A crazy, wild journey up an Appalachian Trail paved with the stones of a philosophical quest.
Lowery totes plenty of baggage on this walk from Georgia to Maine—Dante as his guide, with a soupcon of Pynchon, a nod to the pre-Socratics, Basho, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Whitman and others, making the work akin to The River Why and Golf In the Kingdom. But, delightfully, the end product is Lowery’s very own. Dr. Durant Allegheny—could it be his real name? perception is the crux here—has hit the trail into the wild, looking for surcease from a life gone sour, or at least for his soul. He travels with Virgil, a runic, mostly monosyllabic, guilelessly endearing character. Early on they meet Padma, a virtuous pagan (or is it God or the Devil?) who bestows upon them a gift—guides to map the pair’s way forward. These guides prove to be incandescent trials-by-fire, as is negotiating Lowery’s writing—dense, probing, elegiac and as sinuous as the trail it charts, then becoming clear as a view from a summit. There is caterwauling, the swift transformation of emotions, psychotropic episodes, condemnations and deep investigations into decency and humanity, backlit by some of the ugliest company the Devil could throw at you. Though moving steadily northward, Durant spirals through confrontations with the curse of fear, greed (“We’re all petty and selfish and primitive Baptists.”), God (“Maybe it wasn’t over, maybe God was still evolving, maybe God would change. Which made for a really terrifying thought.”), truth, justice, love, pride and choice. Allegheny finds a girl, too; Beelzebub, by name, who advises against his “intellectually-fueled avoidance of reality.” Lurking amid the intellectual fuel are lovely descriptions of places—the rhododendrons and trillium of springtime Tennessee; or his maelstrom “of the dead, the Mistress, the Amarita, the cognitive dissonances, the Atlantean inkblots”—and utterly winning, joyful talk about camping equipment; the real Lowery as innocent, enthusiastic hiker abroad on the land.
An illegal immigrant struggles to find a home in America in this moving tale of loneliness and belonging.
Seeing no future for himself in communist Albania, 21-year-old Rejep Etaj crosses the border into Greece, a clannish place where he finds only one friend—Eudoxia Athanasiou, a young Greek-American expat who is herself something of a refugee from family expectations. Shipping out on a freighter, he follows her to her home in New England; she helps him settle, and an ambivalent romance struggles to grow in the face of her bigoted mother’s disapproval and the precariousness of Rejep’s status as an undocumented alien. Rouman provides a quietly realistic yet nerve-wracking take on the practicalities of an immigrant existence. Rejep’s fate hangs on surmounting prosaic challenges such as getting past Eudoxia’s answering machine when he washes up in New Hampshire and mastering the complexities of a janitorial job given to him by a Hungarian-immigrant building manager who admires Rejep’s moxie and sees him as a readily exploitable worker. But the author also vividly illuminates his hero’s conflicted soul. Rejep is proud of having a job, but the menial labor makes him feel like a caged animal; he relishes the exhilaration of leaving Albania for the wide world, but longs for the close-knit village life he left behind. Although he feels isolated, he is awash in a sea of immigrants who are trying to construct communities for themselves, which always entails the exclusion of others whom they see as different. The end of that process is the hermetic anomie of the well-off native-born Americans in the condominium where Rejep works, a place where people live cheek by jowl yet rarely venture into a neighbor’s life. Writing with a limpid prose and a shrewd sympathy for his characters, Rouman finds universality in the travails of an iconic outsider.
A subtle, absorbing portrait of the immigrant experience.
In Johnson’s novel, faith and mysticism bring two people on uncertain paths together in the mountains of Appalachia.
