“It’s a terrible thing when one speaks metaphorically and the metaphor turns into a literal truth.” So writes Rushdie (Joseph Anton: A Memoir, 2012, etc.) in one of his very best books, one whose governing metaphor can be about many terrible truths indeed.
Do the math, and Rushdie’s title turns into a different way of counting up to 1,001 nights. Small wonder that the first characters we encounter are an exceedingly wise philosopher named, thinly, Ibn Rushd, “the translator of Aristotle,” and an exceedingly beguiling supernatural being in the form of a girl of about 16 who harbors numerous secrets, not just that she’s Jewish in a place overrun with Islamic fundamentalists (and where it’s thus best to live as “Jews who could not say they were Jews”), but that she is, in fact, one of the jiniri, “shadow-women made of fireless smoke.” Got all that? In the span of, yes, 1,001 nights, Dunia gives birth to three broods of children who, being jinn, can do all sorts of cool things, such as fly about on magic carpets or slither hither and yon like snakes. Dunia is studiously irreligious, which is perhaps more dangerous than being Jewish, inclined to say of Ibn Rushd’s explanations of all the wonderful things God can do, “That’s stupid.” Her endless children are inclined to favor the secular over the divine as well, a complicating factor when the dimensions turn all inside out and the jinn, now in our time, are called on to battle the forces of evil that have been hiding on the other side of the metaphorical wall between—well, civilizations, maybe. Rushdie turns in a sometimes archly elegant, sometimes slightly goofy fairy tale—with a character named Bento V. Elfenbein, how could it be entirely serious?—for grown-ups: “A fairy king,” he writes, and he knows whereof he speaks, “can only be poisoned by the most dreadful and powerful of words.”
Beguiling and astonishing, wonderful and wondrous. Rushdie at his best.
A twisty but controlled epic that merges large and small concerns: loose nukes and absent parents, government surveillance and bad sex, gory murder and fine art.
Purity "Pip" Tyler, the hero of Franzen’s fifth novel (Freedom, 2010, etc.), is a bright college grad with limited prospects: burdened with student debt, she lives in an Oakland squat, makes cold calls at a go-nowhere job, and can’t stray far from an emotionally needy mom who won’t reveal who her dad is. A German visitor, Annagret, encourages Purity to intern in Bolivia for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style hacker group headed by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. Skeptical but cornered, Purity signs on. The names alone—Purity, Wolf—make the essential conflict clear, but that just frames a story in which every character is engaged in complex moral wrestling. Chief among them is Andreas, who killed Annagret’s sexually abusive stepfather and has his own issues with physical and emotional manipulation. But he’s not the only one Franzen dumps into the psychosexual stew. Andreas’ friend Tom Aberant is a powerful journalist saddled with self-loathing and a controlling ex-wife who detests her father’s wealth; Tom’s lover (and employee), Leila Helou, is a muckraker skilled enough to report on missing warheads but fumbling at her own failed marriage to Charles Blenheim, a novelist in decline. In Freedom, everybody was eager to declaim moral certitudes; here, Franzen is burrowing deep into each person’s questionable sense of his or her own goodness and suggests that the moral rot can metastasize to the levels of corporations and government. And yet the novel’s prose never bogs down into lectures, and its various back stories are as forceful as the main tale of Purity’s fate. Franzen is much-mocked for his primacy in the literary landscape (something he himself mocks when Charles grouses about “a plague of literary Jonathans”). But here, he’s admirably determined to think big and write well about our darkest emotional corners.
An expansive, brainy, yet inviting novel that leaves few foibles unexplored.
Inexorable seismic changes—in society and in the lives of two female friends—mark the final volume of Ferrante's Neapolitan series.
