An incisive study of one of the past year’s most significant mass shootings, with publication tied to the one-year anniversary.
Cullen spent 10 years researching and writing his book Columbine (2009), which meticulously documented the Colorado high school massacre, with an emphasis on the two students who planned it. This time, in the aftermath of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, committed by a former student on Feb. 14, 2018, the author has produced an impressively deep account in just 10 months. Never naming the murderer of 14 students and three staff members, the author focuses on surviving students who coalesced to promote gun control by spreading their message, encouraging voter registration, and seeking to influence legislatures at the local, state, and national levels. Starting with his initial coverage of the story for Vanity Fair just after the shooting, Cullen immersed himself with the students, many of whom left classes to tour the nation. Throughout the book, the author demonstrates his rapport with the students as well as Parkland parents, teachers, and community leaders. When he deems it appropriate and relevant, Cullen effectively compares and contrasts the Columbine and Parkland experiences. As he notes, his years of immersion in the Columbine tragedy left him with secondary PTSD, so diving in to the Parkland aftermath felt personally risky. However, he persisted, believing that the hopeful messages of the students would outweigh the darkness. Chronicling how the mostly middle- or upper-class Parkland students eventually expanded their crusade to address other issues related to guns, Cullen memorably captures many of the interests they share with often stereotyped inner-city teenagers from violent neighborhoods. In nearly 60 pages of detailed endnotes, the author expands on the revelations in the main narrative, discusses his information-gathering methods, and discloses potential conflicts of interests due to the close relationships he has formed with survivors.
In both Columbine and this up-to-the minute portrait of the Parkland tragedy, Cullen has produced masterpieces that are simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful about a saner future.
“Nothing before the sea was real”: a bleak portrait of a future world shaped by global climate change and refugees desperate for a few square feet of dry land.
In the Britain of the near future, there are no beaches. Indeed, as the draftee called Kavanagh tells it, “there isn’t a single beach left, anywhere in the world.” Kavanagh, nicknamed Chewy by his fellow Defenders, has just one job: He has to guard a spot along the Wall (“officially it is the National Coastal Defense Structure”) that now rings the island fortress. It’s a preternaturally cold place, miserable, boring, but the stakes are high, for if any of the refugees called ”The Others“ get over the wall, one of the Defenders is put out to sea, exiled forever. Meanwhile, that Other, when inevitably captured, becomes one of "The Help," essentially enslaved; as the mother of Hifa, a fellow Defender, says, “Another human being at one’s beck and call, just by lifting a finger, simply provided to one, in effect one’s personal property…though of course they are technically the property of the state.” Kavanagh is diligent if bitter, especially toward the parents who avert their eyes when they see him, ashamed that they let the Change occur, ashamed that their world has come to all this. Unashamed, as impenetrable as the Wall, is the Captain, Kavanagh’s commander, who in time reveals that the monolithic state of elites, soldiers, and all the rest is less impervious than it appears, bringing on a sequence of events that finds Kavanagh, Hifa, and the Captain on the outside, in a Hobbesian world, desperate to get back in. Lanchester’s view is unblinking, his prose assured, a matter of "if” and "then”: This is what happens when the sea rises, this is what happens when an outsider lands in a place where life has little meaning and the only certain things are the Wall, the cold, the water, and death.
Dystopian fiction done just right, with a scenario that’s all too real.
A chronicle of dreams and gun violence one summer in the city of Chicago.
In 1991, Kotlowitz (Journalism/Northwestern Univ.; Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago, 2004, etc.) published the modern classic There Are No Children Here (1991), which told the story of brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah and their experiences in one of Chicago’s violent housing projects. Years later, the author received a call in the middle of the night and learned that Pharoah may have been involved in a murder. In his latest powerful sociological exploration, the author masterfully captures the summer of 2013 in neglected Chicago neighborhoods, rendering intimate profiles of residents and the “very public” violence they face every day. One example is Eddie Bocanegra, who killed a rival gang member as a teenager. “Eddie did the unimaginable,” writes Kotlowitz. “He took another human life. I suppose for some that might be all you need to know. For others, it may be all you want to know about him. And that’s what Eddie fears the most, that this moment is him. That there’s no other way to view him.” We also meet Anita Stewart, a dedicated social worker who watched one of her favorite students get murdered and another struggle with the aftermath. Heartbreakingly, the author writes early on, “I could tell story after story like this, of mothers who drift on a sea of heartache, without oars and without destination.” Throughout, Kotlowitz raises significant issues about the regions where violence has become far too routine. “After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions,” he writes. However, “in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood or North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions.” Kotlowitz offers a narrative that is as messy and complicated and heart-wrenching as life itself: “This is a book, I suppose, about that silence—and the screams and howling and prayers and longing that it hides.”
