Young drug dealers cope with love, loss and voracious smack habits in this scintillating saga of Chicago’s lowlife demimonde.
Michael Lira is a decent kid from a working-class Italian-American family, just trying to make enough money from petty crime to satisfy his heroin jones. He has an urban village backing him up, including his roommate, Sal, a fellow junkie who’s obsessed with film noir and constantly hatching ill-advised capers; their boyhood friend, Dante, a former high school football star who’s into old-school self-destruction with booze; and Dante’s girlfriend (and Michael’s secret lover), Lila, a struggling artist who does sex shows on the side. They party, abuse substances and ponder their feckless lives in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, a hipster enclave that the author depicts with wonderfully atmospheric precision. (Michael and Sal’s tribal animus against yuppie gentrifiers knows no bounds.) After a B&E goes hilariously wrong, Michael decides to shape up; he industriously builds his drug-dealing business, swears off personal use of everything except marijuana and cocaine, and invests money with one of his customers, a financial adviser whose amoral hustling puts Michael’s to shame. His life soars into easy money, hot sex and ravishing highs—with the ever-present threat of arrest, overdose or a relapse that spells helpless dissolution. Writing with a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a keen eye for social nuance in every setting from housing projects to chic galleries, Mendius makes this classic junkie opera feel fresh and believable. His portrait of the drug industry is fascinating in its matter-of-fact detail—Michael’s supplier is an upstanding ghetto family business—as is his rendering of the psychology of addiction as it swells from seductive whisper to unappeasable tyranny. In the background is a vivid sketch of the Clinton-era dot-com boom; everyone is on the make, drenched in delusions they know aren’t real yet can’t shake off. Mendius’ prose is colorful and evocative but suffused with irony, hangdog humor and muted pathos; he makes a lurid subculture both raucously entertaining and profoundly real.
A superb tale of the druggie lifestyle, by a writer with talent to burn.
Author and artist Dunn turns an everyday object—a yellow umbrella—into a touching tale about the joy of giving selflessly and how small acts of compassion can transcend cultural boundaries.
Illustrated with charming simplicity, this unusual “city fable” begins with Dunn’s early memories of the real people who inspired his flowering curiosity. One of them was Lina, a little girl who wrote stories and treasured beautiful things and, as the fable begins, is the first owner of the Yellow Umbrella. He—the Yellow Umbrella—had “forgotten the rain because he had been asleep so long,” until one day he expands “into a great, flower-like circle” to protect Lina with his outstretched “arms.” Curious about the world and his purpose in it, the Yellow Umbrella talks with other worldly umbrellas stored in the hall in a Chinese Vase, who “dreams all day of the past, when she lived far away in a big house hung with silks.” After the wise Hall Mirror accurately predicts that a journey of discovery awaits the Yellow Umbrella, he’s then lost on a bus and found by Mr. Klein, a lonely watchmaker. One rainy day in the park, Mr. Klein kindly gives the umbrella to “the Lady with the Rose Hat.” And the Yellow Umbrella’s adventures continue: “a Lady from Persia" adopts the umbrella; then he finds his way to a sick young boy, who reads and sleeps under the Yellow Umbrella’s comforting canopy. The frail boy dreams that the umbrella shaded him “as he rode on his golden elephant like a Boy-King from long ago.” Throughout this gentle fairy tale, the author gives young readers a compassionate glimpse into each of the lives touched by the humble yellow traveler. When a gust of wind carries the Yellow Umbrella up into the starry night sky, he sees the city for its vastness—but also for the men, women and children whose lives he helped make better. Among the shooting stars shines the Yellow Umbrella’s remarkably rare message—aspire to kindness in the service of others.
The bighearted Yellow Umbrella discovers unexpected poignancy at a depth deeper than that of most children’s books.
Bannon's cutting-edge science-fiction and psychological thriller revolves around a terminally ill biosoftware scientist's attempt to upload his mind into the consciousness of an unborn baby to once again be with the woman he loves.
Powered by relentless pacing and jaw-dropping plot twists throughout, Bannon's debut novel is a science-fiction thriller of the highest order—but it's ultimately a heart-rending romance and a profoundly moving exploration into the frailty and preciousness of human existence. After pioneering neuroscientist Edward Frame realizes that he only has a short time to live, he and his assistant, Samantha—a woman that he has recently realized he is madly in love with—come up with a shocking plan: to impregnate Samantha and upload Frame’s essence into her child. But something goes horribly wrong: Frame is born again as Adam into a waking nightmare. His mother is his wife, Clara, his siblings are his two children, and his new father is a ruthless company rival who has not only taken over Frame’s business, but his family as well. Thus begins a downward spiral of an existence for Adam that eventually includes foster homes, illicit sexual encounters, hard-core drug addiction, gambling, murder and, ultimately, salvation. Adam Frame, the baby born with the fully cognizant mind of Edward Frame inside of him, is a simply riveting, unforgettable character—a complex, deeply conflicted person who, as he develops into a young man, becomes “two souls in one body and still only half a man.” Bannon doesn’t pull any punches with this narrative; the character development is intense, and the sex and violence is brutal at times, but the result is an utterly readable novel that’s almost impossible to put down.
