A look at the personal toll of the criminal justice system from the author of Silver Sparrow (2011) and The Untelling (2005).
Roy has done everything right. Growing up in a working-class family in Louisiana, he took advantage of all the help he could get and earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. By the time he marries Spelman alum Celestial, she’s an up-and-coming artist. After a year of marriage, they’re thinking about buying a bigger house and starting a family. Then, on a visit back home, Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Jones begins with chapters written from the points of view of her main characters. When Roy goes to prison, it becomes a novel in letters. The epistolary style makes perfect sense. Roy is incarcerated in Louisiana, Celestial is in Atlanta, and Jones’ formal choice underscores their separation. Once Roy is released, the narrative resumes a rotating first person, but there’s a new voice, that of Andre, once Celestial’s best friend and now something more. This novel is peopled by vividly realized, individual characters and driven by interpersonal drama, but it is also very much about being black in contemporary America. Roy is arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned in Louisiana, the state with the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the United States, and where the ratio of black to white prisoners is 4 to 1. There’s a heartbreaking scene in which Celestial’s uncle—Roy’s attorney—encourages her to forget everything she knows about presenting herself while she speaks in her husband’s defense. “Now is not the time to be articulate. Now is the time to give it up. No filter, all heart.” After a lifetime of being encouraged to be “well spoken,” Celestial finds that she sounds false trying to speak unguardedly. “As I took my seat…not even the black lady juror would look at me.” This is, at its heart, a love story, but a love story warped by racial injustice. And, in it, Jones suggests that racial injustice haunts the African-American story.
The author complements her celebrated fiction with an equally compelling collection of essays and reviews embracing literary, art, film, and cultural criticism, amplified by a dissection of the vagaries of modern life.
In her second book of essays, Smith (Swing Time, 2016, etc.) likens her wide-ranging yet unified pieces to thinking aloud while fretting she might make herself sound ludicrous—far from it; if only all such thoughts were so cogent and unfailingly humane. The author is honest, often impassioned, always sober. Though she disclaims any advanced academic degrees or formal journalistic training, she produces sharp analyses of contemporary issues that are no less substantial for being personalized. Smith executes these pieces with consummate skill, though her critical faculties seem to take a hiatus when rhapsodizing over certain pop entertainers—e.g., comparing Madonna and Michael Jackson (as dancers) to Astaire and Rogers, to the Nicholas brothers, to Nureyev and Baryshnikov. But these are exceptions. Collected from essays published chiefly in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, all during the eight years of the Barack Obama presidency, the essays risk being dated, but Smith's observations are timeless. Freedom, in one form or another, is at the core of the book, as are identity, race, class, family, art, meaning, and the many permutations of cultural vandalism. She opens with a defense of libraries in a digitalized world and closes with her eccentric, justly renowned musings “Find Your Beach” and “Joy.” In between, she offers lovely portraits of her parents, an astute look at the comedy duo Key and Peele, a brilliant critique of the art of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, appreciations of such disparate British authors as J.G. Ballard, Hanif Kureishi, and Geoff Dyer, and a riff on Joni Mitchell that morphs into a self-revelatory piece on “attunement,” rich with philosophical ideas.
Judiciously political, Smith wears her liberalism gracefully, though with qualifications. She is never less than a formidable intellect, with an imposing command of literary and artistic canons.
An award-winning historian (Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, 2013, etc.) makes her fiction debut with a story vast in scope but intimate in its details.
The year is 1663. England’s civil war has ended. Newly returned from exile, royalist Arthur Fortescue, the Earl of Woldingham, has hired the landscaper John Norris to turn his ancestral home into a private paradise. As he is drawn ever deeper into the life of Wychwood, Norris discovers that the Earl’s plan to enclose his new gardens, fountains, and tree-lined avenues within a wall will be a disaster for the religious dissenters who live and worship in the forest around the estate. The Earl’s land, Norris learns, is crisscrossed with secret paths used by people scorned and abused for their faith. When Hughes-Hallett brings the narrative 300 years into the future without first resolving this issue, the shift feels abrupt. But it soon becomes clear that the temporal leap makes perfect sense: the issue of the wall is unresolved because it is irresolvable. Who owns the land, who has right of way, what the very wealthy owe everyone else: these are questions that never go away. Hughes-Hallett explores how the past persists in other—more personal—ways as well. Relationships between masters and servants recapitulate themselves across generations. Family tragedies repeat with slight variations. Wychwood remains a world unto itself even as people come and go and the property changes hands. Time feels like a circle, and the novel brings us to 1989 before taking us back to the 17th century. There are multiple narrators and perspectives here, but the text never feels cacophonous because each voice is so exquisitely limned. Hughes-Hallett’s choice to turn minor players into major characters is especially satisfying; of course those who rely upon the wealthy and powerful must be canny observers of the wealthy and powerful. The novel is a pleasure to read for the loveliness of its language. It’s also a timely meditation on walls, on what they keep in and what they keep out.
