Sneed’s debut novel, which follows a short story collection (Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry, 2010), goes beyond the tabloid headlines and chronicles the lives of those who orbit a famous actor.
Celebrity has its perks as well as its drawbacks, and revered movie icon Renn Ivins’ life is no exception. Adored by fans throughout the world, those closest to him also are affected by his aura and not necessarily in a positive way. His earnings provide financial security for his children, ex-wives, family members and girlfriends, but Ivins’ fame is a double-edged sword. Both of Ivins’ adult children become involved with lovers who secretly thrill at the chance to be connected to his inner circle. Will, his son, coasts through life engulfed in a sea of contradicting emotions. He loves Ivins and inwardly strives to please him, but he also resents his father’s interference and feels as if he will never measure up to his expectations, so he compensates in other not-so-healthy ways. At the same time, although he despises himself for it, he uses his father’s name to impress others. Anna, Will’s sister, is a brilliant but naïve medical student who rationalizes her questionable choices and has more in common with her father than she realizes. Time has more or less softened Ivins’ first wife’s attitude toward him. A successful pediatrician who has lived a solitary life since their divorce 15 years earlier, she still watches all of his movies. And then there’s Ivins himself. Fodder for a bitter second wife’s book and a boon for his much younger girlfriend’s career, this author of two journals—one for posterity, the other more personal and destroyed each year—knows the allure of his public persona. It’s what he cultivates when he donates to charities and signs autographs. And it’s much easier on the ego to believe his own press.
Sneed effectively blurs the line between fact and fiction and brings each character to life.
A 13-year-old girl finds that keeping secrets can have mortal consequences in this scarifying follow-up to Apologize! Apologize! (2009).
Kelly’s new novel is just as scathingly witty as her best-selling debut but better plotted and even more emotionally harrowing, as narrator Riddle Camperdown looks back two decades to the disastrous summer of 1972. Her affluent family lives in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Her father, Camp, a left-wing Democrat, is running for Congress. Her glamorous mother, retired film star Greer Foley, is far too self-absorbed to care much about the campaign and spends most of her time indulging in lethal witticisms indicating how tiresome she finds her husband and daughter—indeed, pretty much everything except her fascinating self. It’s in the barn of Greer’s chattering, equally narcissistic stooge, Gin, that Riddle overhears a mysterious scuffle and emerges from a stall to be menaced by sinister stable manager Gula, though he lets her flee to turn his attention to someone moaning in the tack room. The terrified girl doesn’t tell her parents, and when they hear about the disappearance of Charlie Devlin, younger son of Greer’s old flame Michael, it becomes even more impossible for Riddle to speak up, especially since Gula turns up periodically to hint at unspeakable consequences if she does. There’s bad blood between Camp and Michael, dating back to their service in World War II as well as their rivalry over Greer, who still seems oddly intimate with the man who left her at the altar. A series of revelations about Michael Devlin's eldest son Harry's true nature and Greer’s wounding breach of faith with her husband are doled out piecemeal, so the reader’s growing comprehension mirrors Riddle’s reluctant maturing. Kelly skillfully builds almost unbearable tension, slipping in plenty of dark laughs en route to a wrenching climax that leaves in its wake some painfully unresolved questions—just like life.
More fine work from a writer with a rare gift for blending wit and rue.
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this tale of slavery, identity and the wages of sin is based in part on Brink's (A Fork in the Road, 2009, etc.) family history.
