The American dream is put to the test by the economic disaster of 2007.
Among the spate of novels forged in the crucible of the previous decade, Mbue’s impressive debut deserves a singular place. This diversely peopled and crisply narrated story follows the trajectories of two Manhattan families, one at the top of the social heap and the other at the bottom. In the foreground is Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon, his wife, Neni, studying to be a pharmacist, and their young son. When Jende, who has been working as a dishwasher, scores a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a muckety-muck at Lehman Brothers with a troubled wife and similarly aged son, the fates of the Jongas and the Edwardses become entwined. Except for a nagging immigration problem being handled by a lousy lawyer, things go very well at first. Jende loves dressing up in a suit and driving a Lexus while Clark conducts endless cellphone conversations and laptop machinations in the back seat. Neni excels in school and becomes pregnant with a child who will be born a U.S. citizen. Then, during her summer hiatus in the Hamptons, Mrs. Edwards hires Neni to help with child care. One day she finds her employer disheveled and crashed out at midday; around this time, Clark starts having Jende take him for one-hour visits to the Chelsea Hotel. Cracks in the Edwards marriage are paralleled by trouble for the Jongas, too. Yet the magnitude of the catastrophe makes itself clear only slowly—particularly to immigrant eyes, dazzled by everything from shopping at Pathmark to the presidency of Obama to the freedom of Occupy protesters to demonstrate without being rounded up and thrown into prison. They will learn.
Realistic, tragic, and still remarkably kind to all its characters, this is a special book.
A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.
Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.
A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.
Prentiss’ sweeping debut follows three intertwining lives through the swirling energy, burning excitement, and crushing disappointment of New York City’s rapidly shifting art world at the dawn of the 1980s.
It’s Dec. 31, 1979, and James Bennett, a synesthetic rising star of art criticism, and his also-brilliant pregnant wife are toasting the new decade at the kind of swanky art-scene party they prefer to avoid. Also at the party: painter Raul Engales, a charismatic Argentinian expatriate who's done his best to erase his past life and is now poised, though he doesn’t know it yet, to become the darling of the art world. And: in a bar downtown later that night, Raul catches the (gorgeous) eye of 21-year-old Lucy Marie Olliason, recently transplanted from Ketchum, Idaho, in love with the city, and ready to fall in love with the artists in it. Their stories crash into each other like dominoes—the critic, the artist, and the muse—their separate futures and personal tragedies inextricably linked. The particulars of their connections, romantic and artistic, are too big and too poetic to be entirely plausible, but then, this is not a slice-of-life novel: this is a portrait of an era, an intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale. Prentiss’ characters—rich, nuanced, satisfyingly complicated—are informed not only by their emotional lives, but also by their intellectual and artistic ones; their relationships to art are as lively and essential as their relationships to each other. But while the novel is elegantly infused with an ambient sense of impending loss—this is New York on the cusp of drastic gentrification—it miraculously manages to dodge the trap of easy nostalgia, thanks in large part to Prentiss’ wry humor.
As affecting as it is absorbing. A thrilling debut.
The lives of three generations of women in Jamaica intersect as they try to build better lives.
Margot, a 30-year-old desk clerk at a hotel in Jamaica, has fallen into a side business of sex with the white men who visit the island looking for poor women to exploit. This, of course, is not the life Margot wants. She only does it to support her younger sister, Thandi, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who's destined to be successful and “make everything better” for the family. Thandi, however, is more interested in being thought beautiful and the type of success that goes along with that, spending her extra money on skin-lightening creams to turn her dark skin whiter. Thandi's and Margot’s tales intertwine with the story of their abusive mother, Delores, and the rest of their poverty-stricken community, set against the backdrop of wealthy white tourists. Margot finds a temporary refuge from the constant barrage of work and men in her romantic relationship with a local woman named Verdene, but she can't escape the fear of violence that same-sex couples in their society face. And, as past secrets come to a head, the poor black and wealthy white worlds of Jamaica collide. This debut novel from Dennis-Benn is an astute social commentary on the intricacies of race, gender, wealth inequality, colorism, and tourism. But these themes rise organically from the narrative rather than overwhelming it. Here are visceral, profound writing and invigorating characters. Here, too, is the deep and specific sensation of experience. Consider teenage Thandi’s first awareness of being watched by the boy she likes: “a pulse stirs between her legs and she hurries down the path, holding it in like pee."
Haunting and superbly crafted, this is a magical book from a writer of immense talent and intelligence.
Where is the best place on Earth? The characters in Tsabari's debut collection (winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature) are searching for somewhere to feel at home, whether they're travelers, emigrants, or just restlessly living in the place they were born.
