An Ethiopian-American teenager falls under the spell of a mysterious man from her community who runs a small empire out of his parking lot.
Tamirat’s debut novel stutters a bit at the beginning, wanting to remain vague; its unnamed narrator, a teenage girl from Boston, is with her Ethiopian immigrant father on a subtropical island referred to only as “B——.” It’s unclear why they are there or why there is so much conflict between them. But in the second chapter, as the narrator begins to describe their previous life in Boston and a shrewd, shadowy trickster named Ayale, the novel gains a steadier footing as well as a sense of humor and a keen view of teenage preoccupations. Ayale, a fellow Ethiopian who runs the parking lot and who allows the girl to hang around after school, bends her infatuation to his nefarious business practices. He begins to send her on errands and ingratiate himself with her. “I feel as though I’m carrying Ayale with me at all times,” she says as her idolatry blooms, “although for whom and for what reason escapes me. The weight is often unbearable, but I am terrified of what would happen if I were to let go completely.” Tamirat walks a fine and observant line—the relationship between the narrator and Ayale isn’t sexual, but it has the hallmarks of risky teenage admiration. The narrator’s father is rightly concerned about the “near-pathological ways in which Ayale bound people to him, trapping them in a web of debt from which they could never escape. This, according to him, was Ayale’s version of creating love.” Tamirat writes blind teenage devotion well, but what seems initially to be a story about a forbidden relationship becomes much more: Ayale’s empire is less a metaphor for his power in the Boston neighborhood and more an actual dream of domination on the world scene—a dream that the narrator features more prominently in than she could imagine. In the end, the narrator says “none of us got what we wanted”—except, maybe, the reader.
Captivating for both its unusual detail and observant take on teenage trust. Curious and delightful.
A disturbingly ambitious woman finds herself challenged by mysterious crises—both personal and professional—in Cohen’s painfully funny satire of the tech industry.
In Shelley Stone, Cohen has created an aggressively unlikable yet captivating and entertaining heroine. Twenty years ago, as a directionless 20-year-old, Shelley was struck by lightning, a trauma for which she claims to be grateful despite the physical pain it inflicted. She doesn’t care that the lightning shriveled her pleasure receptor or that she now scores low on the likability scale. What matters is that the lightning strike changed her brain in ways that made her into the driven woman she’s become. Shelley is married and has two children—readers will concur with her amazement at having attracted financial-analyst husband Rafe, who goes along with her scheduled 12 minutes of daily sex even though his own pleasure principle remains intact—but she's primarily committed to her role as CEO of Conch, a company producing personal data repositories shaped like shells and worn behind users’ ears. On a family vacation in France, Shelley’s 4-year-old daughter, Nova, disappears while Shelley and Rafe are distracted by work calls; more disturbing, both parents continue their calls while searching for her. Fortunately, a stranger finds Nova, a stranger who somehow has Shelley’s cellphone number and seems oddly excited to meet her when returning the child. Within weeks, Shelley meets another stranger: Michelle looks like a younger version of Shelley herself, down to the same scar on her arm, and has experienced the same childhood. Is a pre-lightning strike, alternate self possible? Or is Shelley having a nervous breakdown? Shelley is rattled but cynical enough to have her doubts. Meanwhile Conch suddenly faces serious quality control issues that she must solve to save her job. And then there’s Rafe’s plan to move with the kids to Brazil, with or without Shelley.
Record of a childhood in flight from war and terror.
