Mississippi-based author Johnson’s second novel (The Air Between Us, 2008).
The book is about a young black lawyer facing the complexities of race relations in the 1946 South. It offers a somewhat romantic but emotionally affecting take on the period after World War II, when returning African-American soldiers were no longer willing to be treated as inferior citizens and the NAACP was laying groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Regina Robichard is a Columbia Law School grad working for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in New York City when her mentor, Thurgood Marshall—whose saintly portrayal would be wearying if he were more actively involved in the story—receives a request to investigate the death of decorated serviceman Joe Howard Wilson, killed on his way home to Revere, Miss. The request has come from Mary P. Calhoun, a white woman in Revere who employs Wilson’s father, Willie Willie. Regina, whose own father was lynched in Omaha, Neb., before she was born, gets Marshall to send her to Revere. The case interests her in part because she recognizes that M.P. Calhoun authored her favorite childhood novel, about three children, two white and one black, sharing adventures in a magical forest under the tutelage of a wise black man. The novel, which includes an unsolved murder, was banned in Mississippi, but Mary, who may remind readers of Harper Lee, lives on in Revere as a member of the landed old-money gentry. Staying in a cottage Mary built for Willie Willie in her backyard, Regina soon realizes that the white citizens, including Mary herself, seem to be protecting the obvious murderer. But motives and black-white interdependency prove more complex than Regina expected. Most confusing for Regina is her own reaction to Mary Calhoun, her idol and nemesis—and possibly her friend.
Passionate but never didactic, Johnson wisely allows the novel’s politics to play second fiddle to the intimate, nuanced drama of the young black Yankee and middle-aged white Southerner in this provocative story about race in America that becomes a deeply felt metaphor for all human relationships.
Labyrinthine machinations having to do with the Dreyfus Affair, the late 19th-century spy case that disclosed a latent anti-Semitism in French culture.
The main character and narrator of Harris’ novel is Col. Georges Picquart, former professor of topography at the École supérieure de guerre in Paris. While on the surface, topography might seem a peripheral issue to the military, according to Picquart, it involves “the fundamental science of war,” since it requires surveying terrain and generally looking at landscape from a military perspective. Chosen to head a counterespionage agency looking into the crimes allegedly committed by Dreyfus, Picquart has already been rewarded with a nice promotion and seems convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt. But in investigating the case, Picquart begins to have doubts about this guilt and is fairly sure espionage is continuing through Maj. Esterhazy, a Germany spy who’s been passing along the secrets Dreyfus has been accused of disclosing. Military officials are not pleased that Picquart is coming up with evidence that might exonerate Dreyfus since, by this time, Dreyfus has already been convicted and condemned to spend time on Devil’s Island, recently reopened solely for him. Gen. Gonse, for example, cautions Picquart not to be overly enthusiastic in his inquiries concerning Dreyfus since, after all, he’s already been convicted and so his guilt is proved. Public opinion, alas, is on the side of Gonse, for much of the population, inflamed by the popular press, already sees Dreyfus as a traitor and delights in conveying their virulent anti-Semitism.
Espionage, counterespionage, a scandalous trial, a coverup and a man who tries to do right make this a complex and alluring thriller.
Kidd (The Mermaid Chair, 2005, etc.) hits her stride and avoids sentimental revisionism with this historical novel about the relationship between a slave and the daughter of slave owners in antebellum Charleston.
Sarah Grimké was an actual early abolitionist and feminist whose upbringing in a slaveholding Southern family made her voice particularly controversial. Kidd re-imagines Sarah’s life in tandem with that of a slave in the Grimké household. In 1803, 11-year-old Sarah receives a slave as her birthday present from her wealthy Charleston parents. Called Hetty by the whites, Handful is just what her name implies—sharp tongued and spirited. Precocious Sarah is horrified at the idea of owning a slave but is given no choice by her mother, a conventional Southern woman of her time who is not evil but accepts slavery (and the dehumanizing cruelties that go along with it) as a God-given right. Soon, Sarah and Handful have established a bond built on affection and guilt. Sarah breaks the law by secretly teaching Handful to read and write. When they are caught, Handful receives a lashing, while Sarah is banned from her father’s library and all the books therein, her dream of becoming a lawyer dashed. As Sarah and Handful mature, their lives take separate courses. While Handful is physically imprisoned, she maintains her independent spirit, while Sarah has difficulty living her abstract values in her actual life. Eventually, she escapes to Philadelphia and becomes a Quaker, until the Quakers prove too conservative. As Sarah’s activism gives her new freedom, Handful’s life only becomes harder in the Grimké household. Through her mother, Handful gets to know Denmark Vesey, who dies as a martyr after attempting to organize a slave uprising. Sarah visits less and less often, but the bond between the two women continues until it is tested one last time.
Kidd’s portrait of white slave-owning Southerners is all the more harrowing for showing them as morally complicated, while she gives Handful the dignity of being not simply a victim, but a strong, imperfect woman.
A strangely compelling dueling memoir by the improbably matched political couple.
