A family man suffers from money woes, a judgmental spouse and a hectoring mother. But things don’t get really funny until he discovers Anne Frank living in his attic.
Auslander’s debut novel is a scalding, uproarious satire that rejects the idea that the Holocaust can’t be mined for comedy—he just knows that a book has to be very good to pull it off. The story’s hero is Solomon Kugel, an eco-friendly–goods salesman who’s moved his wife and toddler son to a rural Northeast town for some peace and quiet. No such luck: An arsonist is at large, the tenant they’ve taken on to help make ends meet won’t stop complaining and Kugel’s mother, supposedly at death’s door with a terminal illness, isn’t going anywhere. Indeed, she eagerly pursues her beloved hobby of imagining herself a Holocaust victim, slipping images of the death camps alongside family photos in scrapbooks. Investigating a tapping sound he hears in the ducts, Solomon discovers an elderly, sickly, foulmouthed Anne Frank living in his attic, working on a sequel to her famous diary. The metaphor is punishingly obvious: The Holocaust is an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew, and living with its legacy can be a burden. What’s remarkable is how far Auslander (Beware of God, 2005, etc.) is willing to push the metaphor and how much pathos he gets from the comedy. Lampshades, grim historical photographs and Alan Dershowitz are all the stuff of laugh-out-loud lines, and Solomon’s therapist delivers statements that turn received wisdom on its head—Utopia is dystopia, hope is tragic. Auslander’s pithy, fast-moving prose emphasizes the comedy, but no attentive reader will misunderstand that he’s respectful of the Holocaust’s tragedy, only struggling to figure out how to live in its shadow.
Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.
Sterling collection of short stories by Alexie (Ten Little Indians, 2003, etc.), a master of the form.
The reader can take his or her pick of points where the blasphemy of Alexie’s title occurs in this multifaceted assemblage, for there are several solid candidates. One falls about two-thirds of the way in, when a hard-boiled newspaper editor chews out a young Indian writer who might be Alexie’s semblable. By that young man’s count, the editor had used the word “Jesus” thrice in 15 seconds: “I wasn’t a Christian and didn’t know much about the definition of blasphemy,” Alexie writes, “but it seemed like he’d committed some kind of sin.” In Alexie’s stories, someone is always committing some kind of sin, and often not particularly wittingly. One character, a bad drinker in need of help to bail out some prized pawned regalia, makes about as many errors as it’s possible to make while still remaining a fundamentally decent person; another laments that once you start looking at your loved one as though he or she is a criminal, then the love is out the door. “It’s logical,” notes Alexie, matter-of-factly. Most of Alexie’s characters in these stories—half selected and half new—are Indians, and then most of them Spokanes and other Indians of the Northwest; but within that broad categorization are endless variations and endless possibilities for misinterpretation, as when a Spokane encounters three mysterious Aleuts who sing him all the songs they’re allowed to: “All the others are just for our people,” which is to say, other Aleuts. Small wonder that when they vanish, no one knows where, why, or how. But ethnicity is not as central in some of Alexie’s stories as in others; in one of the most affecting, the misunderstandings and attendant tragedies occur between humans and donkeys. The darkness of that tale is profound, even if it allows Alexie the opportunity to bring in his beloved basketball. Longtime readers will find the collection full of familiar themes and characters, but the newer pieces are full of surprises.
Whether recent or from his earliest period, these pieces show Alexie at his best: as an interpreter and observer, always funny if sometimes angry, and someone, as a cop says of one of his characters, who doesn’t “fit the profile of the neighborhood.”
Ballard (1930–2009) creates a world reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange and V for Vendetta in this novel of suburban fascism.
At the heart of the narrative is the Brooklands Metro-Centre Mall, a monstrosity that feeds excess and consumerism. In a recent incident, not atypical of the violence that pervades this vision of modern British life, a man has been shot and killed at the mall. Held for his murder is Duncan Christie, a mental patient who was on day release when the incident occurred. This seems to be a cut-and-dried case, even to Richard Pearson, narrator and son of the victim, but a few anomalies crop up. For example, three witnesses emerge who claim that Christie was at one of the entrances to the mall at the time of the shooting…and these witnesses just happen to be Christie’s physician, his psychiatrist and one of his former teachers. Pearson is not wrong in assuming this to be overly coincidental. In addition to the loss of his father, Pearson has other problems, for he has recently lost his job, pushed out of his position in an ad agency by his own wife. Pearson watches with some amazement the rise of quasi-fascist elements in this quasi-suburban setting that’s starting to create its own reality, for “leafy Surrey” is no longer a suburb of London but rather a suburb of Heathrow. Troops dressed in St. George’s shirts march in the streets, encouraging hooliganism and attacks against immigrant businesses; riots break out in sports arenas; and Pearson finds out his father might have had sympathies with the brown-shirted St. George’s movement.
Ballard writes brilliantly about the nightmarish underside of modern life, and this novel makes us poignantly aware of the loss of his voice.
