family.
On a summer day in 1963, Teddy Telemachus, a flamboyant and charming con man, card shark, and devotee of sleight of hand, cheats his way into a government study about psychic abilities. He meets Maureen McKinnon, a genuine psychic of enormous and mysterious power, and immediately falls in love with her. They get married, have three children with particular psychic gifts, and become famous as the Amazing Telemachus Family until a combination of televised embarrassment and personal loss begins to unravel their lives. Thirty years later, the Telemachus family’s lives are in tatters and sliding ever further into the dreariness of debt, unhappiness, and possible mental instability when the 14-year-old Matty Telemachus plunges them back into a world of cleverly plotted and swiftly paced adventure. Gregory’s novel deploys a cast of odd, damaged, enormously likable characters in a complex story that gracefully balances the outrageous melodrama of Chicago mobsters and shadowy government agencies with the ordinary mysteries of family dynamics. Each of the characters, even when absurdly cartoonish, has a precise energy and depth that makes him or her irresistible. The chapters shift between their points of view, revealing different threads of the story with masterful control and giving the novel an illusion of gleeful messiness and the argumentative, frequently poignant feeling of a family gathering. While the novel revels in elements that entertain—criminal capers, magic, nostalgia for the internet chat rooms and computer paraphernalia of the 1990s—it never shies away from the real emotion of digging up the lies and illusions that sink into every family history. Readers will emerge from the fray sure they know each Telemachus down to the smudges on their hearts.
A skillfully written family drama that employs quirk and magic with grace.
An exploration of the borderlands that deftly mixes memoir, groundbreaking sociology, deep reporting, and compelling writing.
A child of the parched Texas-Mexico border, Elizondo Griest (Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, 2008, etc.) found herself teaching on a Mohawk Indian reservation that straddled the frigid New York state–Canadian border. At first, the author could not perceive any significant similarities between the two border experiences other than the deep roots of Catholicism. However, as the months passed, she began to realize the commonalities between borderlands shot through with poverty, cruelty by law enforcement agencies, language wars, environmental degradation, poor schools, ill health, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and extraordinarily high death tolls, including suicides. As Elizondo Griest documents the plight of border occupants, she struggles with defining herself within her mixed-race background. She has thought of herself as a mix of Tejana, Chicana, and Latina, but people outside her family usually viewed her as a gringa due to her unusually light skin and blue eyes. But as she began to understand, the borderland existence is the most defining factor of all. Portions of the author’s findings as a reporter are graphic, especially as she chronicles her travels with law enforcement officers to retrieve rotting bodies of Mexicans who died trying to cross rugged territory in Texas or Arizona to establish a life in the U.S. Perhaps the most revelatory portions of the book are the sections about the already existing wall on stretches of the U.S.–Mexico border, barriers predating the rise of Donald Trump. The chapters about the Mohawk struggles are quite likely to seem revelatory, too, given the dearth of national journalism coverage of that region.
In this well-conceived book, the author demonstrates unforgettably that national borders constitute much more than lines on a map.
The “final girl” is a trope familiar to film scholars and horror-movie fans. She’s the young woman who makes it out of the slasher flick alive, the one who lives to tell the tale. After she survives a mass murder, the media tries to make Quincy into a final girl, but she refuses to play that part. Instead, she finishes college, finds a great boyfriend, and builds a comfortable life for herself on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She’s managed to bury her trauma under a mountain of Pinterest-ready sweets—she runs a successful baking blog—and psychological repression. Then another final girl, a woman who's tried to be a mentor to Quincy, dies of an apparent suicide, and the cracks in her carefully constructed world begin to show. Reporters come looking for her. So does Samantha Boyd, another survivor. It’s clear that Sam is trouble, but precisely what kind of trouble is one of the mysteries of this inventive, well-crafted thriller. Quincy might look like a model survivor, but that’s only because she’s managed to conceal both her reliance on Xanax and her penchant for petty theft. Quincy is convinced that she and Sam can help each other, but Sam’s bad habits mesh a little too neatly with Quincy’s own. As she begins to lose control, Quincy starts to doubt Sam as she gets ever closer to truths she’s managed to suppress. While most of the book is written from the heroine’s point of view, Sager weaves scenes from the night Quincy’s friends were slaughtered into the narrative. This is a clever device in that it gives readers information that Quincy can’t access even as it invites readers to question her claims of memory loss. Also, knowing the outcome of this horrible event makes watching it unfold nerve-wracking. This is not to say that readers can feel secure about knowing what they think they know. Sager does an excellent job throughout of keeping the audience guessing until the final twist.
A science journalist searches deep for roots and finds them in the deepest helixes of her genetic code.
