On a journey from Ohio to Hollywood to Long Island to London in the 1940s, a couple of plucky half sisters continually reinvent themselves with the help of an unconventional assortment of friends and relatives.
In 1939, 12-year-old Eva is abandoned by her feckless mother on her father’s Ohio doorstep after the death of his wealthy wife. After a couple of years of neglect, Eva and her glamorous older half sister, Iris, escape to Hollywood, where Iris embarks on a promising career in film—until she's caught on camera in a lesbian dalliance with a starlet, which gets her blacklisted. With the help of a sympathetic gay Mexican makeup artist as well as their con-artist father, Edgar, who has recently reappeared in their lives, the girls travel across the country to New York and finagle jobs at the Great Neck estate of a wealthy Italian immigrant family. Hired as a governess, Iris promptly falls in love with the family’s pretty cook, Reenie, inconveniently married to Gus, a likable mechanic of German ancestry. In this partly epistolary novel interspersed with both first-person and third-person narration, Bloom (Where the God of Love Hangs Out, 2010, etc.) tells a bittersweet story from multiple viewpoints. The novel shares the perspectives of Eva, Iris, Edgar, Gus and Clara, a black nightclub singer who becomes Edgar’s live-in girlfriend and companion to Eva. Though the letter-writing conceit doesn’t always ring true, since it's unlikely that one sister would recount their shared experiences to the other in letters years later, the novel works in aggregate, accumulating outlooks to tell a multilayered, historical tale about different kinds of love and family.
Bloom enlivens her story with understated humor as well as offbeat and unforgettable characters. Despite a couple of anachronisms, this is a hard-luck coming-of-age story with heart.
One of America’s finest fiction writers returns with an audaciously allegorical novella about sleep deprivation in an age of sensory overload.
As a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the author of a critically acclaimed novel (Vampires in the Lemon Grove,2013, etc.) and two story collections, Russell seems to be having some fun here, using the novella form and e-book format to put creative ingenuity to Orwellian use. The year is sometime in the near future, when the omnipresence of communication and connecting devices, the 24-hour news cycle and other sources of overstimulation have turned insomnia into an epidemic, even a plague. Sleep donors (like blood or plasma donors) can be a godsend for those suffering, particularly if those donors sleep undisturbed, without nightmares, like a baby. In this novella, Baby A is the ultimate donor, the silver bullet, the one whose sleep has universal benefits. (Other donors need to be more closely matched, as with blood types.) Our narrator, Trish, has recruited Baby A through the child’s parents and effectively sells the donor program to them by invoking the death of her own sister due to sleep deprivation. But the demands on Baby A eventually frustrate her father—a more reluctant participant than his wife—and he feels more concerned with what Baby A might suffer than with the benefits for society at large. At the other extreme from Baby A is Donor Y, whose nightmare-infected donation (an act of terrorism? an accident?) ultimately causes an international crisis, with many preferring the suicide of sleeplessness to a sleep that returns them to this nightmare. As the plot progresses, Trish feels that both she and Baby A have perhaps been equally exploited. Those who appreciate Russell’s literary alchemy might find this a little too close to science fiction, but it serves as a parable on a number of levels for a world that is recognizably our own.
More of a detour than a natural progression for the author, whose fans will nevertheless find this as engaging as it is provocative.
A revelatory and occasionally hilarious memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist on helping her parents through their old age.
Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast (What I Hate, 2011, etc.) retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she’s done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life as the only child of parents who had never even dated anyone else and whose deep bond left little room for this intruder in their midst. Yet, “the reality was that at 95, their minds and bodies were falling apart,” and these two people who had only relied on each other were forced to rely on a host of caretakers, their daughter in particular, and to move from the Brooklyn apartment that had been home for half a century into a series of facilities that provided fewer and fewer amenities at escalating expense. Chast rarely lapses into sentimentality and can often be quite funny, as she depicts mortality as “The Moving Sidewalk of Life” (“Caution: Drop-Off Ahead”) or deals with dread and anxiety on the “Wheel of DOOM, surrounded by the ‘cautionary’ tales of my childhood.” The older her parents get, the more their health declines and the more expensive the care they require, the bleaker the story becomes—until, toward the end, a series of 12 largely wordless drawings of her mother’s final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does.
