This week, 2013's most detestable narrator, the wonderful new Javiar Marías novel, and Orwell's letters. Plus: a mysterious boy who avoids questions about his past in a spooky Maine town.
To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam (HMH) - Castaway kids and adult caretakers piece together fragile bonds in this heart-wrenching panorama of American foster families. Beam, herself a former teen runaway and sometime foster parent, paints sympathetic but clear-eyed portraits of everyone impacted by the foster-care system: biological parents who lose their children because they are deemed unfit to care for them, or because they have issues with drug abuse, poverty, or are incarcerated; inexperienced, overworked case workers who determine the fate of their charges based on fuzzy and clashing guidelines; and foster parents and the kids they shelter, both sides wary of the strangers who come into their lives but hopeful of forming nurturing homes.
George Orwell: A Life in Letters edited by Peter Davison (Norton/Liveright) - Orwell’s keen insight and acerbic wit reverberate throughout these selected letters, culled from more than 10 volumes to offer a comprehensive view of his life and personality. Ranging from 1911, during Orwell’s school days, until his death in 1950, the letters focus on his professional life in the 1920s and ’30s—years he spent in Burma and Paris—especially his time as a journalist in Spain and North Africa, his BBC employment during WWII, his productive years in Jura writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his struggle with tuberculosis.
Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison by Joshua Dubler (FSG) - University of Rochester religion professor Dubler takes readers where every American should go at least once—to prison. The highly religious United States also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Examining chapel life at Pennsylvania’s maximum-security prison at Graterford, readers follow two prison guards, five chaplains, 15 prisoner-workers, 20 volunteers, one secular professor of religion, and hundreds of religious followers of Sunni Islam, Salafi Islam, Judaism, Nation of Islam, Moorish Science Temple, Evangelicals, Catholics, Christian Science, Native American Church, and more.
The Art of Sleeping Alone: A Memoir by Sophie Fontanel, trans. form the French by Linda Coverdale (Scribner) - The first of Fontanel’s seven books to be translated into English, this memoir-in-fragments from French Elle’s longtime editor has been publicized as the tale of “why one French woman gave up sex.” Yet the book is less “why” and more “what.” Fontanel’s narrative reads like a series of long-distance phone calls made every few weeks. More central is Fontanel’s lifestyle. From a sensual massage in Goa to dining alone at a Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall in the Marais, her regime is a sumptuous escape.
The Infatuations by Javier Marías, trans. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf) - Marías shows that death is hardest on those left living. Each morning María Dolz has breakfast at a cafe watching perfect couple Miguel and Luisa. One morning Miguel is stabbed to death on his birthday by a knife-wielding panhandler, a seemingly random act of madness. This rupture in María’s idyllic voyeurism causes her to intersect her life with Luisa’s, enmeshing herself in the murder’s aftermath. Through Costa’s lucid translation, the prose exhibits Marías’s trademark clarity and digressive uncertainty; a novel that further secures Marías’s position as one of contemporary fiction’s most relevant voices.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Little, Brown) - Quick’s books typically revolve around characters who don’t fit in, don’t understand their place in the world, and face daunting obstacles. Leonard Peacock is another such individual, a teenager who feels let down by adults and out of step with his sheeplike classmates. Foreseeing only more unhappiness and disappointment in life (and harboring a secret that’s destroying him), Leonard packs up his grandfather’s WWII handgun and heads to school, intending to kill his former best friend and then himself. First, though, he will visit the important people in his life.
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley (Simon & Schuster) - Though the U.S. spends more to educate its students than almost any other country, its teenagers rank 26th in math, below Finland (third), Korea (second), and Poland (19th). Yet in “a handful of eclectic nations... virtually all kids [are] learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading.” Setting out to discover how this happened, veteran journalist Ripley recounts the experiences of three American teens studying abroad for a year in the education superpowers.
Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (Dial) - A young American soldier combats boredom in the title entry of this collection of eight stories about life during wartime. In “Victory,” a disabled supermarket cashier woos a kleptomaniac high school student from a wealthy family and watches as his coworkers get called off to fight. Jealous of the attention given to a friend returning from military service, a miserable call center employee takes out his dissatisfaction on his customers in “Operators.”
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke (Dial) - Tucholke debuts with a thoroughly eerie novel set in a quintessential horror-story location: a quaint Maine town. Violet White and her 17-year-old twin brother are living in the dilapidated glory of their family’s coastal estate while their parents traipse Europe. To help pay the bills, Violet places an ad for a boarder for their guesthouse; it’s quickly answered by River West, a mysterious boy who cannily avoids giving straight answers about his past.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday) - Driven by Yanagihara's gorgeously complete imaginary ethnography on the one hand and, on the other, by her brilliantly detestable narrator, this debut novel is compelling on every level—morally, aesthetically, and narratively. Yanagihara balances pulpy adventure tale excitement with serious consideration in unraveling her fantastical premise: a scientist, Norton Perina, discovers an island whose inhabitants may somehow have achieved immortality. Perina sets out on an anthropological mission that became more significant than he could have imagined. One of the year’s best books.