In the last days of modern civilization, a young orphan from Boston makes her way across the dangerous wastelands of America. This is not an adventure for her.
Post-apocalyptic novels can bend in a lot of directions—in the past decade we've seen the murky emotional depths of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the political metaphor of World War Z by Max Brooks, and the fragile state of fear of Edan Lepucki's California. This debut novel by acclaimed short story writer van den Berg (The Isle of Youth, 2013, etc.) tends to lean much closer to the realms of literary fiction with its complex psychology. Our heroine is the ironically named Joy Jones, an emotionally barren young woman with no family or friends who now slogs at a day job under the influence of a soul-deadening amount of cough syrup. She's not the most ebullient spirit even before a modern plague strikes, killing half the world. She’s given to saying things like, “I wonder if I will ever know what it’s like to feel at peace,” and “No one will ever write a Wikipedia page for me.” As hundreds of thousands of victims succumb, Joy is taken to a hospital complex in Kansas where she's subjected to strange tests both medical and psychological, has emotionless sex with her roommate and recoils at the deaths of twin boys. While at the hospital, Joy learns that her long-lost mother is an underwater archaeologist featured in a series of television documentaries that she watches like they are her only lifeline. The remainder of the book covers Joy’s trek to find her mother, traveling in the company of Marcus, a boy who shared one of her many foster homes. Van den Berg’s writing is curiously beautiful, and her portrayals can also be disarmingly sensitive, as if we might break this girl just by reading about her. “I’ve grown up knowing the world is fragile,” she says. “No one needs to tell me that.”
A sad story about a sad girl slouching toward the end of the world.
This English language debut by Swedish writer and TV personality Rosenberg is both a personal journey and a son’s letter to a loving father, David, who survived Nazi Germany but never got over it. Drawing on both historical research and family documents, the author re-creates the life of a Polish Jew who saw his hometown turned into a barbed wire hell in which 200,000 people, including his father and brother, lost their lives. Throughout the book, Rosenberg tries to picture what David saw and heard: Was he there when Jewish leader Chaim Rumkowski told the gathered throng that he had reached a bargain with the Nazis and only sick people and small children would be liquidated? David was sent to Auschwitz, which he survived only to spend the last desperate days of the war at the Wöbbelin concentration camp, where Nazis tried killing off as many Jews as possible before the liberators arrived. After the war, the ambitious David and his wife settled in the Swedish factory town of Södertälje, outside of Stockholm, for what they hoped would only be a “brief stop” on the road to a bigger, brighter future. Instead, it was a dead end. David’s dreams were at constant war with his recurring nightmares. “What I realize, much later,” writes the author, “is that time after time you make a run-up toward the horizon, and time after time you fall back to earth again.” Rosenberg was constantly asking his father why: Why this direction and not that one? Why didn’t you follow through on your dreams? It isn’t until the devastating ending that we see just why these questions loomed so large in his head.
A deeply felt story and a sobering reminder of the long shadows of the Holocaust.
The lure of the wilderness proves irresistible for a young trapper in this glorious American frontier novel, Burke’s (Black Flies, 2008, etc.) third.
In 1826, civilization ends in St. Louis; beyond is the vast expanse of the prairie. William Wyeth sees in it an invitation. The 22-year-old is looking for adventure, and the fur trade is booming. Wyeth joins a brigade bound for the western mountains, where they will set traps for beaver and muskrat and return with their pelts. The season is interrupted when Wyeth is felled by friendly fire during a buffalo hunt. The incident shatters Wyeth’s illusion that he’s immortal, but his spirits are restored by his fellow trappers’ camaraderie. Recuperating at a U.S. Army encampment, Wyeth meets Alene Chevalier, a part native French-Canadian tanner. After the trapper has another near-death experience, they fall in love, but Wyeth is not ready for domesticity quite yet. The St. Louis dandy Henry Layton is forming a new brigade and offers Wyeth a stake in it. Layton is a complex figure, marvelously well-observed. A bit of a scoundrel, battling his own demons, he is undeniably charismatic. Both Layton and Wyeth will learn that “[t]here is little that ails a man…that is not improved by a season in the mountains.” The second expedition, this one on Crow lands (Layton has negotiated a treaty), is all ups and downs. The overbearing Layton risks a mutiny, but the trappers rally behind him when he fearlessly confronts a British brigade leader. Borders are vague and the expansionist Brits, not the natives, are the enemy. The trappers harvest a record number of pelts, but safe passage back is far from assured. Burke includes fine episodes of derring-do, two involving bears, and there is a thrilling climax, but character is his overriding interest, the way it’s shaped by tests of endurance in magnificent, alien landscapes.
