Brutality, racism and lies are relieved by moments of connection in Morrison's latest.
A little girl is born with skin so black her mother will not touch her. Desperate for approval, to just once have her mother take her hand, she tells a lie that puts an innocent schoolteacher in jail for decades. Later, the ebony-skinned girl will change her name to Bride, wear only white, become a cosmetics entrepreneur, drive a Jaguar. Her lover, a man named Booker, also bears a deep scar on his soul—his older brother was abducted, tortured and murdered by a pedophilic serial killer. This is a skinny, fast-moving novel filled with tragic incidents, most sketched in a few haunting sentences: "The last time Booker saw Adam he was skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees." When Bride's falsely accused teacher is released from prison, there's a new round of trouble. Booker leaves, Bride goes after him—and ends up in the woods, recovering from a car accident with hippie survivalists who have adopted a young girl abused by her prostitute mother. Meanwhile, Bride is anxiously watching her own body metamorphose into that of a child—her pubic hair has vanished, her chest has flattened, her earlobes are smooth. As in the darkest fairy tales, there will be fire and death. There will also be lobster salad, Smartwater and Louis Vuitton; the mythic aspects of this novel are balanced by moments like the one in which Bride decides that the song that most represents her relationship with Booker is "I Wanna Dance with Somebody."
A chilling oracle and a lively storyteller, Nobel winner Morrison continues the work she began 45 years ago with The Bluest Eye.
The bestselling journalist dives into the acquaintance rape scandal that enveloped the University of Montana and members of its football team, coupled with the inability (or refusal?) of local prosecutors to convict accused rapists.
In May 2012, Jezebel posted an article, “My Weekend in America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital,’ ” referring to Missoula, Montana, though both the writer of that article and Krakauer (Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, 2011, etc.) note that the rate of reported rapes in Missoula was commensurate with the rates in other college towns. Given the fanatic devotion for the Grizzlies, the university’s football team, and the fact that its players were accused of both gang and one-on-one rapes, Krakauer finds in Missoula the perfect storm of scandal. (In fact, some locals like to believe that football players don’t need to rape anyone because they can have sex with whomever they’d like.) The author homes in on the stories of several victims: one whose assailant was convicted, one whose wasn’t, and another whose crime was punished by expulsion from the university—though he was never found legally guilty (one revealing thread of Krakauer’s investigations is the appalling ineptitude of university administrators when confronted with accusations of rape among their students). The author focuses on the plight of a brave undergrad who, after considerable trepidation, decided to go public with her accusation against star player Beau Donaldson. Krakauer has done considerable research into acquaintance rape, and his recounting of trials, both legal and university proceedings, is riveting. His focus on quoting from testimony means that it is harder for readers to understand the motivations of someone like Kirsten Pabst, a former prosecutor who became a lawyer for an accused football player; an interview with her could have been useful.
A distinguished poet meditates on the early death of her beloved artist husband.
A Brooklyn psychic once told Alexander (Literature and Culture/Yale Univ.; Praise Song for the Day, 2009, etc.) that she would meet a mate sooner than she realized. What the psychic did not say was that Eritrean-born Ficre Ghebreyesus would bring her a love and fulfillment that transcended anything she had ever known. Though hailing from different worlds—Alexander from Harlem and Ficre from East Africa—the two blended their lives to create a kind of trans-Atlantic “karmic balance.” Alexander firmly grounded the husband who had seen war and poverty in his nation, and Ficre gave his American wife an abundance of family while connecting her to a history of black warriors who had never known slavery. Together, they built and inhabited an extraordinarily colorful, multicultural space made of books, art, food and friends. But then, 15 years into their marriage and just four days after his 50th birthday, an outwardly robust Ficre died of a heart attack. Now a widow with two teenage sons, Alexander began the lengthy, often wrenching process of mourning the man who had been the “light of [her] world.” With tenderness and fierce poetic precision, Alexander recalls the hours, days, months and years after her husband’s death. Grief-stricken to the point she could not produce the poetry she loved, the author marked the passage of time by observing whether she or her children still cried over his passing. At the same time, she celebrates how the love she and Ficre shared helped heal “every old wound with magic disappearing powers” so that the descendant of slaves and the survivor of a tragic war could go on with their lives. In letting go of—but never forgetting—her husband, Alexander realizes a simple truth: that death only deepens the richness of a life journey that must push on into the future.
A young doctor buys a piece of land in a place that will later be known as Silicon Valley, building a house that will shape his family for decades.