Hopelessness dims this poignant tale of a young woman’s tumultuous, modern American life.
Vera Violet, as she’s called by her boyfriend, Jimmy James Blood, lives a life of misery. In this depressing narrative darkened by doom, she knows only poverty, drugs, murder and incest. The sense of despair weighs heavily; perhaps too heavily for some readers. But those who persevere will be rewarded with an eloquent description of today’s desensitized, emotionally detached youth. Drugs and absent parents are mostly to blame, according to Anne, although unexplored causes, like technology and culture on a larger scale, could also play a part. Frequent drug use mirrors James Fogle’s sobering autobiography, Drugstore Cowboy, a term Anne frequently references in her debut. From the gloom of Washington state, where the timber industry rules, to the rotting bowels of St. Louis, Vera sees despondency in the clouds and pain in the stars while she sinks into the helpless feeling that her future holds nothing more than agony. Nonetheless, she lives on to take solace in the small things: her oxblood boots, which serve as her special connection to Jimmy James, the love of her life; and cherished memories of Colin, her troubled brother. Anne’s powerful storytelling startles readers with its unapologetic bleakness. Her crafting, although gray and humorless, candidly frames the drifting characters in a snapshot of life outside the confines of comfort.
An intense, lyrical portrait of America's vulnerable underbelly.
Trace the curved line between love and obsession in this steamy novel.
Sor Avraham is content with his structured life: He and his wife Jasmine have settled into a comfortable partnership in their house by the ocean in Florida. Sor finds fulfillment as an English professor at a local university, a job that allows him to focus some of his repressed passion. He’s a model teacher, colleague and husband until a chance encounter with the mysterious and sensual Marguerite, a free-spirited artist and professor whose bohemian spirit has been temporarily tamed by marriage and two young boys. Marguerite and Sor quickly fall into a whirlwind affair, as Sor, who once exhibited precise control over his thoughts and emotions, is swept away on the tide of desire. The intense sexual encounters and lust-soaked emails fly between the two, disorienting Sor until he feels he has “lost his equilibrium.…He was no longer Sor Avraham.” His marriage and job fall apart as his fixation with Marguerite consumes him—he becomes infatuated with the smell of jasmine, Marguerite’s signature perfume. Then, as Marguerite slowly begins to draw away from Sor, eventually ending the affair, he recognizes himself as a man who has lost nearly everything. Aarons artfully portrays the demise of his lead character’s control in the stable world he once inhabited. Vivid characters enliven a compelling story that reveals Sor’s innermost thoughts and personal letters. The style and pacing of the narrative realistically parallel the timeline of Sor’s affair, while rising to meet his transformation from a controlled, settled husband into an adulterous obsessive. Eventually, the intense love scenes dim as the narrative resettles for Sor to consider the contentment he abandoned.
A well-crafted tale of passion, loss and the dangers of obsession.
Stunning panoramic views of Petra, one of the world’s archaeological treasures, adorn this beautifully designed coffee table book.
If your travel plans to the kingdom of Jordan fall through, the next best thing to visiting Petra—the famed desert city carved into sheer rock—is this gorgeous collection of panoramic photographs. You might remember the city from the final ride-into-the-sunset scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but these photos capture the city better than Spielberg. Petra sits in the cradle of civilization, so it’s seen thousands of years’ worth of settlers—Greek, Roman and Byzantine cultures, with notable influence by neighboring Egyptian, Arabic and Eastern civilizations. The area’s impressive array of clashing cultures notoriously relates to its reputation as an unstable region. The city was abandoned after a series of devastating earthquakes between A.D. 363 and A.D. 551, and being located in a deep and narrow desert canyon, it wasn’t “discovered” by Europeans until 1812. Now, photographer Alghussain captures the sprawling richness of the ancient city with a professional eye and gear—Fuji Panorama (6x17) professional camera with 90- and 180mm lenses and Fujichrome Velvia film. Having obtained special permission from authorities to enter the site at sunrise and sunset, Alghussain exploits a magical balance of light and shadow to portray the unique architecture of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The book’s perfunctory introduction includes minimal use of maps and cursory historical lessons to introduce the reader to the land, but that’s just preparation for the real treat—24-inch-wide, double-page panoramas of Petra’s hallowed beauty. Captions and corresponding thumbnails are relegated to the final pages so as not to interrupt the breathtaking visuals. From choice of film to the professional firms hired for printing and image scanning, all production details are of the highest caliber. Alghussain goes even further by collaborating with book designer Kevin Opp to produce an edition that sets the standard of design in independent publishing.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in architecture, classical history or travel photography.
As a deadlocked election grips the fictional sultanate of Moq’tar, no issue is safe from Perlstein’s (God’s Others, 2010, etc.) wit as he lampoons politics in the Gulf.