Elena and Lila, the emotionally entwined duo at the center of Ferrante’s (ThoseWho Leave and Those Who Stay, 2014, etc.) unsentimental examination of women’s lives and relationships, advance through middle age and early old age (perhaps) in this calamitous denouement to their saga. The more fortunate Elena, an author who struggles to assert herself in the misogynistic world of 1970s and '80s Italy, is drawn back to Naples and its internecine bloodshed; Lila, who has stayed in the city of their youth, is at odds with its controlling families. Elena’s “escape” and attempts at personal and familial fulfillment, on her own terms, hint at the changing roles of women in that era, but it's Lila’s daily struggle in a Camorra-controlled neighborhood that illuminates the deep fractures within contemporary Italian society. The paths to self-determination taken by the lifelong friends merge and separate periodically as the demands of child-rearing, work, and community exert their forces. The far-reaching effects of a horrific blow to Lila’s carefully maintained equilibrium resonate through much of the story and echo Ferrante’s trademark themes of betrayal and loss. While avid devotees of the Neapolitan series will be gratified by the return of several characters from earlier installments, the need to cover ground in the final volume results in a telescoped delivery of some plot points. Elena’s narrative, once again, never wavers in tone and confidently carries readers through the course of two lives, but the shadowy circumstances of those lives will invite rereading and reinterpretation.
The enigmatic Ferrante, whose identity remains the subject of international literary gossip, has created a mythic portrait of a female friendship in the chthonian world of postwar Naples.
First-class account of the life and times of an essential riot grrrl and the band she helped create.
In this debut memoir, Brownstein, co-founder of the iconic punk band Sleater-Kinney, traces her evolution from the daughter of a secure but secretly unhappy home—closeted gay father, anorexic mother—to a gawky teenage rock fan and, ultimately, to becoming an artist in her own right. (She does not delve into her work on Portlandia.) The story of her life is also, inevitably, the story of her own band: meeting (and having a close but tortuous relationship with) co-founder Corin Tucker, the endless process of writing and co-writing songs and guitar leads, firing drummers (they went through three before striking gold with Janet Weiss), and the way life on the road both forges and fractures relationships. For Sleater-Kinney fans, the book is an absolute must, as it not only describes the rise of the band, but also delves into the making of every album. Furthermore, for a band in which song authorship has never been perfectly clear, Brownstein gives some insight as to who wrote what. More than that, the book is deeply personal, an act of self-discovery by a writer both telling her story and coming to understand herself at the same time. “In Sleater-Kinney,” she writes, “each song, each album, built an infrastructure, fresh skeletons.” The author writes focused and uncluttered prose, choosing the best, most telling details, as she recounts stories that show what it means to perform for the first time and what it means for a woman to be both a fan and a star in a staunchly male-dominated world.
Unlike many rock star memoirs, there’s no sense that this book is a chore or a marketing effort. It’s revealing and riveting. On the page as in her songs, Brownstein finds the right words to give shape to experience.
A tour-de-force first novel blisters with drought, myth, and originality.
Watkins drew gasps of praise and international prizes for Battleborn (2013), 10 short stories that burrowed into Reno, Nevada, its history, and her own. Now she clears the high bar of public expectation with a story set in a desiccated future where “practically everyone was thin now.” The callow Luz Dunn, 25, a former model from Malibu, has hooked up with nice-guy Ray Hollis, a surfer and AWOL soldier from “the forever war.” A large swath of the United States has gone “moonscape with sinkage, as the winds came and as Phoenix burned and as a white-hot superdune entombed Las Vegas.” In “laurelless canyon,” the couple squats in the abandoned mansion of a Los Angeles starlet, dodging evacuation roundups. When Luz and Ray stumble across a strange towheaded toddler, they—gingerly—form an ersatz family. But cornered with no documentation, Ray and Luz decide to scoop up the child and hit the road, seeking a rumored desert commune. It doesn’t go well. A sand dune the size of a sea begins barely beyond LA. The little girl keeps asking “What is?”—a device through which Watkins drops clues. On each page she spikes her novel with a ticking, musical intelligence: the title is a list of what drew people to California; an entire chapter hums with sentences beginning with “If she went….” The territory is more alluring and dystopian than Mad Max’s. Watkins writes an unforgettable scene with a carousel; another in a dank tunnel where the couple seeks contraband blueberries. The author freckles her fiction with incantations, odd detours, hallucinations, and jokes. Praised for writing landscape, Watkins’ grasp of the body is just as rousing. Into the vast desert she sets loose snakes and gurus, the Messianic pulse of end times. Critics will reference Annie Proulx’s bite and Joan Didion’s hypnotic West, but Watkins is magnificently original.
