A 19th-century naturalist describes a mysterious substance while, closer to the present day, a hacker comes of age and a government tracks its citizens.
“We have to understand these things as dark constellations,” says Max, a character in Oloixarac’s (Savage Theories, 2017) luminous new novel. The Incas, he goes on, “organized the sky in terms of the dark regions between stars, the interior shapes with bright parameters.” In this dense, dizzying book, the Argentine “Ministry of Genetics” tracks the “life trajectories” of its citizens by curating digital as well as biometric data—fingerprints, face scans. Max heads a project to help sift that data. He recruits Cassio, an old acquaintance from their rogue hacker days. Cassio is the closest thing to a main character we have. Oloixarac’s novel proceeds along three tracks; this one is the last and the most legible. Another traces Cassio’s growth from a nerdy, overweight kid to a brilliant student and phenomenal hacker. Yet another track begins in 1882, with a naturalist named Niklas Bruun, who’s conducting research on a hallucinogenic substance that appears to break down the barriers between one species and another. There isn’t exactly a plot here. Oloixarac is interested in big data, and consciousness, and the internet, and a government’s control over its citizenry. In Bruun’s sections, the prose is lushly sinuous: “The meadows dissolved at the banks of iridescent streams, and trees stood out like castles, lowering their branches only to raise them again, lines of dense liquid vegetal matter uniting the earth and sky.” When it’s Cassio’s turn, the prose lurches toward something more cerebral, even cynical (“As far as Lara was concerned, sex with Cassio would be a completely benign experience”). Oloixarac is a massive, mysterious talent; her latest novel is an oblique puzzle whose pieces never quite fit into place.
This genre-defying novel blends science fiction with cyberpunk with naturalism to end up with something utterly original.
An assured debut novel that sets the life of one man against the tumultuous backdrop of Palestine in the waning years of British occupation.
Midhat Kamal has been thoroughly steeped in French culture—writes Hammad, he “knew the names of his internal organs as ‘le poumon’ and ‘le coeur’ and ‘le cerveau’ and ‘l’encéphale’ ”—but is never at home in his dreamed-of France, where he has come from his home in Nablus to study medicine. His French isn’t quite perfect, not at first, which occasions an odd thought: “What if, since by the same token one could not afford ambiguity, everything also became more direct?” Things happen directly enough that he’s soon enfolded in various dramas acted out by the good people of Montpellier. Midhat is a philosophically inclined soul who, as his yearned-for Jeannette remarks, is wont “to rely on what other people have said” in the countless books he’s read. Like Zhivago, he is aware of events but somehow apart from them. When he returns to Nablus at a time when European Jews are heeding Herzl’s call and moving to Palestine, he finds the city divided not just by the alignments of social class, but also by a new politics: “We must resist all of the Jews,” insists a neighbor of Midhat’s, advocating a militant solution that others think should be directed at the British colonizers. Hammad sometimes drifts into the didactic in outlining an exceedingly complex history, but she does so with a poet’s eye for detail, writing, for instance, of Nablus’ upper-class women, who “grow fat among cushions and divert their vigour into childbirth and playing music, and siphon what remained into promulgating rumors about their rivals." The years pass, and Midhat weathers change, illness, madness, and a declining command of French, seeking and finding love and family: At the end, he announces, “When I look at my life…I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely, beautiful mistakes. I wouldn’t change them.”
Closely observed and elegantly written: an overstuffed story that embraces decades and a large cast of characters without longueurs.
Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.
“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”
Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.
A Byzantine web of lies surrounds a fatal fire at an unusual treatment facility in this taut legal drama.
Kim, a former trial lawyer who turns 50 the same week her debut novel is published, does not make it easy on the reviewer charged with describing her book. This is a complicated and unusual story—though when you are reading it, it will all seem smooth as silk. The Yoos, an immigrant family from Korea, own a hyperbaric oxygen therapy tank in a town called Miracle Creek, Virginia. (In a characteristically wry aside, we learn that "Miracle Creek didn't look like a place where miracles took place, unless you counted the miracle of people living there for years without going insane from boredom.") HBOT treatment, which involves sitting in a chamber breathing pure, pressurized oxygen, is believed to be effective in remediating autism and male infertility, and those conditions are what define the group of people who are in the "submarine" when a fire, clearly set by an arsonist, causes it to explode. Two people are killed; others survive paralyzed or with amputations. The novel opens as the murder trial of the mother of a boy who died in the fire begins. As we come to understand the pressures she has been under as the single mother of a special needs child, it does not seem out of the question that she is responsible. But with all the other characters lying so desperately about what they were doing that evening, it can't be as simple as that. With so many complications and loose ends, one of the miracles of the novel is that the author ties it all together and arrives at a deeply satisfying—though not easy or sentimental—ending.
Intricate plotting and courtroom theatrics, combined with moving insight into parenting special needs children and the psychology of immigrants, make this book both a learning experience and a page-turner. Should be huge.
The renowned food writer recounts her adventures as editor-in-chief of the noted epicurean magazine Gourmet in its last decade.
