Fresh from the excellent Life After Life (2013), Atkinson takes another sidelong look at the natures of time and reality in this imaginative novel, her ninth.
Transpose Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to the skies over Europe in World War II, and you’ll have some idea of the territory in which Atkinson is working. Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life, returns, appearing from time to time at just the right moments, in the manner of a chorus. The lead in this story, though, is her brother Teddy, who, having survived both childhood and the air war, is now disillusioned—“The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination”—and suffering from more than a little guilt that he lives while so many others do not. If Bierce might be a silent presence in the proceedings, so too might be The Best Years of Our Lives, which treats just that issue—save that we know how things turned out for the players in William Wyler’s 1946 film, whereas Atkinson constantly keeps us guessing, the story looping over itself in time (“This was when people still believed in the dependable nature of time—a past, a present, a future—the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on”) and presenting numerous possibilities for how Teddy’s life might unfold depending on the choices he makes, to say nothing of things well beyond his control. Atkinson’s narrative is without some of the showy pyrotechnics of its predecessor. Instead, it quietly, sometimes dolefully looks in on the players as, shell-shocked by a war that has dislocated whole generations and nations, they go about trying to refashion their lives and, of course, regretting things done, not done, and undone as they do.
But do we really have just one life, as Ursula insists? It’s a point worth pondering. A grown-up, elegant fairy tale, at least of a kind, with a humane vision of people in all their complicated splendor.
An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.
Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.
Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.
A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.
As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen’s (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian (“a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI”), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen’s protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he’s a mole: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who’s airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans “with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues”; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying on—though it turns out he’s as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: “I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant,” he recalls, “and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple.”
Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.
An Atlantic contributing editor’s refreshingly bold and incisive account of how she came to celebrate her status as a single woman.
As a young woman, Bolick was in turmoil over the “dual contingencies” that govern female existence: “whom to marry and when it will happen.” She had always believed that she wanted marriage; yet even her earliest relationships revealed that while she enjoyed loving men, she was “most alive when alone.” Continually questioning how she wanted to live her life, she spent her early adulthood in and out of committed and noncommitted relationships. But it wasn’t until her 40th birthday that the still-single Bolick had the insight that would change her attitudes toward spinsterhood and show her that she “was now in possession of not only a future, but also a past.” In looking at the biographies of literary women she especially admired—most notably, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Neith Boyce and Maeve Brennan—she realized that all had lived full and vigorous lives that included loving across genders or within the context of open marriages. Moreover, she also discovered that these women were part of a larger history of women who had actively chosen to seek alternatives to traditional heterosexual/monogamous lifestyles. As Bolick traces her evolution into a woman unapologetic for her choices and unafraid of her own personal freedom, she also reclaims the derogatory term “spinster” for all females, married or not. For her, the word is “shorthand for holding on to that…which is independent and self-sufficient” rather than one that gestures toward prudery, coldness and repression. Ultimately, to be a spinster is to be part of a distinguished sisterhood of women boldly “living life on their own terms.”
A sexy, eloquent, well-written and -researched study/memoir.
Novelist, Guggenheim Fellow and co-founder of the Believer magazine, Julavits (Writing/Columbia Univ.; co-editor, The Vanishers, 2012, etc.), now in her mid-40s, noticed that the smallest unit of time she experiences is no longer a minute, a day, nor even a week, but years. That disquieting perception inspired this book: “Since I am suddenly ten years older than I was, it seems, one year ago, I decided to keep a diary.” Time is much on her mind in gently philosophical entries that do not appear chronologically but instead are disrupted and reordered, recounting two years of her life in New York, where she and her husband teach; Maine, where she grew up yearning to leave and now spends joyful summers; and Germany, where the family lived during her husband’s fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. Admitting that she is a “sub-sub-subtextual” reader of the world, Julavits analyzes her marriage; the needs and growing independence of her young son and daughter; her visits to a psychic, with whom she discusses the mystical power of objects and synchronicity (“My life seems marked by a high degree of coincidence and recursion,” Julavits confesses); former lovers; her aspirations as a writer; and such guilty pleasures as watching the reality series The Bachelorette, whose “love language” she and her husband gleefully parse. Other pastimes include shopping on eBay, which, she writes, “has immeasurably improved my quality of life more than doctors or drugs”; succumbing to temptation at yard sales; and swimming, despite her overwhelming fear of sharks. Some entries are slyly funny, gossipy and irreverent; others, quietly intimate, reveal recurring depression and anxiety, “alternate states of being” to which she gratefully returns: “When you become you again, you can actually greet yourself. You can welcome yourself back.”
