A collection of stories, most set amid the Vietnamese exile communities of California, by the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer (2015).
“We had passed our youth in a haunted country,” declares the narrator of the opening story, a ghostwriter who quite literally finds himself writing about ghosts. One in particular is the ghost of his brother, lost somewhere in the chaos of the Vietnam War, who has somehow managed to swim across the ocean to find his family and is now dripping in their hallway. He is not the only ghost: there are other civilians, the eviscerated Korean lieutenant blown apart in a treetop, the unfortunate black GI, "the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water,” and the Japanese private from another war—so many ghosts, so much horror. Some of the living are not much better off. There is, for example, the Madame Thieu–like operator who works the merchants of a refugee shopping district, demanding what amounts to protection money and darkly hinting that they might be accused of being Communists if they do not pay up; she nurses a terrible grief, but that does not make her any less criminal. And then there is the 30-something divorcé, torn between cultures, who cannot seem to find himself in the midst of all the expectations others hold for him but is still enraged when others disappoint him in turn. Nguyen’s slice-of-life approach is precise without being clinical, archly humorous without being condescending, and full of understanding; many of the stories might have been written by a modern Flaubert, if that master had spent time in San Jose or Ho Chi Minh City.
Nguyen is the foremost literary interpreter of the Vietnamese experience in America, to be sure. But his stories, excellent from start to finish, transcend ethnic boundaries to speak to human universals.
A missing painting connects the lives of Rose, a woman who escaped the Holocaust as a young girl, and Lizzie, a 37-year-old lawyer whose father just died.
After Rose’s parents put her and her brother on the Kindertransport from Vienna to England in 1939, she never saw them again. Also gone was The Bellhop, a painting by the expressionist Chaim Soutine. Over the years that followed, both Rose and The Bellhop separately found their ways to Los Angeles. The painting was purchased from a New York gallery by a wealthy eye surgeon named Joseph Goldstein, displayed in his steel-and-glass mansion overhanging a ravine in Los Angeles. When his daughter Lizzie, then 17, threw a wild house party when he was out of town, the painting, as well as a Picasso sketch, was stolen. Rose’s husband read of the theft in the paper; she contacted Joseph. But Lizzie and Rose do not meet until Joseph’s memorial service. By then, Lizzie’s life has been as shaped by the missing Bellhop as Rose’s has—for both, the painting’s departure from their lives coincided with a brutal loss of innocence. Lizzie is powerfully drawn to Rose, trying to build their coincidental connection into a real friendship over coffee dates and movies, and you can see why. Despite all her losses—on top of the Holocaust, her adored husband has recently died—Rose is an elegant, smart, utterly direct woman who loves the films of Roger Corman, tolerates no fools, and has strong opinions on everything. Her boyfriend is a Bruce Springsteen maniac. It is his offhand question about the insured value of the stolen artwork that drives Lizzie back into the investigation. A few of the plot developments at the end of the book are a little awkward, but when’s the last time you read a novel that didn’t have that problem?
Umansky’s richly textured and peopled novel tells an emotionally and historically complicated story with so much skill and confidence it’s hard to believe it’s her first.
A Chinese-American fiction writer offers an intimate memoir of “darkest despair.”
In her fiction, Li (Creative Writing/Univ. of California, Davis; Kinder than Solitude, 2014, etc.), winner of multiple writing awards and a MacArthur Fellowship, has created bleak worlds inhabited by estranged, psychologically damaged characters who are haunted by their pasts. The author, who grew up in Beijing under an oppressive political regime and with an emotionally volatile, demanding mother, has resisted the idea that her work is autobiographical. “I never set out to write about melancholy and loneliness and despondency,” she writes. However, as she reveals in this bravely candid memoir, those emotions have beset her throughout her life, leading to a crisis during two horrifying years when she was twice hospitalized for depression and suicide attempts. Soon after Li came to the University of Iowa “as an aspiring immunologist,” she decided to give up science and enroll in the university’s famed graduate writing program. She was inspired, not surprisingly, by reading William Trevor, “among the most private writers,” whose stories gently evoke the lives of sad, solitary characters. Li’s abrupt career change included a decision to write in English, which led some to accuse her of rejecting her Chinese heritage. Others suggested that “in taking up another language one can become someone new. But erasing does not stop with a new language, and that, my friend, is my sorrow and my selfishness.” “Over the years my brain has banished Chinese,” she writes, in an effort to “be orphaned” from her past. Li frequently invokes writers—Katherine Mansfield, Stefan Zweig, Philip Larkin, Marianne Moore, Hemingway, and Turgenev—who “reflected what I resent in myself: seclusion, self-deception, and above all the need—the neediness—to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives.” Her title comes from a notebook entry by Mansfield, which Li believes expresses her own reason for writing: to bridge the distance between her life and her reader’s.
