Orange Is the New Black actress Guerrero delivers an affecting tale of a childhood lived in the margins.
Born to undocumented Colombian immigrants upon their arrival stateside, the author quickly learned not to draw attention to herself or her parents. Mami and Papi, lovingly detailed in colloquial and well-paced prose, were hardworking and doting parents, deeply supportive of the author’s interest in the arts. Growing older, Guerrero noticed the small differences that set her family apart—e.g., the way her father’s personality shrunk in public or the terror inspired by an unexpected guest at the door. Mami and Papi struggled tirelessly to remedy their immigration status, but the family’s worst fears were realized when the author was 14: she arrived home from school to an empty house, discovering her parents had been deported just hours earlier. In the book’s strongest passages, Guerrero recounts the fear, shame, and instability that followed. Taken in by a family friend, she found solace in the performing arts while her relationship with her parents grew more fractured over time and distance. As she attempted to define herself and her future, Guerrero grappled with a number of serious financial obstacles and mental health issues, further deepening the rift in familial ties. The author’s candor in chronicling the lowest moments of her life reads like an urgent confessional. Indeed, it wasn’t until she shared her story that the healing—and her acting career—could finally begin. Readers looking for intricate details about Guerrero’s time on set will be disappointed; the sections recounting her Hollywood experiences are rushed, often cluttered with unnecessary detail. The author’s greatest strength lies in her ability to advocate for undocumented immigrants and others affected by immigration status: “I’ve written the book that I wish I could have read when I was that girl.”
A moving, humanizing portrait of the collateral damage caused by America’s immigration policy.
This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis.
Something has happened to Michael in the opening pages, which are told in the voice of his brother, Alec. The next chapter is narrated by Margaret, the mother of Michael, 12, Celia, 10, and Alec, 7, and the wife of John, as they prepare for a vacation in Maine. Soon, a flashback reveals that shortly before John and Margaret were to wed, she learned of his periodic mental illness, a “sort of hibernation” in which “the mind closes down.” She marries him anyway and comes to worry about the recurrence of his hibernations—which exacerbate their constant money problems—only to witness Michael bearing the awful legacy. Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch, how they cope with the loss of John and the challenge of Michael. Haslett (Union Atlantic, 2009, etc.) shapes these characters with such sympathy, detail, and skill that reading about them is akin to living among them. The portrait of Michael stands out: a clever, winning youth who becomes a kind of scholar of contemporary music with an empathy for black history and a wretched dependence on Klonopin and many other drugs to keep his anxiety at bay, to glimpse a “world unfettered by dread.”
As vivid and moving as the novel is, it’s not because Haslett strives to surprise but because he’s so mindful and expressive of how much precious life there is in both normalcy and anguish.
Smith’s latest novel (Bright and Distant Shores, 2011, etc.) is a rich and detailed story that connects a 17th-century Dutch painting to its 20th-century American owner and the lonely but fervent art student who makes the life-changing decision to forge it.
Marty de Groot, a Manhattan lawyer plagued by infertility and the stuffiness that comes from centuries of familial wealth, has one special thing to his name: a collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, including rare pieces by female artists of the era. At the Edge of the Wood is the only work attributed to Sarah de Vos, and it’s hung above the marital bed in Marty’s Park Avenue triplex for generations. Until one fall day in 1957 it’s plucked off his wall and replaced by a meticulously executed forgery. Behind this deception is not a mastermind but an Australian graduate student named Ellie Shipley, who was approached by a secretive art dealer to replicate the painting. Ellie lives and thinks like a member of the Dutch golden age, boiling rabbit pelts in her claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment for glue, pulling apart antique canvases to understand their bones, and building them up again layer by layer. This is a woman who sees herself in de Vos and would do anything to merge their legacies together. In showing how this is a monumental occasion in Ellie's life, a truly intimate experience for her, Smith turns forgery into art, replication into longing, deceit into an act of love: Ellie works in “topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old.” The narrative stretches from a period of grief in de Vos’ life that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood, to 1950s New York to the year 2000 at a museum in Sydney where original and forgery meet—in turn reconnecting Ellie with Marty. “Here comes Marty de Groot, the wrecking ball of the past”: just one example of the suspense Smith manages to carry throughout his narrative, suspense bound up in brilliant layers of paint and the people who dedicate their lives to appreciating its value.