Packer (Swim Back to Me, 2011, etc.) is an expert at complicated relationships; she likes to show more than two sides to every story. Who's responsible for the fracturing of the Blair family? The obvious answer is Penny, a woman oppressed by domesticity, who retreats from her husband and four children to spend all her time in the shed—she calls it her studio—where she works on collages and mugs made of too-thick pottery, eventually even sleeping there. Or could her husband, Bill, a pediatrician with endless patience and empathy for kids, have pushed his wife away? Perhaps it was James, the youngest (and unplanned) child, a holy terror from the day he was born, who tipped his family over the edge. In beautifully precise prose, Packer tells the Blairs’ story, alternating chapters between the past, when the children were young, and the present, four years after their father’s death, when they each get a chance to tell their own stories in the first person. While James has bounced around the world, his siblings—Robert, a doctor; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a teacher—all live near their childhood home, which James wants to sell. Emotions have never had so many shadings as in Packer’s fiction; she can tease apart every degree of ambivalence in her characters, multiplying that exponentially when everyone has different desires and they all worry about finding fulfillment while also caring for each other—except, perhaps, Penny. But though we rarely see Penny’s perspective on why she withdrew from her family, we can fill in the blanks; it’s the 1960s and ’70s, a time when women were searching for a larger role in the world. Packer seems to set Penny up as the villain, but even that view becomes complicated by the end.
When you read Packer, you’ll know you’re in the hands of a writer who knows what she’s doing. A marvelously absorbing novel.
Urrea, celebrated for his historical sagas(Queen of America, 2011) and nonfiction (The Devil’s Highway, 2004), offers 13 stories that reflect both sides of his Mexican-American heritage while stretching the reader’s understanding of human boundaries.
With spare eloquence, the opening “Mountains Without Number” conjures up a dying town near Idaho Falls, both its stark landscape and aging inhabitants. The language turns lush, Latin and slangy in the next two stories, “The Southside Raza Image Federation Corp of Discovery” and “The National City Reparation Society,” which feature the bookish Mexican-American Junior, who doesn’t fit in with a white college crowd any more than with the immigrant community he grew up among. The theme of young Anglos straddling class and/or cultural borders occurs, too. The adolescent white narrator of “Amapola” falls in love with a beautiful Mexican girl, naïvely oblivious to the source of her family’s wealth. Joey in “Young Man Blues” learns the reward and price of goodness when caught between loyalty to his elderly middle-class employer and his father’s criminal cohorts. While “Carnations” and “The White Girl” are brief snapshots of grief, “The Sous Chefs of Iogua” resonates on multiple levels, exposing the uneasy complexities of Anglo-Mexican relationships in an Iowa farm town. In “Taped to the Sky,” a Cambridge academic suffering over an ex-wife takes a cross-country trip to the far west and has a darkly comic encounter with Oglala Sioux Don Her Many Horses, who shows his depth in the volume’s bittersweet final story, “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses,” about a white man whose marriage to Don’s sister shows the power and limitations of cross-cultural love. “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush,” about a graffiti artist in a Mexican village, was published as a graphic novel in 2010; its magical realism would make it an outlier here if not for the penultimate “Welcome to the Water Museum,” a dystopian tale of Western life in an arid future when children consider water an anomaly.
Urrea’s command of language is matched only by his empathy for his characters.
A New Yorker editor since 1978, Norris provides an educational, entertaining narrative about grammar, spelling and punctuation.
The author devotes chapters to commas (who knew a printer more or less invented comma usage in 1490?); apostrophes; hyphens; the difference between "that" and "which"; the proper usage of "who" and "whom" (would Ernest Hemingway have published For Who the Bell Tolls?); dealing with profanity in a national magazine (a chapter in which Norris demonstrates that not all copy editors are prudish); which dictionary (if any) to rely on; and, as a bonus, an ode to pencils with and without erasers. Raised in the Cleveland area, Norris had a vague notion growing up of being a writer. But after attending college, she did not know how to proceed toward that goal, so she worked jobs that included delivering milk to homes, packaging cheese in a factory for sale to supermarkets and washing dishes in a restaurant. The possibility of an editing job at the New Yorker arose only because Norris' brother knew an important person there. Once at the New Yorker, the author engaged in spirited debates with more senior copy editors about all manner of decisions about grammar, punctuation and spelling. Though she observed the rules, she also began to realize that sometimes she had to compromise due to the fact that accomplished writers for the magazine followed their own logic. Norris delivers a host of unforgettable anecdotes about such famed New Yorker writers as Philip Roth, Pauline Kael, John McPhee and George Saunders. In countless laugh-out-loud passages, Norris displays her admirable flexibility in bending rules when necessary. She even makes her serious quest to uncover the reason for the hyphen in the title of the classic novel Moby-Dick downright hilarious.
A Canadian grad student, newly pregnant with her married professor’s baby, must navigate a world altered by a pandemic in which blonde women attack the people around them in this smart new literary thriller from Schultz (Heaven Is Small, 2009, etc.).
On her first day in New York City, Hazel Hayes discovers her unexpected pregnancy, dyes her hair orange and sees a businesswoman drag a young girl to her death on the subway tracks. At first, it seems like a random act of violence, but soon, the streets are filled with women and girls acting rabid, killing people and perishing themselves. The only thing connecting the infected? Their (natural, dyed, highlighted) blonde hair. Hazel is recounting these events—and her herculean struggle to get home to Toronto as the disease tears across the world—months later to her unborn child while holed up in a cabin with her professor’s wife. The premise seems ludicrous—almost as if it's not meant to be taken very seriously—but that's intentional, and Schultz plays with this expectation. Before a violent attack at JFK, Hazel witnesses a group of flight attendants preparing to strike. She attempts to describe the scene and then stops. “You see, I’m not telling this right,” she says. “It sounds comical, even to me. Part of the difficulty has to do with the fact that they were very beautiful women.” This is the best kind of satire: The disease doesn’t stand in cleanly for any single idea but rather an amalgamation of double standards, dismissals, expectations, abuses, and injustices large and small that any woman will recognize. What could be sexist clichés—the student/professor affair, the mistress and wife at each other’s throats—are utterly recast, and nestled in the wry political commentary are moments of pure horror.
