In this witty take on 1980s Philadelphia, a young girl comes of age and learns to navigate love, loss, school and family.
Kenya, whom we meet at age 7 and watch graduate from high school into womanhood, is the daughter of Afrocentric parents. Their politics and yearly celebration of Kwanzaa, which entails “sporting an orange, yellow and brown dashiki and a forehead-straining vertical braided hairstyle,” make Kenya a social pariah even at her all-black school. In Kenya, Solomon has crafted a character of irrepressible verve and voice who carries us joyously through the novel—even after she witnesses her parents’ breakup, when her father is imprisoned for injuring her mother with a gun. With the separation, Kenya is propelled from her safe black Philly world into the white world of an elite private school—the very world her father fled, traumatized and bitter. Here, she becomes a master of code-switching to fit in, all while knowing that her classmates will never truly accept her. After a chance meeting with a black boy from her old neighborhood turns into a failed love affair, Kenya seeks comfort in a visit to her father, newly released from prison. The scenes with Kenya’s father, who's enjoying a bigamous life with two new wives and two new sets of kids, are razor-sharp on the contradictions of identity—here, for example, we see Kenya’s father, a staunch activist for African-American rights, unable to make the link to respect women’s rights. Kenya has a palpable need for her father to become a solid, guiding force as she steps into womanhood, but he can’t do it. And when her stepfather loses all her mother’s money, Kenya’s future college education doesn't quite go as planned. In this debut novel, Solomon (Get Down, 2008) examines the confusing moments on the verge of adulthood within the ever shifting makeup of family and society.
Blackness, feminism and the loss of virginity have never been analyzed by a more astute and witty main character.
Tyler’s 20th novel (The Beginner’s Goodbye, 2012, etc.) again centers on family life in Baltimore, still a fresh and compelling subject in the hands of this gifted veteran.
She opens in 1994, with Red and Abby Whitshank angsting over a phone call from their 19-year-old son, Denny. In a few sharp pages we get the family dynamic: Red can be critical, Abby can be smothering, and Denny reacts to any criticism by dropping out of sight. But as Part 1 unfolds, primarily from 2012 on, we see Denny has a history of wandering in and out of the Whitshank home on Bouton Road just often enough to keep his family guessing about the jobs and relationships he acquires and discards (“ ‘Boring’ seemed to be his favorite word”) while resenting his siblings’ assumption that he can’t be relied on. This becomes an increasingly fraught issue after Red has a heart attack and Abby begins to have “mind skips”; Tyler sensitively depicts the conflicts about how to deal with their aging parents among take-charge Amanda, underappreciated Jeannie and low-key Stem, whose unfailing good nature and designation as heir to Whitshank Construction infuriate Denny. A sudden death sends Tyler back in time to explore the truth behind several oft-recounted Whitshank stories, including the day Abby fell in love with Red and the origins of Junior, the patriarch who built the Bouton Road home in 1936. We see a pattern of scheming to appropriate things that belong to others and of slowly recognizing unglamorous, trying true love—but that’s only a schematic approximation of the lovely insights Tyler gives us into an ordinary family who, “like most families...imagined they were special.” They will be special to readers thanks to the extraordinary richness and delicacy with which Tyler limns complex interactions and mixed feelings familiar to us all and yet marvelously particular to the empathetically rendered members of the Whitshank clan.
The texture of everyday experience transmuted into art.
A memoir of the author’s incredibly dysfunctional nuclear family.
