This week, a cult classic waiting to happen, God's bankers, and an early bid for best graphic novel of 2015.
The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold (HMH) - Arnold (Sacred) sensitively examines grief and the big questions that arise when someone dies unexpectedly. Sixth-grader Iris Abernathy’s family moves from California to Corvallis, Ore., shortly after the death of Iris’s best friend Sarah. Iris wants nothing to do with her rainy new home (“She hated it, even if it was beautiful”), her father’s ambitious plans to grow a lush garden and raise chickens, or anyone at school—until she meets kind outsider Boris. After Iris learns that Boris barely survived infancy (his devoutly Catholic family believes his inexplicable medical recovery was a genuine miracle and is attempting to have it certified as such by the Vatican), she is inspired to attempt to contact Sarah’s ghost, who Iris thinks is currently residing in the cabinet under the stairs in the old farmhouse they have moved into. Arnold’s heroine confronts her emotions honestly (even when she’s putting on a brave face to mask what she really thinks or feels), and her slow, difficult journey to understand the absence left in Sarah’s wake unfolds with heartbreaking believability.
The Octopus Game by Nicky Beer (Carnegie Mellon Univ.) - This clever and arresting second effort from Beer (The Diminishing House) sees the whole modern world—its sad childhoods, erotic delights, and ecological dilemmas—in terms of octopuses and their tentacled kin. Her energy for collecting trivia can equal the verve of her syntax: a group of eight danseurs photographed a century ago are a “pubescent octet in sepia wash, symmetrically poised/ in borrowed frocks”; in the eponymous game, “[t]wo people sit side by side/ And become each other’s arms.” Beer’s insistence on using octopuses (and squid and cuttlefish) as metaphors does not keep her from exploring—and, at times, flaunting—marine zoology, such as when she writes, “[T]he thousands of real/ octopus corpses washed/ upon” a Portuguese beach years ago. Nor does her attention to the links between human and nonhuman life, to the way that we are all just collections of cells, prevent her from delighting in old forms, especially sonnets and pantoums.
Half-Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy by Frank Close (Basic) - When Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo (1913–1993) disappeared in 1950, everyone believed he had fled to the U.S.S.R. to escape the fate of physicist Klaus Fuchs, arrested earlier that year “for passing atomic secrets” to the Soviets. Five years later, Pontecorvo surfaced in Moscow, explaining that he had moved to escape persecution for antiwar views and that his work had no military applications. Proof that Pontecorvo spied remains elusive, but Close, a professor of physics at Oxford, delivers an intensively researched, engrossing biography that turns up some suspicious behavior and mildly incriminating documents. Pontecorvo was a science prodigy who studied under Enrico Fermi in Rome, contributing to Fermi’s 1938 Nobel–winning studies on neutron bombardment of the atomic nucleus. In 1936 he joined the Paris laboratory of Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, where he enhanced his reputation, absorbed their left-wing views, and joined the Communist Party. Work on various projects brought him to the U.S., Canada, and finally Britain before his disappearance at the height of Cold War spy hysteria. Whether or not he was a spy, he was undoubtedly a brilliant scientist. Close serves Pontecorvo well in this outstanding biography, illuminating his work as well as the painful political conflicts of his time.
Fancy by Jeremy M Davies (Ellipsis) - Rumrill, the narrator of Davies’s (Rose Alley) fanciful novel, lives alone, surrounded by cats. He tells his story to a couple, the Pickles, who are there to interview for the position of caretakers for the cats. What unfolds is Rumrill’s wordy story of how he came to fancy cats under the tutelage of an eccentric and senile Austrian widower, Mr. Brocklebank. Each paragraph of the novel begins with “Rumrill said” or “he added,” and this repetition has a hypnotic effect, nudging the reader deeper into the underground caverns of the story. Later in the book, the narrative is interspersed with writings from Brocklebank’s surprisingly lucid and insightful multivolume system of cat fancying. Brocklebank views cat fancying as an art and philosophy—a way of organizing the world. Davies slowly peels away layers of contradiction to reveal the abstract mental gymnastics Rumrill uses to function in the world. The implied question is whether Rumrill invented Brocklebank, or the other way around? Is Rumrill/Brocklebank insane and simply speaking to a cat named Pickles? Is it all a dream? This is a cult classic in the making.
