This week, growing up with Harper Lee, saving an American town, and an unstable nanny.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Atria) - In this Swedish bestseller, Ove is a lovably miserable neighborhood curmudgeon—think a cross between Up’s Carl Fredricksen and Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson—who spends his days inspecting his community and criticizing others, judging each by how closely he follows rules and his choice of automobile (Ove cannot reason with BMW drivers). After his handicapped wife dies and he is forced to retire from his job, Ove decides he’s ready to leave the world behind. But every time he tries to off himself, he’s interrupted—first by his new neighbor, the pregnant Parvaneh; then by Parvaneh’s clumsy husband, Patrick; Anita, the wife of Ove’s former best friend; Jimmy, Ove’s overweight neighbor; Adrian, the neighborhood mailman; and finally a mangy feline Ove calls “Cat Annoyance.” Q fuzzy crowd-pleaser that serves up laughs to accompany a thoughtful reflection on loss and love.
The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov (FSG) - Blending elements of Nabokov, Calvino, and Percival Everett, Bitov’s (Pushkin House) shape-shifting novel is not really a novel so much as a narrative puzzle that revels in its own language. The premise: the author, Andrei Bitov, remembers a novel he translated into Russian long ago while he was bored on a geological expedition; the book, by an obscure English writer named A. Tired-Boffin, is called The Teacher of Symmetry. The problem: he can’t find the book anywhere. And so, the meat of this novel is not Bitov’s translation of The Teacher of Symmetry, but simply his memory of The Teacher of Symmetry. In Bitov’s recollection, the eight chapters in Tired-Boffin’s novel may each be read as a standalone work. Each chapter echoes the others in both plot and theme (obsessions of various kinds abound), and one gets the sense, while following Bitov’s winding remembered translation, that we are in the presence of one of literature’s most formidable unreliable narrators.
Cataract City by Craig Davidson (Graywolf) - Childhood friends pursue lives on opposite sides of the law in this sweeping literary crime novel from Davidson (Rust and Bone). Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs meet as children, growing up on the streets of Cataract City, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. One night, during the chaos of a brawl, the 12-year-old boys are abducted, and spend a hellish week lost in the woods. From this point on, their trajectories split: Owen becomes a high school basketball star, and later a cop; Duncan becomes a boxer and small-time hood. Yet they remain tethered, not only by friendship and shared trauma but also by Edwina, a fiery free spirit they both love. When dogfighting, smuggling, and then murder ratchet up the stakes between the two men, old bonds are pitted against current loyalties.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (Random) - Making vibrant use of primary sources that emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Fleming (Amelia Lost) brings to life the last imperial family of Russia. Writing with a strong point of view based on diary entries, personal letters, and other firsthand accounts, she enriches their well-known story with vivid details. The narrative begins in February 1903 (with some flashbacks to the meeting of tsar Nicholas and German-born tsarina Alexandra) and also features primary sources from peasants and factory workers—including an excerpt from Maxim Gorky’s 1913 memoir—that help to affectingly trace the increasingly deplorable conditions and growing discontent that led to the Russian Revolution; key figures such as Rasputin and Lenin are profiled in some depth. Fleming’s fulsome portraits of Nicholas and Alexandra, along with her depiction of their devoted relationship, highlight the role their personalities played in their downfall, as well as that of their beloved country.
White Beech: The Rainforest Years by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury) - Greer (The Female Eunuch) has written a love letter to a rainforest, one that she just happens to own. In her middle years, Greer set out to find a property in her native Australia that she could restore to its state before white colonists imposed clear-cutting and invasive species. After a long search, she settled upon a 60-hectare dairy farm in southeastern Queensland that had suffered all the depredations of human intrusion. Greer began the painstaking process of rehabilitation and found that while the work was difficult, it wasn’t quite Sisyphean. Greer is a scrupulous scholar with a deep interest in botany, and the level of detail in her research is impressive.
Comics Squad: Recess! by Jennifer Holm, Matthew Holdm Jarret J. Krosoczka et al. (Random) - Babymouse and Lunch Lady are among a few familiar faces (along with plenty of new ones) in this very funny collection of eight comics shorts from the Holms, Krosoczka, Gene Luen Yang, Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman, Ursula Vernon, and more. The stories generally embrace a school or recess theme, though in wildly different ways. Eric Wight’s talking cupcake, Jiminy Sprinkles, has a playground run-in with some surly vegetables (“They think they’re so much cooler than everyone else because they’re vitamin-fortified”), while Dan Santat explores homework-sharing and first love in a story that also features an embarrassing and very public vomiting incident. Readers will be in stitches.
Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local--and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy (Little, Brown) - In her first book, winner of the 2013 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, Roanoke Times reporter Macy explores the effects of globalization on America’s furniture manufacturing industry via the story of the Bassetts, a family from Virginia, whose Bassett Furniture Company was once the world’s largest producer of wooden furniture. In the 1980s, cheap Chinese imports began to flood the U.S. market, prompting many domestic furniture makers to move their factories abroad. But John Bassett III fought back. A “larger-than-life rule breaker,” J.B. III (as he was known) hired top trade lawyer Joe Dorn and convinced members of the U.S. furniture manufacturing industry to support him in filing a petition against China for unfair trade practices, ultimately saving his company, Vaughan-Bassett (an offshoot of the family business), along with hundreds of jobs.