An inventive, beautifully crafted memoir, wise and insightful.
The provocative author of The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Slumberland (2008) is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet.
Beatty has never been afraid to stir the pot when it comes to racial and socioeconomic issues, and his latest is no different. In fact, this novel is his most incendiary, and readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs (and hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable) in the service of satire should take a pass. The protagonist lives in Dickens, “a ghetto community” in Los Angeles, and works the land in an area called “The Farms,” where he grows vegetables, raises small livestock and smokes a ton of “good weed.” After being raised by a controversial sociologist father who subjected him to all manner of psychological and social experiments, the narrator is both intellectually gifted and extremely street-wise. When Dickens is removed from the map of California, he goes on a quest to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who hangs around the neighborhood regaling everyone with tales of the ridiculously racist skits he used to perform with the rest of the gang. It’s clear that Hominy has more than a few screws loose, and he volunteers to serve as the narrator’s slave—yes, slave—on his journey. Another part of the narrator’s plan involves segregating the local school so that it allows only black, Latino and other nonwhite students. Eventually, he faces criminal charges and appears in front of the Supreme Court in what becomes “the latest in a long line of landmark race-related cases.” Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going, but fans of satire and blatantly honest—and often laugh-out-loud funny—discussions of race and class will be rewarded on each page. Beatty never backs down, and readers are the beneficiaries.
Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.
Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.
Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.
The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.
A stirring history of that bad time, 45-odd years ago, when we didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing, though we knew it was loud.
The 1970s, writes Vanity Fair special correspondent Burrough (The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, 2009, etc.), saw something unknown since the American Revolution: a group of radical leftists forming “an underground resistance movement” that, as his subtitle notes, is all but forgotten today. The statistics are daunting and astonishing: In 1971 and 1972, the FBI recorded more than 2,500 bombings, only 1 percent of which led to a fatality. In contrast to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, which killed 168 people, the “single deadliest radical-underground attack of the decade killed four people.” The FBI, of course, took this very seriously. As Burrough records, it embarked on a campaign of infiltration and interdiction that soon overstepped its bounds, legally speaking. The author takes a deep look into this history on both sides, interviewing veterans of the underground on one hand and of the FBI on the other. He traces the bombing campaign back to the man he deems a “kind of Patient Zero for the underground groups of the 1970s,” who began seeding Manhattan with bombs in the year of Woodstock and provided a blueprint for radicals right and left ever since. It is clear that the FBI has Burrough’s sympathy; after all, many of those who went underground got off lightly, while overly zealous federal agents (the man who would later be unmasked as Watergate’s Deep Throat among them) were prosecuted. The author’s history is thoroughgoing and fascinating, though with a couple of curious notes—e.g., the likening of the Weathermen et al. to the Nazi Werewolf guerrillas “who briefly attempted to resist Allied forces after the end of World War II.”
A superb chronicle, long—but no longer than needed—and detailed, that sheds light on how the war on terror is being waged today.
An understated and devastating novel of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation, as seen through the eyes of a street-wise boy.