A nail-biter that is equal parts suspense, science fiction, and a funny, dark sendup of the stranglehold of gender.
A complicated portrait of the modern American family emerges in Flournoy's debut novel.
For the 13 Turner siblings, the house on Detroit’s East Side isn’t just their childhood home. It’s also the crux of memories of their dead father and a link among 13 very different adults. But the house has built up debt, their ill mother, Viola, lives elsewhere, and a question hangs—what to do with the Yarrow Street house? As the children debate, the narrative divides into the perspectives of Lelah, Troy and Charlie “Cha Cha” Turner, interspersed with their father’s flashbacks of surviving in gritty Detroit 60 years earlier. Cha-Cha, the oldest at 64, drives trucks for Chrysler and is recovering from an accident after a vision of a luminous ghost, which he’d last seen 40 years earlier at Yarrow, caused him to veer off the road. Meanwhile, Lelah has been evicted from her apartment due to a gambling addiction and takes up residence in the now-abandoned house. And Troy, a disillusioned policeman, wants to illegally short sell the house to his sometime girlfriend. As the story progresses, the siblings’ dilemmas become increasingly knotty. Lelah’s roulette addiction, evocatively described—“the chips looked like candy. Pastel, melt-away things that didn’t make sense to save”—worsens; Cha-Cha is visited by the ghost, dredging up ugly childhood memories; and Troy tries to con Viola into selling the house. Flournoy ramps up the suspense until, one night, the three are all drawn to Yarrow Street, leading to a fight with intractable results. Flournoy’s strength lies in her meticulous examination of each character’s inner life. Lelah, who uses gambling as a balm for her fractured relationship with her daughter, is an especially sympathetic character—she seeks “proof that she could be cherished by someone, if only for a while.” Flournoy’s writing is precise and sharp, and despite several loose ends—Troy doesn’t experience significant emotional change by the book’s end, and the house’s fate remains unclear—the novel draws readers to the Turner family almost magnetically.
A lovingly realized Depression-era Seattle becomes the field of play for the latest round in the titular, age-old game.
In February 1920, Love and Death choose their newest pawns as infants: Love’s is Henry, a white boy of privilege (though influenza and grief rob him of much of it); Death’s is Flora, the soon-to-be-orphaned daughter of African-American jazz musicians. In spring of 1937, the game begins. Flora sings in—and actually owns part of—the family’s nightclub, but her heart is in the skies, where she flies a borrowed biplane and dreams of owning her own. Henry, a talented bass player, is poised to graduate from the tony private school he attends on scholarship with his best friend, Ethan, whose family took him in upon his father’s suicide. They meet when Henry and Ethan visit the airstrip where Flora works; the boys are in pursuit of a story for Ethan’s newspaper-magnate father. Brockenbrough’s precise, luscious prose cuts back and forth among the four protagonists, according each character equal depth, with Ethan playing a heartbreaking supporting role. The contrast between the youthful excitement of ardent Henry and pragmatic Flora and the ageless, apparent ennui of the immortals gains nuance as readers come to understand that Love and Death are not without their own complicated feelings.
Race, class, fate and choice—they join Love and Death to play their parts in Brockenbrough’s haunting and masterfully orchestrated narrative.
(Magical realism. 12 & up)
Race, politics and petty grievances muddy the quest for justice when a young election volunteer is kidnapped and murdered.
On election night 1996, in the primarily African-American area of Pleasantville, in the north of Houston, a young woman named Alicia Nowell is chased by a mystery figure. That same night, the home of attorney Jay Porter (Black Water Rising, 2009) is broken into. The police are blasé. After they leave, a young intruder comes out of hiding. Jay brandishes his gun but allows the kid to get away. In the absence of a clear election winner, a runoff pits Jay's candidate, former police chief Axel Hathorne, against Sandy Wolcott, a "political upstart."Jay attends a community meeting about the missing girl, who's the third one in recent memory, though the police haven't aggressively investigated the earlier two. He's particularly worried because he's raising his teenage daughter, Ellie, as a single parent. Everyone is surprised when Axel's nephew Neal is arrested. Jay agrees to represent him, and his investigator, Lonnie, learns that the police are monitoring hotheaded Alonzo Hollis as a person of interest. As Jay begins to track Hollis, the wheels of justice turn, and Alicia's body is found. Former Houston mayor Cynthia Maddox, who may have higher ambitions, arrives with Secret Service protection to urge Jay to drop the case. Instead of complying, he prepares for the trial, which unfolds with methodical precision, the final picture taking shape piece by piece. The killer's identity is a genuine surprise.
A thriller wrapped in an involving story of community and family dynamics. Locke serves up a panorama of nuanced characters and writes with intelligence and depth.