In this alternative theological novel Jesus does more than weep...and Lazarus does more than die.
Beard engages in much plausible speculation here, for example, that Jesus and Lazarus grew up as best friends and then drifted apart. Lazarus seized an opportunity to become a businessman, buying sheep from the local farmers and reselling them at a profit to the temple, for according to strict Jewish practice, many sheep had to be sacrificed. But just about the time his former childhood friend performed his first miracle, Lazarus began to come down with a strange and mysterious illness, one that is more than merely an inconvenience that gets in the way of his sexual relationship with the prostitute Lydia and his engagement to Saloma. Beard invests this illness with a mythic quality by having Lazarus contract all of the seven major diseases of ancient Israel, and his symptoms combine those of smallpox, tuberculosis and dysentery, for his death has to be as certain as his resurrection. At first he calls upon Yanav the Healer, a local dispenser of herbs, but it soon becomes clear that Lazarus’ physical decline is too severe for Yanav to handle. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, then pleads with him to call upon Jesus, whose reputation for performing miracles is growing, but Lazarus is adamant that his former friend not be summoned. The mythic power of the story remains constant, of course, so Lazarus does in fact die, and Jesus does resurrect him, but the Romans, especially in the vicious form of Cassius, immediately begin to persecute Lazarus, feeling his resurrection has reinforced the extraordinary political power of Jesus. Throughout the narrative, Beard schools the reader in literary and artistic treatments of Lazarus to give the story a cultural and intellectual framework.
Beard’s take on Lazarus is nothing less than astonishing—and he respects the reader by taking religion and religious questions seriously.
The granddaughter of an Armenian and a Bostonian investigates the Armenian genocide, discovering that her grandmother took a guilty secret to her grave.
Laura, the narrator of Bohjalian’s latest, is doing genealogical research, attempting to learn more about a fact that has always intrigued her: Her Boston Brahmin grandmother, Elizabeth, and her grandfather, Armen, were brought together by the Armenian genocide. Flash back to 1915. Elizabeth has journeyed to the Syrian city of Aleppo, along with her father, on a mission sponsored by an American relief group, the Friends of Armenia. They have come in an attempt to deliver food and supplies to the survivors of the Armenian massacre. The Turks are using Aleppo as a depot for the straggling remnants of thousands of Armenian women, who have been force-marched through the desert after their men were slaughtered. Elizabeth finds the starved women, naked and emaciated, huddled in a public square, awaiting transports to Der-el-Zor, the desert “relocation camp” where, in reality, their final extermination will take place. Elizabeth takes in two of these refugees, Nevart and an orphan Nevart adopted on the trail, Hatoun, who has been virtually mute since she witnessed the beheading (for sport) of her mother and sisters by Turkish guards. By chance, Elizabeth encounters Armen, an Armenian engineer who has come to Aleppo to search for his wife, Karine. Armen has eluded capture since murdering his former friend, a Turkish official who had reneged on his promise to protect Armen’s family. Despairing of Karine’s survival—and falling in love with Elizabeth—Armen joins the British Army to fight the Turks. Among archival photos viewed by Laura decades later is one of Karine, who did reach the square mere days after Armen left Aleppo. How narrowly did Karine miss reuniting with Armen, Laura wonders, acknowledging that, but for tragic vagaries of fate, the family that produced her might never have come to be.
A gruesome, unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences.
Brunt's first novel elegantly pictures the New York art world of the 1980s, suburban Westchester and the isolation of AIDS.
Fourteen-year-old June and 16-year-old Greta travel to Manhattan every few Sundays to be with Finn, their uncle. Finn is a renowned artist, dying of a largely unknown disease, and claims he wants to give them this last gift, though more likely it is the contact he craves. June and Finn have an intense relationship—he is charismatic and brilliant and takes her to special places; he is part magic and part uncle, and June adores him. Greta is jealous; she feels Finn favors June and stole her away. When he dies, June is devastated. At the funeral they see the one not to be mentioned: Finn’s lover, Toby. June’s mother refuses to admit him to the service and blames him for her baby brother’s disease. Slowly, June and Toby develop a secret friendship, indulging their grief and keeping Finn alive through the exchange of memories. What she thought was simply Finn’s apartment she discovers was their shared space, and much of what she loved about the place, and Finn, belongs to Toby. As she and Toby embark on Finn-worthy adventures, Greta is slowly falling apart, hiding in the woods drunk, sabotaging her chance at a summer stint on Broadway. Finn’s portrait of the girls, worth nearly $1 million, is kept in a bank vault, and every time June visits (only she and Greta have keys) she notices additions to the painting that could only come from Greta. With Toby dying and Greta in danger, June lifts the covers off all of her family’s secrets.
There is much to admire in this novel. The subtle insight on sibling rivalry and the examination of love make for a poignant debut.
An end-of-an-era epic celebrating the bygone glories of vinyl records, comic-book heroes and blaxploitation flicks in a world gone digital.