Strange things happen when Radar Radmanovic is around. For that matter, in Larsen’s (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, 2009) peripatetic sophomore novel, strange things bring Radar around in the first place—and thereon hangs a tale.
Radar—“You know, radar. Like bats. And aeroplanes,” says his father by way of explanation—is notably dark-skinned, though his parents are pale and even pasty. Says the attending doctor, “This will correct itself.” It does not, and Radar, the author of many quests, is left to puzzle out a cure, if a cure is in fact wanted, as certainly his mother believes is the case. The search for an answer, until one finally dawns on mom, leads him into the company of a strange congeries of supposed doctors who are really something on the order of performance artists; warns a well-meaning but ineffectual telegram, “They have no idea what they are doing.” What they’re doing is traveling around performing oddball theatrical pieces in war zones such as Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Bosnia of the early 1990s, but there’s a deeper purpose to their wanderings, and in that respect, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what they’re up to after all, even if it might not make immediate sense to the reader. Larsen’s tale enters into arcane realms indeed, all talk of rolling blackouts, melanin in the substantia nigra, Nikola Tesla, sunspots, probability, Schrödinger’s cat, and the etiology of epilepsy told in a sequence of loopily connected tales that all somehow wind up back in the marshes of New Jersey. Radar has moments of epiphany (“There was no such thing as Radar’s syndrome. There had never been a syndrome. There was only him”). The connections are not always obvious, and some are more successfully forged than others; indeed, some parts are nearly self-contained and are stronger than the whole. And if the ending strains credulity—and a tale about memory that stars a certain Dr. Funes strains patience as well—then it succeeds in bringing those stories under a single roof.
If Larsen’s story makes demands of its readers, it also offers plenty of rewards. Imaginative, original, nicely surreal—and hyperpigmentarily so.
In stories as haunting as anything the Grimm brothers could have come up with, Link (Magic for Beginners, 2005, etc.) gooses the mundane with meaning and enchantment borrowed from myth, urban legend and genre fiction.
Here are superheroes who, like minor characters from reality shows, attend conferences at the same hotels as dentists and hold auditions for sidekicks. Here, a Ouija board can tell you as much about your future as your guidance counselor. In “Two Houses,” six astronauts wake from suspended animation to while away the time telling ghost stories, although they may be ghosts themselves. In “I Can See Right Through You,” an actor past his prime, famous for his role as a vampire, yearns for the leading lady who has replaced him with a parade of eternally younger versions of what he once was—but who is the real demon lover? In “The New Boyfriend,” a teenager discontent with her living boyfriend toys with stealing her best friend’s birthday present, a limited edition Ghost Boyfriend, capable of Spectral Mode. In “Light,” Lindsey has two shadows, one of which long ago grew to become her almost-real twin brother. She contemplates a vacation on a “pocket universe,” a place “where the food and the air and the landscape seemed like something out of a book you’d read as a child; a brochure; a dream.” Lindsey could be describing Link’s own stories, creepy little wonders that open out into worlds far vaster than their shells. In a Link story, someone is always trying to escape and someone is always vanishing without a trace. Lovers are forever being stolen away like changelings, and when someone tells you he’ll never leave you, you should be very afraid.
Exquisite, cruelly wise and the opposite of reassuring, these stories linger like dreams and will leave readers looking over their shoulders for their own ghosts.
Sticking to her formula of situating imaginary characters in historical events (The Daring Ladies of Lowell,2014, etc.), Alcott sends her feisty heroine to observe the filming of Gone With the Wind.
At first, it looks as though Julie Crawford will be packing her bags to go back to Fort Wayne, Indiana; she’s delayed as she hurries to the burning of Atlanta to deliver a message from the studio to David Selznick, and the producer fires her on the spot. Fortunately, Julie has caught the eye of assistant producer Andy Weinstein, who introduces her to a fellow Fort Wayne refugee: screwball comedy queen Carole Lombard, whose open affair with still-married GWTW star Clark Gable is making Selznick very nervous. Soon Julie is Lombard’s personal assistant and having regular dinners with handsome, intense Andy. The fact that she’s dating a Jew, Julie is well-aware, would appall her parents, who are already unhappy that she’s dumped her high school sweetheart to pursue a career as a screenwriter. Alcott makes good use of her research to portray the turbulent GWTW shoot, Lombard’s earthy personality and genuine love for the equally no-BS Gable, and Julie’s introduction via Andy to the more intellectual side of Hollywood culture (a Herman Mankiewicz dinner party; a meeting with her idol, pioneering screenwriter Frances Marion). Julie and Andy’s tender but bumpy affair is also nicely depicted. Consumed with anxiety for his grandparents in Nazi Berlin, furious when he confronts anti-Semitism in America, he plans to leave Hollywood’s dream factory; he’s supportive of Julie’s ambitions but unsure that she’s got the backbone to stand by him or to stand up to her parents about their relationship. Their ups and downs are slightly contrived, but Alcott’s canny blend of Hollywood lore and a strong personal story is ultimately effective.
