A tour de force of character, point of view and especially atmosphere, Prose's latest takes place in Paris from the late 1920s till the end of World War II.
The primary locus of action is the Chameleon Club, a cabaret where entertainment edges toward the kinky. Presiding most nights is Eva “Yvonne” Nagy, a Hungarian chanteuse and mistress of the revels. The name of the club is not strictly metaphorical, for Yvonne has a pet lizard, but the cabaret is also famous as a place where Le Tout-Paris can gather and cross-dress, and homosexual lovers can be entertained there with some degree of privacy. One of the most fascinating denizens of the club is Lou Villars, in her youth an astounding athlete and in her adulthood a dancer (with her lover Arlette) at the club and even later a race car driver and eventually a German spy in Paris during the Occupation. Villars and Arlette are the subjects of what becomes the era’s iconic photograph, one that gives the novel its title. This image is taken by Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, eventual lover (and later husband) of sexual athlete Suzanne Dunois. Tsenyi is also a protégé of Baroness Lily de Rossignol, former Hollywood actress, now married to the gay Baron de Rossignol, the fabulously wealthy owner of a French car manufacturing company. Within this multilayered web of characters, Prose manages to give almost every character a voice, ranging from Tsenyi’s eager letters home to his parents, excerpts from a putative biography of Lou Villars (supposedly written by Suzanne’s great-niece) entitled The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, Lily de Rossignol’s memoirs and further reminiscences by Lionel Maine, Suzanne’s lover before she was “stolen away” by the photographer.
Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.
In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.
Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.
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.
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.
Rachman follows his best-selling debut (The Imperfectionists, 2010) with the haunting tale of a young woman reassessing her turbulent past.
In 2011, Tooly has washed up after a lifetime of wandering in a small Welsh village, where she uses the last of her money to buy a used bookstore. Twelve years earlier, in 1999, she’s a vagabond 20-year-old on the streets of New York City who talks her way into law student Duncan’s apartment by pretending it was her childhood home. Actually, her childhood was spent traveling around Asia with her father, Paul, until, in 1988, she’s scooped up in Bangkok by her feckless mother, Sarah, and falls in with a band of peripatetic misfits led by Venn, a coolly manipulative con man. The three storylines proceed along their separate time tracks to collectively explore how Tooly came to be the remote, hard-drinking young woman who seems to be marking time in Wales. We see that she’s been indelibly scarred by Venn: He imprinted her with his philosophy of relating to people only on the basis of how useful they can be to you; let her believe they had a special friendship as she followed him from country to country and scam to scam; then vanished just after she turned 21 in New York. The revelation of why he let her hang around for a decade forms the novel’s brutal climax, articulated by Venn with matter-of-fact cruelty after Tooly tracks him down. She does have gentler, more nurturing father figures: not just Paul, with whom she reconnects in a tender scene, but Humphrey, the elderly Russian émigré who tried to shelter her from Venn’s influence and softened her fall after he left—though she doesn’t realize this until years later. Still, the overwhelming emotions here are loss and regret, as Tooly realizes how she was alienated from her own best instincts by a charismatic sociopath.
Brilliantly structured, beautifully written and profoundly sad.
Readers who found British author Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox (2011) an intellectual tour de force, but emotionally chilly, will be won over by this riveting, brilliant and emotionally rich retelling of “Snow White” set in 1950s New England.
Despite her name, Boy Novak is a 20-year-old young woman when she arrives in Flax Hill, Mass., in 1953. She has run away from New York’s Lower East Side because her abusive father, Frank, a rat catcher by trade who has refused to tell her anything about her never-present mother, has threatened to treat her like one of his rats. In Flax Hill, Boy makes actual friends, like beautiful, career-driven Mia, and begins a relationship with Arturo Whitman, a former history professor and widowed father. Now a jewelry maker, Arturo lives with his little daughter, Snow, in close proximity to his mother, intimidating social matriarch Olivia. Not sure she loves him, Boy marries Arturo (whose quiet goodness is increasingly endearing to the reader and Boy) largely because she loves Snow, a fair-haired beauty who charms everyone she meets. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, the Whitmans’ deepest secret is revealed—Arturo’s parents are actually light-skinned African-Americans passing as white. Faced with how others view the difference between the sisters and influenced by some combination of overpowering maternal protectiveness and bad postpartum depression, Boy sends 7-year-old Snow to live with Arturo’s dark-skinned sister, Clara, whom Olivia banished years ago. Growing up apart, Bird and Snow tell their versions of how Boy’s decision impacts their lives. Then a startling revelation about Boy’s own identity makes all three confront who they are individually and together.
