A challenging memoir about black-white relations, income inequality, mother-son dynamics, Mississippi byways, lack of personal self-control, education from kindergarten through graduate school, and so much more.
Laymon (English and Creative Writing/Univ. of Mississippi; How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, 2013, etc.) skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own. He also uses an intriguing narrative form, directly addressing his divorced mother, a poverty-stricken single woman who became a political science professor at Jackson State University. As an obese black youngster, the author had to learn to absorb cruelty not only because of his size, but also because of his dark skin. The relentlessness of his mother’s love—she expected academic and behavioral perfection and employed corporal punishment with a belt—shaped Laymon’s character in ways both obvious and subtle. One of the main elements of the memoir is his resentment at white privilege and his techniques to counter it. “Every time you said my particular brand of hardheadedness and white Mississippian’s brutal desire for black suffering were recipes for an early death, institutionalization, or incarceration, I knew you were right,” writes the author. Of all the secondary themes, the impact of addiction—food, gambling, and drug use, but especially food—ranks next. Laymon hated himself for topping 300 pounds as a teenager. Then he got fanatical with exercise and near starvation, dropping down to 170—followed by a relapse of sorts as he began to approach 300 again. Far more than just the physical aspect, the weight he carries also derives from the burdens placed on him by a racist society, by his mother and his loving grandmother, and even by himself. At times, the author examines his complicated romantic and sexual relationships, and he also delves insightfully into politics, literature, feminism, and injustice, among other topics.
A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.
Journalist Smarsh explores socio-economic class and poverty through an account of her low-income, rural Kansas–based extended family.
In her first book, addressed to her imaginary daughter—the author, born in 1980, is childless by choice—the author emphasizes how those with solid financial situations often lack understanding about families such as hers. Smarsh, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, lived a nomadic life until becoming a first-generation college student. Smarsh vowed to herself and her imaginary daughter to escape the traps that enslaved her mother, grandmothers, female cousins, and others in her family. “So much of childhood amounts to being awake in a grown-up’s nightmare,” she writes. “Ours happened to be about poverty, which comes with not just psychological dangers but mortal ones, too.” Because the author does not proceed chronologically, the numerous strands of family history can be difficult to follow. However, Smarsh would almost surely contend that the specific family strands are less important for readers to grasp than the powerful message of class bias illustrated by those strands. As the author notes, given her ambition, autodidactic nature, and extraordinary beauty, her biological mother could have made more of herself in a different socio-economic situation. But the reality of becoming a teenage mother created hurdles that Smarsh’s mother could never overcome; her lack of money, despite steady employment, complicated every potential move upward. The author’s father, a skilled carpenter and overall handyman, was not a good provider or a dependable husband, but her love for him is fierce, as is her love for grandparents beset by multiple challenges. While she admits that some of those challenges were self-created, others were caused by significant systemic problems perpetuated by government at all levels. Later, when Smarsh finally reached college, she faced a new struggle: overcoming stereotypes about so-called “white trash.” Then, she writes, “I began to understand the depth of the rift that is economic inequality.”
A potent social and economic message embedded within an affecting memoir.
Alternating between two centuries, Kingsolver (Flight Behavior, 2012, etc.) examines the personal and social shocks that ensue when people’s assumptions about the world and their place in it are challenged.