Bobby Gatling, a retired U.S. soldier now employed by a private security firm, is on assignment in Moq’tar. While Bobby’s been training security forces, the aging sultan has allowed his favorite son, Yusuf, to run the country. Western-educated with an MBA from Berkeley, Yusuf has been hard at work, in the capitalist fashion, transforming Moq’tar into “Moq’tar, Inc.” And his sister, the alluring Zoraya, has been with him every step of the way. But everything gets complicated quickly when it turns out that the succession isn’t as certain as Yusuf (and America) thought. Between a drunken U.S. ambassador, a cultural affairs officer with a penchant for cinema, and Yusuf’s playboy-turned-traditionalist older brother, Bobby has his work cut out for him. Stuck in the middle, he’s forced to balance his duties, his loyalties and his conscience as he navigates the dangers of a Middle-Eastern election rife with double-dealing and assassination attempts. The setting works brilliantly for Perlstein to show how ridiculously volatile the region can be, as he takes well-aimed shots at capitalism gone too far, gulf politics, forced democracy and anti-Semitism (to name just a few). It’s satire at its finest—laughing until the sobering moment of realization that the events in Moq’tar aren’t as fictional as you’d hope. To his credit, Perlstein never crosses the line into offensiveness, despite the numerous hot topics and cultures in his sights. And although he tends to dump characterization on the reader, that’s hardly a bother since each one is compelling. Best of all, the novel isn’t written just for scholars of the region; the plot is packed full of car chases and plot twists that keep the tension high and the pace fast. Those looking for subtle humor will find plenty, but those interested in action and intrigue alone won’t be disappointed either.
Thornton’s debut collection of 44 true short stories lends a rare glimpse into coming-of-age in the rural American South.
Growing up on the Bend, a 30-family homestead on the North Carolina and Virginia border, Thornton spent most of his time lollygagging and making mischief. His stories are infused with such gleeful spirit that it’s easy to see why Thornton has developed a reputation among those that know him as the grandest of storytellers. Thornton shines as a narrator, whether he’s conspiring with friends to trick do-gooder passersby into picking up a “lost” pocketbook only to find a garden snake—or worse, a “turd”—hidden inside (“The Disappearing Pocketbooks”) or hiding his teacher’s yardstick after getting whacked one too many times for misbehaving (“Claustrophobia”). Beyond all the rabble-rousing, some of the best stories delve into the hardships of “getting by” in a poor, isolated community. He learns how to “make do” by reusing household objects (“Waste Not”), maintain a bountiful garden (“Putting Food on the Table”) and whip up tasty feasts in the kitchen from what most would consider inedible sources: chicken feet, squirrel brains and hog guts (“Strange Edibles”). The characters, too, are drawn with painstaking detail and affection. Shotgun Essie, Thornton’s grandmother, is a pistol and a half, and her adages speak volumes about her quirky personality. While Thornton’s writing style isn’t particularly polished, tidy sentences and careful paragraph construction are almost beside the point in these stories. Instead, readers will relish following Thornton as he leapfrogs from one tangential thought to the next, sharing gossip and porchside ramblings about those dear to his heart and the experiences that shaped him. Adding further atmosphere and depth to an already rich project are Harrison’s delicate, thoroughly expressive black-and-white sketches, as well as two maps of the Bend immediately following the foreword. Ultimately, the only activity more rewarding than reading these stories would be to hear Thornton tell them aloud, possibly while sitting around a campfire.
Sutherland’s (Windsong, 2008) contemporary novel takes readers to the small, fictional Australian town of Trundle, offering a peek at the lives of its residents over the course of a year.
Grown sisters Ronnie and Marie have returned to their family home in Trundle, each of them recovering from a personal heartbreak. They’re not sure what to make of their troublesome neighbors, the Lals, who have built a large, modern house next door. The sisters and the Lals are at the core of the story, but Sutherland expertly weaves the lives of various residents into a rich tapestry. Trundle possesses many elements found in any small town: mom-and-pop shops, a struggling economy and a colorful cast of characters. What sets it apart from other towns is a place called Pelican, a commune founded in the 1980s on the outskirts of town. Marie, a former resident who left Pelican under a cloud of disgrace, returns to find she is welcome in the community; burned out from work, Ronnie finds herself restored by her stay there. Meanwhile, the grieving Mr. Lal sees Pelican as the perfect spot to build his own version of the Taj Mahal in tribute to his deceased wife, and his son, Vijay, struggles to find himself and the meaning of life. The story shifts perspective, often jumping among the central protagonists and various Trundle figures, giving readers an intimate view of the town. But well-defined, realistically drawn characters enable readers to easily follow these shifts in perspective. In spite of occasional scandals and disturbing events, Sutherland’s novel is, at heart, a quiet story of ordinary people dealing with everyday problems. Her graceful descriptions—“Through the open window flowed a deep and restful stillness punctuated by the chime of birds and the tolling of frogs”—bring to life both the landscape and the people who inhabit it.
A great city is a tiny organism writ large, according to Vitale’s debut multimedia e-book.