A fiercely uncompromising—and unforgettable—portrait.
In his debut novel, a writer born in Thailand and now living in New York creates a portrait of Bangkok that sweeps across a century and a teeming cast of characters yet shines with exquisite detail.
In its early chapters, the book reads like a collection of short stories linked only by their relationship to Bangkok: A nameless woman walks through its bustling streets in the present; an American doctor more than 100 years ago struggles to decipher its overwhelmingly foreign culture; a Thai photographer living in Los Angeles in the 1970s visits his ailing father in London; a woman running a Thai restaurant in Japan finds herself threatened by Thailand’s politics. But as those seemingly unconnected stories accumulate, so do the threads that join them. Many are stories of loss and of survival. In one, a young Thai man named Siripohng, who has come to the city to attend university, meets a woman named Nee during the massive student demonstrations in 1973. Sudbanthad draws a subtle but achingly lovely account of their courtship, born of the hopeful spirit of the protests—then pivots to a shocking conclusion. In another, an American jazz musician called Crazy Legs Clyde is summoned to a woman’s estate to play piano because a medium, she tells him, “counts twenty or so spirits in the pillar. They visit me in my dreams, and I’m tired of it. A woman my age needs her sound sleep.” But the assignment to exorcise them raises a ghost from Clyde’s past that won’t be stilled. Ghosts haunt this novel, even the ghosts of buildings, like the ancient tile-roofed house preserved within the lobby of a gleaming new skyscraper where some of the book’s characters will live (and at least one will die). As one character muses near the end of the novel, “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts.” Yet in Sudbanthad’s skillful hands and lyrical prose, every one of them seems vividly alive.
This breathtakingly lovely novel is an accomplished debut, beautifully crafted and rich with history rendered in the most human terms.
In her first book, the founder of Brooklyn-based Common Justice convincingly attacks the conventional wisdom about violent crimes, appropriate punishment, and how to repair the criminal (in)justice system.
Sered’s organization brings together crime victims and perpetrators to experience a process known as restorative justice. Common Justice always begins with the crime victims, who are rarely heeded and often downright ignored by police, prosecutors, and judges. The author and her small staff listen carefully to victims of all kinds of violence. In most jurisdictions, a large percentage of perpetrators are never arrested. If an arrest occurs, well over 90 percent never reach the trial stage, and the vast majority of plea-bargained convictions terminate in private, with the victim nowhere near the negotiating venue. Even when conventional wisdom maintains that a prison sentence is a positive outcome for the victim, Sered has learned that rarely do victims heal quickly—if ever. The physical injuries and/or mental anguish do not disappear simply because a perpetrator is incarcerated. In addition to destroying myths about victimhood, the author attacks incarceration as a positive outcome for anybody, especially because prisons offer no accountability from the perpetrator that reaches the victim and no rehabilitation that benefits society eventually. Violence in every neighborhood must be attacked at its roots, Sered argues convincingly, and the evidence is overwhelming that mass incarceration never halts ongoing neighborhood violence. “If incarceration worked to secure safety,” she writes, “we would be the safest nation in all of human history….If incarceration worked to stop violence, we would have eradicated it by now—because no nation has used incarceration more.” The author provides clear, specific evidence for her contention that the new conventional wisdom must be survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven, and racially equitable. The case studies of restorative justice that punctuate every chapter offer undeniable proof that Common Justice’s tactics are succeeding and should be more widely applied.
A top-notch entry into the burgeoning incarceration debate.