This is a beautiful, patient, and timeless book, one that builds upon centuries and shows how the smallest choices—like the chosen mix for yellow paint—can be the definitive markings of an entire life.
In a slender volume that contains multitudes, the award-winning critic and novelist details his travels in such far-flung places as Tahiti and the Arctic Circle.
In the author’s note, Dyer (Writer-in-Residence/Univ. of Southern California; Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, 2014) proclaims the subsequent “chapters,” for lack of a better word, are “a mixture of fact and fiction…the figure at the centre of the carpet and a blank space on a map.” Prefacing each chapter with a brief anecdote relating to a physical landscape of memory—e.g., a rock formation called Devil’s Chimney at Leckhampton Hill that his uncle climbed—Dyer creates a pictorial framework for his digressions on place and culture. (There are also photographs throughout.) Referencing D.H. Lawrence’s use of the term “nodality” and how certain places feel “temporary” and others “final,” the author inflects his musings on place with a mystical quality as he recounts experiences tracking Paul Gauguin’s footsteps in Tahiti, a trip to upper Norway to see the northern lights, and a pilgrimage to Theodor Adorno’s Brentwood, California, house, among others. The two standout chapters focus on Dyer’s adventures experiencing Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, both landmarks of the land art movement. Though the author’s travels are diverse, he has an outsized fascination with the vastness of the American West. However, his interest in landscape goes beyond a sacrosanct connection to the Earth. With philosophical incisiveness, Dyer extols the virtue of landscape to conjure in himself the tangible and the mirage, the real and the illusion, the possessed object and the desired object. There is an undeniable joy throughout Dyer’s writing, an affirmation that travel and the experience of place—not merely being someplace, but being present in it—is a gateway to the humanity of past, present, and future.
A mesmerizing compendium that reflects on time, place, and just what, exactly, we are doing here.
In her eighth novel, a coming-of-age story set in rural Pennsylvania, Quindlen (Still Life with Bread Crumbs, 2014, etc.) focuses on a young woman buffeted by upheavals in her personal life and a threat to the farmland her family has owned for generations.
Mimi Miller is 11 when we meet her, a farm girl who sells corn by the side of the road and, at night, eavesdrops on her parents’ conversations by way of a heating vent. Her mother is a nurse, strong-willed and unsentimental, her father a genial man who farms and fixes things. Mimi has two older brothers, the stalwart Edward and the wastrel Tommy, as well as an agoraphobic aunt who lives in another house on the Millers’ property. Government officials are lobbying the Millers and their neighbors to relocate so their flood-prone area can be turned into a reservoir. Meanwhile, the charming but feckless Tommy enlists in the Marines, then goes seriously astray when he returns home. Mimi, by contrast, excels at schoolwork—science in particular—and finds an ardent, if not entirely appropriate, suitor. Quindlen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning essayist and former reporter, writes with great empathy, making you care deeply about her characters. Her language is simple but true: “Sometimes there are things that you’ve rehearsed so many times, thought about so often, that when they happen it’s like they already happened a long long time ago,” Mimi says of her father’s passing. Perhaps there is a bit too much summing up in the book’s final chapter, but it still manages to be quite stirring, in an Our Town sort of way.
There are familiar elements in this story—the troubled brother, the eccentric aunt, a discovery that hints at a forbidden relationship—but they are synthesized in a fresh way in this keenly observed, quietly powerful novel.
A terrorist bombing in Delhi powers this exploration of radicalization, politics, and religion.
