Wonderfully weird and profoundly witty, Australian writer Dovey (Blood Kin, 2008) recounts a history of 20th-century human catastrophe in 10 short stories, each told by an animal who was there.
In “Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat, and I,” a house cat—inadvertently separated from her beloved bohemian owner—prowls the trenches of the western front, giving comfort to the soldiers and recounting adventures from better days. “Hundstage,” one of the eerier tales in the bunch, follows Himmler’s dog, exiled in the Polish forest. In war-ravaged Mozambique, twin elephants come of age listening to tales of their ancestors. Not every story is so grim, however, and while all of them are dark, some are tragically hilarious, brilliant in their absurdity. In one, a Kerouac-ian mussel seeks adventure and meaning on the hull of a ship. In another, a Russian tortoise escapes from its hermit owner, is adopted by Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, becomes the pet of Virginia Woolf in London (in a section called “A Terrarium of One’s Own”), and ultimately returns to the motherland, where she's launched into orbit as part of the Soviet Space Program. A military dolphin, sent by the U.S. Navy to fight enemy divers in Iraq, writes posthumous letters to Sylvia Plath. In the hands of another writer, this would all be hopelessly twee. The inner monologues of animals, all of them doomed by human tragedy, is high-risk terrain: too earnest and it’s sentimental, too moralistic and it’s preachy, too clownish and it’s a cartoon. But Dovey’s stories, at once charming and haunting, are something else altogether. “Absorbing” is not quite the right word for them—their poetic oddness keeps them at arm’s length—but they are intoxicating nonetheless.
As unsettling as they are beautiful, these quietly wise stories wedge themselves into your mind—and stay there.
Lyrical, quietly powerful debut novel from a young, prizewinning short story writer.
West Virginia native Null locates his century-plus–past yarn in the hollers and folds of Tuscarora County, “near the hinge of western Maryland,” where, as he memorably writes, “the natives—Seneca, Shawnee—had been wise enough to treat this as vague hunting ground, not a place to plant yourself.” That’s just so with the three New Yorkers ("the absentees," Null calls them) who wander in at the beginning of the tale, plant their figurative flag, and set about extracting what they can from country they will never see again—timber, mostly, but then coal and other resources. Their first fear is that the country will play out; when it doesn’t, their fears turn to the people who have, in fact, planted themselves there and are increasingly resentful of selling their birthrights for less than a mess of pottage. One, with the portentous name Cur Greathouse, the moral center of the story, spends his time sorting out how he and his kin can best pull a living out of the mountains in peace, knowing full well that “living in failure is easy”; his fellow timber man Amos Church has less neighborly designs on the one absentee who is in fact not absent but spends time in a town so new that there’s not a brick in view—a good safeguard, that absentee remarks, against having your head bashed in. Violence is commonplace in the timber camps and little towns of this ridge-and-bottomland country, and everyone’s a little worse for the wear, from the sawyers to the whores to the traveling peddlers and even the bosses. Against a backdrop of labor unrest and the growing destruction of the old-growth forest, Null weaves a morality play of many threads: who will betray whom and at what price?
The writing is exact and assured, the story complex and rewarding. Fans of John Sayles’ film Matewan will find this a kindred work and just as good.
This debut moves from the misadventures of several boys at a British public school in 1926 to a study of a particularly hapless young man and his possible redemption.
St. Stephen’s Academy, a so-so non-Eton, is muddling along when one malevolent lad arranges a subversive prank that sparks a disciplinary backlash. Within the communal crime and punishment, Cross zooms in on the trials of Morgan Wilberforce, a 17-year-old dealing with hormones, underage females, abusive seniors, constant caning, and a few well-meaning teachers. One of the latter is John Grieves, on whom Cross expends a good deal of ink only to fade him out in the book’s second half. Morgan gets tangled in an all-boy triangle that ends tragically (though not before Cross oozes a good deal of purple prose), yet he bounces back in the annual cricket match between students and Old Boys. Finally, one offense too many gets him exiled to the home of an intriguing bishop who combines prayer, poetry, and talking cure in ministrations with an unclear outcome thanks to the novel’s slyly ambiguous ending. The cleric is the father of the academy’s new headmaster and tied to a painful time in Grieves’ youth, but these connections aren’t developed. Indeed, the book has several significant and promising loose ends that support the publisher’s bruiting about of Cross’ Rowling-esque ambitions for more volumes on St. Stephen’s & Co., perhaps achieving “the Hogwarts of adult literary fiction.” Maybe: certainly the dollops of frank sexual action will keep this installment off the teen shelves, and the absence of a single substantial female character might have more than halved the younger audience anyway.
Cross has made a solid start for continued exploration of this strange yet for many readers familiar world, one that might well capture a libidinous P.G. Wodehouse crowd, if she can render her quirky setting, cast, and concerns less earnest and more amusing.