The novelist, his characters and the readers who will most love this book all share a passion for popular culture and an obsession with period detail. Set on the grittier side in the Bay Area of the fairly recent past (when multimedia megastores such as Tower and Virgin were themselves predators rather than casualties to online commerce), the plot involves generational relationships between two families, with parallels that are more thematically resonant than realistic. Two partners own a used record store that has become an Oakland neighborhood institution, “the church of vinyl.” One of the partners, Archy Stallings, is black, and he is estranged from his father, a broken-down former B-movie action hero, as well as from the teenage son he never knew about who has arrived in Oakland from Texas to complicate the plot. The other partner is Nat Jaffe, white and Jewish, whose wife is also partners with Archy’s wife in midwifery (a profession as threatened as selling used vinyl) and whose son develops a crush on Archy’s illegitimate son. The plot encompasses a birth and a death against the backdrop of the encroachment of a chain superstore, owned by a legendary athlete, which threatens to squash Archy and Nat’s Brokeland Records, all amid a blackmailing scheme dating back to the Black Panther heyday. Yet the warmth Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2000, etc.) feels toward his characters trumps the intricacies and implausibilities of the plot, as the novel straddles and blurs all sorts of borders: black and white, funk and jazz, Oakland and Berkeley, gay and straight. And the resolution justifies itself with an old musicians’ joke: “ ‘You know it’s all going to work out in the end?’ ” says one character. “ ‘No....But I guess I can probably fake it,’ ” replies another.
The evocation of “Useless, by James Joyce” attests to the humor and ambition of the novel, as if this were a Joyce-an remix with a hipper rhythm track.
A spare, dystopian fable that examines how closely contemporary life has caught up to Kafka since the publication of The Castle.
No one comes to meet the nameless Investigator when a train lets him off at a nameless city. So it’s long after dark by the time he arrives at the Enterprise, where he’s been sent to look into a series of 20 suicides over the past year. A disembodied voice refuses to admit him so late and declines to give him any information about where he might pass the night. Left to his own devices, the Investigator finds the mordantly misnamed Hope Hotel, where a Giantess forces him to review an exhaustive list of hotel policies before she gives him the key to a room where he collapses for the night. In the morning, the Server at the hotel restaurant won’t give him tea, toast or orange juice, and the Policeman he meets over his nonbreakfast ends up questioning him. When he arrives at the Enterprise, predictably without the identification he left at the Hope, he gets little cooperation from the Guard, the Guide and especially the Manager, who’s cordial enough but also insecure, delusional and prone to hysterical fits. After spending a second night passed out in the Enterprise, the Investigator finds all the functionaries who posed such obstacles yesterday so solicitous that the effect is even more disturbing. By this time Claudel (Brodeck, 2009, etc.) has long since made it clear that in this investigation, it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
A technocratic Kafka nightmare—heavy on surreal diagnosis of the world’s ills, light on the traditional rewards of storytelling—crossed with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and a hint of Buster Keaton.
A middle-aged man scrapes for his identity in a Saudi Arabian city of the future.
This book by McSweeney’s founder Eggers (Zeitoun, 2009, etc.) inverts the premise of his fiction debut, 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity. That novel was a globe-trotting tale about giving away money; this one features a hero stuck in one place and desperate to make a bundle. Alan Clay is a 50-something American salesperson for an information technology company angling for a contract to wire King Abdullah Economic City, a Saudi commerce hub. Alan and his team are initially anxious to deliver their presentation to the king—which features a remote speaker appearing via hologram—but they soon learn the country moves at a snaillike pace. So Alan drifts: He wanders the moonscape of the sparely constructed city, obsesses over a cyst on his back, bonds with his troubled driver, pursues fumbling relationships with two women, ponders his debts and recalls his shortcomings as a salesman, husband and father.This book is in part a commentary on America’s eroding economic might (there are numerous asides about offshoring and cheap labor), but it’s mostly a potent, well-drawn portrait of one man’s discovery of where his personal and professional selves split and connect. Eggers has matured greatly as a novelist since Velocity: Where that novel was gassy and knotted, this one has crisp sentences and a solid structure. He masters the hurry-up-and-wait rhythm of Alan’s visit, accelerating the prose when the king’s arrival seems imminent then slackening it again. If anything, the novel’s flaws seem to be products of too much tightening: An incident involving a death back home feels clipped and some passages are reduced to fablelike simplicity.
Even so, Eggers’ fiction has evolved in the past decade. This book is firm proof that social concerns can make for resonant storytelling.
The unexpected relationship between a war-scarred woman and an exiled gardener leads to a journey through remorse to a kind of peace.
