This week, the superb first novel in a sci-fi/horror trilogy, why certain groups in the U.S. perform better than others, and a story collection that reads like a cross between Mary Gaitskill and Grace Paley.
When Audrey Met Alice by Rebecca Behrens (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) - In Behrens’s entertaining debut, 13-year old-Audrey Rhodes finds life as the President’s daughter stifling. Audrey’s big party is canceled over a security breach, her classmates only see her as “Fido” (short for First Daughter), her mother is busy running the country, and her father is occupied with cancer research. When Audrey discovers the hidden journal of former First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, “the nation’s first celebrity” (as Behrens puts it in an afterword) and a freewheeling wild child, she finds a kindred spirit. Audrey’s Alice-inspired adventures don’t always turn out well (like the flapper dress she wears to a state dinner), but they get Audrey on the road to “eating up the world,” as Alice likes to say.
The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley (Bantam) - In Buckley’s superb third novel, ordinary human nature and extraordinary circumstances collide to powerful effect. The story offers the intricate suspense and surprise of a thriller, along with rich characterizations and nuanced writing. Teenager Tyler Lattimore has xeroderma pigmentosum, which makes the slightest exposure to ultraviolet light potentially fatal. His mother, Eve, shapes their lives around his safekeeping, struggling to nurture her husband and daughter while managing Tyler’s complex needs. On the way to the airport one rainy night, Eve’s car hits something as she is texting. Horrified, she discovers not an animal but her best friend Charlotte’s young daughter, dead, alongside a deserted road.
The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (Penguin Press) - In their provocative new book, Chua and Rubenfeld show why certain groups in the U.S. perform better than others. Studying the more material measures of success— income, occupational status, and test scores—the authors found, for example, that Mormons occupy leading positions in politics and business; the Ivy League admission rates of West Indian and African immigrant groups far exceed those of non-immigrant American blacks (a group left behind by these measures); and Indian and Jewish Americans have the highest incomes. According to the authors, three traits breed success: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. Only when this “Triple Package” comes together does it “generate drive, grit, and systematic disproportionate group success.”
The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses Battle over General Relativity by Pedro G. Ferreira (HMH) - First formulated by Einstein in 1907, two years after publishing his special theory of relativity, the general theory of relativity has endured some hard times, having been challenged by quantum mechanics in the 1930s and by dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign. Even Einstein doubted some of his early conclusions. But Ferreira, a professor of astrophysics at Oxford, shares the story of general relativity’s revival and application to previously unobservable objects like quasars and black holes. Ferreira’s book is also about the people who find joy and excitement in discovering the secrets of the universe. With palpable delight, Ferreira details false starts, chance discoveries, and the vindication of long-ridiculed ideas that emerged from the work that predicted singularities, M-theory, and dark energy.
Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century by Kevin Fong (Penguin Press) - British doctor and space enthusiast Fong launches a gripping “exploration of the extreme tolerances of the human body” in this eloquent history of how 20th-century science and medicine moved us toward “improved survival”—and with it a better understanding of life and death. He begins with a tale of a young Norwegian woman’s incredible survival after deep hypothermia and moves on to describe the remarkable strides in burn care built on reconstructive surgery during WWII. Further along in his journey, Fong details the daring operations that opened “the continent of the heart,” and how the polio epidemic—which touched Fong’s own family—begat the fields of anesthesiology and intensive care.
I Forgot to Remember by Su Meck, with Daniel de Vise (Simon & Schuster) - A whack on the head by a ceiling fan when she was 22 resulted in the wiping clean of Su Meck’s memory, including marriage and the birth of two children. In this tenebrous, strangely compelling memoir, Meck, with the help of journalist Visé and many people along the way who helped fill in the gaps of her life, re-creates the freak accident in her Fort Worth kitchen (as well as the rest of the details of her life) that evening in May 1988 that left her with a precarious “closed-head injury." Meck relates with excruciating honesty her journey out of oblivion.
Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, trans. from the Danish by Martin Aitken (Graywolf) - These very short works (most are no more than three pages, the longest is roughly eight) are as sharp-edged, destructive, and intentionally made as the title suggests. Nowhere here is a word out of place. Imagine Grace Paley with more than a little of Mary Gaitskill’s keen eye for the despair and violence of sex, mixed with an otherness that’s unsettlingly odd and vivid. Nors’s writing doesn’t just observe the details of life—online searches, laundry, fantasies, conversations with semi-strangers, compulsions—it offers a marvelous, truthful take on how these details illustrate our souls.
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux (FSG) - Literary science fiction has portrayed walking dead, living dead, undead, and to this mix Theroux now adds strange bodies (mankurt), in a strange, satisfying novel about possession featuring a literary scholar, a music mogul, assorted East European thugs, and the long dead but still articulate Dr. Samuel Johnson. A gloomy English academic with an unappreciated gift for forensic nuance, Nicholas Slopen is in serious need of money when entrepreneur/collector Hunter Gould asks him to authenticate papers purported to be Dr. Johnson’s handiwork. Close examination convinces Nicholas the papers are indeed Johnson’s, but also that they are fakes (the papers’ old-fashioned script on more modern material suggests foul play). Sure enough, Nicholas is drawn into a network of enslaved human bodies inhabited by the souls of dead people.
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer (FSG) - The unnamed narrator of this brilliant first in a trilogy from fantasy author Vandermeer tells of her ever-more-terrifying, yet ever-more-transcendent experiences, as she, a biologist, and the three other members of her all-women team (a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist) set out to explore Area X, for some unspecified number of years deliberately isolated from its surroundings. Theirs is the 12th expedition to Area X, sent two years after the last attempt; the team hopes to discover why the zone, so lush and beautiful at first look, is a place from which none return—at least not in the same form that they entered.
Archetype by M.D. Waters (Dutton) - Emotional involvement powers this absorbing gothic thriller in science fiction trappings. After the narrator awakens from a period of unconsciousness, she is taught that she is Emma Burke, beloved wife of a dashing tycoon. Her husband, Declan, encourages her to depend absolutely on him for protection against the terrorists who brutally attacked her. However, her dreams (and a sardonic interior voice Emma simply calls “Her”) insinuate images of her personally rebelling against an oppressive society that treats women as property.
The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich (Graywolf) - “My day will be spent here, in the middle of things,/ feeding split logs into the stove,” declares Wunderlich, or one of his thoughtful surrogates, midway through this ambitiously unified, quietly wise, and insistently rural third collection, where the sadder-but-wiser midpoints of adult lives, the agricultural middle of the United States, and the very center of the literary tradition called georgic (poems of advice for farmers) find unlikely springboards and inspirations in 19th-century German-American prayers. One series (“Prayer for the Fruits of the Field,” “A Servant’s Prayer”) began as free adaptations from a prayer book designed for Midwestern immigrants. Wunderlich switches his stylistic allegiance to plainspokenness, to the speech of the hills and plains, striking a hard-to-match tone of gentle humility, expanding his poetic powers.