This week, a horror anthology, a ghost anthology, Ken Follett's latest, and T.C. Boyle's latest. Plus: the white whale for noir scholars--the lost James M. Cain novel.
San Miguel by T.C. Boyle (Viking) - On New Year’s Day 1888, the ailing Marantha Waters sails across San Francisco Bay to remote San Miguel Island with her second husband and adopted daughter in hopes that the fresh air will restore her health. Marantha and her family, city folk by nature, risk the last of her inheritance on a farm lashed by wind and rain; removed from the pleasant distractions of late Victorian society and thrust into primitive living conditions, the Waters find themselves left with little to do but discover the strengths and weaknesses in themselves and in each other. Decades later during the Depression, Elise and Herbie Lester take over the farm and undergo their own transformations. Ripe with exhaustively researched period detail, Boyle’s epic saga of struggle, loss, and resilience (after When the Killing’s Done) tackles Pacific pioneer history with literary verve.
The Diviners by Libba Bray (Little, Brown) - Evie O’Neill has a neat-o party trick: she can uncover details about people by holding any object that belongs to them. After one too many tumblers of gin, she uses this skill to out the sexual misadventures of a prominent bachelor in her Ohio hometown, earning her immediate exile to Jazz Age New York City, where her professorial uncle runs a museum devoted to the occult. Naturally, Evie considers this punishment the luckiest break possible, until she realizes she’s arrived just as a demon spirit has been inadvertently released.
The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain (Hard Case Crime) - The white whale of noir scholars since the author’s death in 1977, this novel was recovered after a nine-year hunt by Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, who assembled this published version from multiple versions, the same scenes rendered multiple times, none of them dated. The plot concerns a beautiful widow under suspicion by the police, a hustling young man, a sickly millionaire—all the elements of a classic Cain “love rack”—seamy tales of feverish and restless strivers caught in traps of their own making. And like so many of his novels, it’s a confessional tale, told from the viewpoint of the widow herself, forced by economic necessity to wait tables and compelled by a mix of ambition, maternal longing, and pique to take a series of perilous risks to hit the big gold dream. And though the book lacks Cain’s trademark propulsive pace, it still offers his addictive weirdness and one of the niftiest plot twists you ever saw coming—and because you are waiting for it, it hits you twice as hard. (Reviewed by Meghan Abbott)
The Best American Poetry 2012 edited by Mark Doty (Scribner) - The 2012 Best American volume runs the gamut of styles and positions, from the experimentally mixed registers of Rae Armantrout (“Information describing the fading laser pulse// is stored// is encoded// in the spine states/ of atoms”) to the unrelenting intensity of Frank Bidart (“the burning// fountain is the imagination// within us that ingests and by its/ devouring generates// what is most antithetical to itself”) to an extended meditation on art and family by Paisley Rekdal: “Here is the killer with his handsome face./ Here is Manson, Bundy, Hitler,/ the Terror’s row of heads still spiked on stakes.” Doty, this year’s guest editor, is a populist at heart, who believes poetry is available and useful to all who are willing to seek it out, and so he has chosen poems that take the national pulse in the midst of a tensed political moment. As usual, there is something for everyone; this is a particularly good volume in this series. Read about how Doty put the whole thing together.
Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie (FSG) - In this brilliant and passionate appreciation, Elie (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) offers not only a brief biography of the great musician but an exceptional study of the ways that numerous musicians have rendered Bach’s music through the years through various technologies. Bach’s music has been interpreted to suit new inventions, from the 78-rpm record, the LP, and headphones and Walkman to the compact disc and digital file. These inventions have taken the music into new contexts, from the living room to the open road to outer space. Reading Elie’s stately and gorgeous prose is much like losing oneself in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, for his study convincingly demonstrates that the music of Bach is the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is.
Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett (Dutton) - This second installment of Follett’s epic Century trilogy is just as potent, engrossing, and prolix as the opening opus, Fall of Giants. Continuing the histrionics of the five families introduced in Fall, this masterfully conceived novel picks up in 1933 as Carla von Ulrich, 11, feels the horror of Nazi encroachment in Germany and proves a staunch resister, while her older brother, Erik, becomes an infatuated soldier. Elsewhere, English student Lloyd Williams aggressively resists the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Rife with plot lines, interpersonal intrigue, sweeping historical flourishes, and an authentic and compelling cast, this is a tale of dynamic characters struggling to survive during one of the world’s darkest periods. Read the book's opening here.
