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 significant new exploration of the enormously important friendship between two activist crusaders in advancing the cause of civil rights for blacks and women.
Although the Baltimore-born black lawyer Pauli Murray (1910-1985) and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) exchanged more than 300 letters during their lifetimes, met occasionally, and worked in tandem on issues of social justice, there has not been a proper study of their mutually influential friendship until now. In this stellar work of scholarship, Bell-Scott (Emerita, Women’s Studies and Family Science/Univ. of Georgia; Flat-Footed Truths:Telling Black Women's Lives, 1998, etc.) has sifted through their correspondence for evidence of their evolving ideas on black-white issues and how each took the measure of the other while working doggedly to bring down social and professional barriers. Eleanor tirelessly promoted integration despite the public caution that her husband demonstrated, and she first met Murray in 1933 as a college graduate attending Camp Tera (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration), a pilot facility for struggling unemployed women that Eleanor had pushed to create during the Depression. Subsequently, Murray would go on to get advanced law degrees and work as deputy California attorney general and, later, as a professor. All the while, Murray idolized Eleanor ("the most visible symbol of autonomy and therefore the role model of women of my generation") and frequently wrote to her—or to the president, sending her a copy of the letter. She laid out in no uncertain terms the plight of the African-American, “the most oppressed, most misunderstood and most neglected section of your population,” especially in the South, where she had lived as an orphan. From getting anti-lynching legislation passed to pressuring institutions of higher learning to integrate, the two women bolstered or chided each other candidly in their letters involving issues which Eleanor frequently referred to in her newspaper column. With generous excerpts from the letters, Bell-Scott shines a bright light on this significant relationship.
A fresh look at Eleanor Roosevelt and a fascinating exploration of a cherished, mutually beneficial friendship.
A rare honest story about love, ambition, and compromise.
“But what is a demimonde, anyway?” asks Alison Moore in the opening line of this novel by Rebeck, the creator of TV’s Smash and a widely produced playwright. Rebeck’s insider knowledge of the demimonde of entertainment and celebrity is put to excellent use as she tracks the upward trajectory of a young actress from Cincinnati, from cattle-call auditions for a two-line role through a lead in a television series and to the brink of Hollywood superstardom. Every type in showbiz is unmasked here, from the writer—“It’s only two lines but there has to be stakes”—to the columnist—“Hi Jessica, you look fantastic! Can I grab you for a few minutes to talk about your know-nothing role as a gun-toting whore in Evil Dead 12?”—to the actress herself, “light-headed with hunger all the time” on the orders of her agent: “Beautiful food is for you to look at, and other people to eat.” While her stock goes up careerwise, Alison’s personal life is in free-fall. The decision to move to New York abruptly ended her relationship with her high school sweetheart, Kyle, and their inability to recover ends up warping both of their lives. An idealistic doctor and a committed Catholic, shellshocked Kyle ends up in a pediatric practice catering to entitled suburbanites and, worse, married to a woman he doesn’t love. Every time Alison comes home for a visit, they run into each other and bad things happen. Though she’s something of a black sheep in her extended family, where grandchildren Nos. 8 and 9 are on the way, Alison identifies deeply with the Midwest itself, its culture, its values, its nice people with good manners. Even the parties are better, in her opinion.
The snappy dialogue and plot you’d expect from a veteran dramatist plus the rich exploration of character that novels are made for.
“Did I say he was dead? What I said was, he is…gone.” Welcome to an odd world in which the dead never quite go away, and the living are—well, not quite there.
Readers of horror know, even if characters in movies and books do not, that it’s never a good idea to go up to the attic, even when it’s euphemized as “the upstairs junk room.” Bad things happen in such dark interior spaces, as the characters in Straub’s long opening story learn; in a narrative marked by a tenuous hold on time and an even more tenuous one on reality, an unfortunate young man finds that hypnosis is maybe not such a good idea after all, leading to an event that, the protagonist tells us, “virtually destroyed my family.” And not just virtually. Straub (In the Night Room, 2004, etc.), who, this collection ably reveals, has affinities with both Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, likes nothing more than a good, taut, psychologically charged yarn that raises more questions than it answers: “I thought of myself as a work of art,” a denizen of one fairy tale–like story remarks. “I caused responses without being responsible for them.” In a Straub-ian world, proper responses include puzzlement, nervousness, and fear, to say nothing of indulging in coprophiliac moments that are going to ruin some unfortunate housekeeper’s day. Denial is also allowed; as another of Straub’s characters yelps, bewildered at the thought that Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” should be esteemed enough to be taught in school, “I never went to any college, but I do know that nothing means what it says, not on this planet.” That’s exactly right, one reason not to trust Straub’s narrators, whose worlds include an unhealthy amount of free-floating anger and not a little craziness—though if anger and craziness can bring a taxi-flattened cat back to life, then so much the better.