Vitale is taken with the idea that the form and function of a metropolis look uncannily similar, from a distance, to those of biological entities. He elaborates the analogy in a series of remarkable photos and embedded video sequences that compare aerial and satellite views of cities with studies of microscopic life-forms. The juxtapositions are striking: a Slovakian town sprawling over the landscape is pictorially paired with an amoeba; twisty, suburban cul-de-sacs are set against a cellular endoplasmic reticulum; the flow of street traffic becomes a “corpuscular circulation system” for the automobiles (blood cells) coursing through it; a video montage of satellite pictures shows Las Vegas swelling through the decades like a burgeoning culture in a desert petri dish. The text also insists that the notion of a city as an organism is literal truth rather than metaphor. Humans, Vitale contends, should give up their anthropocentric belief that they are creators of the urban realm. Instead, humans should adopt the objective viewpoint of a “Scientific Observer” looking down from on high, for whom people would appear as just one of many “unremarkable organelle[s]” servicing the urban superorganism. Visually, Vitale’s CD-ROM e-book is a triumph chock-full of stunning images, on scales both intimate and grand: pretty suburban streetscapes; the awesome high-rise fortress of Kowloon, China’s Walled City; and the wispy Norwegian town of Baerum Akershus, “lacy and fragile, cling[ing] to the earth like a delicate slime net.” Raptly evocative prose crackling with ideas makes a stimulating accompaniment to the visual content. Philosophically, his treatise can be a bit muddled and overstated: Readers know for a scientific certainty that cities are intentionally planned and built by humans; cities aren’t autonomous life-forms that have simply “germinated,” as Vitale would have it. Still, his conceit is a fruitful, fascinating one that yields rich insights into the urban ecology.
A superb pictorial and video meditation on the life of cities.
A novel about one man’s struggle with alcoholism and anxiety after hitting rock bottom.
The title refers to something of a mantra, a phrase that former architect Will Valentine repeats to himself because the idea of his very last drink—the one that will probably kill him—is too disheartening to bear. The story follows Will through individual therapy and group sessions as he attempts to rebuild his life and control his alcoholism, which seems to have been both the cause and the result of his deep-seated anxiety. It takes courage to write a book with an unlikable main character and even more to write one with a plot that’s less of an adventure than an internal journey. But Mathieu has a grasp on both the despair and the attendant ennui that accompany the fight for sobriety, and she’s able to effectively express the struggle. Depression is, of course, a complicated subject to write about because of the difficulty in conveying those attendant emotions to someone who is not or has not been in the throes of the disease. Yet Will’s internal debate about visiting his old bar and his belief that he could have just a little bit of wine are heartrending, and his relapse is especially poignant, perhaps because it’s such a believable story. There are a few structural problems, though, particularly with the imprecise amount of time that passes between events. Also, Will’s lack of compassion for his fellow addicts and his impatience with the process of recovery make him somewhat unsympathetic, even as the reader hopes for his sober success.
A powerful story that approaches a happy ending—or at least a hopeful one.
Influence peddling—the telepathic kind—fuels the big city in this hard-boiled but soulful fantasy thriller.
After years spent conveying the thoughts of small-town coma patients to their relatives, 20-something psychic Calder heads for Manhattan, where he’s snapped up by a man named Sotto and his crew of psychics-for-hire. Like everything else in New York, ESP is a racket: By telepathically sussing out potential blackmail fodder or implanting irresistible commands in a target’s mind, Sotto’s contractors will, for a reasonable fee, convince a client’s troublesome tenant to move, a boss to confer a promotion or a business competitor to close up shop. Unfortunately, Calder’s first assignment—swaying a city councilman’s vote on a real estate development—bogs down when the pol proves to be a rare “stone”—someone impervious to psychic manipulation. Mentored by a psychic amateur boxer who doesn’t mind dishing out the occasional old-school beating-as-persuasion, Calder resorts to ever more frantic mental string-pulling as he fends off a rival crew trying to lobby the council in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, he drinks in an atmospheric demimonde—New York City is in many ways the novel’s beguiling antagonist—that includes a stripper with a heart of gold, a priest with a taste for demented violence and thuggish psychic twins who try to run him out of town with an excruciating headache. Connell (Counterfeit Kings, 2004) pulls the psychic scenario out of the usual mystical dungeon and gives it a bracing, noir-edged urban naturalism. For all their supernatural powers, his characters are prosaic working stiffs: hardened, on the make and embroiled in murderous criminal turf battles, yet reigned in—sometimes—by a modicum of professional ethics or Catholic guilt. Despite their direct links to other minds, they reveal themselves mainly in long, discursive conversations that meander through offbeat observations, half-remembered anecdotes and curlicued philosophical ruminations, all phrased in a fluid, punchy, endlessly entertaining vernacular. The engrossing result feels like an ESP-themed mashup of The Sopranos and The Wire as scripted by Quentin Tarantino.
A stylish reimagining of the psychic mystery genre.
An American swami recounts the days he spent wandering through India in the 1960s in search of his true identity.