Chicago-native Republican strategist Matalin (Letters to My Daughters, 2004) and New Orleans–born Bill Clinton campaign manager Carville (co-author: It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!, 2012) alternate relentless takes on the events of the last 20 years—both public news stories, such as the 2000 presidential election recount that deeply shook their marriage, and private milestones like moving with their two then-tween-age daughters to New Orleans from Washington, D.C., in 2008. Matalin garners the lion’s share of space, as she discourses on events and personalities in more leisurely, mannered detail, especially the two years she worked as assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney (dispensing the standard talking points for the media meant, “it was up to you to make processed canned food taste garden fresh”). In his pithy style, Carville gets in some good digs of his own. For example, he recounts his simmering resentment at his wife for taking that same VP job in the first place, suppressing an uncivil urge to wish her “good luck on cutting taxes for rich people on her way out the door.” Both are funny in their fashions and respectful of and loving toward the other—rather incredibly, considering their vast ideological divides. In one illuminating tale, Carville tells of the post-9/11 Christmas holiday the family had to spend near the Cheneys in Wyoming, which he made the best of despite the fact that “we were surrounded by Republicans.” In spite of Matalin’s gushing praise of “Poppy” Bush, Lee Atwater, Rush Limbaugh and others, and despite Carville’s merciless jabs at their “boneheaded positions,” the couple’s revelatory account of Carville’s late-life diagnosis of ADHD and their work to rebuild their hometown prove miraculously touching.
A solid memoir of political lives from both sides of the spectrum.
A harrowing and fully imagined vision of dystopian America from Lee, who heretofore has worked in a more realist mode.
Lee’s oeuvre is largely made up of novels about Asians assimilating into American society (The Surrendered, 2010, etc.), and in many regards, this one is no different. Its hero is Fan, a young woman of Chinese descent who leaves her native Baltimore to find her disappeared lover, Reg. However, the near-future America she travels through is catastrophically going off the rails: The wealthy (or “Charters”) live in protected communities, the lawless “counties” are highly dangerous, while those like Fan in the struggling middle live and work in highly regimented communities designed to serve the Charters’ needs. (Fan worked in a fishery in Baltimore, renamed B-Mor.) Typical of dystopian literary novels, the circumstances that brought the country to this ugly pass aren’t clear (though social concerns about the environment and carcinogens are high). What Lee adds to the genre is his graceful, observant writing, as well as a remarkably well-thought-out sense of how crisis stratifies society and collapses morality. As Fan travels north from B-Mor, she encounters or hears about people who are actively brokering or sacrificing human life to survive. Lee’s imagination here is at once gruesome and persuasive: A family of circus-type performers who kill people and feed them to their dogs, a cloistered Charter housewife with a group of adopted children who are never allowed to leave their rooms, a doctor who accepts poor patients only to the extent they’re willing to prostitute themselves to him. The potency and strangeness of these characters never diminish the sense that Lee has written an allegory of our current predicaments, and the narration, written in the collective voice of B-Mor, gives the novel the tone of a timeless and cautionary fable.
Welcome and surprising proof that there’s plenty of life in end-of-the-world storytelling.
In this captivating and intimate book, the editor of the Atlantic spares no detail about his lifelong struggle with anxiety and contextualizes his personal experience within the history of anxiety's perception and treatment.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in seven Americans currently suffers from some form of anxiety. Stossel (Sarge: The Life and Times of Sergeant Shriver, 2004), whose assorted phobias and neuroses began to manifest when he was a toddler, provides an exceptionally relatable and frequently hilarious account of a modern sufferer: the endless combinations of therapy and drugs, pharmaceutical and otherwise; the inevitable mishaps of a public figure who is terrified of flying, enclosed spaces and speaking in public; the delicate negotiation between managing psychological torment and being a husband and father. Alongside these anecdotes—one of which, involving the Kennedy family, is laugh-out-loud funny—the author explores how anxiety has affected humans for centuries and how there is still no “cure.” Instead, anxiety is a "riddle" with very personal and diverse factors and symptoms, and it affects people from all walks of life. Many great minds, including Freud and Darwin, documented their battles with anxiety. They also experimented with chemical interventions, testimony of a long history of sought-after relief from anxiety's debilitating effects. Stossel deftly explores a variety of treatments and their risks and successes, providing unique insight as both a journalist (whose priority is impartial investigation) and sufferer (whose imperative is to feel well). Throughout, the author's beautiful prose and careful research combine to make this book informative, thoughtful and fun to read.
Powerful, eye-opening and funny. Pitch-perfect in his storytelling, Stossel reminds us that, in many important ways, to be anxious is to be human.
A biography that will send readers back to the music of Mavis and the Staple Singers with deepened appreciation and a renewed spirit of discovery.