After a notable debut, Eng (The Gift of Rain, 2008) returns to the landscape of his origins with a poetic, compassionate, sorrowful novel set in the aftermath of World War II in Malaya, where the conflict was followed by a bloody guerilla war of independence. Chinese-Malayan Judge Teoh Yun Ling, who witnessed these events when younger, has been diagnosed with aphasia, which will shortly strip her of her mind and memory. So she returns to Yugiri, in the mountains, to record her memories of the place she visited 34 years earlier to persuade ex-Imperial Japanese gardener Aritomo to make a garden in memory of her sister. The sisters had spent four years in a horrific Japanese slave labor camp, sustained by memories of the gardens of Kyoto. Aritomo turns down Yun Ling’s request; instead she becomes his apprentice, then lover. Aritomo is an enigmatic figure, steeped in art and wisdom, perhaps also a spy. Only years later, when Yun Ling finally pieces together his last message to her, can she reconcile her grief and guilt as the sole survivor of the slave camp.
Grace and empathy infuse this melancholy landscape of complex loyalties enfolded by brutal history, creating a novel of peculiar, mysterious, tragic beauty.
A perfect wife’s disappearance plunges her husband into a nightmare as it rips open ugly secrets about his marriage and, just maybe, his culpability in her death.
Even after they lost their jobs as magazine writers and he uprooted her from New York and spirited her off to his childhood home in North Carthage, Mo., where his ailing parents suddenly needed him at their side, Nick Dunne still acted as if everything were fine between him and his wife, Amy. His sister Margo, who’d gone partners with him on a local bar, never suspected that the marriage was fraying, and certainly never knew that Nick, who’d buried his mother and largely ducked his responsibilities to his father, stricken with Alzheimer’s, had taken one of his graduate students as a mistress. That’s because Nick and Amy were both so good at playing Mr. and Ms. Right for their audience. But that all changes the morning of their fifth anniversary when Amy vanishes with every indication of foul play. Partly because the evidence against him looks so bleak, partly because he’s so bad at communicating grief, partly because he doesn’t feel all that grief-stricken to begin with, the tide begins to turn against Nick. Neighbors who’d been eager to join the police in the search for Amy begin to gossip about him. Female talk-show hosts inveigh against him. The questions from Detective Rhonda Boney and Detective Jim Gilpin get sharper and sharper. Even Nick has to acknowledge that he hasn’t come close to being the husband he liked to think he was. But does that mean he deserves to get tagged as his wife’s killer? Interspersing the mystery of Amy’s disappearance with flashbacks from her diary, Flynn (Dark Places, 2009, etc.) shows the marriage lumbering toward collapse—and prepares the first of several foreseeable but highly effective twists.
One of those rare thrillers whose revelations actually intensify its suspense instead of dissipating it. The final pages are chilling.
A great American novel by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.
This is Ford’s first novel since concluding the Frank Bascombe trilogy, which began with The Sportswriter (1986), peaked with the prize-winning Independence Day (1995) and concluded with The Lay of the Land (2006). That series was for Ford what the Rabbit novels were for Updike, making this ambitious return to long-form fiction seem like something of a fresh start but also a thematic culmination. Despite its title, the novel is as essentially all-American as Independence Day. Typically for Ford, the focus is as much on the perspective (and limitations) of its protagonist as it is on the issues that the narrative addresses. The first-person narrator is Dell Parsons, a 15-year-old living in Montana with his twin sister when their parents—perhaps inexplicably, perhaps inevitably—commit an ill-conceived bank robbery. Before becoming wards of the state, the more willful sister runs away with her boyfriend, while Dell is taken across the border to Canada, where he will establish a new life for himself after crossing another border, from innocent bystander to reluctant complicity. The first half of the novel takes place in Montana and the second in Canada, but the entire narrative is Dell’s reflection, 50 years later, on the eve of his retirement as a teacher. As he ruminates on character and destiny and ponders “how close evil is to the normal goings-on that have nothing to do with evil,” he also mediates between his innocence as an uncommonly naïve teenager and whatever wisdom he has gleaned through decades of experience. Dell’s perspective may well be singular and skewed, but it’s articulate without being particularly perceptive or reflective. And it’s the only one we have. In a particularly illuminating parenthetical aside, he confesses, “I was experiencing great confusion about what was happening, having had no experience like this in my life. I should not be faulted for not understanding what I saw.”
At the start of the novel’s coda, when Dell explains that he teaches his students “books that to me seem secretly about my young life,” he begins the list with The Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby. Such comparisons seem well-earned.
Hailed as heroes on a stateside tour before returning to Iraq, Bravo Squad discovers just what it has been fighting for.
Though the shellshocked humor will likely conjure comparisons with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, the debut novel by Fountain (following his story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, 2006) focuses even more on the cross-promotional media monster that America has become than it does on the absurdities of war. The entire novel takes place over a single Thanksgiving Day, when the eight soldiers (with their memories of the two who didn’t make it) find themselves at the promotional center of an all-American extravaganza, a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys football game. Providing the novel with its moral compass is protagonist Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old virgin from small-town Texas who has been inflated into some kind of cross between John Wayne and Audie Murphy for his role in a rescue mission documented by an embedded Fox News camera. In two days, the Pentagon-sponsored “Victory Tour” will end and Bravo will return to the business as usual of war. In the meantime, they are dealing with a producer trying to negotiate a film deal (“Think Rocky meets Platoon,” though Hilary Swank is rumored to be attached), glad-handing with the corporate elite of Cowboy fandom (and ownership), and suffering collateral damage during a halftime spectacle with Beyoncé. Over the course of this long, alcohol-fueled day, Billy finds himself torn, as he falls in love (and lust) with a devout Christian cheerleader and listens to his sister try to persuade him that he has done his duty and should refuse to go back. As “Americans fight the war daily in their strenuous inner lives,” Billy and his foxhole brethren discover treachery and betrayal beyond anything they’ve experienced on the battlefield.
An astonishing novel, both in ambition and achievement, filled with revelations that appear inevitable in retrospect, amid the cycle of life and death.
As a follow-up to Groff’s well-received debut (The Monsters of Templeton, 2008), this novel is a structural conundrum, ending in a very different place than it begins while returning full circle. At the outset, it appears to be a novel of the Utopian, communal 1960s, of a charismatic leader, possibly a charlatan, and an Arcadia that grows according to his belief that “the Universe will provide.” It concludes a half-century later in a futuristic apocalypse of worldwide plague and quarantine. To reveal too much of what transpires in between would undermine the reader’s rich experience of discovery: “The page of a book can stay cohesive in the eyes: one sentence can lead to the next. He can crack a paragraph and eat it. Now a story. Now a novel, one full life enclosed in covers.” The “he” is Bit Stone, introduced as a 5-year-old child of that commune, and it is his life that is enclosed in these covers. Following a brief prologue, representing a prenatal memory, the novel comprises four parts, with leaps of a decade or more between them, leaving memory and conjecture to fill in the blanks. At an exhibition of Bit’s photography, a passion since his childhood (documented in some shots), those who had known him all his life realized, “What they found most moving, they told him later, were the blanks between the frames, the leaps that happened invisibly between the then and the now.” The cumulative impact of this novel is similar, as the boy leaps from the commune and subsequently his parents, becomes a parent himself, deals with the decline of his parents and finds his perspective both constant and constantly changing: “He can’t understand what the once-upon-a-time Bit is saying to the current version of himself or to the one who will stand here in the future...worn a little more by time and loss.” A novel of “the invisible tissue of civilization,” of "community or freedom," and of the precious fragility of lives in the balance.
A well-turned set of stories defined by emotional and physical separation, particularly in the Indian-American diaspora.
James’ fine debut novel, Atlas of Unknowns (2009), was a continent-hopping tale that tracked the divergent lives of two Indian sisters with wit and a lightly comic touch. Her debut story collection displays a similar approach, and she enthusiastically tests how her style can function in a variety of settings. The two most inventive stories study human emotions in nonhuman contexts. “What to Do With Henry” follows a chimpanzee’s travels from Sierra Leone to the United States, where he builds an uncanny bond with a woman and her adopted daughter; as the chimp struggles for his place in a zoo’s pecking order, James crafts a clear (but unforced) allegory of our own human strivings. Likewise, the closing “Girl Marries Ghost” imagines a society where people who are desperate for companionship can marry ghosts, who are eager to spend a little time back in the real world; James’ portrait of one such marriage is a seriocomic exposé of our craving for order set against our inability to let go of our messy pasts. The other stories deal in culture clashes, mostly featuring Indian Americans, but for James ethnicity isn’t the sole source of conflict. The Indian dance teacher in “Light & Luminous,” for instance, is defined as much by her sense of personal pride as her growing feeling that her art is out of step with the times. In the title story, the protagonist (who has the evocative last name of Panicker) is deciding whether his fellow nursing home residents are more embracing than his family.
At every turn, James’ prose is crisp, observant and carefully controlled; unlike the narrator of “Escape Key,” who grows increasingly aware of his fiction’s shortcomings, James projects a deep emotional intelligence.
Bad-boy funnyman Jacobson waxes pensive and topical—but no less mirthful—in his latest assault on the foibles of modern life.
These days, grumbles Guy Ableman, “one has to apologize for having read a book, let alone for having written one.” That’s bad for old Guy, who’s a reader and a writer, the author of smart literary fictions of very modest success who suddenly realizes that his bookish world is crumbling around him. It doesn’t help that his agent commits suicide rather than negotiate yet another e-book deal or that his wife, voluptuous and wonderful, has decided that she’s going to write something of her own or that his wife’s mother is sending decidedly un-mother-in-law-like vibes his way: Guy is in a bad existential state, and the world of publishing is going down the tubes with him. The obvious solution? Why, to craft an irresistible best-seller, a dumb and juicy confection that twists all the right knobs. It’s a lovely setup, one that affords Jacobson, never shy about skewering modern mores, plenty of opportunities to lampoon modern trends in the litbiz. He gets in digs at just about everything, in fact; for instance, we learn, courtesy of Guy, that novels about single fatherhood sell well in Canada “because Canadian women were so bored with their husbands that the majority of them ran off sooner or later with an American or an Inuit.” So fast and furious are the jibes that one wonders if Jacobson will have anything left to lampoon, but of course, the world has a way of providing targets for the careful satirist, and he’s an ascended master. His latest is more fun than Lucky Jim, and if some of its tropes are more ephemeral, Jacobson is willing to take some big risks in the service of art, as when Guy muses of one of his confections, “I had to cheat a bit to get the Holocaust in, but a dream sequence will always make a chump of chronology.”
