Hubbard shrewdly molds the pop-culture mythology of the comic-book superhero team into a magical-realist metaphor for African-American struggles since the real-life heroic battle against segregation in the middle of the 20th century.
You’ve heard of the Justice League? Meet the Justice Committee, an extended family of black crusaders who became legendary for using their extraordinary powers to protect leaders, activists, and their brothers and sisters during the 1960s civil rights movement. When this crafty and wistful debut novel opens in present-day Florida, the committee’s surviving members are scattered about, and one in particular, 72-year-old Johnny Ribkins, seems lost and at loose ends. Which is ironic since Johnny’s special gift is being able to draw precise maps of places he’s never been. (It came in handy when black drivers tried to make their ways safely through the racially segregated South.) But after the committee members drifted apart, Johnny and his brother, Franklin, whose natural wall-climbing skills rivaled those of Spider-Man, merged their talents for high-scale larceny. After Franklin’s untimely death, Johnny jump-starts his cartography gifts to track down buried loot from all their varied heists so he can pay off his debt to a shady real estate mogul. Accompanying Johnny in an antique Thunderbird she characterizes as “junky” is his moody teenage niece, Eloise, who’s been showing off some of her own inherited uncanniness by being able to catch any object thrown at her. With a pair of thugs shadowing them, Johnny and Eloise stop at various points in the Sunshine State, where they meet, among other relatives, Cousin Bertrand, nicknamed “Captain Dynamite” because he could “spit firecrackers”; another speedy, magnetic cousin known (of course) as “Flash”; and yet another nicknamed “The Hammer” because while her left hand looks normal, her right hand…you can probably guess the rest. With each rueful confrontation with people and places of his past, Johnny comes to grips with lost resolutions, squandered opportunities, and the complex history of a family that began with a patriarch whose superb sense of smell made him “The Rib King.” Hubbard weaves this narrative with prodigious skill and compelling warmth. You anticipate a movie while wondering if any movie could do this fascinating family...well, justice.
To describe this novel, as someone inevitably will, as Song of Solomon reimagined as a Marvel Comics franchise is to shortchange its cleverness and audacity.
An evocative study of a town in Poland’s outback, one scarcely known even in its day.
Miedzianka in Polish, Kupferberg in German, is a place off anyone’s map: “history never well and truly arrived here,” writes freelance journalist Springer, “but instead roamed around in the vicinity.” And did it ever: the town was already old when, as the author puts it, “armed hordes begin to make their way across Europe,” some of them the soldiers of the Thirty Years’ War, others members of the SS, rooting out Jews and other undesirables in a region known as Silesia. Thanks in part to German excesses, the town became part of Poland after the war, but it had already begun to disappear, parts of it caving in thanks to the collapse of abandoned mine shafts, its streets deserted after the mining companies went under, so that even in 1840, only nine villagers identified themselves as miners. Springer points out the various enemies, structural and human, that have come calling on Miedzianka only as “the beast,” and the beast has many forms, such as the rockets of Joseph Stalin’s invading Red Army—ahead of whose arrival some villagers headed west, while the Nazi stalwarts of the town tried to escape but found no place to run. Now, writes Springer, “Miedzianka is simply gone,” marked by a rather nondescript memorial to those who lived and worked there over the centuries, a small obelisk to record the fact that here there once stood a town and a miniature civilization. Yet, amazingly, this book, published in Poland in 2011, sparked a modest revival of the town: a theater company has staged a performance of a play based on the book, while private investors have banded together to open a brewery in a place once renowned for its beer. The result, writes the author, is that “what once seemed an absolute end was only a pause.”
Lucid and literate: a brilliant model of historical writing about place and a beguiling treat for armchair travelers as well.
In this exquisite meditation on gift-giving, intimacy, the body, and performance, Browning (I’m Trying to Reach You, 2012, etc.) dashes the boundaries between autofiction and novel and offers daring readers something more intimate and muscular than a mere book.
