As a shocked nation mourns the assassination of John F. Kennedy, two lost souls looking for a new chance at life find each other along the wide-open Western highways.
In Berney’s (The Long and Faraway Gone, 2015, etc.) latest, Frank Guidry’s skills have made him an invaluable part of Carlos Marcello’s illegal New Orleans empire, but they don’t protect him when he becomes a loose end. On the run and struggling to stay one step ahead of a terrifyingly proficient hit man, Frank meets Charlotte Roy and her two daughters. Charlotte has made the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband and her claustrophobic hometown and start a new life in California when she runs her car into a ditch. With a well-honed sense of self-preservation, Frank realizes that traveling as a man with a family would be the perfect cover, so he skillfully manipulates himself into the role of savior. As he and Charlotte begin to care for each other, Frank has to decide whether he can safely take her and the girls with him on his escape. Charlotte, for her part, is no delicate flower; she’ll do whatever it takes to provide opportunities for her daughters to grow up as strong, independent women. Any novel that invokes the era following the death of JFK inevitably illustrates the moment our country’s zeitgeist changed. The 1960s, of course, were rife with revolution and change, from music to relations between men and women to the start of the Vietnam War. Berney’s gentle, descriptive writing brilliantly reflects these times of both disillusionment and hope. The men in the novel, including Frank and Barone, the hit man, also symbolize the Romantic notion of a time that has come to an end. As the title suggests, there is an autumnal, melancholic sense of loss at the heart of the novel, yet still, the loss is not destructive or debilitating. It is the kind of loss that gives way to a new world order.
Perfectly captures these few weeks at the end of 1963—all that was lost and all that lay tantalizingly and inevitably just beyond the horizon.
A challenging memoir about black-white relations, income inequality, mother-son dynamics, Mississippi byways, lack of personal self-control, education from kindergarten through graduate school, and so much more.
Laymon (English and Creative Writing/Univ. of Mississippi; How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, 2013, etc.) skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own. He also uses an intriguing narrative form, directly addressing his divorced mother, a poverty-stricken single woman who became a political science professor at Jackson State University. As an obese black youngster, the author had to learn to absorb cruelty not only because of his size, but also because of his dark skin. The relentlessness of his mother’s love—she expected academic and behavioral perfection and employed corporal punishment with a belt—shaped Laymon’s character in ways both obvious and subtle. One of the main elements of the memoir is his resentment at white privilege and his techniques to counter it. “Every time you said my particular brand of hardheadedness and white Mississippian’s brutal desire for black suffering were recipes for an early death, institutionalization, or incarceration, I knew you were right,” writes the author. Of all the secondary themes, the impact of addiction—food, gambling, and drug use, but especially food—ranks next. Laymon hated himself for topping 300 pounds as a teenager. Then he got fanatical with exercise and near starvation, dropping down to 170—followed by a relapse of sorts as he began to approach 300 again. Far more than just the physical aspect, the weight he carries also derives from the burdens placed on him by a racist society, by his mother and his loving grandmother, and even by himself. At times, the author examines his complicated romantic and sexual relationships, and he also delves insightfully into politics, literature, feminism, and injustice, among other topics.
A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.
How Russia’s campaign to undermine democracies threatens the European Union and the United States.
In a hard-hitting analysis of current events, Snyder (History/Yale Univ.; On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2017, etc.) argues persuasively that Russia under Putin is aggressively working to destabilize Western nations and export “massive inequality” and “the displacement of policy by propaganda.” Beginning with the strenuous revival of totalitarian thought in 2011, Russia has widened its efforts to attack the EU and to infiltrate American politics by masterminding the election of Donald Trump. For Russia, the EU, which requires that its member countries are democratic and promote human rights, exists as an affront to its “native kleptocracy.” Because “Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe and America,” writes the author, it sought to gain “relative power” by weakening other nations. Using targeted Twitter campaigns, trolls, and bots, Russia manipulated a “leave” vote in the Brexit referendum and later directed its attention to working against Emmanuel Macron in France and Angela Merkel in Germany. Snyder chronicles Putin’s successful influence in Trump’s nomination and election: “a cyberwar to destroy the United States of America.” Russian connections to Trump began in the 1990s, when Russian gangsters laundered money by buying and selling apartments in Trump Tower. Trump, who at the time was bankrupt and owed about $4 billion to more than 70 banks, welcomed funds from Russian oligarchs, who bought his properties through shell companies. The author expertly details Russian involvement in the 2016 election by Paul Manafort, who “had experience getting Russia’s preferred candidates elected president”; Trump’s foreign policy adviser, pro-Putin Carter Page, who became a lobbyist for Russian gas companies; and Michael Flynn. Russian use of Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sources “exploited American gullibility” and cynicism. Freedom, Snyder writes, “depends upon citizens who are able to make a distinction between what is true and what they want to hear.”
