A Mexican-American family in Texas finds their home turned into a way station for immigrants smuggled across the border.
Cásares (Amigoland, 2009, etc.) returns to his hometown of Brownsville for a potent novel about the complexities of immigration and the lies we tell ourselves and our families. Twelve-year-old Orly is from Houston, has light skin, and speaks passable Spanish even though he strongly prefers English and sometimes denies knowing Spanish at all. After his mother’s sudden death, Orly is sent by his dad to spend the summer with his aunt Nina in Brownsville. Unbeknownst to him, Nina has a small, pink casita in her backyard being used by coyotes moving human cargo north. Neither Nina nor Orly quite knows how they got into their situations. Orly’s brother is at camp, his father is in Napa with a new girlfriend, and his mother’s absence is a gaping hole so big he can’t see the other side. Just when Nina thinks she’s rid of the smugglers for good, a young boy named Daniel knocks on her back door in the middle of the night after narrowly escaping Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nina puts him up in the casita and now has to hide her secret from Orly, her elderly mother, and her bossy brother. As Nina, Orly, and Daniel learn each other’s secrets, the reader is treated to a novel that addresses the complexity of immigration, identity, and assimilation while telling close, intimate stories. The novel is told in a roaming third person that turns each character, no matter how seemingly one-dimensional or minor, into a powerful presence. Each voice in this chorus has something urgent to say. Cásares devotes a page or so of italicized backstory to seemingly minor characters who would drift out of a different novel without a second glance: a raspas vendor, a coyote quickly arrested, a Brownsville police officer, Orly’s English teacher, and many more. Whether it’s the teacher about to be deported, a man who doesn’t concern himself with the fact that his own mother used to be undocumented, or the many people making the dangerous crossing who are beset by tragedy, these asides all reveal the sometimes-hidden yet always profound effects of immigration. Helping us learn the truth about who we are individually and as a society is the ultimate goal of this novel.
In some ways timely, this quiet, delicate book delivers a truly timeless emotional punch.
Two college friends’ leisurely river trek becomes an ordeal of fire and human malice.
For his fourth novel, Heller swaps the post-apocalyptic setting of his previous book, The Dog Stars (2012), for present-day realism—in this case a river in northern Canada where Dartmouth classmates Jack and Wynn have cleared a few weeks for fly-fishing and whitewater canoeing. Jack is the sharp-elbowed scion of a Colorado ranch family, while Wynn is a more easygoing Vermonter—a divide that becomes more stark as the novel progresses—but they share a love of books and the outdoors. They’re so in sync early on that they agree to lose travel time to turn back and warn a couple they’d overheard arguing that a forest fire is fast approaching. It’s a fateful decision: They discover the woman, Maia, near death and badly injured, apparently by her homicidal husband, Pierre. When Wynn unthinkingly radios Pierre that she’s been found alive, Wynn and Jack realize they’re now targets as well. Heller confidently manages a host of tensions—Jack and Wynn becoming suspicious of each other while watching for Pierre, straining to keep Maia alive, and paddling upriver to reach civilization and escape the nearing blaze. And his pacing is masterful as well, briskly but calmly capturing the scenery in slower moments, then running full-throttle and shifting to barreling prose when danger is imminent. (The fire sounds like “turbines and the sudden shear of a strafing plane, a thousand thumping hooves in cavalcade, the clamor and thud of shields clashing, the swelling applause of multitudes….”) And though the tale is a familiar one of fending off the deadliness of the wilderness and one's fellow man, Heller has such a solid grasp of nature (both human and the outdoors) that the storytelling feels fresh and affecting. In bringing his characters to the brink of death (and past it), Heller speaks soberly to the random perils of everyday living.
An exhilarating tale delivered with the pace of a thriller and the wisdom of a grizzled nature guide.