Barbara Andersen, a clear stand-in for Browning, teaches performance theory in New York City by day and records ukulele covers by night. Enthralled by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, Barbara sends recordings to strangers she meets by chance on the internet as well as to prominent public thinkers like David Graeber and Lauren Berlant. “The recent implosion of the global financial system made it evident that we needed to try something else,” Barbara muses about her impulses. Her fascination with “inappropriate intimacy” ultimately draws her into an erotic long-distance relationship with musical virtuoso Sami, an autistic man who lives in Germany. But when Barbara finally flies overseas to meet Sami in person, he has a breakdown that prevents their meeting and causes Barbara to question everything. Against this development, Barbara traces the work of her friend Tye, a gifted performance artist and trans man, weaving descriptions of his performances into details about her own teaching, activism, and art. At one point, Barbara reveals her struggles with memory, transforming the act of writing—and reading—this novel into a collaborative performance of recovery and creation between writer and reader. “It’s not just that I seem to have erased quite a few unpleasant memories,” Barbara writes. “Sometimes I think this is what opened up some space on my hard drive for imagining things.” Browning takes a book that could easily exist in hypotheticals, layers, and masks and instead grounds it in the chaos of its time, including the disruptive politics of the Occupy movement, the infamous Pussy Riot protests and arrests in Russia, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The effect is indeed intimate but never inappropriate. Browning is working at the edges of her craft, and it’s utterly thrilling to watch.
A delicious love letter to readers and co-conspirators everywhere.
An extraordinary, ordinary day in the life of Adam Thorn.
Seventeen-year-old, tall, white, blond, evangelical-raised Adam begins his day buying chrysanthemums for his overbearing, guilt-inducing mother. From the get-go, some readers may recognize one of many deliberate, well-placed Virginia Woolf references throughout the narrative. He goes on a long run. He has lunch with his bright, smart-alecky best friend, Angela Darlington, who was born in Korea and adopted by her white parents. In a particularly uncomfortable scene, he is sexually harassed by his boss. He also partakes in a 30-plus–page act of intimacy that leaves little to the imagination with his new boyfriend, Linus, also white. The scene is fairly educational, but it’s also full of laughter, true intimacy, discomfort, mixed feelings, and more that elevate it far beyond pure physicality. Meanwhile, in parallel vignettes, the ghost of a murdered teenage girl armed with more Woolf references eerily haunts the streets and lake where she was killed. Her story permeates the entire narrative and adds a supernatural, creepy context to the otherwise small town. What makes these scenes rise above the mundane is Ness’ ability to drop highly charged emotion bombs in the least expected places and infuse each of them with poignant memories, sharp emotions, and beautifully rendered prose so moving it may cause readers to pause and reflect.
Literary, illuminating, and stunningly told
. (Fiction. 14-18)
An exploration of the borderlands that deftly mixes memoir, groundbreaking sociology, deep reporting, and compelling writing.
A child of the parched Texas-Mexico border, Elizondo Griest (Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, 2008, etc.) found herself teaching on a Mohawk Indian reservation that straddled the frigid New York state–Canadian border. At first, the author could not perceive any significant similarities between the two border experiences other than the deep roots of Catholicism. However, as the months passed, she began to realize the commonalities between borderlands shot through with poverty, cruelty by law enforcement agencies, language wars, environmental degradation, poor schools, ill health, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and extraordinarily high death tolls, including suicides. As Elizondo Griest documents the plight of border occupants, she struggles with defining herself within her mixed-race background. She has thought of herself as a mix of Tejana, Chicana, and Latina, but people outside her family usually viewed her as a gringa due to her unusually light skin and blue eyes. But as she began to understand, the borderland existence is the most defining factor of all. Portions of the author’s findings as a reporter are graphic, especially as she chronicles her travels with law enforcement officers to retrieve rotting bodies of Mexicans who died trying to cross rugged territory in Texas or Arizona to establish a life in the U.S. Perhaps the most revelatory portions of the book are the sections about the already existing wall on stretches of the U.S.–Mexico border, barriers predating the rise of Donald Trump. The chapters about the Mohawk struggles are quite likely to seem revelatory, too, given the dearth of national journalism coverage of that region.