“The fact is that my forebears—in the direct maternal line—were among the anatomically modern, musical and artistic humans who first colonized Europe.” That claim is laden with import. Swedish science journalist and editor Bojs has been following advances in DNA research for decades, work that, she writes, has led to interviewing some 70 scientists and visiting 10 countries. As she recounts in this well-written work of popular science, those travels have involved not just Bojs as an entity, but also her genetic inheritance: amino acids that led to the now-submerged Dogger Bank, off the coast of England; the far-flung Arctic tribes marked by the haplogroup U4; and to scattered places in the Balkans and Greece, “along the routes taken by Europe’s first farmers on their way northwards toward Central Europe.” Such researches lead to big-picture questions that mirror work that has been done in the prehistory of North America: for instance, as Bojs writes, were immigrants responsible for the spread of farming into what is now Scandinavia, “or was the technology itself simply adapted by local hunting populations?” As she acknowledges, although genetic studies yield insight into such matters as the role of disease in early human populations, they are also fraught with possibilities for a racialized view of the human past, whence the whole business of Aryan purity and the interest of some totalitarian regimes in establishing the primacy of favored genotypes and phenotypes. Though she begins with that proud claim of descent from modern humans, Bojs closes with darker discoveries of mental illness in her lineage. Though she reckons herself fairly lucky in the genetic lottery, she argues that genes are not “selfish,” in Richard Dawkins’ sense, but two-faced: “what is good or bad depends on the combination and the context.”
A book to consult before swabbing, full of insight into the uses and abuses of genetics.
This ribald, acerbic, and poignant coming-of-age story throws open a window to an African nation’s struggle for maturity.
Mabanckou’s crafty, edgy bildungsroman is set in the author’s native Republic of the Congo (or Congo-Brazzaville, as it is often called to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire). Its hero bears the unwieldy name Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, whose rough translation is: “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” Little wonder he’s called “Black Moses” or “Moses” or even “Mose” for short at the orphanage on whose doorstep he was abandoned as an infant. Life for Moses is bewildering but relatively bucolic until his 13th year, when the orphanage’s priest—who served as surrogate father to him and the other boys—vanishes and its director announces a new regime of strictly enforced obedience to the ruling Congolese Workers' Party. If anybody’s more evil than the director, it’s the 17-year-old twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala, who impose their own reign of terror on the other orphans, complete with sadistic physical reprisals. Moses fears such reprisals when he laces their food with hot pepper, but the twins recruit him as a collaborator (whom they later dub “Little Pepper”), and all three escape to the seaside metropolis of Pointe-Noire, where nefariousness on an even grander scale awaits them. Though no dates are provided, those familiar with the tumultuous history of Congo-Brazzaville in the 20th century are able to figure out that the disruptions and upheavals in Moses’ life occur in tandem with the ascent of the country’s totalitarian, repressive, and often corrupt politics in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. But it’s not necessary to know such details to appreciate Mabanckou’s narrative ingenuity and his authoritative compassion toward his people’s history, both collective and personal.
This tightly contained, densely packed story issues a challenge that never loses its urgency: how does a person cling to a sense of autonomy when it’s under siege by so many powerful forces?
A BuzzFeed culture writer examines how some high-profile women defy cultural stereotypes about femininity.
Donald Trump’s recent election as president marked “the beginning of a backlash [against women] that has been quietly brewing for years. Petersen (Scandals of Classic Hollywood, 2014) offers thought-provoking profiles of controversial women who “question, interrogate or otherwise challenge the status quo.” She opens with tennis star Serena Williams, who defied the sport that made her famous not only by being black, but also by “her body…her personality, her resilience and her fortitude.” While winning championships and lucrative endorsements, Williams has also had to fight against tennis’ “double standard of decorum” that gives more room to male players to display their anger on the court than it does women. Like Williams, perennial rebel Madonna is also known for her outspokenness and daring. But as she approaches her 60th birthday, ageism has become an issue. Rather than accede to cultural norms and gradually withdraw from public life, however, “Oldanna” dares to make the statement that an aging female body can still be “sexual, powerful and visible,” despite the fact she built her career on celebrating youth and beauty. Among the most problematic of all the women Petersen examines is Caitlyn Jenner. In her pre-transition life as the ultra-masculine Bruce Jenner, she was the father of a famous reality TV family. Since her much-heralded coming out, she has adopted a culturally palatable mode of femininity, which she has coupled with a desire to deepen her understanding of gender nonconformity. But as the author points out, “Jenner’s openness” to such explorations has come at a cost, including low ratings for and the eventual cancellation of her reality TV show. Through incisive analysis of the ways in which contemporary society polices femininity, Petersen reveals the fraught relationship between women and celebrity. The author also profiles Melissa McCarthy, Hillary Clinton, and Lena Dunham, among others.
