King (Father of the Rain, 2010, etc.) changes the names (and the outcome) in this atmospheric romantic fiction set in New Guinea and clearly based on anthropologist Margaret Mead’s relationship with her second and third husbands, R.F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson—neither a slouch in his own right.
In the early 1930s, Nell and Fen are married anthropologists in New Guinea. American Nell has already published a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-rearing while Australian Fen has published only a monograph on Dobu island sorcery. Their marriage is in trouble: Nell holds Fen responsible for her recent miscarriage; he resents her fame and financial success. Shortly after leaving the Mumbanyo tribe they have been studying (and which Nell has grown to abhor), they run into British anthropologist Bankson, who is researching another tribal village, the Nengai, along the Sepik River. Deeply depressed—he's recently attempted suicide—Bankson is haunted by the deaths of his older brothers and his scientist father’s disappointment in him for practicing what is considered a soft science. Also deeply lonely, Bankson offers to find Nell and Fen an interesting tribe to study to keep them nearby. Soon the couple is happily ensconced with the Tam, whose women surprise Nell with their assertiveness. While the attraction, both physical and intellectual, between Bankson and Nell is obvious, Fen also offers Bankson tender care, which threatens to go beyond friendship, when Bankson falls ill. At first, the three-way connection is uniting and stimulating. But as Nell’s and Bankson’s feelings for each other develop, sexual tensions grow. So do the differences between Fen’s and Nell’s views on the anthropologist’s role. While Bankson increasingly shares Nell’s empathetic approach, Fen plots to retrieve an artifact from the Mumbanyo to cement his career. King does not shy from showing the uncomfortable relationship among all three anthropologists and those they study. Particularly upsetting is the portrait of a Tam who returns “civilized” after working in a copper mine.
A revelatory and occasionally hilarious memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist on helping her parents through their old age.
Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast (What I Hate, 2011, etc.) retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she’s done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life as the only child of parents who had never even dated anyone else and whose deep bond left little room for this intruder in their midst. Yet, “the reality was that at 95, their minds and bodies were falling apart,” and these two people who had only relied on each other were forced to rely on a host of caretakers, their daughter in particular, and to move from the Brooklyn apartment that had been home for half a century into a series of facilities that provided fewer and fewer amenities at escalating expense. Chast rarely lapses into sentimentality and can often be quite funny, as she depicts mortality as “The Moving Sidewalk of Life” (“Caution: Drop-Off Ahead”) or deals with dread and anxiety on the “Wheel of DOOM, surrounded by the ‘cautionary’ tales of my childhood.” The older her parents get, the more their health declines and the more expensive the care they require, the bleaker the story becomes—until, toward the end, a series of 12 largely wordless drawings of her mother’s final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does.
A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work.
A literary war novel with a split personality, about a protagonist who loathes his dual character.
Ambition leads to excess in the sixth novel by Flanagan (Wanting, 2009, etc.), a prizewinning writer much renowned in his native Australia. The scenes of Australian POWs held by the Japanese have power and depth, as do the postwar transformations of soldiers on both sides. But the novel’s deep flaw is a pivotal plot development that aims at the literary heights of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary but sounds too often like a swoon-worthy bodice ripper. “His pounding head, the pain in every movement and act and thought, seemed to have as its cause and remedy her, and only her and only her and only her,” rhapsodizes Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who will be hailed as a national hero for his leadership in World War II, though he feels deeply unworthy. His obsession is Amy, a woman he met seemingly by chance, who has made the rest of his existence—including his fiancee—seem drab and lifeless. She returns his ardor and ups the ante: “God, she thought, how she wanted him, and how unseemly and unspeakable were the ways in which she wanted him.” Alas, it is not to be, for she is married to his uncle, and he has a war that will take him away, and each will think the other is dead. And those stretches are where the novel really comes alive, as they depict the brutality inflicted by the Japanese on the POWs who must build the Thai-Burma railway (which gives the novel its title) and ultimately illuminate their different values and their shared humanity.
When the leads are offstage, the novel approaches greatness in its inquiry into what it means to be a good person. But there’s too much “her body was a poem beyond memorising” for the novel to fulfill its considerable ambition.
A sensitive portrayal of distant love, broken affinities and culture clash by Nigerian novelist Adichie (Purple Hibiscus, 2003, etc.).
