Journalist Smarsh explores socio-economic class and poverty through an account of her low-income, rural Kansas–based extended family.
In her first book, addressed to her imaginary daughter—the author, born in 1980, is childless by choice—the author emphasizes how those with solid financial situations often lack understanding about families such as hers. Smarsh, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, lived a nomadic life until becoming a first-generation college student. Smarsh vowed to herself and her imaginary daughter to escape the traps that enslaved her mother, grandmothers, female cousins, and others in her family. “So much of childhood amounts to being awake in a grown-up’s nightmare,” she writes. “Ours happened to be about poverty, which comes with not just psychological dangers but mortal ones, too.” Because the author does not proceed chronologically, the numerous strands of family history can be difficult to follow. However, Smarsh would almost surely contend that the specific family strands are less important for readers to grasp than the powerful message of class bias illustrated by those strands. As the author notes, given her ambition, autodidactic nature, and extraordinary beauty, her biological mother could have made more of herself in a different socio-economic situation. But the reality of becoming a teenage mother created hurdles that Smarsh’s mother could never overcome; her lack of money, despite steady employment, complicated every potential move upward. The author’s father, a skilled carpenter and overall handyman, was not a good provider or a dependable husband, but her love for him is fierce, as is her love for grandparents beset by multiple challenges. While she admits that some of those challenges were self-created, others were caused by significant systemic problems perpetuated by government at all levels. Later, when Smarsh finally reached college, she faced a new struggle: overcoming stereotypes about so-called “white trash.” Then, she writes, “I began to understand the depth of the rift that is economic inequality.”
A potent social and economic message embedded within an affecting memoir.
An assured debut collection of stories about men and women, young and old, living and loving along the margins in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
In “I Happy Am,” one of nine tales Brinkley spins here about dreamers constricted or confounded by realities, Freddy is a young black boy from the Bronx who, at least for the length of the trip his summer camp is taking to the suburbs, imagines himself as a superpowered robot. Upon finding the house his camp is visiting to be “a bigger version of the apartment where [he] lived,” Freddy begins to wonder whether real life “spoke…to what his imagination guarded”: that there may be more potential for wonder and mystery beyond his dream life. This story shares with the others a preoccupation with characters’ reckoning with unfulfilled promises and unrecognized possibilities. The title of “J’ouvert, 1996” refers to an all-night revel originating at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza during which a teenage boy, his wide-eyed younger brother in tow, intends to find, and assert, a grown-up self. In “A Family,” an ex-convict grapples tentatively, even a bit reluctantly, with the idea of becoming a lover to the widow of his closest friend. The title story is about a middle-aged man who believes his wife has left him and taken whatever luck he could claim with her, while “Infinite Happiness” navigates the dicey emotional maze of a lopsided romantic triangle playing out in the promised land of present-day Brooklyn. It’s difficult to single out any story as most outstanding since they are each distinguished by Brinkley’s lyrical invention, precise descriptions of both emotional and physical terrain, and a prevailing compassion toward people as bemused by travail as they are taken aback by whatever epiphanies blossom before them.
Another ambitious change of pace for the versatile and accomplished Makkai (The Hundred-Year House, 2014, etc.), whose characters wrangle with the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic at its height and in its aftermath.
