An immigrant’s memoir like few others, with as sharp an edge and as much stylistic audacity as the author’s well-received novels.
The Russian-American novelist writes that after completing this memoir, he reread his three novels (Super Sad True Love Story, 2010, etc.) and was “shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality....On many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” That observation minimizes just how funny this memoir frequently is, but it suggests that the richest, most complex character the author has ever rendered on the page is the one once known to his family as “Little Igor” and later tagged with “Scary Gary” by his Oberlin College classmates, with whom he recalls an incident, likely among many, in which he was “the drunkest, the stonedest, and, naturally, the scariest.” Fueled by “the rage and humor that are our chief inheritance,” Shteyngart traces his family history from the atrocities suffered in Stalinist Russia, through his difficulties assimilating as the “Red Nerd” of schoolboy America, through the asthma and panic attacks, alcoholism and psychoanalysis that preceded his literary breakthrough. He writes of the patronage of Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who recruited him for a new creative writing program at Hunter College, helped him get a book deal for a novel he’d despaired over ever publishing and had “severely shaken my perception of what fiction about immigrants can get away with.” Ever since, he's been getting away with as much as he dares.
Though fans of the author’s fiction will find illumination, a memoir this compelling and entertaining—one that frequently collapses the distinction between comedy and tragedy—should expand his readership beyond those who have loved his novels.
A newsworthy, must-read book about what prompted Edward Snowden to blow the whistle on his former employer, the National Security Agency, and what likely awaits him for having done so.
In June 2013, the Guardian published the first of the revelations of the “Snowden file”—a huge trove of data, “thousands of documents and millions of words”—put in its lap by way of columnist Glenn Greenwald. Guardian foreign correspondent Harding (co-author: WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, 2011, etc.) re-creates the curious trail that led Snowden to Greenwald and that led him to leak those documents in the first place. The author casts the prime motivation as a kind of revulsion born of Snowden’s experience as an analyst knee-deep in material that—it is very clear—was none of the NSA’s business, reinforced by Snowden’s time stationed in the relative freedom of Switzerland. It is also clear that Snowden’s act was premeditated, though not out of anti-Americanism (he’s a Ron Paul–type libertarian, it seems) and not for monetary impulse, though he could have sold the documents to any one of a number of foreign powers. Harding’s narrative covers numerous serial stories that developed from Snowden’s decision: first, the cloak-and-dagger work that got the files to Greenwald, then the NSA’s efforts and those of the larger American government to curb the post-publication damage (sometimes via British proxies), then Snowden’s flight into Russian exile in order to avoid the fate of fellow whistle-blower Bradley Manning. Harding closes with the thought that Snowden may have no other home for some time to come—but that even wider implications remain to be explored, including the possibility that British activists might be able to introduce something like the First Amendment to protect its press in the future.
Whether you view Snowden’s act as patriotic or treasonous, this fast-paced, densely detailed book is the narrative of first resort.
A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art.
Tartt (The Little Friend, 2002, etc.) takes a long time, a decade or more, between novels. This one, her third, tells the story of a young man named Theodore Decker who is forced to grapple with the world alone after his mother—brilliant, beautiful and a delight to be around—is felled in what would seem to be an accident, if an explosion inside a museum can be accidental. The terrible wreckage of the building, a talismanic painting half buried in plaster and dust, “the stink of burned clothes, and an occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn’t want to think about”—young Theo will carry these things forever. Tartt’s narrative is in essence an extended footnote to that horror, with his mother becoming ever more alive in memory even as the time recedes: not sainted, just alive, the kind of person Theo misses because he can’t tell her goofy things (his father taking his mistress to a Bon Jovi concert in Las Vegas, for instance: “It seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact”) as much as for any other reason. The symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and it’s a little too neat that Theo discovers the work of the sublime Dutch master Carel Fabritius, killed in a powder blast, just before the fateful event that will carry his mother away. Yet it all works. “All the rest of it is lost—everything he ever did,” his mother quietly laments of the little-known artist, and it is Theo’s mission as he moves through life to see that nothing in his own goes missing. Bookending Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, this is an altogether lovely addition to what might be called the literature of disaster and redemption. The novel is slow to build but eloquent and assured, with memorable characters, not least a Russian cracker-barrel philosopher who delivers a reading of God that Mordecai Richler might applaud.
Through stylistic understatement and perfect tonal pitch, this memoir somehow achieves its outlandish ambitions.