A highly distressing, urgent alarm to awaken Americans to the peril of authoritarianism.
It’s 2011, if not quite the 2011 you remember. Candace Chen is a millennial living in Manhattan. She doesn’t love her job as a production assistant—she helps publishers make specialty Bibles—but it’s a steady paycheck. Her boyfriend wants to leave the city and his own mindless job. She doesn’t go with him, so she’s in the city when Shen Fever strikes. Victims don’t die immediately. Instead, they slide into a mechanical existence in which they repeat the same mundane actions over and over. These zombies aren’t out hunting humans; instead, they perform a single habit from life until their bodies fall apart. Retail workers fold and refold T-shirts. Women set the table for dinner over and over again. A handful of people seem to be immune, though, and Candace joins a group of survivors. The connection between existence before the End and during the time that comes after is not hard to see. The fevered aren’t all that different from the factory workers who produce Bibles for Candace’s company. Indeed, one of the projects she works on almost falls apart because it proves hard to source cheap semiprecious stones; Candace is only able to complete the contract because she finds a Chinese company that doesn’t mind too much if its workers die from lung disease. This is a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment. This is Ma’s first novel, but her fiction has appeared in distinguished journals, and she won a prize for a chapter of this book. She knows her craft, and it shows. Candace is great, a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength. She’s sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels between her life before the End and the pathology of Shen Fever. Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience.
Pagels (Religion/Princeton Univ.; Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, 2012, etc.), who is especially renowned for her work studying the ancient Gnostic brand of Christianity, provides a raw and often moving autobiography. The author begins in the postwar suburbs of Palo Alto, California, where she was raised by emotionally detached, and certainly nonspiritual, parents. A visit to a Billy Graham crusade awakened the young Pagels to the world of religion. “It changed my life, as the preacher promised it would,” she notes, referring to Graham, “although not entirely as he intended, or at least, not for as long.” By the time she was a student at Stanford, she had lost her basic faith in Christianity but remained intrigued by religion as a whole. She went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard, where she first encountered the newly discovered writings of the Gnostics, a sect that had been branded as heretical and was extinguished early in the history of Christianity. The author’s academic pursuits unfold alongside a touching personal life story. After marrying physicist Heinz Pagels, the couple went on to have a son, who was eventually diagnosed with a fatal heart condition that took his life while he was still in kindergarten. As she was recovering from this tragedy, her husband fell while hiking and was killed. Much of the rest of the author’s story involves her attempts to remain sane and stable while raising two other adopted children and continuing her career at Princeton. In the process, she went back to Scriptures and early Christian writings, not due to faith but as a way of understanding how others dealt with tragedy in the past. Pagels is a controversial figure in Christianity, heralded by many scholars and modernists yet derided by traditionalists, and her approach to God—amorphous and skeptical—will either offend or resonate with particular readers. The story of her grief, however, will touch all.
A meaningful tale of pain and hope on the edges of faith.
Alternating between two centuries, Kingsolver (Flight Behavior, 2012, etc.) examines the personal and social shocks that ensue when people’s assumptions about the world and their place in it are challenged.
The magazine Willa Knox worked for went broke, and so did the college where her husband, Iano, had tenure, destroying the market value of their Virginia home, which stood on college land. They should be grateful to have inherited a house in Vineland, New Jersey, just a half-hour commute from Iano’s new, non-tenured one-year gig, except it’s falling apart, and they have been abruptly saddled with son Zeke’s infant after his girlfriend commits suicide. In the same town during Ulysses Grant’s presidency, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood is also grappling with a house he can’t afford to repair as well as a headmaster hostile to his wish to discuss Darwin’s theory of evolution with his students and a young wife interested only in social climbing. While Willa strives to understand how her comfortable middle-class life could have vanished overnight, her 26-year-old daughter, Tig, matter-of-factly sees both her mother’s disbelief and her Greek-immigrant grandfather Nick’s racist diatribes and hearty approval of presidential candidate Donald Trump as symptoms of a dying culture of entitlement and unbridled consumption. Lest this all sound schematic, Kingsolver has enfolded her political themes in two dramas of family conflict with full-bodied characters, including Mary Treat, a real-life 19th-century biologist enlisted here as the fictional friend and intellectual support of beleaguered Thatcher. Sexy, mildly feckless Iano and Thatcher’s feisty sister-in-law, Polly, are particularly well-drawn subsidiary figures, and Willa’s doubts and confusion make her the appealing center of the 21st-century story. The paired conclusions, although hardly cheerful, see hope in the indomitable human instinct for survival. Nonetheless, the words that haunt are Tig’s judgment on blinkered America: “All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.”