Many readers have probably never heard of Howland. This selection of her work, the debut title from literary magazine A Public Space’s new book imprint, aims to change that. Born in Chicago in 1937, Howland was raised in a working-class Jewish home on the city’s west side and went on to publish three books—W-3 (1974), Blue in Chicago (1978), and Things Come and Go (1983)—and become a protégée, muse, and sometime lover of Saul Bellow. Along the way, Howland married, had two sons, divorced, and, in 1968, spent time in an asylum, being treated for depression following a suicide attempt, prompting Bellow, in one of his many letters to her, to urge his friend “to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness.” Having apparently followed that advice, she found acclaim, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984. After the latter honor, however, Howland mostly stopped publishing and faded into literary obscurity only to be rediscovered shortly before she died in 2017. This collection, which blends memoir, essays, and fiction, is intended to introduce Howland’s work to a new generation of readers, and it is an introduction well worth making. Her words and observations shine like buried treasure, each story a glinty, multifaceted gem that, despite the passage of time, has lost none of its luster or clarity. In stories like “Blue in Chicago,” about a University of Chicago graduate student who spends a day traveling from gritty, crime-ridden Hyde Park on the South Side to a family wedding in the city’s safer, more affluent North Shore suburbs, and “Public Facilities,” about the workers and patrons who populate a branch of the Chicago Public Library, Howland captures not only a particular locale and era—dreary, decrepit, dilapidated, yet lovably familiar—but also the connections between members of families into which we are born and those we find in unlikely, even inhospitable places. In works like “Aronesti,” the first story she ever published, “To the Country,” “German Lessons,” and the collection’s title story, essentially an extended note to a dying friend, Howland takes us further afield, turning her acute eye to areas outside her hometown. Throughout, she proves herself to be a stellar observer of worlds external and internal and a master of description.
This achingly beautiful book throbs with life, compassion, warmth, and humor; hums with an undercurrent of existential despair; and creeps into your soul like the slushy-gray-yellow light of a wintry Chicago morning.
A writer experiences a breakdown and ends up hospitalized; against all odds, hilarity ensues.
“The dog is late,” says Bunny, “and I’m wearing pajamas made from the same material as Handi Wipes, which is reason enough for me to wish I were dead.” Bunny is seated on a bench in a psych ward waiting for the therapy dog to arrive. It never does. After a New Year’s Eve breakdown, preceded by months of severe depression—she found herself unable to leave her apartment or sleep or eat or shower—Bunny has landed in a Manhattan hospital surrounded by the fellow patients she refers to, variously, as inmates, lunatics, psychos, and loons. Occasionally her husband, Albie, visits, bearing chocolate bars and peanut butter. Kirshenbaum’s (The Scenic Route, 2009, etc.) latest novel follows Bunny, whose name is just one vowel sound away from Kirshenbaum’s own, through her depression and hospitalization. Surprisingly, the book is hilarious. Bunny has no patience for self-delusion or pretension; she’s sharp-tongued and deliciously mean. (Like Kirshenbaum, she’s a writer—they share other biographical details, too.) Anticipating the New Year’s Eve party she and Albie attend every year, Bunny describes “catching up with people they’ve not seen since the New Year’s Eve before because who would want to see these people by choice?” Kirshenbaum’s prose is lean and her timing is impeccable; even better, her descriptions of Bunny’s intellectual “friends” are sharply unforgiving. At dinner, one friend “wants to know if any of them have read the Bolaño. That’s how he refers to 2666, as ‘the Bolaño.’ ” The novel is just as strong once Bunny gets to the hospital, where she refuses medication. If anything, the book’s end comes too soon.
Kirshenbaum is a remarkable writer of fiercely observed fiction and a bleak, stark wit; her latest novel is as moving as it is funny, and that—truly—is saying something.
The redoubtable Locke follows up her Edgar-winning Bluebird, Bluebird (2017) with an even knottier tale of racism and deceit set in the same scruffy East Texas boondocks.
It’s the 2016 holiday season, and African American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews has plenty of reasons for disquiet besides the recent election results. Chiefly there’s the ongoing fallout from Darren’s double murder investigation involving the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. He and his wife are in counseling. He’s become a “desk jockey” in the Rangers’ Houston office while fending off suspicions from a district attorney who thinks Darren hasn’t been totally upfront with him about a Brotherhood member’s death. (He hasn’t.) And his not-so-loving mother is holding on to evidence that could either save or crucify him with the district attorney. So maybe it’s kind of a relief for Darren to head for the once-thriving coastal town of Jefferson, where the 9-year-old son of another Brotherhood member serving hard time for murdering a black man has gone missing while motorboating on a nearby lake. Then again, there isn’t that much relief given the presence of short-fused white supremacists living not far from descendants of the town’s original black and Native American settlers—one of whom, an elderly black man, is a suspect in the possible murder of the still-missing boy. Meanwhile, Darren’s cultivating his own suspicions of chicanery involving the boy’s wealthy and imperious grandmother, whose own family history is entwined with the town’s antebellum past and who isn’t so fazed with her grandson’s disappearance that she can’t have a lavish dinner party at her mansion. In addition to her gifts for tight pacing and intense lyricism, Locke shows with this installment of her Highway 59 series a facility for unraveling the tangled strands of the Southwest’s cultural legacy and weaving them back together with the volatile racial politics and traumatic economic stresses of the present day. With her confident narrative hands on the wheel, this novel manages to evoke a portrait of Trump-era America—which, as someone observes of a pivotal character in the story, resembles “a toy ball tottering on a wire fence” that “could fall either way.”