Dark, brooding fiction from a master of the form. And take our word for it: don’t go up to the attic, even if it is just a junk room.
A fond memoir of life with a prolific writer of science fiction and pornography.
Screenwriter (True Blood, Weeds) and essayist Offutt (No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home, 2002, etc.) describes his father, Andrew, as “fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruel, selfish, and eternally optimistic.” In the opening chapters, the author charts his father’s declining health and grave prognosis from alcohol-induced cirrhosis, which spurred the author to return home to Kentucky in the midst of his own divorce. Offutt delves deep into his father’s history as a former traveling salesman who carted his family around to sci-fi conventions and who harbored a temperamental persona with a penchant for creating alter egos. Beginning with an Old West novel written when he was just 12, Andrew was in many ways “an old-school pulp writer” whose early novels, penned in the hushed privacy of a locked home office and often under pseudonyms, helped finance Offutt’s desperately needed orthodontia. Upon his death in 2013, the mother lode of his father’s squirreled away gemstones, coins, and assorted clutter was unearthed, but it was the 1,800 pounds of manuscripts and papers bequeathed to Offutt that exposed Andrew’s true nature and later career as a “workhorse in the field of written pornography.” The author’s father produced an incredibly imaginative oeuvre of hard-core graphic erotica, from ghost porn to inquisition torture, incrementally (and chillingly) escalating in violence against women as time went on—something Andrew believed prevented him from becoming a serial killer. Admitting to his mother that his “Dad was the most interesting character I’ve ever met” speaks volumes about not only the kind of father Andrew was to his son, but also the kind of son Offutt became because of (and in spite of) the things he’d been taught.
Though his relationship with his father was distant, melancholic, and precarious, Offutt quite movingly weaves his personal history into a fascinating tapestry of a compulsive writer with a knack for the naughty.
A famous novelist’s disappearance upends the life of her American translator.
Novey's surreal debut begins as a mystery: legendary Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda has inexplicably climbed into an almond tree with a cigar and a suitcase and has not been seen since. Upon receiving the news—is she aware, an unfamiliar emailer wants to know, that her author has been missing for five days?—translator Emma Neufeld puts her life in Pittsburgh on hold and hops a flight to Rio de Janeiro to join the search, much to the chagrin of her sweetly dull boyfriend. On the ground in Rio, the situation quickly begins to clarify: Beatriz Yagoda is not only a serious literary novelist, but also a serious online poker player who now owes an angry loan shark half a million dollars, or else. And so, together with Yagoda’s adult children, Raquel (practical) and Marcus (overwhelmingly handsome), Emma embarks on a madcap chase to track down the missing author while fending off the increasingly impatient shark. Meanwhile, Yagoda’s publisher, Roberto Rocha, burned out by a sea of lesser manuscripts and desperate for another one of hers, finds himself equally entangled: he doesn’t know any more about her whereabouts than Emma and the rest, but he’s been the one responding to her secret requests for cash, and—more importantly—he’s the one with the means to pay off her debts. Stylish, absurd, sometimes romantic, and often very funny, the novel is as much about the writing process as it is about the high-stakes plot. And if it doesn’t always add up to more than the sum of its parts—like a dream, the book is almost overwhelmingly vivid when you’re in it, and the details dissipate quickly when you’re not—taken piece by piece, it’s a tour de force.
From the author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (2013), a deeply emotional ode to friendship—to the people who make you feel alive and who you follow without question and to the bonds that endure, even if only in memory.
