This week, the danger of what you eat, the miseducation of the American elite, and an outstanding Japanese revenge thriller.
Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark (Little, Brown) - Artificial sugar substitutes, chemically crafted flavor enhancers, and unnatural food colorings are trapping Americans in a self-destructive cycle of addiction, suggests Clark in his first novel, a hyperironic, hyperworrisome account of one man’s journey through the processed food industry. The horror begins in New Jersey in 1973, when recent Rutgers food science program graduate David Leveraux goes to work for corporate giant Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark. His first assignment is testing Sweetness #9, a product in development, on rats. The product is eventually approved and put on the market, but as “the Nine” catches on (it’s 180 times as sweet as sugar at a fraction of the cost), lab rats, monkeys, the Leveraux family, political leaders in Washington, and the general American public all show signs of depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and self-destruction. The energetic mixture of laughter and revulsion, routine and invention, outrage and dismay, fact and fiction, skewer a food industry that provides neither food nor sustenance and damages us in ways we are just beginning to fathom.
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz (Free Press) - The kids are all wrong—especially the superachievers at the nation’s top universities—according to this stinging indictment of American higher education. Culture critic Deresiewicz (A Jane Austen Education) expands his notorious American Scholar essay into a jeremiad against elite colleges, the Ivy League and, in particular, Yale, where he taught English. Students, he argues, are “smart and talented and driven... but also anxious, timid, and lost”; narcissistic helicopter parents—Tiger-Mom Amy Chua gets lambasted—pressure them to trade fulfillment for money and status. According to the author, colleges with indifferent teaching and incoherent curricula offer no guidance on intellectual development or character formation; the whole system reinforces a class hierarchy that “equates virtue, dignity, and happiness with material success.” Entwined with his j’accuse is an impassioned, idealistic plea to reclaim the undergraduate years as a journey of self-discovery guided by engaged professors who challenge students to think for themselves instead of following the flock to Wall Street.
Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir by H.D.S. Greenway (S&S) - In this memoir, Boston Globe columnist Greenway narrates a professional life spent working in the most dangerous regions of the world. From the mid-1960s on, Greenway covered post-colonial states struggling with the consequences of the Cold War: Cambodia, Thailand, Lebanon, Laos, among many others. The Vietnam War in particular colored how he viewed future conflicts and American overreach as he watched history repeat itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. A Boston Brahmin who attended Yale as a legacy, Greenway roots lay in a genteel WASP America that was already vanishing by the time he was shot during the Tet Offensive (his attempt to save a wounded Marine there earned him a Bronze Star). Greenway’s professional and social connections provide him with a wide range of anecdotes that feature such figures as John le Carré and Sean Flynn (Errol’s son), a journalist who mysteriously disappeared in the Cambodian jungle.
If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey (Graywolf) - Harvey (Modern Life) delivers an ambitious and inventive new collection that straddles the line between poetry and art book. Brilliant strings of weird imagery and narrative yield unlikely resonances and stir fresh emotions in the reader, and are reinforced by the poems’ intellectual cores. Readers familiar with Harvey’s work will find a continuation of her project here, but buffered and made even more pleasurable by its visual elements. Prose poems about mermaids are paired with bizarre silhouettes of half-woman-half-tool creatures; miniature chairs and figurines are frozen in blocks of ice and then photographed; and an erasure of a Rad Bradbury text is remade into a sad and sparse tale of a Martian, a “dirty flub funny lump with eyes.”
Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger (Atria) - Edgar-winner Krueger highlights the vulnerability of Native American youth in his excellent 14th Cork O’Connor novel (after 2013’s Tamarack County). PI Cork, a former Minnesota sheriff, reluctantly investigates the disappearance of 14-year-old Mariah Arceneaux, who left her home near Bad Bluff, Wis., a year earlier. The battered body of the friend who accompanied her, Carrie Verga, recently washed ashore on Windigo Island in Lake Superior. A plea for help from Mariah’s diabetic mother, Louise, to the sage Henry Meloux ends with Cork’s older daughter, Jenny, rashly vowing to help save Mariah. This move forces Cork’s hand, putting him on the trail of a ruthless man called Windigo. Jenny, Louise, and centenarian Henry play key roles as the mission tests both spiritual and physical powers.
Confessions by Kanae Minato, trans. from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Little, Brown/Mulholland) - The murder of a young science teacher’s trusting four-year-old daughter—by some of her own 13-year-old students—sets in motion a diabolic revenge plot with devastating collateral damage in Minato’s outstanding debut, which inspired the hit Japanese film. Initially, single mother Yuko Moriguchi’s grief mixes with guilt when police rule little Manami’s death accidental; she accepts the blow as yet another in a lengthy series, including the HIV-positive diagnosis that Manami’s father received during Yuko’s pregnancy, which prompted him to break off their engagement. But when she subsequently discovers evidence that points to foul play, Yuko decides to draw on her knowledge of the culprits to exact retribution far more terrible than the punishment that would have been meted out to such youthful offenders by the authorities.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday) - Professor Jason Fitger, the hero of this engaging epistolary novel from Schumacher (The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls), is concerned about Darren Browles, a student of his currently at work on a novel. Fitger, who teaches creative writing at fictional Payne University, believes this book, when completed, will prove Browles to be a prodigy. Despite Fitger’s near-ecstatic praise of the would-be novelist, both for writing positions and for any job available, no one seems interested in hiring Browles, not even the less-than-enterprising college radio station. In addition to this pet project, Fitger commits himself to writing recommendations for anyone that asks. However, he agrees to do so only on the condition of being completely frank, leading him to address the personal lives of his colleagues and students inappropriately. Additionally, Fitger delves into his own life with uncomfortable honesty, regardless of which person he’s writing to, usually concerning the marriage-ending novel he wrote about his extramarital affairs and his distress over being a failed novelist.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (S&S) - In his powerful and significant debut novel, Thomas masterfully evokes one woman’s life in the context of a brilliantly observed Irish working-class milieu. Eileen Tumulty was born in the early ’40s, the only child and dutiful caretaker of alcoholic parents. As a young woman, she hopes to leave her family’s dingy apartment in Woodside, Queens, and move up the social ladder. Eileen falls in love with and marries Ed Leary, a quiet neuroscientist whom she sees as the means to an upper-middle-class future. But Ed is dedicated to pure scientific research, and he turns down lucrative job offers from pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions. The couple’s apartment in Jackson Heights is a step up from Eileen’s parents’ apartment, but she wants a home in tony Westchester County. Later, Eileen pursues an arduous career as a nursing administrator to secure a future for their son, Connell. But once she gets her gracious but dilapidated fixer-upper in Bronxville, in southern Westchester, Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the family slowly endures “the encroaching of a fathomless darkness.” Eileen's life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century.