“I hated that I had to eat,” writes Wamariya. “I hated my stomach, I hated my needs.” Growing children are always hungry, but the author, forced at the age of 6 to flee her native Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, was for years as a refugee never able to satisfy those elemental needs. Intercut with her chronicle of experiences in a series of refugee camps are moments from her new life in America, where she landed at the age of 12, adopted into a welcoming home in a bit of fortune that she did not trust: “I was callous and cynical….I thought I could fool people into thinking that I was not profoundly bruised.” She had reason to worry, for on a six-year trail that passed through one African nation after another, she witnessed both generosity and depravity coupled with the constant worry that the older sister with whom she had fled would decide that she was too much of a burden and abandon her. She did not: Her sister’s presence through one fraught situation after another is a constant. Wamariya’s experiences adjusting to life in a country where, her sister declared, beer flowed from faucets and people owned six cars at a time are affecting, and there are some Cinderella moments in it, from being accepted to Yale to appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show. But more, there are moments of potent self-reckoning; being a victim of trauma means that “you, as a person, are empty and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own.” The work of finding home and feeling safe—it’s something that every foe of immigration ought to ponder; in that alone Wamariya’s narrative is valuable.
Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.
A debut book about the works of 20th-century women whose lives had a deep impact on culture.
“I gathered the women in this book under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp,” writes New Republic contributing editor Dean. At first glance, the premise seems rather elementary. Such a qualifier can’t possibly carry with it the heft of a book’s premise. However, by exploring the different roles that women such as Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt, Renata Adler, Susan Sontag, and Dorothy Parker occupied in the writing world, Dean makes it clear that to be called “sharp” was a steppingstone for their respective careers. All of the women are obviously extremely different: Dorothy Parker was hardly a contemporary of Susan Sontag, nor did they function within the same society. Hannah Arendt was not as progressively irreverent as Renata Adler. However, Dean reveals intriguing connections that link most, if not all, of them together. Each one of these women was involved in one way or another with Condé Nast, an extremely influential publishing group that could make or break writers’ careers. In writing for the New York Review of Books or Vogue, among other publications, they were able to test out their ideas on a captive audience of fiery New Yorkers and sophisticated, fashionable women. As is often the case with geniuses, their writings were not received with open arms; there was push back from an audience used to a male authorial power. Interestingly, however different these women may have been from each other, the author ably explains the ways in which their lives intersected, the conversations they had, and the goals they shared. Unfortunately, Dean often discusses these female authors’ writerly independence in relation to the men that occupied important places in their lives, an odd choice in a book of this nature. Still, the author presents engaging portraits of brilliant minds.
A useful take on significant writers “in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything.”
A retrospective of the groundbreaking TV series, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of its premier.
When Sex and the City first aired on HBO in 1998, the provocative comedy about four attractive, single women living glamorous lives in New York City quickly gained an immense following. The show marked a significant departure from typical network situation comedies and, along with the Sopranos, would lead to an increased demand for well-written adult-themed programs, many of which would be produced through cable networks. TV historian and entertainment writer Armstrong (Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, 2016, etc.) provides an in-depth account of the show, from the early development stages in its transformation from Candace Bushnell’s popular weekly column in the New York Observer to its six seasons and eventual incarnation as two films. Through interviews with various cast members and writers, including the show’s creator, Darren Star, and executive producer, Michael Patrick King, the author shares vivid stories of the writing process, with particular emphasis on the women writers whose personal dating experiences inspired many of the memorable plotlines. Armstrong is clearly a fan of the show, yet she offers a balanced and insightful perspective of its cultural influence, specifically in relation to our country’s evolving feminist movement. “Sex and the City, for all of its excellent and addictive qualities, served as a weekly commercial for white ladies doing what they want as the ultimate liberation,” she writes. “Its portrayal of women as layered characters, flawed and sometimes unlikable, freed the women of television and the women who watched them to embrace more than the traditionally feminine role meant to delight men at all costs. But the show also equated feminism with wearing expensive clothes and sleeping with lots of men. While this was a step up from single women as cat ladies, it only provided a limited view of liberation in which patriarchy hasn’t lost much ground.”
An entertaining, well-documented consideration of a significant TV series—thoughtful fare for TV historians as well as fans of the show.
The quiet part of Eastern Long Island is invaded by the glitterati and the Twitterati—will they ruin it entirely?