A potent journey of depression that effectively testifies to unbearable pain and the consolation of literature.
That infamous village that's needed to raise a child comes to fruition when a brilliant researcher creates a communal parenting experiment.
This is another bittersweet story about messed-up families from the talented Wilson (The Family Fang, 2011, etc.) but one in which the author stays a bit more grounded, keeping an atmosphere of emotional authenticity that rings true. Wilson’s muse is Izzy Poole, a just-graduated high schooler with a particular talent for barbecuing meat, who finds herself in dire straits. She’s pregnant with her emotionally disturbed art teacher’s baby and estranged from her father. After the art teacher commits suicide, Izzy is confronted with a very odd proposal from a researcher with an agenda. At the behest of a retail mogul, Dr. Preston Grind is determined to create a model in which 10 children are raised by a commune of parents, with no child knowing who their biological parents are. We quickly learn that the doctor is actually a hot mess, raised by two famous child psychologists who subjected their child to constant and unexpected stress throughout his upbringing. Grind may have inherited their brilliance but he’s also a cutter with borderline PTSD. Torn between the experiment and raising her son, Cap, alone, Izzy decides to go along with Grind’s complex scheme. “She would make it work,” Wilson writes. “Izzy would find tiny ways to make herself essential, to succeed when it seemed so unlikely. Ten years, that’s what she had. She would mine every essential element out of these ten years and she would be transformed.” The second half of the novel checks in on this “Infinite Family Project” every year or two, as Wilson delves into the drama and tensions inherent in this strange aquarium. Relationships begin to splinter, even as Izzy becomes fundamentally reliant on the group. “We’re a family,” Grind says, near the end. “An imperfect one.”
A moving and sincere reflection on what it truly means to become a family.
The talented author of More Happy than Not (2015) returns with a moving novel that explores friendship, grief, and trust among four young men.
Silvera packs a powerful emotional punch in this multilayered story told partly in flashbacks by Griffin, who’s mourning the sudden death of his best friend and first love, Theo. The two white teens and their black friend Wade were a “three-dude squad” for years, until Griff and Theo became romantically involved. Their first sexual encounter was a “good weird” experience—“the best kind of weird”—for them both. Griff’s trauma and heartbreak are compounded by his knowledge that Theo had developed a relationship with Jackson, another white boy, while he was away at college. Griff’s narrative, addressed to Theo, goes back and forth between the past and present, echoing the alternate universes that they used to ponder. As he unravels the puzzle of his relationships with Theo, Jackson, and Wade, he feels like a coin someone tossed “into the air to settle something once and for all but didn’t catch.” Griff’s quirky tics and compulsions and his unanswered correspondence with Theo are bringing him precariously close to mental illness as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The conversational yet profound tone of the book highlights the author’s ear for the musicality of language and his ability to convey deep emotion through attention to its cadence and flow.
A novel to savor long after it ends.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
An idealistic young American heads for the Soviet Union in 1934, with consequences that reverberate through three generations in Krasikov’s ambitious and compelling first novel (One More Year: Stories, 2008).
The grim saga of Florence Fein’s education in the realities of Soviet life is punctuated by her son Julian’s sardonic first-person account of his return to Moscow in 2008 to facilitate an American-Soviet oil project, during which he also takes jaundiced looks back at his fraught relationship with his mother. Julian, one of the disenchanted Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate in the late 1970s, has never really forgiven Florence for her stubborn loyalty to the brutal police state that murdered her husband, sent her to a labor camp, and stuck their son in state orphanages. Julian is equally judgmental about his son, Lenny, an expatriate venture capitalist in Moscow who fancies himself “a cowboy on the frontiers of private enterprise,” while Julian bitterly finds capitalist Russia as corrupt and repressive as its Soviet predecessor. Krasikov skillfully intertwines multiple narratives and time frames in a sweeping drama that is both a touching affirmation of the enduring bonds of family and a searing examination of the ghastly moral quandaries faced by the subjects of a totalitarian state. Her American passport confiscated, terrified by the threats of the secret police, Florence is reduced to informing on friends and colleagues; the chapters chronicling her experiences in the gulag bring to life a horrific world in which survival is the only goal but also give her an opportunity to make amends for her betrayals. The once-secret police files Julian unearths in Moscow teach him to judge his mother more gently and admire her resourceful manipulation of her oppressors; he even emulates some of her tactics to protect Lenny from the threat posed by a sinister Russian “vice-president of corporate security.”
We do the best we can in an imperfect world, Krasikov reminds us in a dark tale brightened by tender compassion for human frailty.
The provocateur-scholar returns to the pulpit to deliver a hard-hitting sermon on the racial divide, directed specifically to a white congregation.