A first novel stunning for both its historical sweep and its elegant prose.
A white sharecroppers’ son finds himself on a mission to recapture a family that has escaped slavery.
A few weeks after the death of Little Charlie Bobo’s father, Cap’n Buck, the overseer of the plantation on which they farm, tells the 12-year-old and his ma that the elder Charlie Bobo had taken a down payment on a job to recover lost property. In this way, Charlie becomes a partner with a man known for his cruelty on a mission to track enslaved people. When Cap’n Buck finds the family he is looking for, he discovers the son of the family, Sylvanus Demarest, is attending school in Canada, and their mission becomes an international kidnapping. Newbery winner Curtis once again successfully draws on the stories about enslaved people who found freedom in Canada; the pursuit of Sylvanus Demarest is based on an actual incident. By seeing the story through the eyes of a poor white boy and a white overseer, readers confront how so many were connected by slavery. Curtis demonstrates in dramatic fashion how much the formerly enslaved valued their freedom and what they were willing to do to help one of their own remain free. The narrative is briskly paced, and both Little Charlie and Sylvanus are compelling characters. The Southern whites speak in dialect, and they refer to black people with the offensive term “darkie,” both authentic to the 1858 setting.
A characteristically lively and complex addition to the historical fiction of the era from Curtis.
(Historical fiction. 10-14)
The acclaimed journalist delivers “a second volume” of the history he recounted in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ghost Wars (2004).
Based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of documents, New Yorker staff writer Coll’s (Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, 2012, etc.) latest journalistic masterpiece “seeks to provide a thorough, reliable history of how the C.I.A., I.S.I., and Afghan intelligence agencies influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and how that war fostered a revival of Al Qaeda, allied terrorist networks, and eventually, branches of the Islamic state.” Coll succeeds on all levels, and his prodigious research leads to only one conclusion: while the United States has won some battles in the so-called war on terror, it has unquestionably lost the war while feeding the radical fires of countless terrorists. The author demonstrates what he has suggested previously and what dozens of other authors have learned: that the U.S. has largely destroyed Afghanistan while trying to save it, similar to what occurred during the Vietnam War. The most prominent actor in this second volume is Pakistan. There are numerous examples of Pakistani factions promising to assist the American-led war on terror only to break promises while raking in billions of dollars in foreign aid. Whether the administration is that of George W. Bush or Barack Obama, the author’s reporting demonstrates countless foolish decisions by the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House. The State Department comes across as slightly less foolish but not devoid of criticism. Coll is masterful at plumbing the depths of agencies and sects within both Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the murderous groups that have become the main targets of the war on terror. The cast of characters at the beginning of the book will help readers keep track of all the players.
In this era of fake news, Coll remains above it all, this time delivering an impeccably researched history of “diplomacy at the highest levels of government in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul.”
A quiet gut-punch of a debut, Coster’s novel is a family saga set against the landscape of gentrifying Brooklyn.
After five years away in Pittsburgh—a city whose primary appeal is its distance from Brooklyn—Penelope Grand, former artist and current bartender, reluctantly returns to Bedford-Stuyvesant to care for her ailing and beloved father, Ralph, moving into a sublet a few streets away from her childhood home. But the neighborhood has changed in her absence: her landlords, the Harpers, new to the block from the West Village, embody the shift—a young family, white, wealthy, attracted to the “historic” homes and the lower price tags. And yet the Harpers’ charming yellow house—and the affections of the charming father—offer Penelope an escape from the life she’s returned to. At least for a while. But when a postcard from her estranged mother, Mirella, shows up addressed to her from the Dominican Republic (Penelope isn’t the only one in her family desperate for escape), Penelope is forced to deal with a past she’d rather ignore. Alternating between Penelope’s perspective and Mirella’s, moving seamlessly back and forth in time, Coster pieces together the story of the Grand family: Mirella and Ralph’s early courtship and the first days of their marriage in Brooklyn, Ralph’s iconic record store and the accident that followed its closing, Penelope’s miserable freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, her childhood trips with Mirella to the DR, and now—in the present—their final chance at something like reconciliation. Gorgeous and painfully unsentimental, the book resists easy moralizing: everyone is wonderful and terrible, equal parts disappointed and disappointing. The plot is simple, relatively speaking, but Coster is a masterful observer of family dynamics: her characters, to a one, are wonderfully complex and consistently surprising.
Absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole.
A few weeks after getting jumped by boys from a rival town, a black student disappears, causing his white girlfriend to assume the worst.
Jessie is devastated by the disappearance of her boyfriend, Chris, and becomes increasingly suspicious of foul play. Jessie is a white girl from a poor neighborhood. Chris is a model student, a pacifist, and a talented athlete—and he happens to be African-American. The plot builds on an intriguing series of clues, exploring gender and racial hate crimes, drug addiction, freak accidents, and mental illness. The book’s strength lies in the normalization of their love story, and while race is often a factor in their relationship, the issues they face ring deep and true. When his mother describes Chris, one of the few black students in the town, to the local police, Jessie remarks, “You should tell them that he has a dimple.” Jessie is so clearly not racist, remembering Chris by his idiosyncrasies—how he likes “retro candy,” for instance—and yet she too can fall prey to the most basic assumptions. The premise, that the book is one long letter from Jessie to the missing Chris, displays the essential contrivance of the epistolary form, yet Purcell handles the nuances of interracial relationships with a remarkably sensitive and observant eye and challenges readers to view racism under a broader category of generalizations.
A poignant interracial love story that grapples with hate and violence.
A probing, timely study of wrong turns in the American conduct of the Vietnam War.
A historian of America’s “small wars” with a keen eye for the nuances of counterinsurgency, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Boot (Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, 2013, etc.) finds a perfect personification of America’s Vietnam in Edward Lansdale (1908-1987), much as Neil Sheehan did with John Paul Vann 30 years ago with his book A Bright Shining Lie. Lansdale was even less inclined than Vann to make nice with the top brass; as Boot writes, “he viewed the bureaucracy as an enemy and, by so doing, turned it into one.” Never underestimate the power of a bureaucrat to thwart one’s aims. But Lansdale, an architect of the policy shorthanded “hearts and minds,” had a number of convictions hard won in the field, including the truth that no insurgency can be resisted if it has popular support. The idea, then, is to battle official corruption—no easy task given that Boot’s narrative takes off during the coup that, to John Kennedy’s consternation, ended in the assassination of Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem—and to make sure that the leaders of villages, military cadres, and so on are worth following. Fighting corruption and bureaucracy were battles enough, to say nothing of a huge communist army. Furthermore, the American military, mistrustful of South Vietnam and packed with careerist officers, took over the fight from the people whose war it was, making it “an increasingly Americanized war” as early as 1965. Like Lansdale, Boot understands the role of nation-building in such struggles as Iraq and Afghanistan, and he takes to heart Lansdale’s pointed lesson in shunning vast compounds of invading foreigners that “overwhelm the recipients” of American aid, as happened in Vietnam and beyond.
Controversial in some of its conclusions, perhaps, as Lansdale’s arguments were in their day, and essential reading for students of military policy and the Vietnam conflict.
Adrift and broke after losing his job at the Washington Post, William Katzenelenbogen descends into Trump-ian madness while visiting his estranged father in South Florida.
Once a prizewinning investigative science reporter, Bill is motivated to fly South by the death of his old college roommate, Zbignew Wronski, a cosmetic surgeon known as the "Butt God of Miami Beach." Zbig fell from the 43rd-floor balcony of a hotel. Prodded by an old flame who wrote a bestselling memoir after the Post fired her for fabricating stories, Bill thinks there may be a book in his famous friend's apparent suicide. But the story that engulfs him is his Russian father Melsor's antic campaign against Greenstein, the Jewish fascist who heads the ruling block on the corrupt board of the old man’s crumbling condo, the Château. Once a famed poet and dissident in Moscow (where Bill grew up), the 83-year-old Melsor has become a shameless hustler and supporter of "Donal'd Tramp," as he renders the name. He was indicted for Medicare fraud in New York for running a crooked ambulette service for invalids. Bill has never forgiven him for having a "two-bit crook" treat his late mother's breast cancer, leading to her early death. A master of dark, cutting humor, restless and allusive, Goldberg turns the Château, its Lexus-driving Russians, and a nearly 90-year-old American WWII veteran who drunkenly shoots at the ocean with his machine gun every night into a mad metaphor for Trump’s America. The longer Bill stays, the more he gets dragged into its seamy swamp.
Following up his acclaimed debut, The Yid (2016), Goldberg confirms his status as one of Jewish fiction's liveliest new voices, walking in the shoes of such deadpan provocateurs as Mordecai Richler and Stanley Elkin.
