This week: Junot Diaz's new short story collection, a murder mystery starring Machiavelli and da Vinci, and Jack Kerouac's early years. Plus, the people with jobs that no one else wants.
Amber Brown is Tickled Pink by Bruce Coville and Elizabeth Levy, illus. by Tony Ross (Putnam) - The star of Paula Danziger’s series that began in 1994 with Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon makes an exuberant reappearance in this installment, written by two close friends of the late author. Coville and Levy don’t miss a beat as they channel the voice of Danziger’s funny, acerbic, and pun-loving heroine. Throughout the story, happiness and sadness are closely entwined for nine-year-old Amber: she’s thrilled that her divorced mother is marrying big-hearted Max, but uneasy that “for the first time in my life something huge is happening and Dad isn’t even a tiny part of it.” She struggles with this and other wedding dilemmas, including picking the perfect dress and making a toast, but she finds solutions with characteristic resolve and resourcefulness.
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (Riverhead) - Díaz brings life to the short story with a voice that demands attention. Often caught between hopeless romanticism and flippant machismo, His characters are as vulnerable and maddening as they are endearing and sexy. Among other familiar voices in this collection, Yunior reappears, older but not necessarily wiser, particularly as his once invincible brother Rafa struggles with cancer and everything else it means to be sick, poor, and uninsured. But as the title reveals, the beautiful, defiant, and impossible ladies that claw away at Yunior’s soul drive this book. Raw and honest, these stories pulsate with raspy ghetto hip-hop and the subtler yet more vital echo of the human heart.
The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis (Doubleday) - Ennis brilliantly recreates the complex politics of early 16th-century Italy in this absorbing and intelligent thriller that teams Leonardo da Vinci with Niccolò Machiavelli. The assassination of Juan Borgia, an illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, leads the pope to turn to Juan’s older brother, Cesare, to further his military and territorial ambitions, which are opposed by mercenaries who fear the Borgias’ consolidation of power. Against this turbulent backdrop, the future author of The Prince seeks to apply “the principles that govern the nature of men” to solve a series of brutal murders that have left women mutilated. Da Vinci’s scientific approach to examining the corpses advances the inquiry, even as the killer’s vicious m.o. and planting of cloven footprints suggest that the devil himself is responsible. What could have come across as a contrived partnership is anything but in Ennis’s skilled hands, and he seamlessly integrates the search for the murderer with the power struggles of the day.
One Year in Coal Harbor by Polly Horvath (Random/Schwartz & Wade) - Primrose Squab, the star of Horvath's Newbery Honor title Everything on a Waffle, returns in this delightful sequel, chronicling the latest goings-on in her British Columbian fishing village. Now 12 and happily reunited with her parents, Primrose has set her sights on compiling a cookbook and helping Miss Bowzer at the Girl on the Red Swing restaurant ("She was teaching me how to cook and I was trying to move the romance along between her and my uncle Jack"). When Ked, a foster child, arrives in town, Primrose gains an accomplice in her culinary efforts and an ally in opposing a local logging operation. More importantly, she hopes she has found a true best friend. Horvath skillfully balances the story's light and dark moments, leaving readers with an ending both satisfying and honest.
The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson (Viking) - An intimate of Kerouac who has chronicled his life and the beat culture (including in her award-winning 1983 memoir, Minor Characters), Johnson brings an insider’s perspective to this insightful study of how Kerouac found his literary voice. Delving into his formative years, she paints a portrait of the artist as a sensitive young man, haunted from age four by the death of his older brother, Gerard, and hampered by his family’s frequent moves. In unsparing detail, Johnson depicts Kerouac’s contradictions and self-destructive tendencies, and the recklessness of certain relationships that impeded as much as they facilitated the discovery of his true voice. Johnson excels in her colorful, candid assessment of the evolution of Kerouac’s voice.
Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys by Jeanne Marie Laskas (Putnam) - In this thoroughly entertaining study of what some people do that other people would never do, journalist Laskas (The Balloon Lady and Other People I Knew) makes her subjects sing. She homes in on jobs that the rest of us take for granted--or deny exist--interviewing the people who perform and even like onerous tasks: coal miners, Latino migrant laborers, La Guardia air traffic controllers, Arizona gun dealers, Texas ranchers, Alaska oil-rig roughnecks, a rare female long-hauling trucker, and California landfill workers. Refreshingly, Laskas eschews sentimentality but imbues her portraits with humanity and authenticity. Discover 5 tidbits about America that Laskas discovered while researching the book.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown) - Pvt. John Bartle, 21, and Pvt. Daniel Murphy, 18, meet at Fort Dix, N.J., where Bartle is assigned to watch over Murphy. The duo is deployed to Iraq, and the novel alternates between the men’s war zone experiences and Bartle’s life after returning home. Early on, it emerges that Murphy has been killed; Bartle is haunted by guilt, and the details of Murphy’s death surface slowly. Powers writes gripping battle scenes, and his portrait of male friendship, while cheerless, is deeply felt. As a poet, the author’s prose is ambitious, which sets his treatment of the theme apart—as in this musing from Bartle: “though it’s hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and end of my war.” The sparse scene where Bartle finally recounts Murphy’s fate is masterful and Powers’s style and story are haunting.
Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr (Simon & Schuster) – This first-rate biography of Lincoln’s secretary of state is by far the best. Stahr, whose biographic skills were in full display in his study of John Jay, has his hands full: Seward was New York governor and senator, then a rival for Lincoln’s place on the 1860 presidential ticket, finally senior cabinet officer—a long, complex life and career. Seward proved among the most accomplished secretaries of state in American history. Among other things, he kept Britain out of the Civil War, then negotiated the acquisition of Alaska for the U.S. Stahr struggles, mostly successfully, to keep the details of all this under control. This formidable figure has finally gained the biographer he’s long deserved.
To Keep Love Blurry by Craig Morgan Teicher (BOA Editions) – Teicher, PW poetry editor and director of digital operations, stages a showdown with his demons in this collection that risks most everything poetry can risk: family, reputation, legacy, and privacy. The spirits of dead parents mix with a spouse and children and colleagues, and then, there’s Robert Lowell, who presides over this entire volume in a ghostly fashion. Although the persona in these poems toys with annihilation and (twice) with “dull blades,” it survives, and does so through aesthetic will: tight sonnets, a perfect villanelle, a moving prose memoir.
Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf (Ecco) - The latest from bestselling feminist author Wolf begins with her “traumatic loss” of the “experience of sex as being incredibly emotionally meaningful.” Although still orgasmic, the depressed Wolf reaches out to her gynecologist, who diagnoses her with an injured pelvic nerve. Corrective surgery, which includes having a 17-inch metal plate implanted in her back, happily restores her ecstatic orgasms and creative powers, and inspires this investigation. Defining the vagina as “the entire female sex organ, from labia to clitoris to cervix,” Wolf investigates the science of female sexuality, including new findings showing a powerful connection between the vagina and brain. Citing history, science, Tantra, and her own online questionnaires, Wolf concludes that the vagina is “the delivery system for the states of mind that we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women.”