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.
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.
In the shadow of Charlottesville, a journalistic account of some of the extreme right’s players.
Evil is not entirely banal, but it is entirely commonplace. Aided and abetted by the rise of Donald Trump, the extremist white-nationalist movement has been gaining strength, its numbers swelled by “the marginalized, disaffected, and lost [who] were the radical right’s ideal audience.” What’s in it for them? Writes journalist Tenold, who covered the Anders Breivik case in his native Norway—Breivik, “a man who believed that the white race was at war,” massacred 77 summer campers—the payoff is belonging in a movement where they no longer “feel invisible.” Does that moment ever really come? For the rank and file, perhaps not; one whom the author profiles aspires to nothing more than a double-wide, a wife and kid, and a gun. The leaders, formerly shadowy types now propelled onto the main stage, are cashing in more handily as they harp on the supposed victimization of the white race in the hands of its nonwhite enemies. Some of these leaders are comparatively polished; the star of the show, a supremacist Tenold calls Matthew, thinks himself a scholar and is impatient with unsophisticated Klan and neofascist types whose political commitment extends to shouts of “white power!” Matthew cut his teeth in a pro–Western civilization group at college, fell in with supremacists at—naturally—the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, and moved from pondering the “Jewish question,” which “boils down to whether Jews should be considered white and what their place in (white-led) society should be,” to propagandizing for a nationalist utopia. Thankfully, Tenold avoids the dangers of normalizing monsters even as he admits to liking Matthew’s “upbeat and friendly” manner. In the end, the author wonders whether the extremists are not superfluous given that “white supremacy is doing just fine without the far right.”
For those interested in charting the currents of domestic terrorism, a well-reported if dispiriting chronicle.
From the prolific Bloom, whose novels and short stories have often explored the complexity of sexuality and gender (Lucky Us, 2014, etc.), a bio-fiction about the romance between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok told from Hickok’s perspective.
Lorena’s winning narrative voice is tough, gossipy, and deeply humane. Her storytelling begins and continually circles back to shortly after FDR’s death. On the last weekend in April 1945, a grieving Eleanor has summoned Lorena to her Manhattan apartment years after having sent her away. Now in late middle-age, the two fall into their ingrained routine as lovers—and has anyone written about middle-aged women’s bodies and sexuality with Bloom’s affectionate grace? Lorena’s enduring love for Eleanor does not blind her to the reality of the two women’s differences: “Her propriety, my brass knuckles.” Bloom mostly depicts already familiar details of Eleanor’s history, character, and personality. More riveting are Lorena’s memories of her early life before Eleanor, from a dirt-poor childhood to a brief circus career described in arrestingly colorful detail to work as a journalist forbidden to publish her suspicion that Lindbergh staged a coverup concerning his baby’s kidnapping. Lorena and Eleanor fell in love shortly before FDR won the presidency. Given his own complicated love life, FDR accepted the affair and got Lorena a job with his administration. Lorena, far from saintly, continues to love Eleanor almost despite recognizing that Eleanor cannot help living a “sainted life.” The complexity of their mutual attraction is one of the joys of the book, particularly when Lorena recalls an Eleanor tender and even girlish during a private driving vacation to Maine they took without a Secret Service escort. Having lived as an intimate outsider within the FDR White House, Lorena also offers her admittedly biased take on the confidential crises, tragedies, and peccadilloes of the Roosevelt household.
Bloom elevates this addition to the secret-lives-of-the-Roosevelts genre through elegant prose and by making Lorena Hickok a character engrossing enough to steal center stage from Eleanor Roosevelt.
A recent Cambridge University doctorate debuts with a wrenching account of her childhood and youth in a strict Mormon family in a remote region of Idaho.
It’s difficult to imagine a young woman who, in her teens, hadn’t heard of the World Trade Center, the Holocaust, and virtually everything having to do with arts and popular culture. But so it was, as Westover chronicles here in fairly chronological fashion. In some ways, the author’s father was a classic anti-government paranoiac—when Y2K failed to bring the end of the world, as he’d predicted, he was briefly humbled. Her mother, though supportive at times, remained true to her beliefs about the subordinate roles of women. One brother was horrendously abusive to the author and a sister, but the parents didn’t do much about it. Westover didn’t go to public school and never received professional medical care or vaccinations. She worked in a junkyard with her father, whose fortunes rose and fell and rose again when his wife struck it rich selling homeopathic remedies. She remained profoundly ignorant about most things, but she liked to read. A brother went to Brigham Young University, and the author eventually did, too. Then, with the encouragement of professors, she ended up at Cambridge and Harvard, where she excelled—though she includes a stark account of her near breakdown while working on her doctoral dissertation. We learn about a third of the way through the book that she kept journals, but she is a bit vague about a few things. How, for example, did her family pay for the professional medical treatment of severe injuries that several of them experienced? And—with some justification—she is quick to praise herself and to quote the praise of others.
An astonishing account of deprivation, confusion, survival, and success.
A redheaded waitress, a good-looking private eye, insurance fraud, arson, rough sex, and a long hot summer: some like it noir.