Dense with fully realized characters, startling images, original observations and revelatory truths, this masterpiece engages the reader’s heart and mind as it captures both the complexities of racial and gender identity in the 20th century and the more intimate complexities of love in all its guises.
A debut novel traces the history of the U.S. Virgin Islands through the fate of a family marked by lust, magic and social change.
Of the atoll where her parents met, Anette Bradshaw says: "You seen even a postcard of Anegada? It too pretty. Like heaven and hell marry up and birth all the beauty goodness and badness could possibly make." Anette's is one of four narrative voices in this novel by St. Thomas–born Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony, 2010), which follows the story of the children and grandchildren of Capt. Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a man whose unchecked appetites cause trouble for a good half-century after his ship goes down. In alternating short chapters, we hear from a wise, playful third-person narrator and, in first person, from each of Bradshaws' three outlandishly beautiful children: Eeona, both his daughter and his lover; Anette, who never knew either of her parents before their untimely deaths; and Jacob, Bradshaw’s unacknowledged son by a back-street mistress. Eeona becomes an imperious queen of a woman who never gets over her love for her father, refusing even the suit of a fellow who proposes 70-odd times; she moves to St. John and becomes entangled with a lost character from the family romantic tree. Half siblings Anette and Jacob are also ruled by incestuous passion, though they are unaware of their relationship, which is only partially derailed by Jacob's sojourns on the mainland for military service and medical school. Their story is interwoven with both the folklore and history of the island: backward-facing feet, silver pubic hair and a race of demigods called the Duene are sprinkled among scenes of development, hurricanes, tourism and the social movements of the 1960s and '70s.
Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.
In this riveting memoir, Johnson (Trespasses, 2012) writes of falling prey to an act of terrifying violence and its aftermath.
In 2000, the author’s former boyfriend kidnapped her and held her captive, raped her and threatened her with death. Though she eventually escaped, it took years to free herself from the emotional and psychological damage she suffered. “Even what the mind forgets, the body remembers,” she writes. Written in an urgent first-person, present-tense voice, the narrative takes readers through the fear and rage as the writer lived it. Her painful memories, released in a nonlinear fashion, cut like shards of glass. It was 13 years after her abduction before she could get herself to go through the police report of her case. She read that the owner of the building where the crime took place was a friend of “The Man She Used To Live With” (perhaps for anonymity and to get some emotional distance, Johnson uses titles instead of names throughout the book) and would not reveal to the police where he had gone. The author also discovered that her attacker paid a student $100 to help him build the soundproof cell in which she was held. Later, she learned that her predator escaped to Venezuela, where he has family. Though she has lived in fear that he would contact her again, she writes, life went on. She got married, received a doctorate and had two children, and she has continued to fight depression, panic and emotional withdrawal. “I’m trapped on the other side of a wide, dark chasm,” she tells her husband. Writing the truth is her way to the other side. “This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning,” she writes. “And I want to mean something so badly.”
Ferociously beautiful and courageous, Johnson’s intimate story sheds light on the perpetuation of violence against women.
In this story collection—which follows her debut novel, the well-received Atmospheric Disturbances (2008)—Galchen, one of the New Yorker’s20 Under 40, continues to plumb the unbelievable and unknowable mysteries of existence.
These are literary short stories, but there’s a detective lurking in their author, who peels back fine layers of life with close observation to uncover clues about the physics of daily living and how we process the world. In the title story, a woman wakes one morning to discover a third breast has grown on her back; she has to wrestle with societal expectations of beauty and identity. In "Once an Empire," the narrator says, “I’m a pretty normal woman…,” which immediately cues the reader to wonder what isn’t normal about her, or the story; soon she's watching the contents of her apartment—furniture, utensils and objects—get up and walk out. Do these things represent her life, and if they’re so important to her, why is she willing to watch them leave? And things get stranger in "The Region of Unlikeness": A woman discovers that her crush, a man she met at a cafe, is supposedly a time traveler, and his friend, whom she doesn’t much care for, is his father—and maybe her potential future husband. Not all the stories venture into the fantastic, though; many poke and prod at the challenges of the everyday, as in "Sticker Shock," which compares the finances of a mother and daughter and is written in the tone of an accountant’s review, and "The Lost Order," in which a woman obscures the fact that she’s lost her job from her husband and ponders what her life will be like as "a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed….”
Galchen’s stories feel remarkably believable, despite their suggestion of alternate worlds and lives. This is a collection to read and keep on the bookshelf. It will stand the test of time.