The magazine Willa Knox worked for went broke, and so did the college where her husband, Iano, had tenure, destroying the market value of their Virginia home, which stood on college land. They should be grateful to have inherited a house in Vineland, New Jersey, just a half-hour commute from Iano’s new, non-tenured one-year gig, except it’s falling apart, and they have been abruptly saddled with son Zeke’s infant after his girlfriend commits suicide. In the same town during Ulysses Grant’s presidency, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood is also grappling with a house he can’t afford to repair as well as a headmaster hostile to his wish to discuss Darwin’s theory of evolution with his students and a young wife interested only in social climbing. While Willa strives to understand how her comfortable middle-class life could have vanished overnight, her 26-year-old daughter, Tig, matter-of-factly sees both her mother’s disbelief and her Greek-immigrant grandfather Nick’s racist diatribes and hearty approval of presidential candidate Donald Trump as symptoms of a dying culture of entitlement and unbridled consumption. Lest this all sound schematic, Kingsolver has enfolded her political themes in two dramas of family conflict with full-bodied characters, including Mary Treat, a real-life 19th-century biologist enlisted here as the fictional friend and intellectual support of beleaguered Thatcher. Sexy, mildly feckless Iano and Thatcher’s feisty sister-in-law, Polly, are particularly well-drawn subsidiary figures, and Willa’s doubts and confusion make her the appealing center of the 21st-century story. The paired conclusions, although hardly cheerful, see hope in the indomitable human instinct for survival. Nonetheless, the words that haunt are Tig’s judgment on blinkered America: “All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.”
As always, Kingsolver gives readers plenty to think about. Her warm humanism coupled with an unabashed point of view make her a fine 21st-century exponent of the honorable tradition of politically engaged fiction.
A hedge fund manager on the skids takes a cross-country Greyhound bus trip to reconnect with his college girlfriend, leaving his wife to deal with their autistic 3-year-old.
"Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny's fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye." Shteyngart (Little Failure, 2014, etc.) gleefully sends Barry, on the run from troubles at work as well as his inability to face up to his son's recent diagnosis, on an odyssey that the author himself made on a Greyhound bus during the lead-up to the 2016 election, thus joining Salman Rushdie, Olivia Laing, Curtis Sittenfeld, and others with recent works set in the dawn of the Trump era. Barry is, in some ways, a bit of a Trump himself: He's from Queens, has a serious inferiority/superiority complex, has achieved his success through means other than actual financial genius. Barry, however, is a likable naif whose first stop is Baltimore, where he uses the "friend moves" he developed in middle school to bond with a crack dealer named Javon. He leaves Baltimore with a rock in his pocket and the dream of establishing an Urban Watch Fund, where he would share with underprivileged kids his obsession with Rolexes and Patek Phillipes as a means to self-betterment. In fact, Barry has left New York with not a single change of clothes, only a carry-on suitcase full of absurdly valuable watches. And now there's that crack rock. Off he goes to Richmond, Atlanta, Jackson, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, Phoenix, and La Jolla, the home of an ex he's been out of touch with for years. Alternating chapters visit his wife, Seema, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who's back in New York with their silent son, Shiva, and his nanny, conducting an affair with a downstairs neighbor, a successful Guatemalan writer named Luis Goodman (whose biographical overlap with the real writer Francisco Goldman has all the markings of an inside joke).
As good as anything we've seen from this author: smart, relevant, fundamentally warm-hearted, hilarious of course, and it has a great ending.
A penetrating exposé on the cruelty and mind-bending corruption of privately run prisons across the United States, with a focus on the Winn facility in Louisiana.
That prison was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, but after a shorter version of this book appeared in Mother Jones, the company rebranded as CoreCivic and lost the Winn contract with the government. Bauer (co-author: A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, 2014), who has won the National Magazine Award in addition to many others, spent four months inside the prison as a corrections officer, carrying out an undercover journalism assignment to find the truth behind CCA’s documented record of lies about its practices. At least 8 percent of inmates in state prisons must adjust to the practices of laxly regulated private companies rather than those in government-run facilities. At Winn, correctional officers (a term they prefer to “guard”) risk their safety every day for $9 per hour. Bauer determined that the guards, most of them unarmed, were outnumbered by the inmates by a ratio as high as 200 to 1. The author had also viewed prison from a different perspective, having been incarcerated for two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison because he had unwittingly crossed a border while hiking as a tourist. Despite the awful conditions in his Iranian cell, Bauer found many of the conditions in Louisiana to be even worse. Nearly every page of this tale contains examples of shocking inhumanity. During his four months at Winn, Bauer also noticed a cruelty streak developing in his own character; even some of the inmates told Bauer that he was changing, and not for the better. Interspersed with the chapters about Winn, Bauer includes historical context—e.g., after the end of the Civil War, states continued slavery by a different name, forcing prisoners to pick cotton and perform other grueling tasks that produced income for prison administrations.