"Let the billionaires have the Hamptons on the South Fork, with the shops and restaurants and parties that re-created what made them so exquisitely comfy in Manhattan. The North Fork was two ferry rides away, and it showed….It was pies and parades and stony beaches that hurt your feet, banging screen doors and peaches eaten over the sink." Blundell's (A City Tossed and Broken, 2013, etc.) latest is her first novel for adults, and she brings to it much more than just believable teen characters. As this accomplished, engrossing domestic drama begins, North Fork resident Ruthie is losing it all. An ultrarich widow is taking over both her house and her ex-husband; she's being betrayed by her staff and ousted from her job as director of a small museum; her lovely 15-year-old daughter is involved in dangerous relationships she knows nothing about. Blundell has more balls in the air than most writers could smoothly handle—a Patek Philippe watch, lost then stolen; a forged painting; a character with a deeply buried, sordid past; lots of art-world specifics—but the story never feels overstuffed, and she steers confidently toward a satisfying blend of happy and imperfect endings. A dim view of what it means to be a middle-aged woman crops up here and there, creating an interesting curmudgeonly undercurrent. Of an overweight teenage girl: "At forty-five, the iron gate of indifference would clang down...and she would know she was stuck back exactly where she was in high school as if all that sex and attention had happened to someone else." After a betrayal: "A man might feel anger right now. As a woman, she felt only shame."
Luscious but not too sweet, astute but not too serious, Blundell's novel is a treat you don't have to feel guilty about and a sign of good things to come.
In Broder’s debut novel, a disaffected academic struggling with a breakup finds love in the arms of a merman.
In the midst of writing a disingenuous dissertation about Sappho, Lucy surprises herself by breaking things off with her longtime boyfriend, Jamie, and spiraling into a depression. Thankfully, Lucy’s sister leaves her Venice Beach house, “a contemporary glass fortress,” for the summer and invites Lucy to level out, attend therapy, and dogsit. Predictably, Lucy is bad at each of these tasks. In group therapy, Lucy silently judges her fellow codependents, who “all blurred together into a multi-headed hydra of desperation,” while plotting how she can get over Jamie by getting under someone else. And while she cares for her sister’s dog, she’s not responsible enough to handle his strict dietary and medical needs, either. When Lucy meets Theo, a mysterious swimmer who haunts Venice Beach by night, she thinks her luck in love might have finally turned around. But what—other than a tail—might Theo be hiding? And who is Lucy willing to neglect in order to find out? On the surface, this audacious novel from Broder (So Sad Today, 2016, etc.) is a frank exploration of desire, fantasy, and sex. But it dives deeper, too, seeking out uncomfortable topics and bringing them into the light: codependency, depression, suicidal ideation, and an existential fascination with the void each get their days in the sun. When we obsess about a breakup, or about all the sex that comes before a breakup, what are we actually obsessing over? “I didn’t know if the universe actively taught lessons,” Lucy thinks during her affair with Theo. “But if it did, the lesson was that I could not handle what I thought I could handle.” Broder has created a voice at once intimate and sharp, familiar and ugly. Lucy dares you to recognize your thoughts, fantasies, and obsessions in her own even as she makes questionable choices in life and love. This isn’t just a novel about navigating the dangers of codependency, but an attempt to learn how we all might love better in a culture that pushes even its strongest women to the brink of self-destruction.
A fascinating tale of obsession and erotic redemption told with black humor and biting insight.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.
Two friends and talented weavers navigate poverty, abuse, and the relentless pressure to find suitable husbands in contemporary South India.