Polish journalist Bikont (editor: And I Still See Their Faces: Images of Polish Jews, 1996) delivers a daring exposure of the crimes of her countrymen in the first week of July 1941.
At the time, the deaths of the Jews of Jedwabne and those of Radzilów and Wasosz were glossed over, until a book commemorating them appeared just before the 60th anniversary. Jan Tomasz Gross based her book Neighbors (2001) partly on the Jedwabne Book of Memory, edited by rabbis Julius and Jacob Baker. It was the first time the testimony of eyewitness Szmul Wasersztejn was published, a good first step for Bikont to begin her search for witnesses. Sixty years after hundreds of Jews were herded into a barn that was then burned to the ground, the author found a host of disturbing reactions from the local residents. There are blatant denials that any Poles took part and assurances that it was the Germans who forced locals to participate. Many told Bikont that since it occurred so many years ago, she should just leave it alone. Her persistence in chasing down those who might tell her the facts took her all over Poland and to Israel, the United States, Cuba, and Costa Rica. Her most shocking discovery was the still-virulent anti-Semitism in the area. For years, the Catholic Church had preached against the Jews, so when neighbors were exiled to Siberia during the Russian occupation of 1939-1941, the Jews were the best scapegoats, and it was a good excuse for the beginnings of the pogroms. The elements of competitive suffering that the author uncovered in her interviewees appear to be just more excuses.
Bikont’s fearless research—she even confronted the brothers known to have led the Jedwabne murders—makes this a fantastic book. It was first published in Poland in 2004, and the European Book Prize it won in 2011 (for the French version) should be only the first of many awards for this significant work.
Linked autobiographical fictions explore the loss of a young husband.
With a delicate balance of cleverness and emotion, the 16 stories in Pietrzyk's (Pears on a Willow Tree, 2011, etc.) collection explore the event of her husband's sudden death at the breakfast table in 1997. Literal facts ("My husband, Robert K. Rauth, Jr., died of a heart attack when he was only 37") in some stories stand beside slightly altered ones in others (a husband named Roger, a husband who drove off the road, a husband who died in his early 40s). The author's wit, clarity, and literary inventiveness dance circles around the omnipresent sadness, making this book a prime example of the furious creative energy that can explode from the collision of grief with talent and craftsmanship. A few stories are traditionally told; many rely on formal strategies—a list, a quiz, a speech, an annotated index, various narrative voices, and a metafiction about the use of narrative voices. Running through them are recurrent details that add the weight of obsessive memory: a carefully organized library of books, a bowl of cornflakes, the music of Springsteen (a misunderstood line of which gives the collection its name), an extramarital affair. Pietrzyk explores every aspect of the truth, including the parts you have to make up, and never gives in to sentimentality or self-pity. As in Joyce Carol Oates' much less successful book A Widow's Story, one learns that the author is remarried—the last line of the last story is addressed to her second husband by name—but here there is no sense of duplicity or caginess. The relief is what we want, both for her and for ourselves. This book is the winner of the distinguished Drue Heinz Literature Prize, upholding its tradition of excellence in short fiction.
Like Magic Rocks in a fishbowl, these stories turn the stones of grief into something bright, crystalline, mesmerizing.
A middle-aged man leaves his partner of more than 20 years for an uncomfortable new life, where he's forced to confront the nuances of his past in this debut novel by Flannery O’Connor Award–winning Ostlund (The Bigness of the World, 2009).
Realizing he's no longer in love with Walter—a man he’s known and been with for almost his entire adult life—Aaron Englund packs his bags, leaves their Albuquerque home in the middle of the night, and drives to San Francisco. There, he lives in a garage beneath a warring couple, teaches at a dilapidated ESL school, and plumbs deep wells of his own memories: the death of his abusive father, a police officer who fell from a lurching parade float; a childhood in an isolated Minnesota town with his ghostlike mother; and the many souls he encountered in his odd, solitary youth. The narrative departs from his present life in small doses and large swaths, carrying the reader through levels of narration—Aaron recounting his past, Aaron reliving his past, Aaron in his past listening to a story of someone else’s past. The building blocks of this novel are anecdotes, in all of their illuminating, messy glory. Everything here aches, from the lucid prose to the sensitively treated characters to their beautiful and heartbreaking stories. As for Aaron's flashbacks, they are winding toward a kind of reveal, a moment of personal history he's dancing around throughout, but it is not treated as the single key to his psyche; rather, it’s one more story that needs to be told alongside all the others.
An example of realism in its most potent iteration: not a neatly arranged plot orchestrated by an authorial god but an authentic, empathetic representation of life as it truly is.
Six glorious decades in the life of an iconic artist, poet, and self-described philosophical anarchist.