A potent, necessary broadside against incarceration in the U.S., which “imprisons a higher portion of its population than any country in the world.”
The author of A God in Ruins (2015) and Life After Life (2013) revisits the Second World War.
Juliet Armstrong is 18 years old and all alone in the world when she’s recruited by MI5. Her job is transcribing meetings of British citizens sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Soon, she’s pulled even deeper into the world of espionage, a world she will ultimately discover is hard to escape—even after she leaves the intelligence service to produce radio programs for the BBC. Atkinson is a careful author, and the title she’s chosen for this novel is more than a description of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort. The concept of writing over or across—meanings available from the Latin roots that make up the word “transcribe”—runs through the book. For example, the British Fascists who think they’re passing secrets to the Third Reich are actually giving them to an English spy; their crimes are both deadly serious and parodic. At the BBC, Juliet creates programming about the past for children, versions of history that rely more on nostalgia than fact. She knows she's creating an idea of England, a scrim to hang over bombed-out buildings and dead bodies. Just as Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels borrow from mystery but exist in a category apart from that genre, her latest is a sort of demystified thriller. There is intrigue. There are surprises. But the unknowns aren’t always what we think they are. The deepest pleasure here, though, is the author’s language. As ever, Atkinson is sharp, precise, and funny. She might be the best Anglophone author working when it comes to adverbs. Consider this exchange: “Trude suddenly declared vehemently, ‘Let’s hope the Germans bomb us the way they bombed Rotterdam.’ ‘Goodness, why?’ Mrs Scaife asked, rather taken aback by the savagery of this outburst. ‘Because then the cowards in government will capitulate and make peace with the Third Reich.’ ‘Do have a scone,’ Mrs Scaife said appeasingly.”
Another beautifully crafted book from an author of great intelligence and empathy.
Lolita wasn’t always considered the great work of literature it has become. Journalist Weinman (editor: Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ’50s, 2015, etc.), who covers the book publishing industry for Publishers Marketplace, describes the struggles Vladimir Nabokov endured trying to find a publisher for his novel about Humbert Humbert’s desire for and abduction of the young Lolita until the notorious Olympia Press published it overseas in 1955. Weinman also recounts the story of journalist Peter Welding’s 1963 article in the men’s magazine Nugget. He argued that the story of 11-year-old Sally Horner’s abduction in 1948 by mechanic Frank La Salle, who claimed for 12 months that she was his daughter, paralleled the Lolita story “much too closely to be coincidental.” Weinman’s book is about her quest to “figure out what [Nabokov] knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it.” Nabokov always denied any real-life influences. Like any good detective, Weinman visited the places Sally visited, talked to people who knew her and La Salle, and visited the schools Sally attended. At times, the author relies on her imagination to re-create Sally’s story: Did Sally imagine escaping; did she pray? In alternating chapters, Weinman recounts the 20-year genesis of Nabokov’s novel, which “emerged piecemeal.” She explores how he and his wife often traveled the country, staying at motels and searching for butterflies, all the while composing Lolita on index cards. The author also draws attention to an August 1952, newspaper article about Sally’s death at 15 and the notes Nabokov took about it. Here, she writes, “is proof that her story captured his attention.” Ultimately, “Lolita’s narrative...depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.”
A tantalizing, entertaining true-life detective and literary story whose roots were hidden deep in a novel that has perplexed and challenged readers for decades.
With impeccable timing, the acclaimed historian focuses on the ways four presidents navigated the country through wrenching clashes and crises.