On the surface, Amanda Abernathy and Cody Stone have little in common, save their mental infirmities. Amanda is a 17-year-old who, after a serious head injury, now lives with vivid, waking nightmares. Cody, meanwhile, is just another young veteran returned home from Vietnam with debilitating shellshock, his mind ever calling him back to the horrors he witnessed in the jungle. But in their shared “spells” an inexplicable bond emerges, a mystical connection between two people who have never met and don’t even know each other’s names. Their paths will eventually cross on South Mountain at Yellow Bird—the dilapidated bookstore that Amanda inherited from her grandmother—but not before weathering small-town scandals, skirmishes with the local coal company and a disaster of almost biblical proportions. Johnson’s debut is, at its core, a pastoral tale, a celebration of the rustic music and rich traditions of the hills and hollows of Virginia and West Virginia and their ability to offer relief and purpose in a harsh, lonesome world. The narrative employs a unique dual tone, portraying its everyday events and folksy setting with blunt, obtuse language while contrasting that with lyrical, dreamlike prose for Amanda and Cody’s trances. Occasionally the latter is overly vague, but much of the novel’s appeal is in its coyness with details, and since the characters are so willing to accept the strange or the spiritual, the wealth of unanswered questions isn’t as distressing as one might expect. Though the novel is not devoid of action, it’s at its best in the small moments, when characters are talking, sharing stories or enjoying meals. Quaintness is what the novel honors, and in its depiction of this quaintness, the book excels.
Old-fashioned but never stodgy; a charming story about a bygone time where even magic seems possible.
Creeping schizophrenia takes the reins of a young doctor’s mind in this subtle psychological mystery.
Simon Felsper, a medical student in London during the 1950s, has a preternaturally soothing bedside manner that makes him a favorite with patients. He also has, according to a psychiatry lecture he attends, the symptoms of a schizophrenic—an obsession with good-luck rituals; an authoritative voice in his head whom he dubs One; a penchant for biblical-sounding pronouncements like “You are the chosen one”; and a feeling that he is the target of a vague plot by one of his classmates, an aristocratic rake with the deceptively harmless nickname of Badger. When he is exiled to San Francisco after a run-in with Badger, Simon’s medical practice swells along with his sense of destiny. Convinced by One’s declarations that he is an enlightened soul, Simon believes that he can cure vague pains and malaise just by laying on his hands—and soon a devoted following of patients agrees. Yet he can’t shake the influence, real or imagined, of Badger, whose tentacles extend to a senior colleague and a high-priced call girl whom Simon is seeing and eventually entangle Simon in a murder. The author makes this odd, potentially claustrophobic story into an entertaining, slightly satirical novel of manners with noir-ish overtones, as Simon’s sensitive, grandiose perspective plays off the prosaic, crass outlooks of the people around him in a symphony of mutual incomprehension. Brooke tells the yarn with a dry wit, sharp-eyed prose and a knack for vibrant characterizations. (Badger, a confection of bluster, bonhomie and sly malice, is indelible.) The author is also a neurologist, and one of the book’s manifold pleasures is its well-observed portrait of the medical culture of 50 years ago, when authoritarian doctors treated patients with exquisite disdain. Brooke gives us a shrewd, absorbing study of a sensitive soul drawn into paranoid delusions that may not be so far-fetched.
An entertaining tale of an off-kilter mind coping with shady surroundings, told with literary flair.
A teenage boy must piece his past together after discovering he was kidnapped as a child.
Landon Starker seems like just another troubled teen—more concerned with getting high than attending class, prone to badmouthing his teachers and even bullying fellow students. Landon knows he’s not like his peers, but what he doesn’t know is that he is actually Tyler Roberts, who was abducted years ago by his “father” Bob Starker, an abusive man who has used the boy for his perversions. When Landon is arrested, his fingerprints pop up in the Ameritek ID database and the FBI raids Bob’s house, freeing Landon and throwing him into a new world where he’s expected not only to reunite with a family he no longer remembers, but to confront long-repressed memories. Hester’s impressive debut novel is an intelligent, readable affair, tackling difficult and shocking subject matter with sensitivity, never resorting to the voyeuristic sensationalism that has become the norm when portraying abuse. Intensely methodical, the book accurately represents coping with trauma, with no magic bullets or easy answers, and presents breakthroughs and setbacks realistically. Some will find the author’s pace plodding, even frustrating, but this serves to believably depict the slow crawl to recovery. The novel’s tone alternates between clinical and simplistic, working best when it finds the middle ground linking the two styles. This is most notably on display in its natural-sounding dialogue that cleverly shows the discrepancy between one’s feelings and actions. Hester maintains a commitment to realism, and waivers only once, during a climactic court scene where a little creative license is not only forgivable, but welcome.
Teaches and informs while remaining a compelling, nonexploitative read.