A self-effacing life devoted to obsessive minutiae is cracked open in this oblique, disturbing, yet oddly compelling tale.
Surreal and haunting, Aridjis’ (Book of Clouds, 2009) understated second novel, set in London, traces a decisive phase in the life of Marie, a 33-year-old museum guard who has worked at the National Gallery for nearly 10 years. With her days spent almost invisibly among the visitors and paintings, her free time is passed in similarly low-key fashion, hanging out with a poet friend, Daniel, or working on a collection of peculiar sculptures—landscapes made inside eggshells. Marie’s hypnotic half-life is dotted with eccentric characters—a taxidermist; her flatmate, who is obsessed with moth strips—and brief yet telling descriptive sidebars about strange details, like the causes of craquelure (cracked varnish on old paintings) or the destruction of a famous work of art at the gallery by a suffragette, an act witnessed by Marie’s great-grandfather. Prisons, mental institutions and peculiar visions of decay crop up repeatedly, while actual events are few. But during a strange, vaguely unpleasant holiday in Paris with Daniel, a chance encounter in a dilapidated chateau pushes Marie over an invisible line.
Dark and peculiar, simultaneously sinister and playful, Aridjis’ modern gothic vision will charm those prepared to linger in her cabinet of curiosities.
A gifted American fiction writer tackles little slivers of crime from the points of view of young women on the verge of self-discovery.
Had these hardhearted stories of trespassers, exiles and beautiful losers come from one of the regular blokes, readers would label them noir and call it a day. But in the hands of superlative writer van den Berg (What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, 2009), these stories seem to dig a little deeper and resonate a little longer. In the opening story, “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” a woman on her honeymoon realizes a series of natural disasters is merely a precursor to the looming tragedy of her own marriage. “Opa-Locka” is a traditional private-eye story about two sisters playing detective, waiting to see how the story ends. Two fantastic and very different stories are the collection’s highlights. “Lessons” captures a moment in the risky lives of a gang of rural youngsters who have reimagined themselves as stickup artists. “Why didn’t they go to school and get regular jobs and get married and live in houses?” it asks. “The short answer: they are a group of people committed to making life as hard as possible.” Meanwhile, in “Acrobat,” a woman whose husband abandons her in Paris falls in with a band of street performers who adopts her as one of their own. In “Antarctica,” a rather uncommon housewife travels a vast distance to a remote scientific base at the South Pole to discover how her brother died. “The Greatest Escape” finds a young woman wrestling with the long-ago disappearance of her father. Finally, the title story successfully integrates all of van den Berg’s gifts for stories of mistaken identity, unresolved menace and uncomfortable insight. With prose as crisp and cool as that of Richard Lange or Patricia Highsmith, van den Berg is someone to keep track of.
A mesmerizing collection of stories about the secrets that keep us.
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.
This remarkable first novel imagines a center for journalists, all refugees who were forced to emigrate, its irrepressible leader, Julian Snowman, and his oppressive regime of liberal piety, and the stories of his damaged but legendary clients.
Julian created the House of Journalists; it is his baby. The residents are called “fellows”; the emphasis is on “fellowship,” and yet Julian’s attitude is paternalistic, even patronizing—after all he is their patron. The novel lets several “fellows” who are not all fellows tell their tales. The testimonies of Agnes and Sonny, the wheelchair-bound Mr. Stan and the mournful Mustapha are harrowing tales of torture and rape, narrow escapes and picaresque odysseys. Sonny, scrounging discarded fast food in a first-world capital, remarks: “It tasted corporate, industrialized, first world, throwaway. One day I would throw away food like this, I promised myself.” We hear, too, from the volunteers and mentors, from a government minister and a profane, prize-winning writer. The mysterious AA, a new arrival, is the only one to escape from the House as little-known as when he arrives. His presence unnerves the increasingly paranoid Julian, who jealously guards his fellows—whose lives are his livelihood. Finch, former director of communications for the Refugee Council, at present works for a London think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. Here, he demonstrates an instinctive grasp of the malleability of fiction.
A man attempts to put his past behind him and start a new life in the lawless society left behind in a storm-wracked post-societal Gulf Coast.
