Dread and lassitude twist into a spare and stunning portrait of a marital estrangement.
At the end of this unsettling psychological novel, the narrator suggests that “perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing.” Kitamura’s third work of fiction builds into a hypnotic meditation on infidelity and the unknowability of one’s spouse. In precise and muted prose, the entire story unspools in the coolly observant mind of a young woman, a translator. She is estranged from Christopher Wallace, her “handsome and wealthy” husband of five years. He is a relentless adulterer; the narrator herself is now living with another man. The novel begins with a phone call from Isabella, a hostile and unpleasant mother-in-law, petulant that she can’t reach her only son and ignorant of the separation. Christopher has decamped to rural Greece, and Isabella insists her daughter-in-law leave England to go after him. Thinking it time to ask for a divorce, she agrees. In the remote fishing village of Gerolimenas, there are grim portents: stray dogs, high unemployment, a landscape charred from a season of wildfires, and the hostility of a hotel receptionist who appears to have slept with Christopher. Each of 13 taut chapters turns the screw; at the beginning of the seventh there is a murder. Kitamura leaves it unsolved. Instead of delivering a whodunit, the author plucks a bouquet of unforeseen but psychologically piercing consequences. The narrator thinks, “One of the problems of happiness—and I’d been very happy, when Christopher and I were first engaged—is that it makes you both smug and unimaginative.” As this harrowing story ends, her life is diminished and her imagination is cruelly awake.
A minutely observed novel of infidelity unsettles its characters and readers.
In an intellectually provocative follow-up to Sapiens (2015), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) looks to the future.
Throughout history, humans prayed for deliverance from famine, disease, and war with spotty success. For centuries, prophets agreed that all of the suffering was “an integral part of God’s cosmic plan.” Today, obesity kills more humans than starvation, old age more than disease, and suicide more than murder. Having reduced three horsemen of the apocalypse to technical problems, what will humans do next? Harari’s answer: we will become gods—not perfect but like Greek or Hindu gods: immortal and possessing superpowers but with some foibles. Although an atheist, the author does not demean religion. “Up until modern times,” he writes, “most cultures believed that humans play a part in some cosmic plan…devised by the omnipotent gods, or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it. The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power.” Even without this agency, this belief gave our lives meaning: disasters happened for a reason, and everything would work out for the best. Deeply satisfying, this remains a core belief of most humans, including nonchurchgoers. Since the Enlightenment, the explosion of knowledge has produced dazzling progress but limited the influence of God. Many thinkers—if not the general public—agree that there is no cosmic plan but also that humans are no longer humble victims of fate. This is humanism, which grants us immense power, the benefits of which are obvious but come at a painful price. Modern culture is the most creative in history, but, faced with “a universe devoid of meaning,” it’s “plagued with more existential angst than any previous culture.” As in Sapiens, smoothly tackles thorny issues and leads us through “our current predicament and our possible futures.”
A relentlessly fascinating book that is sure to become—and deserves to be—a bestseller.
Short-story virtuoso Saunders' (Tenth of December, 2013, etc.) first novel is an exhilarating change of pace.
The bardo is a key concept of Tibetan Buddhism: a middle, or liminal, spiritual landscape where we are sent between physical lives. It's also a fitting master metaphor for Saunders’ first novel, which is about suspension: historical, personal, familial, and otherwise. The Lincoln of the title is our 16th president, sort of, although he is not yet dead. Rather, he is in a despair so deep it cannot be called mere mourning over his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862. Saunders deftly interweaves historical accounts with his own fragmentary, multivoiced narration as young Willie is visited in the netherworld by his father, who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, at least temporarily. But the sneaky brilliance of the book is in the way Saunders uses these encounters—not so much to excavate an individual’s sense of loss as to connect it to a more national state of disarray. 1862, after all, was the height of the Civil War, when the outcome was far from assured. Lincoln was widely seen as being out of his depth, “a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.” Among Saunders’ most essential insights is that, in his grief over Willie, Lincoln began to develop a hard-edged empathy, out of which he decided that “the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest.” This is a hard truth, insisting that brutality now might save lives later, and it gives this novel a bitter moral edge. For those familiar with Saunders’ astonishing short fiction, such complexity is hardly unexpected, although this book is a departure for him stylistically and formally; longer, yes, but also more of a collage, a convocation of voices that overlap and argue, enlarging the scope of the narrative. It is also ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us. Lincoln, after all, has become a shade now, like all the ghosts who populate this book. “Strange, isn’t it?” one character reflects. “To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labors utterly forgotten?”
With this book, Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur.
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is a black girl and an expert at navigating the two worlds she exists in: one at Garden Heights, her black neighborhood, and the other at Williamson Prep, her suburban, mostly white high school.