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s said—but as often it makes the heart grow forgetful. Ifemelu, beautiful and naturally aristocratic, has the good fortune to escape Nigeria during a time of military dictatorship. It is a place and a society where, as a vivacious “aunty” remarks, “[t]he problem is that there are many qualified people who are not where they are supposed to be because they won’t lick anybody’s ass, or they don’t know which ass to lick or they don’t even know how to lick an ass.” Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart, Obinze, is too proud for any of that; smart and scholarly, he has been denied a visa to enter post-9/11 America (says his mother, “[t]he Americans are now averse to foreign young men”), and now he is living illegally in London, delivering refrigerators and looking for a way to find his beloved. The years pass, and the world changes: In the America where Ifemelu is increasingly at home, “postracial” is a fond hope, but everyone seems just a little bewildered at how to get there, and meanwhile, Ifemelu has to leave the safe, sheltered confines of Princeton to go to Trenton if she’s to get her hair done properly. The years pass, and Ifemelu is involved in the usual entanglements, making a reunion with Obinze all the more complicated. Will true love win out? Can things be fixed and contempt disarmed? All that remains to be seen, but for the moment, think of Adichie’s elegantly written, emotionally believable novel as a kind of update of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale.
Soap-operatic in spots, but a fine adult love story with locations both exotic and familiar.
A meanderingly funny, weirdly compelling and thoroughly brilliant chronicle of “the end of the world, and shit like that.”
This is not your everyday novel of the apocalypse, though it has the essential elements: a (dead) mad scientist, a fabulous underground bunker, voracious giant praying mantises and gobs of messy violence. As narrated by hapless Polish-Iowan sophomore Austin Szerba, though, the “shit like that” and his love for it all take center stage: his family, including his older brother, whose testicles and one leg are blown off in Afghanistan; his mute, perpetually defecating golden retriever; the dead-end town of Ealing, Iowa; his girlfriend, Shann Collins, whom he desperately wants to have sex with; and most importantly, his gay best friend, Robby Brees, to whom he finds himself as attracted as he is to Shann. His preoccupation with sex is pervasive; the unlikeliest things make Austin horny, and his candor in reporting this is endearing. In a cannily disjointed, Vonnegut-esque narrative, the budding historian weaves his account of the giant-insect apocalypse in and around his personal family history and his own odyssey through the hormonal stew that is adolescence. He doesn’t lie, and he is acutely conscious of the paradox that is history: “You could never get everything in a book. / Good books are always about everything.”
By that measure, then, this is a mighty good book. It is about everything that really matters. Plus voracious giant praying mantises. (Science fiction. 14 & up)
Exemplary work of history by Pulitzer and Bancroft winner Taylor (History/Univ. of Virginia; Colonial America: A Very Short Introduction, 2012, etc.), who continues his deep-searching studies of American society on either side of the Revolution.
The world the slaves made was one of fear and loathing—on the part of the masters, that is, who indeed waited in a “cocoon of dread” for the day when their “internal enemy” would finally pounce. That day first came with a series of events that form the heart of the book: namely, the arrival of the War of 1812 in Virginia, a conflict that itself was a source of conflict, inasmuch as most Virginians were sooner inclined to fight New Englanders than Englanders. When the British arrived, though, they recruited male slaves to join their army and navy as free men, and they relied on them for their “intimate, nocturnal knowledge of the byways and waterways of Virginia.” The keyword is “nocturnal,” for the conflict between master and slave was so great, Taylor asserts, that they contested ownership of the night, when slaves would travel more or less freely to attend dances and other social events, sleeping it off during the day, even as the masters demanded ever more work from them precisely in order to tire them enough to keep them from going abroad at night. One of the great ironies of Jefferson's ideal of white liberty, notes Taylor, was that as it expanded the middle class and with it the number of Tidewater slaveholders, it also broadened support for slavery itself. One of the ironies of the war, which would eventually produce just the uprising of the internal enemy the Virginians dreaded, was that, so inept was the federal response, it advanced the cause of states’ rights, which would lead to the broader Civil War two decades after Nat Turner’s revolt.
Full of implication, an expertly woven narrative that forces a new look at “the peculiar institution” in a particular time and place.
Pulitzer Prize–winning medical journalist/investigator Fink (War Hospital, 2003) submits a sophisticated, detailed recounting of what happened at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina.