Shepard has recently earned more renown for his short stories (You Think That’s Bad,2011, etc.), but here he presents an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival through a narrator who's just 9 years old when the tale begins. He's a Jewish boy living in the Polish countryside with his family and an odd sense of his place in the world. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he despairs, matter-of-factly describing himself as basically friendless, a poor student, and an enigma to his loving mother: “She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.” Yet Aron proves to be engaging company as he describes the selfishness that will help him survive as the world becomes increasingly hellish. The horrors are so incremental that Aron—and the reader—might be compared to the lobster dropped into the pot as the temperature keeps rising past the boiling point. Aron’s perspective is necessarily limited, and he often seems to have little understanding of what’s happening around him or why. His family is pushed into the city, and in the ghetto's chaos, he's separated from them. Serving as a moral counterweight to the boy's instinctive pragmatism is Dr. James Korczak, a real-life Polish Jew whose ambition to “become the Karl Marx of children” inspired him to keep a couple hundred alive through his orphanage, which he supports by begging for funds from the better-off ghetto inhabitants. Aron becomes the doctor’s ward and accomplice, though he has also been serving as an occasional informer for the Gestapo through an intermediary in the Jewish police. He tries to use his position to help save the doctor from being sent to a concentration camp, but the doctor is only interested if he can save all the other children as well. “How do we know if we love enough?” asks the doctor. “How do we learn to love more?”
Ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.
The narrator of the six-volume memoir-novel confronts his late teens, in which he defies his father by behaving much like him.
As the book opens, Karl Ove is 18 and bent on proving his independence. Instead of going to college, he’s taken a teaching job at a school in rural north Norway, much as his father did a few years earlier. Karl Ove, though, is determined to use the gig as a steppingstone to becoming a writer, using his off hours to work on his fiction. Naturally, his plans are undone in short order. Neighbors, fellow teachers and even some students in the tiny town come knocking unannounced, hard-drinking parties are the sole entertainment, and teaching is more challenging than he’d expected. After an agonizing hangover, the story shifts to Karl Ove at 16, as his mind operates on two tracks: cultivating his dreams of being a writer (he finagles a gig writing record reviews for a paper) and scheming to lose his virginity. Standing in the way of the latter goal are his pretentiousness, a growing alcohol habit to match his dad’s and a premature ejaculation problem, but he’s keenly aware of only the last issue. Of the four books in this series published in English thus far, this one is the most rhetorically conventional: Knausgaard employs humor, irony and melodrama in ways that he studiously avoided in previous episodes. But he’s done so not to pander but to criticize, echoing the mindset of a sex-obsessed and callow young man still in his teens and unshaped as a person and as a writer. And when the story arrives at its climax (and you can likely guess what that involves), Knausgaard uses the plainspokenness that defined his previous books to powerfully evoke the depth of his obliviousness, the hollowness of his triumph.
An entertaining portrait of the artist as a young lout.
Art, money, and ill intent collide in Interview magazine editor Bollen’s (Lightning People, 2011) sophomore novel.
Mills Chevern (“You know by now that Mills Chevern isn’t my real name”) arrives in Orient, on the North Fork of Long Island, as an adolescent drifter. He leaves a somewhat more established figure in the community, both suspect and savior. What happens in between is the subject of all kinds of speculation in Bollen's leisurely yarn, for his arrival coincides with a rash of murders in the placid community, a haven for the well-to-do and a slew of real estate agents, developers, and artists (“the sex was miserable, but they were artists who craved misery”) who depend on those richies for their livelihoods. One, Beth, a native of the place with an intimate knowledge of where all the previous bodies are buried, so to speak, takes Mills in, courting the bad temper of a memorable Romanian artist who serves as a kind of Greek chorus to the later proceedings, growling and grumping. As the bodies mount, the huge pool of suspects begins to dwindle somewhat, for everyone, it seems, has a reason to kill; as Mills laments, “How can that detective suspect me when all these people had a motive?” Given all the possibilities, the identity of the real killer, in a nicely paced tale that unfolds deliberately over the course of 600 pages, is a nice surprise. Bollen could have chosen to sneer, scold, and satirize, for, he lets us know, at least some of the victims had it coming. But he mostly plays it straight—except, that is, for the moments of perilous same-sex entanglement, reminiscent of the best of Patricia Highsmith. And no one emerges unscathed from the gossipy tale, full of crossed storylines and small-town malice; Bollen has a real talent for summarizing character with zingers that nicely punctuate the story: “‘I love you too,’ she said, chain-rolling and chain-smoking her cigarettes, a one-woman factory, her mouth a purple waste-management vent.”
Skillfully written, with delightful malice aforethought.