Walking the line between the two becomes immensely harder when Starr is present at the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a white police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Khalil’s death becomes national news, where he’s called a thug and possible drug dealer and gangbanger. His death becomes justified in the eyes of many, including one of Starr’s best friends at school. The police’s lackadaisical attitude sparks anger and then protests in the community, turning it into a war zone. Questions remain about what happened in the moments leading to Khalil’s death, and the only witness is Starr, who must now decide what to say or do, if anything. Thomas cuts to the heart of the matter for Starr and for so many like her, laying bare the systemic racism that undergirds her world, and she does so honestly and inescapably, balancing heartbreak and humor. With smooth but powerful prose delivered in Starr’s natural, emphatic voice, finely nuanced characters, and intricate and realistic relationship dynamics, this novel will have readers rooting for Starr and opening their hearts to her friends and family.
This story is necessary. This story is important.
An ambitious debut about power and family in South Korea with rich character portraits and a strong political heartbeat.
In her first novel, Wuertz traces the ambitions of four loosely connected students attending Seoul National University in 1978. There’s Jisun, a revolutionary at heart fighting for autonomy from her wealthy and influential father; Namin, a poor scholarship student struggling to bury her family’s past and lift them out of poverty; Sunam, a striver caught between the different futures these young women offer him; and Juno, an ingratiating social climber only interested in his own advancement. It’s no accident that the book opens—and closes—amid the clamor of protest, from striking textile workers roughed into police vans to a smoke bomb planted during a college graduation ceremony. Wuertz investigates a national crisis surrounding worker exploitation and upward mobility, the complicity of the rich, and the stifling indecision of the middle class. With deep sympathy and psychological insight, she demonstrates how a corrupt political regime bankrupts—literally and figuratively—the choices of her characters, pushing them to moral extremes. Namin is forced to choose between caretaking for her beloved disabled brother and raising her sister’s illegitimate son, while Sunam struggles with a bribe of unimaginable magnitude. Even spirited Jisun must negotiate for her freedom. To outsmart her controlling father, she chooses to give away her fortune to the legal funds of protesters. At the bank, she’s left with “an eerie feeling like stealing from a ghost, a fictional character with her name and identification number.” Jisun isn’t the only ghost walking in the pages of this book, which collects and mourns the forgotten, downtrodden souls these four must rescue or leap over in their race to the top. Wuertz’s book blooms in unexpected ways, eschewing a straightforward plot for more meandering paths. While the framework of the novel isn’t always tidy, the book is no less a significant representation of the politics of postwar hope and despair.
Engrossing. Wuertz is an important new voice in American fiction.
The journalist and polymath delivers a delightful exploration of “the deepest idea in the universe.”
Intellectual historian Watson loves big ideas and long books, and publishers keep publishing them and buyers buying them because they’re great reading—no exception here. After 600 pages of The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New (2012), his new book takes on the history of scientific pursuits in just under 500 pages. Passing lightly over its history before the 19th century, the author maintains that discoveries of the conservation of energy and Darwinian evolution in the 1850s began a great convergence where the sheer mass of scientific knowledge has begun “to invade other areas, other systems of knowledge traditionally different from or even opposed to science, and is starting to explain—and advance—them. Science is…bringing order to philosophy, to morality, to history, to culture in general, and even to politics.” The “soft” sciences—i.e., psychology, economics, sociology—are growing “hard.” Ethologists studying animals have quantified the devastating effects of defective parental care, and child psychologists, formerly dependent on Freud, have taken note. Today, physicists advise investors, and historians and politicians ignore science at their peril—but do it anyway. The origin of life itself has moved from a hypothesis featuring implausible chemical reactions in ancient pools to a matter of convergence. Watson argues that life, as well as consciousness, culture, even morality, may be inevitable under certain conditions. Accepted in the scientific community, convergence remains controversial among philosophers, literary critics, and some sociologists who claim that scientific knowledge is overrated, culturally determined, and only one of many ways to describe reality.
Those who reject the idea of convergence outright may not get far in this book, but readers with no objection to a sweeping, entirely fascinating history of science during the last 200 years will find an abundance of enlightening material.
A clutch of adulterated rental cassettes pushes two video-store workers into a journey of discovery.