Porpora’s mother was a foulmouthed alcoholic who insulted the masculinity of her young sons and their very old father, whom she also accused of pedophilia and abuse. The former was likely a fantasy, the latter perhaps was not—or maybe it was self-defense on the part of the father, who was perpetually impoverished. It was hard to tell how the courts could justify custody to either one of them, though it occasionally reverted from one to the other, she fleeing to Arizona with her sons (occasionally living in her car or transient motels), he remaining in New York, where he once rented from a mother whose daughter became the author’s friend, until she was kidnapped and molested and they had to move. The primary solace of Porpora’s life was a dog who lived with his mother, but the dog eventually died. The boy had no friends except for, inexplicably, the most popular boy in school, a star athlete who avoided drugs until he became a heroin addict. Porpora wore a T-shirt with a picture of his dog on it, which was one of the reasons other classmates shunned him and called him gay. So did his mother and brother, and none of this seemed to register with the author as anything but the worst insult they could think of, until he belatedly realized that he was, in fact, gay. (The author does not explore the issue of sexual identity.) For reasons never really explained, he came to idolize Roger Ebert and took inspiration from an encounter with the film critic. He also had support from teachers, who recognized his writing promise.
As one teacher exulted after his acceptance to the Columbia Journalism School, “[p]eople with stories like yours don’t end up in the Ivy League.” And yet Porpora did, and now his stories have become the material for his piercing first book.
The 1989 rape of a 15-year-old golden girl profoundly alters her suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood and all those who love her.
"I imagine that many children in South Louisiana have stories similar to this one, and when they grow up, they move out into the world and tell them," says the narrator of Walsh's debut novel, looking back on the floods, fires, mosquitoes, heat waves and psychopaths of his childhood. Probably so—but only a few can do it with the beauty, terror and wisdom found in these addictive pages. When Lindy Simpson's childhood is abruptly ended one evening as she bikes home from track practice, so much goes with it, including the innocence of the 14-year-old boy who loves her to the point of obsession—and eventually becomes a suspect in the crime himself. He fills in the events of the next few years in a style that recalls the best of Pat Conroy: the rich Southern atmosphere, the interplay of darkness and light in adolescence, the combination of brisk narrative suspense with philosophical musings on memory, manhood and truth. All the supporting characters, from the neighborhood kids and parents to walk-ons like the narrator's cool uncle Barry and a guy we meet in the penultimate chapter at the LSU/Florida Gators game in 2007, are both particular and real. So is the ambience of late '80s and early '90s America, from the explosion of the Challenger to the Jeffrey Dahmer nightmare. In fact, one of the very few missteps is a weirdly dropped-in disquisition on Hurricane Katrina. That's easy to forgive, though, as you suck down the story like a cold beer on a hot Louisiana afternoon.
Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.
The extraordinary life of Karl Marx’s feisty feminist youngest daughter told with passionate sympathy and conviction.
The relationship between her committed socialist parents forms the key to the vivacious life of Eleanor “Tussy” Marx (1855-1898), as portrayed chronologically by British writer Holmes (African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus, 2007, etc.). Exiled from Germany and France after their participation in the failed democratic revolutions convulsing Europe in 1848, the Marxes relocated to London. With only three surviving daughters, they scraped by largely thanks to colleague Frederick Engels’ generous subsidies. While the two elder daughters enjoyed some formal education, Tussy was mostly schooled at her parents’ knees, imbued with their firebrand ideals of collectivism and internationalism and their advocacy for the proletariat and the principles of the International Workingmen’s Association, and she aided her beloved father in his research for his opus Capital at the Reading Room in the British Museum. Having watched her mother’s intelligence and ambition subsumed by her father’s work, then seeing her two older married sisters shackled by motherhood and household drudgery, Tussy chose free love with talented older men and an autonomous life earning her own wages as a tutor, translator and writer. Indeed, writes Holmes in this consistently illuminating biography, she was the “apple of [her father’s] eye” and later became his executor. She channeled her high spirits first into the theater (she and her father had recited Shakespeare together as a way for him to learn English), translated Madame Bovary into English, among other works, and eventually set up house in London with the “reptilian” fellow actor and intellectual Edward Aveling, who never married her despite his 14-year promises. Holmes is absolutely outraged by Aveling’s betrayal and Tussy’s horrifying, untimely death—a tragic tale of a brilliant light eclipsed by the stifling patriarchy of her age.
A full-fleshed, thrilling portrait, troubling and full of family secrets.