An impossible love story, it is not impossible in the traditional sense of love between mismatched partners, but because it shows how no love is possible between persons fundamentally unequal. Philida’s voice is the first voice we hear, and hers is a voice to attend to: idiomatic, lyrical, querulous, searching. Philida is on her way to lodge a complaint against Frans. He made promises, among others, to seek her manumission. She bore his children. But it appears he deceived her, when in fact he deceived himself. Francois “Frans” Brink, the feckless son of the hardheaded patriarch of Zandvliet, is not worthy of the slave Philida. How Frans responds to this complaint changes Philida’s mind and heart, but the larger socioeconomic conditions have the more lasting effect. The book begins in 1832; the slaves were “freed” in the colonies in 1834. Writing about his own family, Brink is silent, eloquently so, on its rampant hypocrisy, epitomized by Petronella, known as Ouma Nella. She is Philida’s protector but also the mother of Cornelis Brink, Frans’ father and Philida’s owner. The book traces the lacerating trajectory of the sins of parents, parents’ scars like open wounds on their children’s bodies. There is an astonishing frankness about the facts of life and a visionary lyricism in relation to these cruel facts. The “Acknowledgements” section details the genesis of the novel. In its way, it is as thrilling as the book itself.
A witty and soulful trio of novellas by master storyteller Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1989, etc.), who claims his place here as the laureate of the Southern cul-de-sac.
Falls, N.C.—the setting of Widow and a significant place in other moments of Gurganus-ian geography—is hicksville-turned–gated suburb, the milieu of sometimes-haunted, often dissatisfied souls with secrets to keep. Some of them, nestled among the dogwoods and carefully clipped yards, have seen more than they should. Some have found redemption of a kind, as with the protagonist of a story nested within a story in the opening piece, Fear Not, in which the gentle daughter of a local worthy learns of the son that she had to give up for adoption after having been raped by her godfather. She knew nothing about the child, “one taken without her even discovering its sex,” but now, years later, she knows something of life—and all that is packed within just the first “act,” as Gurganus calls it. Gurganus manages the neat hat trick of blending the stuff of everyday life with Faulkner-ian gothic and Chekhov-ian soul-searching, all told in assured language that resounds, throughout all three novellas, in artfully placed sententiae: “Some people’s futures look so smooth, only sadists would bother delivering even temporary setbacks.” “I soon learned: journalism and motherhood are two fields jet-fueled by frequent triage caffeine blasts.” This being the South, the Civil War figures in sometimes-odd ways, from a subject of fiction to a matter of quotidian life; in the second novella, indeed, it’s recapitulated in the struggle between exes on opposite coasts. Race figures, too, as Gurganus writes of the well-heeled duffers of Falls’ premier country club as having “secret kinsmen hidden one or two counties away,” a case in point, in a fine “A Rose for Emily” moment, being a “clay-colored” man who now stands among them. Whatever their subject, and told from widely different points of view—male and female, young and old—the novellas have a conversational tone and easy manner that are a testimony to the author’s craftsmanship.
A gem, like Gurganus’ previous collection of novellas, The Practical Heart (2002). Readers will eagerly await the next news out of Falls.
In her fourth novel, Grodstein (A Friend of the Family, 2009, etc.) writes of loss of love and belief.
Andy Waite’s a biology professor at Exton Reed, "eleven hundred students and forty-two acres of crumbling quad hidden at the ass end of New Jersey." Andy loves teaching a class entitled "There Is No God," a Darwinian homage. Andy’s mentor was a notorious Richard Dawkins–like professor, Hank Rosenblum. But Andy’s morose; his wife, Louisa, was killed by a drunken driver. He does have two precocious daughters, and tenure’s imminent, and there’s a possible National Science Foundation grant, one related to studies about alcohol and the brain. Louisa’s death explains his research, but nothing rational explains his agreement to mentor Melissa Potter’s independent study: an objectivist argument for intelligent design. Images of Louisa linger as Andy interacts with Sheila, divorced neighbor and recovering alcoholic. As his emotional relationship with Melissa skates toward intimacy, Andy is plagued by doubts—over his project’s validity after befriending Sheila; over his unbending opposition to parole for the young driver who killed Louisa; and over his rigidity as Melissa’s warmth and generosity make real the power of spiritual belief. Rather than offering the works of St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis as rationalizations for belief, Grodstein offers the homilies of a fictional local pastor; it's a bit of an easier road, but her narrative sparkles with irony and wry observation. A fundamentalist student, Andy’s vocal opponent, loses his faith. Rosenblum’s overbearing prodding of a brilliant student who rejects science for marriage to a pastor results in her suicide. As the possibility of the divine sparks emotions Andy cannot comprehend, he learns he’s caught up in another person’s experiment. A college professor, Grodstein is perfect with her description of campus tremors radiating after a colleague strays from conventional wisdom. While Melissa’s motivations and actions are sometimes contradictory and counterintuitive, Grodstein’s portrait of Andy is spot-on, as is that of the evangelical student, Sheila, Rosenblum and the minor characters.