As always, Kingsolver gives readers plenty to think about. Her warm humanism coupled with an unabashed point of view make her a fine 21st-century exponent of the honorable tradition of politically engaged fiction.
The meaning of democracy has changed dramatically throughout history.
With autocratic leaders emerging in so-called democratic nations, Miller (Political Science/New School; Eminent Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, 2011, etc.) investigates the slippery term “democracy” and the “inherently unstable” democratic project. “If both North Korea and the United States consider themselves democratic,” writes the author, and if all manner of politicians claim “to embody the will of the people—then what, in practice, can the idea of democracy possibly mean?” In response to this vexing question, Miller offers an informative historical overview of democratic efforts, from ancient Greece to contemporary times, including revolutions in France (1792) and America (1776), 19th-century socialist uprisings in Europe, the early-20th-century revolution in Russia, and current populist movements. Although Athens has been acclaimed as the birthplace of democracy, the author counters that assumption: While a lottery system ensured wide participation in government, women and slaves were excluded; moreover, throughout Greece, most cities were aristocracies or oligarchies. Many revolutions enacted to promote democracy—the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the British Chartist movement—ended in defeat and bloodshed, tainting the idea of democracy as ill-advised, creating “a new kind of tyranny, a collective tyranny of the majority” who were largely uninformed and easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric. The term became “widely associated with the danger of mob rule” and anarchy. America’s Founding Fathers did not think of themselves as democrats, believing “the election of representatives to be preferable to, and a necessary check on, the unruly excesses of a purely direct democracy.” Not until the presidential campaign of 1800 did Thomas Jefferson bring the term democracy into political discourse, conflating its usage with “fealty to the Constitution.” Miller is hopeful that even if democracy is threatened by political propagandists disseminating lies and creating confusion, democratic ideals and liberal principles will persist as long as democracy functions “as a shared faith.”
A revealing examination of the successes and perils of popular participation in government.
A hedge fund manager on the skids takes a cross-country Greyhound bus trip to reconnect with his college girlfriend, leaving his wife to deal with their autistic 3-year-old.
"Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny's fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye." Shteyngart (Little Failure, 2014, etc.) gleefully sends Barry, on the run from troubles at work as well as his inability to face up to his son's recent diagnosis, on an odyssey that the author himself made on a Greyhound bus during the lead-up to the 2016 election, thus joining Salman Rushdie, Olivia Laing, Curtis Sittenfeld, and others with recent works set in the dawn of the Trump era. Barry is, in some ways, a bit of a Trump himself: He's from Queens, has a serious inferiority/superiority complex, has achieved his success through means other than actual financial genius. Barry, however, is a likable naif whose first stop is Baltimore, where he uses the "friend moves" he developed in middle school to bond with a crack dealer named Javon. He leaves Baltimore with a rock in his pocket and the dream of establishing an Urban Watch Fund, where he would share with underprivileged kids his obsession with Rolexes and Patek Phillipes as a means to self-betterment. In fact, Barry has left New York with not a single change of clothes, only a carry-on suitcase full of absurdly valuable watches. And now there's that crack rock. Off he goes to Richmond, Atlanta, Jackson, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, Phoenix, and La Jolla, the home of an ex he's been out of touch with for years. Alternating chapters visit his wife, Seema, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who's back in New York with their silent son, Shiva, and his nanny, conducting an affair with a downstairs neighbor, a successful Guatemalan writer named Luis Goodman (whose biographical overlap with the real writer Francisco Goldman has all the markings of an inside joke).
As good as anything we've seen from this author: smart, relevant, fundamentally warm-hearted, hilarious of course, and it has a great ending.
The author of A God in Ruins (2015) and Life After Life (2013) revisits the Second World War.