A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work.
Ng's nuanced debut novel begins with the death of a teenage girl and then uses the mysterious circumstances of her drowning as a springboard to dive into the troubled waters beneath the calm surface of her Chinese-American family.
When 16-year-old Lydia Lee fails to show up at breakfast one spring morning in 1977, and her body is later dragged from the lake in the Ohio college town where she and her biracial family don't quite fit in, her parents—blonde homemaker Marilyn and Chinese-American history professor James—older brother and younger sister get swept into the churning emotional conflicts and currents they've long sought to evade. What, or who, compelled Lydia—a promising student who could often be heard chatting happily on the phone; was doted on by her parents; and enjoyed an especially close relationship with her Harvard-bound brother, Nath—to slip away from home and venture out in a rowboat late at night when she had always been deathly afraid of water, refusing to learn to swim? The surprising answers lie deep beneath the surface, and Ng, whose stories have won awards including the Pushcart Prize, keeps an admirable grip on the narrative's many strands as she expertly explores and exposes the Lee family's secrets: the dreams that have given way to disappointment; the unspoken insecurities, betrayals and yearnings; the myriad ways the Lees have failed to understand one another and, perhaps, themselves. These long-hidden, quietly explosive truths, weighted by issues of race and gender, slowly bubble to the surface of Ng's sensitive, absorbing novel and reverberate long after its final page.
Ng's emotionally complex debut novel sucks you in like a strong current and holds you fast until its final secrets surface.
A daughter recounts a legacy of violence in this debut memoir.
One October, Jose Venegas prepared for his annual trip from Chicago, where he lived with his wife and children, to his native Mexico. As usual, he took clothing and household goods for his parents and extended family. But this time, he also bought a bulletproof vest and packed into steel trunks all the guns he had stored in the house. “Your father is never coming back,” his wife announced a few days later. For nearly 15 years, Venegas had no contact with her father, who, she learned, had killed her uncle and attempted to murder many other men. He was, she believed, violent, volatile and a coward for leaving his family unprotected. Furious with her father, she felt alienated from her mother, an evangelical Christian with no aspirations for her daughter’s future. When Venegas said she wanted to go to college, her mother told her to apply instead for a job as a cashier at Kmart: “You could drop out of school, make some good money,” she said. The author, however, followed her dream, enrolling as an economics major at the University of Illinois and studying abroad in Spain. Haunted by a past she did not understand, she gave in to her boyfriend’s urging to reconnect with her father. That reunion led to regular visits, during which she discovered how deeply imbedded he was in a culture of violence and retribution. At age 10, he blew the head off a rattlesnake with his father’s rifle; soon after, his mother pressed a knife into his hands, urging him to retaliate against a bully; two years later, she gave him a gun to use for revenge. Killing, he learned, was expected of a man, and drinking exacerbated his violence.
As Venegas portrays him in this stark, tender narrative, Jose is an extremely complicated man—longing for his children’s love, beset by regrets and seared by brutality.
Carey offers a post-apocalyptic tale set in England in a future when most humans are "empty houses where people used to live."
Sgt. Parks, Pvt. Gallagher, Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell flee an English military camp, a scientific site for the study of "hungries," zombielike creatures who feast on flesh, human or otherwise. These once-humans are essentially "fungal colonies animating human bodies." After junkers—anarchic survivalists—use hungries to breach the camp's elaborate wire fortifications, the four survivors head for Beacon, a giant refuge south of London where uninfected citizens have retreated over the past two decades, bringing along one of the study subjects, 10-year-old Melanie, a second-generation hungry. Like others of her generation, Melanie possesses superhuman strength and a superb intellect, and she can reason and communicate. Dr. Caldwell had planned to dissect Melanie's brain, but Miss Justineau thinks Melanie is capable of empathy and human interaction, which might make her a bridge between humans and hungries. Their philosophical dispute continues in parallel to a survival trek much like the one in McCarthy's On the Road. The four either kill or hide from junkers and hungries (which are animated by noise, movement and human odors). The characters are somewhat clichéd—Parks, rugged veteran with an empathetic core; Gallagher, rube private and perfect victim; Caldwell, coldhearted objectivist ever focused on prying open Melanie’s skull. It may be Melanie's role to lead second-generation hungries in a revival of civilization, which in this imaginative, ominous assessment of our world and its fate, offers cold comfort.