On an unnamed island, a decade after the fall of a brutal dictator, a woman suspects that a prominent senator she knows from her past—a progressive star, a media darling—is guilty of his own private violence.
“Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident,” begins Novey’s (Ways to Disappear, 2016) sophomore novel, “a woman reached into her tote bag and found a sweater inside that didn’t belong to her.” The woman is Lena, a 30-something college instructor. The sweater bears an eerie resemblance to a sweater she used to wear, back when she too was a student activist, just like Maria P. before she was “accidentally” run over by a bus. Lena, though, is convinced Maria P. was murdered: She was pushed, Lena believes, by a hotshot senator named Victor, light of the nation’s Truth and Justice Party. Lena has some experience with this. She was once in the thrall of Victor, too. Meanwhile, in a bed elsewhere on the island, Victor has come up with a plan to ward off questions: Get married. And so he proposes to the well-connected woman beside him, who lovingly accepts. The first half of the book has the propulsion of a thriller, a whirlwind of characters and perspectives. There is Lena’s friend Olga, a victim of the regime who now runs a books-and-marijuana shop. There is Freddy, Victor’s gay playwright brother, who has his own suspicions. There is Oscar, a northern tourist bearing baked goods. And then, of course, there’s Lena, haunted by Maria P. and the years she spent in silence. What follows is a tangled web of loss and regret and—perhaps—something like redemption. It's not a particularly subtle book—after the initial setup, it unfurls more or less how you’d expect it to—but Novey’s writing is so singularly vibrant it hardly matters.
A memoir in essays about race that is as lucid as the issue is complicated.
Though Bernard (English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies/Univ. of Vermont; Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White, 2012, etc.) is a scholar, her latest book is almost devoid of jargon. Instead, the writing is deeply felt, unflinchingly honest, and openly questioning. The author makes no claims to have all the answers about what it means to be a black woman from the South who has long lived and worked in the very white state of Vermont, where she might be the first black person that some of her students have encountered. From the evidence on display here, Bernard is a top-notch teacher who explores territory that many of her students might prefer to leave unexplored. She is married to a white professor of African-American Studies, and she ponders how his relationship with the students might be different than hers, how he is comfortable letting them call him by his first name while she ponders whether to adopt a more formal address. The couple also adopted twin daughters from Ethiopia, which gives all of them different perspectives on the African-American hyphenate. But it also illuminates a legacy of storytelling, from her mother and the Nashville where the author was raised and her grandparents’ Mississippi. “I could not leave the South behind. I still can’t,” she writes, and then elaborates on the relationship between blacks and whites there: “We were ensnared in the same historical drama. I was forged—mind and body—in the unending conversation between southern blacks and whites. I don’t hate the South. To despise it would be to despise myself.” The book’s genesis and opening is her life-threatening stabbing by a deranged white stranger, a seemingly random crime. Toward the end of the book, she realizes that “in every scar there is a story. The salve is the telling itself.”
Oyeyemi (What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, 2016, etc.) returns to the land of fairy tales in a novel that riffs on "Hansel and Gretel" without demonstrating much concern for following its well-worn trail of breadcrumbs.
Harriet Lee bakes gingerbread that tastes "like eating revenge...with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon." When Harriet isn't busy trying to woo the cliquish parents at her daughter's West London school with baked goods, she looks after teenage Perdita, corrects student essays, and comes up with bad puns for future courses. But when Perdita winds up in the hospital after an apparent suicide attempt, Harriet knows she finally owes her daughter the long-avoided truth about her origins. Like Scheherazade, Harriet weaves a long, strange tale about her own childhood, immigrating to London, and sexual encounters with the only two men who could be Perdita's father. "It was like looking at faces printed on banknotes—no, they were a pair of black pre-Raphaelite muses," Harriet reveals. As in her last novel, Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)—based loosely on "Snow White"—Oyeyemi takes the familiar contours of a children's tale and twists it into something completely new, unsettling, and uncanny. There are changelings, mysterious rich benefactors, a country that might not exist, corrupt, capitalist factory owners, and living dolls with forthright opinions. But where Boy, Snow, Bird explores the lifelong effects of abusive parenting on its narrator, this novel gives a loving but "shamelessly unsatisfactory" mother the chance to tell her side of the story. Readers familiar with Oyeyemi's work will not be surprised to learn that her latest plot sets off in one direction and immediately takes a hairpin curve in another (and another, and still another). The effect is heady, surreal, and disarming—you have to be willing to surrender to Oyeyemi's vision and the delicious twists and turns of her prose. Oyeyemi fans will likely be charmed. New readers will wonder what on Earth they've discovered.