Though Dyson (Sociology/Georgetown Univ.; The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, 2016, etc.) may be best known for his writings on race and culture, he is also an ordained minister, and it is this role and voice he assumes in his latest manifesto. The book is structured as a religious service, and its cadences practically demand to be heard rather than read. Here is what he calls “a plea, a cry, a sermon, from my heart to yours,” because “what I need to say can only be said as a sermon,” one in which he preaches that “we must return to the moral and spiritual foundations of our country and grapple with the consequences of our original sin.” Not that the faith Dyson espouses is specifically or narrowly Christian or directed solely to those of that religion. In his recasting, the original sin might be seen as white privilege and black subjugation, addressed throughout as a white problem that white people must take significant steps to confront—first, by accepting that “white history disguised as American history is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as white superiority and white purity. Those are all myths. They’re intellectual rubbish, cultural garbage.” The author demands that readers overcome their defensiveness and claims to innocence and recognize how much they’ve benefitted from that myth and how much black Americans have suffered from it—and continue to do so. Dyson personalizes the debates surrounding Black Lives Matter and the institutional subjugation of black citizens by police. He also proposes a form of reparations that is individual rather than institutional, that conscientious white people might set up “an I.R.A., an Individual Reparations Account” and commit themselves to the service of black children, black prisoners, black protestors, and black communities.
The readership Dyson addresses may not fully be convinced, but it can hardly remain unmoved by his fiery prose.
Dread and lassitude twist into a spare and stunning portrait of a marital estrangement.
At the end of this unsettling psychological novel, the narrator suggests that “perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing.” Kitamura’s third work of fiction builds into a hypnotic meditation on infidelity and the unknowability of one’s spouse. In precise and muted prose, the entire story unspools in the coolly observant mind of a young woman, a translator. She is estranged from Christopher Wallace, her “handsome and wealthy” husband of five years. He is a relentless adulterer; the narrator herself is now living with another man. The novel begins with a phone call from Isabella, a hostile and unpleasant mother-in-law, petulant that she can’t reach her only son and ignorant of the separation. Christopher has decamped to rural Greece, and Isabella insists her daughter-in-law leave England to go after him. Thinking it time to ask for a divorce, she agrees. In the remote fishing village of Gerolimenas, there are grim portents: stray dogs, high unemployment, a landscape charred from a season of wildfires, and the hostility of a hotel receptionist who appears to have slept with Christopher. Each of 13 taut chapters turns the screw; at the beginning of the seventh there is a murder. Kitamura leaves it unsolved. Instead of delivering a whodunit, the author plucks a bouquet of unforeseen but psychologically piercing consequences. The narrator thinks, “One of the problems of happiness—and I’d been very happy, when Christopher and I were first engaged—is that it makes you both smug and unimaginative.” As this harrowing story ends, her life is diminished and her imagination is cruelly awake.
A minutely observed novel of infidelity unsettles its characters and readers.
How self-administering tiny doses of LSD abated the disintegration of the author’s mental health and family life.
Novelist Waldman (Love and Treasure, 2014, etc.) charts a complete month of her experimental journey with subtherapeutic microdoses (one-tenth of a typical dose) of psychedelic drugs. Her engrossing trial-and-error salve for depression was borne out of desperation and the realization she was being “held hostage by the vagaries of mood” from premenstrual dysphoric disorder. When the author’s conventionally prescribed treatments failed, her ailment became an increasingly arduous burden for her husband and four teenagers to bear. Clearly suffering, she enlisted the help of Dr. James Fadiman, an aging former psychedelic researcher, and embarked on his renegade trial by imbibing subperceptual doses of LSD on repeating three-day cycles and then recording its physical and psychological effects. Candidly written with vivid detail, Waldman’s 30-day diary is compelling and eye-opening from both a medical and an observational perspective. Initially, only her sleep appeared to be negatively affected, while her productivity, listening skills, and sensory awareness increased; her mood incrementally lifted as well. The author provides an informative treatise on drug abuse statistics, a brief history of pharmacological therapies, and her own perspectives on drug decriminalization. As a former federal public defender and law professor who lectured about the war on drugs, Waldman is scholarly on the subject and infuses case study material into her memoir, offering interesting notes on neurochemistry, interviews with psychonauts, and chronicles of successful, pioneering research studies with psychedelics. Throughout, the author shares frank, revealing anecdotes on her family and personal life, including the disclosure that her and her husband’s current version of “marital therapy” involves periodic use of the euphoric drug MDMA. The author’s controversial and unsubstantiated medicinal intervention with LSD is bravely honest, and the results are mildly promising.
Thirty days on LSD therapy makes for a fascinating trip, indeed, and a learning opportunity for readers interested in the past and present therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs.
Walking the hypnotic line between tragedy and fairy tale, O’Neill’s latest novel (The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, 2014, etc.) follows two spectacularly talented orphans as they fall into the bleak underworld of 1930s Montreal.
