A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.
Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”
A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.
The life of an American expat living in Bulgaria intersects repeatedly with that of a young gay hustler in this gorgeous debut novel from Greenwell.
The unnamed narrator—an English teacher who lives in the city of Sofia—has an addiction, and that addiction’s name is Mitko. After they meet for the first time in a public bathroom, Mitko flits in and out of the narrator's life with abandon, alternating among offers of sex, hints at love, threats, blackmail, hunger, illness, neediness, rage, and despair. Mitko is beautiful, self-assured, and an enigma, and the narrator finds it hard to resist him. His growth is in his responses, which range from acquiescence to refusal, and it is this engine that propels the reader forward through a series of tenuously connected chapters that advance in irregular chronological intervals. This is a novel with a short story sensibility; many of the chapters stand on their own, hanging together only in the loosest sense. This is a feature, not a bug: instead of aggressively pursuing a series of tightly woven plotlines, readers may have the sense that they're peering through the narrator’s window randomly and of their own free will, observing his latest state each time. As for the narrator, he can only move forward if he interrogates his past—the question is, will he be able to? The prose here is supple and responsive, and Sofia teems with beauty and decay. Mitko lights up scenes like a firecracker and haunts the ones where he’s absent—a large segment of the novel where he does not appear still vibrates with his energy—but the protagonist too is a source of gentle, steady illumination as he grapples with his cravings, memories, fears, and grief. This is a project of rare discernment and beauty, and it is not to be missed.
A luminous, searing exploration of desire, alienation, and the powerful tattoo of the past.
A minute-by-minute account of mass murder at a high school by a former student.
Four students from a range of different backgrounds at Alabama's Opportunity High, all of whom have a history with Tyler, the gunman, take turns telling this harrowing story in the first person. They include his sister, Autumn, and her clandestine girlfriend, Sylv, who have only each other for solace as the home lives of both are in upheaval. Tomás, Sylv's brother, recounts his and his friend Fareed's desperate efforts to help from outside the school's auditorium, where their fellow students and teachers are locked in with Tyler as he picks them off one by one. Finally, Claire, Tyler's ex-girlfriend, realistically agonizes over what to do when she and a few others outside running track realize that the gunshots they hear are coming from inside the school. Grounded in the present, the story makes effective use of flashbacks that lay bare the pain and deception that have led up to the day's horror. The language can occasionally feel a bit melodramatic, with lines like "we're fighting for hope and a thousand tomorrows," but this is a minor side note to this compelling story of terror, betrayal, and heroism.
This brutal, emotionally charged novel will grip readers and leave them brokenhearted
. (Fiction. 14-18)
Disturbing, sometimes-horrifying story of true crime and justice only partially served.
Seattle journalist Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting on which this book is based—and deservedly. He made a complex story comprehensible (“The tributaries that feed a moment are vast,” he quietly notes) without ever losing sight of two fundamental truths. Carried over into this book, those two truths remain. The first is that the lives of two innocent women were irrevocably changed, and one’s ended, by the events of a summer night in 2009, when a young, mentally ill man entered their home and raped and stabbed them. More lives than theirs were changed, of course—as one person close to the case noted, “the victims weren’t the only ones killed.” Sanders interviewed a dozen or so of the principal figures in the case, from law enforcement officers to social workers and family members. The second truth is that the young man in question has not met with justice: he is being punished, to be sure, but mostly by being hidden away in a system in which he may be medicated but is almost certainly not being treated effectively for his illness. “One can see the combined downstream effects of a lack of preventive measures,” writes Sanders of Washington state’s lack of adequate funding and support for mental health care, even though mental illness is implicated in nearly half of all violent crime cases and costs the economy billions of dollars per year. The author’s opening pages are among the most immediate and breathtaking in modern true-crime literature, as evocative as any moment of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter. That immediacy does not disappear, but the careening quality of the narrative settles into a somber, thoughtful consideration of the huge issues at stake in a single act of murder.
An exceptional story of compelling interest in a time of school shootings, ethnic and class strife, and other unbound expressions of madness and illness.
Scintillating marital drama set at a nuclear testing station in the late 1950s.
Paul Collier is an enlisted man who grew up poor and gambles that a new career as a nuclear operator will pay off and be worth uprooting his family from the West Coast to Idaho; he hardly cares if the experimental reactor’s success means American missiles will be able to “hit pay dirt…if the Soviets did anything stupid”—just one of the sore points between him and his wife, Natalie, a California girl whose outspokenness and nonconformity captured him when they were dating but in his current position make him uneasy. Her husband's soldierly reticence about his colleagues' behavior on and off the test site backfires and drives Nat into a more-than-confiding friendship with a local cowboy named Esrom. Readers are also treated to the hilarious musings of Jeannie Richards—the wife of Paul’s new boss, Mitch; her job is to keep her scurrilous silver-haired spouse from botching his retirement payout. Williams keeps the narrative interest percolating with great period details and by allowing her characters' thoughts and emotions full expression—Jeannie lays out battle dress before a dinner welcoming her husband’s new man (“a bra that would catapult her little ladies upward like rocket boosters”), but Mitch himself keeps undermining her Borgia-esque ambitions. Paul’s buttoned-up personality frustrates the hell out of Nat, but her daredevil nature, even as a mother of young children, confounds him more: "He'd had to sit by and watch strangers cheer her on for something he'd not wanted her to do, as if their approval was more important than his concern.” Meantime, plunked alongside potato fields and cattle ranches, other reactors (human and atomic) threaten to blow their stacks. Spoiler alert: a major mishap is all but promised in the prologue, and the afterword describing the nation's only fatal accident at a reactor will send some readers to look up Idaho’s role in American nuclear history.