In this well-conceived book, the author demonstrates unforgettably that national borders constitute much more than lines on a map.
Creator of an astonishingly successful webcomic—or a nonentity of a high school senior?
Eliza Mirk is an anxiety-plagued weirdo, shuffling silently through the corridors of her Indiana high school without a single friend. She’s also beloved LadyConstellation, creator of the comic Monstrous Sea, “a combination of the Final Fantasy video games and the Faust Legend.” On the Monstrous Sea forums, she’s the queen to millions of passionate fans; in school she’s “Creepy Don’t-Touch-Her-You’ll-Get-Rabies Eliza.” Eliza’s parents, athletes with no understanding of the internet age, mishandle their beloved—but frighteningly baffling—daughter. Though terrified by human interaction, Eliza finds her voice long enough to defend a new student who’s being mocked for writing Monstrous Sea fanfiction. Wallace and Eliza develop an intense, if unusual, friendship: Wallace’s selective mutism means the majority of their conversations are carried on in writing. Eliza, meanwhile, wonders if she can reveal her online identity to Wallace, one of the most well-known fans of Monstrous Sea, without destroying his feelings for her. The deepening relationship of these two white teens, interspersed with pages from the comic and Wallace’s fanfiction prose retelling of it, exposes the raw, self-absorbed pain of mental illness amid the helplessness many high schoolers experience.
A wrenching depiction of depression and anxiety, respectful to fandom, online-only friendships, and the benefits and dangers of internet fame
. (Fiction. 13-17)
A painter of still life and landscape shares her theories and re-creations of Johannes Vermeer’s artistic methods, primarily whether or not he used a camera obscura.
Vermeer’s paintings have been meticulously studied and analyzed with inconclusive results; facts about Vermeer the man are equally elusive. The lack of information about the man of Delft who lived in his mother-in-law’s house with his wife and more than a dozen children might indicate a man of little import. However, his work was appreciated during his (relatively short) life; only hard economic times dried up his customer base. Any artist will love this book because it shows that art is not just the process of putting paint on a surface. Vermeer used many steps to ready his canvas, from hemming the linen to sizing, stretching, smoothing, and priming, followed by a three-month drying period before creating an image. Grinding paints from natural materials and making only enough for a day’s painting before they dried up further elongated the process. The author is justifiably enthralled with Vermeer’s ability to capture light, how he draws us in to the action, as well as his perfection of composition. Most curiously, there appears to be no drawing in his paintings, only his tonal plan that constituted the “inventing” of the subject. Thus, the possibility of Vermeer using a lens or a camera obscura develops. The projected image would have been perfect to create the tonal makeup that every picture requires. Jelley makes a convincing case that this was only the first step in his creation, and his glazing of multiple colors atop the tonal invention makes perfect sense. The debate will continue, but the more we learn of Vermeer’s masterful use of color and light, the more we can love them.
Featuring wonderful illustrations, engaging prose, and a deep knowledge of the craft, this is a study in art history and methodology to delight an audience beyond just visual artists.
In this aptly named story collection by Clarke (The Hate Race, 2016), an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean heritage, people living in various countries struggle to build better lives for themselves.
In the title story, Millie Lucas, a pretty teenage girl from a poor Jamaican farming family, is sent to work in a Kingston sewing shop, which her parents see as a step up in the world for her, only to fall victim to a man's seduction. In the deeply haunting “David,” the lives of two Sudanese women living in Australia intersect: one is older, more traditional, and still traumatized by the shooting of her young child in the war back home; the other is a younger, more modern single mom who has just left her son’s father because he “was no good.” Here, the gap between generations that, at first, gives the older woman a negative judgment of the younger woman’s life choices gives way to a single, cathartic moment of human connection. Then there is the story of Harlem Jones, whose West Indian immigrant mother wants him to make more of his life than his absent father and incarcerated brother have managed to do with theirs since the family settled in London. “Ye need te pull yeself together, Harlem," is his mother’s ongoing refrain. "Ye father an I never come te dis country te raise delinquent children." Clarke fully inhabits the voices of her characters—a masterful feat given their wide range of age, gender, race, country of origin, and country of residence. While many of the stories explore the lives of immigrants, the characters are not stereotypes or stand-ins to further a political ideology; they are simply people caught in situations ranging from the desperate to the more mundane, trying to live their lives the best way they know how.
A tremendous new voice; a writer of immense talent and depth.
A scrupulous history of one of the darkest moments in American military history.
On March 16, 1968, troops from the United States Army entered a series of villages in South Vietnam, and what ensued has been called the “My Lai Massacre,” one of the most shameful events in the history of U.S. foreign affairs. Although the numbers remain in dispute, perhaps the most reliable indicate 504 dead, more than half of whom were under 20 years of age. The slaughter served no larger strategic or tactical purpose. It was murder in cold blood, and an out-of-his-depth 24-year-old soldier, William Calley, who was guilty of an array of crimes against humanity that day, would serve as the focal point of the criminal investigations that followed. Calley would be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. This book is part of the publisher’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, and the events of My Lai—indeed, all of 1968—certainly fit. “My Lai was a turning point for so many reasons,” writes Jones (Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations, 2010, etc.), “not least for the ways in which it tarnished the image many Americans had of their soldiers, and that the soldiers had of themselves.” The story of that day did not emerge, however, until 1969, primarily due to the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on My Lai. Jones is a versatile historian—his work has ranged from the nation’s founding era to the modern U.S.—and here, he successfully accomplishes two tasks: first, he provides as comprehensive a history of My Lai as we are likely to see for some time. Second, he thoughtfully probes the myriad ways that the My Lai story has been told.
Jones succeeds on all counts in a book that, due to its subject matter, is not pleasant to read but is powerful and important.
A young girl disappears outside a small village in northern England.
With just four books, McGregor (This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, 2012, etc.) has already made a substantial impact on the literary scene; three of his novels, including this one, have been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and he won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Even the Dogs (2010). His latest, an atmospheric, meticulously crafted novel, begins like a mystery then quickly morphs into something altogether different. A family is visiting an English village for the New Year, and their 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca, goes for a walk and doesn’t return. The police conduct a search with some villagers at dawn. A helicopter has been out all night but found nothing. A van with fake number plates is discovered near Reservoir 7, and someone says it belonged to a man named Woods, who "wasn't the type of bloke you wanted to be talking to the police about." Six months pass: “It was as though the ground had just opened up and swallowed her whole.” In 13 chapters, each dealing with one year, an omniscient narrator chronicles the lives of the villagers and the impact the girl’s disappearance has on them. All the chapters after the first begin the same way, “At midnight when the year turned,” like refrains in the stanzas of a prose poem. Sentences and words are rhythmically repeated. People have dreams about Rebecca “walking home. Walking beside the motorway, walking across the moor, walking up out of one of the reservoirs." A “creeping normality” sets in. In simple, quiet, and deliberate prose, McGregor describes the passing months. The seasons change, “bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged” while "in the dusk the wood pigeons gathered to roost.” The villagers—Jones the carpenter; Jane Hughes the vicar; Sally; Liam—go on with their lives. “It went on like this. This was how it went on.” The pantomime is performed every December. “Dreams were had about her, still.”
A stunningly good, understated novel told in a mesmerizing voice.
Janna Yusuf has two major problems: the boy who assaults her at her friend’s party is well-respected in the local Muslim community, and now the boy from school she’s been crushing on likes her back.
Janna, a high school sophomore whose Egyptian mother and Indian father are divorced, is surrounded by caring friends and family, but there are things her non-Muslim friends don’t understand, and there are things she won’t tell her Muslim friends and family. It all comes to a head when her aggressor tries to publicly shame her by posting videos of her talking with her crush, a white boy named Jeremy, who, as a non-Muslim, is not considered a proper match for her…even if Janna did date, that is. As she stumbles through her social dilemmas, Janna finds out who her allies are—the everyday “saints” she’s overlooked. Finally, with the help of an unpredictable niqabi on her own mission to crush misogynists, Janna gets in touch with her rage and fights back, refusing to take on the shame that belongs on the aggressor. Ali pens a touching exposition of a girl’s evolution from terrified victim to someone who knows she’s worthy of support and is brave enough to get it. Set in a multicultural Muslim family, this book is long overdue, a delight for readers who will recognize the culture and essential for those unfamiliar with Muslim experiences.