Under calamitous, lethal circumstances, the staff at Memorial did a remarkable job of saving many lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—though others would point out they didn’t have the street smarts of the staff at Charity Hospital, whose creativeness resulted in far fewer deaths. Fink draws those few days in the hospital’s life with a fine, lively pen, providing stunningly framed vignettes of activities in the hospital and sharp pocket profiles of many of the characters. She gives measured consideration to such explosive issues as class and race discrimination in medicine, end-of-life care, medical rationing and euthanasia, and she presents the injection of some patients with a cocktail of drugs to reduce their breathing in such a manner that readers will be able to fully fashion their own opinions. The book is an artful blend of drama and philosophy: When do normal standards no longer apply? what if doing something seems right but doesn’t feel right? In the ensuing investigation of one doctor, who is clearly the fall guy (or woman, as it were), Fink circles all the players, successfully giving much-needed perspective to their views. The obvious villains are the usual suspects: nature, for sending Katrina forth; big business, in the guise of Memorial owner Tenet Healthcare, for its failure to act and subsequent guilty posturing; and government, feds to local, for the bungling incompetence that led to dozens of deaths. The street thugs and looters didn’t help much, either.
With apparent effortlessness, Fink tells the Memorial story with cogency and atmosphere.
A deeply sympathetic life of an exceptional mind, protofeminist and revolutionary.
Embedded in the Emersonian milieu as biographer (The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, 2005) and professor (Emerson Coll.), Pulitzer finalist Marshall is perfectly suited to her material, so much so that she frequently takes on the highhanded, emotive tone of her subject. Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) was the close colleague of Ralph Waldo Emerson, fellow editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial, teacher and author of the groundbreaking feminist study Woman in the Nineteenth Century. The oldest daughter of a tyrannical lawyer and congressman in Massachusetts, Fuller demonstrated early on her abundant intellectual gifts. However, instead of attending Harvard, she had to sublimate her “unfocused striving and rankling frustration over family obligations” and teach her smaller siblings. When her father died in 1835, it fell on Fuller to take care of her mother and siblings, as a teacher and fledgling writer, yet his death also freed her to pursue her personal journey. Initiated into reformist ideas while teaching at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School and plunged into Emerson's circle, Fuller moved from Providence to Boston to New York, working on translations, leading a series of conversation classes with women and assuming editorship of the transcendentalist organ, before restlessly moving on to Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune. Marshall’s discovery of a late-life journal reveals Fuller’s last beatific years in Rome as a correspondent, when she met the younger Giovanni Angelo Ossoli during the perilous revolutionary era of 1848. Bound home with their young son, the family perished together in the wreck of the Elizabeth off the coast of Fire Island in 1850. Friend of intellectual lights of the day, cultural emissary and author in her own right, Fuller had finally attained her own destiny.
Lively, intuitive study of a remarkable American character.
A veteran journalist captures the functioning chaos of Haiti.
New Yorker writer Wilentz has been covering shattering events in Haiti since the Duvalier dynasty fell in 1986, culminating in her book The Rainy Season. Now based in Los Angeles, the author again felt the fatal pull of the country after the recent natural-disaster devastation and returned repeatedly in order to record the uneven progress in reconstruction and humanitarian aid as well as interview many of the so-called (in politically incorrect parlance) Fred Voodoos, or Everymen on the street, for a reality check. Describing herself as “a naïve person, and a romantic,” she has grown enormously wary of the good intentions heaped on the country from one crisis to another and is frequently cynical after many years of her “Haitian education.” Since its very inception as the first (and last) slave revolution in history, Haiti has been victimized, plunged into poverty, denuded of resources and patronized by rich white neighbors bent on a “salvation fantasy” that has never lifted the country out of poverty. After the hurricane, suddenly whites appeared everywhere to help out. While Wilentz does chronicle some extremely good work being done—by the indefatigable infectious-disease specialist Dr. Megan Coffee and by actor Sean Penn in setting up a workable refugee camp—much of what the journalist witnessed remained a familiar profound malaise and dysfunction. Seeking out her old acquaintances and former protégés of President Aristide, the author found drugged-out zombies, many living in permanent refugee camps without proper sanitation and little or no literacy. She learned that nothing is as it seems in Haiti. Like voodoo ceremonies, society runs on “artifice and duplicity,” and its government (a kleptocracy) has been organized “to be porous and incompetent, to allow for corruption.”
An extraordinarily frank cultural study/memoir that eschews platitudes of both tragedy and hope.