Blend Bradbury and Lem with Saint-Exupéry and perhaps a little Kafka, and you get this talky, pleasing first novel by Czech immigrant writer Kalfar.
Jakub Procházka—his name, he insists, is “common” and “simple”—is a man of numerous fears, including caterpillars and the possibility of an afterlife, “as in the possibility that life could not be escaped.” An astrophysicist with a beautiful if increasingly estranged wife and a father with a fraught past, Jakub is now pushing the moral equivalent of a giant space broom, collecting cosmic dust for analysis up in the skies on a path to Venus, where the first astronaut from the Czech Republic can stake a claim to space for a nation that the world confuses with Chechnya or, in the words of a powerful technocrat, “reduces us to our great affinity for beer and pornography.” The new world in the sky yields many mysteries, among them an arachnoid spider with whom Jakub, whom the creature calls “skinny human,” has extensive conversations about all manner of things even as events on Earth unfold in ever stranger ways; his wife, Lenka, now has a police tail, and Jakub’s wish to reconcile and produce offspring seems increasingly unlikely. And why does he wish to reproduce? So that, he answers when the creature asks, he reduces the odds of being a nobody, one of many nicely Kafkaesque nods in a book built on sly, decidedly contrarian humor. Whether the Nutella-loving creature is really there or some sort of imagined projection (“A hallucination could not be full of thoughts that had never occurred to me, could it?”) remains something of a mystery, but Jakub’s torments and mostly good-natured if baffled responses to them are the real meat of the story. Blending subtle asides on Czech history, the Cold War, and today’s wobbly democracy, Kalfar’s confection is an inventive, well-paced exercise in speculative fiction.
An entertaining, provocative addition to the spate of literary near-future novels that have lately hit the shelves.
Shanbhag, in his English-language debut, seamlessly translated from the Kannada by Perur, explores the turbid and ominous undercurrents running beneath a family’s newfound success and the society from which it sprang.
In his native city of Bangalore, the narrator, a young married man, sits in an elegant cafe with the incongruously functional name Coffee House, desperate to speak with the waiter, Vincent. The man, a regular customer, has such faith in Vincent’s oracular wisdom that his wife will sometimes ask him, "Did you visit your temple today?" But now he fears what Vincent might have to say, and, while he vacillates over whether to seek Vincent’s counsel, he recounts what it is that brought him here: the story of his family. Once living on the razor’s edge of financial ruin, the young man’s family is catapulted to a life of plenty and idleness when his father is let go from his job as a coffee salesman and invests his pension in his uncle’s new business, Sona Masala, the sole service of which is purported to be repackaging spices. The young man is made director in the company but soon finds that he has no say in, no insight into, and no work to do within the company, and he comes to his office only to nap on his couch and collect a generous salary. While some family members sink into feckless denial of their uncle’s questionable morality, others savor the power it brings them. As the family once took cold pleasure in destroying the ants that invaded the run-down rented house of their poorer past, they exult in using intimidation and occasional violence to ward off anyone they view as a potential threat to their way of life.
A compact novel that crackles with tension, tracing the tangled path of a family's dissolution in their sudden rise to wealth.
A dramatic medical history that reveals the progress and the stumbles, the personalities and the rivalries, in the race to find a vaccine for rubella, or German measles.
Science magazine writer Wadman, who has a medical degree from Oxford and a journalism degree from Columbia, has long covered the politics of biomedical research. As she makes immediately clear, rubella, like Zika, inflicts terrible damage on babies whose mothers are infected during their pregnancies. In the 1960s, the search for a safe and effective vaccine was just beginning. Wadman focuses on Leonard Hayflick and Stanley Plotkin, scientists at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, and cell line WI-38, derived from the lungs of a fetus legally aborted in Sweden (and used without the mother’s consent), which subsequently became key to developing a vaccine that has been given to hundreds of millions of people. Besides informing readers of the role of fetal tissue in biomedical research, the author reveals the shocking methods used by researchers to test vaccines: prior to today’s stringent laws about informed consent, the test subjects were often institutionalized mentally disabled children. Rivalries and shenanigans abound in Wadman’s complex story. One night, Hayflick removed ampules of the cell line from the lab at Wistar, packed them up in his car, and carried them to his new job at Stanford University. Accusations and lawsuits ensued, as well as struggles for funding, and pharmaceutical companies and government agencies eventually became major players. Wadman’s story is much more than just the rubella story, however, for it doesn’t end with that vaccine. Strains derived from WI-38 are used today in the manufacture of most human virus vaccines, including those for polio, shingles, mumps, rabies, and hepatitis, and Hayflick’s work with cell biology has led to discoveries that have significant implications for theories of human aging.
An important story well told, featuring the drama and characters needed to make this a candidate for film adaptation.
Unexpected and nuanced and pulsing with life, Whitaker’s debut cuts straight to the heart of the creative process.
