A quiet gut-punch of a debut, Coster’s novel is a family saga set against the landscape of gentrifying Brooklyn.
After five years away in Pittsburgh—a city whose primary appeal is its distance from Brooklyn—Penelope Grand, former artist and current bartender, reluctantly returns to Bedford-Stuyvesant to care for her ailing and beloved father, Ralph, moving into a sublet a few streets away from her childhood home. But the neighborhood has changed in her absence: her landlords, the Harpers, new to the block from the West Village, embody the shift—a young family, white, wealthy, attracted to the “historic” homes and the lower price tags. And yet the Harpers’ charming yellow house—and the affections of the charming father—offer Penelope an escape from the life she’s returned to. At least for a while. But when a postcard from her estranged mother, Mirella, shows up addressed to her from the Dominican Republic (Penelope isn’t the only one in her family desperate for escape), Penelope is forced to deal with a past she’d rather ignore. Alternating between Penelope’s perspective and Mirella’s, moving seamlessly back and forth in time, Coster pieces together the story of the Grand family: Mirella and Ralph’s early courtship and the first days of their marriage in Brooklyn, Ralph’s iconic record store and the accident that followed its closing, Penelope’s miserable freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, her childhood trips with Mirella to the DR, and now—in the present—their final chance at something like reconciliation. Gorgeous and painfully unsentimental, the book resists easy moralizing: everyone is wonderful and terrible, equal parts disappointed and disappointing. The plot is simple, relatively speaking, but Coster is a masterful observer of family dynamics: her characters, to a one, are wonderfully complex and consistently surprising.
Absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole.
In 11 electric short stories, the gifted Groff (Fates and Furies, 2015, etc.) unpacks the “dread and heat” of her home state.
In her first fiction since President Barack Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of the year, Groff collects her singing, stinging stories of foreboding and strangeness in the Sunshine State. Groff lives in Gainesville with a husband and two sons, and four of these tales are told from the perspectives of unmoored married mothers of young ones. The first, “Ghosts and Empties,” which appeared in the New Yorker, begins with the line, “I have somehow become a woman who yells,” a disposition the narrator tries to quell by walking at all hours as “the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums.” Groff fans will recognize the descriptive zest instantly. The same quasi-hapless mother seems to narrate “The Midnight Zone,” in which she imperils the lives of her boys by falling off a stool and hitting her head while alone with them at a remote cabin, “where one thing [she] liked was how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” Ditto for the lonely oddballs telling “Flower Hunters” and “Yport,” the longest and last story, in which the reckless mother is often coated in alcohol. These are raw, danger-riddled, linguistically potent pieces. They unsettle their readers at every pass. In the dreamy, terrific “Dogs Go Wolf,” two little girls are abandoned on an island, their starvation lyrical: “The older sister’s body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground”; their rescue is akin to a fairy tale. Equally mesmerizing is “Above and Below,” in which the graduate student narrator sinks away and dissipates into vivid, exacting homelessness. Even the few stories that dribble off rather than end, such as “For the God of Love, For the Love of God,” have passages of surpassing beauty. And Groff gets the humid, pervasive white racism that isn’t her point but curdles through plenty of her characters.
A literary tour de force of precariousness set in a blistering place, a state shaped like a gun.
In his latest autobiographical novel to be translated into English, Guatemalan native Halfon's same-named alter ego continues his far-flung travels to probe hidden family truths dating back to Nazi concentration camps.
The author, whose family relocated to the United States when he was 10, is as much instigator as investigator. Against the wishes of his maternal grandfather, a Polish Jew, Halfon visits the Lodz neighborhood where the old man lived before the Gestapo took him away (and where a former porn star now lives in his old place). Returning to Guatemala, he tries to determine whether it was his father’s brother Salomón who died at age 5 in a swimming accident there. Other Salomóns, including another 5-year-old who died an identical death, spin through the narrative. For Halfon the storyteller, unsolved mysteries and the freest of free associations satisfy his aims better than established facts. Halfon goes by "Hoffman" after someone mistakenly calls him that name—very possibly, Halfon determines, at the exact moment beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in New York. "Language is also a diving helmet," Halfon writes in recalling how worlds opened to him when he first learned English. With his slender but deceptively weighty books, which are at once breezy and melancholic, bemused and bitter, he opens up worlds to readers in return.
In this follow-up to The Polish Boxer (2012) and Monastery (2014), Halfon constructs a kind of postmodern memorial to his grandfathers, who outlived the horrors of the Holocaust but not its searing emotional aftereffects.
Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut.