The author’s sixth collection of short fiction features stories linked by place, character, verbal echo, and a master’s hand for foibles and fellowship.
The place is mostly Minneapolis, the repeated phrase is that of the title, with its modest appeal and its larger reminder that no one gets through life without hearing a call or cry for help. A young pediatrician bravely breaks up a mugging. A man who has been mugged (and whose assailant in another story will need help with his drug addiction) stops a woman from leaping off a bridge. A man gives shelter to his ex-wife after she turns into a bag lady. (The book’s last use of the title comes somewhat too pointedly from a Schindler Jew.) Several characters have encounters that suggest nonhuman help is available (a spiritual element also lies in the ten stories named after five virtues and five vices). The pediatrician’s wife on their Prague honeymoon hears a crone’s prophecy of her pregnancy. The doctor, the book’s most frequently recurring figure, spends most of one story talking to the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock on a park bench and then asks his wife to pray for him. Bare storylines can’t convey the quickly captivating simple narratives around them or the revealing moments to which Baxter (Gryphon, 2011, etc.) brings the reader, like the doctor’s exhilaration with the physical violence of beating the muggers. Similarly, Baxter, a published poet, at times pushes his fluid, controlled prose to headier altitudes, as in “high wispy cirrus clouds threading the sky like promissory notes.”
Nearly as organic as a novel, this is more intriguing, more fun in disclosing its connective tissues through tales that stand well on their own.
Strange things happen when Radar Radmanovic is around. For that matter, in Larsen’s (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, 2009) peripatetic sophomore novel, strange things bring Radar around in the first place—and thereon hangs a tale.
Radar—“You know, radar. Like bats. And aeroplanes,” says his father by way of explanation—is notably dark-skinned, though his parents are pale and even pasty. Says the attending doctor, “This will correct itself.” It does not, and Radar, the author of many quests, is left to puzzle out a cure, if a cure is in fact wanted, as certainly his mother believes is the case. The search for an answer, until one finally dawns on mom, leads him into the company of a strange congeries of supposed doctors who are really something on the order of performance artists; warns a well-meaning but ineffectual telegram, “They have no idea what they are doing.” What they’re doing is traveling around performing oddball theatrical pieces in war zones such as Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Bosnia of the early 1990s, but there’s a deeper purpose to their wanderings, and in that respect, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what they’re up to after all, even if it might not make immediate sense to the reader. Larsen’s tale enters into arcane realms indeed, all talk of rolling blackouts, melanin in the substantia nigra, Nikola Tesla, sunspots, probability, Schrödinger’s cat, and the etiology of epilepsy told in a sequence of loopily connected tales that all somehow wind up back in the marshes of New Jersey. Radar has moments of epiphany (“There was no such thing as Radar’s syndrome. There had never been a syndrome. There was only him”). The connections are not always obvious, and some are more successfully forged than others; indeed, some parts are nearly self-contained and are stronger than the whole. And if the ending strains credulity—and a tale about memory that stars a certain Dr. Funes strains patience as well—then it succeeds in bringing those stories under a single roof.
If Larsen’s story makes demands of its readers, it also offers plenty of rewards. Imaginative, original, nicely surreal—and hyperpigmentarily so.
In his second collection of short stories, Bradford (Dogwalker, 2001, etc.) delights with surprising tales of young men and women struggling to connect.
The title story sets the tone in just a few pages: While trying to impress friends with an ill-advised dive into a river, Otto badly injures himself when he collides with a turtle. Absurd enough, yes, but Bradford doesn’t stop there, and the story morphs into one of rehabilitation—not only Otto’s, but also the injured turtle’s. These stories move quickly and turn strange corners: Each one is like a guy who's torn off his clothes and decided to run through an office building. A story about a man taking a one-armed woman on a date becomes the story of a dead cat. A story about two strangers on a drive becomes the story of a burned kitchen and incinerated eyebrows. You get the idea. Underpinning each piece, though, however chaotic its construction may seem, is Bradford’s sensitivity to his characters. He loves these people, even as they make horrible decisions and form complicated (and sometimes self-destructive) bonds. The collection’s best story might be “Snakebite,” in which a man with the titular affliction nearly dies at a stranger’s wedding only to find Jesus and become the life of the party. The story moves swiftly and has a lot of action, but it’s the quiet moments that resonate: a misplaced kiss, a borrowed tie. Bradford has a great sense of the ways in which people reach out for one another. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the stories occasionally feel overly busy, and this busyness drowns out the heartbeats of the characters—but then there’s another crisis, another laugh, and any complaints get swallowed up by the messiness of life.