A strange, shape-shifting novel about the power of making your own family.
A noted poet and activist recounts an odd season at the dawn of the civil war in El Salvador.
At the opening, Forché (English/Georgetown Univ.; Blue Hour, 2003, etc.) admits she had only a little knowledge of the Central American nation of El Salvador until the end of the 1970s. “What I knew of El Salvador, I knew from my Spanish professor in college, himself a Salvadoran,” as well as from translating the work of the poet Claribel Alegría. At the beginning of the narrative, the author recounts how she opened her door one day to a man whom Alegría had mentioned without much specificity: Leonel Gómez, a mysterious figure who sometimes seemed to be all things to all people. Gómez convinced Forché that she needed to see what was happening for herself, and off she went to a nation on the brink. A bête noire soon came into view: Colonel Chacón, “who chops off fingers and has people disemboweled.” Gómez was a born mansplainer, throwing out a sequence of lessons that prompted Forché to protest that she was smart enough to follow along, to which he replied, “Lesson three has nothing to do with you.” The remark was ominous, to say the least. Gómez, her Virgil, guided Forché into tight corners, such as the cramped office of a commander who earnestly asked, “what can we do to improve the situation?” Alas, the time for talking drew short, and the bullets began to fly—some of them, it seems, deliberately aimed at her. As Forché writes in her elegiac opening, “I will learn that the human head weighs about two and a half kilos, and a child’s head, something less.” Episode by episode, dodging death squads, Forché builds a story filled with violence and intrigue worthy of Graham Greene around which a river of blood flows—doing so, unstanched, with the avid support of America’s leaders.
A Palo Alto–set domestic drama with a touch of sci-fi: What if the results of one's life choices could be explored not only in daydreams, but with a virtual reality–type app that generates personal "multiverses"?
Dan and Amy are raising a high school senior named Jack and much younger twins, Miles and Theo. Dan is a journalist who's been unemployed too long; his whole sense of self is crumbling, and he's about to have a midlife crisis involving an attractive reporter and a trip to Japan. Amy works for the 19-year-old son of her best friend back on the East Coast. The boy has started a tech company out of his dorm at Stanford, working on a system for exploring multiverses called Furrier.com (his grandma often told his grandpa she should have married the furrier) and using Amy as a guinea pig. Jack has a serious girlfriend who lives in Texas; they spend all their waking hours together via Skype and FaceTime, and she even has dinner with his family. The twins, known as Thing One and Thing Two, are both having issues at elementary school. Around these main characters, Schulman (This Beautiful Life, 2011, etc.) has brought to life a large cast of supporting players with intelligence and humor, even as the story veers pretty suddenly into tragedy in the final third. Even if the workings of the gizmo that allows the user to experience multiverses are never really clear or believable, the questions it raises are profound and engaging and they're woven into the "regular" part of the plot as well, with characters ruminating over the consequences of decisions past and present, great and small. There are a formidable number of elements crammed into this novel, mostly successfully—nuclear disaster in Japan feels a little off-track, while teen suicide clusters in San Jose are on the money—but Schulman is just such a good writer, and the things she's thinking about are so interesting, you'll stay with her right until the end.
A modern love story that examines what a person might do for love—and whether fate can render those efforts moot.