Chicago Tribune music critic Kot (Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, 2009, etc.) mines one of that city’s greatest musical treasures, showing how the Staple Singers developed from one of the leading acts in gospel (when the voice of the preteen Mavis, “a pocket-sized dynamo,” was so husky that those who heard her on record thought she was a man), through their ascent to the top of the charts as pop/soul crossover sensations, and up to the career revival that Mavis Staples has recently enjoyed as a solo artist. As the title suggests, the book is more than a biography of Mavis, capturing the competitive, cutthroat nature of the gospel business, the pivotal influence of the civil rights movement and the complexities of patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples. He shaped the group’s sound, selected its repertoire and protected the family’s financial interests with a gun that unscrupulous promoters would learn to fear. His tremolo guitar and his family’s rural-style harmonies have exerted a profound influence on such rock heavyweights as The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival. As the group moved its music from the church to the charts, it faced a backlash from the gospel community and ultimately saw Pops’ signature guitar supplanted in the studio by session musicians. The book is particularly revelatory on the transition that saw the Staple Singers recording in Muscle Shoals, sessions highlighted by the hit that gives the biography its title. Yet it ultimately treats the recent solo releases of Mavis Staples—produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, the subject of an earlier book by Kot—almost as a tacked-on afterthought in comparison with the more thorough treatment given albums that made little impression upon release and have long been forgotten.
Through it all, the ebullience of Mavis Staples and her music shine through.
An immigrant’s memoir like few others, with as sharp an edge and as much stylistic audacity as the author’s well-received novels.
The Russian-American novelist writes that after completing this memoir, he reread his three novels (Super Sad True Love Story, 2010, etc.) and was “shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality....On many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” That observation minimizes just how funny this memoir frequently is, but it suggests that the richest, most complex character the author has ever rendered on the page is the one once known to his family as “Little Igor” and later tagged with “Scary Gary” by his Oberlin College classmates, with whom he recalls an incident, likely among many, in which he was “the drunkest, the stonedest, and, naturally, the scariest.” Fueled by “the rage and humor that are our chief inheritance,” Shteyngart traces his family history from the atrocities suffered in Stalinist Russia, through his difficulties assimilating as the “Red Nerd” of schoolboy America, through the asthma and panic attacks, alcoholism and psychoanalysis that preceded his literary breakthrough. He writes of the patronage of Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who recruited him for a new creative writing program at Hunter College, helped him get a book deal for a novel he’d despaired over ever publishing and had “severely shaken my perception of what fiction about immigrants can get away with.” Ever since, he's been getting away with as much as he dares.
Though fans of the author’s fiction will find illumination, a memoir this compelling and entertaining—one that frequently collapses the distinction between comedy and tragedy—should expand his readership beyond those who have loved his novels.
This first novel from Sierra Leone–born author Beah (A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, 2007) features characters who face the challenges of returning to normalcy after the horrors of civil war in Sierra Leone.
At times, it’s hard to discern what predominates, the savagery of war and its aftermath or the promise of the book's title. As Mama Kadie explains, “The war has changed us, but I hope not so much that we’ll never find our way back.” The place she, her family and her friends are trying to find their way back to is Imperi, a village that has been devastated by the war. Reminders are everywhere: Sila and his children, for example, whose hands were chopped off by the ruthless Sgt. Cutlass. At the center of the return to Imperi is Bockarie, a teacher who wants to resume his life in the village along with fellow teacher Benjamin. Both men struggle against astonishingly high odds, including children who seem to have no future and an administrator who’s embezzling money that should go toward their salaries. When a company starts to mine rutile (a mineral with many desirable uses and whose presence usually presages the discovery of diamonds), many of the students abandon school for the steady paycheck mining provides. The promise of riches also brings foreigners into Imperi, and they have no respect for the traditions of the native culture. In fact, they show their contempt through raping the local women—at least till “Colonel” puts a stop to it by responding to this brutishness with his own brand of aggression.
UNICEF Ambassador Beah writes lyrically and passionately about ugly realities as well as about the beauty and dignity of traditional ways.
Perry (This Is Just Exactly Like You, 2010) follows up his poignant debut novel about a father and his autistic son with a lighter novel about impending fatherhood, Hiaasen-ian Floridians and the way life carries us forward whether we want it to or not. Walter and Alice used to have a fine life in North Carolina, stable enough that they began to tiptoe toward the idea of having children. “Yes, I told her, yes, which was not quite a lie: I could easily enough see us having a child, or children. I imagined we’d keep them fed and watered, that we’d find ways not to kill them, or ourselves,” Walter muses. And then life carries them forward: Walter loses his job and Alice quits hers, and they move 500 miles south to a remote vacation condo south of Jacksonville owned by Alice’s sister, Carolyn. Walter is soon drawn into working for Carolyn’s husband, Mid, whose considerable wealth comes from owning things: real estate, sea kayak rentals, umbrella shops, a pizza place—all the strange accoutrements that adorn the beach to leech money away from tourists. Walter is talked into running the ice machine empire while he and Alice fumble their way through a difficult pregnancy. This is an interesting book with a slightly offbeat tone. Walter, who tells the story, makes for an amusing worrywart whose fish-out-of-water state becomes more and more obvious as Mid gets arrested and Walter begins to realize that he’s become attached to a serious criminal. Even Mid feels bad: “I had something else pictured. Something calmer. Fewer police, fewer wayward children, you know?” There are some madcap elements here that recall the novels of Tim Dorsey or Laurence Shames, but the core story of Walter’s family makes the enterprise feel closer to an Alexander Payne jaunt than anything else.
A funny, frenzied tale of a terrified man plummeting helplessly into his own adulthood.