In lesser hands, a narrative steeped in obsessions with Moby-Dick and surfing and skateboarding would strain to make connections, especially when it’s also a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage memoir by a 30-something author who has trouble letting go of or committing to anything while recognizing that he should have grown up long ago. An avid skateboarder in Colorado with a graduate degree that lets him teach creative writing at the university level, Hocking (co-editor: Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, 2004) gave it all up, along with a fulfilling romantic relationship, to move to New York for…what? He took a job delivering food and another reading manuscripts for rejection. He worked on a novel that was “basically going nowhere.” Incongruously enough, he discovered surfing, which offered a natural progression from his passion for skateboarding: “Like the majority of actual New York residents, I had no idea surfing was even possible here. Could you really ride the subway to the beach? If so, could you surf in the morning and hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same afternoon?” Thus New York allowed Hocking to develop a passion for surfing, which shared an ocean with his longtime obsession with Melville (whose paths through the city he retraced) and what appears to be an obsession with himself and with romance, coupled with an ambivalence toward commitment—to anything. “You know, you talk about loving everyone all the time like you’re some sort of enlightened being,” said the girlfriend over whom his obsession deepened after they split. “But the only reason you love anyone is to make yourself feel better.” Therapy, 12-step programs, a nervous breakdown, spiritual crisis and renewal, friends, career and geographical change, and some life-threatening experiences helped transform the author and deepen his appreciation of Moby-Dick.
In a book that’s likely far richer than the novel he shelved, Hocking ultimately transcends “the dark Ahab force.”
Duncan continues the long tradition of werewolf literature in this harrowing novel of lupine transformation.
In the 21st century the victims of werewolves’ bites have been dying rather than transforming, so when the penultimate werewolf is eliminated, Jake Marlowe becomes the last. Jake is on the hit list for WOCOP, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena, and he expects to be eliminated by Grainer, whose family he had killed and devoured during a full moon a while back. Helping Jake is his friend Harley, whom he had saved from a homophobic attack some 30 years before. Jake realizes the stakes are high when Harley’s head is delivered to him...so obviously no help will come from that quarter. We find out that Jake was born in the early 19th century and became a werewolf through a brief and fluky encounter with one while on a trip to Wales. His transformation led him to kill and eat his beloved wife, Arabella. (Duncan gives us much more information about werewolves to devour—for example, that their libidos become hyperactive during the time of the full moon.) Although Jake fully expects to be eliminated, he makes every effort to escape from the various, mostly inept hunters WOCOP sends. And then something unprecedented and earth-shattering occurs—his acute sense of smell leads him to find another werewolf, this one a female named Talulla Demetriou. Together they go on the lam, but Grainer continues his pursuit—at least until Ellis, Grainer’s protégé, tries to strike a deal with Jake, for Ellis would like to kill Grainer instead. It seems as though having at least one werewolf alive gives Ellis a reason for living.
Duncan’s writing is quirky and brilliant—and definitely not for kids.
New Yorker staff writer Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, 2006, etc.) returns with a deft examination of the startling losses of the sixth mass extinction occurring at this moment and the sobering, underlying cause: humans.
Although “background extinction” continuously occurs in varying slow rates among species, five major mass extinctions mark the past. Scientists theorize that all of these—from the extinction of the Ordovician period, which was caused by glaciation, to the end of the Cretaceous, caused by the impact of a celestial body on the Earth’s surface—were the results of natural phenomena. Today, however, countless species are being wiped out due to human impact. Global warming, ocean acidification and the introduction of invasive species to new continents are only a few ways that we are perpetrating harsh new realities for those organisms unable to withstand radical change. Kolbert documents her travels across the globe, tracing the endangerment or demise of such species as the Panamanian golden frog, the Sumatran rhino and many more. The author skillfully highlights the historical figures key to the understanding of the planet’s past and present turmoil, including Charles Darwin and Georges Cuvier, the first to theorize extinction as a concept. Throughout her extensive and passionately collected research, Kolbert offers a highly readable, enlightening report on the global and historical impact of humans, “one weedy species” that may offer valiant efforts to save endangered species but who are continually causing vast, severe change. Kolbert also weaves a relatable element into the at-times heavily scientific discussion, bringing the sites of past and present extinctions vividly to life with fascinating information that will linger with readers long after they close the book.
A highly significant eye-opener rich in facts and enjoyment.
Few works of fiction will grab readers’ attention as well as Jager’s (The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, 2004) riveting story of a 1407 murder mystery that split the royal family of France.
