This sharp, sensitive debut story collection introduces us to a parade of people (and one dog) grasping their ways through complex relationships with family, friends, lovers, strangers, and, of course, themselves.
Don’t let the title put you off. Holmes’ unwaveringly perceptive debut collection of short stories about young people (mostly women and girls but also the occasional man and beast) at various stages of their early lives—middle school, high school, college, and beyond—is eminently sympathetic, insightful, and revealing, never regarding its characters with ridicule or derision, always with respect and compassion. The general narrative outlines may sound familiar—a young girl tries to find friends and fit in at a new school, a college grad parses her plans and loyalties as she seeks her place in the world—but the details bring dimension and color, making the characters and their stories pop. Lala, the protagonist of “How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?” travels from California to Mexico in hopes of bridging the gulf that separates her from a mother who serially disappoints her. In “Weekend with Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy,” the only story told from a guy’s perspective, a feckless, clueless, but not entirely unsympathetic dude is paid a visit by an old college roommate and wonders why, despite his persistent loneliness, he does not want to sleep with her. The title character in “Barbara the Slut,” meanwhile, is, yes, a victim of bullying but also a young woman dedicated to her autistic brother and actively shaping her own destiny, deciding whom to sleep with and how often before she decamps for her freshman year at Princeton. The people limned here are people we know. They may even be the people we are.
A first-rate first collection from a young writer you’ll want to hear more from.
Humanity, warmth and wry humor light up Ciment’s (Heroic Measures, 2009, etc.) noirish novel about a phosphorescent toxic mold that blooms in a Brooklyn townhouse, circa 2015, and barrels through the lives of two 60-something identical twin sisters and their neighbors, changing everything it touches.
When 64-year-old twins Edith and Kat Glasser find a glowing mushroom growing in a closet in their late mother’s rent-controlled apartment, a home they now share after having spent years engaged in very different pursuits, they are united in their alarm. Will the iridescent fungus—which, in mere moments, grows from “the size of a newborn’s thumb” to that of a giant’s digit—infect their beloved mother’s archive of letters from her hugely popular syndicated advice column, “Consultations with Dr. Mimi”? After all, Edith, a retired legal librarian, stolid and stable, has arranged to have the letters sent to the Smithsonian the following month, and feckless, free-spirited Kat is compiling her favorites in hopes of getting a book deal “to give the enterprise a little pizzazz.” But their calls to their reluctant landlord, famous (or is it infamous?) actress Vida Cebu, go unanswered, and the mysterious mold spreads—and spreads—in time helped along, as well, by the homeless Russian teen who had been living in Vida’s closet when it was discovered there. The virulent fungus, not to mention the hazmat team's response, lays waste to buildings, careers, reputations and even lives. But from the wreckage of the past sprouts new hopes and second chances—an opportunity for personal growth, a deeper sense of identity and community, generosity and belonging…and love.
This absorbing novel about a luminescent fungus affixes itself to your psyche like a spore and quickly spreads to your heart, setting everything in its wake aglow.
A brief portrait of cinema’s most iconic silhouette, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).
The director’s work has the rare privilege of being equally acclaimed by critics and popular audiences. As such, Hitchcock’s films have become part of the collective imagination, and “Hitchcockian” is a common idiom used to describe films that parrot his signature style. With such vast influence, Wood (Emeritus, Comparative Literature/Princeton Univ.; Film: A Very Short Introduction, 2012, etc.) offers an entry-level study of the famed auteur, unpacking the ways in which Hitchcock “can change the way we see.” Besides showing off his talent for close reading as he dissects scenes from Hitchcock’s classic films and personal life, Wood also provides vital contextualization to the films he analyzes, such as his “British” films and those with political overtones made during wartime. What is most remarkable about Hitchcock’s films is his insistence on chance meetings, serendipity and mistaken identity. For Hitchcock, who was famously distrustful of authority, the ordered world, and its reliance on reason, was misleading. He found more truth in happenstance, in which the impossible was made ordinary, and he crafted a world in which the improbable was not only accepted by viewers, but expected. Wood gives special attention to Hitchcock’s most famous films, like Vertigo and North by Northwest, but the author also analyzes many of the early, less-recognized films. For all his celebrated artistic sensibility, Wood is clever to point out that Hitchcock was always dependent on the help of others, most importantly his wife, Alma, whom he outwardly relied on for artistic council—and without whom he may not have been so prolific or revered.
The breadth of Hitchcock’s career and personal life defies easy summation, but Wood’s quickly paced, informative biography is a welcome primer for anyone interested in learning more about one of film’s most important figures.
A stolen backpack in Casablanca prompts a host of more psychological losses for the heroine of this high-tension narrative.