Nevada, Iowa, circa 2000: Jeremy is drowsing through his job at Video Hut when patrons start tipping him to VHS tapes with eerie scenes spliced in. There's just some darkness and breathing in one, but another alarmingly depicts someone painting runic figures on a hooded person. In the era of The Blair Witch Project, it’s easy to fear the worst. But instead of contacting the authorities, Jeremy and his boss, Sarah Jane, conduct a freelance investigation that draws Sarah Jane to an isolated farm that seems to match the scenes; in short order, Sarah Jane is cohabitating with its sole occupant, Lisa. Singer/songwriter Darnielle’s second novel (Wolf in White Van, 2014) opens like a dark suspense story; his descriptions of the VHS scenes are written in a deadpan style to evoke maximum dread. But he ultimately pursues a softer and more nuanced exploration of family and loss. Pointedly, both Jeremy and Lisa have lost their mothers, one to a car accident, another to a religious cult, and Darnielle is interested in the ways they fill their emotional gaps through work, art, or spiritual seeking. Darnielle’s prose is consistently graceful and empathetic, though plotwise the novel sometimes sputters: the story of Lisa’s mother, for instance, is buried in exposition that sheds little light on her motivations for abandoning her family. (And even if the point is that such things are unknowable, it takes a long time to get there.) Regardless, Darnielle is operating mainly on a metaphorical plane, and by setting his novel in the be-kind-rewind era, he makes an affecting point that so much of what we know, feel, and remember about our families disappears too easily, as if stored on media we lack the devices to play.
A smart and rangy yarn: file under suspense, horror, and domestic drama.
An absorbing saga of 20th-century Korean experience, seen through the fate of four generations.
Lee (Free Food for Millionaires, 2007) built her debut novel around families of Korean-Americans living in New York. In her second novel, she traces the Korean diaspora back to the time of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. “History has failed us,” she writes in the opening line of the current epic, “but no matter.” She begins her tale in a village in Busan with an aging fisherman and his wife whose son is born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot. Nonetheless, he is matched with a fine wife, and the two of them run the boardinghouse he inherits from his parents. After many losses, the couple cherishes their smart, hardworking daughter, Sunja. When Sunja gets pregnant after a dalliance with a persistent, wealthy married man, one of their boarders—a sickly but handsome and deeply kind pastor—offers to marry her and take her away with him to Japan. There, she meets his brother and sister-in-law, a woman lovely in face and spirit, full of entrepreneurial ambition that she and Sunja will realize together as they support the family with kimchi and candy operations through war and hard times. Sunja’s first son becomes a brilliant scholar; her second ends up making a fortune running parlors for pachinko, a pinball-like game played for money. Meanwhile, her first son’s real father, the married rich guy, is never far from the scene, a source of both invaluable help and heartbreaking woe. As the destinies of Sunja’s children and grandchildren unfold, love, luck, and talent combine with cruelty and random misfortune in a deeply compelling story, with the troubles of ethnic Koreans living in Japan never far from view.
An old-fashioned epic whose simple, captivating storytelling delivers both wisdom and truth.
A bestselling Japanese crime novelist makes his American debut with a pensive but overlong whodunit that sheds light on power relations in his native country.
It's 1989, the final year of Emperor Hirohito’s reign, a time of portent, and a young girl has gone missing. A kidnapper calls, the police flail about, and parents and child never reunite. Time goes by, and now, in 2003, Yoshinobu Mikami is still thinking about the case, for, in a plot convenience that demands ample suspension of disbelief, his own daughter has gone missing. As Yokoyama’s grim tale opens, Mikami and his wife are in the morgue, hoping against hope that the teenager lying on the table is not their daughter. “This wasn’t their first time,” writes Yokoyama, “in the last three months they had already viewed two bodies of Ayumi’s age.” Mikami is able to take a synoptic view because he had been an investigator in the earlier case, and now, reviewing the files, he sees something he had not noticed before. It’s not really his place to be poking around, though, since he has been transferred to the press relations office of the police department, a job that he fears is a subtle, politically motivated demotion and a move that has soured any enthusiasm he had for being a cop. The jaded investigator is an old trope in crime fiction, but Yokoyama steals a page from Stieg Larsson by using the mystery to probe the ways the powers that be work in an apparently orderly society that masks a great undercurrent of evil and wrongdoing, much of it committed by the powerful and well-connected. So it is in this story, which takes leisurely twists into the well-kept offices of Japan’s elite while providing a kind of informal sociological treatise on crime and punishment in Japanese society, to say nothing of an inside view of the police and their testy relationship with the media.
Elaborate but worth the effort. Think Jo Nesbø by way of Haruki Murakami, and with a most satisfying payoff.
A taut and spirited attack on contemporary mainstream feminism.