From the minute Sharon Kisses meets Mel Vaught, the women are inseparable. Both are visual art majors with obvious talent. Both are from the rural south (Sharon: East Kentucky, Mel: Central Florida), united by their shared “white trashiness” (Mel’s words)—a rarity at their posh East Coast liberal arts college. And both have a passion, an unquenchable thirst, for comics. “I’m gonna be a cartoonist,” Mel says, the first night they hang out. “Animate. What else is there?” By graduation, they are not just best friends, but also artistic partners. Ten years later, they’re living and working together, still in a “piece-of-crap” studio in Brooklyn. They make “small, thoughtful cartoons and out-of-mainstream animation shorts for a thinking woman’s audience,” according to critics. Their first full-length feature, an autobiographical project based on Mel’s childhood, wins them an ultraprestigious grant. They are a perfectly mismatched pair: Sharon is curvy, consistent, and perpetually lovelorn; Mel is thin and gay, the life of the party. But transforming their private pasts into public art comes at a cost, and as the novel progresses and both women are struck by different kinds of tragedies, Sharon and Mel are forced to come to terms with their families, themselves, and the painful limitations of their bond. Sweeping and intimate at once, the novel is an exquisite portrait of a life-defining partnership. Whitaker captures the shifting dynamics between Mel and Sharon—between all the characters, really—with such precision and sharpness that it’s hard to let them go.
Empathetic but never sentimental; a book that creeps up on you and then swallows you whole.
In her debut novel, Raina applies the now-familiar "teenage girl takes on the government" trope to the Soweto uprising of June 1976.
Zanele, a black grade-12 student, is not a reluctant hero. She starts her portion of the narration by describing her role in the attempted bombing of a power plant and goes on to be one of the primary organizers of the student protest against unjust language laws. She is a leader by conviction. The author uses three other narrators to highlight this. Jack is Zanele's most obvious foil. A white boy from a middle-class family, his understanding of racial inequality extends only to his attempts to get close to Zanele, who occasionally assists her mother in serving his family. A black gang member and an Indian shopkeeper’s daughter respectively, Thabo and Meena are united by their friendship with Zanele but diverge in the ways in which they engage with the community and the police. The presentation of characters with different racial identities beautifully highlights how those identities shape the characters’ understandings and experiences of apartheid and their subsequent reactions to the uprising. Small details, such as Jack and his friends listening to Miles Davis as they put on blackface, stoke the tension in the prose. The violence that erupts is gut-wrenching but unsurprising. Readers who love the fast pace and high stakes of dystopian teen literature should snag this book.
This timely reminder of the power and passion of young people contextualizes current student protests by honoring those of the past.
(historical note, glossary, glossary sources)
(Historical fiction. 13-adult)
An intense chronicle of “systematic drug abuse” in Nazi Germany.
Although the use of opiates and other drugs was pervasive in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, the Nazis ostensibly opposed them, offering “ideological salvation” instead, writes German journalist Ohler in this nonfiction debut. In fact, the Third Reich depended heavily on drugs, notably cocaine, heroin, morphine, and methamphetamines, to sustain the fearless blitzkrieg attacks of its advancing armies and to keep Adolf Hitler in a euphoric, delusional state. Drawing on archival research in Germany and the United States, the author crafts a vivid, highly readable account of drug use run amok. He describes systematized drug tests conducted by Dr. Otto F. Ranke, a defense physiologist, who waged war on exhaustion with Pervitin, an early version of crystal meth. The fierce Nazi invasion of France, lasting three days and nights without sleep, was made possible by use of Pervitin: “It kept you awake, mercilessly,” recalls a former Nazi medical officer. Relying heavily on the diaries of Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician (Hermann Göring called him the “Reich Injection Master”), Ohler writes at length about Hitler’s drug use throughout the war, which began with a “power injection” of glucose and vitamins before big speeches, then escalated to cocktails of hormones, steroids, and vitamins, and finally, in his last year, to the use of both cocaine and Eukodal, a designer opioid that even infamous heroin addict William Burroughs called “some truly awful shit.” With Morell treating him daily, Hitler spent his last weeks in a fog of artificial euphoria and “stable in his delusion,” and his veins had a junkie’s track marks. Because of Allied bombing of manufacturing plants, supplies of the drugs favored by Hitler dried up, his health deteriorated, and he entered withdrawal. He would fire his doctor before committing suicide in 1945.
Written with dramatic flair (Ohler has published several novels in Germany), this book adds significantly to our understanding of the Third Reich.
A wide-ranging debut collection that spans time, genre, and place.
It isn’t often that readers open a book of literary short stories and find themselves launched from the very first page into a Western, complete with a brothel, saloon, bank robbery, and a narrator who says things like, “Alone, jest us two, in what I had by then guessed was her actual room, tho it had none of the marks of the individual, the whore put the whiskey between my fingers.” The story, “West of the Known,” is one of two Western-style tales in Benz’s book, and it exemplifies what she's best at: trying on voices and settings like costumes and using them as a lens through which to view contemporary life. The variety of these stories is striking. “The Peculiar Narrative of the Remarkable Particulars in the Life of Orrinda Thomas” is an epistolary tale in the voice of a slave who finds notoriety as a poet; “Adela” takes the form of a 19th-century gothic tale with scholarly annotations. This kitchen-sink approach is not without risk. As in any ambitious performance, readers may sometimes feel Benz straining to embody, say, the voice of a 16th-century monk. But when the author finds a fit, she soars, as in “James III,” the story of a young boy running away from an abusive stepfather. Perhaps as impressive is Benz's ability to connect historical experiences of race and gender to the present day with subtlety. As the book ends, its final sentence, set in the 1500s, resonates outward: “Make me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me…O God, in the most corrupt of centuries, hear my prayer.”