Every novel by Vida explores what distance from home can do to an American woman’s perception of herself, whether the locale is the Philippines (And Now You Can Go, 2003), Lapland (Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, 2007), or Turkey (The Lovers, 2010). Here, the unnamed narrator has arrived in Morocco for a solitary getaway—the details as to why aren’t disclosed till the ending—but the backpack containing her laptop, camera, credit cards, and passport is taken from her just as she’s checking into her hotel. The Kafkaesque plot turns that ensue serve to further erase her from the map; she claims another woman’s papers from a backpack the police wrongly believe is hers; a police report she needs to recover her identity goes missing; and, in a turn that occupies the heart of the novel, she takes a job as a stand-in for a famous actress who’s filming a movie in the city. The novel’s second-person voice is a not-so-subtle prompt for the reader to think about how he or she might act in these predicaments and a more slippery prompt to think about what identity is: who are “you” when your family, sense of place, and skills are expunged? Vida’s plainspoken, sometimes ice-cold minimalist style serves the question well, though the novel struggles to arrive at a clean conclusion, even a cleanly ambiguous one. Juggling the heroine’s Casablanca predicament with an increasingly wrenching recollection of the emotional messes she left back in the States, Vida works in unlikely coincidences and fits of flightiness to sell the character’s sense of dispossession. But the novel still packs a wallop, taking the themes of Camus and Kierkegaard and transplanting them into a story with the pace and intrigue of a page-turner.
A speedy and suspenseful fish-out-of-water tale with a slyly philosophical bent.
Heroism and steadiness of purpose continue to light up Lewis’ frank, harrowing account of the civil rights movement’s climactic days—here, from cafeteria sit-ins in Nashville to the March on Washington.
As in the opener, Powell’s dark, monochrome ink-and-wash scenes add further drama to already-dramatic events. Interspersed in Aydin’s script with flashes forward to President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Lewis’ first-person account begins with small-scale protests and goes on to cover his experiences as a Freedom Rider amid escalating violence in the South, his many arrests, and his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s formation and later internal strife. With the expectation that readers will already have a general grasp of the struggle’s course, he doesn’t try for a comprehensive overview but offers personal memories and insights—recalling, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s weak refusal to join the Freedom Riders and, with respect, dismissing Malcolm X: “I never felt he was a part of the movement.” This middle volume builds to the fiery manifesto the 23-year-old Lewis delivered just before Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech and closes with the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The contrast between the dignified marchers and the vicious, hate-filled actions and expressions of their tormentors will leave a deep impression on readers. Lewis’ commitment to nonviolent—but far from unimpassioned—protest will leave a deeper one. Backmatter includes the original draft of Lewis’ speech.
The first biography of Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, (1918-1992), builds a compelling case that the pimp-turned–popular author provided the foundation for gangsta rap, Blaxploitation movies, and so much of the underground culture that became mainstream.
Gifford (English/Univ. of Nevada; Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, 2013) transcends the opacity of academic writing in this lively account of a subject he even admits “might at first glance seem like an appalling choice for a biography…he abused hundreds of women throughout his lifetime, and he is practically unknown to the American mainstream.” Yet his autobiography, Pimp, has sold millions of copies since its publication in 1967, though it was never reviewed in the literary press nor widely available in bookstores. Pimp and Slim’s subsequent novels and essay collections could be more commonly found in inner-city newsstands, taverns, and barbershops. Such seminal rappers as Ice Cube and Ice-T took their names to honor him, and Mike Tyson considered him a father figure. To Gifford, he’s an exemplar of the ambiguous complexity of the pimp in ghetto mythology, a flashy man who has been corrupted by a racist society and who has been able to triumph over white prejudice by exploiting black women who had too few options. The “Street Poison” of the title was the term favored by Slim to describe the insidious effects of ghetto life on an impressionable young man attracted to the worlds of sex, drugs, and glamour and who would deaden his soul to attain all of them. It shows complicated relationships with his mother and a series of father figures, accounts occasionally at odds with Slim’s own writing, and it shows how he transitioned from a life of crime to pulp literature.
“This is not a story without tragedy….But it is a story of redemption and breathtaking creativity, too,” writes Gifford, who not only tells the story well, but shows why it’s so significant.
A badger baiter and a farmer have an existential pas de deux in rural Wales in this slim, piercing novella, the author’s first to be published in the United States.
The fourth novel by the Welsh author is set in modern times—there are trucks and cellphones—but Jones’ voice makes its setting feel either prehistoric or post-apocalyptic. That’s mainly because his language and imagery are persistently visceral when it comes to both men they depict. One is an unnamed “big man” who roots out badgers that are illegally pitted against dogs for sport; the other, Daniel, is a livestock farmer whose wife recently died after she was kicked in the head by a horse. In both cases, Jones’ language is deep in the rank muck of rural life: He describes Daniel helping to birth a newborn lamb, grabbing its hooves in the womb, feeling “its fast heartbeat in the chicken-bone cage of its ribs, still wet in his hands from the grease of birth”; after a badger hunt, a wounded dog’s artery “was a fraction above the cut and he could see it pump thickly through the dog’s skin.” The plot is simple, building to a climax as the “big man” encroaches on Daniel’s property, but Jones’ language is the main point of entry here. Like Cormac McCarthy, Jones can make the everyday sound fraught and biblical: “The townsmen were not used to such darkness nor this level of quietness and they were not restful in it.” But though primal, rough-hewn imagery abounds, the novel’s chief strength is its depiction of Daniel’s grief; in his struggle to keep the farm running on his own and in his recurring memory of happier times with his wife, he’s a deeply memorable character who’s simply rendered.
