You get in your car, drive to work, park, and go inside. An ordinary day—except, back at home, someone is chopping your wife to bits, the opening gambit in Brundage’s (A Stranger Like You, 2010, etc.) smart, atmospheric thriller.
Here’s the thing about creepy old farmhouses: they’re full of ghosts, and ax murderers lurk in the tree line. Art history professor George Clare is a rational fellow, but when he moves into the country to teach at a small-town college, he finds his colleagues making odd assumptions: since he knows a thing or two about Swedenborg, then he must be game for a séance. Catherine, his young wife, whose “beauty did not go unnoticed” even out among the yokels, has long since sunk into a quiet depression. They have problems. She doesn’t live long enough to grow to hate the country, though she senses early on that the place they’ve bought from a foreclosed-on local family is fraught with supernatural danger: “Until this house,” she thinks, “she’d never thought seriously of ghosts, at all. Yet, as the days passed, their existence wasn’t even a question anymore—she just knew.” Yup. Question is, who would do her in, leaving a single grim witness, the terrified daughter? There’s no shortage of suspects on the mortal plane, to say nothing of the supernatural. Part procedural, part horror story, part character study, Brundage’s literate yarn is full of telling moments: George is like a “tedious splinter” in Catherine’s mind, while George dismisses her concerns that maybe they shouldn’t be living in a place where horrible things have happened with, “As usual, you’re overreacting.” But more, and better, Brundage carries the arc of her story into the future, where the children of the nightmare, scarred by poverty, worry, meth, Iraq, are bound up in its consequences, the weight of all those ghosts, whether real or imagined, upon them forever.
With a storyline that tightens like a constrictor, this is a book that you won’t want to read alone late at night.
How five artists dealt with that carriage that kindly stopped for them.
In this absorbing and affecting book, Roiphe (In Praise of Messy Lives, 2012, etc.) chronicles how Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak dealt with what Freud called the “painful riddle of death.” She chose them because she always “felt some heat coming off their writing.” The last thing Sontag wanted to do was die. She was ferocious in her fights against three cancer attacks. She finally succumbed to cancer of the blood but not before enduring as a last resort great suffering and pain from a blood transfusion procedure using near-lethal doses of chemotherapy. She didn’t die; she just wore out from trying so hard to live. Roiphe notes that her hospital rooms always looked like her office at home. Freud approached his impending death from necrosis in his mouth, brought on by years of smoking his beloved cigars (he never quit), with a scientific stoicism. He finally gave up, and his private doctor performed euthanasia. Updike had been writing about death (and sex) since he was young; he often had death panics. When he accepted the fact that his lung cancer would kill him, he turned to poetry, urgent to finish Endpoint. “If style could defeat death,” writes Roiphe, “Updike would have.” Ferociously alcoholic, Thomas turned his preoccupation with death into ragingly beautiful poetry. His death at 39, Roiphe writes, was “both a great shock and utterly anticipated.” Sendak, who kept Keats’ “original death mask” in a guest room, was also obsessed with death and, Roiphe notes, wrote about it constantly in his books. He died at 83 from a stroke. As he told one interviewer: “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” An epilogue about James Salter, who died just before Roiphe finished her book, completes this beautiful and haunting work.
Never overly sentimental, this is a poignant and elegant inquiry into mortality.
A teenager’s murder raises issues of bullying and homophobia.
In 2008, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney shot and killed his classmate Larry King in their junior high school English class. Psychologist Corbett (Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy/New York Univ.; Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, 2009), unsettled by the crime, decided to mount his own investigation into its causes and consequences. “What was on Brandon’s mind?” he asked. “What were the feelings that compelled him, or the fantasies that drove him, to shoot Larry? What had been the state of his life? How had it come to this?” (The author refers to the victim as Larry while covering the trial and as Leticia when “writing from her perspective.”) Corbett recounts the trial so exhaustively that the narrative often reads like a court transcript. He reports interviews with McInerney’s and King’s parents, friends, and some of the 98 witnesses for the defense and prosecution. He also effectively reveals how deeply the trial affected him. The story of a murder, he reflects, “is not simply a recitation of facts or a pragmatic account of the living and the dead.” This murder was tangled in accusations of bullying, white supremacy, and hate. Brandon’s lawyers portrayed their client as an abused child (both parents were drug addicts) who had been taunted by Larry, an effeminate boy who was undergoing a gender transition. The prosecution argued that Brandon was a gang member “enflamed by white supremacist ideology” and “a self-declared vigilante homophobe” who “hunted and executed a gender-variant kid.” After a 36-day trial, the jury considered three possible verdicts: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter. But they could not agree, ending in a hung jury, with several jurors protesting vigorously because Brandon had been tried as an adult. Corbett deems the crime murder, and he was troubled when a juror who concurred told him that the hate crime charge of homophobia had been barely discussed. In the end, Brandon pled guilty to second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to 21 years in prison.