Well-crafted commercial fiction displaying intelligence and nuance as Julie ponders Hollywood’s dizzying fantasy/reality disconnect.
In this witty take on 1980s Philadelphia, a young girl comes of age and learns to navigate love, loss, school and family.
Kenya, whom we meet at age 7 and watch graduate from high school into womanhood, is the daughter of Afrocentric parents. Their politics and yearly celebration of Kwanzaa, which entails “sporting an orange, yellow and brown dashiki and a forehead-straining vertical braided hairstyle,” make Kenya a social pariah even at her all-black school. In Kenya, Solomon has crafted a character of irrepressible verve and voice who carries us joyously through the novel—even after she witnesses her parents’ breakup, when her father is imprisoned for injuring her mother with a gun. With the separation, Kenya is propelled from her safe black Philly world into the white world of an elite private school—the very world her father fled, traumatized and bitter. Here, she becomes a master of code-switching to fit in, all while knowing that her classmates will never truly accept her. After a chance meeting with a black boy from her old neighborhood turns into a failed love affair, Kenya seeks comfort in a visit to her father, newly released from prison. The scenes with Kenya’s father, who's enjoying a bigamous life with two new wives and two new sets of kids, are razor-sharp on the contradictions of identity—here, for example, we see Kenya’s father, a staunch activist for African-American rights, unable to make the link to respect women’s rights. Kenya has a palpable need for her father to become a solid, guiding force as she steps into womanhood, but he can’t do it. And when her stepfather loses all her mother’s money, Kenya’s future college education doesn't quite go as planned. In this debut novel, Solomon (Get Down, 2008) examines the confusing moments on the verge of adulthood within the ever shifting makeup of family and society.
Blackness, feminism and the loss of virginity have never been analyzed by a more astute and witty main character.
Heiny explores sex, relationships and the internal lives of young women in this charmingly candid collection of short stories.
The women who populate the pages of Heiny’s disarming debut are girlfriends, mistresses and wives. They are best friends, roommates and lovers. They are intelligent but not always ambitious—keenly insightful but sometimes, perhaps willfully, blind to their own deeper desires—with loyalties and libidos that may be at odds and morals that may be in question. Despite the title, not all are single (or carefree or mellow), but they are all singular, and following their stories is like sitting at a dive bar tossing back deceptively pretty, surprisingly strong drinks with a pal who may not always make the best decisions but always comes away with the most colorful tales. In fact, “The Dive Bar” is the title of the first story. In it, we meet Sasha, an attractive 26-year-old writer whose boyfriend has left his wife for her. After a confrontation with the boyfriend’s wife, Sasha reluctantly mulls the morality of her choices, but for her, morality is really (boringly) beside the point, and she instead finds herself sinking sideways into the next chapter of her life, a happy one, from all indications. Heiny’s characters often find themselves propelled through life by circumstances: The death of a beloved dog can lead inexorably to marriage, pregnancy and secret affairs, as it does for Maya, the protagonist of three of these stories, and her kind, kindred-spirit boyfriend/fiance/husband, Rhodes. Not all the women here are as appealing as Sasha and Maya, and the less we like them, the less charmed we may be by their careless misbehavior. By the end of the book—as by the end of a night at the bar with our metaphorical, engagingly louche friend—we might not find ourselves overly reluctant to part company.
These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un–self-aware, but they are beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.
Art and life are intertwined in a novel about TV sitcoms set during the cultural sea change of the 1960s.