Locke’s advancement here is so bracing that you can’t wait to discover what happens next along her East Texas highway.
A family treks south to the U.S.–Mexico border, bearing tales of broken migrant families all the way down.
In her last nonfiction book, Tell Me How It Ends (2017), Luiselli wrote about her work as a translator for Latin American families attempting to enter the U.S. This remarkable, inventive fictional take on the theme captures the anguish of those families through a deliberate piling-up of stories; reading it, you feel yourself slowly coming face to face with a world where masses of children are separated, missing, or dead of exposure in the desert. Luiselli eases into the tale by introducing an unnamed New York couple, both audio documentarians, driving their children, ages 10 and 5, to the Arizona-Mexico border. The father wants to explore the remnants of Apache culture there; the mother, who narrates much of the book, is recording an audio essay on the border crisis and has promised a woman to look into the fates of her two daughters who’ve been detained. As they drive, they alternate listening to news reports about the border and an audiobook of Lord of the Flies, and the opening sections are thick with literary references and social critique; imagine On the Road rewritten by Maggie Nelson. But the story darkens as they witness the plight firsthand and, later, as the couple's children stumble into their own crisis. There’s a slightly bloodless, formal aspect to the novel in the early going: It's structured around “archive boxes” that each character carries in the car’s trunk, and a book of elegies the mother reads to the children is made up of variations on works by Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Juan Rulfo, and more. In the current political moment, one might want a less abstruse approach. But as the novel rises to a ferocious climax in a 20-page-long single sentence, Luiselli thunderously, persuasively insists that reckoning with the border will make deep demands of both our intellectual and emotional reserves.
A powerful border story, at once intellectual and heartfelt.
A young woman’s dream life threatens to permanently alter her day-to-day reality.
In America in the year 2000, a Green Party president is in office. There is peace in the Middle East. Against the backdrop of this “utopian fervor,” 20-something New Yorkers Ben and Kate meet at a party. Ben falls in love with Kate and her eclectic group of friends, who warn Ben that Kate is flighty, impractical, childlike. And, strangest of all, she’s plagued by dreams in which she lives as an Elizabethan Englishwoman in the year 1593 and is convinced when she wakes up that she has traveled in time and somehow changed the future. Newman (The Country of Ice Cream Star, 2015, etc.) weaves back and forth between Kate’s dreams of the 16th century and the 21st century, in which Kate resurfaces from her dreams to find a different government, different wars, a different society, her family altered—and Ben telling her things have always been the way they are now. As Kate grows more and more confused in her waking life, and as the stakes get higher in her dreams, Ben must decide whether or not he can save the woman he loves—and whether she needs saving. Newman is known for her bold imagination, and this kaleidoscopic novel is no exception. Like an apocalyptically tinged version of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Kate and Ben’s love story encompasses difficult questions: What is mental illness? Can art, or love, have power? Is humanity doomed? And if it is, then how do we create a life with meaning? And even though the novel’s dream-logic structure is challenging, Newman’s sentences, like the embroidery Kate practices, pull the story along with their intricate beauty.
A complex, unmissable work from a writer who deserves wide acclaim.
A motley crew of Bostonians seeks an eccentric millionaire's fortune in an epic, citywide treasure hunt that kicks off after his untimely death.
