In this literary novel set in England, a teenager learns startling revelations about people close to her.
In the sultry London of July 1969, Jane Hareman is 16 years old, making her first steps into maturity as humanity is taking its first steps on the moon. She has a comfortable relationship with her best friend, Karl Schmidt-Smith, a talented pianist and composer a year older than Jane. But then he says the words that turn her “whole world upside down: ‘Let’s go upstairs to my room.’ ” Jane, an intelligent girl who enjoys reading Kafka and philosophy, isn’t sure how she feels about that. She also has other things on her mind, such as the nearly 10-year anniversary of her mother’s death. Jane’s household consists of her father, George, once a magician known as “Mr. Magikoo,” and his girlfriend, Mia-Mia. A frequent visitor is George’s sister, Ada, a second mother to Jane. After the accidental onstage electrocution of his wife, for which neither Jane nor Ada has ever forgiven him, George eventually retired from performing to run his magic shop—but not before roping young Jane into appearing as “Little Magik Matchstick” in a terrifying theatrical illusion. Ada put a stop to this when Jane was 8, but the teen adds the experience to the list of things she can’t forgive. Returning home after watching the moonwalk on TV with Karl and his mother (who thinks it’s a hoax), Jane finds her world upended again when Mia-Mia reveals several important truths about herself, George, and Ada. Enlightened, Jane can now forgive her father, telling him: “I understand now that everything, even Little Magik Matchstick, was part of the madness of grief.” But Jane’s rapprochement and her understanding of the truth are soon upended yet again through betrayal and tragedy. Helped somewhat by the humanity of a few people in her world, Jane must find strength in turmoil.
As in his previous novels, Cacoyannis (Polk, Harper & Who, 2017, etc.) again shows his perceptive understanding of the many layered elements that make up the psyche. Jane’s view of Karl, for example, undergoes seismic shifts after he attempts rape. Is he unforgivable? Is it his mother’s fault? Does his sublime piano composition in her honor excuse what he tried to do? As Jane yields “to what I felt like doing today, already one absolute certainty had sweepingly overridden another.” The uses, attractions, and dangers of lies, fictions, magic, and illusion run through the story in thought-provoking ways (“One of Mr. Magikoo’s best-known tricks involved pulling a rabbit out of two different hats…by sleight of hand the mutilation of the rabbit was concealed”). Telling the truth can have dire consequences; sometimes lying is necessary to protect the innocent; magic’s enthrallment depends on the audience’s feelings of horror. Cacoyannis’ characters, even minor ones, are equally complex and multifaceted, with histories that he brings out skillfully. Jane in particular is an appealing young person with her honesty, cleverness, openness, and desire to do the right thing. Flashes of absurdist dark humor provide a welcome note in the book’s dramatic events.
A well-written, richly complicated, and deeply engaging coming-of-age tale.
In Snodgrass’ (Kitchen Things, 2013, etc.) novel, a complex construction project teeters on the brink of failure, pitting workers against each other.
Furnass is an economically ailing mill town in southwestern Pennsylvania with some hope that a new high-rise building project will revitalize the area. However, Jack Crawford, the cantankerous job site superintendent, is ordered by his superiors at Drake Construction to delay the pouring of concrete columns. The company hasn’t received payment for months, partly the result of ballooning costs and partly due to the collapse of the bank responsible for the project’s funding. The architect, Vince Nicholson, whose thoughts grandiosely toggle between the ideas of architects Mies and Le Corbusier, desperately tries to save a project that’s threatened by his own hubris. Meanwhile, Jack conducts an extramarital affair with Pamela,a nurse who performs nude dances before her apartment window, to the delight of rapt construction workers nearby. Jack inexplicably introduces Pamela to workman Bill van Hayden, also a married man, and they begin a torrid affair of their own. Bill becomes increasingly infatuated with Pamela and tells Jack of his intention to leave his wife for her; the resulting tension evolves into open animosity. Snodgrass displays virtuosic skill in relating the technical nuances of building construction. However, the chief strength of the book is how he profoundly captures his complex characters, who are each wounded in some ineradicable way. He even deeply develops supporting players, such as Gregg Przybysz, a newly minted building inspector trying to prove that he’s up to the task. The prose is poetically ambitious and sometimes wildly unrestrained, which is well-suited to the pervasive sense of chaos and urgency: “…the bells of the Church of the Holy Innocents, the bells of the Angelus, ring out over the little town, ring out over the layers of rooftops to the hills on the other side of the river and back again.” The pace is unhurried but inexorable, a relentless march toward a shocking conclusion. This is a sinewy first installment in a planned trilogy—artistically unflinching and morally unsentimental.