Tsabari was born in Israel to a family of Yemeni descent, and she moved to Vancouver in 1998; she only started writing in English 10 years ago. Her Israeli characters feel out of place in their own country because, like Tsabari's family, they come from Arab backgrounds and aren't Ashkenazi, like most Israeli Jews; some have left for Canada or Britain. In "A Sign of Harmony," Maya travels to India with her new boyfriend, Ian, who has an Indian father and an English mother and has never been to India before. It's her fourth trip—she travels there each fall to buy fabrics and other merchandise to sell in Europe—and she feels more at home than he does. Several of Tsabari's characters are traversing the foreign land of adolescence, trying to make friends and test their sexuality while dealing with larger forces. Lily moves from Canada to Israel to live with her aunt after her mother dies, and is scared and thrilled when her new friend Lana kisses her. But her family's identity is always in the background when she's in Israel: "My grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews." Seeming contradictions like that are everywhere in Tsabari's world. In "Invisible," Rosalynn is a Filipino immigrant who's overstayed her visa; she takes care of an old woman she calls "Savta," Hebrew for "grandmother," who also takes care of her. Characters embrace their mandatory army service, run away from it, or use it to their own ends. In the stunning opening story, "Tikkun," the first-person narrator runs into his ex-girlfriend, whom he hasn't seen in seven years, and is surprised to see she's become an Orthodox Jew. As they sit down to share a coffee, the narrator scans the patio, taking in the other patrons: "We are all trained to identify potential threats." One woman grew up in a small town in the Sinai, which she was forced to leave when Israel returned the peninsula to Egypt, but she doesn't want to label her family as "settlers"—"It was different then. They didn't go there for ideological reasons." But is it possible to be innocent in this world?
Tsabari creates complex, conflicted, prickly people you'll want to get to know better.
Sparkling, sweeping debut novel that takes in a large swath of recent American history and pop culture and turns them on their sides.
The reader will be forgiven for a certain sinking feeling on knowing that the protagonist of Hill’s long yarn is—yes—a writer, and worse, a writer teaching at a college, though far happier playing online role-playing games involving elves and orcs and such than doling out wisdom on the classics of Western literature. Samuel Andresen-Anderson—there’s a reason for that doubled-up last name—owes his publisher a manuscript, and now the publisher is backing out with the excuse, “Primarily, you’re not famous anymore,” and suing to get back the advance in the bargain. What’s a fellow to do? Well, it just happens that Samuel’s mother, who has been absent for decades, having apparently run off in the hippie days to follow her bliss, is back on the scene, having become famous herself for chucking a rock at a rising right-wing demagogue, the virulent Gov. Sheldon Packer. Hill opens by running through the permutations of journalism that promote her from back to front page, with a run of ever more breathless headlines until a “clever copywriter” arrives at the sobriquet “Packer Attacker,” “which is promptly adopted by all the networks and incorporated into the special logos they make for the coverage.” Where did mom run off to? Why? What has she been up to? Andresen-Anderson is too busy asking questions to feel too sorry for what his editor calls “your total failure to become a famous writer.” There are hints of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys as Hill, by way of his narrative lead, wrestles alternately converging and fugitive stories onto the page, stories that range from the fjords of Norway to the streets of “Czechago” in the heady summer of 1968. There are also hints of Pynchon, though, as Hill gently lampoons advertising culture, publishing, academia, politics, and everything in between.
A grand entertainment, smart and well-paced, and a book that promises good work to come.
A talented young writer explores sex, death, and family relationships in this spare, enticing story collection.
“I only know about parent death and sluttiness,” Schiff declares in “Write What You Know,” the final story in her arresting debut collection. “What else do I know?” She goes on to list a host of other topics—“the psychology of Jewish people who have assimilated,” “liberal guilt and sexual guilt and taking liberties sexually,” “unrequited love, and love that was once requited, but not for very long” among them—all of which we’ve already gleaned from devouring the irresistible stories here. But Schiff leaves out one thing: she also knows how to seduce a reader as blithely as some of her characters casually bed men, writing in stylishly simple and almost staccato prose, beneath the surface of which we soon spot roiling emotions—feelings of loss, the urge to connect. The young women and girls we meet here sleep around and suffer consequences (“The Bed Moved”) or don’t (“Little Girl”). They help their fathers (“Longviewers”), mourn them in expected ways (“Another Cake”), and absorb posthumously revealed paternal secrets (“http://www.msjiz/boxx374/mpeg”). They explore the possibilities of budding sexuality at nerdy Geology Camp (“Schwartz, Spiegel, Zaveri, Cho”) and the limits of proud promiscuity (“Tips”). Some of the 23 stories in this slim volume are amusingly out there (“Rate Me”; “Communication Arts”); others hit close to home. But after taking them all in, we may find ourselves quite taken with this distinctive new voice in fiction, hungry for more of it and—like the collection’s titular bed—moved.
Schiff’s startlingly honest, deliciously wry stories herald the arrival of a beguiling new talent.