In Indravalli, a village that sits along the banks of the Krishna River, 16-year-old Poornima, which means full moon in Telugu, and 17-year-old Savitha, which means sun, cross paths when Poornima’s father hires Savitha to help him meet the demand for new cotton saris. Savitha is industrious at the spinning wheel, or charkha, and weaving with Poornima is respite from searching garbage dumps for metal and plastic to sell to support her family. Mourning the recent death of her mother from cancer, Poornima finds in Savitha a mother figure, a gifted storyteller, and, as marriage looms, a confidante for her to express her fears that the man she’s been arranged to marry is not what he seems. Though 12-hour days of weaving bind Poornima and Savitha together, a horrific crime tears them apart. Out in the world alone, with no knowledge of each other’s whereabouts, they must find a way to maneuver the cruelties lobbed at women with no education and little money in both India and the United States. In this, her debut novel, Rao (An Unrestored Woman, 2016) has written an enchanting tale that alternates between Poornima's and Savitha’s points of view. The book’s earlier quiet and contemplative moments give way to the girls’ intricately devised plans to escape their brutal circumstances, and an indefatigable courage fuels their dreams for a reunion. The resplendent prose captures the nuances and intensity of two best friends on the brink of an uncertain and precarious adulthood. “She made even the smallest of life seem grand, and for Poornima, who had always ached for something more…watching Savitha, watching her delight, was like cultivating her own.”
An incisive study of a friendship’s unbreakable bond.
The aftermath of a school shooting, told from the point of view of a first-grader who hid with his class in a closet while his 10-year-old brother and 18 others were massacred.
“The thing I later remembered the most about the day the gunman came was my teacher Miss Russell’s breath. It was hot and smelled like coffee.…POP POP POP. It sounded a lot like the sounds from the Star Wars game I sometimes play on the Xbox.” Like Emma Donoghue’s Room, Navin’s debut takes the risk of narrating a gruesome modern tragedy in the voice of a very young player. At 6, Zach Taylor comes only slowly to understand what has happened that day at school. He is with his mother at the hospital waiting to see if his brother, Andy, is among the wounded when his father arrives. “Daddy’s face was like a grayish color, and his mouth looked all funny, with his lower lip pulled down so I could see his teeth….First Mommy’s eyes got really big, and then her whole self started shaking and she started acting crazy. She yelled, 'Jim? Oh my God, no no no no no no no no no!'” Because Andy had oppositional defiant disorder and was routinely unkind to him, Zach wonders at first if perhaps his death will be an improvement. During what he perceives as the “party” that goes on at his house after the massacre, he sequesters himself in his brother’s closet and imagines life as an only child. “Like they could both come to my piano recitals and they could both stay for the whole time.” Soon he sees just how wrong he is, as every cherished ritual of his life is pitched overboard, his mother changes into someone he doesn’t know, and he is tormented by nightmares and uncontrollable rages. Since his parents are preoccupied to the point of cruelty and don’t get him professional help, he is on his own in figuring out how to cope. His touching tactics include assigning colors to his feelings and making paintings of them and studying the “secrets of happiness” purveyed in the Magic Treehouse series. Seems like a lot of people, and not just the ones in this novel, need to reread those books.
The paths of two people—an American woman who studies the habits of urban foxes and a Ghanaian man specializing in refugee trauma—cross in London, creating a fork in the road for both.
Shot through with history, biology, and psychiatry, Forna’s (The Hired Man, 2013, etc.) fourth novel is an unusual work that characteristically integrates multiple layers with fluidity. Its central characters are divorced wildlife biologist Jean Turane, in London working for a local council, and noted psychiatrist Attila Asare, a widower, who's arrived to give the keynote speech at a conference. Both have devoted their working lives to interpreting behavior and response, whether human or animal. Jean’s context is the American history of settlement, wolf-hunting, and survival; Attila’s the international geography of war. One accidental encounter on Waterloo Bridge, when Jean runs into Attila while chasing a fox, leads to more time spent together; meanwhile, Attila is searching for two missing family members and trying to help an old lover now afflicted by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and Jean is drawn into a metropolitan fox-culling controversy. These far-from-sensational events, spanning some 10 days, are interrupted by more dramatic interludes set in Bosnia, New England, Iraq, and elsewhere, offering glimpses of Jean's and Attila’s pasts: work done, risks taken, pain experienced. Forna’s sensitive novel is nonostentatious yet compelling, and whether writing of Attila’s victims of conflict and terror or Jean’s birds and mammals, she offers wisdom and perspective, which is further extended to the possibility of romance between two questing strangers.
Low-key yet piercingly empathetic, Forna's latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective.