The present illuminates the past—but can’t provide resolution—in this generation-spanning meditation on injustice.
Wideman (God’s Gym, 2005, etc.) initially conducted his research to inform some fiction focusing on Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. “Though today Emmett Till is generally viewed as a civil rights martyr,” writes the renowned author, “the shabby trial that exonerated his killers, and the crucial role played by Till’s father in the trial have largely disappeared from the public’s imagination.” It is the life and death of father Louis Till that obsesses Wideman, in a manner that blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. During World War II, Louis was executed for rape and murder in Italy, a case based on another black soldier’s turning informant to escape prosecution and on shaky testimony from Italian women. Even after Emmitt’s accused murderers were acquitted, there had been the opportunity to try them on the charge of kidnapping, until a supposedly confidential file on the hanging of Louis became public knowledge: “With this information about Emmitt Till’s father in hand, the Mississippi grand jury declined to indict…for kidnapping.” There are many layers of meaning in this book, especially regarding the identification of Wideman with Emmitt, both of them 14 when the author saw a photo of the dead boy’s battered face, and the narrative expands into a meditation on black fathers and sons, the divide and the bonds, the genetic inheritance within a racist society. The author also explores the relationship between truth and fiction, since he believes the case against Louis can be read as fiction, and he composes his own fictions to counter it. He suggests that Louis was mainly guilty “of being the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time” while admitting that he has no more proof than military officials did.
A book seething with the passion and sense of outrage behind the Black Lives Matter movement that also traces specific roots of the movement’s genealogy.
A keen, controlled novel about dance and blackness steps onto a stage of cultural land mines.
Smith, who wowed the world at 24 with her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), once again crafts quicksilver fiction around intense friendship, race, and class. She opens with a scene of that social media–fueled nightmare: public humiliation. “I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” the unnamed narrator tells us. She was “put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St. John's Wood.” From this three-paragraph prologue, the story jumps abruptly back 24 years to 1982, when the narrator, a “horse-faced seven-year-old,” meets Tracey, another brown girl in North West London arriving for dance class. The result is a novel-length current of competition, love, and loathing between them. Tracey has the tap-dancing talent; the narrator’s gifts are more subterranean: “elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” Tracey struggles for a life onstage while the narrator flies aloft, becoming personal assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star: “I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, and wiped very occasional break-up tears.” Smith is dazzling in her specificity, evoking predicaments, worldviews, and personalities with a camera-vivid precision. The mothers of the two women cube the complexity of this work, an echo of the four protagonists in Smith’s last novel, NW (2012). All their orbits are distorted by Aimee, the Madonna/Angelina Jolie–like celebrity impulsively building a girls’ school in West Africa. The novel toggles its short chapters between decades and continents, swinging time and geography. Aimee and her entourage dabble in philanthropy; Tracey and the narrator grope toward adulthood; and Fred Astaire, dancing in blackface in Swing Time, becomes an avatar of complexity presiding over the whole thing. In her acknowledgements, Smith credits an anthropological study, Islam, Youth and Modernity in the Gambia. Its insights flare against a portrait of Aimee, on the other side of the matrix, procuring “a baby as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.”
Moving, funny, and grave, this novel parses race and global politics with Fred Astaire’s or Michael Jackson's grace.
Debut collection limns a variety of troubled characters searching for solace of both sexual and spiritual varieties in the contemporary South.
The title story investigates the frustrations of Jake, who learns after they marry that his young wife, Sheila, was manipulated into “heavy petting” by an uncle when she was 12 and then, when they were caught, blamed for it by her conservative Christian parents, who afterward considered their daughter damaged goods. Though this trauma seems to have permanently turned her off sex, Jake still fears that Sheila is cheating on him, while he is tempted by a wealthy cancer survivor who's a major donor to the hospital where he works. This is the first of several lurid scenarios that could have devolved into standard-issue Southern Gothic but instead convey compassion for Lawson’s damaged protagonists in straightforward but sharply perceptive prose. Teenagers roiled by sexual desire drive the action in “The Way You Must Play Always” and “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” and they are surrounded by adults equally confused and unhappy. Indeed, it might have made more thematic sense for the collection to take its name from “Vulnerability,” the closing and longest piece; that title pinpoints an essential human quality on abundant display here. In that story, Lawson takes the first-person narrator, a painter, to New York to meet a famous artist and an art dealer who for all their sophistication are as needy as the husband she left back in her Southern hometown drinking scotch and watching porn in a backyard shed. Faltering marriages, uneasy connections to fundamentalist religious backgrounds, and the gray areas where powerful teenage sexuality meets adult desire in relationships that may or may not constitute abuse—these are among the recurrent subjects handled frankly yet with a delicate touch.
Meaty, satisfying tales of a substance that suggests Lawson would make a fine novelist.