“We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires.” Jansma’s novel opens with an optimistic buzz as college best friends who moved to New York City five years ago are meeting for an annual holiday party. Fancy champagne is had, an engagement is on the horizon, a new romance is brewing, and one of them, the elusive but caring artist Irene, is avoiding all conversation about the lump she found under her eye. The seriousness of this lump is revealed early on, and the novel quickly becomes less about the intoxicating feelings of possibility the city offers to dynamic groups such as this and more about how tragedy can rip holes in this beautiful illusion. “No one was special” is a realization Irene’s friends come to at different points in their story together. It hits Sara, the micromanaging do-gooder, at Duane Reade while buying adult diapers for Irene. It affects George, Sara’s fiance, who feels helpless, and William, who has loved Irene from afar for years and must now consider the purpose of his life if she’s no longer there. While the story is set specifically in New York during the 2008 recession, and while Jansma seems to want the city to be the binding force that keeps these friends together, it’s Irene, and the power of her friendship, that achieves this best. “Irene…is a magnet,” George says, and it’s true that while the city gave the friends exciting lives, it’s friendship that makes them keep on living. “There are cities with just me, and cities with only you…and even one city that we all, each of us, believe in, that never fully leaves us.” Perhaps unintentionally, Jansma’s emotional tale shows that a city can be encompassed by a person.
This story is sad and sometimes overly sentimental, but Jansma’s narrative shines when he moves away from the collective experience and focuses on the lasting impact of individual moments.
A novel that concentrates on Lincoln’s early years in Illinois, from his friendship with the (fictional) poet Cage Weatherby to his (altogether too real) relationship with Mary Todd.
Harrigan presents Lincoln warts and all. In his version, Lincoln tells ribald jokes, writes morbid poetry, and even threatens suicide when he gets engaged to Mary Todd and at some level realizes the engagement is a terrible mistake. The novel opens with the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and then flashes back to when he was 22 and meeting Cage for the first time as they buried casualties of the Black Hawk War. Cage is presented as a skilled amateur poet whose work Lincoln much admires and a successful businessman—at least till the end of the novel, when his investments collapse. Cage becomes Lincoln’s confidant as Lincoln moves from being an itinerant lawyer to a member of the state legislature. Along the way we get to know some of Lincoln’s idiosyncrasies—his social ineptness, for example, especially around his fiancee—though these are balanced by a strong sense of honor and awareness of right and wrong. In one of his best moments he defends Cordelia, a runaway slave employed as a seamstress in a shop owned by Cage’s mistress, who's been thrown in jail until her owner can come north to claim her. Through legal knowledge and a sense of the dramatic, he succeeds in securing her freedom. In another episode, both ludicrous and grim, Lincoln is challenged to a duel by a man who feels he’s been slandered—and as the one challenged, Lincoln is allowed to choose the weapons. He chooses…broadswords. "You mean to fight this duel like a medieval knight?" a friend asks. "I mean to fight this duel with a weapon I can kill Jim Shields with if I need to," Lincoln replies.
A narrative that presents keen insights into Lincoln’s complex personality.
A journalist explores how “several thousand bikes…made an incredible journey” across the border between Mexico and the United States.
When Taylor (Drive Fast and Take Chances: Fair Warning from Surfers, 2013, etc.) discovered the “ownerless piles” of bikes that littered the Tijuana River Valley, he was as awed as he was curious. The bikes, which included mountain, racing, BMX, utility, clown, and children’s models, had been made all over the world and were in varying states of disrepair. Determined to uncover who had left the bicycles there and why, the author embarked on a multiyear private investigation. He met a motley assortment of individuals ranging from ranchers and environmentalists to ex-cons and a man who collected the bicycles to sell, no questions asked, to everyone from Mexican migrants to film studios. While it became clear that the bikes were used to help illegal immigrants negotiate the difficult, often dangerous terrain between Southern California and Mexico, Taylor became fascinated by the trajectory they had traveled, drawing “rude diagrams and flow charts” to help him better envision the journey. He discovered that, though pedaled over the border by illegal aliens, the bicycles had come from all over the U.S. and had also been ridden by farmers, convicts, actors, and soldiers. The author’s ultimate answers to the borderland bicycle riddle did not emerge until he stumbled into an unlikely friendship with an ex-con who had been gathering information from Tijuana smugglers about a mysterious young man named El Indio. Over the span of a few short years, he had built a multimillion-dollar business as a coyote who brought illegal immigrants into the U.S. on bicycles. As colorful and interesting as the characters and story are, the narrative is at times digressive and unevenly paced. But Taylor still manages to make the salubrious, if disturbing, point that no matter how divorced readers believe they are from border issues, they are still implicated in a system of human trafficking and exploitation.