Art and life are intertwined in a novel about TV sitcoms set during the cultural sea change of the 1960s.
Hornby's (Juliet, Naked, 2009, etc.) most ambitious novel to date extends his passion for pop culture and empathy for flawed characters in to the world of television comedy. From her girlhood days in working-class Blackpool, Barbara Parker idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of emulating her. Yet such a career seems impossible to a young woman whose closest brush with upward mobility comes when she wins a local beauty contest—then quickly abdicates her crown, realizing it would tie her closer to home rather than provide a ticket out. She realizes she has to go to London, a city where she has no connections or realistic prospects and where she discovers “that she wasn’t as lovely as she had been in Blackpool; or, rather, her beauty was much less remarkable here." There's one thing that makes her stand out from the other lovely girls, though: "She was pretty sure...that none of [them] wanted to make people laugh.” Through a series of chance encounters that seem like destiny, she does achieve her dreams, getting cast on a popular BBC comedy and even meeting Lucy, who “looked old, though, in the way that a ghost looks old.” It’s the supporting characters who really enrich this novel—the producer/director whose devotion to his star is more than professional; the gay writers who are initially semicloseted and whose paths will diverge; the male star whom this newcomer—now dubbed Sophie Straw—quickly eclipses. Hornby makes the reader care for his characters as much as he does and retains a light touch with the deeper social implications, as women, gays, popular entertainment and the culture in general experience social upheaval.
Years later, Sophie is getting ready to star in a play that's intended to revive her career. “The play is much better than I thought it was going to be," she thinks. "It’s funny, and sad—like life.” And like this novel.
Connors (Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, 2012) reflects candidly on the years he spent unmoored after a family tragedy; he continuously found himself in places he felt apart from.
“A natty socialist at the Wall Street Journal. A white guy in a black neighborhood. Strange how comfortable my discomfort became,” writes the author, who, at the age of 23, after the shocking death of his brother, turned completely inward, “a man shrouded in almost total self-regard." As Connors struggled to find a place for his pain where it wouldn’t devour him, he stumbled into a career in journalism, even after he convinced himself he had given up on the business. “But the fact was I’d borrowed twenty-five grand to pay for an education in print journalism,” he writes, “so I had little choice but to pursue a career in print journalism.” At his desk in the Leisure & Arts section of the WSJ, surrounded by conservative editorial writers, Connors proudly displayed his left-wing politics by hanging posters of Emma Goldman and Ralph Nader. He had passionate, failed affairs and emotionally charged encounters with his neighbors as one of the only white faces in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Connors' missing sense of purpose is keenly felt through passages that combine lyricism with dark humor to draw lines between grief and the uncanny. His search toward understanding his brother's death—which included studying graphic images from the autopsy report and reaching out to his brother’s ex-girlfriends—ultimately ends in a place of belonging. But the redemptive ending of this story, which Connors smartly does not dwell on, is far less compelling than the unique and brutally raw accounts of his search for connection.
Unlike other, neater narratives of being lost and found, Connors’ story—told with harrowing insight and fierce prose—is messy and incomplete and makes no apologies for being anything but.
A dark thriller that asks readers to imagine whom they would be if they could be anyone. Literally.