A sharp, compelling collection of social and cultural criticism.
A poet explores her experiences as a mother, teacher, black woman, and “conscientious outsider.”
In this frank, revealing, and often lyrical memoir, Dungy (Creative Writing/Colorado State Univ.; Trophic Cascade, 2017, etc.) chronicles her travels across the country with her daughter, recording her thoughts on their place in American society. Whether she ponders why so many people are startled by the volume of her infant daughter’s hair, the history of the Civil War as it related to the rural farmers of Maine, or the loss of place and home when developers built behind her childhood home, the author’s voice rings out loud and clear. As a black woman who travels in circles that are often nearly all white, she has fears that others may never perceive. When she injured her ankle while hiking, she fretted about whether her weight was too much for the men in her group to handle in making it back down the mountain. When she flies, she has to rely on strangers to help with her stuff and her child, and she worries about who will take care of her daughter while she is teaching. On a powerful visit to Ghana to see the slave-holding pens along the coast, she considers her daughter's inability to pay attention to the horrific history all around them. Dungy also discusses the many surprises of being a mother, including the joys of nursing and watching her child learn new skills, which has opened her own eyes to new wonders. Each essay flows smoothly into the next, and they are all interlinked with themes of race, fear, joy, and love, bringing readers eye to eye with the experiences of being a black female poet, lecturer, mother, and woman.
Forthright, entertaining, often potent essays that successfully intertwine personal history and historical context regarding black and white in America.
Set in contemporary Ireland, this is a novel of self-sacrifice, penance, and circumscribed possibilities for happiness, narrated with great compassion and written with elegant lyricism.
At the age of 33, Melody Shee finds herself pregnant and under a moral cloud. The father of her child is not Pat, her husband of a decade, but rather Martin Toppy, a 17-year-old she had been tutoring. Martin is a Traveller, a member of an ethnic group similar to though distinct from the Roma, and the Traveller subculture plays a major and fascinating role in the novel. Travellers tend to set themselves apart from the larger community, and their children are often not integrated into the educational system—hence the need for people like Melody who can tutor them. Enraged by Melody's infidelity, not least because their own relationship had yielded only miscarriages, Pat leaves home, and Martin soon disappears as well. Ryan structures each chapter as a week in Melody’s pregnancy, beginning with week 12 and ending with the birth of her son and a postpartum grace note. Melody narrates the novel, and her consciousness is at its core as she moves from despair and suicidal thoughts to guilt and the need for penance to self-acceptance and a willingness to put others’ needs ahead of her own. Desperate for emotional support during this grueling time, Melody turns to Mary Crothery, a young Traveller woman with whom she develops an intense and quasi-romantic relationship. Mary and her family are deeply involved in Traveller power struggles, and her engagement in these affairs results in violence and blood vengeance. Throughout the term of Melody’s pregnancy, Mary remains stalwart, and having her nearby gives Melody someone to care for. Mary's presence also gives Melody an opportunity for a form of displaced penance for something that happened when she was a teenager. We learn through flashbacks that Melody’s best friend, Breedie Flynn, committed suicide when Melody and others turned against her during a volatile time, and Melody hopes to atone for her mistreatment of Breedie by nurturing Mary.
Emotionally intense, deeply engaging, and profound.
A rookie New Orleans cop discovers that regular rules don't apply during Mardi Gras, when a shooting sets off a cascading series of violent events.
Officer Maureen Coughlin knows working the parade route during Mardi Gras week is unlike any assignment she’s had, and as the only newbie to the city’s biggest party, she wants to make a good impression not only on her fellow officers, but on the public. Loehfelm (Let the Devil Out, 2016, etc.) simmers the various tensions—racial, police versus civilians, power struggles with the NOPD—like the finest of cooks stirring a pot of gumbo with a bomb in it. The first sign of trouble appears when a young man, high and dressed only in neon leggings, runs directly into an SUV. When Coughlin and her team try to ascertain what he's tripping on, their attention is diverted by the sounds of nearby shots. Reaching the scene, they find carnage: a man bleeding out in the street, a little girl hit in the leg, and an elderly woman drenched in blood on the curb. Making matters worse, there's an omnipresent camera crew, a bunch of YouTube documentarians trying to capture the “real” Mardi Gras. Once a suspect is identified and Coughlin takes off after him, the true mayhem begins, when she realizes the person she proudly apprehends is a known offender but an easy arrest is complicated by an unexpected death on the parade route, in-fighting within the department, and a crowd that's as ready to party as it is to beef with police.
Loehfelm doesn't need showy murders or gory scenes to writes crime stories with grit that stay lodged in your brain and get under your skin in the best possible way.