A daughter’s vibrant relationship with her father decays into warfare and abuse in this coming-of-age memoir.
As a young girl growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Garber (True Affections, 2011, etc.) thought that her architect father, Woodie, was the most charismatic man in the world; she even took up his interest in modernist design. With her mother, Jo,and two younger brothers, she helped him build his dream house in the Cincinnati suburb of Glendale, Ohio—a sleek, rectilinear structure that “shimmered like a white mirage...the crushed glass wall panels sparkling, while the Great Room blazed as if on fire, red, orange, and wood reflected and glowedinside the long glass walls.” In Garber’s warm evocation, the house, complete with Eames furniture, abstract sculptures, and Dave Brubeck records playing on the hi-fi, seems the perfect backdrop for avant-garde family togetherness, circa 1966. But slowly, a gradual accretion of disquieting detail spoils the gleaming facade as she reveals the dark side of her father’s world. Woodie’s ebullience, she writes, was an aspect of his bipolar disorder, which alternated with bouts of depression that kept him in bed for weeks. His compulsion to be the architect of every element of his surroundings extended to his family, whom he tormented with strict rules, constant demands to do heavy landscaping labor, and harangues about alleged laziness and lack of integrity, which grew more caustic as a difficult project frayed his nerves. He felt threatened by Jo’s desire to return to college and her turn toward prison-reform activism, Garber says, and when the white author brought home an African-American boyfriend, her father disapproved.
Garber gives a subtle, nerve-wracking account of a familiar generational conflict that tore apart countless families in the ’60s, as fathers found their paternal authority challenged by rebellious daughters, long-haired sons, and wives who wanted more fulfilling roles. In this case, the intensifying confrontation pitted Woodie’s tirades against his family’s muted but mounting defiance. But the author also tells of a far more disturbing aspect of Woodie’s domestic tyranny—his ongoing sexual abuse of the teenage Garber. As the household spirals toward dissolution, Garber paints an indelible portrait of the claustrophobic hell that a dysfunctional family can become and of her own anguish and confusion over Woodie’s abuse, to which she responded with denial. She’s cleareyed in her depiction of his monstrous behavior, but she also portrays the magnetic pull of his personality and his role in shaping her own sensibility. She also acknowledges the irony of an iconoclastic modernist's not being able to cope with modernity. In prose that’s simultaneously poetic and incisive, she even finds the frail humanity behind her father’s power plays and mood swings; “Crying out, he was small and pitiful, like a statue of a dictator pulled down by peasants,” she writes of Woodie's collapsing from a heart fibrillation. Many readers will see aspects of their own family histories in this powerful saga of trauma and healing.
An alternately wistful and searing exploration of a troubled legacy.
Emotional turmoil seethes beneath the surface of a couple’s African safari in this debut novella.