In the first of two intertwined storylines, Yale and his live-in lover, Charlie, attend an unofficial wake for a dead friend, Nico, held simultaneously with his funeral service because his Cuban-American family has made it clear they don’t want any gay people there. It’s 1985, and Makkai stingingly re-creates the atmosphere of fear, prejudice, and sanctimonious finger-pointing surrounding the mortally afflicted gay community, even in a big city like Chicago. Nico’s younger sister, Fiona, has rejected their family and attached herself to his friends, with emotional consequences that become apparent in the second storyline, set 30 years later in Paris. As is often the case with paired stories, one of them initially seems more compelling, in this case Makkai’s vivid chronicle of Yale’s close-knit circle, of his fraught relationship with the obsessively jealous Charlie, and his pursuit of a potentially career-making donation for the university art gallery where he works in development. Fiona’s opaque feelings of guilt and regret as she searches for her estranged daughter, Claire, aren’t as engaging at first, but the 2015 narrative slowly unfolds to connect with the ordeals of Yale and his friends until we see that Fiona too is a traumatized survivor of the epidemic, bereft of her brother and so many other people she loved, to her lasting damage. As Makkai acknowledges in an author’s note, when a heterosexual woman writes a novel about AIDS, some may feel she has crossed “the line between allyship and appropriation.” On the contrary, her rich portraits of an array of big personalities and her affecting depiction of random, horrific death faced with varying degrees of gallantry make this tender, keening novel an impressive act of imaginative empathy.
As compulsively readable as it is thoughtful and moving: an unbeatable fictional combination.
A magisterial biography of the 20th-century philosopher, curator, and prime mover of the Harlem Renaissance.
Alain Locke (1885-1954) is a critical—and complex—figure in any discussion of African-American intellectual history. In his youth, he was the quintessential black Victorian, impeccably dressed and mannered, as if comportment alone could conquer racism. That posturing made him blinkered at times; he tried to deny the prejudice he experienced as a Rhodes scholar and would later submit to a wealthy patron’s condescending celebration of black “primitivism” for the sake of financial support. But Locke also wrote forcefully about the value of black artists and advocated strongly for writers like Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes. He edited the landmark 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, which put Harlem on the map as black America’s artistic center, argued for black artists’ central place in American culture in his selections for the book The New Negro, and curated African art exhibits that persuasively fitted that work within modernism. Stewart (Black Studies/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen, 1998, etc.) often frames his subject’s life as a series of one-on-one conflicts: with his mother, whose apron strings he found hard to untangle himself from; with more vocal black activists like W.E.B. Du Bois, who wanted more from a racial movement than Locke’s oft-aloof aestheticism; with institutions like Howard University, which had a hot-and-cold relationship with him; and with the lovers the closeted gay, peripatetic Locke endlessly pursued, not to mention writers like Hughes who rejected his advances. This hefty, deeply researched book is sometimes overwhelming in its detail about Locke—every letter he wrote seems to be quoted—but it brilliantly doubles as a history of the philosophical debates that girded black artistic triumphs early in the 20th century.
A sweeping biography that gets deep into not just the man, but the movements he supported, resisted, and inspired.
A childhood beset by generations of family addiction is revealed in this raw graphic-novel memoir from a well-known children’s author and illustrator.
Though he doesn’t realize it until later, Krosoczka’s (The Principal Strikes Back, 2018, etc.) mother suffers from addiction, which brings turmoil into their family’s life. Basic needs go unmet, promises are routinely broken, and the stability and safety most take for granted are never guaranteed. Krosoczka is raised by his grandparents when his mom can no longer care for him. The contradictions prevalent in his childhood will resonate with readers who have experienced addiction and educate those who have not. Yes, there is chaos, but there is also warmth, seen, for example, when Krosoczka’s mom fakes his birthday for an impromptu party at a fast-food chain, or in the way his grandfather never misses an opportunity to tell him he is loved. Krosoczka learns self-reliance as a survival strategy. He also learns to express himself through art. The palette, awash in gray and earth tones, invokes the feeling of hazy memories. Interspersed are tender and at times heartbreaking images of real drawings and letters from the author and several family members. Krosoczka as an author generously and lovingly shows his flawed family members striving to do the best they can even as Krosoczka the character clearly aches for more.
Honest, important, and timely.
(author’s note, note on the art)
(Graphic novel memoir. 14-adult)
In 11 electric short stories, the gifted Groff (Fates and Furies, 2015, etc.) unpacks the “dread and heat” of her home state.
In her first fiction since President Barack Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of the year, Groff collects her singing, stinging stories of foreboding and strangeness in the Sunshine State. Groff lives in Gainesville with a husband and two sons, and four of these tales are told from the perspectives of unmoored married mothers of young ones. The first, “Ghosts and Empties,” which appeared in the New Yorker, begins with the line, “I have somehow become a woman who yells,” a disposition the narrator tries to quell by walking at all hours as “the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums.” Groff fans will recognize the descriptive zest instantly. The same quasi-hapless mother seems to narrate “The Midnight Zone,” in which she imperils the lives of her boys by falling off a stool and hitting her head while alone with them at a remote cabin, “where one thing [she] liked was how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” Ditto for the lonely oddballs telling “Flower Hunters” and “Yport,” the longest and last story, in which the reckless mother is often coated in alcohol. These are raw, danger-riddled, linguistically potent pieces. They unsettle their readers at every pass. In the dreamy, terrific “Dogs Go Wolf,” two little girls are abandoned on an island, their starvation lyrical: “The older sister’s body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground”; their rescue is akin to a fairy tale. Equally mesmerizing is “Above and Below,” in which the graduate student narrator sinks away and dissipates into vivid, exacting homelessness. Even the few stories that dribble off rather than end, such as “For the God of Love, For the Love of God,” have passages of surpassing beauty. And Groff gets the humid, pervasive white racism that isn’t her point but curdles through plenty of her characters.
A literary tour de force of precariousness set in a blistering place, a state shaped like a gun.
Thoughts on travel as an existential adventure from one of Poland’s most lauded and popular authors.
Already a huge commercial and critical success in her native country, Tokarczuk (House of Day, House of Night, 2003) captured the attention of Anglophone readers when this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. In addition to being a fiction writer, Tokarczuk is also an essayist and a psychologist and an activist known—and sometimes reviled—for her cosmopolitan, anti-nationalist views. Her wide-ranging interests are evident in this volume. It’s not a novel exactly. It’s not even a collection of intertwined short stories, although there are longer sections featuring recurring characters and well-developed narratives. Overall, though, this is a series of fragments tenuously linked by the idea of travel—through space and also through time—and a thoughtful, ironic voice. Movement from one place to another, from one thought to another, defines both the preoccupations of this discursive text and its style. One of the extended stories follows a man named Kunicki whose wife and child disappear on vacation—and suddenly reappear. A first-person narrator offers a sort of memoir through movement, recalling her own peregrinations bit by bit. There are pilgrims and holidaymakers. Tokarczuk also explores the connection between travel and colonialism with side trips into “exotic” practices and cabinets of curiosity. There are philosophical digressions, like a meditation on the flight from Irkutsk to Moscow that lands at the same time it takes off. None of this is to say that this book is dry or didactic. Tokarczuk has a sly sense of humor. It’s impossible not to laugh at the opening line, “I’m reminded of something that Borges was once reminded of….” Of course someone interested in maps and territories, of the emotional landscape of travel and the difference between memory and reality would feel an affinity for the Argentine fabulist.
A welcome introduction to a major author and a pleasure for fans of contemporary European literature.
Poetry helps first-generation Dominican-American teen Xiomara Batista come into her own.
Fifteen-year old Xiomara (“See-oh-MAH-ruh,” as she constantly instructs teachers on the first day of school) is used to standing out: she’s tall with “a little too much body for a young girl.” Street harassed by both boys and grown men and just plain harassed by girls, she copes with her fists. In this novel in verse, Acevedo examines the toxicity of the “strong black woman” trope, highlighting the ways Xiomara’s seeming unbreakability doesn’t allow space for her humanity. The only place Xiomara feels like herself and heard is in her poetry—and later with her love interest, Aman (a Trinidadian immigrant who, refreshingly, is a couple inches shorter than her). At church and at home, she’s stifled by her intensely Catholic mother’s rules and fear of sexuality. Her present-but-absent father and even her brother, Twin (yes, her actual twin), are both emotionally unavailable. Though she finds support in a dedicated teacher, in Aman, and in a poetry club and spoken-word competition, it’s Xiomara herself who finally gathers the resources she needs to solve her problems. The happy ending is not a neat one, making it both realistic and satisfying. Themes as diverse as growing up first-generation American, Latinx culture, sizeism, music, burgeoning sexuality, and the power of the written and spoken word are all explored with nuance.
