The death of the author’s wife hovers over this densely meandering, poignant look at the simmering violence in his beloved Mexico City.
American novelist and journalist Goldman (Say Her Name, 2011, etc.) writes affectingly about his adopted city, where he had lived on and off since the 1990s. His short second marriage to essayist, graduate student and Mexico City native Aura Estrada ended with her tragic death from a bodysurfing accident while on vacation in 2007, a devastating loss Goldman wrote about eloquently in Say Her Name. Here, the author continues to move through stages of grief—e.g., by relearning how to drive, which he had been unable to do since Aura’s death, as well as by relating with fellow residents' attempts to come to terms with the senseless drug cartel violence that has permeated all levels of Mexican society, especially in politics. Driving around the Distrito Federal, or DF, as the city is known, with its chaotic streets and aggressive drivers, presenting Mexico City zone by zone, Goldman attempted to engage with the city, seek out its secrets and deepen his relationship to it by creating his own “interior circuit.” While he extols the vibrancy, endurance, youthful romance and tolerance of the city, he also confronts head-on its brutality and death wish. The legacy of President Felipe Calderón’s war on the drug cartels, waged from 2006 to 2012, resulted in an explosion of violence against and by the narcos, spilling over into the DF—which had been relatively spared the carnage—in the form of the kidnapping of 11 young people from an after-hours club in May 2013. Goldman followed the case closely, which seemed to implicate both the new DF mayor and president.
A gifted writer submerges his grief in his deep affection for his adopted city.
Another crackling tale of adventure from journalist/explorer Sides (Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, 2010, etc.), this one focusing on a frigid disaster nearly 150 years ago.
When the Jeannette, commanded by a dashing officer named George De Long, disappeared in the Arctic waters of Russia on a long expeditionary voyage that began in the summer of 1879, American newspapers thought it did not necessarily mean disaster: They preferred to see it as a sign that the ship had broken through the dreaded polar ice and was now sailing freely, if without communication, in the open polar sea. No such luck: As Sides documents, the Jeannette and its crew met a gruesome end; toward the end of his narrative, we tour their icy cemetery, here the Chinese cook gazing serenely into the sky, there De Long lying barehanded with arm upraised, as if he “had raised his left arm and flung his journal behind him in the snow, away from the embers of the fire.” When contemporaries took that tour and reports came out, the newspapers were full of speculation about even more gruesome possibilities, which Sides, on considering the evidence, dismisses. Given that a bad outcome is promised in the book’s subtitle, readers should not find such things too surprising. The better part of the narrative is not in the sad climax but in the events leading up to it, from De Long’s life and education at sea to the outfitting of the ship (complete with a storeroom full of “barrels of brandy, porter, ale, sherry, whiskey, rum, and cases of Budweiser beer”), personality clashes among members of the crew, and the long, tragic history of polar expedition.
A grand and grim narrative of thrilling exploration for fans of Into Thin Air, Mountains of the Moon and the like.
A beguiling, multifaceted narrative larded with delightful culinary, historical, political, psychological and literary layers, set in the kingdom of Castile with a piece of cheese in the starring role.
Paterniti (Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain, 2000) gracefully unravels how tradition, culture and a sense of place affectthe human heart, while simultaneously wrestling with the joys and boundaries of storytelling and journalism. During a 1991 proofreading stint at a deli, following his graduation from the University of Michigan’s creative writing program, the author read a paragraph describing a “sublime” cheese from Castile. “There was something about all of it, not just the perfection of Ari’s prose,” writes Paterniti, “but the story he told—the rustic cheesemaker, the ancient family recipe, the old-fashioned process by which the cheese was born, even the idiosyncratic tin in which it was packaged—that I couldn’t stop thinking about.” Years later, the author, determined to find the storied cheesemaker and learn his tale, set off for Spain on what became a 10-year odyssey. Paterniti rapidly fell under the spell of the loquacious cheesemaker, Ambrosio, and the tiny village of Guzmán, situated in the “vast, empty highlands of the Central plateau of Spain.” At the center of the narrative is the saga of betrayal of Ambrosio and his artisanal cheese by his boyhood friend, Julian. Paterniti’s quest for the true story surrounding the creation and demise of Ambrosio’s cheese rambles in delightful directions. The author probes subjects as diverse as the first human encounter with cheese; an investigation into the origin of Pringles; geology; and Spanish “legends, farces and folktales.”
Enriched by Paterniti’s singular art of storytelling, this is a deeply satisfying voyage across a remarkable landscape into the mysteries and joys of the human heart.
The bestselling author turns her hand to travel writing in an episodic, engaging evocation of Paris.