From award-winning journalist Abawi (The Secret Sky, 2014) comes an unforgettable novel that brings readers face to face with the global refugee crisis.
Tareq, a young Syrian teenager, changes his daily routine as airstrikes on his city increase. When his home is hit by a bomb that kills most of his family in one day, Tareq is suddenly a refugee, traveling with his father and one surviving younger sister, Susan, to another Syrian town, then out of Syria to Turkey. When life in Turkey offers little hope, Tareq’s father sends him and Susan to make the treacherous trip to Greece by water. Through incredible dangers and suffering, they meet refugees and aid workers from across the globe. Abawi integrates just enough background information into the plot to make the story and characters comprehensible. The narrator is Destiny, whose authoritative voice suits the tragic and dramatic turns of plot. The narrator’s philosophical asides allow readers just enough distance to balance the intimacy of the suffering witnessed along the journey while helping to place the Syrian crisis in global and historical context as part of the cycle of humanity. The direct address challenges readers in a way that is heavy-handed only at the end, but even so it is chillingly effective.
A heartbreaking, haunting, and necessary story that offers hope while laying bare the bleakness of the world Tareq leaves and the new one he seeks to join
. (Fiction. 12-18)
A Mexican-American student of international relations becomes a United States Border Patrol agent to learn what he can’t in the classroom.
Cantú is a talented writer who knows where to find great material, even as he risks losing his soul in the process. His Mexican mother had worked as a ranger in West Texas, and he had an affinity for the region that spurred his departure from academic life to learn firsthand about patrolling the border and determining the fates of the Mexicans who dared to cross it. Some were selling drugs, and others just wanted a better life; some had to work with a drug cartel in order to finance their escape. The author was by all accounts a good agent for some five years, upholding the law without brutalizing those he captured for deportation, as some agents did. But he feared what the experience was doing to him. He had trouble sleeping and suffered disturbing dreams, and he felt he was becoming desensitized. His mother warned him, “we learn violence by watching others, by seeing it enshrined in institutions. Then, even without our choosing it, it begins to seem normal to us, it even becomes part of who we are.” Cantú left the field for a desk job and became more reflective and more disturbed; eventually, he returned to scholarship with a research grant. But then a man he knew and liked through a daily coffee shop connection ran afoul of the border authorities after returning to Mexico to visit his dying mother and trying to return to his home and family. His plight and the author’s involvement in it, perhaps an attempt to find personal redemption, puts a human face on the issue and gives it a fresh, urgent perspective. “There are thousands of people just like him, thousands of cases, thousands of families,” writes Cantú, who knows the part he played in keeping out so many in similar situations.
A devastating narrative of the very real human effects of depersonalized policy.
Beguiling, multilayered, sprawling novel that blends elements of Philip K. Dick–tinged sci-fi, mystery, politics, and literary fiction in a most satisfying brew.
In surveying, a gnomon is a set square used to mark right angles on a chart. “By extension,” writes the genre-hopping British novelist Harkaway (Tigerman, 2014, etc.), “it means something perpendicular to everything else, such as the upright part of a sundial.” It is different from its surroundings, and so is everything that police investigator Mielikki Neith (as in ’neath, where hidden things are to be found) learns about the case just assigned to her: it involves a dissident, now deceased, in a near-future society where citizens patrol each other by means of social media, totalitarianism with a thin veneer of friendly hyperdemocracy, all committee work and political correctness. In this world, Diana Hunter, “a writer of obscurantist magical realist novels” read in fragmentary samizdat editions, harbored antinomian thoughts—and, given the recent news that the brain remains conscious for at least a short time after death, it makes sense that Neith should try to get inside her brain to ferret out subversion. That’s not easy, for Hunter has laid land mines throughout in the form of odd diversionary characters: ancient mathematicians, Roman legionaries, and other formidable obstacles who share Hunter’s “bad attitude.” The possibilities in the story are endless, and Harkaway looks into most of them, it seems, firing off brilliant lines (“The universe has cancer,” “Thousands and thousands of years, thousands of bodies, thousands of minds combined into one, and your best answer to pain is still revenge?”). Although he doesn’t go out of his way to advertise the fact, Harkaway is the son of John le Carré, and from his father he has inherited a feel for the world-weary tediousness of police work. Yet there’s no Smiley in the smiley-face future world where being a fascist busybody is a badge of honor—though enigmas abound, to be sure.
Fans of Pynchon and William Gibson alike will devour this smart, expertly written bit of literary subversion.