Deeply perceptive and dryly hilarious, Attenberg’s (Saint Mazie, 2015, etc.) latest novel follows Andrea Bern: on the cusp of 40, single, child-free by choice, and reasonably content, she’s living a life that still, even now, bucks societal conventions. But without the benchmarks of “grown up” success—an engagement, a husband, a baby—Andrea is left to navigate her own shifting understanding of adulthood.
“Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me? I’m other things, too,” Andrea says, much to the delight of her therapist, who wants to know, then, what exactly those other things are. She is a woman, Andrea says. A designer who works in advertising; a New Yorker; technically, a Jew. A friend, she tells her therapist. A daughter, a sister, an aunt. Here are the things that Andrea does not say: she’s alone. A drinker. A former artist. A shrieker in bed. At 39, Andrea is neither an aspirational figure nor a cautionary tale of urban solitude. She is, instead, a human being, a person who, a few years ago, got a pair of raises at work and paid off her debt from her abandoned graduate program and then bought some real furniture, as well as proper wine glasses. And still she does not fully compute to the people around her, people whose “lives are constructed like buildings, each precious but totally unsurprising block stacked before your eyes.” Everyone is married or marrying, parenting or pregnant, and it’s not so much that she’s lusting after these things, specifically—neither marriage nor babies is her “bag,” anyway—so much as it’s that her lack of them puts her at odds with the adult world and its definitions of progress. Structured as a series of addictive vignettes—they fly by if you let them, though they deserve to be savored—the novel is a study not only of Andrea, but of her entire ecosystem: her gorgeous, earthy best friend whose perfect marriage maybe isn’t; her much younger co-worker; her friend, the broke artist, who is also her ex-boyfriend and sometimes her current one. And above all, her brother and his wife, whose marriage, once a living affirmation of the possibility of love, is now crumbling under the pressure of their terminally ill child.
Wry, sharp, and profoundly kind; a necessary pleasure.
The story of one man’s quest, simply and movingly told.
Each January, the village of Laborde, in southeastern Argentina, holds a national folkloric dance competition for the best performance of the malambo. Rigorous, energetic, and demanding, the malambo can be described simply as “a battle between men who tap in turn to music.” The competition requires that the dancer perform for five minutes—which feels like an eternity and leaves the performer drained and exhausted. With its intricate moves, athleticism, and musicality, the dance requires years of arduous training and intense concentration, but the effort is worth the outcome: national prestige. Winning the contest can be life-changing; the winner is acclaimed throughout the country, and he becomes a superstar, role model, and hero. With so much at stake, the competition is fierce. Journalist Guerriero traveled to Laborde to witness the event and became entranced by one competitor: the modest, handsome Rodolfo González Alcántara, a 28-year-old dance teacher from the town of La Pampa. When he performed, writes the author, “he made the night crackle.” Born into poverty, eking out a living teaching, Rodolfo nevertheless ardently pursued his dream of becoming a master of malambo, taking lessons, practicing for hours each day, and assessing and evaluating every step. With gentle sensitivity, Guerriero portrays his family, his encouraging teacher, his loyal girlfriend (also a dancer), and his grateful pupils. Rodolfo has no illusions about his talent and has to convince himself repeatedly that he can be a champion. His story “was that of a man who had awakened the most dangerous of emotions: hope.” Guerriero transforms Rodolfo’s quest into a fable, reminiscent of the work of her countrymen Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. She portrays Rodolfo with such obvious affection that readers cannot help cheer him on, but it would spoil the tension that the author masterfully creates to reveal the outcome of the competition.
A timeless tale rendered in spare, evocative prose.
Hamid (Discontent and Its Civilizations, 2014, etc.) crafts a richly imaginative tale of love and loss in the ashes of civil war.
The country—well, it doesn’t much matter, one of any number that are riven by sectarian violence, by militias and fundamentalists and repressive government troops. It’s a place where a ponytailed spice merchant might vanish only to be found headless, decapitated “nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort.” Against this background, Nadia and Saeed don’t stand much of a chance; she wears a burka but only “so men don’t fuck with me,” but otherwise the two young lovers don’t do a lot to try to blend in, spending their days ingesting “shrooms” and smoking a little ganga to get away from the explosions and screams, listening to records that the militants have forbidden, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible, Saeed crouching in terror at the “flying robots high above in the darkening sky.” Fortunately, there’s a way out: some portal, both literal and fantastic, that the militants haven’t yet discovered and that, for a price, leads outside the embattled city to the West. “When we migrate,” writes Hamid, “we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” True, and Saeed and Nadia murder a bit of themselves in fleeing, too, making new homes in London and then San Francisco while shed of their old, innocent selves and now locked in descending unhappiness, sharing a bed without touching, just two among countless nameless and faceless refugees in an uncaring new world. Saeed and Nadia understand what would happen if millions of people suddenly turned up in their country, fleeing a war far away. That doesn’t really make things better, though. Unable to protect each other, fearful but resolute, their lives turn in unexpected ways in this new world.
One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.
A journalist’s account of a Massachusetts man who went deep into the Maine woods to live a life of solitude and self-sufficiency.
While scanning the news online, Finkel (True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, 2005) came across the story of Christopher Knight. Police officers had arrested Knight for burglary, but when they questioned him further, they discovered that their suspect had been living alone in the wild for 27 years. Fascinated, the author sought out the “North Pond hermit” to learn why he had turned his back on society and understand the challenges he now faced with reintegration. Knight’s boyhood and adolescence had been ordinary; his most outstanding traits were his shyness and penchant for solitude. Then, when he was 20, he suddenly quit his job. Without saying a word to friends or family, he went on a road trip that eventually led him to the shores of Moosehead Lake in Maine. There, he parked his car and, carrying only a backpack and a tent, “stepped into the trees and walked away.” Knight built a shelter deep in the woods, where he camped outdoors even during the bitterest of Maine winters. He broke into nearby cottages, where he stole only what he needed to survive, including food, clothing, and magazines. His burglaries—for which he admitted feeling “ashamed”—frightened residents at first. However, over time, many became used to his “visits” and even tried to leave out supplies for him to take. Through interviews conducted with the elusive Knight and those who knew him, Finkel creates a sympathetic portrait of a gentle yet quietly troubled man who willingly chose a Spartan existence in nature as a way to find the peace and freedom that eluded him in society. The narrative that emerges from Finkel’s compassionate research not only probes the nature of the relationship between the individual and society, but also ponders the meaning of happiness and fulfillment in the modern world.
Neruda Diaz carries around his legendary namesake's poems, but they haven't helped him find the love he desperately seeks.
Latino 16-year-old Neruda Diaz was named in tribute to his Chilean father and grandfather's favorite poet, Pablo Neruda. A talented portrait artist, Neruda is determined to achieve the kind of overwhelming love "The Poet" captured, but so far he's "unluckiest in love" and has fallen unrequitedly for eight different girls. When his English teacher assigns a biography project, Neruda ends up partnered with aloof, white classmate Callie Leibowitz, who turns out to love volleyball, classic movies, and makeup art. Their blossoming friendship makes Neruda wonder if Callie could be the one, but his concept of love begins to waver as he uncovers a family betrayal. Though less of an issues book than the author's previous titles (There Will Come a Time, 2014; Out of Reach, 2012), there's still plenty of thought-provoking substance to Arcos' third. The focus on the power of friendship (Neruda's best friend, Mexican-American Ezra, is a recently released ex-con ready to restart his life), art (visual, literary, even makeup), and family relationships makes this considerably more layered than the typical high school romance. Neruda is a great example of the sort of thoughtful and artistic male protagonist teen literature really needs.
This satisfying and unconventional love story explores the various meanings of the word.
A professional thank-you-note writer buys a house with a past and gets more than she bargained for.
Faith Frankel is feeling like a bit of a loser. She has a futureless job writing letters to alumni in the development department of her old private school. Her fiance, who gave her a piece of red thread in lieu of an engagement ring, is on a cross-country walk to benefit his own personal growth and is documenting the trip on Facebook with selfies that include smiling ex-girlfriends in locations across the country. Her insurance-agent father has become a painter in his retirement and left her mother for the woman who convinced him to start a bat-mitzvah-gift forgery business. “She asked if he could make a copy of Chagall, but perhaps more lavender than blue—purple was their daughter’s favorite color—and work her daughter’s name into it, and give the angel her face, with her bangs but without her braces.” This, it turns out, is a business model whose time has come. When Faith finds, in the attic of her new little house, a photo album containing images of what may be dead twin babies, she's so creeped out that she offers her empty second bedroom to her handsome, kind, newly single, and homeless officemate. Nick Franconi is another idea whose time has come. Of course things will get worse before they get better, with the local police department ripping up her basement in search of murder evidence and a scandal at the office in which Faith is accused of funneling a huge alumni donation to her fiance. Lipman (The View from Penthouse B, 2013, etc.) is known for her dialogue, so snappy, funny, and real that it cancels out any dubiousness about the kooky mystery plot.
A debut memoirist tells the story of her mother’s brutal murder and her difficult relationship with her father, who followed his wife to the grave 14 years later.
When Carroll was 4 years old, police discovered the body of her mother, Joan, on the side of the highway. Fourteen years later, they found her father, Kevin, who had died from an enlarged heart and liver disease, in a room in a cheap Rhode Island hotel. The question of who her parents were and how they had come to such tragic ends haunted Carroll into adulthood. Determined to find answers, she scoured her memory, newspaper accounts, and police records for clues and interviewed people who had known them both. Carroll speculates that her cocaine-addicted mother got involved with drugs through her father, a man who may have given Joan pills from the “collection” he took to manage mental illness. Joan’s addiction eventually led to ties with the Mafia drug lord who killed her out of fear she would turn him in to the police. Not long after his first wife's death, Kevin remarried and moved the family from Providence to Barrington, an upscale Rhode Island town that made them all feel “normal and wealthy and safe.” Yet alcoholism and manic depression took their tolls. Kevin and his new wife eventually divorced, while Carroll moved between homes and through high school in a haze of angst-ridden confusion. Yet it was after her father’s death that she was finally able to “reinvent [herself] as wholesome, and capable” and begin the long, difficult task of making sense of her family’s tragic history. Unsentimental and simply told, Carroll’s quietly powerful story offers a courageous, cleareyed vision of a broken family while exploring the meaning of forgiveness.
An honest and probing memoir of coming to terms with family.