The ghost of John Muir meets a touch of Terry Gilliam.
Iconic poet, writer, and artist Smith (Just Kids, 2010, etc.) articulates the pensive rhythm of her life through the stations of her travels.
Spending much of her time crouched in a corner table of a Greenwich Village cafe sipping coffee, jotting quixotic notes in journals, and “plotting my next move,” the author reflects on the places she’s visited, the personal intercourse, and the impact each played on her past and present selves. She describes a time in 1978 when she planned to open her own cafe, but her plans changed following a chance meeting with MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, who swiftly stole and sealed her heart with marriage and children. A graceful, ruminative tour guide, Smith writes of traveling together with Fred armed with a vintage 1967 Polaroid to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in northwest French Guiana, then of solitary journeys to Frida Kahlo’s Mexican Casa Azul and to the graves of Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, and a swath of legendary Japanese filmmakers. After being seduced by Rockaway Beach in Queens and indulgently purchasing a ramshackle bungalow there, the property was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy—though she vowed to rebuild. In a hazy, often melancholy narrative, the author synchronizes past memories and contemporary musings on books, art, and Michigan life with Fred. Preferring to write productively from the comfort of her bed, Smith vividly describes herself as “an optimistic zombie propped up by pillows, producing pages of somnambulistic fruit.” She spent seasons of lethargy binge-watching crime TV, arguing with her remote control, venturing out to a spontaneous and awkward meeting with chess great Bobby Fischer, and trekking off to interview Paul Bowles in Tangiers. No matter the distance life may take her, Smith always recovers some semblance of normalcy with the simplistic pleasures of a deli coffee on her Gotham stoop, her mind constantly buoyed by humanity, art, and memory.
Not as focused as Just Kids, but an atmospheric, moody, and bittersweet memoir to be savored and pondered.
Insightful, richly entertaining look at a woman who, very late in the game, finds that life remains full of surprises.
It’s not often that a male writer gets inside the head of a female character without botching it somehow; Jim Harrison pulled it off in Dalva and maybe Daniel Defoe in Moll Flanders. Evison joins that short list with a yarn that, like his Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), seems a bit of a comic detour from his more serious earlier work (West of Here, 2011, etc.). The eponymous lead is wrestling with the fact that her husband of many decades has passed away, though she keeps seeing him; as the book opens, she’s working hard to convince her priest that “Bernard still lingered somehow in the earthly realm,” and certainly Bernard, “five decades of familiarity imprinted on her memory like a phantom limb,” continues to exercise some influence over his wife when she learns that he’s booked an Alaskan cruise for her, seemingly from beyond the grave. Naturally, Bernard haunts the halls of the cruise ship—but then, other unexpected persons turn up there, too, players in a seriocomic series of turns in which she discovers that her life with Bernard had plenty of corners that she never knew about. Harriet’s no patsy, but she has a way of blundering into mishaps, including a memorable run-in with security (“Do I look like a terrorist to you? For heaven’s sake, I’m Episcopalian!”). Evison allows his story to unfold at leisure, darting back and forth across the span of Harriet’s life and sometimes telegraphing what lies ahead: writing of (and to) her at the age of 30, for instance, he says of one to-be-revealed matter, “it will be 48 years before you will confide the information to anyone.” So Harriet, it seems, has secrets of her own.
Evison writes humanely and with good humor of his characters, who, like the rest of us, muddle through, too often without giving ourselves much of a break. A lovely, forgiving character study that’s a pleasure to read.
New York Times national security reporter Shane compares and contrasts the trajectories of President Barack Obama and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen residing in Yemen whom Obama ordered to be killed by a drone.
Al-Awlaki grew up in an educated Yemeni family. When his parents obtained their educations in the United States, he was born a citizen. He grew up in Yemen and returned to the United States at age 19. Obama was also born in the United States to a foreign father who was a secular-minded Muslim. Then Obama resided in Indonesia, returning to the United States at age 10. Due to 9/11, the superficial similarities between Obama and al-Awlaki became more meaningful. One would react by becoming an elected politician, the other by becoming a Muslim holy man who initially spoke for the moderate wing of his religion. But by the time Obama reached the presidency in 2008, al-Awlaki had unexpectedly become a militant calling for the death of the “infidel” Americans. Obama began to explore whether he had the authority as commander in chief of the military to send a drone into Yemen to kill al-Awlaki, even though the cleric had not been charged with a crime. By the time the book ends, al-Awlaki is dead, as is his teenage son. Shane became obsessed about learning how Obama, a former constitutional law professor, justified the drone strikes, especially given his opposition to the conduct of the war on terror created by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The author was equally intrigued by the change in philosophy adopted by al-Awlaki, which required a return to Yemen, as something of a fugitive, despite a privileged life in the U.S. In addition to following his two principals, the author examines the drone technology that gave Obama the remarkable ability to target someone thousands of miles away.
Shane's reporting is superb, and the way he frames the public policy debate makes the narrative compelling from start to finish.
Hours before a wedding, a fire kills the bride, the groom, her father, and her mother's boyfriend.
"When something like what happened at June Reid's that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters. Which is why, when you stumble upon something you can do, you do it. So that's what I did." This is the florist speaking: she will put the daisies she picked for the wedding into more than a hundred funeral arrangements. Other characters, particularly the parents of the dead, will have a harder time figuring out what comes next. June—who has lost not just everyone she loves, but her house, her clothes, and her passport as well—gets in a car and drives to the West Coast. Lydia Morey, whose handsome son, Luke, was June's much-younger boyfriend, is stuck in town dealing with small-minded gossip and speculation. Silas, a teenage pothead who was working at the house the day before the accident, slowly unpacks what he knows about the cause of the fatal blast. Literary agent and memoirist Clegg's (Ninety Days, 2013, etc.) debut novel moves restlessly among many different characters and locations, from the small town in Connecticut where the fire occurred to the motel in the Pacific Northwest where June lands, darting into the past then returning to the tragedy in its utter implacability. Yet the true subject of the book is consolation, the scraps of comfort people manage to find and share with one another, from a thermos of pea soup to a missing piece of information to the sound of the waves outside the Moonstone Motel.
An attempt to map how the unbearable is borne, elegantly written and bravely imagined.
The daughter of a Lithuanian Catholic mother and Russian Jewish father, Gabis (The Wild Field, 1994) brings her sensibility as a poet and indefatigable energy as a historian to this engrossing memoir.
As she notes, the author’s family spoke little about their past. Gabis knew that her maternal grandparents had come to America after World War II; that her grandfather had fought bravely against Russian invaders; that her grandmother had been arrested and sent to labor camps. However, several years ago, she found out more: her grandfather had been a Nazi security chief in a town where at least two mass slaughters had occurred. Shocked, Gabis suddenly recalled anti-Semitic remarks he made as she was growing up. For the next several years, she became obsessed with one question: was the man she had loved a murderer? The author’s research involved repeated trips to Israel, Poland, and Lithuania, where she still has relatives. In each place, she interviewed Holocaust survivors whose persecution she recounts in moving detail; in Lithuania, she talked with witnesses to Russian and German occupations. Lithuania, she discovered, “as a country…is indistinguishable from the invaders, collaborators, ghosts, heroines, thieves, defenders, and healers it contains….It’s those who know nothing about what went on behind closed doors and those who stood by and watched, those who shrugged and walked away.” The author also interviewed her aunts, whose stories were contradictory. Gabis petitioned for information from Lithuanian archives, discovered documents at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and eventually amassed some 400 pages of archival material. Her journey was frequently interrupted by obstacles: emergency heart surgery that delayed a research trip; a destructive flood in her apartment that damaged documents; food poisoning; her husband’s illness. But the greatest obstacle proved to be the blurred, slippery past, which continually frustrated her. “If I didn’t unravel” her grandfather’s mystery, she thinks, “it would unravel me.”
An eloquent testimony to the war’s enduring, violent impact.
An absorbing story of a modern marriage framed in Greek mythology.
Groff’s sharply drawn portrait of a marriage begins on a cold Maine beach, with newlyweds “on their knees, now, though the sand was rough and hurt. It didn’t matter. They were reduced to mouths and hands.” This opener ushers in an ambitious, knowing novel besotted with sex—in a kaleidoscope of variety—much more abundant than the commune-dwellers got up to in Groff’s luminous Arcadia (2012). The story centers first on Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite, a dashing actor at Vassar, who marries his classmate, flounders, then becomes a famous playwright. Lotto’s name evokes the lottery—and the Fates, as his half of the book is titled. His wife, the imperial and striking Mathilde, takes over the second section, Furies, astir with grief and revenge. The plotting is exquisite, and the sentences hum; Groff writes with a pleasurable, bantering vividness. Her book is smart, albeit with an occasional vibrato of overkill. The author gives this novel a harder edge and darker glow than previous work, echoing Mathilde’s observation, “She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” Indeed it is.
An intricate plot, perfect title, and a harrowing look at the tie that binds.
Four dozen stories by one of the form’s greatest practitioners.
Like pitchers, some writers are openers, and some are closers. Few are as accomplished as Williams (Honored Guest, 2004, etc.) in condensing the whole of a large, often painful world into a few closing sentences: “She coughs, but it is not the cough of a sick person because Pammy is a healthy girl.” “It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.” “She looked at the lamp. The lamp looked back at her as though it had no idea who she was.” Not that Williams can’t open a story well (one lead: “My mother began going to gun classes in February. She quit the yoga”); it’s just that her most arresting moments come well after we’ve stepped into the world she’s created. That world has less dirt for its characters to get under their fingernails than, say, Raymond Carver’s, but it has some of the same uneasiness: if people are doing OK one minute, they’re going to stumble the next, and it’s often the things unnoticed or unspoken that will trip them. In the title story, for instance, it’s not just the protagonist’s offhand comment that ends a long-crumbling friendship: “We’re all alone in a meaningless world. That’s it. OK?” Just because it’s meaningless doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be feared, though; in another singular moment, a young girl is terrified that birds will fly out of the toilet. Why wouldn’t they? And why don’t all short stories feature Gregory of Nyssa and javelinas?
Williams, to belabor the metaphor, isn’t just a closer, but a utility player at the top of her game. If you want to see how the pros do it—or simply want to read some of the best stories being written today—you need look no further.
From a Pulitzer Prize–winning theater and book critic, a memoir about being raised in upper-class black Chicago, where families worked tirelessly to distance themselves as much from lower-class black people as from white people.
Born in 1947, Jefferson (On Michael Jackson, 2006) has lived through an era that has seen radical shifts in the way black people are viewed and treated in the United States. The civil rights movement, shifting viewpoints on affirmative action, and the election of the first black president, with all the promise and peril it held: the author has borne witness to changes that her parents could only have dreamed about. Jefferson was born in a small part of Chicago where a “black elite” lived, to a father who was the head of pediatrics at Provident, the country’s oldest black hospital, and a socialite mother. The author describes a segment of the population intent on simultaneously distinguishing itself from both white people and lower-class black people and drawing from both groups to forge its own identity. She writes about being raised in a mindset that demanded the best from her and her family, while she also experienced resentment regarding the relative lack of recognition for the achievements they had earned. Jefferson tells a story of her parents seeing Sammy Davis Jr. on stage, early in his career, when he hadn’t yet established himself enough to completely let his own unique style shine through. Her parents could see the change coming, though—the self-assuredness in his performance—and they saw that as emblematic of their own rise.
Jefferson swings the narrative back and forth through her life, exploring the tides of racism, opportunity, and dignity while also provocatively exploring the inherent contradictions for Jefferson and her family members in working so tirelessly to differentiate themselves.
A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.
Celebrated music historian Guralnick (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2005, etc.) recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books, including a two-volume Presley biography (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ’n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88” (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history.
A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.
Longtime journalist and biographer Haygood (The Butler: A Witness to History, 2013, etc.), whose previous subjects have included Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., examines the confirmation battle over the first African-American nominated to the Supreme Court.
During the summer of 1967, Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) appeared for an unprecedented fifth day before the Senate Judiciary Committee. This confrontation between arguably the most consequential appellate attorney ever and the “Old Bulls” who dominated the interrogating panel is both the spine of Haygood’s narrative and the occasion for a number of ancillary stories that lend blood and guts to the superficial civilities of a Senate hearing. So we learn about Lyndon Johnson’s backstage maneuvering, first to create an opening on the court and second, to devise a backup plan in case Marshall’s nomination faltered; Marshall’s surprisingly good rapport with J. Edgar Hoover and testy relations with Robert Kennedy; Marshall’s early life and undergraduate career (he was a classmate of Langston Hughes); his legal training under famed mentors Charles Hamilton Houston and William Hastie; his work for the NAACP and the signal civil rights cases that made his reputation; his controversial interracial marriage; publisher Henry Luce’s threat to Southern senators who held up Marshall’s earlier nomination to the court of appeals; and the extraordinary scrutiny accorded Marshall compared to previous Supreme Court nominees. Most interesting is Haygood’s presentation of the Southern Democrats—Arkansas’ John McClellan, Mississippi’s James Eastland, North Carolina’s Sam Ervin—who considered Marshall “a public enemy of the South” and who strove to embarrass him before the nation and to expose him as dangerous and ill-suited to the high court. The author’s almost wholly admiring portrait of Marshall unfortunately includes some occasionally excessive or inexact language, but the stories are so good the author is easily forgiven.
An intensely readable, fully explored account of what the New York Times called an “ordeal by committee,” an important hinge in American history.
A New Yorker staff writer delves into the strange lives and curious mindsets of extreme altruists.
In her debut book, MacFarquhar profiles a small, unusual collection of people who have sacrificed almost everything to help others. She calls them “do-gooders,” but their morals are so acute that they can seem almost mad, like saints and martyrs. A trust-funder–turned–animal activist descends into homelessness in the name of his cause. A couple in Boston gives the vast majority of their earnings to charity but struggles with the idea of having children. A couple in Philadelphia adopts more than 20 special needs children despite the terrible cost to their own fragile psyches. A woman donates a kidney to a stranger, and her act inspires a terrible hostility from other strangers. A Buddhist priest in Japan counsels people who want to commit suicide only to have them turn on him in his hour of need. In between these profiles, MacFarquhar explores a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology, and literature. It's admirable that the book never descends into an opaque discussion of moral philosophy. As the author admits, “in the abstract, there are ideas about saints and perfection. Only actual lives convey fully and in a visceral way the beauty and cost of a certain kind of moral existence.” The book is less a defense of sainthood than a portrait of people for whom the desire to do good often backfires, sometimes with horrible results. Yet MacFarquhar also discovers an intense compassion for these people whose lives she admires but cannot always understand. “It may be true that not everyone should be a do-gooder,” the author writes. “But it is also true that these strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive.”
Fascinating and terrifying portraits of saints and ministers of grace.