Tulathimutte’s razor-sharp debut tracks a group of recent Stanford grads anxiously navigating post-college life in mid-2000s San Francisco.
The two years since Steve Jobs gave their commencement address have not been particularly kind to Tulathimutte's struggling millennials. Not to Cory, a self-righteous bleeding heart, who found herself at the helm of a comically flailing progressive nonprofit; not to Linda, potentially brilliant and tremendously mean, who’s traded in her literary ambitions for a kind of drug-induced free fall; and not to her college boyfriend, Henrik, a scientist with bipolar disorder whose graduate funding has just been unceremoniously cut. On the surface, things seem to be going slightly better for Will, a coder with an endless stream of Silicon Valley cash and an out-of-his-league girlfriend (“It was easy to imagine another twenty-four years passing before he met a girl of Vanya’s caliber”), but in reality, he’s at least as unmoored as the rest of them. He’s struggling with his Asian identity—even being smart adheres to stereotype, he realizes—and while he’s clinging to the relationship (thus the $20,000 engagement ring, so far unaccepted), he has to admit the whole enterprise has started to feel a bit “like paying the upkeep on a prize Lamborghini.” Weaving their stories together, Tulathimutte follows the quartet through the post-apocalyptic landscape of post-collegiate angst. But as their lives spiral steadily out of control—Will becomes enmeshed in Vanya’s venture capital–backed “lifecasting” startup, to catastrophic results; Linda is hit by a car—the characters become more than caustic millennial punch lines: they become human. Witty, unsparing, and unsettlingly precise, Tulathimutte empathizes with his subjects even as he (brilliantly) skewers them.
A satirical portrait of privilege and disappointment with striking emotional depth.
This debut story collection by a New York–based psychiatrist/psychoanalyst with long-standing literary connections delves into the complicated relationships and intimate sex lives of mature couples.
Old (and middle-aged) people have sex, too: appointment sex and spontaneous sex, passionate sex and perfunctory sex, sex with young lovers and aging spouses. That’s the key takeaway from this unflinchingly candid collection. With a few notable exceptions, the women on whom the bulk of Heyman’s stories center have lived and loved. Many have raised children, lost longtime partners, and survived to love again. But “scary old sex,” to borrow Heyman’s perhaps only partly ironic titular description, may involve squinting past sagging flesh, wrinkles, and puckers, accepting thinning hair (a byproduct of aging that apparently affects areas beyond one’s head), readying boxes of tissues and K-Y Jelly, and, most challenging of all, learning to meld oneself to a new partner who differs in startling and lamentable ways from the youthful loves of yore. “He came in naked and she remembered again why she did not like to make love in the daytime,” Marianne, the remarried widow who narrates the collection’s first story, “The Loves of Her Life,” remarks of her kindly second husband, Stu. “She joked sometimes that no one over forty should be allowed to make love in the daytime. There he was, every wrinkle exposed, as if he were in a Lucian Freud painting.” Marianne and the other women Heyman evokes are equally imperfect—occasionally cruel, sometimes neglectful, often regretful. But these very flaws make these characters so real and dimensional, their stories so readable and resonant. Are Heyman’s stories, which reflect three decades of work, based on the lives of her patients, her own life, a product of her imagination? The reader may well wonder. Yet one story, “In Love With Murray,” which follows the affair of an older artist and a young art student and which was written “in memory of Bernard Malamud,” may well have been inspired by the author’s reputed affair with the renowned author, with whom she studied as a young coed at Bennington College. Heyman has been described as Malamud’s muse. Judging from these stories, he may have been hers as well.
The stories in this keenly observed collection lay bare truths—some comforting, others uncomfortable—about love and sex, aging and acceptance.
Nine stories that reveal the strangeness underpinning even the most ordinary of lives.
In the title story of Beams’ debut collection, an elementary school teacher shocks her students by falling apart—quite literally—in front of the class. At eight pages, it’s the book’s smallest story, but it’s emblematic of Beams’ approach, in which ordinary characters are transformed, often in extraordinary, otherworldly ways. In “All the Keys to All the Doors,” a little-used room in the town hall may provide unexpected solace to a community reeling in the aftermath of a school shooting. In “Granna,” the newly single narrator takes her grandmother back to a family vacation spot and witnesses the mysterious effect it has on the older woman. Not all the stories are tinged with fantastical elements; Beams is equally interested in stepping into other realms by reaching into odd corners of history, as in “Ailments,” in which a young woman becomes obsessed with her sister’s husband, a doctor, during London’s Great Plague. But even when the stories do draw from the tradition of fabulism, they always feel wholly Beams’ own, from the unflagging elegance of the prose to the wisdom with which Beams approaches the complex emotional terrain her characters navigate. With other authors, this philosophizing can feel forced; not so here. Take this for example, from “Granna,” in which the narrator muses on her ex-boyfriend’s assertion that she should not have a child because she didn’t seem maternal: “Yet it seemed terrible of him not to have given her a chance, that largest of all possible chances, to transcend the way she seemed.” It is this gap between what the world seems and what is that Beams tackles so memorably in this collection.
