This week, new Tana French, new Elena Ferrante, and the history of rock 'n' roll in 10 songs.
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim (FSG) - The seven gripping stories gathered in Antrim’s (The Verificationist) long-awaited debut collection showcase the author’s ability to employ surreal and traditional modes to describe the emotional demons plaguing his characters. The opening story, “An Actor Prepares,” is about a dean at a “small liberal-arts institution” who shares his creepy experiences directing a twisted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The quietly troubling “Pond, With Mud” draws out an awkward chance encounter between a man and his girlfriend’s son’s biological father in a train station. The remaining five stories speak to each other to form a sort of thematic saga, which portrays the nuanced connections between flawed but sympathetic characters.
El Deafo by Cece Bell (Abrams/Amulet) - A bout of childhood meningitis left Bell (Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover) deaf at age four, and she was prescribed a Phonic Ear, with a receiver draped across her chest and a remote microphone her teachers wore. Her graphic memoir records both the indignities of being a deaf child in a hearing community (“IS. THAT. AAAY. HEAR-ING. AAAID?”) and its joys, as when she discovers that the microphone picks up every word her teacher says anywhere in the school. Bell’s earnest rabbit/human characters, her ability to capture her own sonic universe (“eh sounz lah yur unnah wawah!”), and her invention of an alter ego—the cape-wearing El Deafo, who gets her through stressful encounters (“How can El Deafo free herself from the shackles of this weekly humiliation?” she asks as her mother drags her to another excruciating sign language class)—all combine to make this a standout autobiography.
Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty by Vikram Chandra (Graywolf) - Novelist Chandra explores the connections between the worlds of computer programming and writing, beginning with the fact that “[b]oth writers and programmers struggle with language.” In a short span, the book offers much material to consider, leaping from a history of computer programming and a primer on logic gates and how these programs work, to a personal of Chandra’s writing life, to some serious philosophical inquiry into how the term “beauty” might be applied to programming. The latter thread draws mainly on the rasa-dhvani theory of aesthetic analysis (from Indian philosophers Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta), and although the ideas presented are sometimes challenging, Chandra provides more than sufficient intellectual guidance. Chandra’s book calls for a fuller appreciation of the programming world, not only because of the exponentially growing roles software plays in our lives, but also because of the actual work programmers do.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa) - Surpassing the rapturous storytelling of the previous titles in the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name), Ferrante here reunites Elena and Lila, two childhood friends, who dissect subjects as complicated as their own relationship, including feminism and class, men and women, mothers and children, sex and violence, and origin and destiny. As the narrative unfolds in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the fiery Lila stays in Naples, having escaped an abusive marriage, and lives platonically with a man from the neighborhood, along with her young, possibly illegitimate son. The feisty Elena leaves town, graduates from a university in Pisa, publishes a successful book, marries an upper-class professor, and moves to Florence, where she gives birth to two daughters. Against the backdrop of student revolution and right-wing reaction, the two women’s tumultuous friendship seesaws up and down as each tries to outdo the other.
The Secret Place by Tana French (Viking) - In French’s mesmerizing fifth Dublin Murder Squad mystery (after 2012’s Broken Harbor), Det. Stephen Moran, who works in the cold-case unit, is biding his time until he can make the Murder Squad. When 16-year-old Holly Mackey, a colleague’s daughter, shows up with a clue to an old crime, Moran sees his chance. A student at St. Kilda’s boarding school, Holly vividly remembers the previous year’s murder of Chris Harper, a popular teen from Colm’s, the neighboring boys’ school. From the St. Kilda’s personal notice board known as the Secret Place, Holly brings Moran a photo of Chris with the words “I know who killed him” pasted across his chest.
The White Van by Patrick Hoffman (Atlantic Monthly) - A heist propels Hoffman’s outstanding first novel. Sophia, a Russian émigré, plans to rob a San Francisco branch of US Bank with some inside assistance from its manager, Rada Harkov, and the help of two people recruited (decidedly against their wills) for the job: “the Russian,” another émigré and a black-market trader who owes Sophia money; and Emily, a young woman coerced into helping with drugs and threats (“She had been made into a slave”). The robbery nets some $880,000, a powerful temptation for another major character, Elias, an officer with the SFPD Gang Task Force. An alcoholic, Elias is plagued by money worries. Beyond the engaging plot, the book focuses on people’s behavior in the face of impossible choices.