A rumination on love and loss, faith in reason and faith in the divine.
One of Granta’s New Voices honorees, Okparanta debuts with ten pieces focusing on her native Nigeria.
The book opens with "On Ohaeto Street." A mysterious narrator tells of young Chinwe marrying Eze but finds he treasures possessions more than a wife. "Wahala!" follows: Ezinne seeks help from a dibia, a folk healer, for her inability to conceive, her pain invisible to her husband and misunderstood by her mother. The haunting "Fairness" speaks of color and class, with a young girl, her mother entranced by Glamour and Elle, feeling "something like envy in me." Most affecting is "Runs Girl." A college student, a religious girl, meets a Yahoo Boy, one of the "ones who rolled into town in sleek cars and with pockets full of cash." Many of Okparanta’s stories unfold amongst the Niger Delta’s guava and plantain trees, where big oil employs and pollutes, amid flat-screens and BMWs and NEPA power failures leaving candles to hold back the night. In "America," a Port Harcourt teacher discovers her sexuality and then decides to follow her love to America. Later stories plumb the Nigerian-American immigrant experience. A daughter narrates "Shelter," following along as her Nigerian mother meets rejection at a Boston domestic abuse shelter because of visa issues. In "Tumours and Butterflies," Uchenna, disowned by her abusive father as she leaves for university, reluctantly comes home to assist her mother.
Nigeria, the vibrancy of its heart, the soul of its people, is captured in these stories.
A grandson becomes obsessed with his grandmother’s story about a small-town disaster from many years ago.
Set in the Ozarks, the book is inspired by history and is far less noir-tinged than the author's earlier works (The Outlaw Album, 2011, etc.). Loosely based on the real-life West Plains Dance Hall Explosion of 1928, it centers on Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a maid with three children in fictional West Table, Mo. After years of bitter silence, Alma has chosen to unburden her story on her grandson, Alek. “Alma DeGeer Dunahew, with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge, was the big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one we keep secret and that sustains us,” Alek says. Alma’s younger sister Ruby may be a bit wayward, but Alma cherishes her. When Ruby is killed along with 42 other victims in the local Arbor Dance Hall, Alma is determined that the explosion was no accident. From these slim threads, Woodrell gives us many potential culprits, among them an Old Testament preacher and a gang of bank robbers, not to mention all the secrets and lies kept by the good people of any rural village. Short chapters reveal only the most telling and scarce details of Woodrell’s lineup of characters, lending the story a spare, bitter charm. This may be a minor work for this major American writer, but no craftsman toiling away in a workshop ever fashioned his wares so carefully.
A commanding fable about trespass and reconstruction from a titan of Southern fiction.
In this astonishing first novel, 7-year-old, physically disabled Jess reviews her brief, tumultuous life from heaven via films provided by The Assembler, a supreme being who, for mysterious reasons, declined to give her thumbs, several bones, a whole heart and the gift of hearing.