The second novel by Mahajan (Family Planning, 2008) turns on two families transformed by a 1996 explosion in an open-air market. The Khuranas, who are Hindu, lost two young sons in the blast, while the neighboring Ahmeds, who are Muslim, nearly lost their son, Mansoor. Though Mansoor was not religious growing up, he still absorbs the prejudices of Indians and, later, the Americans he meets as a college student in the United States. He survived the bombing but suffered wrist injuries that make it all but impossible for him to pursue a career as a programmer. From such frustrations, Mahajan suggests, are the seeds of terrorism sown. (Sexual repression and unrequited love play no small roles, too.) Though Mansoor is the focus, Mahajan ably shifts the point of view to the killed boys’ father, Vikas, who tries to channel his mourning into a documentary; Shockie, the bomb maker worn down by his job; and Ayub, a Muslim activist whose nonviolent sympathies slowly erode. Mahajan’s effort to make a thriller out of the story, climaxing in another bombing attempt, can feel pat—he oversells the point that radicalism makes for unlikely bedfellows. But he’s strong at exploring the very long shockwaves of small-scale violence: though the market bombings in India don’t kill as many as 9/11, Mahajan argues that they have a more devastating cruelty for upending lives to no useful political purpose. Small bombs “concentrate the pain on the lives of a few,” one radical says. “Better to kill generously.” The wrong conclusion, of course, but the novel shows how some arrive at such callous postures.
An engaging if plot-thick novel that’s alert to the intersection of the emotional and political.
A groundbreaking work on the central role of housing in the lives of the poor.
Based on two years (2008-2009) spent embedded with eight poor families in Milwaukee, Desmond (Sociology and Social Science/Harvard Univ.; On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, 2007, etc.) delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative exploring the ceaseless cycle of “making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless” as experienced by adults and children, both black and white, surviving in trailer parks and ghettos. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty,” writes the author. Once rare, eviction is now commonplace for millions of Americans each year, most often as a result of insufficient government support, rising rent and utility costs, and stagnant incomes. Having gained unusual access to these families, Desmond immerses us in the lives of Sherrena Tarver, a teacher-turned-landlord who rents inner-city units to the black poor; Tobin Charney, who nets more than $400,000 yearly on 131 poorly maintained trailers rented (at $550 a month) to poor whites; and disparate tenants who struggle to make rent for cramped, decrepit units plagued by poor plumbing, lack of heat, and code violations. The latter include Crystal, 18, raised in more than two dozen foster homes, who moved in with three garbage bags of clothes, and Arleen, a single mother, who contacted more than 80 apartment owners in her search for a new home. Their frantic experiences—they spend an astonishing 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent—make for harrowing reading, interspersed with moving moments revealing their resilience and humanity. “All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary,” writes Desmond, who bolsters his stories with important new survey findings. He argues that universal housing vouchers and publicly funded legal services for the evicted (90 percent lack attorneys in housing courts) would help alleviate this growing, often overlooked housing crisis.
This stunning, remarkable book—a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives—demands a wide audience.
A portrait of Thomas Jefferson’s passionate belief in Enlightenment values and how it determined his personal character and that of the young nation.
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Gordon-Reed (American Legal History/Harvard Law School; The Hemingses of Monticello, 2009, etc.) and Onuf (Emeritus, History/Univ. of Virginia; The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2007, etc.) are fascinated by the many shifting “selves” of Jefferson: father, husband, slave owner, diplomat, politician, and cosmopolitan. His broad sense of himself as “the most blessed of patriarchs” is both a beautiful notion and mostly correct as well as a patronizing illusion considering that he was the master of numerous slaves at his Monticello plantation and, literally, their father. In this meticulously documented work exploring Jefferson’s many roles in life, the authors take the great man at his word rather than how they think he ought to be: “We instead seek to understand what Thomas Jefferson thought he was doing in the world.” Subsequently, the work proves to be a subtle, intriguing study of his Enlightenment ideals, beginning with his great hope in his fellow white Virginians as the ideal republicans who (with his help) abolished primogeniture, possessed a “fruitful attachment to land,” and “knitted together…tender attachments,” such as strategic arranged marriages among the upper class. However, his vision was problematic since he and his observant granddaughter Ellen, who lived for a spell in the North, documented well the differences between the slothful Southern temperament and the Northern industrious one, while the ills of slavery, which Jefferson himself wrote about in Notes on the State of Virginia, would not go away—and indeed, his own ties to the Hemingses could not be hidden. The authors make some trenchant observations regarding the effects of living in France on Jefferson’s tempering of the republican ideals, in showing him both the dangers of extremism and the hope of “ameliorating” his slaves’ conditions by incorporating them into his patriarchal family.
An elegant, astute study that is both readable and thematically rich.