Halliday writes first, in Folly, of Alice, an editor in New York during the second Bush presidency, and her relationship with Ezra, a well-known and much older author. Alice struggles to establish her own identity at a time when Ezra’s health concerns focus his attention on mortality. Through their occupations and their relationship, the lovers examine the nature of story. “Who knows if it’s any good," Ezra says of his manuscript at one point. "It’s a funny business, this. Making things up. Describing things." Alice’s roles as both a literary gatekeeper and a much younger companion are an important, related dichotomy. Art is omnipresent; music and baseball, too, become the rhythm that runs beneath the melody of the couple's interaction. Alice wants to write about herself, but she “doesn’t seem important enough.” The lovers’ age difference adds gravity to their relationship and the stories they each tell. The second part of the book, Madness, initially appears to be wholly unrelated to the first: Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, is detained at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan in 2008. Halliday hints at her strategy, though: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything,” says Amar as he’s detained, quoting Bellow. Amar’s story is darker, filled with grief, and alternates between flashbacks and the present day. Though nothing is obvious about the connection of Amar’s story to Alice’s, the author gently highlights notes from the first story, and the juxtaposition of the two tales is further complicated—and illuminated—by the addition of a third and final section that brings them together.
A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.
A man looks back on 1989, the year he was 15, when he was living in a foster home and a girl who was also living there died in front of him.
That’s no spoiler: Sequoyah tells us about Rosemary’s death within three sentences of the start of his tale. “I have been unhappy for many years now,” he begins, then tells the story of how his mother went to jail on a drug charge and, after a stint at a shelter, he wound up living with the Troutts, Harold and Agnes, and their two other foster kids, the eccentric George, 13, who was prone to sleepwalking, and 17-year-old Rosemary, who shared Sequoyah’s Native American heritage and liked to talk about death. They lived in rural Oklahoma, and the quiet suited them all; the Troutts were kind people, and everyone in the house liked to be by themselves a lot, with Agnes going for drives, Harold napping in the basement where he surprisingly ran an illegal bookie shop, George lying on his bed meditating, and Rosemary heading to the woods with a drawing pad. Sequoyah used to get in trouble at the shelter for slipping out at night to take walks, so he fit right into this house full of secrets and relative freedom. Hobson (Desolation of Avenues Untold, 2015, etc.) writes in a spare, even tone, and no matter what Sequoyah says—even when it’s about feeling dead inside, or about wanting to hurt someone—the reader is with him, empathizing. As in a Shirley Jackson story, everything seems perfectly ordinary until it doesn’t. “Why did the entire town seem to have the same strange habits?” Sequoyah wonders. Hobson is in total control of his material, letting Sequoyah relax into the welcoming Troutt family home while glimpsing the menace behind the curtain. Or is the menace just inside him?
A masterly tale of life and death, hopes and fears, secrets and lies.
It’s 2011, if not quite the 2011 you remember. Candace Chen is a millennial living in Manhattan. She doesn’t love her job as a production assistant—she helps publishers make specialty Bibles—but it’s a steady paycheck. Her boyfriend wants to leave the city and his own mindless job. She doesn’t go with him, so she’s in the city when Shen Fever strikes. Victims don’t die immediately. Instead, they slide into a mechanical existence in which they repeat the same mundane actions over and over. These zombies aren’t out hunting humans; instead, they perform a single habit from life until their bodies fall apart. Retail workers fold and refold T-shirts. Women set the table for dinner over and over again. A handful of people seem to be immune, though, and Candace joins a group of survivors. The connection between existence before the End and during the time that comes after is not hard to see. The fevered aren’t all that different from the factory workers who produce Bibles for Candace’s company. Indeed, one of the projects she works on almost falls apart because it proves hard to source cheap semiprecious stones; Candace is only able to complete the contract because she finds a Chinese company that doesn’t mind too much if its workers die from lung disease. This is a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment. This is Ma’s first novel, but her fiction has appeared in distinguished journals, and she won a prize for a chapter of this book. She knows her craft, and it shows. Candace is great, a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength. She’s sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels between her life before the End and the pathology of Shen Fever. Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience.
Another ambitious change of pace for the versatile and accomplished Makkai (The Hundred-Year House, 2014, etc.), whose characters wrangle with the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic at its height and in its aftermath.