Swami grew up near Chicago during the ’50s as Richie Slavin, a middle-class Jewish kid. In his teens, he discovers the ’60s counterculture, takes part in civil rights demonstrations, grows his hair long, smokes pot and takes LSD. His best friend, Gary, invites him to Europe for three months during summer vacation after attending his first year at Miami Dade College. The author leaps at the chance; it’s the power of destiny calling. Swami tells the absorbing tale of his travels through Europe and his many adventures and wanderings through India. The intriguing coming-of-age story follows Swami on his spiritual search as he encounters saints, gurus and holy people. He meets Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama and stays with the fearsome Naga Babas, who, the author says, float in midair. He becomes a sadhu, a mendicant beggar who goes from cave to temple to ashram in a ceaseless quest to find his true teacher. Most yogis he encounters want to be accepted as his master, but time after time he refuses, for he has a special fate. Swami is a simple, ingenuous narrator, and he tells a straightforward tale adorned by brief descriptive passages that convey the magic and mystery of India during the early ’70s. The author spices his narrative with intriguing stories that will not only amuse readers, but also convey his deeper yearnings and uncertainties: Is God personal or impersonal? What is the role of meditation, humility and service in spiritual life?
A straightforward, engaging spiritual quest and life adventure.
Mercadante, a librarian and animal lover, recounts the life lessons she and her family learned after she adopted a pit bull.
Rumer—named after novelist Rumer Godden—was a puppy “the size of a sausage.” She was an ordinary dog who nonetheless touched the lives of everyone who knew her. With her sideways glance and mascara eyes, she shattered the myths attached to this unfairly maligned, naturally loving dog breed. Whether carrying out her self-appointed task of corralling the horses, participating in daily visits to nearby family members, riding the No. 8 golf cart, playing hockey with her “uncle” or wearing crazy glasses for Halloween, Rumer demonstrated the keys to a life well lived: guilelessly give and receive and seize the moment. Mercadante follows Rumer from her carefree, funny puppy days through a rebellious adolescence, to her physical peak of adulthood and finally to her heartbreaking but courageous end. She evocatively brings to life not only the boundless, inspiring spirit of a dog who “smells like fresh-cut grass, baked pork, and a hint of unmentionables,” but also the beauty of the Southampton, Mass., landscape and the sacredness of a moment. Even more importantly, she sheds light on the importance of understanding the pit bull for its admirably loyal nature—not for its unfortunate stereotype forged by cruel, inhumane owners intent on turning these promising animals into violent attack dogs. Rumer, on the other hand, proved herself to be a joyous, loving and good-natured soul who wholeheartedly embraced life and eagerly became a grounded center for each family member. Also included here is a delightful centerfold featuring photos of Rumer and her family.
Against a backdrop of dystopian urban sprawl and human suffering, a morally questionable scientific corporation hunts for the gene responsible for the soul in O’Donnell’s debut novel, the first in a planned sci-fi trilogy.
As the novel begins, the chronology bounces forward and backward from the late 1980s—when scientist Jonathan Campbell flees from the “Exodus” project he has been working on after he discovers the horrifying human experiments authorized by his employer, Mr. Morrison—to a grim 2015. In the not-too-distant future, Morrison has nearly reached his goals, which involve genetic experimentation and test-tube humans, and Campbell has spent the past 30 years hiding among a secret order devoted to cultivating the soul, part of which involves rescuing Morrison’s human collateral damage. Meanwhile, the novel also tracks a troubled, drug-addicted young man, Dylan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s father was once a promising presidential candidate before committing suicide when Dylan was a boy—a thread that dovetails with the main arc in surprising, harrowing ways. O’Donnell captures the darkness in humanity and the world, particularly in such elegantly composed passages as this one: “Morrison imagined women and children packed into…overcrowded refugee camps…mistaking the deployment of a Predator missile for a shooting star, making a wish as a $40 million toy dealt death from impossible heights.” The overall effect is a taut, brilliantly conceived thriller with impeccable pacing bursting with ideas.
For fans of noir-laden science fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick that is in equal measures suspenseful, gripping, darkly funny and philosophically challenging.
Waldron’s account of life as a gay dad in Arizona.
The author’s engaging debut memoir opens with a protest rally against illegal immigrants in Phoenix. Seeing a young Hispanic boy on his father’s shoulders, Waldron reflects on his journey as a single, gay parent. When he fell in love with the charming smile of a 3-year-old boy, he had little understanding of the child’s intense anger simmering below the surface. After helplessly witnessing one memorable tantrum, Waldron sought a series of nannies to care for his child and teach him Spanish, as well as give himself some much-needed breathing room in his suddenly hectic life. Beginning with fun-loving Paulina, several Mexican women not only cared for his son (and later second child), but also showed Waldron how to appreciate the smaller, day-to-day triumphs of parenting. The women’s undocumented status and their ties to family in Mexico meant that their connections to his young family, while strong, were sometimes short-lived. While the women are idealized in their portrayals and treated like family (a far cry from The Help), the narrator is forthright about his own shortcomings and fears. Parents, especially single parents or those of adopted children, will relate to his worried comparisons to wealthier parents, his fears that his son might be taken away, his frantic juggling of work responsibilities and his musings about the lasting effects of his son’s difficult pre-adoption years. Early on, he confronts his own prejudices about the women he comes to depend upon who live in modest, sometimes sketchy, neighborhoods. He’s also quick to defend them from the unfounded accusations of his neighbors or his father’s concerns about strangers raising his grandchildren. A natural storyteller, Waldron offers a universal tale. He occasionally touches on issues specific to being a gay parent, including being advised to lie about his orientation or being offered harder-to-place children. More personal than political, this memoir’s conversational style, with its short chapters, lively bits of dialogue, candid observations and steady action, makes for enjoyable reading.