Culled from his own journals and more obscure volumes unearthed by editors Diano and Gleeson from the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Ferlinghetti (I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997, 2015, etc.) shares his globe-trotting adventures spanning the revolutionary 1960s to contemporary times in Mexico and Belize in 2010. After having been abroad as a Navy captain in World War II, he earned his literary doctorate at the Sorbonne and married in San Francisco. There, he opened City Lights Bookshop, the Beat poet’s refuge through which he published many works by his friend and traveling companion Allen Ginsberg. In unrushed, conversational prose, his writings escort readers through the lengthier and much more heavily politicized years of his life in the 1960s and ’70s. In often wry and deliciously witty entries, he chronicles his ventures to post-revolutionary Cuba, getting arrested for anti-war protesting in Oakland, California, and his adventurous journey crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express. Ferlinghetti ably captures his wanderlust on cross-country trains hurtling through Paris and Dresden, only to retire in disappointing three-star Verona hotels (“two of the stars must have burned out some time ago”). The author’s raw sketches and original works of lyrical poetry add depth and texture to a narrative already spiced with unfettered cultural criticism (“Paris is now a totally decadent museum of the past”), swatches of stream-of-consciousness “running thoughts,” internal observations, and “curious sexual Italian stories.” Readers curious about how Ferlinghetti’s mind works will find this whirlwind ride through Europe and beyond the ultimate vicarious escape, as his anecdotal musings hover over a richly savored life enjoyed without regret or misgivings.
The artistic intensity of life suffuses this epic memoir spanning the “interior monologues” of a gifted American artist.
A respected New York art dealer feels his reputation and the ideals he’s lived by falling out of his grasp in this novel by celebrated poet and memoirist Bialosky (The Players, 2015, etc.).
“Art should transport the seer from the ordinary to the sublime”: these words from Edward Darby’s father, a Romantic scholar, are always at the back of his mind. Both driven and haunted by his father's constant search for deeper meaning, Edward has built his career on finding the artists who are reinventing their mediums, creating art that has “the power to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life could be made special.” He gets his big break with fragile-but-brilliant artist Agnes Murray, who, in focusing on images from 9/11, has taken the anguish of that day and expressed it on canvas in a way that makes the public look—and, more important, feel. “Art must capture what we’re afraid of most,” Agnes says to Edward, quoting her mentor-turned-husband, Nate Fisher, a provocative megastar of the art world. Bialosky’s writing mirrors these qualities that determine “great work”; she captures in everyday moments the fears that consume us and have the power to either drive us forward or bring us to the brink of collapse. Feeling more and more distant from his wife and, perhaps more disturbingly, his passion for art, Edward finds himself drawn to sculptor Julia Rosenthal, a woman he first met long ago, who stirs up old memories and reinvigorates his appreciation for beauty in all forms. But Edward is aware that "one could not embark upon the new without giving up something in return." And for someone whose life is built around finding the significance in the smallest of moments—moments which Bialosky captures with such powerful insight—there is much at stake for him to lose. In the end, after betrayals and loss and sadness, Bialosky asks her hero to consider what he holds most dear.
Like Edward feels upon discovering a transcendent piece of art, this book finds that little opening at the edge of your soul and seeps in.
An absorbing account of the clash between environmentalists and oyster farmers in the coastal towns north of San Francisco.
In her debut, Brennan, a contributor to the Believer, the Rumpus, and other publications, describes a lengthy political and ecological battle involving the National Park Service, wilderness advocates, and the agricultural community in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a park preserve in Marin County, California. The “oyster war,” which won national media attention, pitted passionate supporters of the wild against equally vociferous champions of organic farming and resulted in the closing of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which had been raising oysters in a pristine estuary. Brennan, who grew up in the area and worked for the Point Reyes Light, offers a well-crafted narrative exploring every aspect of the controversy, from the contentious issue of whether the oyster farm was polluting the estuary (scientific and investigatory reports had uncertain findings) to the unusual array of individuals taking part (including Richard Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman and Senator Dianne Feinstein). The author recounts the history of oystering in America; the mixed uses of the biologically rich Northern California seashore by farmers, hikers, and campers; and how the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act protected the area. When the Park Service refused to renew the oyster company’s lease to operate within the park—ostensibly to restore the area to its wilderness condition—legal battles ensued. Brennan interweaves the stories of oyster pirates, cattle ranchers, Native Americans, scientists, and species ranging from exotic deer to harbor seals. She confronts the ambiguities of the conflicting arguments and motives of the key players, leaving readers to share her wonder at the “false dichotomy” between wild and cultivated landscapes. The oyster war, she writes, was “a story about loss…whether it be the loss of nature or the loss of a way of being in the world that feels sane, where men and women pull sustenance out of the lands and water.”