With her 23rd novel, Lippman (Wilde Lake, 2016, etc.) pays tribute to a literary predecessor who, like her, began his study of crime as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun—James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. Lippman’s version of the sexy stranger passing through town starts with Polly Costello (that’s one of her names, anyway) on a beach vacation in Fenwick, Delaware, with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Jani. One morning she says she needs a break from the sun, then grabs her duffel and heads down the road. “What kind of woman walks out on her family? Gregg knows. The kind of woman he picked up in a bar four years ago precisely because she had that kind of wildcat energy.…She scratched, she bit, she was up for anything, anywhere, anytime.” Actually, poor Gregg, suddenly a single dad, doesn’t know the half of it. Someone who does have a much fuller picture of Polly’s background is Adam, a good-looking, Oberlin- and culinary-institute–educated fellow she runs into at a bar her first day on the lam. Neither Adam nor Polly is candid about what has brought them to stools at the High-Ho, but both stick around and get jobs there, as chef and waitress. By the time their connection in the bedroom blossoms into something more serious, the skeletons in the closet have been joined by fresh new ones. Lippman’s trademark is populating a whodunit with characters so believably complicated that they don’t need the mystery to carry the book. If that’s not quite the case here, you can tell how much fun the author had updating the classic noir tropes, and it’s contagious.
Plotty, page-turning pleasure plus instructions on how to make a perfect grilled cheese sandwich and how to stab a man in the heart.
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.
Howarth’s impressive debut is a Wild West saga transported to 19th-century Queensland, Australia. Two brothers come of age during a bloody wilderness manhunt against the background of a shameful era in Australia’s racial history.
Brothers Tommy and Billy are the sons of rancher Ned McBride, who’s barely surviving under the thumb of land baron John Sullivan. Sullivan’s local rule is aided by his association with Inspector Edmund Noone, a leader of the Native Mounted Police, which carried out the genocide of Australia's indigenous people. Racial tensions escalate after the two brothers witness a lynching, and soon afterward they find their parents murdered—apparently by their aboriginal stockman Joseph, whose gun is found nearby. They have no choice but to join forces with Noone and Sullivan, who set out to take revenge on Joseph—or on any other tribal people they encounter on the hunt for him. The story deals unflinchingly with the brutality of Australian rule, and the true circumstances of the parents’ murders are ultimately revealed. But the heart of the story is the complicated relationship between the brothers, as Tommy’s developing conscience threatens his bond with the older Billy, who has committed to Sullivan’s cause. One turning point for Tommy is his attachment to an aboriginal woman whose family has been slaughtered by their posse.
While this book has a historical point to make, it also works as a suspenseful mystery and a resonant bildungsroman.
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.”
In Tiny Pretty Things co-author Clayton’s solo debut, beauty comes at a price.
On their joint 16th birthday, Camellia and her five sisters are sent out to restore beauty to Orléans, where everybody is born gray and ugly. They’ve been training for this their whole lives. As Belles, the sisters can use their magic to transform the citizens of Orléans from their original states. For the right price, Belles can grant any desired look. When Camellia secures the coveted spot of Her Majesty’s favorite, it seems as if her dreams have come true. As the most powerful, sought-out Belle, she is in charge of the royal family’s looks. However, the princess is insatiable in her quest for beauty and will do anything to get it—even if it means endangering the Belles and the kingdom—and Camellia may be the only one who can stop her. Not only that, but Camellia finds herself slowly uncovering the secrets of the Belles’ origin, and it’s not as pretty as she was taught. With wonderfully descriptive language, Clayton builds a grand and lavish world, carefully chipping away at the veneer to reveal its dark, sinister interior. In a world where anyone can change their skin color as often as they can change their hair color, race is fluid. Camellia is brown, and her sisters are various shades of brown and pale.
With a refreshingly original concept, this substantial fantasy, the first in a duology, is an undeniable page-turner
. (Fantasy. 14-adult)
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.
Hartman returns to Goredd with the tale of another young woman who breaks the rules in search of herself.
There are three Dombegh sisters: naughty Tess, perfect twin Jeanne, and famous, talented older sister Seraphina (of Seraphina, 2012, and Shadow Scale, 2015). Now 17, haunted by past mistakes, immersed in self-denial and the need to follow “proper” behavior, white Tess—who once befriended lizardlike Quigutl and secretly attended lectures—is miserable. After drunkenly punching her new brother-in-law at Jeanne’s wedding, Tess dresses as a boy and takes off. She travels across Goredd and Ninys in search of a Quigutl prophecy and her own purpose in a sometimes-episodic tale narrated in descriptive, sharply observant third-person prose. Angry, bitter Tess has reason for her feelings but is not always easy to walk with, and the slow reveal of her past makes for a compelling read on the ways in which girls—in the quasi-Renaissance Goredd and also in the real world—are taught to take blame on themselves even when others are culpable. Fortunately, the Road has answers (“walk on”), and by the end Tess has faced her past and can look forward to another volume of adventure, discovery, and changing her world.
Like Tess’ journey, surprising, rewarding, and enlightening, both a fantasy adventure and a meta discourse on consent, shame, and female empowerment.
(dramatis personae, glossary; not seen)