A timely, compelling story that challenges the traditional definition of family.
In Lee’s novel, set in Victorian London and based on real events, a group of rebellious young artists battles the repercussions of their refusal to conform.
It’s 1848, and William Holman Hunt has just been accepted to study at the prestigious London Academy of Art. However, he resents the overly prettified, sentimental landscapes that litter the annual Academy Exhibition. He wants to create art that imitates life—all the color, confusion and even ugliness. A few like-minded young men, most notably John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, share Hunt’s views, and together they form a group called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Like any revolutionary group, the PRB has plenty of naysayers, including the vehemently jealous traditionalist Frank Stone and his more famous compatriot Charles Dickens; Lee litters her novel with mentions of these and other notable artistic celebrities of the period, such as Keats, Tennyson and Wilkie Collins. Her novel—a quick read despite the hefty page count—features many detailed descriptions of the Brotherhood’s artwork, and it could have benefited from an illustrated appendix with paintings shown rather than merely described. Nonetheless, Lee has a talent for making the minutest artistic details sound interesting. She also has a historian’s accurate eye for the period, but she doesn’t allow those details to bog down the story and turn it into a dry, purely factual text. The artists of the Brotherhood are portrayed with distinct personalities, styles and beliefs, which, in the novel’s central dramatic vein, affects their struggle to remain united in the face of adversity. Anyone interested in the culture of Victorian London will find plenty to celebrate.
An illuminating look at an influential artistic period, which may well inspire readers to pick up their own pen or paintbrush.
A Jesuit priest and educator offers observations on the large and small, the divine and human, in this series of brief free verse poems.
As a Jesuit priest with a Ph.D. in literature, Rewak has all the qualifications to deliver a bookish, esoteric and sanctimonious debut. He could wax on about Milton or drop in an obscure metrical line about the glory and vengeance of God. Thank God he doesn’t. Instead, he delivers what one might imagine as a departure from his day job. His succinct poems (few surpass 200 words) are understated and sometimes even playful as they bound between observations on memory, fantasy and ultimate delivery. The author pays tribute to family members, friends and, repeatedly, the nebulous origins of inspiration and, in its absence, wordless boredom. His tips of the cap, however, are subtle: a math equation, cornfield or ticket stub. As he weaves farther in and out of projections and microcosms, the references tiptoe into weirder waters. Sir Gawain and a rhino drink martinis in separate poems. In another, an egret orders pasta. The animal motif all but fills the book’s last third with the often-anthropomorphized hosts: owls, raccoons, porcupines, llamas and bees. Whether man, beast or spirit, the center of Rewak’s poems carry gentle points on life, death and spirituality that ease their way into print. He has a charming tendency to take long pulls on ideas before punctuating them with terse and tasteful endpoints. It builds a reassuring rhythm rarely broken, though it can occasionally make the trip’s destination seem imprecise. Nevertheless, the collection’s meanderings rarely stall. The magical realism of Rewak’s voice helps to set his poems in the footholds of his disciplines: between the magic of spiritualism and the mirror that literature holds to odd, old reality.
Warm, wistful and occasionally weird; a subtle, carefully crafted book of poems.
Lush landscapes, enchanted happenings, tangled roots and violence suffuse this beguiling collection of stories set in the highlands of Guatemala.
Quince, the narrator of these interlocking stories, is a writer living in the village of Panimache, near three volcanoes and a deep blue lake. He serves as a keen observer of the vibrant, tense surroundings in a land that “bled from a war no one wanted to notice.” Panimache is a town divided by conflict, caste and consciousness. It’s teetering between bourgeois aspirations and Mayan peasant culture, seemingly placid but on edge from the fighting between government soldiers and guerillas and simmering with repressed bad memories. The title novella introduces a diverse, intriguing set of characters—shopkeepers and restaurateurs; Quince’s friend Uno, a nature photographer and reputed shaman; El Capitan Lobo, the urbane army commander who feels apologetic about the brutal counterinsurgency he’s waging (“[s]ometimes we massacre the Indians, other times it’s the guerillas”); and La China, a whore longing to be a muse. These and other figures recur in 10 more yarns that are often shot through with exquisite threads of magical realism: A youth is beguiled to his doom by a gorgeous vampire; a con man makes his living with a fortunetelling sparrow; a man’s frantic search for buried treasure yields an astounding payoff; an orphaned, ostracized Mayan girl hides herself in the shapes of birds and animals. Moulun’s clear prose balances sensual sounds, colors and foods against a deadpan humor and a detached, meditative mood. His writing has a fablelike quality, featuring strong narratives linked to mythic themes, but it’s also full of social nuance and subtle psychological shadings. Moulun transforms Guatemala’s troubled, complex reality into a rich, compelling aesthetic vision.