When a series of ever more intense storms causes widespread devastation along the Gulf Coast, the U.S. government creates the Line. North of the Line, there is safety, security and the rule of law. South of the line is a lawless, storm-lashed no man’s land where supplies are short, life is cheap, and might makes right. Cohen, who was born and raised near the Gulf, stayed on after almost everyone else evacuated, kept in place by memories of his dead wife and unborn child, who died during the unfolding environmental disaster’s early days. One day, on his way back from a supply run, Cohen is ambushed by a young couple, who proceed to steal his Jeep and leave him for dead. When he eventually makes his way back to his home, he finds the place has been ransacked, his supplies have been looted, and, most troubling of all, his remaining mementos of his past life with his wife have been taken. With all that he cares about gone, Cohen heads out to recover his lost memories and to seek revenge against those who stole from him. Instead of revenge, though, he finds what may just be a reason to go on living. But in order to go on living, he’s going to have to head north, and there are many obstacles to overcome before Cohen can safely cross the Line to start a new life. Smith’s vision of a post-apocalyptic society left behind by civilization is expertly executed. This world is chilling—all the more so for its believability—and it is peopled by compelling, fully realized characters, some of whom only exist in the form of ghosts. In contrast to this bleak world, Smith’s prose is lush, descriptive and even beautiful. A compelling plot, fueled by a mounting sense of tension and hope in the face of increasing hopelessness, will keep readers engrossed to the very end.
The rich cultural and religious history of Pakistan dictated through a journalist’s personal stories.
Born in America to Pakistani parents, Mufti (Journalism/Univ. of Richmond) considers himself a native of both lands. He spares readers “every torturous twist and turn in Pakistan’s modern history,” opting for a harmonic analysis of the sovereign country from both a frontline journalistic approach and a familial, homeland perspective. Mufti proudly unspools his country’s tapestry of allegiance and warring strife and embeds his own family’s legacy within it. The nuances of his parents’ arranged marriage amid the violence of the Pakistan-India war of 1965 merges into his father Shahzad’s struggle to maintain order throughout a doctoral tenure amid political upheavals in the 1970s. A decade later, after his father had accepted a medical school professorship at Ohio University, the author was born into an era where being Muslim equated with an allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini. He traces his earliest memory of Pakistan from age 4, settling in Lahore, war-torn by Indian army attacks. The author pauses to reflect on how the Islamic culture became (and continues to be) denigrated in the shadow of 9/11 and posits that even a cease-fire in the Afghanistan War would still fail to curb the senseless violence decimating Pakistan. Steeped in personal anecdotes, Mufti writes of bomb scares and defiant million-man marches on the streets of Islamabad as a roving journalist and gingerly dissects the roots of his surname, which can be traced back to the prophet Muhammad. Yet he ponders if he will ever live to see a quiescence between Islam and the West.
An undeniable visionary, Mufti insightfully glances back at Pakistan’s past and nods hopefully toward its precarious future.
Behind the scenes in the life of a teacher in the Bronx.
With honesty and refreshing straightforwardness, Garon delivers true stories of her time spent in high school classrooms in the Bronx through accounts of her students and personal emails. She places readers on the front lines with her pupils as they navigate rough moments and face difficult decisions in their lives. Some students considered joining gangs, some girls were pressured into sex and then needed to deal with unplanned pregnancies, some struggled to deal with the death of a loved one—through it all, Garon was there to offer advice, support and friendship on whatever terms were accepted by each individual student. She battled the need to teach English with insufficient books while trying to maintain discipline in the crowded classrooms; meanwhile, mice and cockroaches ran all over the school. Fights broke out constantly between gang members and because of rivalries over girls; gun scares were a common issue; and some kids didn’t have the required shoes, so they didn't bother to show up for gym. Along the way, Garon discovered that if you learn to relate to kids on their level, gain an understanding of their backgrounds and tie that to a classroom lesson, then kids are going to learn. Due to poverty and a lack of sufficient, helpful parenting, "students come to school emotionally and physically unprepared to learn…to expect that the students who endure these crises can regularly come to school, quietly sit down at their desks, and turn in their homework without incident…is absurd; the only thing more shocking is that sometimes they actually do manage this herculean task."
A gritty and candid exposé of inner-city teaching.
Having discovered (again) that superior firepower does poorly against guerrillas, America’s military adopted its current counterinsurgency doctrine, an object of almost universal praise. Not all was deserved, writes journalist Gezari (Narrative Nonfiction and War Reporting/Univ. of Michigan) in this insightful but disturbing account of the Human Terrain System, a program designed to bring social science to the battlefield.