Despite the title, Crispin (The Dead Ladies Project, 2015), critic and founder of the pioneering literary website Bookslut, is indeed a feminist. She’s a passionate defender of second-wave writers like Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone, and her chief complaint is that their critiques of capitalism and structural racism have been rejected in favor of weak-tea lifestyle feminism, where empowerment is making yourself attractive to men and activism is social media squabbling—and those second-wave radical feminists are lazily dismissed as men-haters. This transformation of feminism into “something soft and Disneyfied,” Crispin argues, has produced a raft of lamentable and counterproductive consequences: it has alienated women who aspire to lives that don’t demand climbing the corporate ladder, shamed women who speak about abortion in terms besides upbeat women’s rights cheerleading, and excluded nonwhite, non–middle class women. What good is an uptick in women CEOs and politicians if they’re just perpetuating the same divisions? (“Not a more egalitarian world, but the same world, just with more women in it.”) What good is “self-empowerment” if it only translates into making oneself sexually available? Attacking the patriarchy, though, doesn’t mean attacking men: “toxic femininity” is as pervasive as “toxic masculinity,” writes Crispin, and she keenly balances a defense of men’s role in supporting a more viable feminism without excusing male sexism. As with most manifestos, this one is better at laying out the problem—a “patriarchal, capitalistic, consumerist society”—than outlining solutions for it, and her case would be stronger if it addressed real-world divides as much as online ones. But the author’s ferocious critique effectively reframes the terms of any serious discussion of feminism. You’ll never trust a you-go-girl just-lean-in bromide again.
Forget busting glass ceilings. Crispin has taken a wrecking ball to the whole structure.
Six little-known anecdotes about President Abraham Lincoln during fraught times and what they show about his character.
Former U.S. senior diplomat Pryor (Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, 2007, etc.), who died in a car accident in 2015, painstakingly unearths hidden episodes in the life of Lincoln as he was trying to manage a riven republic and civil war. The author gets beyond the hagiographic portrayals of Lincoln (one contemporary noted, “the murderer’s bullet opens to him immortality”), allowing rare glimpses of the man as vulnerable, clumsy, inarticulate, and very human. In his new role as head of the armed forces on March 12, 1861—just days after his inauguration and the secession of the Confederate states—Lincoln had to view the parade of federal troops through the White House, led by Gen. Winfield Scott, who was not entirely trusted. Unfortunately, the meeting underscored the inexperience of the new leader. Another odd incident: during Lincoln’s ceremonial role of hoisting the U.S. flag over a new Marine bandstand set up on the South Lawn of the White House in late June 1861, the huge flag ripped, severing the upper stripe and four of its stars—not a good omen. From here, Pryor launches into an elucidating look at Lincoln’s “legacy of fun” and his love of storytelling—not to mention how his face was ripe for caricature. In August 1862, Sgt. Lucien P. Waters, who “abhorred slavery,” managed an interview with the president to air his grievances about the Union’s frustratingly slow advances and ask for a furlough; Lincoln, glum and exasperated over the issue of slavery, muttered about the “damned or Eternal niggar, niggar,” shocking Waters and revealing Lincoln's conflicted state at the time. Another anecdote demonstrates his discomfort engaging one-on-one with women. Kudos to Pryor for offering readers something fresh about our 16th president—no small feat.
Deeply researched, telling moments in the life of arguably the most written-about man in American history.
Walking the hypnotic line between tragedy and fairy tale, O’Neill’s latest novel (The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, 2014, etc.) follows two spectacularly talented orphans as they fall into the bleak underworld of 1930s Montreal.
Both born in 1914 to poor teenage mothers ill-equipped to take care of them, Rose and Pierrot are abandoned at the same joyless orphanage, left to be raised by the same joyless nuns. But even as young children, their chemistry is evident, so much so that the Mother Superior makes a note to keep the then-4-year-olds apart. “It was necessary to thwart all love affairs in the orphanage,” O’Neill writes. “If there was one thing responsible for ruining lives, it was love.” But like talent, their bond is irrepressible: Pierrot, it turns out, is a brilliant pianist despite a total lack of formal training, while Rose is mesmerizing onstage, a born comedian. Together, they enchant the city’s elite, performing as a duo for Montreal’s wealthiest households. For a while, at least, the nuns need the money more than they need to keep the pair apart. But the artistic romance of their childhood comes to a crashing halt in adolescence, and—with some interference from the sisters—their fates diverge: sensitive Pierrot is taken in by a fabulously wealthy old man who is enchanted with his musical gifts, while self-assured Rose is sent to work as a governess, looking after the children of a powerful businessman who runs the city’s illicit nightlife. Such stability is short-lived. With the Great Depression swirling around them, both Rose and Pierrot descend into a dark world of sex, drugs, and crime, each of them haunting the city in search of the other. Grotesque and whimsical at once, the love story that unfolds is a fable of ambition and perseverance, desperation and heartbreak. But while Pierrot is unforgettable, the novel belongs to Rose, a woman who—if she cannot carve out space for herself in upstanding daylight—will rise to power in the underworld of night. O’Neill’s prose is crisp and strange, arresting in its frankness; much like the novel itself, her writing is both gleefully playful and devastatingly sad.
Big and lush and extremely satisfying; a rare treat.