Award-winning novelist, poet, and MacArthur Fellow Cisneros (Have You Seen Marie?, 2012, etc.) describes her first novel, The House on Mango Street (1983), as a series of discrete vignettes that could be read as a whole “to tell one big story…like beads in a necklace.” That description is apt, as well, for this warm, gently told memoir assembled from essays, talks, tributes to artists and writers, introductions, and poems, most previously published over the last several decades. “I am the only daughter in a family of six sons. That explains everything,” Cisneros once wrote as a contributor’s note. But she admits her identity has been shaped, as well, by her proud, stern Mexican father, “intelligent, self-taught” Mexican-American mother, and by her childhood in working-class Chicago. Although she exalts in her identity as a Latina, she realized on a trip to Mexico, when she was 30, that like other “naive American children of immigrants,” she was “filled with nostalgia for an imaginary country—one that exists only in images borrowed from art galleries and old Mexican movies.” Cisneros chronicles the creation of her first novel, begun in graduate school at the University of Iowa, when she was 22, and completed on the Greek island of Hydra in a whitewashed house with “thick walls, gentle lines, and rounded corners, as if carved from feta cheese.” Homes feature in many pieces: the apartments her family moved into, always looking for cheaper rent; the house they finally bought, where the author had a closet-sized bedroom; her house in San Antonio that she painted purple, raising objections from the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission. Besides reflecting on her writing, Cisneros discloses a period of severe, suicidal depression when she was 33; a tantalizing family secret; and eulogies for her parents.
A charming, tender memoir from an acclaimed Mexican-American author.
A young Dominican girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn forges a relationship with a white woman living in a bucolic upstate town and learns to love horses and respect herself.
Eleven-year-old Velvet has a soft name, but there’s nothing even remotely plush about her life in a rough part of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Abused (mostly, but not only, verbally) by her mother, a tough immigrant, Velvet has little to call her own (she keeps her treasured objects—a shell, a dried sea horse, a broken keychain doll—in an old cotton-ball box in the back of a closet) and few friends, almost no one she can trust. Velvet’s mother clearly prefers her 6-year-old son, Dante, singing him to sleep at night with her back to Velvet in the family’s shared bed. Instead of comfort and cuddles, Velvet gets the message that she’s “no good”—not that it’s really her fault; it’s just that her blood is bad. While Velvet craves her mother’s love and attention, Ginger, a 47-year-old sometime artist recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, an abusive relationship, and the death of her troubled sister, finds herself yearning for a child. Now living a comfortable life in upstate New York with Paul, her college-professor husband, Ginger has decided to “test the waters” of adoption by hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid for a couple of weeks, a commitment that stretches far longer and deeper. That’s how Velvet and Ginger meet, and it's also how Velvet meets a mistrustful and mistreated horse at the stable next door to Ginger's house, the horse the others call “Fugly Girl” and she renames “Fiery Girl,” whom she will tame and train, and who will do the same for her. Alternating primarily between Velvet's and Ginger’s perspectives, with occasional observations from other characters, National Book Award finalist Gaitskill (Veronica, 2005, etc.) takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting.
Gaitskill explores the complexities of love (mares, meres…) to bring us a novel that gallops along like a bracing bareback ride on a powerful thoroughbred.
Sex, drugs, and mariachi: Irving’s (In One Person, 2013, etc.) latest ventures south of the border and then back again, tracing the long road and unforeseeable turns that we travel in this world.
The sex is constant—at least the desire for it is. (“Juan Diego had noticed that Miriam’s breasts were also attractive, though her nipples were not visible through her sweater.”) The drugs: well, do Lopressor and Viagra count? And as for the mariachi, it’s the soundtrack to a long dream in which “it was impossible to tell where the music came from.” When you come to think of it, life itself is pretty much an avenue of mysteries, though, per Irving, not without its comedy in the midst of tragedy and disappointment. Juan Diego, whose very name invokes the first saint of the Americas, has had an eventful journey over half a century from the landfills of Guerrero to Iowa and literary renown; now an accomplished writer, he nears the end of that journey in a faraway city, drifting in and out of a long dream in which he retraces his steps. Or, perhaps, a step and a limp, for, in good Greek tragic mode, Juan Diego nurses a crushed foot that reminds him of the receding past with every ache. Now in Manila, a place that shares the English and Spanish halves of Juan Diego’s self but adds its own exotic element, Juan Diego confronts his mortality while puzzling out questions of a theological and much more earthly nature: the mother-and-daughter team that he lusts for over 500-odd pages, for instance, may be more than ordinary mortals, just as everyone Juan Diego has met may be angels or devils in disguise. Irving works his familiar themes—Catholicism, sex, death—with a light and assured touch, and though the dream-narrative construct is a little shelf-worn, it serves the story well.