An emotionally resonant account of a real-life tragedy.
The complex relationship among three women and the film world drives this tale of technology and its discontents.
Much like Spiotta's previous novel, Stone Arabia (2011), this book is anchored by a fringe artist: Meadow built her career on experimental, Errol Morris–esque documentaries on tough subjects like the Kent State shootings and the Argentine Dirty War. That work brought her controversy but also acclaim and the freedom to write her own ticket creatively. So why, as the story opens, is she spinning a tale on a film blog about how she spent a year after high school as a consort to an aging Orson Welles? The answer isn’t plain or immediate, but Spiotta, master of austere indirection, introduces a pair of additional characters who hint at an answer. One is Jelly, a woman who for years insinuated herself into the lives of Hollywood producer types, cold-calling them with no ambition beyond building a friendship over the phone. (She calls it a " 'pure' call experience.") The other is Meadow’s childhood friend Carrie, who for years gamely indulged Meadow’s avant-garde film geekery before pursuing a career creating more mainstream, crowd-pleasing fare. Which of them has followed the most authentic artistic path, and how much does her chosen media facilitate or stand in her way? In Meadow, Spiotta has imagined an emotionally robust character who struggles with these questions at turns with humor (as when she films a boyfriend getting drunk for a Warhol-esque essay film), empathy (as when Jelly becomes her subject), or, later, tragic pathos when she discovers the crushing extreme of what her dispassionate film style can uncover. Early on, she feels “her camera was a magic machine that made people reveal themselves whether they liked it or not.” There’s some darkness to that magic, Spiotta argues, but she also finds something miraculous in how technology can reveal us to ourselves. It’s as true of this novel as of Meadow’s oeuvre.
A superb, spiky exploration of artistic motivation.
A Nigerian man wakes up white in Barrett’s (Love Is Power, or Something Like That, 2013) satirical update on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
The morning of a job interview, Furo Wariboko arises to find he’s become white overnight, this in a modest section of Lagos where many residents have “never seen red hair, green eyes, or pink nipples except on screen and on paper.” Unwilling to face his parents, with whom he lives, he sneaks off to Haba!, a company that sells business books, where he's promptly hired as a marketing executive, despite only applying to become a salesperson. Soon he's living with Syreeta—a suspiciously generous woman who, Furo suspects, knows “the going value of a white man in Lagos”—and conspiring to obtain a new passport, necessary to start work. Barrett is at his best depicting small moments of racial unease: a fraught negotiation with a cab driver who assumes Furo has more money than he does, a back and forth with a clothing salesman that becomes dramatically less strained once it’s revealed Furo speaks “pidgin like a trueborn Nigerian.” But too often the plot isn’t as rich as the premise. Furo’s dealings with a writer, conspicuously named Igoni and suffering identity problems of his own, end up distracting from the main story rather than complementing it. A promising twist involving Furo’s sister’s burgeoning career as a Twitter personality is abandoned too quickly. Most frustrating, Barrett waits until the novel’s final third for Furo to begin his new job, a tactical error given the rich opportunities for conflict that emerge once he’s there. Still, Barrett’s prose is consistently entertaining, and though the ending leaves something to be desired, readers will have plenty of fun getting there.
The story doesn’t quite live up to its brilliant premise, but readers in search of an incisive observer of contemporary life will find one in Barrett.
The parents of an eccentric adopted child head west to explore his roots and learn a few things about their own.