Poignant and real, beautiful and intense, this story of a girl struggling to define herself is as powerful as Xiomara’s name: “one who is ready for war.” (Verse fiction. 14-18)
Acclaimed novelist Ondaatje (The Cat’s Table, 2011, etc.) returns to familiar ground: a lyrical mystery that plays out in the shadow of World War II.
In what is arguably his best-known novel, The English Patient (1992), Ondaatje unfolds at leisurely pace a story of intrigue and crossed destinies at the fringes of a global struggle. If anything, his latest moves even more slowly, but to deliberate effect. As it opens, with World War II grinding to a gaunt end, Nathaniel Williams, 14, and his 15-year-old sister, Rachel, learn that their parents are bound for newly liberated Singapore. Rose, their mother, has made the war years bearable with Mrs. Miniver–like resoluteness, but the father is a cipher. So he remains. Nathaniel and Rachel, Rose tells them, are to be left in London in the care of some—well, call them associates. They take over the Williams house, a band both piratical and elegant whose characters, from the classically inclined ringleader, The Moth, to a rough-edged greyhound racer, The Pimlico Darter, could easily figure in a sequel to Great Expectations. “It is like clarifying a fable,” Ondaatje writes in the person of Nathaniel, “about our parents, about Rachel and myself, and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later.” But that clarification takes a few hundred pages of peering into murky waters: Nathaniel, in adulthood, learns that Rose, who slips back into England soon after sailing away, has been a person of many parts, secretive, in a war that has extended beyond the cease-fire, as partisans battle unrepentant fascists and the early Cold War begins to solidify, a time of betrayal and murder. If Rachel and Nathaniel’s adventures among their surrogate parents, who “did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson,” are far from innocent, the lives of all concerned have hidden depths and secrets, some shameful, some inviting murderous revenge.
Ondaatje’s shrewd character study plays out in a smart, sophisticated drama, one worth the long wait for fans of wartime intrigue.
In this slim, impactful novel, surrealist master Tawada (Memoirs of a Polar Bear, 2016, etc.) imagines a dystopian Japan reckoning with its own identity.
In the wake of an economic and environmental tragedy that eerily echoes 2011’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster, the Japanese government implements an “isolation policy,” cutting the country off from the outside world. Central Tokyo is deserted, the country’s soil is contaminated, its plants have mutated, and its people are living under a capricious governing body that has not only waged a war on words (the term “mutation” having been replaced by the more agreeable “environmental adaptation”), but has proven to have a penchant for tinkering with the laws: “Afraid of getting burned by laws they couldn’t see, everyone kept their intuition honed as sharp as a knife, practicing restraint and self-censorship on a daily basis.” A writer unsettled by the turn his country has taken, Yoshiro’s main concern is the declining health of his grandson, Mumei. In this new era, children are wise beyond their years, but their bodies are brittle, aging vessels, and the elderly have become a new kind of species, cursed with the gift of everlasting life, “burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.” Left in Yoshiro’s care after the death of his mother and disappearance of his father, Mumei, feeble (and toothless) as he is, fills his grandfather’s interminable days with life. Despite the gloomy circumstances, Tawada’s narrative remains incandescent as she charts the hopeful paths both grandfather and grandson embark upon in their attempt to overcome mortality’s grim restraints. Striving to persist in a time when intolerance abounds and “the shelf life of words [is] getting shorter all the time,” Mumei’s searching curiosity and wonder toward the world inspire faith that, even in the darkest of days, humanity cannot be forsaken.
An ebullient meditation on language and time that feels strikingly significant in the present moment.