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (Viking) - Makkai’s (The Borrower) second novel is a lively and clever story starring an estate with an intricate history. It starts in 1999, with husband and wife Doug and Zee living in the coach house of Zee’s parents’ estate, Laurelfield, which used to be an artists’ colony on Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Doug is a writer laboring to finish a monograph of poet Edwin Parfitt, a visitor to the colony, while earning money by anonymously writing YA fiction for a book packager. Zee teaches at the local college, scheming to destroy a tenured colleague to make room on the faculty for her husband, but her machinations take an unexpected turn. When Zee’s mother’s second husband allows his son and daughter-in-law to move in to the other apartment in the coach house, the dynamic of the group shifts. And meanwhile Doug discovers a secret about Zee’s family that he can’t share with Zee.
The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB) - First published in 1972, this taut crime thriller from French neo-noir master Manchette (Fatale) is suffused with the dissipated left-wing malaise of post-’68 France. Wealthy Parisian architect Michel Hartog springs Julie Ballanger from a New Age mental hospital and hires her to look after his nephew, Peter, a boy of six or seven whose parents died in a plane crash. Meanwhile, Thompson, a vicious hit man with a queasy stomach, eats choucroute after a particularly grisly job. A mysterious client recruits Thompson to kidnap Julie and Peter and kill them, making their deaths look like the work of the mentally unstable nanny. But Julie and Peter escape, and are pursued across France by Thompson and his thugs.
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills (Penguin Press) - Former Chicago Tribune reporter and first-time author Mills befriended the famously private Lee sisters of Monroeville, Ala., back in 2001, and moved into the house next door in 2004. Initially on assignment from her newspaper to gather information on Harper Lee (known as Nelle), neither Mills nor her cameraman, Terrence James, had any illusions about succeeding where countless other journalists had failed. But they were charged with at least trying to make contact with the famously reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, Mills recounts the surprisingly easy and natural way she did indeed meet, first, older sister Alice, a still-practicing attorney in her 80s, and then Nelle, whose sharp, eccentric personality, keen opinions, and generous reminiscences make this a must-read for fans.
Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir (Bellevue Literary) - Lines blur between the human and animal worlds in this richly detailed debut from Muir (The Book of Telling), which is part fantasy novel, part field guide. Imbued with a rare power to detect animals invisible to all humans except for a few of her family members, amateur naturalist Sophie takes the reader on a tour of nature as she sees it. Arranged like a bird-watching book, but with creatures that even the sharpest of naturalists couldn’t identify, the book is filled with minute details about each species’ origin and habits, along with keen insights on what the beasts have taught her about human nature. In Sophie’s struggles to find her footing in a world only she and a few others can see, Muir expertly pinpoints the frailty of the human condition. This is an amazing feat of imagination. Check out a graphic review of Invisible Beasts.
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann (Viking) - In the note to the reader that opens this huge collection, Vollmann (Europe Central) states, “This is my final book. Any subsequent productions bearing my name will have been composed by a ghost.” Vollmann’s fiction has always defied easy categorization. Here, he straddles, twists, and morphs action-adventure, horror, political thriller, fantasy, and literary fiction. What gives the book coherence is his singular style: elaborate and picaresque, with a rich vocabulary, an abundance of long and loopy sentences, and an irresistible energy. He’s a yarn spinner, in the tradition of Lovecraft and Dinesin, and his subplots and digressions are woven elegantly into the main narratives. The 32 stories are grouped geographically for the most part. The three set in Bosnia and Herzegovina depict the horrors and insanity of war. The novella, “The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich,” set in Trieste, combines religion, myth, and romance into an 18th-century high seas adventure. Mainstays of horror and the supernatural figure prominently, and it’s especially exciting to read these pop-fiction conventions treated with Vollmann’s narrative richness.
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, illus. by Sonny Liew (First Second) - Yang further establishes himself as one of YA’s leading voices on the Chinese-American experience by inventing a backstory for a forgotten comic-book character who was arguably the first Asian superhero. As explained in a postscript, the Green Turtle blinked into and quickly disappeared from publication during the 1940s superhero boom; he would likely be condemned to obscurity if not for rumors suggesting that creator Chu Hing masked the character’s ethnicity so that he could be read as a Chinese superhero (the face of the original Green Turtle is almost always obscured). Yang and Liew run with this theory and cast the Green Turtle as 19-year-old Hank Chu, a second-generation Chinese American who (at his mother’s urging) takes up crime fighting, aided by an ancient shadow spirit that gives him limited superpowers and provides some hilarious banter.
Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique (Riverhead) - For her debut novel, Yanique (author of the story collection How to Escape from a Leper Colony) has written an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century. The story follows two sisters whose genteel prospects are shattered after the sudden death of their father, Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a descendent of West African slaves and owner of a cargo ship. Eeona, the older of the two, is a famous beauty who terrifies men with her radiance and high-caste pretensions, while her younger sister, Anette, is sensuous and passionate, holding on to her local dialect and identity. Ever recalling memories of her father, Eeona struggles to escape St. Thomas and achieve a measure of freedom.