Maya and Alex are immigrants of Russian Jewish extraction with little comprehension of America outside their suburban New Jersey enclave, so they’re not sure what to make of it when their preteen son, Max, acquires a taste for the outdoors. He scares mom and dad by briefly disappearing to explore a nearby stream, has a newfound expertise in varieties of grasses, and he’s gotten frighteningly close to the fauna in the backyard. Perhaps his biological parents’ native land, Montana, somehow lurks in his genes? It’s a preposterous notion, but for a novelist with a sense of the absurd like Fishman (A Replacement Life, 2014, etc.), it’s enough to hang a novel on, and he has plenty of insights on how blurrily parents often perceive the nature-versus-nurture divide. Eager to look for the roots of Max’s behavior, Maya thinks back to her own past (as an aspiring restaurateur who married to stay in the United States) as well as her scraps of memory of Max’s biological parents, a hotel-clerk mom and battered rodeo-performer dad (hence the title). Fishman entertainingly satirizes a host of types (a folk healer, a dotty psychologist, a weary adoption-agency staffer, starchy old-world in-laws), but he’s sincere when it comes to Maya, who’s at the center of a plot twist that gives the closing chapters their gravitas. This feels almost like a magic trick given some of the narrative creakiness: Fishman sometimes overwrites scenes, Max and Alex don’t claim much of the stage, a love-story detour feels untenable, and Montana is overplayed as a punch line. (“It can’t be more beautiful than New Jersey,” says Maya.) But Fishman smartly observes that the assimilation novel and road-trip novel make good partners. Both, after all, are about finding freedom.
A comic novel about parenting infused with emotional intelligence.
A young woman navigates uneasy relationships with herself, her weight, and the world in Awad’s painfully raw—and bitingly funny—debut.
When we meet Lizzie March, she’s in high school, fighting the profound boredom of suburbia and adolescence with her best friend, Mel. “The universe is against us, which makes sense,” she observes. “So we get another McFlurry and talk about how fat we are for a while.” Later—the novel is told in a series of self-contained vignettes, snapshots of Lizzie from fat adolescence into thin adulthood—we watch Lizzie spend a tortured afternoon trying to take an acceptable full-body shot to send to her online boyfriend; we watch her date, or sort of date, a sleazy jazz harmonica player (“Archibald doesn’t take me to dinner, but I can be naked in front of him”). Lizzie becomes Beth, graduates from college, eats tiny salads; loses some weight, and then some more, committed to never being hungry for anything. Increasingly thin, she marries a man who fell in love with her when she was fat, and we watch him wish, sometimes, that she were still that girl: now, Elizabeth’s life—by this point, she’s Elizabeth—is dedicated to the maintenance of her hard-won figure, displayed in tight, joyless cocktail dresses. She’s trapped by her body, whatever size she is, and the shame of her own physical existence is isolating, a lens that filters every interaction. But it’s too simple to say that this is a novel “about” body image and self-hatred and the systemic oppression of women (though that wouldn’t be totally wrong); in Lizzie, Awad has created a character too vivid, too complicated, and too fundamentally human to be reduced to a single moral. Lizzie's particular sadness is unsettlingly sharp: she gets under your skin, and she stays there.
Beautifully constructed; a devastating novel but also a deeply empathetic one.
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.
An examination of the nature of radiation and the history of our understanding of the process.
In this spirited, thorough investigation into radiation, molecular radiation biologist Jorgensen (Molecular Oncology/Georgetown Univ.), chair of Georgetown’s radiation safety committee, delivers narrative science at its best, providing a propulsive story, each piece building on the next in a series of progressive revelations. Though the author is happy to steer readers away from nonessential dark matter—“the physics of wave polarization is quite complex and we don’t need to know anything more about it here”—he brings them deep enough into the science to ensure a comfortable grip on what radiation is and how it both helps and harms our health. “This book seeks to both convince people that they can be masters of their own radiation fate,” writes the author, “and empower them to make their own well-informed decisions about their personal radiation exposures.” Jorgensen accomplishes his goal by running through the human experience with radiation. This tale includes the scientists, of course, some of whom gave their lives to the study, as well as a plenitude of human-interest stories—e.g., the watch-factory workers in the 1920s whose job was “to paint the numbers on watch dials with a fluorescent paint that contained radium,” a task that often required them to sharpen the brush points in their mouths, resulting in the ingestion of radium. Throughout the book, Jorgensen keeps the science brisk—“radiation is energy on the move, be it through solid matter or free space”—and to the point: “it is the breaking of biological molecules that results in radiation’s adverse biological effects.” With a deft touch, the author delves into risks, statistics, and cohort studies (“the gold standard” of scientific studies, as opposed to the less reliable “small case-control studies”), and he displays a soft sense of humor while covering a serious topic.
A seismic piece of scientific inquiry, top shelf in narrative style and illumination.