This week, the true story that inspired Herman Melville, a pizza hotline, and a soldier's exorcism. Plus: a new translation of The Human Comedy.
The Human Comedy: Selected Stories by Honoré de Balzac, trans. from the French by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman, and Jordan M. Stump, edited by Peter Brooks (New York Review Books) - As Peter Brooks observes in his marvelous introduction to this volume, reading Balzac is almost always thought of as requiring time—“of a length for evenings without television or smartphones.” Yet, amongst the exhaustive tales that make up his panoptic portrait of 19th-century France are shorter works that distill and exemplify Balzac’s great gifts. Collected here are nine supremely satisfying tales from the father of realism, newly translated for the first time in a century.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario: or, A Neesta Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor (Melville House) - Leonard is an exemplary "Listener" in his job manning complaints hotline for the Pythagorean pizza chain, Neetsa Pizza. He is satisfied working from home, and has not ventured outside in over three years. His sister Carol says the world is broken, but Leonard's chooses to believe "bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so," and makes it "his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it." Cantor's wildly inventive debut novel is a mix of the comical and mystical, in a future ruled by fast-food conglomerates run by competing, antiquated sects. When Carol leaves Leonard with her son to attend missions with her book club, Leonard must finally leave the comforts of home to face the tumultuous world outside.
The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan) - This dark yarn is simultaneously a philosophical, sociological, and literary inquiry, as the historic facts of an 1804 maritime slave rebellion interact dialectically with Benito Cereno, Melville’s novel inspired by the revolt. Through rich contextualization, the central events are understood as both singular and allegorical for the surrounding social milieu. As Melville wrote about “slavery as a proxy for the human condition,” Grandin (Fordlandia) addresses the encounter of Amasa Delano, a New England seal hunter, with the rebelling West African slaves and their Spanish hostage as a proxy for the manifold forces intersecting in the development of the New World.
Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson (Prometheus) - Expected to be subservient first as slaves and then as second-class freedmen, African-Americans spent generations expecting neither legal justice nor fair treatment from law enforcement. In this provocative book, Johnson, a legal expert on gun issues, agrees with Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass that gun ownership for blacks helped level the disparity between races, allowing both men and women to protect themselves from being returned to slavery or becoming the next lynching victims while also allowing some to work as Buffalo soldiers or as cowboys.
Perfect by Rachel Joyce (Random) - An 11-year-old boy makes an error that brings tragedy to several lives, including his own, in Joyce’s intriguing and suspenseful novel. One summer day in a small English village in 1972, Byron Hemmings’s mother, Diana, is driving him and his younger sister to school when their Jaguar hits a little girl on a red bicycle. Diana drives on, unaware, with only Byron having seen the accident. Byron doesn’t know whether or not the girl was killed, however, and concocts a plan called “Operation Perfect” to shield his mother from what happened.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman (Pantheon) - In his brief but engrossing latest essay collection, theoretical physicist and novelist Lightman offers insight into the ways that recent scientific discoveries shape our understanding of ourselves and our world. Each of the seven essays here explores the philosophical fallout from a particular corner of research. The titular lead essay examines the concept of the multiverse, and the potential implications of its existence, in light of the dark energy that keeps our universe from collapsing. “The Spiritual Universe” examines the often uneasy relationship between science and religion, while other pieces explore entropy, the vast scale of space, and unpredictable humanity’s role in a universe built on physical laws and composed of forces, light, and particles we can’t see.
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe (Soho) - In Nigerian-born Ndibe's new novel, Ikechukwu "Ike" Uzondu is a hapless N.Y.C. taxi driver stymied at every turn—his rent is past due, his Amherst education means less to potential employers than his accent, his green-card marriage has more than its share of baggage, and his fares always mispronounce his name (that's "Ee-kay"). Desperate to keep his head above water in a country that only accepts him as a caricature, Ike decides to travel back to his village in Nigeria, steal his village's ancestral war idol, and sell it to an unscrupulous dealer in tribal antiques. Many novels would merely use this premise as an excuse for madcap postcolonial allegory, but the theft turns out to be the setup for the novel's centerpiece: Ike's return to the village of Utonki, where he finds his family torn between a maniacal Christian pastor and the traditional worshippers of Ngene, the god Ike has resolved to pillage. Neither fable nor melodrama, nor what's crudely niched as "world literature," the novel traces the story of a painstakingly-crafted protagonist and his community caught up in the inescapable allure of success defined in Western terms.
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson, illus. by Hadley Hooper (Dial) - Nelson crafts a stirring autobiography in verse, focusing on her childhood in the 1950s, when her family frequently moved between military bases. Complemented by muted screen print–like illustrations, Nelson’s 50 poems are composed of raw reflections on formative events, including her development as a reader and writer.
Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism by Jennifer Percy (Scribner) -Tropes surrounding veterans in the public discourse—invincible warriors, heroic patriots—mask the reality of warfare, but Percy peels back the gauze, revealing deeply wounded individuals. Having enlisted to escape hometown oppression or untenably low positions on the socioeconomic ladder, veterans return haunted by the violence they’ve endured. Caleb, Percy’s primary subject, is besieged by apparitions after his closest friend dies in a helicopter crash, and comes to rely on his hallucinations to get him through the day. An army psychologist explains that sufferers of PTSD will relive their trauma “again and again until the mind is able to assimilate and process the event,” experiencing a world of demons more real than physical objects. Caleb and other veterans are drawn to tiny Portal, Ga., where a self-taught pastor engages in “spiritual warfare,” claiming he stopped counting the number of exorcisms he’s performed after 5,000.
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown) - John Rebus comes out of retirement in Edgar-winner Rankin's stellar 20th novel featuring the Edinburgh cop (after 2013's Standing in Another Man's Grave). Rebus, though, must accept a demotion—from detective inspector to detective sergeant—not that he cares about rank. It's the case that counts, which in this entry involves "conspiracies, connections and coincidences." Malcolm Fox, the officer in charge of the Complaints department (the Scottish version of Internal Affairs), leads an investigation into whether a fast and loose group of cops in the mid-1980s known as the Saints of the Shadow Bible might have tainted a murder trial back when Rebus was a young officer.