Juliet Armstrong is 18 years old and all alone in the world when she’s recruited by MI5. Her job is transcribing meetings of British citizens sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Soon, she’s pulled even deeper into the world of espionage, a world she will ultimately discover is hard to escape—even after she leaves the intelligence service to produce radio programs for the BBC. Atkinson is a careful author, and the title she’s chosen for this novel is more than a description of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort. The concept of writing over or across—meanings available from the Latin roots that make up the word “transcribe”—runs through the book. For example, the British Fascists who think they’re passing secrets to the Third Reich are actually giving them to an English spy; their crimes are both deadly serious and parodic. At the BBC, Juliet creates programming about the past for children, versions of history that rely more on nostalgia than fact. She knows she's creating an idea of England, a scrim to hang over bombed-out buildings and dead bodies. Just as Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels borrow from mystery but exist in a category apart from that genre, her latest is a sort of demystified thriller. There is intrigue. There are surprises. But the unknowns aren’t always what we think they are. The deepest pleasure here, though, is the author’s language. As ever, Atkinson is sharp, precise, and funny. She might be the best Anglophone author working when it comes to adverbs. Consider this exchange: “Trude suddenly declared vehemently, ‘Let’s hope the Germans bomb us the way they bombed Rotterdam.’ ‘Goodness, why?’ Mrs Scaife asked, rather taken aback by the savagery of this outburst. ‘Because then the cowards in government will capitulate and make peace with the Third Reich.’ ‘Do have a scone,’ Mrs Scaife said appeasingly.”
Another beautifully crafted book from an author of great intelligence and empathy.
Lethem (A Gambler’s Anatomy, 2016, etc.) returns with his first surrealistic, genre-bending detective novel since Motherless Brooklyn (1999).
Having long abandoned Brooklyn for the West Coast, Lethem has written a hallucinatory novel set in the desert fringes of the Inland Empire in California. Readers, many of whom should be absorbed by this story, will soon realize the author has more to say about the current state of America and his deeply fractured heroine than lies on the surface. Our narrator is Phoebe Siegler, once a bourgeois Manhattanite with a sarcastic streak, now unmoored by the last presidential election. Trying to break her malaise, she travels to Los Angeles at the behest of a friend whose teenage daughter has disappeared during a Leonard Cohen–inspired pilgrimage to Mount Baldy. She’s referred to private detective Charles Heist, a “fiftyish cowboyish fellow” dubbed “The Feral Detective” for his predilection for saving strays, be they kids or animals. What might have devolved into a Coen Brothers–esque farce instead offers a dark reflection on human nature as Heist introduces Phoebe to something like a cult living on the fringes of society—what might happen if hippies and outcasts left civilization, never to return, devolving into a tribal, ritualistic culture tinged with conspiracy theory. It’s a place where the seemingly laconic Heist has deep roots and a culture where his mere presence yields disturbing violence. There’s not really a mystery to solve, and the sexual tension between Phoebe and Heist feels obligatory, but Lethem fills his canvas with tinder-dry tension. The subtext is the division in American society, but the personal nature of Phoebe’s tectonic shift in the desert is palpable, made flesh by Lethem’s linguistic alchemy. “Old fears had flown the coop without my noticing and been replaced: I was positively aching to abscond into the Mojave again, the fewer road signs the better,” she says. “No cities for me now, or families or tribes.”
A haunting tour of the gulf between the privileged and the dispossessed.
With impeccable timing, the acclaimed historian focuses on the ways four presidents navigated the country through wrenching clashes and crises.
Pulitzer Prize winner Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, 2013, etc.) profiles Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom she’s written about previously. Lincoln’s “unmatched work ethic, rhetorical abilities, equable nature, and elevated ambition” steered him to the moment in 1862 when he gathered his Cabinet for the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. That document, writes the author, is “remarkable for its flat precision,” revealing Lincoln’s wisdom in reining in rhetorical flourishes “to reach across factions” and avoid moral condemnation of slaveholding states. Goodwin admires Theodore Roosevelt for his ability to change himself from a “nervous, unhealthy, fragile child” to a leader who, through the force of his personality and adept use of the press, protected working-class Americans from vast wealth inequality. Franklin Roosevelt’s amiable confidence and ability to lead by example pushed the country through the Great Depression, while Johnson’s mastery of legislative strategy eventually compelled many national politicians to see that civil rights were long overdue. The most remarkable aspects of this book are the astute psychological portraits of these leaders: comprehensive, human, and engaging, clearly the results of long study. In the final chapters, Goodwin uses short signposts, snippets of advice, to guide readers. For example, in the section about Johnson’s seemingly insurmountable passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she writes, “make a dramatic start” and “establish the most effective order of battle,” and then follows that line with several paragraphs about why Johnson fought to pass a tax cut before attempting the more momentous civil rights bill. These demarcations clarify the labyrinthine political and cultural issues the presidents confronted.
In intimate, knowing ways, Goodwin crafts history as aspiration—or at least inspiration—for readers; let’s hope a hefty portion of those readers have titles that begin with Sen. or Rep.