When Louis of Orleans, brother and frequent regent of King Charles VI, was brutally murdered in a Paris street, the provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville was under pressure to solve the crime quickly. He had just overseen the execution of two murderers, whose claim to the right of “clergy” would eventually come back to haunt him. Jager shares his extensive knowledge of medieval Paris, employing entertainingly meticulous descriptions throughout the book. The Châtelet, once a fortress, then a prison, morgue and police headquarters, was a vast building to be avoided at all costs, not unlike today’s train stations. Montfaucon was a three-story gibbet capable of hanging 60 at a time, and bodies were left to putrefy and feed the crows and ravens. The author’s portrayals of the perpetual stench and body parts will surely give readers shivers. De Tignonville’s investigative techniques were exhaustive, and his discovery of the man behind the murder within days was spot-on. Accusing the suspect proved to be much more difficult, as he turned the accusation into a validation. Louis of Orleans was a broadly despised man, particularly by those men he had cuckolded (which were many), and he used his power as his schizophrenic brother’s regent to impose impossible taxes. The murderer’s justification for his dastardly deed was, as a leading scholar proclaimed, “one of the most insolent pieces of political chicanery and theological casuistry in all history.”
An impressive combination of mystery, crime story, and social and political history.
Oliver makes a white-knuckle return to realism that will have readers up until the wee hours.
They’ll be desperate to learn who will win—and even more importantly, who will survive—Panic, a secret game that pits player against player in mental and physical challenges designed to push them to the breaking point. Heather Nill never planned to play, but with a broken heart and nothing to lose, once she’s in, nothing is going to keep her from walking away with the $67,000 prize. Desperate to get out of Carp, N.Y., and determined to protect her sister Lily, Heather puts her life on the line time and again for a shot at a brighter future. Dodge Mason is playing for revenge, and he knows exactly how he is going to get it. After years of planning, nothing, not even the promise of new love, is going to stand in his way. Dodge is going to use the game to right an unforgiveable wrong, even if it kills him. Set in a town so run-down the grit is practically palpable, the book makes suspension of disbelief easy. Readers will understand how the deliberately built characters would and could do just about anything for a shot at getting out.
The only thing more terrifying than the game itself is not getting the chance to play it.
(Thriller. 14 & up)
It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does.
Where most memoirs have more of a novelistic, chronological continuity, Fiddleback senior nonfiction editor Nelson structures this book as a series of autobiographical essays, most of which could stand on their own; they are the nonfiction equivalent of a series of interconnected short stories. That form perfectly suits her story of a family in which “the roles have been pre-prescribed, written into our DNA.” The father will die young after long absences in jail or rehab or another relapse after a short stretch of sobriety. The mother will also self-medicate as she tries to sustain the illusion of family, one that is always falling apart. The son will inherit “the dead father’s legacy, this disease,” and is often missing and feared dead. The older sister will write this memoir after studying abroad, falling in love, earning her MFA in creative writing, teaching college, publishing in a number of highly regarded journals and maintaining a facade that masks her genetic code: “We are an imperfect people, full of contradictions. Do as I say, not as I do. That sort of thing. Outsiders see me as the most put together, but I harbor a secret: I am just better at faking it. I make it through the day.” Yet some days have been a whole lot tougher to make it through, to sustain a sense of “my real life, the one outside the theater of my brother’s addiction.” As it does in the cycles of recovery and relapse, prison and release, chronology jumbles, and verb tenses shift. The book’s excellent centerpiece, “A Second of Startling Regret,” unravels the family dynamic and illuminates the “self-sabotaging brain.” Even the occasional misstep into writerly precocity—“There is something heroic about fishermen—all that faith in the dark”—can’t compromise the author’s unflinching honesty and her story’s power.
A bare-knuckle, adventure-filled journey in search of the answer to a half-century–old cold case: Whatever happened to Nelson Rockefeller’s son, Michael?
Michael was 23 when he disappeared off the coast of southwestern New Guinea, having nearly made land after swimming for 18 hours when his catamaran capsized. Dutch officials (for this was still colonial territory in 1961) eventually reported that the renowned explorer and collector of so-called primitive art had drowned. National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Hoffman (The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, 2010, etc.) writes that, all this time later, the story compelled him: “I was a half-Jewish middle-class mutt with a public education, not a blue-blooded scion, but Rockefeller’s journey resonated with me.” Empathetically channeling Rockefeller as someone who wasn’t out in such remote territory merely to acquire stuff but was instead challenging himself in anything but the privileged surroundings of his youth, Hoffman set out to reconstruct that last voyage. He encountered evidence that the young man’s end was greatly different from the one depicted in the official records. Moreover, he notes, it was an open secret that Rockefeller had been killed after having been plucked from the sea. But why? In a daring ethnographic turn, Hoffman spent months among the descendants of killers, lending specific weight to the old clashing-of-worlds trope and addressing questions of why people go to war, commit cannibalism and other tangled matters. He never loses sight of his goal, but Hoffman is also sympathetic to the plight of the Asmat people, who themselves were changed by the events of 53 years ago: “The world had been one way when Michael Rockefeller came to Asmat, another by the time he was dead.”
A searching, discomfiting journey yields an elegant, memorable report.