For all her defects, hers is a miraculous childhood. With the loving support of her Catholic family, and following several surgeries, she is able to become a vital, expressive, delightful girl. But for all the care she receives from her mother, Kate, and father, Ford—and all of the doting of Joe Cassidy, Ford's bighearted post office co-worker, who was driven to drink by the loss of his wife and young son in an accident—she is darkly shadowed by fate. The events leading to her death are told with an exquisite attention to detail, emotional and physical. The subsequent narrative, which turns on a wrongful death suit filed by her parents against a cardiologist who failed to spot the vascular anomaly that caused Jess to stop breathing, unfolds with the tension of good detective fiction. Callously investigated for parental neglect, Ford and his pregnant wife are forced to attend parenting sessions along with child abusers and drug addicts who ridicule and assault them. They sign on with a personal injury firm in pursuit of justice, only to have the profit-minded lawyers violate Jess' memory by building a case that portrays her as helpless and pathetic. The Assembler, who has a sardonic streak, keeps Jess in the dark about where these posthumous events are leading, but she isn't afraid to call his number. The low-key conclusion is a bit of a letdown after all that has gone before, but Virginia-based author Wientzen, a pediatrician, imparts so much about the preciousness of life and the power of forgiveness that this is a minor shortcoming.
Boasting a fearlessly self-possessed child narrator, this is one of those books you stop what you're doing to finish, take a breath to ponder its profundities, and start again.
A 23-year-old refugee from Liberia tries to escape the horrors of her past on the island of Santorini.
Jacqueline arrives in Santorini with a backpack, the clothes on her back and no money. We slowly learn the details of her life through a series of flashbacks to her home and affair with a French journalist as well as through imagined conversations with her mother, a religious woman who believes in equal measure in two contradictory ideas: that everything is “God’s will” and that “We pay for our sins, for the sins of others....Anyway, we can’t understand.” At first, Jacqueline finds a cave in which to spend her nights, and she supports herself by giving foot massages to the tourists on the beaches. This helps her make a subsistence living, though much of the time she’s still uncomfortably close to starvation. She develops a routine in her living, catching showers surreptitiously and then eventually sleeping in an abandoned hotel. She also befriends Katarina, a waitress at a local cafe, who provides her food and friendship, for both women are lonely and in need of companionship. Through memory and conversation, Jacqueline’s story finally comes out. While her mother had always looked for meaning through religious consolation, her father, Liberia’s finance minister and a believer in the government of Charles Taylor, was simultaneously more political and more cynical. Jacqueline also has strong memories of her pregnant younger sister, Saifa. At the end of the novel, Jacqueline feels comfortable enough with Katarina to open up about the terrifying circumstances that led to her leaving Liberia.
A moving, deeply felt and lyrical novel about past and present.
A provocative and bittersweet illumination of celebrity from the perspective of an 11-year-old pop sensation.
In his second novel (Kapitoil, 2010), Wayne once again sees American culture through the eyes of an exceptional outsider—in this case, a pre-pubescent pop star managed by his mother and exploited by everyone involved with his life and career. As the novel’s narrator, Jonny is a complex character who is both wise beyond his years (in the areas of marketing, merchandising and branding) and more naïve in relating to others his age and the world beyond show business. He seems most at home either onstage or in the video game that becomes a metaphor for his life. And if the novel has a weakness, it’s that Wayne seems a little too fond of the telegraphed punch of such symbolism, as when Jonny must write a paper for his tutor about slavery and discovers (surprise!) that much of what he has learned applies to him. Yet, Jonny is such an engaging, sympathetic character that his voice carries the novel, from what he does know (“that was the whole point of becoming a rock star for a lot of guys. I didn’t know that when I started out, but once you see seriously ugly bassists backstage with models, you figure it out”) to what he doesn’t (crucial details about his mother, father, family and career). Rather than turning Jonny into a caricature or a figure of scorn the way some of his critics do (“a cult of personality swirling around a human being who...may not be in possession of...an actual personality”), the novel invites the reader inside Jonny’s fishbowl, showing what it takes to gain and sustain what he has and how easily he could lose it. Best of all is his relationship with an artist who made it through this arduous rite of passage, the Timberlake to Jonny’s Bieber, who teaches him that “The people with real power are always behind the scenes. Talent gets chewed up and used. Better to be the one chewing.”
A very funny novel when it isn’t so sad, and vice versa.