Johnson (L’Affaire, 2003, etc.) offers an intimate look at St.-Germain-des-Prés, the Parisian quartier she has lived in for years, but don’t come to this book expecting a sustained narrative. Instead, Johnson presents short mediations delightfully reminiscent of Colette. She begins at 8 Rue Bonaparte in her apartment overflowing with books and visitors. From there, the writer leads us on a colorful tour: up a staircase behind her guest room that leads to a spot where Jews were hidden during WWII; into the chapel near her apartment; through the famed art and architecture academy, École des Beaux-Arts; to the Bibliothèque Mazarine, where Johnson does much of her writing. Along the way, we inspect French fashion and taste French macaroons—“not those coconut-almond cookies we think of,” Johnson explains, “but a sort of pastel-colored oreo, two halves of pastry with a filling in between . . . pistachio, caramel, chocolate, fraises . . . or even chili, or oyster.” She takes us to the Paris of the past: we meet Queen Margot, Marguerite de Navarre (1553–1615), “in some ways the founder of the neighborhood,” and Dr. Guillotin, who in the cour de Commerce St.-André, “experimented on sheep to perfect his instrument.” The sections on 20th-century Parisian history include nods to existentialism, Edith Wharton, and a community of expat lesbians who congregated at Rue Jacob in the 1920s. In her evocation of and an ode to a different culture, Johnson waxes rhapsodic of the joys on walking, extolling the “village quality” of St.-Germain and the pleasure of running into friends and neighbors. Indeed, a subtle critique of contemporary America lurks at the edges of her portrait of Paris.
Nothing is as wonderful as a trip to la ville lumière, but this is a good second choice.
A debut novel traces the history of the U.S. Virgin Islands through the fate of a family marked by lust, magic and social change.
Of the atoll where her parents met, Anette Bradshaw says: "You seen even a postcard of Anegada? It too pretty. Like heaven and hell marry up and birth all the beauty goodness and badness could possibly make." Anette's is one of four narrative voices in this novel by St. Thomas–born Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony, 2010), which follows the story of the children and grandchildren of Capt. Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a man whose unchecked appetites cause trouble for a good half-century after his ship goes down. In alternating short chapters, we hear from a wise, playful third-person narrator and, in first person, from each of Bradshaws' three outlandishly beautiful children: Eeona, both his daughter and his lover; Anette, who never knew either of her parents before their untimely deaths; and Jacob, Bradshaw’s unacknowledged son by a back-street mistress. Eeona becomes an imperious queen of a woman who never gets over her love for her father, refusing even the suit of a fellow who proposes 70-odd times; she moves to St. John and becomes entangled with a lost character from the family romantic tree. Half siblings Anette and Jacob are also ruled by incestuous passion, though they are unaware of their relationship, which is only partially derailed by Jacob's sojourns on the mainland for military service and medical school. Their story is interwoven with both the folklore and history of the island: backward-facing feet, silver pubic hair and a race of demigods called the Duene are sprinkled among scenes of development, hurricanes, tourism and the social movements of the 1960s and '70s.
Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.
Hurwitz (Tell No Lies, 2013, etc.) again proves himself a plot master as he follows Eve Hardaway on a much-needed vacation into Mexico’s Oaxacan jungles.
It was supposed to be an anniversary trip. Then Eve’s husband found a younger, more "elegant" woman. Eve decided the prepaid getaway to Días Felices Ecolodge was just the ticket anyway, especially after having given up nursing for a mind-numbing corporate cubicle to support her son. At the lodge, Eve stumbles upon a lost digital camera while on a jungle trek and later learns that it belongs to Theresa Hamilton, now missing. On the same trek, Eve spies a mysterious man near a ramshackle hut secreted in the dense foliage. After deftly creating empathy for Eve, Hurwitz drops her into live-or-die circumstances, buoyed only by her shaky but ever growing self-confidence and love for her son. The mystery jungle dweller is slowly revealed to be Bashir Ahmat al-Gilani, the Bear of Bajaur, a bloodthirsty terrorist hiding in Mexico and a character written with inventive back story. If Días Felices is a jungle Ship of Fools, characters run to type: macho "Gay Jay," healing after a bad romance; Will, his straight best friend, the McGyver that Eve needs; Claire, a lonely, bitter and vocal young woman handicapped by leg braces; Harry and Sue, an older couple more interested in personal safety than group survival; and jungle-wise Fortunato, indígenio lodge cook. In a plot as fast as river rapids, Eve fights more battles than Rambo and copes with intermittent Internet connections, a satellite phone that only occasionally gets a signal, gangrene, dysentery, disembowelment by IED and a "black wave" of "eat-everything-in-their-path" sweeper ants. Hurwitz relates Oaxaca imaginatively, with a villain who reminds a soccer mom that "jungle laws had always run beneath it all, a molten stream under the bedrock."