A persistently dour story that’s energized by the author’s command of character and mood.
In a novel that's part love story, part urban thriller, Phillips (And Yet They Were Happy, 2011, etc.) captures the way an isolating job and an indifferent city can stealthily steal our lives and erode our souls—and the protective, nourishing power of love.
A nameless, genderless, nearly faceless boss with rank breath; a tiny office in a vast windowless building, its “pinkish ill-colored” walls fluorescently lit, marked with “scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands” of bureaucrats past, and impervious to efforts at beautification; the incessant, maddening drone of typing; the red-eyed co-workers of uncertain trustworthiness; the computer database into which numbers on pages in piles of files must be entered and double-checked and processed just so—these are the things Josephine Anne Newbury encounters in the administrative job she accepts, asking few questions and getting fewer answers, for a mysterious organization. Having up and moved to the city from the “hinterland” looking for new opportunities, Josephine and her beloved husband, Joseph, endure mindless work following a long period of unemployment and the added alienation of living in unwelcoming apartments, surrounded by other people’s belongings. They find solace, joy, and vitality in each other, in the linguistic playfulness that has become their own language, in the warm glow of simple meals enjoyed together by candlelight, and in their shared dream of starting a family. But the city to which they have moved “in hope of hope” sweeps them into its sinister clutches and brings them face to face with pressing existential questions to which the answers may be as inevitable and unpleasant as they are unclear. Phillips takes situations and sentiments that will be all too familiar to many readers—a soul-crushingly dull job that callously steals our youth and beauty, the desperate yearning to be free of it, the restoring power of love and food and intimacy and of shared language and laughter—and uses them to explore bigger universal themes of life and death and the choices and compromises they demand.
Intense and enigmatic, tense and tender, this novel offers no easy answers—its deeper meanings may mystify—but it grabs you up, propels you along, and leaves you gasping, grasping, and ready to read it again.
Several years after the events of Keeping the Castle (2012), the Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy has opened in the rainy hamlet of Lesser Hoo. The school’s mission: to ready eight young ladies, ages 12 to 19, for the marriage market.
Given the remote location—coastal Yorkshire—potential grooms are in short supply (there’s one) until a presentable young man walking in the vicinity breaks his leg. Brought into the school to heal, he’s soon joined by friends. Rounding out the male prospects is a mysterious gentleman billeted at the local inn. Though all are single, the road to marital bliss is lined with potholes. Miss Asquith is attractive, delightful, and wealthy, but her father’s business, a low-status gin distillery, is likely to deter eligible mates. Down-to-earth Miss Pffolliott is vexed by a strange man claiming to be her devoted admirer. Closet scientist and would-be astronomer Miss Franklin pursues a man with his own telescope. Intricate subplots with exceptionally vivid characters (Crooked Castle residents among them) add to the fun. Historical novels attempting the Regency comedy of manners can read like leaden, uninspired fan fiction. This affectionate homage to the genre delivers what’s missing: a witty, intelligent plot whose characters—complex, conniving, hypocritical, and hilarious—seek happiness within an ordered world.
This airy soufflé of a tale, garnished with quirky charm, is an unmitigated delight from start to finish.
(Historical fiction. 12-18)
A terrorist bombing in Madrid stirs up memories in a Basque town of a politician kidnapped and killed, an act that linked the political and the personal, in this thoughtful, ambitious debut.
The American teacher Joni has been in the town of Muriga for more than 50 years when an al-Qaida cell's 2004 attack on Madrid’s Atocha train station recalls a local episode of Basque separatist violence six years earlier, one of “these acts that erode the soul of a people.” In chapters that alternate among the voices of Joni; Mariana, the victim’s wife; and Iker, one of the kidnappers, Urza illuminates the before—from days to decades—and after of the abduction. Mariana remembers that while her husband pursued party politics in Bilbao half the week, she was having an affair with the young American teacher who came to Muriga to replace the elderly Joni at the local school. Iker speaks from his prison cell, recalling how he was drawn reluctantly from truancy and vandalism to violence even as he sought a way out of the town through English lessons with Joni. And the American teacher, whose early years in Muriga were scarred by deep love and loss that cemented him to the town, finds his friendship with Mariana collapsing in the wake of her husband’s death. Urza’s fragmented, cinematic structure can confuse with its disjointed chronology, yet it works well to let each member of the trio reveal a different segment of the town’s populace and history. While Iker’s crime grew from the pointless acts and energy of youth and Mariana’s infidelity was enabled by party politics, Joni’s long-ago lover could recall seeing her father shot by Franco’s men at the former army barracks that came to serve as the high school where Joni taught students like Iker.
The author’s family is from Spain’s Basque region, which helps explain why an American writer would venture into this fraught history, and Urza does so convincingly, revealing the human faces behind the masks of terrorism and its collateral damage.