This week: using rocks to disprove Noah's flood, a brilliant whodunit in a monastery, and creepy puppets. Plus: biographies for both Henry James and David Foster Wallace.
The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O’Roark Dowell (S&S/Atheneum) - In a powerful story about learning to be proud of one’s true self and rising above bullies, sixth-grader Abby is sick of the “medium girls,” who weigh the right amount and say all the right things, and of her parents, who are on her case about dieting and fitting in. She is even more tired of her own efforts to stay in the clique’s good graces. One day Abby walks away from their taunts, a small step that takes her life in a new direction. A fox bites her, and she follows a dog across a creek where she meets eight-year-old Anders and his father, who is recovering from serving in Iraq. They invite her to help with a research project, which leads to new friends at school and unexpected happiness. Dowell creates a sympathetic and honest heroine.
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra (Norton/Liveright) – In this innovative biography, written with flair and unostentatious erudition, Gorra tells the life of Henry James through the story of the composition of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady. First published in 1881, the novel was a landmark work: James’s scrupulous devotion to craft led him to dramatize the interior life of his heroine, Isabel Archer, in unprecedented fashion. Instead of transparent plots and clear moral conflicts, James opted for subtle clashes of personality and morally ambiguous stories. The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery, beginning with James revising his novel 20 years after it was written, and later depicting his blooming consciousness as an author torn between an American and a European identity. Gorra’s highly engaging introduction to James will be most attractive to lovers of literature who want to learn more about the craft of novel writing. Check out a ranking of James's best books.
The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria) - Grande captivates and inspires in her memoir. Raised in Mexico in brutal poverty during the 1980s, four-year-old Grande and her two siblings lived with their cruel grandmother after both parents departed for the U.S. in search of work. Grande deftly evokes the searing sense of heartache and confusion created by their parents’ departure. Eight years later her father returned and reluctantly agreed to take his children to the States. Yet life on the other side of the border was not what Grande imagined. But Surrounded by family turmoil, Grande discovered a love of writing and found solace in library books, and she eventually graduated from high school and went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college. Tracing the complex and tattered relationships binding the family together, especially the bond she shared with her older sister, the author intimately probes her family’s history for clues to its disintegration.
Kept in the Dark by Penny Hancock (Plume) – In this stunning psychological thriller that takes place in less than a week, a respectable married woman kidnaps a 15-year-old boy and holds him captive in her historic Thames-side London house. When Jez Mahfoud, a friend’s nephew, comes to borrow her husband’s rare Tim Buckley album, memories of an intense teenage relationship with a boy named Seb overwhelm Sonia, a voice teacher. She drugs the innocent Jez and locks him in a soundproof room. As the search for the missing Jez intensifies, so does Sonia’s compulsion to keep him hidden, especially during a visit from her family.
Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol (Crown) - National Book Award–winner Kozol (The Shame of the Nation) again traces the workings of “savage inequalities”—this time on a generational timescale—in this engrossing chronicle of lives blighted and redeemed. He follows the fortunes of people he met decades ago in a squalid Manhattan welfare hotel and in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven ghetto, whose stories range from heartbreaking to hopeful: traumatized boys grow into lost and vicious men; teens go to college and beyond with the help of mentors; many drift through years of addiction, violent relationships, and prison before achieving a semblance of stability and focus. Kozol crafts dense, novelistic character studies that reveal the interplay between individual personality and the chaos of impoverished circumstances. Like a latter-day Dickens (but without the melodrama), he gives us another powerful indictment of America’s treatment of the poor. Check out a Q&A with Kozol.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max (Viking) – The first “big” biography of David Foster Wallace begins with his childhood and ends with his suicide, detailing both the highs (his marriage to Karen Green) and lows (his string of breakdowns that began in college) along the way. A substantial amount of the text is spent on Wallace’s correspondence with family and friends, including Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, whom Wallace confided in and used as sounding boards for his writing difficulties and his broader life fears. And though the book feels rushed in spots, it’s still an informative read for anyone interested in learning more about a writer who defined his generation. Take a look at this survey of Infinite Jest's vast and varied vocabulary.
The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood by David R. Montgomery (Norton) – Many theologians and scientists within the Christian tradition have long interpreted the biblical story of Noah’s flood as a worldwide event and a foundation for determining the geological age of the earth. In this rich, animated narrative, geologist Montgomery points out that theologians have often bent an amazing array of geological evidence to support a literal interpretation of Noah’s flood. Brilliant and provocative, Montgomery’s exploration of scientific and theological understandings of Noah’s flood vibrantly opens our eyes to the marvels of ancient rocks that are far grander than ourselves.
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Minotaur) - Religious music serves as the backdrop for bestseller Penny’s excellent eighth novel featuring Chief Insp. Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sûreté. Gamache and his loyal number two, Insp. Jean-Guy Beauvoir, travel to the isolated monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, which produced a CD of Gregorian chants that became a surprise smash hit, to investigate the murder of its choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, found within an enclosed garden in a fetal position with his head bashed in. Gamache soon finds serious divisions among the outwardly unified and placid monks, and begins to encourage confidences among them as a first step to catching the killer. Traditional mystery fans can look forward to a captivating whodunit plot, a clever fair-play clue concealed in plain view, and the deft use of humor to lighten the story’s dark patches.
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick) - Anyone who thinks marionettes are creepy will have that opinion reinforced by this dark tale about three children at the mercy of an unscrupulous puppeteer and the witch who pulls his strings. Clara Wintermute asks her father, a wealthy doctor in 1860 London, to hire Professor Grisini and his Venetian Fantoccini to entertain guests at her 12th birthday party. Clara is stagestruck by the puppets and taken with one of Grisini’s two assistants, the pretty, well-mannered orphan Lizzie Rose (the other assistant, Parsefall, is an urchin straight out of a Dickensian workhouse). After the puppet show, Clara disappears. Grisini is suspected, but he, too, vanishes. Newbery Medalist Schlitz delivers many pleasures—fully dimensional children, period details so ripe one can nearly smell them, and droll humor that leavens a few scenes of true horror. A highly original tale about children caught in a harrowing world of magic and misdeeds. Read our Q&A with Schlitz.