Guy’s not a lucky guy, to be sure, but if there’s justice, Jacobson will enjoy best-sellerdom in his place with this latest romp.
A Swedish debut novel that will keep readers chuckling.
Allan Karlsson has just turned 100, and the Old Folks’ Home is about to give him a birthday party that he absolutely doesn’t want. So he leaves out his window and high-tails it to a bus station, with no particular destination in mind. On a whim, he steals a suitcase and boards a bus. The suitcase’s owner, a criminal, will do anything to get it back. This is the basis for a story that is loaded with absurdities from beginning to end—the old coot has plenty of energy for his age and an abiding love of vodka. The story goes back and forth between the current chase and his long, storied life. From childhood, he has shown talent with explosives. This knack catches the attention of many world leaders of the 20th century: Franco, Truman, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung, to name a few of the people he meets. Want to blow up bridges? Allan’s your man. Want much bigger explosions? Just pour him a drink. He’s neither immoral nor amoral, but he is certainly detached, and he is absolutely apolitical. In the past, he insults Stalin (luckily, the translator faints), learns Russian in a gulag and walks back to Sweden from China, barely surviving execution in Iran along the way. In the present, he meets a strange and delightful collection of friends and enemies. Coincidence and absurdity are at the core of this silly and wonderful novel. Looking back, it seems there are no hilarious, roll-on-the-floor-laughing scenes. They will just keep readers amused almost nonstop, and that’s a feat few writers achieve.
A great cure for the blues, especially for anyone who might feel bad about growing older.
A revelation, from the most accomplished and acclaimed of contemporary short story writers.
It’s no surprise that every story in the latest collection by Canada’s Munro (Too Much Happiness, 2009, etc.) is rewarding and that the best are stunning. They leave the reader wondering how the writer manages to invoke the deepest, most difficult truths of human existence in the most plainspoken language. But the real bombshell, typically understated and matter-of-fact, comes before the last pieces, which the author has labeled “Finale” and written in explanation: “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” The “first” comes as a surprise, because her collection The View from Castle Rock (2006) was so commonly considered atypically autobiographical (albeit drawing more from family legacy than personal memory). And the “last”? When a writer in her early 80s declares that these are the last things she has to say about her life, they put both the life and the stories in fresh perspective. Almost all of them have an older character remembering her perspective from decades earlier, sometimes amused, more often baffled, at what happened and how things turned out. Most pivot on some sort of romantic involvement, but the partners are unknowable, opaque, often even to themselves. In “Train,” a character remarks, “Now I have got a real understanding of it and it was nobody’s fault. It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation.” In “Leaving Maverley,” she writes of “the waste of time, the waste of life, by people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered.”
The author knows what matters, and the stories pay attention to it.
It’s extremes that rivet us in Olmstead’s searing seventh novel: the heaven of first love; the hell of the battlefield.
Henry Childs grew up in the mountains of West Virginia, raised by his grandfather and his sweet-natured mother Clemmie. (The mystery of his never-mentioned father is a late-revelation shocker.) His forebears were soldiers and horsemen, but they’ve lost their land, and Clemmie must move with Henry to the city, Charleston. In 1950 Henry is a high school junior with a passion for horses and baseball. He helps out at some stables where he meets Mercy. She comes from money and is university-bound, while Henry seems headed for a factory. The attraction between these virgins is mutual and overwhelming; from the outset their sex is a rapt communication. Henry is warned off by her father and brother. The lovers elope to New Orleans, where an apartment is waiting for them, courtesy of Mercy’s accommodating aunt. They make it their Eden. Father and brother come to expel them, abducting Mercy, giving Henry a final warning. Though underage, he enlists as a Marine and is sent to Korea. He does recon with Lew, a gruff World War II vet. Quite unsentimentally, a bond develops, a wise-guy routine. The cold is arctic. The Chinese come at night, waves of them. It’s kill or be killed; answer atrocity with atrocity. In New Orleans we ached because we feared what was happening had to end; in Korea we ache because we fear it never will. Olmstead’s extraordinary language gives us new eyes.
An exceptionally fine study of love, war and the double-edged role of memory, which can both sustain and destroy. Prize-winning material.
Lonely young woman meets mysterious stranger. What might have been trite and formulaic is anything but in Rash’s fifth novel, a dark tale of Appalachian superstition and jingoism so good it gives you chills.