A native New Yorker, Reichl (My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, 2015, etc.) grew up reading the magazine, and food soon became her “own private way of looking at the world.” While working as a chef in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s, she began writing about food, at New West and then the Los Angeles Times, before returning to New York to become the formidable restaurant critic for the New York Times. In 1999, at age 51, somewhat fearfully—she lacked magazine experience and faced managing a staff of 60—Reichl took the editorial helm of Gourmet, at six times her Times salary plus perks, with free rein from Condé Nast publisher Si Newhouse to revamp the staid magazine. In this fun, gossipy, and beguiling memoir, Reichl offers revealing glimpses of her parents, both introduced in earlier books, but the focus is on the heady process of “magazine making,” which meant turning an old-fashioned book into a modern, edgy monthly. She describes the exhilaration of working with talented, quirky staffers, and she provides vivid snapshots of Condé Nast honchos, including publishers Newhouse (supportive) and Gina Sanders (who “relished” fights) as well as the “large, loud,” yet appealing CEO Steve Florio, who regaled her with tales of Newhouse (“You know that Roy Cohn was his closest friend?”). Throughout, the author tells winning stories—of goings-on in the celebrated Condé Nast cafeteria, midnight parties for chefs, zany annual meetings, and providing food to 9/11 firefighters. Her success in introducing provocative articles like David Rakoff’s “Some Pig,” about Jews and bacon, and David Foster Wallace’s classic “Consider the Lobster,” on the ethics of eating, taught her that “when something frightens me, it is definitely worth doing.” A dream job, it ended in the late-2000s recession, when declining ads forced the closing of the venerable publication.
In April 1986, a massive accident destroyed a reactor at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station near the town of Pripyat, now a ghost-town tourist destination, in Ukraine. The disaster sent a radioactive cloud across the Soviet Union and Europe, triggered pandemonium and coverups, involved thousands of cleanup workers, and played out at a cost of $128 billion against the secrecy and paranoia of Soviet life at the time. In this vivid and exhaustive account, Higginbotham (A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, 2014), a contributor to the New Yorker, Wired, GQ, and other publications, masterfully re-creates the emotions, intrigue, and denials and disbelief of Communist Party officials, workers, engineers, and others at every stage. He takes readers directly to the scene: the radioactive blaze, the delayed evacuation of residents from the apartment buildings in “workers’ paradise” Pripyat, the treatment of the injured, and the subsequent investigation and “show trial” of scapegoats in a tragedy caused by both reactor failings and operator errors. Drawing on interviews, reports, and once-classified archives, the author shows how the crash program of Soviet reactor building involved design defects, shoddy workmanship, and safety flaws—but made “sanctified icons” of arrogant nuclear scientists. Higginbotham offers incisive snapshots of those caught up in the nightmare, including politicians ignorant of nuclear physics, scientists “paralyzed by indecision,” doctors treating radiation sickness, and refugees shunned by countrymen. We experience the “bewildered stupor” of the self-assured power plant director, who asked repeatedly, “What happened? What happened?” and watch incredulously as uninformed citizens hold a parade under a radioactive cloud in Kiev. At every turn, Higginbotham unveils revealing aspects of Communist life, from the lack of proscribed photocopiers to make maps for responders to the threats (shooting, relief of Party card) for failure to obey orders.
Written with authority, this superb book reads like a classic disaster story and reveals a Soviet empire on the brink.
A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!
Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.
A hit-and-run in the Mojave Desert dismantles a family and puts a structurally elegant mystery in motion.
In her fourth book, Lalami is in thrilling command of her narrative gifts, reminding readers why The Moor’s Account (2014) was a Pulitzer finalist. Here, she begins in the voice of Nora Guerraoui, a nascent jazz composer, who recalls: "My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland.” She was drinking champagne at the time. Nora’s old middle school band mate, Jeremy Gorecki, an Iraq War veteran beset with insomnia, narrates the next chapter. He hears about the hit-and-run as he reports to work as a deputy sheriff. The third chapter shifts to Efraín Aceves, an undocumented laborer who stops in the dark to adjust his bicycle chain and witnesses the lethal impact. Naturally, he wants no entanglement with law enforcement. With each chapter, the story baton passes seamlessly to a new or returning narrator. Readers hear from Erica Coleman, a police detective with a complacent husband and troubled son; Anderson Baker, a bowling-alley proprietor irritated over shared parking with the Guerraoui’s diner; the widowed Maryam Guerraoui; and even the deceased Driss Guerraoui. Nora’s parents fled political upheaval in Casablanca in 1981, roughly a decade before Lalami left Morocco herself. In the U.S., Maryam says, “Above all, I was surprised by the talk shows, the way Americans loved to confess on television.” The author, who holds a doctorate in linguistics, is precise with language. She notices the subtle ways that words on a diner menu become dated, a match to the décor: “The plates were gray. The water glasses were scratched. The gumball machine was empty.” Nuanced characters drive this novel, and each voice gets its variation: Efraín sarcastic, Nora often argumentative, Salma, the good Guerraoui daughter, speaks with the coiled fury of the duty-bound: “You’re never late, never sick, never rude.” The ending is a bit pat, but Lalami expertly mines an American penchant for rendering the “other.”
A crime slowly unmasks a small town’s worth of resentment and yearning.