A literary novel about cancer and the way a husband and wife try to survive.
Alice is sick. Leukemia. She and her husband, Oliver, once lived in the New York world of “important gallery openings, industry parties, [and] runway shows,” but no longer; now, they navigate chemo and health care and fret about their young daughter growing up without a mother. Alice and Oliver decide to approach the situation with, as they put it, blinders on, trying only to handle each new day. A good strategy—until it drives them into their own heads, breaking down communication and isolating them from each other. Heavy stuff, and Bock (Beautiful Children, 2008) understands his material well, as he went through this sad experience with his own wife. In a way, this novel feels critic-proof: who would dare nitpick a work of such authorial catharsis? Stories that use illness as the primary plot engine can invite skepticism. Every reader inherently sympathizes, so the author may have to do less work on the nuance end of things. But Bock’s real act of genius is to start with the cancer, to develop his characters in the shadow of the diagnosis, and then, as the book goes on, to grow the story around the cancer; as family and friends begin showing up to provide sympathy (Alice is skeptical: “All these people got to feel a little better about themselves, and feel sorry for her, and then leave and go on with their normal lives”), we learn more about Alice and Oliver, about their lives. The illness doesn’t interrupt humanity; humanity grows from the illness, which is a narrative strategy that makes the book one of the most moving in recent memory.
A stunning book about Alice and Oliver, yes, but also about the way illness shatters us all.
Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.
The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.
Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.
On the brink of her marriage, a charmingly quirky, unassumingly intelligent, and winningly warmhearted young woman forges an unusually strong bond with a squirrel.
It’s easy to understand why everyone in Veblen Amundsen-Hovda’s life adores and depends on her. The heroine of McKenzie’s (MacGregor Tells the World, 2007, etc.) disarmingly offbeat novel is the sort of person who not only sews her own clothes and fixes up her own tumbledown bungalow (in ultrapricey Palo Alto, California), but supports herself working temp jobs while performing the unappreciated yet worthy task of translating texts from Norwegian, especially those pertaining to maverick economist, anti-materialist, and leisure-class critic Thorstein Veblen, after whom she was named. Veblen—whom the author describes as an “independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self”—has just gotten engaged to Paul Vreeland, an equally charming yet outwardly more conventional young neurologist, whose academic research has led to a device that's captured the attention of industry and the Department of Defense. Paul and Veblen are in love, betrothed, and planning their wedding and life together, but Paul is tempted by the kind of “conspicuous consumption” Veblen’s economist namesake and hero railed against. Meanwhile, Veblen’s heart has been stolen by a squirrel, who she suspects understands her in a way no one else may. Paul is struggling to calibrate his ethical compass—and to come to terms with his issues surrounding his hippy parents and his intellectually disabled brother, Justin. Veblen is laboring to free herself from the demands of her narcissistic, hypochondriacal mother (not to mention the mentally unstable father who was mostly absent from her childhood) and stake her claim to her own healthy identity and future. Will these kind, if somewhat confused, young people find their ways out of the past and to each other and a happy shared future? The reader can’t help rooting them on.
McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.
A haunted, haunting examination of mental illness and murder in a more or less ordinary American city.
The small ghosts of debut author Tillman’s title are those of three young children, innocent of any wrongdoing, who were killed in March 2003 by a drugged, arguably insane young man, the father of one of the victims, and his common-law wife. And not just killed: apparently convinced that the children were possessed, John Allen Rubio stabbed them repeatedly and decapitated them. Not for nothing is one of the chapters titled “Don’t Read This Chapter Before Going to Bed”: the facts of the case are horrific. A journalist working in Brownsville, Texas, when the case occurred, Tillman writes of her initial reluctance to engage the story. “I had never been drawn to tragic crimes,” she writes. “Like many people, I pushed them out of mind when I could. It was easier to box them up and store them on a mental shelf of humanity’s worst moments.” Moreover, the media plays these tragic crimes for a time and then shelves them, moving on to the next atrocity. But what of the actors in the crime? Tillman looks deeply into the life and mind of Rubio, with whom she corresponded as he idled on death row, alternately convinced that he was the hero of the piece and aware of his guilt. The author raises or intimates difficult questions as she hears out Rubio, whose insanity defense was unsuccessful: what is it about our kind that makes us do such awful things? How does a community where an awful crime has been committed work toward healing after the cameras have been packed up and the reporters’ notepads put away? How much compassion does a mentally ill person who has murdered deserve? Tillman’s narrative, mature and thoughtful, eventually forces readers to examine the justice of the death penalty itself.
A Helter Skelter for our time, though without a hint of sensationalism—unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence and deep empathy.
In this comic dissection of male bonding, a group of men gathers for their yearly celebration and re-enactment of a notorious play in professional football.
In their 17th annual gathering, 22 men arrive at a 2 ½–star hotel on U.S. Interstate 95 for a weekend of rituals tied to the five seconds in 1985 when Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants sacked Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and fractured the tibia and fibula of his right leg, ending his career. Bachelder (Abbott Awaits, 2011, etc.) looks at the strange, inane, and obvious things American males deem holy—as well as the many small pains they tend to share without “sharing.” Among the weekend’s big moments are the lottery assigning each man’s role as a real-life athlete from the 1985 game, the viewing of video of the sack, and the re-enactment itself. Bachelder seems able to riff wryly on almost anything. One conversation concerns those whose wives have asked them to sit while urinating. Another details a man’s attraction to the women pictured in illustrated children’s books. Yet another drifts “inevitably toward vasectomy and time share.” Eight delightful pages begin: “It would be difficult to overstate the men’s enthusiasm for continental breakfast.” As a group, the middle-aged men produce “waves of masculine sound, the toneless song of regret and exclamation." They often talk in a “complex alloy of sincerity and derision.” One on one, they may speak quietly of their children and marriages and wonder when “daily life [would] cease to consist of a series of small threats.”
Bachelder’s take on manhood is sharply observed and sympathetic and funny enough to win over even those readers who abhor football and its fans.
A candid and deeply unsettling account of the author’s work as a government contractor in Iraq charged with interrogating detainees in Baghdad, Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib.
A devout Presbyterian who grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, attended Gordon College, a Christian school, and earned a degree at Boston University, Pushcart Prize winner Fair enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1995 out of a desire to protect people. After learning Arabic, he was deployed to the Middle East as a linguist but found Army life monotonous. Torn by conflicting impulses (two psychologists deemed him unstable), he served briefly as a police officer but felt destined to become a minister. In 2003, he signed on as an interrogator with CACI International. The author relates his experiences in a low-key, matter-of-fact manner that nonetheless makes palpable his confusion about his life and goals. His disquiet became intolerable during his interrogations of Iraqi prisoners of war, which involved sleep deprivation, stress positions, isolation, and other forms of officially sanctioned torture. “I shouldn’t be here,” he writes. And: “I’ve done things that cannot be undone.” Feeling guilty and ashamed, Fair realized he had sinned: “There is to be no redemption for me in Iraq.” Eschewing abstract discussions of torture and the war, the author offers a beguiling personal narrative that forces readers to share his pain and uncertainty over his circumstances. “I cannot ask God to accompany me into the interrogation booth,” he writes. Told against the background of his failing heart (he required a transplant), his failing hometown (Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt), and his war-strained marriage, his affecting narrative points up the larger failures of interrogators like himself to prevent abusive acts and of the country to end its endorsement of torture. Fair recounts his drinking and horrible nightmares, friendships with fellow contractors, and encounters with Iraqis suspected of anti-coalition activities. Some sections of the book have been redacted.
A startling debut from a haunted individual who wishes he had left Iraq earlier “with my soul intact.”
A family reckons with the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of a child in this debut novel from a young Nigerian writer.
On the eve of Ajie and Bibi’s return to high school, their 17-year-old older brother, Paul, steps out to see a friend and doesn't return. The night passes, then another day. Paul, the well-behaved, exemplary student, has never disappeared before, and the household is thrown into turmoil. “Paul knows how dangerous the roads can be at night,” murmurs his worried mother. Paul’s father turns to the police, then radio and newspaper announcements. As the last person to see Paul before his disappearance, Ajie, the youngest child, is wracked with guilt that shadows his relationships with his sister, Bibi, and their parents. The story gracefully weaves back and forth in time from the siblings' early childhood to the present day in their Port Harcourt, Nigeria, neighborhood, and suddenly, every little thing is imbued with deeper meaning, made fateful through retrospect. “Things happen in clusters,” Ajie thinks. And this was a year “of rumors, radio announcements, student riots, and sudden disappearances,” a year where “five young men had been shot dead by the square in broad daylight.” This is the world of Ajie and his family, a world Ile builds in rich, vivid details. But the disappearance of Paul remains the central driving question of the narrative. Where did he go? And was his disappearance fair play or foul? This engrossing novel, couched in poetic, evocative language, creates a suspenseful yet sophisticated narrative from the first page. Here are beautifully drawn characters grounded in the universal story of young Ajie discovering the world around him—a world recovering from the not-so-distant wars of the previous generations and their legacy, which still bleeds into present politics.
A deeply rewarding novel that heralds the birth of a major new literary talent.