In his follow-up to The Fishermen (2015), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Obioma has written a romance with a Nigerian ethos, reinvigorating age-old questions of love and destiny. When Chinonso Solomon Olisa, a lonely poultry farmer, intervenes in the suicide attempt of Ndali, a young woman, his quiet life is disrupted and the two begin an intense and complicated affair of nearly mythic proportions. The story of their relationship is told by Chinonso’s chi, or his life force, who has come to testify before the almighty creator on his host’s behalf because Chinonso may have killed a woman. The book operates on both physical and spiritual levels, presenting thought-provoking and sage observations about the nature of loneliness (“the violent dog that barks interminably through the long night of grief”) and jealousy (“the spirit that stands at the threshold of love and madness”), among other things. Indeed, though the love story that moors the book is dramatic and lends itself to comparisons with similarly epic romances such as The Odyssey—a point not lost on Chinonso’s chi—the book tells a distinctly Nigerian story that considers the gambits people are willing to make in an effort to rise above their lot.
A deeply original book that will have readers laughing at, angry with, and feeling compassion for a determined hero who endeavors to create his own destiny.
Life under Robert Mugabe’s brutal government takes center stage in this harrowing novel of Zimbabwe.
Seventeen-year-old Bukhosi Mlambo has been missing for more than a week, since his disappearance during a political rally. His parents, Abednego and Mama Agnes, desperate to find him, have accepted the emotional support and help of their tenant, Zamani, the unreliable narrator through whom the story is told. Zamani, an orphan, feeling a “prick of opportunity,” takes advantage of their desperation and endeavors to replace Bukhosi and go from “surrogate son” to “son” through a variety of manipulative acts. As Zamani, who seems to live by the philosophy "that it’s not what's true that matters, but what you can make true,” unscrupulously attempts to cultivate an intimacy with the Mlambos, what results is a novel of confessions—some given freely, others pried through alcohol, drugs, and other means—family secrets, and an unflinching portrait of life in Zimbabwe before, during, and immediately after the Rhodesian Bush War. The wrath of the military commander dubbed Black Jesus, the Gukurahundi massacres—Tshuma’s (Shadows, 2012) sprawling debut novel delves into these atrocities and others, and that history at times overwhelms the motivations and interiority of the central characters. Nonetheless, Tshuma delineates a rich and complicated tale about the importance of history (“Always, you must be looking back over your shoulder, to see what history is busy plotting for your future”), the price of revolution, the pursuit of freedom, and the remaking of one’s self.
A multilayered, twisting, and surprising whirlwind of a novel that is as impressive as it is heartbreaking.
Mallon extends his sharp-eyed fictional exegesis of real-life American politics (Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, 2015, etc.) into George W. Bush’s second term.
His imaginary protagonists are Ross Weatherall, director of a branch of the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities (Mallon’s make-believe mashup of the NEA and NEH), and Allie O’Connor, a National Security Council staffer hired by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to give the president her skeptical view of what Rumsfeld now considers the failing occupation of Iraq. Carefully controlled Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gamely supports staying the course, and several highly charged meetings show her and Rumsfeld maneuvering for position around their president’s abruptly shifting moods. Bush is gently but unsparingly portrayed—“In his way,” comments Henry Kissinger, “the sincerest man I’ve ever met….Which is to say…he’s a disaster.” As Allie grapples with the slow-moving disaster of Iraq, Ross is plunged into the immediate nightmare of Hurricane Katrina while working in New Orleans on an updated version of the old Works Progress Administration guidebook. His eyewitness view of the government’s wholly inadequate response (limned in restrained but still appalling detail by Mallon) turns this once-ardent Bushie against the administration; at the same time, Allie has come to the reluctant conclusion that however ill-advised the invasion was, it would be morally wrong to abandon the Iraqis. Their conflicted relationship is not quite as interesting as Mallon’s knowledgeable and diamond-hard portraits of actual Washington insiders across the political spectrum, from showboating John Edwards (Mallon’s most acid character sketch) to tough-as-nails Barbara Bush (no sweet little old lady in pearls here). Nonetheless, the fact that Ross and Allie change their views based on experiences on the ground makes a refreshing—and one suspects deliberate—contrast with the dug-in positions of today’s political partisans. A rueful 2013 epilogue reunites Ross with Bush, who has discovered through painting “a whole world of in-between.”
Marvelously detailed, often darkly funny, as informative as it is entertaining. Mallon may well be the 21st century’s Anthony Trollope.