This week, the best fictional treatment of the Dreyfus Affair yet, a Burroughs bio, and a life in Middlemarch. Plus: why are you so sad?
The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, trans. from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin) - Iraq came into our recent consciousness through war, supplanting the magic carpets and genies of folk tales, but Blasim, a filmmaker, poet, and fiction writer, who, persecuted under Saddam Hussein, fled Baghdad in 1998, destroys all preconceptions about his homeland and the effects of dictatorship, war, and occupation in this stunningly powerful collection. The stories are brutal, vulgar, imaginative, and unerringly captivating. In the title story, a man is interviewed for a job as an assassin, with the caveat that he’s expected to display the corpses of his victims in artistic and interesting ways. In “The Killers and the Compass,” a young boy follows his elder “giant brother,” Abu Hadid, around their “sodden neighborhood” of muddy lanes as he terrorizes the neighbors and extorts favors. A searing, original portrait of Iraq and the universal fallout of war.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, illus. by Yoko Tanaka (Knopf) - In this appropriately frosty take on The Snow Queen, Foxlee (The Midnight Dress) introduces 11-year-old Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard, who’s asthmatic, pragmatic, curious, and braver than she realizes. Ophelia’s family, shattered after her mother’s death, is visiting an unnamed snowy city so her father can curate an exhibition of swords. Exploring the strange, icy, and nearly empty museum, Ophelia discovers the long-imprisoned Marvelous Boy, who recruits her to help him save the world from the Snow Queen.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (Knopf) - Harris provides easily the best fictional treatment of the Dreyfus Affair yet, in this gripping thriller told from the vantage point of French army officer Georges Picquart. Major Picquart is present on the day in 1895 that Alfred Dreyfus is publicly degraded as a traitor to his country, before his exile to Devil’s Island. Soon afterward, Picquart is promoted to colonel, to assume command of the Statistical Section, which is actually the army’s espionage unit.
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer (Random) - The 2002 public release of the archives of Pius XI’s papacy revealed a trove of historical treasures that Brown University professor Kertzer (The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara) found “irresistible.” He brings to life an intriguing and unlikely alliance of two powerful individuals, using extensive primary sources from both sides. Whether or not it was truly a partnership is suspect, but they undoubtedly needed each other’s cooperation. The reader is taken inside the papacy in incredible detail, exposing the Vatican’s inner workings, from the Pope’s schedule to what he kept on his desk, to the knife’s-edge particulars of dealing with Mussolini.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (Crown) - In this deeply satisfying hybrid work of literary criticism, biography, and memoir, New Yorker staff writer Mead (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding) brings to vivid life the profound engagement that she and all devoted readers experience with a favorite novel over a lifetime. Her love affair with Middlemarch and its author, George Eliot, began when 17-year-old Mead was growing up in southwest England. Here, she wants to “go back to being a reader,” and sets out to rediscover Eliot, visiting the places Eliot lived, studying her letters, and even holding a journal in Eliot’s own handwriting.
Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles (Twelve) -The pioneering American countercultural writer and artist William Burroughs emerges as his own greatest character in this raucous biography. Biographer and Burroughs editor Miles (Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats) pens a dense, detailed, yet wonderfully readable and entertaining narrative that illuminates, without sensationalizing, Burroughs’s manifold peculiarities: his avid sexual interest in teenaged boys; his use of hashish, hallucinogens, and heroin; his petty crimes and drug-dealing; his love of casual gunplay (he fatally shot his wife during a game of William Tell); his obsession with other-worldly phenomena, from Scientology, to UFO abductions, to his own theories of giant intergalactic insects that control everything; his hair-trigger psychodramas with intimates and complete strangers; his embrace of every experience, especially those that appalled and disgusted him; the fastidious manners and banker’s wardrobe that made his anti-social provocations seem even more subversive.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Knopf) - Popping prose and touching vignettes of marriage and motherhood fill Offill’s slim second book of fiction. Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises. The 46 short chapters are told mostly in brief fragments and fly through the life of the nameless heroine. Her mind wanders from everyday tasks and struggles, the beginnings of her marriage, the highs and lows with her husband, the joys of having a daughter. These domestic bits are contrasted by far-flung thoughts that whirl in every direction, from space aviation and sea exploration to ancient philosophy and Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics. Anecdotes and quotes also come from all over: Einstein, Eliot, Keats, Rilke, Wittgenstein, Darwin, and Carl Sagan.
Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Knopf) - This evocative debut historical novel of Kenya tracks the slow unraveling of the Oganda family after the murder of beloved son Odidi at the hands of Nairobi’s finest. Before he can be buried, Odidi’s devastated mother takes flight, leaving her picturesque home in a remote northern province. Meanwhile, Odidi’s grieving sister, Arabel Ajani, must confront the Ogandas’ demons. Caine Prize–winner Owuor’s prose is exceptionally chiseled and achieves a poetic dimension.
Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter (Plume) - Porter's debut novel charts the trajectory of a man sinking under the weight of the whole world's sadness. Raymond Champs, an existentially angst-filled illustrator for a home furnishings corporation, is awash in the deep-end of corporate absurdity, wondering what if his overwhelming sadness isn't only a drop in the bucket but a swell in a rising tide of depression that afflicts everyone. With a covertly photocopied and nonchalantly distributed survey, Ray makes it his mission to find out, asking such questions as "Are you having an affair?", "Is today worse than yesterday?", and "Do you think we need more sports?". Ray seeks less a beam of hope among the rainclouds than the data to prove—to his level-headed wife Brenda or his threateningly eager boss Jerry—it's a true mass affliction, that he really isn't any crazier than the next guy.
Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy (Scholastic) - In this stunning trilogy opener, Reedy (Words in the Dust) envisions a near-future America on the verge of disaster, where political discord, economic crisis, and a controversial new law have created tension between state and federal governments. Enter 17-year-old Pfc. Daniel Wright, a football-playing, truck-driving, country music–loving high school senior and member of the Idaho National Guard. When his unit is called to help with a potential riot in Boise, things get out of hand, eventually sparking a full-blown conflict between Idaho and the Feds.