Three miles out of town, in the North Carolina mountains, a massive cliff rears up. Beneath it is a cove, gloom-shrouded and cursed, so the locals believe, though all the out-of-state Sheltons knew was that the farmland was cheap. The story takes place in 1918. Both parents have died and their grown children, Hank and Laurel, are trying to cope. Hank is back from the war, missing one hand. Laurel has a purple birthmark; she has been ostracized by the townsfolk of Mars Hill as a witch. Rash’s immersion in country ways and idioms gives his work a rare integrity. One day Laurel hears a stranger playing his flute in the woods; the sound is mournful but mesmerizing. The next time she finds him prone, stung by hornets, and nurses him back to health at the cabin. (What the reader knows, but Laurel doesn’t, is that he’s on the run from a barracks.) A note in his pocket tells her his name is Walter and he’s mute. Laurel can live with that. She has low expectations, but maybe her life is about to begin. Hank hires Walter to help him fence the pasture; he proves an excellent worker. Laurel confesses her “heart feelings:” Walter is encouraging; Laurel cries tears of joy. Meanwhile in town Sgt. Chauncey Feith, a bombastic, deeply insecure army recruiter and faux patriot, is stoking fear of spies in their midst as local boys return from the front, some in terrible shape. Eventually Laurel learns Walter’s identity; his back story is fascinating, but only a spoiler would reveal more. Let’s just say the heartbreaking climax involves a lynch mob led by Feith; perhaps the cove really is cursed.
Even better than the bestselling Serena (2008), for here Rash has elevated melodrama to tragedy.
A novel as contemporary as international terrorism and the war in Iraq and as timeless as mortality, from one of Britain’s literary masters.
“The past is past, and the dead are the dead,” was the belief of the strong-willed Ellie, whose husband, Jack, a stolid former farmer, is the protagonist of Swift’s ninth and most powerful novel. As anyone will recognize who is familiar with his prize-winning masterworks (Last Orders, 1996, etc.), such a perspective on the past is in serious need of correction, which this novel provides in a subtly virtuosic and surprisingly suspenseful manner. It’s a sign of Swift’s literary alchemy that he gleans so much emotional and thematic richness from such deceptively common stock. Jack and Ellie have grown up together in the British farm country, and their marriage is practically inevitable once both are on their own. Jack’s mother died when he was a boy; Ellie’s left home for another man. Jack’s brother, Tom, eight years younger but in many ways more worldly and self-assertive, forsakes the farm life to join the army as soon as he can. The fathers of Jack and Ellie both die; Tom remains out of contact for more than a decade. At Ellie’s insistence, they sell their property in order to run a seaside vacation park she has inherited. Every winter the childless couple takes a Caribbean vacation. When Tom dies in Iraq, Jack must deal with the arrangements. He cancels the annual vacation and his marriage all but unravels. The minister who had handled the funeral of Jack’s father and now his brother knows that the eulogy needs to be “as little and simple as possible…as simple as possible being really the essence of the thing.” Swift somehow cuts to the essence of both a family’s legacy and the modern malaise through the reticent Jack, who comes to terms with the realization that “all the things that had once been dead and buried had come back again.”
Profound empathy and understated eloquence mark a novel so artfully nuanced that the last few pages send the reader back to the first few, with fresh understanding.
In Walker’s stunning debut, a young California girl coming-of-age in a dystopian near future confronts the inevitability of change on the most personal level as life on earth withers.
Sixth-grader Julia, whose mother is a slightly neurotic former actress and whose father is an obstetrician, is living an unremarkable American middle-class childhood. She rides the school bus and takes piano lessons; she has a mild crush on a boy named Seth whose mother has cancer; she enjoys sleepovers with her best friend Hanna, who happens to be a Mormon. Then one October morning there’s a news report that scientists have discovered a slowing of the earth’s rotation, adding minutes to each day and night. After initial panic, the human tendency to adapt sets in even as the extra minutes increase into hours. Most citizens go along when the government stays on a 24-hour clock, although an underground movement of those living by “real time” sprouts up. Gravity is affected; birds begin to die, and astronauts are stranded on their space station. By November, the “real time” of days has grown to 40 hours, and the actual periods of light and dark only get longer from that point. The world faces crises in communication, health, transportation and food supply. The changes in the planet are profound, but the daily changes in Julia’s life, which she might be facing even in a normal day, are equally profound. Hanna’s family moves to Utah, leaving Julia without a best friend to help defend against the bullies at the bus stop. She goes through the trials and joys of first love. She begins to see cracks in her parents’ marriage and must navigate the currents of loyalty and moral uncertainty. She faces sickness and death of loved ones. But she also witnesses constancy and perseverance. Julia’s life is shaped by what happens in the larger world, but it is the only life she knows, and Walker captures each moment, intimate and universal, with magical precision.
Hollywood operators and creative washouts collide across five decades and two continents in a brilliant, madcap meditation on fate.