Imaginative storytelling with real literary depth.
The Guggenheim’s family story as a lesson in world history.
What once took considerable time and toil—finding out from whence you came—is now but a quick click away. The Internet has made amateur genealogists of us all. Meanwhile, unearthing the stories behind the branches in the family tree, well, that still requires an awful lot of heavy digging. Consider Griffiths’ (a Guggenheim descendent) work a testament, then, to her work ethic. To be fair, a lot of the heavy lifting had already been done. Margot Löhr’s discovery of the Guggenheim File itself and Jens Huckeriede’s documentary about what the Nazis did to the Guggenheim family were already known to the author. In fact, as Griffiths says, both parties had approached her about participating in their respective projects. Not wanting to dredge up the horrors of the Shoah, Griffiths (whose father had even anglicized their last name) declined the offers. Lucky for us, she’s since had a change of heart. The author’s meticulously researched, lovingly written account has deeply personalized all prior documents that bear her surname. Along with the Rothschilds, the Guggenheims were one of the most prominent Jewish families hit by Hitler. The original Die Akte Guggenheim goes into great detail about how the Nazis, in Griffiths’ translation, “confiscated my grandparents’ business, property, land, and how they tried to subjugate their lives.” And yet, as she points out in “An Abbreviated List of Eleven Generations of The Guggenheim Family,” the existence of Felix Mendelssohn, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and of course Solomon R. Guggenheim proves that fascism never could accomplish that final goal. Many books have been written on the post-World War II Jewish diaspora; here, Griffiths’ record reveals an audit of the atrocities within a greater narrative of triumph—and it is both uniquely intimate and overwhelmingly universal.
An inspirational, fascinating chronicle of a family’s will to survive.
Birch’s candid new memoir recalls her punishing adolescent boyhood and the difficult pursuit of self-realization.
Birch never felt right in her body. She remembers a detailed, harrowing dream of retreating into the forest to commit suicide. Readers are catapulted to Birch’s boyhood as Jacob Mathewson, a quiet, awkward boy born with ambiguous genitalia. Tormented by his peers at school and by his mother at home because of his “birth defect,” Jacob explores his “female side” by dressing in girls’ clothing. College was “the time when I first realized how much Jessie could help me. I would come home from school and lock myself in my room, dress as a girl, put [makeup] on, and magically my homework assignments became much easier to complete.” And so Jacob sets out as Jessica on a path to discover where the feminine tendencies lead. Over the course of her journey, Birch continually seeks approval from others. She has a bad habit of imprudent attempts at friendship. Most troublingly, she develops an obsession with her therapist, sending her anonymous, unwanted gifts and unnerving letters. This fixation and her inability or unwillingness to see its inappropriateness has a climactic, disturbing outcome. Captivated yet confounded by her own thought patterns—she constantly worries that she’s going insane—Birch goes on to describe her struggle later in life, as she comes of age and contends with her own sexual and emotional immaturity. She interchangeably uses the terms “intersex,” “transsexual” and “transgender,” which might irk some contemporary LGBT scholars and activists, but Birch’s sincerity and enthusiasm are undeniable. Framed as a plea for absolution from family, friends and God, this memoir reads as an extended explanation and apology for the hurtful, misguided decisions she’s made over the course of her transition. “If through my actions, I’ve hurt anyone intentionally or unintentionally,” she says, “may I be forgiven?”
An honest, heartfelt memoir about coming out and transitioning.
Everything—and everyone—seems to be for sale in these riotous biographical sketches of famous and infamous prostitutes.
Like his subjects, humorist and The Nervous Breakdown contributor Smith wants to offer a good time. In these nuggets of smarmy gossip, he rambles across the whole history of whoredom, from the Roman empress Messalina, who was said to have gone to work in a brothel for kicks, to latter-day strumpets Heidi Fleiss and Jeff Gannon, the online escort who moonlighted in the White House press corps. He toasts brainy 17th-century courtesans, like the Chinese poetess Liu Rushi and the French philosophe Ninon de L’Enclos, and modernist littérateur Jean Genet, who peddled himself to British sailors for sardines and bread. His favorite category of prostitute is the kind you’d never imagine, among whom he numbers Malcolm X, Hollywood he-men Steve McQueen and Clark Gable, and The Brady Bunch’s adorable Maureen McCormick. Smith wouldn’t be caught dead drawing sociological insights from any of this data; he’s strictly out to regale readers with lurid anecdotes, chortling color commentary—“Hell hath no fury like a whore cheated out of her opera tickets”—and miscellaneous zingers. For instance, Bob Dylan’s dubious claim to have sold his body in his salad days makes the author wonder why anyone would pay for sex with “a jaundiced gnu.” Despite his assertion of a nonjudgmental stance, Smith is furiously judgmental toward anyone who cops a moralistic attitude: Televangelist (and secret john) Jimmy Swaggart is “a loathsome pig too tainted even for the abattoir,” and Nancy Reagan is a “hypocritical charlatan.” There’s nothing too edifying between these covers—even the digressions on Diogenes and Hegel are lightweight—but Smith’s caustic wit and bawdy exuberance will keep readers amused.