In the first of two intertwined storylines, Yale and his live-in lover, Charlie, attend an unofficial wake for a dead friend, Nico, held simultaneously with his funeral service because his Cuban-American family has made it clear they don’t want any gay people there. It’s 1985, and Makkai stingingly re-creates the atmosphere of fear, prejudice, and sanctimonious finger-pointing surrounding the mortally afflicted gay community, even in a big city like Chicago. Nico’s younger sister, Fiona, has rejected their family and attached herself to his friends, with emotional consequences that become apparent in the second storyline, set 30 years later in Paris. As is often the case with paired stories, one of them initially seems more compelling, in this case Makkai’s vivid chronicle of Yale’s close-knit circle, of his fraught relationship with the obsessively jealous Charlie, and his pursuit of a potentially career-making donation for the university art gallery where he works in development. Fiona’s opaque feelings of guilt and regret as she searches for her estranged daughter, Claire, aren’t as engaging at first, but the 2015 narrative slowly unfolds to connect with the ordeals of Yale and his friends until we see that Fiona too is a traumatized survivor of the epidemic, bereft of her brother and so many other people she loved, to her lasting damage. As Makkai acknowledges in an author’s note, when a heterosexual woman writes a novel about AIDS, some may feel she has crossed “the line between allyship and appropriation.” On the contrary, her rich portraits of an array of big personalities and her affecting depiction of random, horrific death faced with varying degrees of gallantry make this tender, keening novel an impressive act of imaginative empathy.
As compulsively readable as it is thoughtful and moving: an unbeatable fictional combination.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.
In her first book for adults, Williams imagines a not-too-distant future in which people find happiness with the help of machines.
It's 2035, and for the last nine years Pearl has worked as a technician for the Apricity Corporation, a San Francisco company that's devised a machine that, using skin cells collected from the inside of a subject’s cheek, provides “contentment plans” for those seeking happiness. (The firm’s name means the feeling of warmth on one’s skin from the sun.) The machine’s prescriptions veer sharply from the benign to the bewildering, telling one of Pearl’s clients to “eat tangerines on a regular basis,” “work at a desk that receive[s] more morning light,” and “amputate the uppermost section of his right index finger.” “The recommendations can seem strange at first…but we must keep in mind the Apricity machine uses a sophisticated metric, taking into account factors of which we’re not consciously aware,” Pearl reassures the client contemplating going under the knife, in a speech she has memorized from the company manual. “The proof is borne out in the numbers. The Apricity system boasts a nearly one hundred percent approval rating. Ninety-nine point nine seven percent.” Never mind the .03 percent the company considers “aberrations.” Pearl herself appears to be a generally happy person despite the current circumstances of her life. Her husband, Elliot, an artist, has left her for a younger, pink-haired woman, Val, who has her own secrets—yet Elliot persists in flirting with Pearl. Her teenage son, Rhett, has stopped eating, perversely finding contentment in dissatisfaction and self-denial. Pearl’s own contentment plan, which includes painstakingly building elaborate creatures from 3-D modeling kits, keeps her on a steady keel even as she yearns to rescue her son from his unhappy state. Following the trajectory of today’s preoccupation with self-help and our perhaps not-entirely-justified faith that technology can fix everything, Williams explores the way machines and screens can both disconnect us, launching us into loneliness, and connect us, bringing us closer to one another. In this imaginative, engaging, emotionally resonant story, she reveals how the devices we depend on can both deprive us of our humanity and deliver us back to it.
With its clever, compelling vision of the future, deeply human characters, and delightfully unpredictable story, this novel is itself a recipe for contentment.
A decade in the life of a smart, earnest young woman trying to make her way in the world.
On Greer Kadetsky’s first weekend at Ryland College—a mediocre school she’s attending because her parents were too feckless to fill out Yale’s financial aid form—she gets groped at a frat party. This isn’t the life she was meant to lead: “You [need] to find a way to make your world dynamic,” she thinks. Then Greer meets Faith Frank, a second-wave feminist icon who’s come to speak at Ryland. During the question-and-answer period, Greer stands up to recount her assault and the college’s lackluster response, and, later, Faith gives her a business card. Like a magical amulet in a fairy tale, that card leads Greer to a whole new life: After graduation, she gets a job working for Faith’s foundation, Loci, which sponsors conferences about women’s issues. That might not be the most cutting-edge approach to feminism, Greer knows, but it will help her enter the conversation. Wolitzer (Belzhar, 2014, etc.) likes to entice readers with strings of appealing adjectives and juicy details: Faith is both “rich, sophisticated, knowledgeable” and “intense and serious and witty,” and she always wears a pair of sexy suede boots. It’s easy to fall in love with her, and with Greer, and with Greer’s boyfriend, Cory, and her best friend, Zee: They’re all deep, interesting characters who want to find ways to support themselves while doing good in the world and having meaningful, pleasurable lives. They have conversations about issues like “abortion rights, and the composition of the Senate, and about human trafficking”; they wrestle with the future of feminism, with racism and classism. None of them is perfect. “Likability has become an issue for women lately,” Greer tells an English professor while she’s still at Ryland, and Wolitzer has taken up the challenge. Her characters don’t always do the right thing, and though she has compassion for all of them, she’s ruthless about revealing their compromises and treacheries. This symphonic book feels both completely up-to-the-minute and also like a nod to 1970s feminist classics such as The Women’s Room, with a can't-put-it-down plot that illuminates both its characters and larger social issues.