Both born in 1914 to poor teenage mothers ill-equipped to take care of them, Rose and Pierrot are abandoned at the same joyless orphanage, left to be raised by the same joyless nuns. But even as young children, their chemistry is evident, so much so that the Mother Superior makes a note to keep the then-4-year-olds apart. “It was necessary to thwart all love affairs in the orphanage,” O’Neill writes. “If there was one thing responsible for ruining lives, it was love.” But like talent, their bond is irrepressible: Pierrot, it turns out, is a brilliant pianist despite a total lack of formal training, while Rose is mesmerizing onstage, a born comedian. Together, they enchant the city’s elite, performing as a duo for Montreal’s wealthiest households. For a while, at least, the nuns need the money more than they need to keep the pair apart. But the artistic romance of their childhood comes to a crashing halt in adolescence, and—with some interference from the sisters—their fates diverge: sensitive Pierrot is taken in by a fabulously wealthy old man who is enchanted with his musical gifts, while self-assured Rose is sent to work as a governess, looking after the children of a powerful businessman who runs the city’s illicit nightlife. Such stability is short-lived. With the Great Depression swirling around them, both Rose and Pierrot descend into a dark world of sex, drugs, and crime, each of them haunting the city in search of the other. Grotesque and whimsical at once, the love story that unfolds is a fable of ambition and perseverance, desperation and heartbreak. But while Pierrot is unforgettable, the novel belongs to Rose, a woman who—if she cannot carve out space for herself in upstanding daylight—will rise to power in the underworld of night. O’Neill’s prose is crisp and strange, arresting in its frankness; much like the novel itself, her writing is both gleefully playful and devastatingly sad.
Big and lush and extremely satisfying; a rare treat.
Auster’s first novel in seven years is nothing if not ambitious: a four-part invention, more than 800 pages, that follows the life (or lives) of Archie Ferguson, despite his name a child of Jewish Newark, born in the 1940s. If such a territory seems well-traveled (Philip Roth, anyone?), Auster, as he often does, has something more complex in mind. Indeed, his subject in these pages is identity: not how it gets fixed but rather all the ways it can unfurl. To that end, he develops the book as four distinct narratives, each imagining a different life for Archie depending on the circumstances faced by himself and his family. It’s an ingenious move, and when it works, which is often, it gives a sense of breadth and scope, of unpredictability, to the novel as a whole. This is underscored by Auster’s decision to keep the rest of the book naturalistic, taking place in an identifiable world. Thus, once young Ferguson discovers baseball, he watches Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Giants versus Indians, in which Willie Mays made his legendary catch. Later, he will end up in Europe as an aesthete, or as a student transferring to Brooklyn College, or in Rochester, New York, as a journalist reporting on the aftermath of the 1960s and the bombing of Cambodia. The history helps to keep us rooted, both because it’s recognizable and also because it remains consistent across the novel’s narratives, its variations on this single life. So, too, Auster’s sense of possibility, his understanding that what all his Fergusons have in common, with us and with one another, is a kind of quiet intensity, a striving to discover who they are. “It could never end,” he writes about one incarnation of the character. “The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from the book, and it would always be summer as long as they didn’t breathe too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were nineteen and were finally, finally almost, finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying good-bye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.”
With this novel, Auster reminds us that not just life, but also narrative is always conditional, that it only appears inevitable after the fact.
The parents of Trayvon Martin (1995-2012) tell their sides of the story about his death.
In alternating points of view, Fulton and Martin narrate the events leading up to their son’s death, the trial, and the aftermath. The book is filled with the heartache and anguish only parents who have lost a child can fully understand, as the authors delve into the nitty-gritty details of what it was like to learn of their son’s death, the terrible, nightmarish quality of the days and weeks following the shooting, and the experience of going to trial only to have the killer proclaimed not guilty. They share family stories and anecdotes about Trayvon, giving readers a rounded, more complete picture of the teenager who was gunned down by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, on a rainy night in 2012. Their son’s death provoked anger across the country and contributed to the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, but as Fulton points out, the violence and deaths of African-Americans has hardly stopped after Trayvon. “We tell this story in the hope that it will continue the calling that Trayvon left for us to answer and that it might shine a path for others who have lost, or will lose, children to senseless violence. We tell it in the hope for healing, for bridging the divide that separates America, between races and classes, between citizens and the police,” writes the author. “Most of all, we tell it for Trayvon, whose young soul and lively spirit guide us every day in everything we do.” Fulton and Martin are not heavy-handed on the dramatics; they speak honestly and boldly and win empathy and understanding through their expression of their bleak reality. The authors also provide answers not readily found in the avalanche of news covering this story, and the book should foster further discussions on the issues of race and violence in America.
A brave, heart-rending narrative from the parents who lost their son far too soon.