This quiet read builds to a satisfying conclusion; readers will be glad to make space in their hearts—and bookshelves—for Janna Yusuf
. (Fiction. 12-18)
Searching account of 1960s Southern California, when the wistful innocence of the Beach Boys died alongside the victims of Charles Manson.
It makes sense that the first figure really to take form in McKeen’s (Chair, Journalism/Boston Univ.; Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West, 2011, etc.) latest book is Murry Wilson, the psychologically tortured, reflexively violent father of Beach Boys Carl, Dennis, and Brian—in fact, the latter was so relentlessly damaged by the shock of a raging parent that, more than half a century later, he is not quite at home in this world. “The boys knew they could stem the brutality with music,” writes McKeen, and so they sang—but also drank, drugged, and did all they could to escape. It was an accident of history that Dennis’ path crossed that of would-be songwriter Charles Manson, whose creepy, ultimately murderous family would invade Dennis’ life and home before committing their infamous acts. In between, McKeen recounts the rise and fall of LA pop-culture icons such as the Byrds, a band born in all sorts of conflict and personality clash even as it projected a flower-power cool: “They wanted to be rock ’n’ roll stars, but they couldn’t decide what would make the band distinctive.” The “star-making machinery,” a line of Joni Mitchell’s that McKeen cheerfully echoes, took in all kinds of disparate characters, from the lost wild child Gram Parsons to the craggy Svengali Kim Fowley. As the author notes, that machinery had no problem with the waiflike Michelle Phillips straddling a couple of dudes in a bathtub on an album cover but recalled it to sticker over the edge of a toilet that had strayed into the picture. McKeen’s book ends near where it begins, with the haunted Wilson family caught up in the terrible vortex of the post-Manson ’70s, when hippies were now objects of fear and bedrooms and barrooms were the sanctuaries of choice.
Excellent social history, bracketing David Talbot’s Season of the Witch (2012) as an indispensable account of a time of beauty and terror.
This sparkling first novel sends a young man through a gantlet of troubles and amusements in 18th-century Manhattan.
Within minutes of deboarding from the brig Henrietta in New York harbor, anno Domini 1746, Richard Smith seems to attract trouble. First the 24-year-old Londoner presents a local merchant named Lovell with a bill demanding 1,000 pounds sterling. It’s a huge sum for the time, and Smith’s sharp tongue does little to smooth the transaction. Next day, his purse is stolen, and that night, invited to dine with the merchant, Smith is rude to his hosts and nettles the merchant’s daughter Tabitha. Among other things, he abets her sister’s taste in novels (“pabulum for the easily pleased”). Before the week is out he is mistaken for a papist and pursued by a drunken mob in a marvelous chase scene through Manhattan’s much fewer mean streets. His rescuer that night, Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor, will unwittingly embroil Smith in the city’s chief political dispute. Spufford (Unapologetic, 2013, etc.), who writes in the Fielding-esque style of the period and displays a sure hand thereto, packs so many surprises into this sprightly picaresque that an extended precis would be full of spoiling answers to such queries as: why does Tabitha limp? Why do Smith and Septimus duel? Is it because of their dark secrets? Why is Smith really in New York? And who is the narrative’s “true” author? Spufford suggests in an afterword that he was aiming for "a colonial counterpart to Joseph Andrews,” but there’s a touch here also of the Ian Fleming books that he warmly recalls in his autobiographical The Child That Books Built (2002).
A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists.
In her debut novel, Raina applies the now-familiar "teenage girl takes on the government" trope to the Soweto uprising of June 1976.