A brilliant, introspective, socially awkward software engineer navigates corporate and personal challenges.
Hipps’ classy debut novel bears an epigraph from The Moviegoer—“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians”—and earns comparison to Walker Percy’s classic in its exploration of their shared premise. Here the businessman is Henry Hurt, head of the tech department at a firm called Cyber Systems, located in an office tower in an unnamed Southern city. Though he loves his job and is exceedingly good at it, Henry doesn’t actually give a damn about Internet security software: “What moves me to work is money’s comforts, yes, and also a community of smart, mostly efficient people; the sense of place that a good office gives.” This sense of place has become all the more essential since the death less than a year ago of Henry’s mother, back in Minnesota where he was raised and where he ends up several times on business trips in the course of the story. There, he visits his failing father and younger sister, Gretchen, the closest person in his life. Rocked by his loss at a nearly preconscious level, Henry pours his psychic energies into the “adventures” of the title, one being the need to help save his company from a massive shortfall in sales; the other, a similarly massive crush on a married co-worker. The writing is just about perfect: incisive, eloquent, philosophical, and witty by turns, whether describing a NASCAR race, a hotel lobby, a corporate meeting, the comportment of the slick, devious, hard-drinking sales manager Henry works with, or—most profoundly—what it is like to lose one’s mother. “What were you doing in her closet?” Gretchen asks. “You know perfectly well,” Henry replies. “Yes,” she says. He explains to the reader: “I wanted to have a look at her bedroom slippers. The terry cloth inside is worn to a dark shine. They seemed among the most unlikely things in the world.” Like Richard Ford, Hipps finds illumination about the meaning of life everywhere he looks.
The tangled destinies of three kids growing up in a tightknit African-American community in Southern California.
“She was seventeen then. She lived with her father, a Marine, and without her mother, who had killed herself six months earlier. Since then the girl had earned a wild reputation—she was young and scared and trying to hide her scared in her prettiness.” Bennett’s debut novel tells the story of this grieving 17-year-old girl, Nadia, her best friend, Aubrey, and her boyfriend, Luke, told partly by Nadia and partly by a chorus of eponymous “Mothers,” the church ladies of Upper Room Chapel, where Luke’s father is the pastor. The three teenagers are drawn together by the damage they have already suffered: Luke’s promising football career was ended by a terrible injury; Aubrey has moved away from home to escape abuse by her stepfather. More trouble awaits when Nadia discovers she's carrying Luke’s baby and decides not to keep it. This decision creates a web of secrets that endures for decades—though the ever watchful, ever gossiping Mothers never stop sniffing around and suspecting. Nadia tries to escape the clutches of small-town drama by attending college and law school across the country, but when she returns home to care for her ailing father, she finds herself enmeshed in unfinished business. “All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.” Far from reliably offering love, protection, and care, in this book, the mothers cause all the trouble.
A wise and sad coming-of-age story showing how people are shaped by their losses. Recommended for both adult and teenage readers.
Fifteen-year-old Naomi flees slavery in Alabama for a better life of freedom up North—only to run into trouble along the way.
Naomi has spent her childhood on Massa Hilden's plantation watching her mother systematically raped under his orders because Hilden wants to breed more slaves to sell. But when Massa Hilden focuses on Naomi and her sister Hazel as the new targets for his sexual violence, the girls' mother kills Massa Hilden and pays for it with her own life. Although it's Hazel who has long held dreams of freedom, it's only Naomi who then manages to escape the plantation. She makes it as far as Coyners, Georgia, before falling sick and being rescued by Cynthia, the madam of the local brothel, who's looking for a new slave she doesn't actually have to lay out any money to purchase. Naomi hides out there, falls in love, and finds herself pregnant—until her fugitive-slave past is discovered and she's forced on the run again. But Naomi doesn't get far; her baby decides to arrive, and Naomi is quickly hunted down and shot by slave catchers moments after giving birth. From the afterlife, Naomi watches her daughter, named Josephine, grow up—longing for the lost chance to be a mother to her daughter. The novel, narrated by Naomi from this moment of her death, crisscrosses through time, cutting between past and present. This structure, which serves to distract from rather than add to the story, is the only weakness of the book. But this is a brave story, necessary and poignant; it is a story that demands to be heard. This is the violent, terrifying world of the antebellum South, where African-American women were prey and their babies sold like livestock. This is the story of mothers and daughters—of violence, absence, love, and legacies. Deón’s vivid imagery, deft characterization, and spellbinding language carry the reader through this suspenseful tale.
A haunting, visceral novel that heralds the birth of a powerful new voice in American fiction.