This week: the new Zadie Smith novel, a gripping chronicle of the days immediately following 9/11, and a masterpiece set in the Congo. Plus: a book that includes an ice pick-wielding henchwoman.
Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, trans. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Graywolf) - In his new, shamefully enjoyable novel, set in the Belgian Congo in the early part of the last century, the arrival of a devout and taciturn young officer into a contingent of colorful colonial soldiers on a remote jungle outpost on the River Congo sets off a palpitating chain of events. Chrysostome Liège is the best marksman in the Congo, a fact that his commander, the highfalutin poet-officer Capt. Lalande Biran, decides to use to his advantage—first using Liège to restore order in the bush, and then for more personal reasons. This thrilling masterpiece book, nearly impossible to put down, eventually leads to a risky contraband scheme.
Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay (New American Library) - the death of 62-year-old Adam Kilbride in a tractor accident brings his illustrator son, Ray, home to Promise Falls, N.Y., for the funeral. Ray dreads what lies ahead—primarily figuring out what to do about his schizophrenic younger brother, Thomas. A map-obsessed savant, Thomas spends most of his waking hours on the Whirl360 site memorizing photographed layouts of cities around the world so that he’ll be able to replicate them for the CIA in the event of some future computer-crippling catastrophe. When Thomas witnesses what he thinks is a murder online in the Whirl360 images of a street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he insists that Ray investigate. Before they know it, the brothers hit the radar of a ruthless, politically connected ex-cop and his ice pick–wielding henchwoman. The genius of Barclay’s intricately convoluted design becomes increasingly apparent, with throwaway elements later becoming significant and initially discrete story lines eventually linking with diabolic inevitability.
Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal by William H. Chafe (FSG) - A superior portrait of how the personal dynamic between Bill and Hillary Clinton affected their achievements in public life. Both fiercely ambitious superachievers from dysfunctional families, their personalities were complementary (he charming and brilliant, she disciplined and demanding), and they married; despite her knowledge of Bill’s philandering, both “love and calculation” (that she could achieve her own goals by marrying him) underlay her decision. They worked together; Bill’s laid-back charm made him reluctant to twist arms, so he often deferred to the far more assertive Hillary. The book is a sympathetic if often regretful account of a stormy, occasionally self-destructive political partnership. Read an essay from Chafe on the Clintons’ personal dynamic.
Strom Thurmond’s America by Joseph Crespino (Hill and Wang) - In this impressive biography of the late South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, historian Crespino steps beyond the usual “white devil” caricature of an arch-segregationist to provide an evenhanded and sharp account of the man. During his long career, Thurmond contested the Supreme Court, communism, organized labor, affirmative action, abortion, and antimilitarism. “Thurmond is incorrectly held up as an example of merely the Old Right. In fact, he was central to the creation of the New,” Crespino argues. The book reveals the portrait of a flawed, egotistical, unapologetic, headstrong man whose views helped give birth to the contemporary Right and whose legacy continues to influence the GOP.
500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars by Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone) - Misbegotten policies—torture, military tribunals, the rush toward the Iraq War—took shape under pressure and ideological prejudice, according to this gripping chronicle of the months after 9/11. Former New York Times reporter Eichenwald (The Informant) follows a huge cast of characters, from George Bush and Tony Blair to the government officials who hammered out policy, the CIA and FBI agents who implemented it, the terrorists they hunted (Eichenwald’s accounts of the anthrax attacks and the Bali night club bombings are especially vivid), and the ordinary people caught in the cross fire. The result is both a page-turning read and an insightful dissection of 9/11’s dark legacy.
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (Hachette/Twelve) - Diagnosed with the esophageal cancer to which he eventually succumbed in December 2011, cultural critic Hitchens found himself a finalist in the race of life, and in his typically unflinching and bold manner, he candidly shares his thoughts about his suffering, the etiquette of illness and wellness, and religion in this stark and powerful memoir. Hitchens’s voice compels us to consider carefully the small measures by which we live every day and to cherish them. Read an excerpt from the book’s first chapter.
Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski, trans. from the Polish by Danusia Stok (Melville International Crime) – Set in 1933-1934 Breslau, Germany, this impressive novel begins with an emergency call late one night that takes Criminal Counsellor Mock from a house of ill repute he frequents to a train car, where the bodies of a 17-year-old girl, a baron’s daughter, and her governess have been found. Live scorpions writhe in the butchered girl’s entrails. The police detective has to proceed carefully in the rapidly shifting political climate, since the Nazis have already purged many of Mock’s colleagues and sent them to concentration camps. This intelligent, atmospheric crime novel, which flashes forward to such events as the 1945 Dresden firebombing and the beginnings of the cold war, possesses a distinctly European, Kafkaesque sensibility.
My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (FSG/Ferguson) - This exquisite novel in verse tells the story of 16-year-old Angel, who has been working as a prostitute in Vancouver for nine months after her father throws her out. After Angel’s friend Serena disappears, Angel decides to give up her pimp Call’s “candy” (the drugs he feeds her) and try to return home. Angel’s withdrawal is severe (“I threw up in Call’s bathroom sink/ so hard I thought bits of stomach/ slid out of my mouth”) but it’s nothing compared to the pain she feels when Call brings home an 11-year-old girl, Melli, to follow in Angel’s footsteps. Angel is determined to keep Melli safe, even while other women continue to disappear. National Book Award finalist Leavitt makes good use of Paradise Lost, but the book’s real triumph is Angel’s painfully real voice.
NW by Zadie Smith (Penguin) – Smith’s captivating new novel takes place in NW London, where characters intersect and circumvent one another's lives and, in the process, expose their ethnic distinctions and class transformations, their relationships and their secrets. Leah's childhood best friend Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake) eventually becomes the primary focus and the contrast between the two women allows for some of the book's most compelling insights, namely the inevitability of vs. the disinterest in becoming a mother, which Natalie has done and Leah decisively has not. The book's middle section introduces Felix Cooper, a friend of neither woman, but whose fate will affect them both. Smith shows her mastery of suspending the novel’s many parts and showing the beauty of seeing everything at once.
On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder (Crown) - In this expansive, nuanced biography (which marks 50 years since Silent Spring), Souder (Under a Wild Sky) portrays Carson as a woman passionate in friendship, poetic and innovative in her books about the sea, gentle but ambitious, assiduously keeping tabs on her publisher’s promotion of her work. A writer since childhood, Carson, inspired by a college professor, developed a love for biology and combined her two passions in a career that included three bestselling books. A “spinster” and professional in a time when marriage was the norm, Carson supported her family all her life, first her mother and siblings, later adopting her nephew, and followed her vision with an artist’s determination. Read a Q&A with Souder.
My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 by Robert Sullivan (FSG) - A nostalgic, witty, and always informative topographic retrospective of the sites pertinent to the American Revolution takes Vogue contributing editor and journalist Sullivan to the action seen by the middle colonies especially—New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Years of reflective walks and “site-inspired epiphanies” inform Sullivan’s research, as he traced Washington’s army crossing the Delaware, marching to engage the British at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and into the winter refuge at Morristown, in the Watchung Mountains. In the second part, Sullivan discourses by turns on the seasons of the revolution, not in any chronological fashion. Sullivan delights in deep digressions into personal moments of discovery, and this loose-limbed, irreverent, suprising take on American history has the most fun in the footnotes. Check out a Q&A with Sullivan.
Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti (Amazon/New Harvest) - When her daughter was born at 28 weeks, leaving mother and child dangerously ill, Valenti felt enormous disappointment and a sense of failure. Not only had she missed a "good birth" resulting in a full-term healthy baby and happy family, her expectations surrounding the experience, the elation and bonding she had been societally conditioned to encounter, were unfulfilled. In this, her fourth book--a politicized, anti-What to Expect When You're Expecting--the high-profile, third-wave feminist takes an intense and scathing look at charged contemporary parenting issues, moving beyond "mommy wars" and breast-is-best militants to show just how much the current American ideal of parenting fails to match reality. This timely volume, which should generate much controversy, is a call for much-needed change and may unite a new generation of moms.