Zanele, a black grade-12 student, is not a reluctant hero. She starts her portion of the narration by describing her role in the attempted bombing of a power plant and goes on to be one of the primary organizers of the student protest against unjust language laws. She is a leader by conviction. The author uses three other narrators to highlight this. Jack is Zanele's most obvious foil. A white boy from a middle-class family, his understanding of racial inequality extends only to his attempts to get close to Zanele, who occasionally assists her mother in serving his family. A black gang member and an Indian shopkeeper’s daughter respectively, Thabo and Meena are united by their friendship with Zanele but diverge in the ways in which they engage with the community and the police. The presentation of characters with different racial identities beautifully highlights how those identities shape the characters’ understandings and experiences of apartheid and their subsequent reactions to the uprising. Small details, such as Jack and his friends listening to Miles Davis as they put on blackface, stoke the tension in the prose. The violence that erupts is gut-wrenching but unsurprising. Readers who love the fast pace and high stakes of dystopian teen literature should snag this book.
This timely reminder of the power and passion of young people contextualizes current student protests by honoring those of the past.
(historical note, glossary, glossary sources)
(Historical fiction. 13-adult)
Unexpected and nuanced and pulsing with life, Whitaker’s debut cuts straight to the heart of the creative process.
From the minute Sharon Kisses meets Mel Vaught, the women are inseparable. Both are visual art majors with obvious talent. Both are from the rural south (Sharon: East Kentucky, Mel: Central Florida), united by their shared “white trashiness” (Mel’s words)—a rarity at their posh East Coast liberal arts college. And both have a passion, an unquenchable thirst, for comics. “I’m gonna be a cartoonist,” Mel says, the first night they hang out. “Animate. What else is there?” By graduation, they are not just best friends, but also artistic partners. Ten years later, they’re living and working together, still in a “piece-of-crap” studio in Brooklyn. They make “small, thoughtful cartoons and out-of-mainstream animation shorts for a thinking woman’s audience,” according to critics. Their first full-length feature, an autobiographical project based on Mel’s childhood, wins them an ultraprestigious grant. They are a perfectly mismatched pair: Sharon is curvy, consistent, and perpetually lovelorn; Mel is thin and gay, the life of the party. But transforming their private pasts into public art comes at a cost, and as the novel progresses and both women are struck by different kinds of tragedies, Sharon and Mel are forced to come to terms with their families, themselves, and the painful limitations of their bond. Sweeping and intimate at once, the novel is an exquisite portrait of a life-defining partnership. Whitaker captures the shifting dynamics between Mel and Sharon—between all the characters, really—with such precision and sharpness that it’s hard to let them go.
Empathetic but never sentimental; a book that creeps up on you and then swallows you whole.
A young man finds joy in a “place they said no one could love.”
In 2009, at age 23, Philp bought a house for $500 in Detroit: an abandoned 1903 Queen Anne with a wraparound porch. One of many such bargains available in the bankrupt city, the house and the story of its yearslong rehabilitation are the focus of this fresh, honest, often stirring debut, which began as a BuzzFeed feature. A shy, idealistic working-class white kid from rural Michigan, the author arrived in the 80 percent black city with no friends, job, or money. Fixing the house “would be a protest of sorts,” he reasoned, an expression of his contempt for the wealthy suburban lifestyle of Ann Arbor, where he had just attended the University of Michigan. Working odd jobs, he found himself in a frightening city of wild dogs, frequent shootings, suspicious fires, and near-daily offers of drugs or sex. One new neighbor, Zeno, a crack dealer, asked him, “are you wearing a wire, motherfucker?” Another told Philp about a county auction of thousands of abandoned houses, an event that kicks off this deeply felt, sharply observed personal quest to create meaning and community out of the fallen city’s “cinders of racism and consumerism and escape.” Often hungry and scared, the author had help from his parents and new friends (most wild spirits sharing in the adventure of a revitalizing city) in working with abandoned materials to cobble his broken-down home, from chimney and stairs to foundation. The grueling process not only reveals his growing maturity, but also becomes a window on the look and feel of present-day Detroit and the neighborly people struggling to achieve satisfying lives there. Philp ably outlines the broad issues of race and class in the city, but it is the warmth and liveliness of his storytelling that will win many readers. “It is your sacred duty to find hope somewhere,” he reminds us.