A smoldering, altogether impressive debut that probes the social and emotional strains on military families in a fresh and insightful way.
A fatality spurs an inquiry into an extreme sport, illuminating the risks—as well as the rewards—of free diving.
After writing a couple dozen guidebooks for the Lonely Planet series, Skolnick shows sharp reportorial instincts in this multilayered narrative beginning with the 2013 tragedy of Nicholas Mevoli, “the first athlete to die in an international freediving competition.” The obscure sport tests the limits of its athletes, who dive as deep as 100 meters or more, holding their breath for some four minutes, risking blackouts from the pressure or worse. “Their feats dazzled because with each dive they were risking their lives,” the author writes of one such competition. “No one knew where that unknown limit was.” Interspersed with an examination of the sport of free diving—loosely organized, self-governed, with most of the athletes spending considerable sums without sponsorship—is the story of an athlete considered remarkable well before his death and who lived his life with an uncompromising purity—though he always attracted romantic attention, he committed to celibacy for as long as four years—and who made it his priority “to live, not merely exist.” Parallel tracks show Mevoli’s life as he pushed himself toward an early death that quite possibly could have been prevented and the development of the sport as it gained the perspective of mortality that his death underscored. “Nick’s was the first fatality in more than 35,000 dives,” writes Skolnick. “Afterward, they were forced to admit that nobody could say for sure how repeated depths impacted the body….This wasn’t a matter of conflicting science; research was almost nonexistent.” This is a page-turning book about how and why Mevoli died (with a suggestion that a doctor shouldn’t have cleared him to dive), but it’s also about the competitors drawn to the sport, the ones for whom “freediving is both an athletic quest to push the limits of the body and mind, and a spiritual experience.”
A worthy addition to the growing body of literature on adventures that test the limits of nature and mankind.
Set during the last gasp of the Roman Republic, the final volume of Harris’ Cicero trilogy chronicles the great Roman statesman’s fateful encounters with both Julius and Augustus Caesar.
Harris has written smart, gripping thrillers with settings as varied as England during World War II (Enigma, 1995) and the contemporary world of international finance (The Fear Index, 2012), but his Cicero novels are more akin to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in their subjects—men of towering intellect and humanity—and in their visceral evocation of history. The first two books, Imperium and Conspirata, recounted events familiar only to classical history buffs—Cicero’s rise from relative obscurity to become one of Rome’s leading lawyers, orators, and writers and, in 63 B.C.E., getting the top job, consul. This third book starts with his exile after running afoul of Julius Caesar, the brilliant general whose dangerous ambition Cicero alone seems to grasp. The plot hurtles toward the most famous incident in all of Roman history—the assassination of Caesar. Cicero is not involved in the plot, but he assumes a major role in its aftermath as Mark Antony, an enemy, and Octavian (later Augustus), a young friend who is also Caesar’s adopted son, vie for leadership of the empire. The book is charming as well as engrossing, largely due to the immensely likable person of Cicero, who is wise but not pedantic, moral but not sanctimonious, courageous but wary of the grandstanding of the martyr. In Harris’ hands, the other principle actors emerge fully rounded: Cato, the uncompromising stoic; Pompey, brave but vainglorious; Crassus, greedy and self-serving; Brutus, whom Cicero feared “may have been educated out of his wits”; Julius Caesar, whose “success had made him vain, and his vanity had devoured his reason”; and Mark Antony, who “has all of Caesar’s worst qualities and none of his best.”
Unfortunately for Cicero, his assessment of Octavian—“he’s a nice boy, and I hope he survives, but he’s no Caesar”—proves fatally wrong.
A New York artist and writer’s illustrated memoir about how she rose out of obscurity during the tumultuous decade of the 2000s to become a renowned artist.
New York native Crabapple, a contributing editor for Vice, grew up with loving parents in comfortable circumstances. Yet from the time she was a young girl, she felt trapped by her childhood and yearned for the freedom to explore the world. Crabapple left for Paris at 17, where she lived among bohemians at the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore and traveled around Europe and North Africa. When she returned, she began college at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she drew compulsively, studied exotic cultures, and became involved in political movements that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. Crabapple turned to “the naked girl business” to support herself and earned money first as an artist’s model and then as a goth-inspired SuicideGirl and, later, as a dancer and burlesque performer. In the meantime, her artistic talent blossomed. Yet the author realized early on that making it in the art world wasn’t just a matter of being good: it was also about “getting noticed.” In 2008, Crabapple became house artist for The Box, a NYC nightclub catering to elite clients. She earned recognition and monetary rewards for artwork that satirized the excesses of the rich, yet her achievements left her feeling hollow. The world outside The Box was collapsing while she "was painting pigs in Nero's nightclub.” After meeting up with journalist Laurie Penny and becoming involved in the Occupy movement, Crabapple discovered her true calling as a political artist and, later, writer. Lavishly illustrated, the book offers a candid portrayal of an artist’s journey to self-knowledge and fulfillment. The author celebrates the function of art as an act of “hope against cynicism [and] creation against entropy.”