The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus (Yale Univ.) - In his typically provocative and far-reaching style, music critic Marcus (Mystery Train) ingeniously retells the tale of rock and roll as the undulating movement of one song through the decades, speaking anew in different settings; it’s a “continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers.” Selecting 10 songs recorded between 1956 and 2008, he ranges gracefully over various performances of the same song, probing deeply into the nuances of each singer’s style as well as the ways that the recorded version of the song reflects its time. Thus, for example, Marcus follows the career of Barrett Strong’s 1963 Motown hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” and Strong’s harsh and violent rendition to The Beatles’ 1964 version in which John Lennon is “appalled, hateful, and ravenous all at once, and so powerfully the music seems to fall away from him, letting him claim every molecule in the air.” Marcus goes on to cover Tom Gray, Cyndi Lauper, and more in this brilliant book.
Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes (HarperTeen) - As the third most popular girl in school, 15-year-old Anika Dragomir worries a lot about her precarious social rank, which means tolerating the casual cruelties of Becky Vilhauer, who rules their Nebraska high school with an iron fist. Morally conflicted, Anika surreptitiously tries to undo some of Becky’s damage (such as dismantling an invented pregnancy rumor), but Anika’s secret relationship with geek-turned-hottie Logan McDonough only adds to her problems. This nascent romance is further complicated when Jared Kline, “the biggest stone-cold fox in the city, possibly in the state,” unexpectedly starts courting Becky and she gets disturbing glimpses of Logan’s home life. In this YA debut, adult author Portes (Hick; Bury This) serves up a self-deprecating and highly memorable heroine whose bawdy, laceratingly funny narration makes her instantly endearing while also revealing her flaws, uncertainties, and ethical quandaries.
The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification by Paul Roberts (Bloomsbury) - Veteran journalist Roberts (The End of Oil) cogently analyzes the nation’s self-gratifying socioeconomic system in which individuals, politicians, and CEOs ignore society’s needs in favor of short-term fixes and profits. Whereas a century ago, most economic activity focused on producing necessities, today 70% of the economy centers on consumption, much of it discretionary, driven by our “aspirations and hopes, our identities... anxieties and our boredom.” As Roberts explains, an economy reoriented to giving us what we want “isn’t the best for delivering what we need.” Adept at synthesizing disparate data, Roberts traces the country’s economic history to contextualize what led to our increasingly market-driven behavior.
100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl (Faber and Faber) - In these meditations, anecdotes, and stories, award-winning playwright Ruhl hits upon the ideal gimmick for the time-starved author and overburdened reader. Ruhl praises the “beauty of smallness,” showing in pithy probes that “small, forthright words... might have an idea buried in them as large as the most expansive work.” As in her plays, her wide-ranging subjects—some treated in no more than a paragraph, line, or single word—tend to be the subversive. She rallies her readers to “fight the mania for clarity and help create a mania for beauty instead.” Parenting scenes provide the book’s tenderest moments, while discussions of playwriting and theater offer valuable instruction on craft. The two themes converge not just in their similarities—“both parenting and theater involve an embrace of impermanence, and both are embodied art forms”—but also in Ruhl’s belief that theater, playing to the childlike love of illusion, can deliver pure joy.
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith (S&S) - Smith dives back into the mind of a teenage boy in a story that’s less brutal or apocalyptic than his recent work (readers who know him from Grasshopper Jungle or Winger may keep waiting for the other shoe to drop), but similarly full of existential questions and sexuality run amok. When 16-year-old Finn Easton was a boy, he and his mother were crushed by a falling dead horse in a freak accident—Finn’s mother died, and he broke his back, leaving him with recurring epileptic episodes and a scar on his back. In the present, Finn is navigating relationships with his father, the author of a cult science-fiction novel; his raunchy best friend Cade; and a new girl in town, Julia. Road-trip shenanigans, condom-purchasing embarrassments, drunken parties, and stumbling attempts at first love all factor into the novel, but amid the loopy escapades, Finn’s musings about the universe’s constant dispersal and recycling of atoms, along with his habit for measuring time in the distance the Earth is forever racing around the sun, provide a memorable perspective on human (in)significance.
Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey (Carolrhoda Lab) - Willey (Four Secrets) returns with a riveting story about being robbed of one’s childhood. When Charlie Porter is seven years old, his mother abandons him, his father, and his younger brother, Liam. To comfort his father, Charlie recites his mother’s bedtime stories about a beetle. Sensing an opportunity, Charlie’s short-tempered, womanizing father shoves him into the role of the “world’s youngest published author,” pressuring him to write and promote the books they cobble together, wear a bug costume, visit schools, and attend conferences. It’s at these author gatherings that Charlie gets to know acerbic veteran author Mrs. M., with whom he forges an unlikely but crucial friendship. Now 18, Charlie is estranged from his family and living with his girlfriend Clara, who is growing increasingly frustrated with Charlie’s unwillingness to discuss his past.