Three years into their affair, Richard Delmore, a 50-something telecom executive, and Sofie Cerruti, a much younger journalist, go on safari in Tanzania, their first extended sojourn together away from his unwitting wife and children. Standing between them is Sofie’s recent abortion, which Richard argued her into despite previously claiming he wanted her to bear his child, and other secrets they haven’t told each other: Sofie’s liaison with an African man in Zanzibar while Richard was out diving; Richard’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. They arrive at Serengeti National Park as tourist spectators to the struggle for survival among the wildlife, which increasingly feels like a commentary on their own predicaments. After recovering from near-fatal heat stroke, the normally hardheaded Richard visits a local faith healer rumored to have a potion that might cure his cancer. Meanwhile, Sofie, eager to see a kill, encounters a battle between a lion and a Cape buffalo—narrated with agonizing cinematic detail in a terrific action set piece—that upsets her pat notions of a benign cycle of life while reminding her of her own loss. Slender but rich, Eriksen’s Hemingway-esque tale revolves around a delicate dissection of a fraying relationship, writhing with unspoken regret and artful noncommunication, whose real stakes are illuminated by the juxtaposition with primal scenes of life and death. His sharply observed, realistic prose is set against colorful, poetic evocations of the African setting, from the faith healer’s trash-strewn pilgrimage site to “the occasional Maasai warrior in the deep distance, carrying a long stick and wearing only his bright red shuka, walking like someone out of a Beckett play—as if he were in no hurry, and going nowhere—alongside his straggling herd of gaunt and hump-necked cattle.” It’s anything but harmonious, but Eriksen’s quietly wrenching yarn does resonate with ancient themes.
A fine drama of two lovers discovering harsh realities.
An Auschwitz survivor refutes Holocaust deniers in this debut memoir.
Birnbaum was motivated to write this memoir by the fact that some people still deny the reality and scope of the pan-European mass killing and torture of Jews between 1938 and 1945—even though survivors, like himself, still walk among us. Born and raised in Przemysl, a Polish town near the Ukraine border, the author, along with his family, never had it easy. The anti-Semitic locals were more open about their bigotry after the Nazis invaded in 1939. Some old Jewish men were tied to carts, beaten, and mocked, and hundreds of other grown men in Birnbaum’s neighborhood were forced into manual labor or shot. All the Jewish families were crowded into a ghetto, from which Birnbaum watched children of collaborators playing beyond the barbed wire. In painful stages, the ghetto’s residents were placed on cattle cars; Birnbaum’s mother and siblings vanished, and his father was imprisoned and killed. The author was later sent to Szebnie concentration camp, where he was fed only “baleful gray liquid,” made to work extra hours on Jewish holidays, and forced to watch as fellow prisoners suffered torture. Herded again onto cattle cars, Birnbaum and his companions finally arrived at Auschwitz. It would be a travesty to paraphrase what he says he encountered there; this is a book that demands to be read in full. The cruelty and grotesquery of camp life reveals itself clearly through Birnbaum’s engaging, pellucid prose: The filth and insanity of the cattle cars, the smug sadism of the guards, and the agony of the tortured may provoke readers to tears and anger. At one point, he writes of how kapos and SS men at Szebnie barked “Schnell” (“fast”) day and night: “You had to wake up—schnell! You ate and drank—schnell! Worked schnell and died schnell.” Later sections, describing the writer’s escape and work with the Polish resistance, are compelling and even inspiring, but the first half of the book overshadows all else.
A group of animals tries working together to save a village in this picture book based on an African story.
In West Africa, there is a peaceful village of only animals, ruled by Chief Zamboha, the lion. But one year, their tranquility is interrupted by a drought that lasts long past the dry season. Zamboha asks all the creatures for ideas, and tortoise Timba tells the group about a tale from their ancestors that said water could be found by digging. While the community is skeptical, Zamboha supports Timba, and the animals begin to dig. They dig for days and days, and finally they grow tired and doubt the tortoise’s supposed wisdom. Faced with a rebellion, Zamboha watches helplessly as the villagers tell Timba to leave. Although the tortoise is determined to never go back, she pauses near a dry riverbed and decides to dig once more. Soon she finds water, and, despite the rejection of her cohorts, she returns to share it with them. Overjoyed, the animals make her their chief. LaTeef (The Hunter and the Ebony Tree, 2002, etc.) skillfully captures the folktale’s flavor, using repeated refrains—especially Timba’s “everything is possible, by and by”—to reinforce the story’s themes. While the message is powerful, it’s the acrylic, India ink, and collage images that will command children’s attention. The collage aspect gives the animals depth and texture, and the contrast of the earth tones with the bright blue water is stunning. LaTeef is an author/illustrator to watch.
World folktale collections should welcome this beautifully illustrated volume.