The sixth novel by Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets, 2009, etc.) opens in April 1962 with the arrival of starlet Dee Moray in a flyspeck Italian resort town. Dee is supposed to be filming the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton costume epic Cleopatra, but her inconvenient pregnancy (by Burton) has prompted the studio to tuck her away. A smitten young man, Pasquale, runs the small hotel where she’s hidden, and he’s contemptuous of the studio lackey, Michael Deane, charged with keeping Dee out of sight. From there the story sprays out in multiple directions, shifting time and perspective to follow Deane’s evolution into a Robert Evans-style mogul; Dee’s hapless aging-punk son; an alcoholic World War II vet who settles into Pasquale’s hotel to peck away at a novel; and a young screenwriter eagerly pitching a dour movie about the Donner Party. Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from watching Walter ingeniously zip back and forth to connect these loose strands, but it largely succeeds on the comic energy of its prose and the liveliness of its characters. A theme that bubbles under the story is the variety of ways real life energizes great art—Walter intersperses excerpts from his characters’ plays, memoirs, film treatments and novels to show how their pasts inform their best work. Unlikely coincidences abound, but they feel less like plot contrivances than ways to serve a broader theme about how the unlikely, unplanned moments in our lives are the most meaningful ones. And simply put, Walter’s prose is a joy—funny, brash, witty and rich with ironic twists. He’s taken all of the tricks of the postmodern novel and scoured out the cynicism, making for a novel that's life-affirming but never saccharine.
A treasure trove of graphic artworks—they’re too complex to be called comics—from Ware, master of angst, alienation, sci-fi and the crowded street.
At 44, Ware (The Acme Novelty Library, 2005, etc.) is old enough to remember the day when you could stick a few dollars in an envelope, send it off and have a box full of strange goodness come to your door—a mystery box, that is, with puzzles, games, gag items and maybe one or two things worth keeping. Opening the oversized box that contains the many pieces of this book is a kindred experience: It’s not quite clear what’s inside, save for brightly colored paper in various forms, from foldout poster to ultrathin, small notebook to sturdy hardcover. Each package contains a story set, as the title suggests, in or near a teeming city. How the reader reads these seems not to matter, for the box is like a river, if that’s not too mixed a metaphor, into which one steps where the current seems safest; there’s no beginning to it and no end. One thing is clear: Not many of Ware’s characters are happy, even if they live in buildings that are overstuffed, like this box, with things. One young woman, for instance, recounts, “There were whole stretches of days where I never even left the house at all...never saw or talked to another human being...I just ordered pizzas, watched TV, and read books....Of course, I went grocery shopping, and a couple of times I walked to the ‘downtown’ of the suburb and ate dinner by myself, just for variety’s sake.” That’s a humdrum existence by any measure—especially the being stuck in the suburbs part—but considering the likely fate of the little honeybee, Branford, who is the hero of one of the little books, it’s not to be dismissed. And anyway, try finding a four-room flat for $650 a month in the city these days—one in a building that, in Ware’s surreal inventory, has seen 13,246 light bulbs, 725 roasted turkeys and 158,854 lighted matches—all of which add up, one suspects, to the number of ways in which one can read this puzzling tome.
A dazzling document, beautifully if most idiosyncratically drawn; in this iteration, sure to become a collector’s item, though one that begs for an easier-to-handle trade edition.
Wiesel takes us on a journey through dream, memory and especially storytelling in his latest novel, which concerns Shaltiel Feigenberg, who in 1975, is captured and imprisoned for 80 hours in a basement by two captors.
Feigenberg is politically unimportant and practically unknown before his capture, but soon thereafter he becomes front-page news, though his plight is reported in wildly different ways by the world press. His captors represent divergent political realities. One, Luigi, is an Italian political revolutionary with no particular animus against Jews, while the second, Ahmed, is a passionate advocate for Palestine with an intense hatred for the “Zionist cause.” Perhaps predictably, a “bad cop–good cop” dynamic develops as they tend to Feigenberg, Luigi gradually freeing him from restraints while Ahmed rails with fanatic fervor against all that Feigenberg represents to him. Luigi and Ahmed are motivated by “humanitarian” concerns—they demand that three Palestinian prisoners be freed in exchange for Feigenberg’s freedom—rather than materialistic ones. Feigenberg is mystified by his captivity, for he’s simply a professional storyteller with a special fondness for spinning his tales to children and the elderly. This forced period of darkness ironically provides him with an extended period of enlightenment, as he has time to reflect on his life—the death of his grandmother at Auschwitz, his frequently absent but observant father, his initial meeting with Blanca (the woman who eventually becomes his wife), and the growing Communist sympathies of his older brother. He begins to frame the narrative of his life in much the same way he frames the stories he makes up to entertain others. Even the Israeli government—a government that notoriously does not negotiate with terrorists—gets involved in trying to track down the elusive captive.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Wiesel continues to remind us of the brilliant possibilities of the philosophical and political novel.