An irreverent, honest look at life outside the mainstream Mormon Church.
Townsend’s (Mormon Bullies, 2012, etc.) timely book presents a number of touching vignettes focused on quirky characters struggling to reconcile their own beliefs with the rigid doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He focuses much of his attention on the struggle between homosexuality and acceptance within the faith, providing a number of stories focused on gay men who have fallen away from the church. These men have been excommunicated because of their lifestyle, yet they find themselves unable to completely cut ties and walk away from the belief system in which they’d spent years being indoctrinated. Other characters are also struggling with alternate life choices that have placed them outside the mainstream faith. One couple struggles with the decision to remain childless; a devout man questions his own relevance within the church after being overlooked for a higher calling; a depressing LDS singles cruise leads a desperate man to realize he may be too far outside the norm to truly fit into the Mormon community. Townsend touches on family, addiction, sex and love, concepts that should resonate with all readers. Throughout his musings on sin and forgiveness, Townsend beautifully demonstrates his characters’ internal, perhaps irreconcilable struggles. As appropriate for a compilation of stories that present real characters in gritty reality, nothing is black and white. Townsend condemns facets of the religion yet manages to present conflicted viewpoints with balance. Rather than anger and disdain, he offers an honest portrayal of people searching for meaning and community in their lives, regardless of their life choices or secrets.
A perfect read for the election season, though its appeal will endure.
Set in the modern-day Channel Islands and Dresden, Germany, Davy’s neonoir mystery follows a transgendered (female to male) man investigating the disappearance of a famous actress’ grandmother during World War II.
Arty Shaw, a genealogist working for a television show called Roots that uncovers the family histories of celebrities, is no stranger to delving through family trees and old records to piece together the truth in a person’s past. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when tasked with helping Helen Valentine, a luminary of the London stage, discover why her grandmother seemed to abandon her mother in the 1940s. For some reason, though, a few dangerous people don’t want him to reveal the truth to the world. Meanwhile, Helen becomes cagey when Arty repeatedly confronts her with questions about why it’s all of a sudden so important for her to learn whether her grandmother had run away or been sent to a concentration camp by Nazis. Davy, in his debut, spins an engrossing mystery that shines a light on a lesser-known aspect of World War II history. The straightforward story allows the reader to follow Arty’s process every step of the way—reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (2011)—which grants the story authenticity and humanity. Arty’s examination of Helen’s family history comes to parallel his coping with his own past while dovetailing elegantly with the novel’s Holocaust themes of persecution. Davy’s personal experience with gender reassignment comes through in the dignity and grace with which he matter-of-factly depicts his protagonist’s own experiences of gender reassignment. It’s rare to find a novel that blends genres so well, with such a fully fleshed-out, distinctive protagonist at the center.
An extremely satisfying read, as thrilling as it is humane.
Cronyism and corruption stifle the cable TV industry in this hard-hitting memoir.
In the late ’70s, when the city of Los Angeles put up for bid the franchise to build a cable TV system for South-Central LA, the author and his brother partnered with an experienced cable company, lined up financing and assembled what they thought would be a winning proposal. Unfortunately, a good business plan turned out to be next to worthless in the tar pit of LA municipal politics. After a series of bullying meetings spiked with bribe offers, an aide to a powerful city councilman and an influence peddler connected to the mayor’s office demanded that they and their associates be given majority control of the prospective franchise. The Galloways, two local African-American businessmen, refused—and found themselves subject to an arbitrary, unfair evaluation process by city agencies that effectively pulled the brothers out of the running. (The franchise was finally awarded to a real estate company that had also, the author contends, tried to muscle in on the Galloways’ project.) Galloway follows the cable-franchise battle as it evolves into a lawsuit that revolved around significant issues of free speech rights and antitrust law, eventually leading to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Part true-life noir replete with threatening power brokers and sleazy backroom deal-making, part populist courtroom drama with pointed allegations of judicial bias, Galloway’s memoir is an absorbing insider’s take on the sort of cable TV franchise controversy that has erupted in many cities. His analysis of knotty business and bureaucratic and legal wrangling is both detailed and lucid, and he ties it to a larger critique of black leaders—including ugly portraits of former LA mayor Tom Bradley, celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochrane and congresswoman Maxine Waters—whom he feels have betrayed their inner-city constituents. Galloway’s account is palpably bitter and one-sided, but it shines a powerful light on high-level malfeasance.