Lisbeth Sander returns, bruises raw and dander up, in this continuing installment of the late Stieg Larsson’s crime series.
Lisbeth is perhaps getting a little long in the tooth to be called a girl, but no matter: she still has a young person’s aching desire to right the wrongs of the world. There are plenty of them, no doubt, but Swedish journalist/biographer Lagercrantz gives this the timeliest of spins by centering evil on the National Security Agency and its villainous operatives (“Ingram usually had a malicious grin on his face when he stuck a knife in someone’s back”), who dig illicit sex and snappy repartee and all the usual things that bad guys enjoy. The NSA and its explosive chief data cowboy make perfect foils, as it happens, for Lisbeth and her cohort of hacking pals, bearing names like Trinity, Plague, and Bob the Dog. Lagercrantz follows the Larsson formula: take a more-or-less ordinary event, in this case a brittle battle over custody rights, and wrap it into a larger crime that the smaller one masks. It’s not as if he doesn’t skip a beat in doing so, but mostly he captures Larsson’s patented tone, a blend of journalistic matter-of-factness and world-weariness. If the bad guys are sometimes cardboard cutouts, Lisbeth is fully rounded in her fury—as one of them cries, “What kind of freak are you?” No ordinary one, as Larsson well established and Lagercrantz reinforces. Larsson’s journalist hero/alter ego Mikael Blomkvist returns as well, bound in events while trying to do his work in the face of disappearing print, focus groups, and consultants—the latter a force for evil as formidable as the spooks back at Fort Meade. “It was no bloody market analysis that had created the magazine,” he fumes. “It was passion and fire.” Passion and fire, check: there are plenty of both here and plenty of loose character-development ends to pick up in another sequel.
Fast-moving, credible, and intelligently told. Larsson fans won’t be disappointed.
The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.
Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”
This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”
The long-awaited, much-discussed sequel that might have been a prequel—and that makes tolerably good company for its classic predecessor.
It’s not To Kill a Mockingbird, and it too often reads like a first draft, but Lee’s story nonetheless has weight and gravity. Scout—that is, Miss Jean Louise Finch—has been living in New York for years. As the story opens, she’s on the way back to Maycomb, Alabama, wearing “gray slacks, a black sleeveless blouse, white socks, and loafers,” an outfit calculated to offend her prim and proper aunt. The time is pre-Kennedy; in an early sighting, Atticus Finch, square-jawed crusader for justice, is glaring at a book about Alger Hiss. But is Atticus really on the side of justice? As Scout wanders from porch to porch and parlor to parlor on both the black and white sides of the tracks, she hears stories that complicate her—and our—understanding of her father. To modern eyes, Atticus harbors racist sentiments: “Jean Louise,” he says in one exchange, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” Though Scout is shocked by Atticus’ pronouncements that African-Americans are not yet prepared to enjoy full civil rights, her father is far less a Strom Thurmond–school segregationist than an old-school conservative of evolving views, “a healthy old man with a constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses,” as her uncle puts it. Perhaps the real revelation is that Scout is sometimes unpleasant and often unpleasantly confrontational, as a young person among oldsters can be. Lee, who is plainly on the side of equality, writes of class, religion, and race, but most affectingly of the clash of generations and traditions, with an Atticus tolerant and approving of Scout’s reformist ways: “I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.”
It’s not To Kill a Mockingbird, yes, but it’s very much worth reading.
A twisty but controlled epic that merges large and small concerns: loose nukes and absent parents, government surveillance and bad sex, gory murder and fine art.
Purity "Pip" Tyler, the hero of Franzen’s fifth novel (Freedom, 2010, etc.), is a bright college grad with limited prospects: burdened with student debt, she lives in an Oakland squat, makes cold calls at a go-nowhere job, and can’t stray far from an emotionally needy mom who won’t reveal who her dad is. A German visitor, Annagret, encourages Purity to intern in Bolivia for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style hacker group headed by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. Skeptical but cornered, Purity signs on. The names alone—Purity, Wolf—make the essential conflict clear, but that just frames a story in which every character is engaged in complex moral wrestling. Chief among them is Andreas, who killed Annagret’s sexually abusive stepfather and has his own issues with physical and emotional manipulation. But he’s not the only one Franzen dumps into the psychosexual stew. Andreas’ friend Tom Aberant is a powerful journalist saddled with self-loathing and a controlling ex-wife who detests her father’s wealth; Tom’s lover (and employee), Leila Helou, is a muckraker skilled enough to report on missing warheads but fumbling at her own failed marriage to Charles Blenheim, a novelist in decline. In Freedom, everybody was eager to declaim moral certitudes; here, Franzen is burrowing deep into each person’s questionable sense of his or her own goodness and suggests that the moral rot can metastasize to the levels of corporations and government. And yet the novel’s prose never bogs down into lectures, and its various back stories are as forceful as the main tale of Purity’s fate. Franzen is much-mocked for his primacy in the literary landscape (something he himself mocks when Charles grouses about “a plague of literary Jonathans”). But here, he’s admirably determined to think big and write well about our darkest emotional corners.
An expansive, brainy, yet inviting novel that leaves few foibles unexplored.
A charmingly pared-down life of the “boys” that grounds their dream of flight in decent character and work ethic.
There is a quiet, stoical awe to the accomplishments of these two unprepossessing Ohio brothers in this fluently rendered, skillfully focused study by two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning and two-time National Book Award–winning historian McCullough (The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, 2011, etc.). The author begins with a brief yet lively depiction of the Wright home dynamic: reeling from the death of their mother from tuberculosis in 1889, the three children at home, Wilbur, Orville, and Katharine, had to tend house, as their father, an itinerant preacher, was frequently absent. McCullough highlights the intellectual stimulation that fed these bookish, creative, close-knit siblings. Wilbur was the most gifted, yet his parents’ dreams of Yale fizzled after a hockey accident left the boy with a mangled jaw and broken teeth. The boys first exhibited their mechanical genius in their print shop and then in their bicycle shop, which allowed them the income and space upstairs for machine-shop invention. Dreams of flight were reawakened by reading accounts by Otto Lilienthal and other learned treatises and, specifically, watching how birds flew. Wilbur’s dogged writing to experts such as civil engineer Octave Chanute and the Smithsonian Institute provided advice and response, as others had long been preoccupied by controlled flight. Testing their first experimental glider took the Wrights over several seasons to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to experiment with their “wing warping” methods. There, the strange, isolated locals marveled at these most “workingest boys,” and the brothers continually reworked and repaired at every step. McCullough marvels at their success despite a lack of college education, technical training, “friends in high places” or “financial backers”—they were just boys obsessed by a dream and determined to make it reality.
An educational and inspiring biography of seminal American innovators.
A half-dozen sometimes Carver-esque yarns that find more-or-less ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges and somehow holding up.
Tragedy is always close to the surface in Johnson’s work—with tragicomic layerings, sometimes, but it’s tragedy all the same. So it is with the opening story of the six here, “Nirvana,” which takes its title from the Kurt Cobain–led rock band but shares a spirit with near-future films like Her and Gattaca. A software engineer, desperate to do right by his paralyzed wife, reanimates people from the past: “After the doctor left,” the narrator says matter-of-factly, “I went into the garage and started making the president.” It’s science fiction of a kind but with an extra element of disspiritment: people exist, but we long for simulacra instead of them, “like she’s forgotten that her arms don’t work and there’s no him to embrace.” With more than a nod to his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (2012), Johnson calls on two North Korean defectors who, now in the South, haven’t quite got their new world sussed out but are starting to get an inkling of how things work: “Christian talk, when said in a non-Christian way, scares these Southerners to death.” Their lessons in fitting in include essentials such as “handling money, hygiene, being pleasant, avoiding crime,” but it’s clear that no amount of instruction will make them feel at home. Safe houses, hospices, hospitals: these are the theaters where many of the stories take place, all enshrouded in a certain incomprehension—but, to Johnson’s great credit, seldom in hopelessness, for his characters are inclined to endure against the odds: “You turn the ignition and drop the van in gear, and you know this is no ordinary event.”
Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom: this is no ordinary book, either.
A prominent surgeon and journalist takes a cleareyed look at aging and death in 21st-century America.
Modern medicine can perform miracles, but it is also only concerned with preserving life rather than dealing with end-of-life issues. Drawing on his experiences observing and helping terminally ill patients, Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, 2009, etc.) offers a timely account of how modern Americans cope with decline and mortality. He points out that dying in America is a lonely, complex business. Before 1945, people could count on spending their last days at home. Now, most die in institutional settings, usually after trying every medical procedure possible to head off the inevitable. Quality of life is often sacrificed, in part because doctors lack the ability to help patients negotiate a bewildering array of medical and nonmedical options. Many, like Gawande’s mother-in-law, Alice, find that they must take residence in senior housing or assisted care facilities due to the fact that no other reasonable options exist. But even the most well-run of these "homes" are problematic because they can only offer sterile institutional settings that restrict independence and can cause psychological distress. Moving in with adult children is also difficult due to the tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise. Yet the current system shows signs of reform. Rather than simply inform patients about their options or tell them what to do, some doctors, including the author, are choosing to offer the guidance that helps patients make their own decisions regarding treatment options and outcomes. By confronting the reality rather than pretending it can be beaten and understanding that “there are times where the cost of pushing exceeds its value,” the medical establishment can offer the kind of compassion that allows for more humane ways to die. As Gawande reminds readers, “endings matter.”
A sensitive, intelligent and heartfelt examination of the processes of aging and dying.
This newly translated German bestseller is a warmhearted, occasionally sentimental account of letting go of the old loves to make room for new.
Parisian bookseller Jean Perdu has lived in a time capsule of his own grief. Twenty-one years ago, his lover, Manon, left, leaving behind only a letter to explain herself—which Jean never opened. Ever since, Jean has devoted his life to his floating bookstore, the Literary Apothecary, a barge docked on the Seine. He can diagnose a shopper's ills (ennui, disappointment, a range of fears) and select the correct literary remedy. When heartbroken Catherine moves into his building, Jean brings her an old table and a stack of books to cure her crying. In the table Catherine finds Manon's unopened letter and demands Jean read it, or she will. The two fall into kissing, and Jean, buoyed by Catherine, finally reads Manon's letter, but the truth is heartbreaking. Manon returned to her home in Provence (and her husband—it was complicated) to succumb to the cancer she had been hiding. Her last request was for Jean to visit before she died. Jean, overwhelmed by news of her death, his tragic error, his wasted life pining for a dead woman, lifts the Literary Apothecary's anchorto finally make the journey to Manon. Stowed away is his neighbor Max, a young novelist running away from his fame. The two navigate the canals of France selling books for food, engaging in adventures small and large, all against the backdrop of quaint villages and bittersweet memories. They take on some passengers: a roguish Italian who has been searching the waterways for his long-lost sweetheart; and a renowned novelist. As Jean makes his way to Manon's home (all the while writing love letters to Catherine), he prepares to ask for forgiveness—from the memory of Manon, from her husband, and from himself.
A charming novel that believes in the healing properties of fiction, romance, and a summer in the south of France.
Desperate to find lives more fulfilling than her own, a lonely London commuter imagines the story of a couple she’s only glimpsed through the train window in Hawkins’ chilling, assured debut, in which the line between truth and lie constantly shifts like the rocking of a train.
Rachel Watson—a divorced, miserable alcoholic who’s still desperately in love with her ex-husband, Tom—rides the same train every day into London for her dead-end job, one she unsurprisingly loses after one too many drunken outbursts. Continuing her daily commute to keep up appearances with her roommate, Rachel always pays special attention to a couple, whom she dubs “Jess and Jason,” who live a seemingly idyllic life in a house near her own former home. When she sees a momentary act of infidelity, followed soon after by news that Jess—whose real name is Megan Hipwell—has disappeared, Rachel is compelled to share her secret knowledge, becoming enmeshed in the police investigation, which centers on Megan’s husband, Scott. Further complicating matters is the fact that the night Megan vanished, Rachel has a hazy memory of drunkenly stumbling past the Hipwell home and seeing something she can’t quite recall. Hawkins seamlessly moves among Rachel’s present-day story as the investigation into Megan’s disappearance widens, Megan’s own life leading up to her disappearance, and snippets about Anna, the woman for whom Tom left Rachel.
Even the most astute readers will be in for a shock as Hawkins slowly unspools the facts, exposing the harsh realities of love and obsession’s inescapable links to violence.