This week: the new Dave Eggers novel, turning a crack house into a dream home, and a salacious (and true!) Victorian divorce case. Plus, what happens when an astronaut returns home to find his family in pieces?
Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home by Matthew Batt (Mariner) - This winsome memoir details the story of Batt and his wife, who purchased a former Salt Lake City crack house when the deal for their dream house fell through. The book follows Batt’s fixer-upper efforts—slate flooring and poured-concrete countertops—as well as his personal upheavals involving his family. The home-rehab picaresque is hilarious, engrossing, and stocked with a cast of squirrely tradesmen and manic realtors.
Existence by David Brin (Tor) - The discovery of alien artifacts pushes an already troubled Earth to the brink of chaos in bestseller Brin’s exciting story of first contact. The question arises: are the artifacts truly “worldstones,” full of wonders and ingenious advice, or “demon-stones” that will only ruin the little stability to which humanity clings? Brin’s thoughtful, multilayered story explores a first contact scenario where every twist reveals greater peril. His longtime fans will especially appreciate that this story could be read as a prequel to 1983’s Startide Rising, while those not familiar with his work will find it an impressive introduction to one of SF’s major talents.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's) - Eggers’s first unabashedly fictional, original novel in some time nonetheless grounds itself as firmly in the real world as Zeitoun or What is the What. Deeply in debt and unable to continue paying for his daughter Kit to go to college, Alan Clay finds himself in Saudi Arabia awaiting the arrival of “the Kingdom’s” elusive monarch for a chance to pitch his employer, Reliant, as the information technology supplier for a massive new King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) development. Both Eggers’s fans and those previously resistant to his work will find a spare but moving elegy for the American century.
Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury) - Drawing on a lifetime of sailing, Fagan does more than reconstruct the sea routes and watercraft used by ancient mariners. He recreates their mental states and imagines what forces inspired them to leave the land behind. Tacking between first-person anecdotes, archeological explanations, and fictionalized scenes from the distant past, this salty work of historical imagination travels all over the globe, including Easter Island, Lebanon, and Greece.
Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death by Bernd Heinrich (HMH) - This slim but moving book examines the role of death and decay in Earth’s “web of life.” Examples and anecdotes include how beetles use dead matter for feeding and mating rituals, and how insects and fungus turn felled trees into new soil. Heinrich’s engaging, thoughtful volume makes the case that this truth is not only scientifically relevant but personally, and spiritually, too: by looking to nature, humans can “transcend individual deaths,” and find a deeper meaning in our earthly existence. Check out an essay from Heinrich detailing the strange life and death cycles in the animal kingdom.
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon) - Less chilly than The Corrections and more bittersweet than This Is Where I Leave You, Henkin’s family drama is both tender and stunning. One year after the death of their kidnapped journalist son, Leo, in Iraq, David and Marilyn Frankel, non-practicing Jews, call their entire mishpocha to their summer home in the Berkshires to attend his memorial service. The novel makes the cast of characters empathetic, even as they behave like fools and hurt one another. The World Without You works as a summer read and for any other time of the year. Check out our Q&A with Henkin.
The Infinite Tides by Christian Kiefer (Bloomsbury) - While aboard the International Space Station, “genius” Keith Corcoran comes back to Earth to find that his daughter has died in a car accident and his wife wants a divorce. A period of soul-searching ensues, along with his Ukrainian astronomer friend, in which Keith battles solitude and strives toward a self that will persevere and survive his losses. Kiefer’s debut novel is astute, impressive, and ambitious.
My Poets by Maureen N. McLane (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - McLane’s book is nothing if not unusual, presenting a curious and engrossing mixture of prose criticism, memoir, anecdote, and imitative verse written in tribute to the likes of Elizabeth Bishop and Gertrude Stein. Another highlight is her treatment of Chaucer: McLane forever associates Chaucer, for instance, with the word “Kankedort,” “a lonely word whose definition can only be inferred from its single, immediate context in Chaucer’s poem.” Those who know a lot about contemporary poetry will find this book packed to the gills with in-jokes, deep knowledge, and scars and scuff marks from a life lived in poetry’s trenches. Newer poetry readers will be lured deeper by McLane’s boundless enthusiasm. Read McLane's essay for PW in "Why I Write."
Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn (Atria/Emily Bestler) - Nunn once again vividly recaptures 1950s South Africa in her gripping and thoughtful third mystery featuring Det. Sgt. Emmanuel Cooper (after 2010’s Let the Dead Lie). The case here involves a 17-year-old Zulu girl murdered in a farming hamlet, but shows no sign of injury apart from a small bruise. The anomalies all come together nicely by the end as Nunn brilliantly combines character and fair play clues.
This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers (St. Martin’s Griffin) - The Breakfast Club meets George Romero in this teen book that’s as much a character study as a “zombie novel.” Six teens hide in their high school while the undead lurk outside; the story unfolds through the eyes of Sloane Price, who has been contemplating suicide since her older sister ran away six months earlier, thoughts that are pushed aside in her sudden fight for survival. The interpersonal dynamics and growing tension take precedence over any explanations regarding the zombies—Summers is more interested in what it’s like to be a girl who doesn’t want to live, stuck in a world where death isn’t what it used to be. Check out Summers's zombie survival guide for Tip Sheet.
Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury) - With intelligence and graceful prose, Summerscale’s nonfiction book gives an intimate and surprising look into Victorian life. A century before Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a financially comfortable Victorian named Isabella Robinson defended herself in the newly created English divorce court over a mislaid diary filled with passionate erotic entries, philosophical musings, and complaints against her husband. In two sections, the book first describes Isabella’s flowery, coy memories of the doctor and others who offered her distraction; the second part focuses on her trial on an adultery charge and the scrambling of her male friends to preserve their reputations. The unusual divorce case is filled with salacious details and unsympathetic characters on both sides of the aisle.