Pulitzer Prize winner Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, 2013, etc.) profiles Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom she’s written about previously. Lincoln’s “unmatched work ethic, rhetorical abilities, equable nature, and elevated ambition” steered him to the moment in 1862 when he gathered his Cabinet for the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. That document, writes the author, is “remarkable for its flat precision,” revealing Lincoln’s wisdom in reining in rhetorical flourishes “to reach across factions” and avoid moral condemnation of slaveholding states. Goodwin admires Theodore Roosevelt for his ability to change himself from a “nervous, unhealthy, fragile child” to a leader who, through the force of his personality and adept use of the press, protected working-class Americans from vast wealth inequality. Franklin Roosevelt’s amiable confidence and ability to lead by example pushed the country through the Great Depression, while Johnson’s mastery of legislative strategy eventually compelled many national politicians to see that civil rights were long overdue. The most remarkable aspects of this book are the astute psychological portraits of these leaders: comprehensive, human, and engaging, clearly the results of long study. In the final chapters, Goodwin uses short signposts, snippets of advice, to guide readers. For example, in the section about Johnson’s seemingly insurmountable passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she writes, “make a dramatic start” and “establish the most effective order of battle,” and then follows that line with several paragraphs about why Johnson fought to pass a tax cut before attempting the more momentous civil rights bill. These demarcations clarify the labyrinthine political and cultural issues the presidents confronted.
In intimate, knowing ways, Goodwin crafts history as aspiration—or at least inspiration—for readers; let’s hope a hefty portion of those readers have titles that begin with Sen. or Rep.
Lethem (A Gambler’s Anatomy, 2016, etc.) returns with his first surrealistic, genre-bending detective novel since Motherless Brooklyn (1999).
Having long abandoned Brooklyn for the West Coast, Lethem has written a hallucinatory novel set in the desert fringes of the Inland Empire in California. Readers, many of whom should be absorbed by this story, will soon realize the author has more to say about the current state of America and his deeply fractured heroine than lies on the surface. Our narrator is Phoebe Siegler, once a bourgeois Manhattanite with a sarcastic streak, now unmoored by the last presidential election. Trying to break her malaise, she travels to Los Angeles at the behest of a friend whose teenage daughter has disappeared during a Leonard Cohen–inspired pilgrimage to Mount Baldy. She’s referred to private detective Charles Heist, a “fiftyish cowboyish fellow” dubbed “The Feral Detective” for his predilection for saving strays, be they kids or animals. What might have devolved into a Coen Brothers–esque farce instead offers a dark reflection on human nature as Heist introduces Phoebe to something like a cult living on the fringes of society—what might happen if hippies and outcasts left civilization, never to return, devolving into a tribal, ritualistic culture tinged with conspiracy theory. It’s a place where the seemingly laconic Heist has deep roots and a culture where his mere presence yields disturbing violence. There’s not really a mystery to solve, and the sexual tension between Phoebe and Heist feels obligatory, but Lethem fills his canvas with tinder-dry tension. The subtext is the division in American society, but the personal nature of Phoebe’s tectonic shift in the desert is palpable, made flesh by Lethem’s linguistic alchemy. “Old fears had flown the coop without my noticing and been replaced: I was positively aching to abscond into the Mojave again, the fewer road signs the better,” she says. “No cities for me now, or families or tribes.”
A haunting tour of the gulf between the privileged and the dispossessed.
The celebrated New Yorker writer and Bancroft Prize winner tells the American story.
“A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos,” writes Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; Joe Gould’s Teeth, 2016, etc.). In this mammoth, wonderfully readable history of the United States from Columbus to Trump, the author relies on primary sources to “let the dead speak for themselves,” creating an enthralling, often dramatic narrative of the American political experiment based on Thomas Jefferson’s “truths” of political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. The author recounts major events—the Revolution, Civil War, world wars, Vietnam, 9/11, and the war on terror—while emphasizing the importance of facts and evidence in the national story, as well as the roles of slavery (“America’s Achilles’ heel”) and women, both absent in the founding documents. Lepore offers crisp, vivid portraits of individuals from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine to Liberator writer Maria W. Stewart and preacher David Walker to contemporaries like “rascal” Bill Clinton, sporting a “grin like a 1930s comic-strip scamp.” “To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present,” writes the author, noting recurrent debates about guns, abortion, and race. “Slavery wasn’t an aberration in an industrial economy; slavery was its engine,” she reminds. Throughout, Lepore provides sharp observations (“instead of Marx, America had Thoreau”) and exquisite summaries: In World War I, “machines slaughtered the masses. Europe fell to its knees. The United States rose to its feet.” She discusses the “aching want” of the Depression and the “frantic, desperate, and paranoid” politics of today. Always with style and intelligence, Lepore weaves stories of immigrants and minorities, creates moving scenes (Margaret Fuller’s death in a storm off New York City), and describes the importance of photography and printed newspapers in the lives of a divided people now “cast adrift on the ocean of the Internet.”
A splendid rendering—filled with triumph, tragedy, and hope—that will please Lepore’s readers immensely and win her many new ones.
A ripped-from-the-headlines book offering copious evidence of the Republican Party’s relentless efforts to strip eligible voters of their right to cast ballots.
After providing a look back at voter suppression throughout the history of the United States, Anderson (African-American Studies/Emory Univ.)—who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016), her top-notch dissection of racial issues in America—focuses on the years since 2013, when elected Republicans in the majority of states and in Congress ratcheted up their anti-democracy, racist campaign to reduce the number of black voters. The author begins by delineating the requirements imposed on voter identification at polling places. In general, the requirement to have a specific government-issued ID with an up-to-date photograph hits blacks and low-income individuals the hardest, and election officials specifying the requirements are acutely aware of that reality. As Anderson shows, they realize that voter fraud is essentially nonexistent in most locales, but they spread misinformation about the pervasive problem to defeat court challenges. In the next chapter, the author explains the inhumane and often illegal tactic of purging eligible voters from the master list. The officials often refuse to tell voters that a purge has occurred, rendering those voters helpless on election day. In her chapter “Rigging the Rules,” Anderson focuses on the pernicious creep of disenfranchisement through gerrymandering. Many opponents of more accessible voting practices distinguish artificially between race-based gerrymandering and purely political gerrymandering of legislative districts, but the author offers persuasive evidence that both forms primarily target people of color. In the concluding chapter, “At the Crossroads of Half Slave, Half Free,” Anderson connects Russian meddling in the 2016 election cycle with Republican voter suppression tactics.
Anderson is a highly praised academic who has mastered the art of gathering information and writing for a general readership, and her latest book could not be more timely.
As up-to-the-minute as a Kendrick Lamar track and as ruefully steeped in eternal truths as a Gogol tale, these stories of young working-class black men coming into their dubious inheritances mark the debut of an assured young talent in American storytelling.
We’ll start with Gio since his is the voice telling most of these interrelated stories of love, longing, and thwarted aspiration among men of color growing up in the hilly, blue-collar enclave of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He is the mixed-race son of a professional football player named Lonnie “The Lion” Campbell, whose career, along with his mind, declined in shockingly abrupt ways. Dub, one of Gio’s childhood friends, dreamed of playing pro football though, as Gio recounts, he wasn’t as good as their other friend, Rye, who as an adult answers to the dual calling of dealing drugs and fighting fires. Then there’s Rolls, whose hard, street-coarsened manner belies a spirit romantic and inquisitive enough to become absorbed in photography. Each of these four young men, as different in temperament as they are similar in sensitivity, is enmeshed in struggles to break free of the constrictions imposed on his dreams by society and by himself. Gio, who has come into considerable money in part because of a settlement with the NFL over his dad’s untimely deterioration and death, is shown squandering these funds on drugs and other diversions in New York City while flashing gifts as a free-style rap artist. At least he gets out of Pawtucket while his friends struggle with their respective demons—and with the wise and often too-forbearing women in their lives. The stories are by turns comedic, bawdy, heartbreaking, and grisly. What links them all is the heady style deployed throughout; language with the same taut rhythm and blunt imagery as the best hip-hop yet capable of intermittent surges of lyricism that F. Scott Fitzgerald in his own precocious stories of youthful romance and remorse could summon.
The publisher says Holmes is working on his first novel. This collection makes you thirst for whatever’s coming next.