From Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout (The Burgess Boys, 2013, etc.), a short, stark novel about the ways we break and maintain the bonds of family.
The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside—but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer. She marries a man from a comfortable background who can’t ever quite quiet her demons; his efforts to bridge the gap created by their wildly different upbringings occupy some of the novel’s saddest pages. As in Olive Kittredge (2008), Strout peels back layers of denial and self-protective brusqueness to reveal the love that Lucy’s mother feels but cannot express. In fewer than 200 intense, dense pages, she considers class prejudice, the shame that poverty brings, the AIDS epidemic, and the healing powers—and the limits—of art. Most of all, this is a story of mothers and daughters: Lucy’s ambivalent feelings for the mother who failed to protect her are matched by her own guilt for leaving the father of her two girls, who have never entirely forgiven her. Later sections, in which Lucy’s dying mother tells her “I need you to leave” and the father who brutalized her says, “What a good girl you’ve always been,” are almost unbearably moving, with their pained recognition that the mistakes we make are both irreparable and subject to repentance. The book does feel a bit abbreviated, but that’s only because the characters and ideas are so compelling we want to hear more from the author who has limned them so sensitively.
Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement.
A fond memoir of life with a prolific writer of science fiction and pornography.
Screenwriter (True Blood, Weeds) and essayist Offutt (No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home, 2002, etc.) describes his father, Andrew, as “fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruel, selfish, and eternally optimistic.” In the opening chapters, the author charts his father’s declining health and grave prognosis from alcohol-induced cirrhosis, which spurred the author to return home to Kentucky in the midst of his own divorce. Offutt delves deep into his father’s history as a former traveling salesman who carted his family around to sci-fi conventions and who harbored a temperamental persona with a penchant for creating alter egos. Beginning with an Old West novel written when he was just 12, Andrew was in many ways “an old-school pulp writer” whose early novels, penned in the hushed privacy of a locked home office and often under pseudonyms, helped finance Offutt’s desperately needed orthodontia. Upon his death in 2013, the mother lode of his father’s squirreled away gemstones, coins, and assorted clutter was unearthed, but it was the 1,800 pounds of manuscripts and papers bequeathed to Offutt that exposed Andrew’s true nature and later career as a “workhorse in the field of written pornography.” The author’s father produced an incredibly imaginative oeuvre of hard-core graphic erotica, from ghost porn to inquisition torture, incrementally (and chillingly) escalating in violence against women as time went on—something Andrew believed prevented him from becoming a serial killer. Admitting to his mother that his “Dad was the most interesting character I’ve ever met” speaks volumes about not only the kind of father Andrew was to his son, but also the kind of son Offutt became because of (and in spite of) the things he’d been taught.
Though his relationship with his father was distant, melancholic, and precarious, Offutt quite movingly weaves his personal history into a fascinating tapestry of a compulsive writer with a knack for the naughty.
Four middle-aged siblings reunite at their family home in the English countryside in Hadley’s (Clever Girl, 2014, etc.) quietly masterful domestic portrait.
They arrive one by one, gathering at the decrepit old house for what may be the last time (memories are one thing; the cost of maintenance is another): Alice first, artistic and sentimental; Fran, frazzled and practical, her two children in tow and her touring musician husband frustratingly absent; Harriet, the eldest, self-contained and dignified; and Roland, the only brother, distant and academic, newly married (for the third time) to an Argentinian lawyer the sisters have yet to meet. When he arrives with his new wife and 16-year-old daughter, Molly, the family is complete, plus one: Alice has brought her ex-boyfriend’s college-aged son, Kasim, along, too. Nothing much “happens” in the novel or, at least, not outwardly. The siblings drink tea, they drink gin, they bicker; they mind Fran’s children, Ivy and Arthur, watch romance bloom between Molly and Kasim, and allow the question that has brought them together—will they sell the house?—to be buried under the business of family vacationing: food preparation, child care, swimming. But inwardly, the sisters are in near-constant upheaval. Hadley expertly captures the gentle tragedies of living, losses, and regrets that are at once momentous and too quotidian to mention: aging, the passage of time, the fissures and slights and unspoken disappointments that simmer underneath the surfaces of all families. The melancholy drama here is not external but internal; not in facts or in actions but in thoughts. Broken up into three dreamy sections—two in the present and one set in the same house a generation earlier—the novel might seem overly precious if it weren’t so bracingly precise.
Hadley is the patron saint of ordinary lives; her trademark empathy and sharp insight are out in force here.
A significant new exploration of the enormously important friendship between two activist crusaders in advancing the cause of civil rights for blacks and women.