The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind by Seth S. Horowitz (Bloomsbury) – Neuroscientist Horowitz has pulled off an unusual and extraordinary feat: his science book, about the way hearing shapes the “evolution, development, and day-to-day function of the mind,” can be both genuinely poetic and humorous. He beautifully describes how the evolution of fervently communicating life forms changed the sounds of early earth “from incidental noise to songs”; he later explains how hearing rewires our brains into adulthood, and notes that hearing can prompt our neurons to release pleasurable oxytocin when exposed to musical frequencies, yet sicken us at other frequencies (inner-city noise has been linked to heart problems). This often eloquent study is a treat for readers.
A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones (St. Martin’s Griffin) - Jones (The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror) passes up the coy and cute for the purely frightening in this exemplary anthology for those who “understand and appreciate the worth and impact of a scary story.” In “The Little Green God of Agony,” Stephen King conjures up a horrific medical situation with a final twist worthy of a sinister O. Henry. In “Getting It Wrong,” Ramsey Campbell dials into the world of phone quiz shows where errors are not tolerated. Noisy neighbors provoke personal collapse and family dissolution in Robert Shearman’s “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet.” Other authors in this book of ample frights include Reggie Oliver and Elizabeth Hand.
Something Red by Douglas Nichols (Simon and Schuster/Atria) - Rich in historical detail, this suspenseful coming-of-age fantasy grabs the reader with the facts of life in medieval England and the magic spells woven into its landscape. Hob, a 13-year-old orphan, has found a place with the traveling troupe of Mistress Molly, an Irish medicine woman who can speak with crows. Traveling south before winter, Hob helps guide Molly’s wagons while navigating the troubles of the road and the temptations of inns. Forced by rockslide and storm to seek shelter in Blanchefontaine, a Norman castle, the troupe soon realizes that the greatest danger, the Beast that has been harrowing the countryside, is now locked up inside with them. Debut novelist Nicholas brings a poetic turn to his prose.
The Big Book of Ghost Stories edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime) – This mountain-sized omnibus contains every wrinkle of the form you could ever want. There are urban ghosts in Fritz Leiber’s “Smoke Ghost” and rural ghosts in Arthur J. Burks’s “The Ghosts of Steamboat Coulee”; physical ghosts in Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey” and faux ghosts in Saki’s “The Open Window”; funny ghosts in Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” and deadly serious ghosts in Ramsey Campbell’s “Just Behind You.” The most disturbing ghosts—among them the spurned lover in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Phantom Rickshaw” and the neglected child in Ellen Glasgow’s “The Shadowy Third”—are those whose persisting affections after death have curdled into an unholy hold on the living. Notable omissions aside, there’s enough in this volume to please both dilettantes and devotees among ghost story readers.
The Scientists: A Family Romance by Marco Roth (FSG) - In this powerfully forlorn debut memoir, literary critic Roth mines the silence and shame he experienced growing up on Central Park West in the 1980s and ’90s as his scientist father died of AIDS. Never allowed to reveal to anyone at his elite Dalton School the truth of his father’s debilitating health, which the young only child was told had resulted from a freak needle accident with an infected patient in his father’s malaria research lab at Mount Sinai Hospital, the author tried to assume the normalcy enacted by his mother, a pianist and artists’ grants writer, yet the adolescent was haunted by his own sense of inadequacy and inability to save his father. Before he died in 1993, when the author was 19, the father, an old-school liberal Jewish New Yorker exquisitely educated in literature and the arts, had imparted some of his favorite books to his son, like Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh and Goncharov’s Oblomov: these became clues to Roth’s own unhappiness and dissatisfaction while in college at Oberlin, then Columbia, and provided precious emotional links with his father. Roth’s work is a ferocious literary exercise in rage, despair, and artistic self-invention.