Launched in 2006, each HTS team ostensibly consists of a scholar to gather data on an area’s culture, politics, demographics and needs. Other team members integrate this information and pass it on to the local American military unit, allowing it to resolve disputes, identify problems before they turn violent, and avoid causing needless offense. Gezari begins with one team’s disastrous experience. A young woman anthropologist, dedicated and popular, was talking with a young Afghan when he suddenly doused her with gasoline and set her afire. He was captured, and a distraught team member killed him. The team member was convicted of the murder. Attempting to comprehend the offender, the author interviewed his fellow villagers. All denounced the crime, but their explanations were oddly contradictory. Understanding foreign cultures is difficult. Gezari points out that America contains too few scholars familiar with Afghanistan, so many teams are clueless. Members often serve for the wrong reasons, since the civilian contractor earns $250,000-$350,000 per year. The Defense Department remains enthusiastic, but few claim that matters in Afghanistan are going well.
Although his subject was Iraq, Peter Van Buren covered the same ground in his hilarious We Meant Well (2011). Gezari eschews humor but delivers a gripping report on another of America’s painful, surprisingly difficult efforts to win hearts and minds.
An independent scholar’s engagingly provocative account of her encounters with the once-reviled former first lady of South Vietnam, Madame Nhu.
Demery’s obsession with the infamous “Dragon Lady” of Southeast Asia began when she was a child. As an adult, she came to realize that the glamour that had captivated her also encapsulated a very contemporary problem for women involved in politics. Apart from what she actually accomplished, any powerful female who also looked good would always be a media target. Not surprisingly, little of substance had been written about Madame Nhu, who went into seclusion in 1986; yet Demery managed to track her down to an apartment in Paris. For more than five years, the two carried on a conversation via phone and email that often seemed like an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, with Madame Nhu constantly testing Demery and holding herself “just out of reach.” The young scholar still managed to learn that Madame Nhu grew up an unloved and neglected child. But shrewd personal choices allowed her to outdo either of her coddled sisters and marry the brother of the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dihn Diem. Fiery and theatrical, Madame Nhu seized the opportunity to play an important role in her future by “launch[ing] herself into the political vacuum created by a distant pen-pushing prime minister and his furtive brother.” Not only did she take on the traditional “hostess” responsibilities of first lady, she also helped enact legislation to uplift the status of women while working behind the scenes to stave off coup attempts from rebel communist forces. However, her beauty and outspokenness worked against her in conservative Kennedy-era America, which eventually supported the uprising that killed both her husband and President Diem. Smart and well-researched, Demery’s biography offers insight into both an intriguing figure and the complicated historical moment with which she became eternally identified.
A spellbinding biography tracing Robert Griffin III’s meteoric rise to sport superstardom.
In his debut book, Washington Post writer Sheinin crafts an engrossing portrait of Griffin, aka RG3, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner and the current quarterback for the Washington Redskins. However, Sheinin’s work transcends RG3’s on-field heroics, focusing instead on the psychological portrait of a man whose personality and demeanor appear at odds with the typical franchise quarterback. “In school, Griffin was that rare kid who bridged social cliques,” writes the author, “a star jock who also liked poetry, who made straight A’s, who wore silly socks and still loved his superhero figurines.” He was also a boy who loved football third (after basketball and track) and who, at the age of 12, promised his mother that if tackled, he would quit the sport altogether. It was just the motivation he required to ensure that he wasn’t brought down, the spark that kept him pulling a tire uphill late into the evening as he transformed himself into an athlete of the highest level. Sheinin, who spent a year reporting on RG3, provides rare insight into the star’s home life by incorporating firsthand interviews with Griffin’s parents, both of whom describe raising their son in a Christian, color-blind household. Yet upon RG3’s entrance onto the national stage, the young quarterback soon found himself embroiled in a racially charged maelstrom when an African-American commentator insinuated that Griffin wasn’t a true “brother.” RG3’s skillful handling of the situation further proved that he was “comfortable in the spotlight, but wasn’t one to seek it out”—a man who, while mysterious, was quite clear in his preference for heaving touchdowns rather than making headlines.
Insightful, engaging and a must-read for sports fans interested in teasing out the true RG3.