The entity known as Kepler has been hopping from body to body for centuries, ever since trauma threw him from his original, dying body into his murderer’s. All it takes now is a moment of skin-to-skin contact to jump from one skin to the next. Mostly, Kepler sees these borrowed bodies and lives as a kind of hobby, something to fix up a bit before moving on. But Josephine Cebula has become something more, because somebody killed her while looking for the spirit temporarily inhabiting her flesh. That somebody has a file on Josephine and Kepler that’s remarkably accurate—except for the part where it blames them for four murders. This fast-paced tale starts with a bang and continues with a bunch more of them. The pace never slows, and there are plenty of chases and fights, but the novel still reveals more and more depth as it goes along. North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, 2014) fully imagines how the long and varied life of a “ghost” could work to slowly strip away empathy for ordinary humans—as Kepler says, “consequences are for the flesh”—and could also create an intense yearning for human connection.
The high stakes and breakneck pace of the plot will draw readers in, and the meditations on what it means to be human and to be loved will linger long after the last shot is fired.
Heiny explores sex, relationships and the internal lives of young women in this charmingly candid collection of short stories.
The women who populate the pages of Heiny’s disarming debut are girlfriends, mistresses and wives. They are best friends, roommates and lovers. They are intelligent but not always ambitious—keenly insightful but sometimes, perhaps willfully, blind to their own deeper desires—with loyalties and libidos that may be at odds and morals that may be in question. Despite the title, not all are single (or carefree or mellow), but they are all singular, and following their stories is like sitting at a dive bar tossing back deceptively pretty, surprisingly strong drinks with a pal who may not always make the best decisions but always comes away with the most colorful tales. In fact, “The Dive Bar” is the title of the first story. In it, we meet Sasha, an attractive 26-year-old writer whose boyfriend has left his wife for her. After a confrontation with the boyfriend’s wife, Sasha reluctantly mulls the morality of her choices, but for her, morality is really (boringly) beside the point, and she instead finds herself sinking sideways into the next chapter of her life, a happy one, from all indications. Heiny’s characters often find themselves propelled through life by circumstances: The death of a beloved dog can lead inexorably to marriage, pregnancy and secret affairs, as it does for Maya, the protagonist of three of these stories, and her kind, kindred-spirit boyfriend/fiance/husband, Rhodes. Not all the women here are as appealing as Sasha and Maya, and the less we like them, the less charmed we may be by their careless misbehavior. By the end of the book—as by the end of a night at the bar with our metaphorical, engagingly louche friend—we might not find ourselves overly reluctant to part company.
These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un–self-aware, but they are beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.
Biographer Morris (Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, 2010, etc.) resurrects the career of Ethel Payne (1911-1991), journalist, labor union and civil rights advocate, traveler on the African continent, journalism professor and pioneer in the American race wars.
Struggling to obtain a formal education during an era when women, especially African-American women, found most schooling off-limits, Payne did not find her calling as a journalist until she was nearly 40. Before that, she labored in a Chicago library and found employment in Japan helping African-American military personnel stationed by the Pentagon adjust to life abroad. All along, she wanted to become a writer. Growing up in Chicago, Payne was aware of the Chicago Defender, the most prominent newspaper in the country owned by an African-American and devoted to writing about them from a perspective radically different from that of the Caucasian-owned media. While working in Japan in 1950, Payne met a Defender reporter who had served the United States during World War II and at the time was writing about the role of African-American soldiers in the Korean War. Payne, an impressive individual by any standard, parlayed the acquaintanceship into a salaried job. During a journalism career that began at the Defender and resumed there after a hiatus caused by the newspaper’s sometimes-mercurial publisher, Payne wrote about U.S. presidents, African nations, the Vietnam War and her hometown of Chicago. Due to her gender and race, Payne always stood out at presidential press conferences and just about everywhere else, but she rarely flinched from any obstacles that stood in the way of the story. Morris does not flinch from his status as a white male chronicling the life of an African-American female, and he discloses that he received unstinting support from Payne’s family members and acquaintances. His access allows him to reveal intriguing subtleties about her work and her personal life.
A deeply researched, skillfully written biography about a previously underappreciated individual.