Compelling reading about how art gave the author “a way to see, to record, to fight and interrogate…to find joy where once I could see only ash.”
A pair of fugitives—one from pre-Nazi Europe, the other from the U.S. Senate Chamber (correction: bedchamber)—meet over a rare 1936 Mercedes Roadster that transports first one, then the other out of a god-awful fix.
With the killer charm of a Rogers and Hammerstein score and a touch of DuMaurier intrigue, Williams’ latest sexy and enthralling period drama (on the high heels of Tiny Little Thing, 2015, etc.) draws readers into the parallel, luxe worlds of two sparky women in the post-Camelot 1960s: Annabelle Dommerich, a 40-ish widow with a passel of grown stepchildren, who conceals her Baroness title and much else about her past as the mistress of a Jewish resistance agent and wife of a German high-command general (to whit: “whether one man could keep you safe from wanting another”); and Pepper Schuyler, the smart-alecky aide to a powerful politician, who’s hard-put to conceal just one secret—the identity of the man responsible for the baby bump beneath her Lilly Pulitzer shift: “I always thought the more, the merrier. Sex and cigarettes.” (Fans of Williams’ novels will recognize Pepper as the best-dressed and sharpest tongued of the three fictional Schuyler sisters.) The two ladies strike up an irresistible womance when Annabelle shows up at the Breakers in Palm Beach to collect the vintage car Pepper restored then put up at a collectors’ auction so she wouldn't have to accept “help” from the father of her baby or her socially prominent (and often comically obtuse) parents. Gliding up the coast of Georgia in that leather-seated roadster toward the beautifully appointed seaside cottage the Baroness has offered Pepper as a safe house, they’ll spill all their secrets and sorrows and help each other reclaim lost pieces of their hearts.
Imagine The Sound of Music for big girls, flavored with a dash of Mad Men bitters.
An award-winning actress’s collection of never-sent literary missives to the men who have most influenced her personal development.
In this accomplished debut, Parker, who has won Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe awards, traces her life story through a series of essays that she addresses to the “manly creature[s]” who have made her into the woman she is. Her first letters are to male members of her immediate family, including her grandfather and father. Both anchored her to a family heritage, and both are individuals in whom she catches glimpses of herself and her children. From there, Parker radiates outward to others, such as the “Yacqui Indian Boy” and the “Risk Taker” singing star, who gave her glimpses of worlds that existed beyond the small town she knew growing up. Like the Indian Boy and the Risk Taker, her addressees are often men who educated her in ways she never expected. A college “movement teacher” who gave Parker a negative evaluation of her work and self-presentation not only taught her the wisdom of “[l]etting someone you don’t really like surprise you,” but also an important lesson in humility. Some, like the three men she collectively refers to as Cerberus, taught her to value herself through the hard lessons in mistreatment they gave her. Others, like the nameless New York City cab driver upon whom she heaped unmerited blame and abuse, become the objects of apology and of musings on who she was at particular moments in time. Still others, like “Gorgeous” and “Oyster Picker,” are creations of the author’s fertile imagination and express, on the one hand, her longings for the perfect man and reconnection with her beloved dead father on the other. Parker's missives move effortlessly among nostalgia, intensity, and playfulness, but in the end, they all work together to reveal both the small and large ways in which we impact each other.
A unique, poised, and polished first book from a respected actress.
From Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout (The Burgess Boys, 2013, etc.), a short, stark novel about the ways we break and maintain the bonds of family.
The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside—but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer. She marries a man from a comfortable background who can’t ever quite quiet her demons; his efforts to bridge the gap created by their wildly different upbringings occupy some of the novel’s saddest pages. As in Olive Kittredge (2008), Strout peels back layers of denial and self-protective brusqueness to reveal the love that Lucy’s mother feels but cannot express. In fewer than 200 intense, dense pages, she considers class prejudice, the shame that poverty brings, the AIDS epidemic, and the healing powers—and the limits—of art. Most of all, this is a story of mothers and daughters: Lucy’s ambivalent feelings for the mother who failed to protect her are matched by her own guilt for leaving the father of her two girls, who have never entirely forgiven her. Later sections, in which Lucy’s dying mother tells her “I need you to leave” and the father who brutalized her says, “What a good girl you’ve always been,” are almost unbearably moving, with their pained recognition that the mistakes we make are both irreparable and subject to repentance. The book does feel a bit abbreviated, but that’s only because the characters and ideas are so compelling we want to hear more from the author who has limned them so sensitively.
Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement.