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.
A comic novel about a prickly writer, her unusual young son, and their beleaguered caretaker, set in the Hollywood Hills.
Johnson's debut novel revolves around a literary recluse named M.M. Banning, "a college dropout from Nowheresville, Alabama," who "wrote Pitched, a novel that won her a Pulitzer and a National Book Award by the time she turned 20." That was years ago, and Banning, whose real name is Mimi Gillespie, has moved to a walled LA estate and published not another word. But now she's been "swindled of her fortune by a crooked investment adviser" and has to get a book out pronto. She inveigles her publisher to send her a huge advance and a full-time assistant to manage her household and take care of her son, Frank. Thus, a young Nebraskan blonde named Alice Whitley is dropped into the weird world of this mother-son duo. At age 9, Frank's daily attire includes tailcoats, yacht wear, cufflinks, a top hat, and a fez. He speaks in encyclopedia entries and makes observations far beyond his years, "as if he were reading off a teleprompter in the middle distance." While his exact diagnosis is not given, he cannot be touched, throws himself on the floor in a rigid corpse pose when upset, and has a genius IQ. As his mother puts it, "For a kid like Frank, hell is other children." While Frank quickly opens up to his new caretaker, the awful Mimi never does. Poor Alice has her hands full navigating these socially disabled characters through the disasters they bring upon themselves while also endeavoring to solve mysteries about their past and getting tangled up with their sexy family friend Xander.
The curious incident of where'd you go, Salinger: clever, sweet, but a bit derivative.
The life of an American expat living in Bulgaria intersects repeatedly with that of a young gay hustler in this gorgeous debut novel from Greenwell.
The unnamed narrator—an English teacher who lives in the city of Sofia—has an addiction, and that addiction’s name is Mitko. After they meet for the first time in a public bathroom, Mitko flits in and out of the narrator's life with abandon, alternating among offers of sex, hints at love, threats, blackmail, hunger, illness, neediness, rage, and despair. Mitko is beautiful, self-assured, and an enigma, and the narrator finds it hard to resist him. His growth is in his responses, which range from acquiescence to refusal, and it is this engine that propels the reader forward through a series of tenuously connected chapters that advance in irregular chronological intervals. This is a novel with a short story sensibility; many of the chapters stand on their own, hanging together only in the loosest sense. This is a feature, not a bug: instead of aggressively pursuing a series of tightly woven plotlines, readers may have the sense that they're peering through the narrator’s window randomly and of their own free will, observing his latest state each time. As for the narrator, he can only move forward if he interrogates his past—the question is, will he be able to? The prose here is supple and responsive, and Sofia teems with beauty and decay. Mitko lights up scenes like a firecracker and haunts the ones where he’s absent—a large segment of the novel where he does not appear still vibrates with his energy—but the protagonist too is a source of gentle, steady illumination as he grapples with his cravings, memories, fears, and grief. This is a project of rare discernment and beauty, and it is not to be missed.
A luminous, searing exploration of desire, alienation, and the powerful tattoo of the past.
The wives in these guffaw-out-loud short stories by novelist Ellis (The Turning Book: What Curiosity Kills, 2010, etc.) are a wonderfully wacky crew.
At first glance, the women in this pointedly peculiar collection may seem like familiar characters—jealous wives, inconsiderate neighbors, procrastinating writers—yet, often, it’s not long before they and their stories build from a chug to a mad hurtle, take a sharp turn in an unexpected direction, and careen completely and crazily off the rails. In “The Wainscoting War,” two neighbors correspond about their shared vestibule, and over the course of a handful of emails, build from “Thank you for the welcome gift basket you left outside our apartment door” to a high-stakes face-off in a common hallway at high noon. In “The Fitter,” one of the book’s sweeter, gentler stories, the wife of a small-town Georgia man with a “pilgrimage-worthy” gift for fitting women with the perfect bra—“part good old boy, part miracle worker”—reluctantly releases him to the woman she suspects will replace her after she succumbs to the illness that has rid her of her own “body meant for tight sweaters.” In “Dead Doormen,” a woman who initially appears to be a perfectly devoted housewife, catering to her husband’s needs in the vast Manhattan prewar penthouse apartment left to him by his mother, slowly comes into focus as something significantly more sinister. The 12 stories here cheekily tackle subjects ranging from neighborhood book clubs to reality TV shows, and while a few of them feel, sadly, like filler, breaking up the madcap momentum, on the whole, they are deliciously dark and deliriously deranged.
This amusingly offbeat collection treats us to an unusual array of characters as if it were offering up a plate of clever canapes. Maybe just don’t try to devour them all at once.
From Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout (The Burgess Boys, 2013, etc.), a short, stark novel about the ways we break and maintain the bonds of family.
The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside—but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer. She marries a man from a comfortable background who can’t ever quite quiet her demons; his efforts to bridge the gap created by their wildly different upbringings occupy some of the novel’s saddest pages. As in Olive Kittredge (2008), Strout peels back layers of denial and self-protective brusqueness to reveal the love that Lucy’s mother feels but cannot express. In fewer than 200 intense, dense pages, she considers class prejudice, the shame that poverty brings, the AIDS epidemic, and the healing powers—and the limits—of art. Most of all, this is a story of mothers and daughters: Lucy’s ambivalent feelings for the mother who failed to protect her are matched by her own guilt for leaving the father of her two girls, who have never entirely forgiven her. Later sections, in which Lucy’s dying mother tells her “I need you to leave” and the father who brutalized her says, “What a good girl you’ve always been,” are almost unbearably moving, with their pained recognition that the mistakes we make are both irreparable and subject to repentance. The book does feel a bit abbreviated, but that’s only because the characters and ideas are so compelling we want to hear more from the author who has limned them so sensitively.
Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement.
Campbell’s latest (Once Upon a River,2011, etc.): a powerful but uneven collection focused on the experiences of working-class Michigan women.
She covered much the same ground in American Salvage (2009), a National Book Award finalist, but still has plenty of fresh insights, as evidenced in the collection’s three standout entries. The title story is a searing first-person monologue by a woman dying of lung cancer, talking back in her head to the reproachful, college-educated daughter who blames her for sharing her life with a parade of violent men who brutalized her children as well. “When I had a voice,” she muses in the wrenching climax, “I didn’t know how much I wanted to say to you, to explain how I lived my life the way I could.” “A Multitude of Sins,” by contrast, is the scary but gratifying account of an abused wife who finally gets her own back with the mortally ill husband who can no longer hurt her. The most nuanced and complex tale gently profiles Sherry, who has spent years trying to create “Somewhere Warm” for her family, a refuge totally different from “the bitter place where Sherry grew up, where people humiliated one another, where the power of love did not hold sway.” Instead, her smothering embraces drive away her husband, her lover, and her angry teenage daughter, though a tender ending offers tentative hope. Campbell’s protagonists are tough but heartbreakingly vulnerable; an appalling number have been molested as children or raped as adults, and they rarely seek justice since nothing in their experiences suggests it’s attainable for them. The very modesty of their dreams—“Our own home, a comfortable, well-lit place nobody can take away from us, where each of us has our own room and closet,” yearns the narrator of “To You, as a Woman”—indicts the society from which they expect so little.
A fine showcase for this talented writer’s ability to mingle penetrating character studies with quietly scathing depictions of hard-pressed lives.
Memoirists reflect on why and how to write “a true-life tale.”
The enormous current popularity of memoirs inspired Maran (A Theory of Small Earthquakes, 2012, etc.) to ask 20 writers to share thoughts on motivation, morality, and craft. Although the editor writes that this book is aimed at readers as well as writers, the structure suggests that would-be memoirists are the intended audience. Maran prefaces each chapter with a sprightly introduction, along with “Vitals” such as birthdate, schooling, Twitter and website addresses, and bibliography. Each entry is divided into brief sections, beginning with “Why I write about myself” and ending with a boxed nugget of advice called “Wisdom for Memoir Writers.” Most of the contributors are likely to be familiar to readers: Edwidge Danticat, A.M. Homes, Sue Monk Kidd, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, and Ayelet Waldman are among the women; Pat Conroy, Nick Flynn, and James McBride are among the men. Some offer opinions about the value of memoir as catharsis, therapy, or revenge. All agree that crafting a memoir is different from keeping a diary. “You still have to write scenes and be engaging,” Danticat advises, “You have to edit mercilessly….Don’t just put things in because ‘they happened.’ ” Waldman echoes Danticat’s advice: “Writing memoir requires the construction of story and character in the same way that writing anything does. The trick with memoir is that the story and the character have to be true.” However, there’s considerable disagreement about memoirists’ responsibility to other people. “Memoirs hurt people,” Conroy writes. “Secrets hurt people. The question to ask yourself is, if you tell your story, will it do enough good to make it worth hurting people?” Strayed cautions, “You have to think about the personal consequences of writing about others on a case-by-case basis.” David Sheff declares simply, “Don’t hurt people.” Other contributors include Kate Christensen, Edmund White, and Jesmyn Ward.
Candid revelations for readers; useful advice and encouragement for aspiring writers.