Noted sci-fi maven and futurologist Sterling (Love Is Strange, 2012, etc.) takes a side turn in the slipstream in this offbeat, sometimes-puzzling work of dieselpunk-y alternative history.
Resident in Turin, hometown of Calvino, for a dozen years, Sterling has long been experimenting with what the Italians call fantascienza, a mashup of history and speculation that’s not quite science fiction but is kin to it. Take, for example, the fact that Harry Houdini once worked for the Secret Service, add to it the fact that H.P. Lovecraft once worked for Houdini, and ecco: why not posit Lovecraft as a particularly American kind of spook, “not that old-fashioned, cloak-and-dagger, European style of spy,” who trundles out to Fiume to see what’s what in the birthplace of Italian futurism-turned-fascism? Lovecraft is just one of the historical figures who flits across Sterling’s pages, which bear suitably futuristic artwork, quite wonderful, by British illustrator John Coulthart. Among the others are Woodrow Wilson and Adolf Hitler, to say nothing of Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini. “Seen from upstream, most previous times seem mad,” notes graphic novelist Warren Ellis in a brief introduction, but the Futurist project seems particularly nutty from this distance; personified by Lorenzo Secondari, a veteran of World War I who leads the outlaw coalition called the Strike of the Hand Committee in the “pirate utopia” of the soi disant Republic of Carnaro, its first task is to build some torpedoes and then turn them into “radio-controlled, airborne Futurist torpedoes,” not the easiest thing considering the technological limitations of the time. A leader of the “Desperates,” who “came from anywhere where life was hard, but honor was still bright,” Secondari and The Prophet—D’Annunzio, that is—recognize no such limitations and discard anything that doesn’t push toward the future. So why not a flying pontoon boat with which to sail off to Chicago, and why not a partnership with Houdini to combat world communism?
A kind of Ragtime for our time: provocative, exotic, and very entertaining.
The lives of a mentally ill savant, a young artist, and a serial killer converge in a powerful novel that shuttles across the U.S.–Mexico border.
The wide-ranging Bolivia-born Paz Soldán (Latin American literature/Cornell; Turing’s Delirium, 2006, etc.) delivers a small cross-section of very different lives of Latinos in the United States, better to counter casual generalizations about them. But its key strength is its well-formed individual characterizations. In 2008, Michelle is a Bolivia-born college student and budding graphic novelist in Texas who risks being pulled astray by hard-partying friends and a professor she’s sleeping with. In 1931, Martín is a schizophrenic Mexican immigrant who becomes a celebrated outsider artist after his institutionalization in California. (Michelle will be invited to write about Martín’s work decades later.) And in northern Mexico in 1984, Jesús has begun his career as a serial killer, hopping trains across the border to hunt likely victims in Texas. Jesús, modeled after the real-life “Railroad Killer” Ángel Maturino Reséndiz, hogs the novel’s stage, largely thanks to Paz Soldán’s visceral descriptions of his killings, which rival Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho for their stomach-churning impact. But Paz Soldán effectively inhabits the interior lives of each of his three characters, and Miles’ translation captures their distinct emotional flavors. Martín is purposefully abstract: “His brain: a desert landscape with an occasional prickly pear or acacia bush.” Michelle, the sole first-person narrator, is a spirited straight-talker. And Jesús is a terrifying vision of unchecked madness, as when he targets “gringas who couldn’t stand the fact that he was alive.” A detective is on Jesús’ tail, but the novel’s drama isn’t so much in the killer’s fate but in the thoughtful way Paz Soldán interweaves these three characters’ lives, at once showing how they intersect while spotlighting what makes them distinctive.
Bergreen (Columbus: The Four Voyages, 2011, etc.) applies his historical storytelling skills to the famous Venetian lover, introducing his intellectual side.
Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was the child of two actors from whom he inherited and perfected his playacting abilities, which he used to his advantage as a social climber. He trained for the church and received a doctorate in civil and canon law at age 16, giving him the basis for his exceptional writings. His mother deserted him and set the pattern for the Casanova Syndrome of seduction and abandonment. He was a libertine and proud of it; he felt it better to be notorious than obscure. He was an adventurer, mathematician, musician, and literary genius, but he was also an obsessive gambler, losing and gaining fortune after fortune. One of his most successful gambles was instituting the French lottery for the state in 1758. It continued to be successful even through the French Revolution, paying for the Ecole Militaire where Napoleon trained. (It was Napoleon who eventually caused the collapse of Casanova’s beloved Venice.) Casanova usually fell in love with his conquests, and sometimes he actually failed to convince his lover to submit to him. Condemned as an atheist by the Inquisition, he was locked up in a miserable prison on the top floor of the Doge’s Palace. It would be nearly two decades before he was pardoned and allowed to return to Venice. Throughout, Bergreen makes good use of an excellent translation of his subject’s 12-volume memoir. While it was published shortly after his death, it was censored and edited, and the first unexpurgated version didn’t appear until 1960. The author neatly captures Casanova’s voice, “often amused, but rarely mocking, conversational yet highly literary, and simultaneously vulgar and brilliant.”