Tuesday Mooney is the best prospect researcher on Boston General Hospital's fundraising team, a "bizarro know-it-all tall girl" with the aura of a grown-up Wednesday Addams. Despite her reputation as a formidable, reclusive "woman in black," Tuesday nurtures a few friendships, albeit at arm’s length. There's Dex Howard, a karaoke-obsessed financier perpetually unlucky in love; Tuesday's neighbor Dorry Bones, a motherless Somerville teen in desperate need of a role model; and Abby Hobbes, a Ouija board–wielding classmate who disappeared during Tuesday's teenage years—and who just so happens to be haunting her in adulthood. When cape-wearing Poe fanatic Vincent Pryce keels over at a hospital charity auction midbid, Tuesday uses all the skills—and hospital databases—at her disposal to win a portion of Pryce's incredible fortune. But will Tuesday's past, and her poor judgment, catch up with her before she can win? And will her partnership with the strange but charming tycoon Nathaniel Arches sink or buoy her chances of success? Racculia (Bellweather Rhapsody, 2014, etc.) returns with a roaring adventure novel that never loses sight of adulthood's woes: Characters lament their school loan balances and worry about selling out in their careers, struggle with intimacy, and occasionally stew in self-loathing. Even as the whimsical treasure hunt picks up its pace on Boston Common and in the tunnels of the T, Racculia ensures that real livelihoods—and lives—are at stake. The result is thrilling, romantic, and charming as all get out, a love letter to former witchy girls and compulsive dreamers that will make readers reassess what—and who—they value.
Spooky, witty, and observant, Racculia's novel of friendship and bigger-than-life aspirations is a treasure.
The third installment of Smith's Seasonal Quartet (Autumn, 2017; Winter, 2018) touches on previous themes of creativity and friendship and delves deeper into current events with a sharp-edged look at the treatment of immigrants.
In the spring of 2018, a TV director named Richard discusses a new film with a woman named Paddy, a brilliant, ailing scriptwriter with whom he started working in the 1970s. The project and their decadeslong relationship will punctuate the book’s time-bending narrative, a large swath of which concerns a few days in the following October. Paddy has died, and Richard takes a train to Kingussie, Scotland, and considers suicide. Around the same time, Brittany, a guard at one of England’s immigrant-detention centers, meets the quasi-magical 12-year-old Florence and agrees to entrain for Scotland as well. Joining the sparse cast in Kingussie (pronounced Kin-you-see, in a devilish pun) is Alda, the driver of a coffee van with no coffee. All is revealed in the spring of 2019. As in the first two books, Smith alludes to contemporary issues, such as #MeToo, Brexit, and fake news, but on immigrants she grabs a megaphone. The book’s opening chapter is a verbal collage of rant and headline. Smith uses Brittany to spotlight grim details behind the cynicism and cruelty of Britain’s immigrant-detention policy, while Alda and Florence suggest the roots of a solution. Roots, shoots, and buds abound amid myriad references to death and rebirth, from the Hanged Man pub to Orpheus, Norse mythology’s Ragnarok, and Shelley’s “The Cloud.” The three novels have a few common elements—the pain and pleasure of creativity; the pairing of an older adult and an intelligent youth; the showcasing of an English female visual artist, here Tacita Dean—but they are self-contained and increasingly urgent in their hope that art might bring change. As Alda says, “Those stories are deeply serious, all about transformation.”
Smith's work is always challenging and always rewarding.
Ware (Building Stories, 2012, etc.) fans rejoice: The long-rumored and hinted-at adventures of Rusty Brown finally come to the page after years in the making.
If Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan is indeed the smartest kid in the world, Rusty Brown is perhaps among the least comfortable inside his own skin: He lives a life of quiet desperation in a snowy Midwestern suburb, obsessed with comic heroes such as Supergirl, who he’s sure would melt away the snow with her heat vision (“maybe she has problems shutting it off sometimes”); for his part, he wonders whether, in the quiet after a snowfall, he might have developed superhearing. Rusty’s dad, Woody, is no more content: A sci-fi escapist, he teaches English alongside an art teacher who just happens to be named Mr. Ware but seems happy only when he’s smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee in the teachers’ lounge even if Mr. Ware is given to bewildering him there with talk of Lacan, Baudrillard, and ennui. Joanne Cole, an African American third grade language teacher, gently empathizes with her angst-y little charges while nursing an impulse to learn how to play the banjo; it being the civil rights era, the music store owner who sells her an instrument asks, without malice, “So how’d you get interested in the banjo, anyway? Folk music? ‘Protest’ songs?” The lives of all these characters and others intersect in curious and compelling ways. As with Ware’s other works of graphic art, the narrative arc wobbles into backstory and tangent: Each page is a bustle of small and large frames, sometimes telling several stories at once in the way that things buzz around us all the time, demanding notice. Joanne’s story is perhaps the best developed, but the picked-on if aspirational Rusty (“I appear as a mortal, but…I may not be…”), the dweeby Woody, the beleaguered Chalky, and other players are seldom far from view.
An overstuffed, beguiling masterwork of visual storytelling from the George Herriman of his time.