Although the Baltimore-born black lawyer Pauli Murray (1910-1985) and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) exchanged more than 300 letters during their lifetimes, met occasionally, and worked in tandem on issues of social justice, there has not been a proper study of their mutually influential friendship until now. In this stellar work of scholarship, Bell-Scott (Emerita, Women’s Studies and Family Science/Univ. of Georgia; Flat-Footed Truths:Telling Black Women's Lives, 1998, etc.) has sifted through their correspondence for evidence of their evolving ideas on black-white issues and how each took the measure of the other while working doggedly to bring down social and professional barriers. Eleanor tirelessly promoted integration despite the public caution that her husband demonstrated, and she first met Murray in 1933 as a college graduate attending Camp Tera (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration), a pilot facility for struggling unemployed women that Eleanor had pushed to create during the Depression. Subsequently, Murray would go on to get advanced law degrees and work as deputy California attorney general and, later, as a professor. All the while, Murray idolized Eleanor ("the most visible symbol of autonomy and therefore the role model of women of my generation") and frequently wrote to her—or to the president, sending her a copy of the letter. She laid out in no uncertain terms the plight of the African-American, “the most oppressed, most misunderstood and most neglected section of your population,” especially in the South, where she had lived as an orphan. From getting anti-lynching legislation passed to pressuring institutions of higher learning to integrate, the two women bolstered or chided each other candidly in their letters involving issues which Eleanor frequently referred to in her newspaper column. With generous excerpts from the letters, Bell-Scott shines a bright light on this significant relationship.
A fresh look at Eleanor Roosevelt and a fascinating exploration of a cherished, mutually beneficial friendship.
A thorough investigative report into the systematic abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean intelligence network over many decades.
Journalist Boynton (Director, Literary Reportage Program/New York Univ.; The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, 2005) continually circles back to the essential question regarding these absurd scenarios of abduction from the streets and coasts of Japan since the mid-1970s: what was the point of kidnapping the Japanese and bringing them back to North Korea for brainwashing? The author explores the racial aspect: was the program an attempt by Kim Jong-Il’s authoritarian regime to instigate a “long-term breeding program” through abducted Japanese couples to introduce a mixed race that might serve as perfect spies? Or was the purpose to steal identities with which to create fake passports? Or possibly to get back at Japan for its long history of imperial ravaging? Boynton takes a few of these sagas of abduction and brings them vividly to life—e.g., the fairly typical story of Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, who were young students in 1978 when they were abducted from a Japanese beach and transported to North Korea. Separated for “re-education” for two years and then reunited and married, the couple was moved through so-called heavily guarded “invitation-only zones” in Pyongyang, a kind of “gilded cage” for exceptional cases. For the couple, it was a way to keep them isolated and away from prying eyes. Thanks to a wrenching act of diplomacy between the two countries in 2002, Kim Jong-Il publicly apologized for the abductions, and an “extended visit” was arranged for a handful of surviving abductees (their children back in North Korea served as “de facto hostages”) to return to Japan, including the Hasuikes. The author seems as mesmerized by all this strangeness as readers will be. More than anecdotal stories, his work zeroes in on the deeply uneasy makeup of the Korean-Japanese relationship.
Engaging reading, surreal in some of the Orwellian detail.
After a failed suicide attempt, 16-year-old Vicky Cruz wakes up in a hospital’s mental ward, where she must find a path to recovery—and maybe rescue some others.
Vicky meets Mona, Gabriel, and E.M.—a clan very different from Vicky primarily because of their economic limitations—at Lakeview Hospital. There, with the guidance of their group-therapy leader, Dr. Desai, they daily delve into deep-seated issues that include anger management, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and schizophrenia. Beyond the hospital walls, Vicky’s school friends amount to zero, and her future plans are difficult to conjure. Vicky has a flawed family: Becca, her Harvard-student sister, has grown distant; Miguel, her temperamental first-generation father, married Barbara only six months after Vicky’s mother died of cancer; and collectively the two are sending Vicky’s longtime nanny, Juanita, back to Mexico. A quick first-person narration guides readers through the complexity of Vicky’s thoughts and, more importantly, revelations. From her darkest moments to welcome comedic respites to Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Stork remains loyal to his characters, their moments of weakness, and their pragmatic views, and he does not shy away from such topics as domestic violence, social-class struggles, theology, and philosophy.
Following Schneider Award–winning Marcelo in the Real World (2009), Stork further marks himself as a major voice in teen literature by delivering one of his richest and most emotionally charged novels yet
.(Fiction. 12 & up)
Life as opera: the intrigues and passions of a star soprano in 19th-century Paris.
