This week, Suzanne Collins's picture book, Paul Harding's second novel, and Jonathan Lethem's latest. Plus: a horror book that will draw deserved comparisons to Stephen King.
Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, illus. by James Proimos (Scholastic) - In this picture book, Collins sensitively examines the impact of war on the very young, using her own family history as a template. Suzy is the youngest of four children—Proimos draws her with impossibly big, questioning blue eyes and a mass of frizzy red hair—and she is struggling to understand the changes in her family. “My dad has to go to something called a war,” she explains. “It’s in a place called Viet Nam. Where is Viet Nam? He will be gone a year. How long is a year? I don’t know what anybody’s talking about.”
But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman (Schocken) - For centuries, theologians, philosophers, and others have struggled with the 19 lines of Genesis 22 that Jews call the binding of Isaac and Christians refer to as the sacrifice of Isaac. No one has found a definitive answer to the questions of why Abraham was so ready to follow God’s command that he kill his son or why Isaac agreed to be bound on the altar. Unlike other analysts, Goodman is a historian and a writer. Accordingly, his book focuses on the chronicle of the story, beginning with when and by whom it was written. He proceeds to analyze the explanations that have been given by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others, including contemporary interpretations. Obviously fascinated by the story, Goodman demonstrates great prudence in not offering his explanation but in asserting that the story has many meanings.
Enon by Paul Harding (Random House) - Drawing upon the same New England landscape and family as his Pulitzer Prize–winning debut Tinkers, Harding deftly captures loss and its consequences in this gorgeous and haunting follow-up. The novel opens with a grieving Charlie Crosby (grandson of Tinkers protagonist George Washington Crosby) attempting to come to terms with the death of his daughter, Kate, and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage. Harding’s second novel again proves he’s a contemporary master and one of our most important writers.
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday) - While collective memory might offer some hazy grasp of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklists, all but forgotten is the real American Communist Party and its Depression-era heyday. In this epic and complex new novel, Lethem considers what happened to the ACP, as well as some other questions, about maternal isolation and filial resentment. The book begins with the case of Rose Zimmer, in Queens, New York, who was officially ousted from the party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop. Rose’s daughter, Miriam, is a teenager at the time, and she soon discovers the pull of Greenwich Village bohemians.
The Facades by Eric Lundgren (Overlook) - In this fascinating, complex debut novel, a famous mezzo-soprano vanishes from rehearsal, leaving behind her husband, Sven, to care for their disaffected son and search for her in the labyrinthine streets of fictional Midwestern city Trude. Though most of the plot involves Sven’s existential and often humorous detective work, Trude itself is the biggest of Lundgren’s many successes here. A fierce, funny examination of loss.
Someone by Alice McDermott (FSG) - In this deceptively simple tour de force, McDermott lays bare the keenly observed life of Marie Commeford, an ordinary woman whose compromised eyesight makes her both figuratively and literally unable to see the world for what it is. When we meet her on the steps of her Brooklyn townhouse, she’s a bespectacled seven-year-old waiting for her father; McDermott then leaps ahead, when Marie, pregnant with her first child, recalls collapsing at a deli counter and the narrative plunges us into a world where death is literally just around the corner, upending the safety and comfort of her neighborhood.
The Professor of Truth by James Robertson (Other Press) - Big life-and-death questions lie at the center of Robertson’s contemplative new novel, but its premise is as commercial as that of a bestselling thriller, amped up by real-life roots. Still haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland more than 20 years ago, British literature professor Alan Tealing gets a surprise visit from a man named Ted Nilsen, who asks him provocative questions. After some verbal fencing, Nilsen explains that he’s a retired American intelligence officer with information that Tealing, who has made a second career of gathering information about the crash, will want to know.
Fangirl by Ranibow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin) - Cath Avery’s life has two polestars: Wren, her identical twin, and the Simon Snow series, a Harry Potter–like publishing phenomenon that Cath has been reading—and rewriting, as a hugely popular fanfiction author—for years. While Cath is an expert on Simon’s life, she finds her own difficult, especially now that she’s starting college and Wren doesn’t want them to room together.
Others of My Kind by James Sallis (Bloomsbury) - Sallis has always been the master of doing more with less, as he demonstrates once again with this startling experimental novella. When Emily Smith was eight years old, she was abducted and suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her male captor, who kept her in a box under his bed for two years. The girl finally escaped, living for 18 months in a shopping mall, eventually becoming a ward of the courts. Twenty-five years later, Emily has become “Jenny Rowan,” a talented video editor for a Washington, D.C., news station. Her craft is an apt metaphor for the life that she’s improvised. Fiercely independent and self-taught, Rowan refuses to see herself as a victim. When a police detective approaches her to help a young abductee, Rowan at first demurs, but she ends up giving the girl, Cheryl, a place to stay.
Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy by Sudhir Venkatesh (Penguin Press) - Crime and vice are the ties that bind an unlikely community of New Yorkers in this fascinating X-ray of the city. Columbia University sociologist Venkatesh profiles and befriends shady strivers, from immigrant porn-shop clerks working a kaleidoscope of illicit businesses to a Harlem drug dealer who supplies well-heeled white artists and hipsters. But Venkatesh focuses on the sex trade: ghetto streetwalkers; Ivy League grads moonlighting as call girls; smug Wall Street johns who insist their dalliances strengthen their marriages; and an heiress who sets herself up as a madam.
The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman (Knopf) - Wasserman delivers an exceptional horror novel that will lead to inevitable (and deserved) Stephen King comparisons. In the isolated Kansas town of Oleander, five people suddenly go on murder sprees, with four of them committing suicide. A year later, five survivors are united when a storm (and later, soldiers) isolate the town: loner Daniel, closeted jock West, newly evangelical Ellie, outcast Jule, and Cassie—the one remaining murderer, who has no recollection of what she did or why. As the days pass, the five grow increasingly aware that everyone else in Oleander is starting to act strange.
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (First Second) - With a superbly executed “diptych” of graphic novels, Yang (American Born Chinese http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-59643-152-2) employs parallel storylines to represent two opposing Chinese experiences during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century. These two companion books are not to be missed.