Though not as irresistible as early works such as The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, a welcome return to form.
A darkly comic, lightly metafictional tale about a banker seeking love and a novelist seeking wealth amid the fallout from the financial boom and bust in Ireland.
Claude Martingale, a well-paid analyst in the Bank of Torabundo’s Dublin office, finds his routine upset when a man named Paul asks if he can trail Claude as research for his next novel. It isn’t long before Claude discovers the research actually entails casing his bank, one of several moneymaking schemes Paul undertakes. Still, the two men form a cautious friendship, and Paul tries to help shy Claude talk up the Greek waitress Ariadne, while Claude tries to prod Paul back to the writing he's fled since his first novel was panned. Murray (Skippy Dies, 2010, etc.), the real and well-reviewed novelist named Paul, offers his alter ego’s scams as humorous microcosm to the avaricious inventions still common in the financial world two years after Lehman Brothers collapsed. Other parallels abound. Just as fictional Paul has a delightfully profane Russian sidekick, the bank’s hedge fund chief relies on a Russian math whiz and his “providential antinomies” that “monetize failure.” Ariadne has a rant on Greece’s financial chaos as preview for where Ireland is headed. A writer quits that trade to become an artist who turns his written pages into art within a frame. So Murray creates the novel his other Paul is meant to produce at the urging of a guilt-ridden banker and another character who asks, “when are our writers going to address the banking crisis?” The speaker is the powerful critic who slammed fictional Paul’s debut.
Murray manages the trick of being thoughtful and entertaining. His creative energy sends the book in many directions, making it a little loose and lumpy, but the same may be said of Dickens, with whom real Paul also shares wit, sympathy, and a purposeful sense of mischief.
Rough-edged mid-1970s New York provides the backdrop for an epic panorama of musicians, writers, and power brokers and the surprising ways they connect.
New Year’s Eve 1976: Sam, a fanzine author and hanger-on in the Manhattan punk scene, abandons her plan to attend a concert and instead heads to Central Park, where she’s later discovered shot and clinging to life. Why’d she head uptown? Who shot her? Thereby hangs a remarkably assured, multivalent tale that strives to explore multiple strata of Manhattan life with photographic realism. Most prominent in this busy milieu are William, the scion of a banking family who’s abandoned money for the sake of music, art, and drugs; Nicky, the coke-fueled head of an East Village squat who delivers motor-mouthed pronunciamentos on post-humanism and is curiously in the know about arson in the Bronx; Richard, a magazine journalist whose profile of Sam’s father, the head of a fireworks firm, leads to suspicion that there’s a bigger story to be told. With more than 900 pages at his disposal, Hallberg (A Field Guide to the North American Family, 2007) gives his characters plenty of breathing room, but the story never feels overwritten, and the plotlines interlace without feeling pat. One theme of the novel is the power that stories, true or false, have over our lives, so it’s hard to miss other writers’ influences here. At times the novel feels like a metafictional tribute to America’s finest doorstop manufacturers, circa 1970 to the present: Price (street-wise cops), Wolfe (top-tier wealth), Franzen (busted families), Wallace (the seductions of drugs and pop culture), and DeLillo (the unseen forces behind everything). That's not to say he's written a pastiche, but as his various plotlines braid tighter during the July 1977 blackout, his novel becomes an ambitious showpiece for just how much the novel can contain without busting apart.