She was the last surviving member of a Minnesota farm family swept away by fever; "Lilliet Berne" is a name she borrowed off a gravestone by the East River on her way to board a ship to Europe in search of her mother's people. That mission is eventually abandoned as her original identity is buried under a succession of new incarnations and schemes for survival. She becomes a circus equestrienne, a high-level courtesan, a maid to the empress of France, a spy, and, ultimately, a "Falcon," the rarest breed of soprano—but double dealings, false steps, and bad bargains mark the way. When she is at the pinnacle of her fame, a writer brings her a book he plans to transform into an opera, hoping she will create the central role in its premiere. Reading it, she realizes with horror that the main character is her and that whoever has written it knows all her secrets. To find out who that is, she unfurls the whole of her complicated history and its characters, among them a tenor who's obsessed with her, a comtesse who uses her, her one real friend, and her only love. The story goes through the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the Third Republic, with cameos by Verdi, Bizet, P.T. Barnum, George Sand, and others. If the plot of Chee's (Edinburgh, 2002) second novel is overly elaborate, the voice he has created for his female protagonist never falters. Always holding a few cards close to her chest, Lilliet Berne commands the power of "the ridiculous and beloved thief that is opera—the singer who sneaks into the palace of your heart and somehow enters singing aloud the secret hope or love or grief you hoped would always stay secret, disguised as melodrama; and you are so happy you have lived to see it done."
Richly researched, ornately plotted, this story demands, and repays, close attention.
In Goldberg's debut, set in 1953, a pair of offbeat Jewish characters and an American Negro come to terms with life, death, and theater as Stalin's final pogrom gains steam.
Divided into three "acts," the book opens with an early-morning knock on the door of Levinson, a frail old veteran of the Red Army and the now-defunct State Jewish Theater. Surprised at how open Levinson is to their visit, a state security official and two soldiers quickly discover he is no harmless clown via his sudden "pirouette with Finnish daggers." A short time later, Levinson joins up with Kogan, a noted surgeon he knows from the army, and Lewis, a black friend who came to the Soviet Union from the United States for a factory job, to dispose of the three dead bodies, get rid of a black security van, and make plans to assassinate Stalin. The killings become an excuse for them to trade mortal visions, political philosophies, and especially tales of the days when Levinson, dubbed "the janitor of human souls," took a back seat to the great actor Solomon Mikhoels, who, before his murder in 1948, was director of the Jewish Theater. Largely based on stories passed down by the author's father and grandfather, the book contains facts that still unsettle. You could squeeze 60 people into a single cattle car "if you don't care how many of them are still breathing upon arrival," the 400,000 Jewish citizens of Moscow into 130 trains, and the entire Jewish population of the USSR into 730 trains. But this sophisticated entertainment transcends historical detail with flighty dialogue exchanges that, presented in script style, seem like a cross between Samuel Beckett and Sholem Aleichem. References to other real-life figures, including Paul Robeson and Marc Chagall, add to the color.
For all its dark, discursive content, Goldberg's novel about unlikely rebels plotting Stalin's downfall is streaked with hard-earned wisdom.
A young recluse is unsettled by mysterious children who come to stay with him.
Morgan Fletcher, disfigured by a terrible accident and imagining himself “the dirty secret at the heart of the world,” lives at his sprawling family manor with only his housekeeper, Engel, for company. One day, an infant appears on his doorstep, followed by dozens more children materializing seemingly out of thin air. At first, Morgan is simply glad to be needed: the children are unperturbed by his injuries, and, with Engel's help, the household begins to approximate a normal domestic life. But soon, circumstances surrounding the children get odder: they age (or fail to) in seemingly illogical ways, and they discover a mask in Morgan’s home that replicates his old face and assimilates perfectly to his scarred skin when he puts it on. When Morgan enlists a local doctor’s help in trying to discover who the children are and where they’ve come from, he must gradually travel beyond the walls of his estate, with shocking results. Lambert (With a Zero at Its Heart, 2014, etc.) offers a thoroughly original entry into the tradition of ghost stories; eschewing convention, he revels in bizarre details and images, from Morgan’s mentally ill mother trying to blind herself with rose thorns to the children worshiping an archaic wax anatomical model. Despite the strangeness of the novel’s world, the story retains its subtlety, and though it is profoundly symbolic—and not always easy to decode—it remains compulsively readable. And the reveal, when it comes, is as unforgettable and as saturated with symbolic weight as the rest of the novel; as Morgan muses, “What sense did a mask have…if to remove it meant nothing?”