One of the more imaginative and ingenious additions to the dystopian canon.
Of wide open spaces and lives narrowly, desperately lived at the bitter ends of dirt and gravel roads.
The spur of the Rockies at the northwestern corner of Montana is as hard and remote a stretch of country as any in the Lower 48, good reason why a person might want to disappear into it. Social worker Pete Snow, delivered to us in medias res, is well-used to what happens to people with too little money and too much booze or meth in tow. But he’s not quite prepared for how years of being used to such things can wear a person down—and what will touch him off to the point that he’s willing to smack a client. Says Pete to his target, trying to explain the rightness of his act, “[t]hose punches sure as shit come through me but they were not mine. As meant for you as they were, they were not mine.” He’s willing to cop to most responsibilities, but that doesn’t stop his own life from dissolving. Meanwhile, he’s caught up in a curious knot: In a land of snarling dogs and WIC checks, he has to sort out the life of a very nearly feral child, bound up in the even more complex life of a survivalist, paranoid and anti-statist, who may or may not be a Unabomber in the making. That brings the feds into the picture, and if Pete resorts to fisticuffs reluctantly, the FBI thinks nothing of beating their way around a countryside that looks ever more apocalyptic with each passing page. Henderson, a native Montanan, finds ample room for deep-turning plot twists in the superficially simple matter of a man looking for meaning in his own life while trying to help others too proud and mistrustful to receive that assistance. The story goes on a bit long, but the details are just right: It’s expertly written and without a false note, if often quite bleak.
Of a piece with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in imagining a rural West that’s seen better days—and perhaps better people, too.
Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.
In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.
Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.
Given current events, Akhtiorskaya’s debut—concerning an immigrant family’s ambivalent ties to America and those who choose to stay behind in Ukraine—could not be more timely.
As the novel opens in 1993, Esther and Robert Nasmertov, once highly respected doctors in Odessa, have been settled for two years in the Russian/Ukrainian Jewish enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where their medical practices have dwindled and they struggle with their own health problems. Living with them are their chunky, sullen 10-year-old granddaughter, Frida, her mother, Marina (the Nasmertovs' daughter), who cleans houses for wealthier Jews and eventually becomes a nurse, and her low-level computer-tech husband, Levik. Absent is Esther and Robert’s son, Pasha, an up-and-coming poet. A convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, he remains in Odessa with his wife and adolescent son. When Esther is diagnosed with cancer, Marina arranges for Pasha to visit. Akhtiorskaya’s set-piece descriptions of his monthlong stay—a family beach outing; a birthday weekend in a cramped lake cabin; a literary soiree—are drawn with sharp humor, telling character sketches and sensory flamboyance. Esther, Robert and Marina want Pasha, whom they all consider helpless and hapless, to stay in America where they can take care of him. Pasha is put off by what he sees as Brighton Beach’s second-rate version of Odessa, but he enjoys Manhattan's expat literary social life. Cut to 2008. Word comes to Brooklyn that Pasha’s son is engaged. Frida, thinner but still sullenly unhappy, decides to attend the wedding and receives a less-than-enthusiastic welcome to Odessa. Divorced and remarried to a woman he met in New York, Pasha has become a literary lion based on the work he published (and Frida never bothered to read) shortly after his visit to America 15 years ago. As Akhtiorskaya showed America through Pasha’s eyes, she now offers Frida’s vision of Crimea as chaotic, decrepit, yet enticingly surreal.
Akhtiorskaya’s sideways humor allows rays of genuine emotion to filter through the social and domestic satire.