Casanova’s adventures include plenty of juicy details, and Bergreen weaves in just enough to prove his reputation. His travels during one of history’s most exciting periods will be great fun for any history lover.
Natasha and Daniel meet, get existential, and fall in love during 12 intense hours in New York City.
Natasha believes in science and facts, things she can quantify. Fact: undocumented immigrants in the U.S., her family is being deported to Jamaica in a matter of hours. Daniel’s a poet who believes in love, something that can’t be explained. Fact: his parents, Korean immigrants, expect him to attend an Ivy League school and become an M.D. When Natasha and Daniel meet, Natasha’s understandably distracted—and doesn’t want to be distracted by Daniel. Daniel feels what in Japanese is called koi no yokan, “the feeling when you meet someone that you’re going to fall in love with them.” The narrative alternates between the pair, their first-person accounts punctuated by musings that include compelling character histories. Daniel—sure they’re meant to be—is determined to get Natasha to fall in love with him (using a scientific list). Meanwhile, Natasha desperately attempts to forestall her family’s deportation and, despite herself, begins to fall for sweet, disarmingly earnest Daniel. This could be a sappy, saccharine story of love conquering all, but Yoon’s lush prose chronicles an authentic romance that’s also a meditation on family, immigration, and fate.
With appeal to cynics and romantics alike, this profound exploration of life and love tempers harsh realities with the beauty of hope in a way that is both deeply moving and satisfying.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
A young actor loses a great role but finds a wonderful story to share.
Surendra might best be known through a memorable supporting role in Mean Girls, but this debut shows a real gift for writing, likely one that has been shaped by the story it relates. While still a student in Canada, the son of Tamil immigrants from India landed a role that would change his life—that of the rapping Kevin Gnapoor in the Tina Fey film starring Lindsay Lohan that would far exceed all expectations as a cult favorite. While shooting that movie, a cameraman strongly recommended the popular novel Life of Pi, and Surendra discovered a host of remarkable similarities between himself and the young Indian boy cast adrift on the sea. Then he learned that the novel was being adapted into a movie, and he devoted himself to landing the lead role. He traveled to India, immersed himself in the locations referenced in the novel, initiated a correspondence with novelist Yann Martel, and conquered his fear of water and learned to swim. Surendra even turned down an offer for regular work on a series to pursue the Life of Pi role. However, as Martel advised him, “it’s in the hands of Vishnu and Hollywood.” Early signs looked promising, as “the only notable brown director in Hollywood was attached—M. Night Shyamalan, of The Sixth Sense fame.” Alas, Shyamalan was only the first of many to be involved, and the process went on and on. Though many readers will know that the part went to someone else, the author’s determination was rewarded in different fashion: through what he learned about himself and the “salvation” he experienced. He remains an actor, but he has also established a successful commercial calligraphy business, and this book shows that he is an accomplished writer as well.
One of the more insightful and inspirational of the recent glut of showbiz memoirs.
A dual biography of the man who made McDonald's ubiquitous and his third wife, who, after his death, spent the last two decades of her life becoming one of most generous philanthropists in American history.
Journalist Napoli (Radio Shangri-la: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth, 2011) intended to write a sole biography of Joan Kroc (1928-2003), but she wisely decided to first document the life of Ray Kroc (1902-1984), who rose to become a billionaire via fast food after decades of marginal success as a traveling salesman hawking various products. Joan Beverly Mansfield Smith was playing piano and singing in a St. Paul, Minnesota, lounge when she caught the attention of her future husband, more than 25 years her senior. The romance was complicated not just by the age difference, but also due to the fact that Ray and Joan were both already married, with children in the mix. Ray would not be denied, although the road to remarriage took years to pave. Joan felt passion as well, apparently not fully comprehending Ray's alcoholism, his authoritarian personality, his unpleasant prejudices against almost everybody different from himself, and his inability to wrest attention from the business of expanding McDonald's. Publicly, Joan mostly suffered in silence until Ray's death, but behind the scenes, she often went about her life in a passive-aggressive manner. Napoli skillfully assembles the saga of their lives as a couple and just as skillfully portrays Joan's blossoming as a philanthropic force after Ray's death. She donated hundreds of millions of dollars to causes he would have vetoed, including hospice care, alcoholism treatment, AIDS research, Salvation Army recreation centers in low-income areas, National Public Radio, and much more. In the author’s telling, Ray never emerges as a sympathetic man, but Joan slowly morphs into a sympathetic heiress.
A book characterized by deep research and a seamless weaving together of the details of different lives.