Hornby's (Juliet, Naked, 2009, etc.) most ambitious novel to date extends his passion for pop culture and empathy for flawed characters in to the world of television comedy. From her girlhood days in working-class Blackpool, Barbara Parker idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of emulating her. Yet such a career seems impossible to a young woman whose closest brush with upward mobility comes when she wins a local beauty contest—then quickly abdicates her crown, realizing it would tie her closer to home rather than provide a ticket out. She realizes she has to go to London, a city where she has no connections or realistic prospects and where she discovers “that she wasn’t as lovely as she had been in Blackpool; or, rather, her beauty was much less remarkable here." There's one thing that makes her stand out from the other lovely girls, though: "She was pretty sure...that none of [them] wanted to make people laugh.” Through a series of chance encounters that seem like destiny, she does achieve her dreams, getting cast on a popular BBC comedy and even meeting Lucy, who “looked old, though, in the way that a ghost looks old.” It’s the supporting characters who really enrich this novel—the producer/director whose devotion to his star is more than professional; the gay writers who are initially semicloseted and whose paths will diverge; the male star whom this newcomer—now dubbed Sophie Straw—quickly eclipses. Hornby makes the reader care for his characters as much as he does and retains a light touch with the deeper social implications, as women, gays, popular entertainment and the culture in general experience social upheaval.
Years later, Sophie is getting ready to star in a play that's intended to revive her career. “The play is much better than I thought it was going to be," she thinks. "It’s funny, and sad—like life.” And like this novel.
Biographer Morris (Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, 2010, etc.) resurrects the career of Ethel Payne (1911-1991), journalist, labor union and civil rights advocate, traveler on the African continent, journalism professor and pioneer in the American race wars.
Struggling to obtain a formal education during an era when women, especially African-American women, found most schooling off-limits, Payne did not find her calling as a journalist until she was nearly 40. Before that, she labored in a Chicago library and found employment in Japan helping African-American military personnel stationed by the Pentagon adjust to life abroad. All along, she wanted to become a writer. Growing up in Chicago, Payne was aware of the Chicago Defender, the most prominent newspaper in the country owned by an African-American and devoted to writing about them from a perspective radically different from that of the Caucasian-owned media. While working in Japan in 1950, Payne met a Defender reporter who had served the United States during World War II and at the time was writing about the role of African-American soldiers in the Korean War. Payne, an impressive individual by any standard, parlayed the acquaintanceship into a salaried job. During a journalism career that began at the Defender and resumed there after a hiatus caused by the newspaper’s sometimes-mercurial publisher, Payne wrote about U.S. presidents, African nations, the Vietnam War and her hometown of Chicago. Due to her gender and race, Payne always stood out at presidential press conferences and just about everywhere else, but she rarely flinched from any obstacles that stood in the way of the story. Morris does not flinch from his status as a white male chronicling the life of an African-American female, and he discloses that he received unstinting support from Payne’s family members and acquaintances. His access allows him to reveal intriguing subtleties about her work and her personal life.
A deeply researched, skillfully written biography about a previously underappreciated individual.
Old tragedies combine with fresh ones in Brandt’s steely-jawed, carefully constructed procedural.
Few crime novelists are as good at taut storytelling as Richard Price (Lush Life, 2008, etc.), who, for reasons of his own, writes here under a pseudonym. But then, everyone in these pages is hiding bits and pieces of their lives and nursing secrets. Billy Graves, for instance, is well-known among Gotham’s cops for having been an almost mythical crime fighter back in the day, until an errant bullet put a kid instead of a bad guy into the ground. Since then, Graves has been shunted from one graveyard shift to another, and though he nurses hard feelings, he’s also glad just to have a gig in a time when it seldom seems that “the Prince of Peace was afoot.” Certainly that’s true when another perp of old turns up dead at just about the time it dawns on Billy that others nurse grudges, too: “Although money was the prime motivation for those signing up for a one-off tour with Night Watch, occasionally a detective volunteered not so much for the overtime but simply because it facilitated his stalking.” The city quickly becomes a set for a sprawling, multiplayer game of cat and mouse, with vengeance not the province of the lord but of the aggrieved mortals below. Or, as one player ponders while assessing the odds, “To avenge his family, he would be destroying what was left of it.” When vigilantes try to do the work of cops, no one wins—but how can there be justice in a place where everyone seems to consider the law a private matter, if not merely a polite suggestion? The grim inevitability that ensues follows lines laid out in such recent fiction as Mystic River and Smilla’s Sense of Snow—but also, for that matter, in The Oresteia.
In the wake of rage and sorrow, ordinary people respond by going crazy and screwing up. In this far-from-ordinary novel, Price/Brandt explores the hows and whys. Fasten your seat belt.