An ambitious book that marks Benz as a writer to watch.
How the author and his family overcame the loss of a child.
When his 8-year-old son Owen accidentally drowned on a family rafting trip, Gerson (French Studies/New York Univ.), his wife, Alison, and remaining son, Julian, were as shocked as they were grief-stricken. Owen’s death, writes the author, was “at once a ripple in the flow of everyday life and a disruption of the entire universe.” Desperate to understand his loss, Gerson went deep inside himself and began to write while Alison externalized her grief through exercise. As he imagined Owen growing up and old, the author obsessively revisited the day of Owen’s death and the hours that preceded it, carefully skirting around the actual incident itself. The strain of his son’s death eventually caused Gerson to develop a rash and then other symptoms of physical breakdown, including bowel irritation, a hernia, prostatitis, and tinnitus. The loss affected Gerson’s relationship to Alison as well as the relationships each had to their respective parents. Needing comfort, it was as though they had “bec[o]me children again.” Yet it also brought Gerson closer to his own history as the son of an American-born Jewish man whose own family escaped the Holocaust. A trip to Belarus with his father, Berl, and son made Gerson realize that “those who had failed to save loved ones did not necessarily live in shame or guilt.” This epiphany helped him to not only look directly at Owen’s death, but also see that he was not to blame for it. Berl’s own “good death” not long afterward released Gerson from his past, which allowed him to share the words he had penned about Owen with Alison and relive the civil lawsuit that followed the tragedy. Keenly observed and deeply felt, this book is not only a powerful reflection on grief and loss, but also an intimately textured history of fathers and sons.
An unflinchingly honest, moving memoir of loss and recovery.
In her debut, Roe tells the story of a friendship between two young men who will linger in the thoughts and minds of readers long after the final page is turned.
Told through alternating first-person narration, the story of 14-year-old Julian and his former foster brother, 18-year-old Adam, is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking. Five years after losing his parents in a tragic accident and being taken from a loving foster home to live with a cold and brutal uncle, Adam Blake quite literally walks back into Julian’s life. Plagued by antsy feet courtesy of his ADHD, Adam is happy to be assigned the job of escorting Julian to the counseling sessions that he’s been frequently skipping. Though both boys are thrilled to be reunited, there’s an uneasiness that lies between them. Reclusive and wracked with self-doubt, Adam quickly realizes that this Julian is much different from the one he used to know. Roe deliberately unspools her story, keeping readers wondering why Julian, who clearly desperately craves connection, keeps Adam at arm’s length. Emotion courses through every sentence of this novel, whether it is love, compassion, or bone-chilling cruelty. Julian and Adam are dark-haired but otherwise racially indeterminate.
A triumphant story about the power of friendship and of truly being seen.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
Ruskovich’s debut opens to the strains of a literary thriller but transforms into a lyrical meditation on memory, loss, and grief in the American West.
Ann, a young music teacher, falls in love with Wade Mitchell, the father of two girls in her school, over piano lessons. That summer, Wade’s family is ripped apart by a tragedy that leaves one daughter dead, another missing, and Wade’s now-ex-wife, Jenny, serving a life sentence for murder. Against all odds, Ann and Wade marry, and she tries to soothe her new husband’s insurmountable grief by piecing together what happened that day. Her efforts are thwarted by Wade’s creeping dementia, which has a tendency to turn violent. Ann is left with only the powers of her imagination to reconstruct an account of the murder, putting her personal safety at risk as Wade becomes less predictable. Like memory, Ann's shifting vision of that day is fleeting, ephemeral, and imperfect, scattered as easily as "dozens of blackbirds, startled at nothing." In fact, her emotional porousness might be a key for the entire novel, which hopscotches across more than 50 years and multiple perspectives to draw connections, parallels, and portraits of the men and women who populate Ruskovich’s Idaho. We also catch glimpses of Elizabeth, Jenny’s cellmate; Wade’s fractured recollections of his childhood and first marriage; the final days of May, Wade’s murdered daughter; and, at long last, Jenny herself. Ruskovich builds poetry out of observing the smallest details—moments of narrative precision and clarity that may not illuminate what happened the day of the murder but which push the reader to interrogate the limits of empathy. Fans of lush, psychological dramas like the BBC miniseries Top of the Lake or Broadchurch have their winter reading cut out for them.
A provocative first novel filled to the brim with dazzling language, mystery, and a profound belief in the human capacity to love and seek forgiveness.