Hurwitz adds to his string of imaginative thrillers with an action-adventure story ready for blockbuster Hollywood—get Cameron Diaz’s people!
A tour de force of character, point of view and especially atmosphere, Prose's latest takes place in Paris from the late 1920s till the end of World War II.
The primary locus of action is the Chameleon Club, a cabaret where entertainment edges toward the kinky. Presiding most nights is Eva “Yvonne” Nagy, a Hungarian chanteuse and mistress of the revels. The name of the club is not strictly metaphorical, for Yvonne has a pet lizard, but the cabaret is also famous as a place where Le Tout-Paris can gather and cross-dress, and homosexual lovers can be entertained there with some degree of privacy. One of the most fascinating denizens of the club is Lou Villars, in her youth an astounding athlete and in her adulthood a dancer (with her lover Arlette) at the club and even later a race car driver and eventually a German spy in Paris during the Occupation. Villars and Arlette are the subjects of what becomes the era’s iconic photograph, one that gives the novel its title. This image is taken by Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, eventual lover (and later husband) of sexual athlete Suzanne Dunois. Tsenyi is also a protégé of Baroness Lily de Rossignol, former Hollywood actress, now married to the gay Baron de Rossignol, the fabulously wealthy owner of a French car manufacturing company. Within this multilayered web of characters, Prose manages to give almost every character a voice, ranging from Tsenyi’s eager letters home to his parents, excerpts from a putative biography of Lou Villars (supposedly written by Suzanne’s great-niece) entitled The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, Lily de Rossignol’s memoirs and further reminiscences by Lionel Maine, Suzanne’s lover before she was “stolen away” by the photographer.
Hemming’s first novel expands on a short story, “The Minor Wars,” that appeared in her debut story collection (House of Thieves, 2005) about a self-consciously privileged Hawaiian family in crisis.
The great-grandson of a Hawaiian princess, lawyer Matt King is under pressure to decide to whom his family should sell its vast land holdings when he learns that his wife Joanie, comatose since a boat-racing accident, is definitely going to die once the hospital removes life support. A beautiful model with a penchant for hard drinking and fast boats, Joanie has always chafed at her quiet domestic life with Matt, a workaholic trying to live off his career rather than his inheritance. Matt has left the day-to-day rearing of their daughters Scottie and Alex to Joanie and now feels inept as he reaches out to the girls. Scottie is a classic ten-year-old, that painful mix of pseudo-sophistication and clueless innocence. Sent by Joannie to boarding school for typical rich-kid bad behavior (cocaine), Alex comes home at the cusp of maturity, still furious with her parents but self-aware. Pressed, she tells Matt that she caught Joanie having an affair. Matt now must deal with his sense of betrayal as well as his and his daughters’ grief. Unlikely help comes from Alex’s maybe-boyfriend Sid, whose laid-back wisdom has been hard-earned. Matt takes the girls and Sid in search of Joanie’s lover to let him know her condition—and he soon realizes that the man did not love Joanie and perhaps used her to sway Matt’s decision about the land sale.
Hemmings pulls off a remarkable feat in making the Kings’ sense of loss all the more wrenching for being directed at a woman who was neither a good wife nor a good mother.
The peripatetic author of Great Plains (1989) and On the Rez (2000) returns with an energetic, illuminating account of his several trips to Siberia, where his ferocious curiosity roamed the vast, enigmatic area.
Veteran New Yorker contributor Frazier (Lamentations of the Father: Essays, 2008, etc.) begins bluntly. “Officially,” he writes, “there is no such place as Siberia.” It is not a country, nor a province, yet the region bearing the name is extensive, comprising eight time zones. Throughout, the author confesses to a long love affair with Russia, a relationship that has waxed and waned over the decades but in some of its brightest phases sent him back repeatedly to see what few have seen. Here Frazier records several visits: a summer’s trip via cantankerous automobile across the entire region, in the company of a couple of local companions; a winter’s journey by train and car, during which the car sometimes used frozen waterways for roads; and a return visit to see the effects of the emerging Russian energy industry. He prepared in a fashion familiar to readers of his previous works—read everything he could, talked with anyone who knew anything, planned and schemed and made it happen. He also studied Russian extensively and tried gamely to engage local people he encountered along the way. On the road, he visited local museums and monuments and natural wonders, and he pauses frequently for welcome digressions on the historical background. He camped, fished and ate local delicacies (and indelicacies). Endearingly, he freely admits his inadequacies, fears (during one perilous icy trip he actually composed a farewell message to his family), blunders, dour moods, regrets and loneliness. The contrasts are stark—one day, he walked through the ruins of a remote, frozen Soviet-era prison camp and later saw a ballet in St. Petersburg—and the writing is consistently rich.
A dense, challenging, dazzling work that will leave readers exhausted but yearning for more.