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power by Paul Fischer (Flatiron) - North Korea is a nightmarish movie theater without an exit in this gripping true-life thriller. Fischer, a documentary filmmaker, recounts the 1977–78 abductions of South Korea’s leading director, Shin Sang-Ok, and his ex-wife, the movie star Choi Eun-Hee. The two were abducted on the orders of North Korea’s movie-obsessed crown prince Kim Jong-Il, who wanted them to upgrade the government’s wooden propaganda films with pizzazz and higher production values. The story combines harrowing hardships—Choi endured house arrest and constant Kafkaesque “reeducation” exercises; Shin was starved and tortured in prison after escape attempts—with dizzying reversals of fortune as the couple are rehabilitated to make hit films under Kim’s sponsorship and later plot a nerve-racking flight to the West. In Fischer’s vivid close-up, Kim emerges as “the archetypal film producer” writ monstrous: charming and lordly, basking in parties with Joy Brigade starlets and groveling underlings, full of tasteless visions, and ruthless when crossed.
Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen (Holt) - Thirteen-year-old Sarah is lonely, and it only gets worse after her mother leaves following a late-night argument. Sarah’s distraught father lets the house fall into disarray and soon sends Sarah to stay with her grandparents. To Sarah’s shock, her grandmother lives in a ruined castle deep in the forest, but that’s nothing compared to meeting a talking white raven and discovering that her grandfather has been transformed into a beast, “great and gray, with coarse fur like matted wires, teeth as long as her fingers, eyes like lost planets.” With the help of a slippery boy named Alan, Sarah searches for a way to free her family from the complex web of curses afflicting them all. Blending modern-day problems and ancient magical curses, Hellisen’s (When the Sea Is Rising Red) novel sparkles like a classic fairy tale, even as it plumbs unpleasant truths.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (Riverhead) - Barbara Parker of 1960s Blackpool is a big fish in a small pond—beautiful, astute, and with aspirations of making it in television like her idol Lucille Ball. Upon moving to London, Barbara changes her name to Sophie and gets her big break. She walks in to an audition she's not suited for and leaves with the writers excited to pen a show specifically for her. The majority of Hornby's clever novel follows Sophie and her creative circle of friends through the success of the subsequent program on BBC. There's Clive, Barbara's foppish costar, Tony and Bill, the bantering and bickering writing partners who pen each episode, and Dennis, the producer who alternately fights for their program's creative direction and struggles to hide his growing fondness for Sophie, a woman he believes is completely out of his league. The result is a delightful collection of characters that care as much as they harm, each struggling to determine who they want to be.
Before He Finds Her by Michael Kardos (Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious) - Kardos delivers another outstanding crime thriller with this complex and moving account of a young woman trying to make sense of her past and craft a viable future. In 1991, Ramsey Miller murdered his wife, Allison, after hosting a block party at their home in Silver Bay, N.J. The people in this Jersey Shore town also believed he murdered his three-year-old daughter, Meg. In fact, the authorities spirited Meg away and put her in a witness protection program to protect her from her father. Fifteen years later, she lives under the alias Melanie Denison, with her uncle and aunt in Fredonia, W.Va. Since Ramsey is still at large, Melanie is allowed only limited contact with the outside world. Chafing at these restrictions, Melanie begins to challenge them, a rebellion that includes having an affair. The discovery that she’s pregnant leads her to search for her father so that her child can have a normal life, free of fear and restrictions.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (Roaring Brook/First Second) - After previously explaining the art of making, reading, and understanding comics in his trilogy of essential guides to the medium, McCloud, in this gloriously romantic graphic novel, doesn't just define a genre—he exemplifies it. David Smith is a morbid, prickly New York sculptor tortured by the one-by-one deaths of his family members and his inability to make art, when he runs into his Uncle Harry, who just happens to be dead. Harry's Faustian offer is all the better for being delivered deadpan ("Trust me, it'll all make sense at sunrise"). In exchange for gaining the ability to mold any material into any shape he wants, sans tools, David is given just 200 days to live and achieve his dreams of greatness. But having this skill doesn't allow David to escape from his grumpy, rules-bound personality. Success and happiness don't come easily, even after a beautiful actress with a surplus of personality and baggage flies (literally) into his arms. The fractious love story and operatic swoons of despair play out against the harsh reality of a cutthroat art market and deftly handled flights of fantasy. McCloud's epic generates magic and makes an early play for graphic novel of the year.
Washington's Revolution: The Making of America's First Leader by Robert Middlekauff (Knopf) - Middlekauff (Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies), an acclaimed historian of early America, shows how, from the 1760s to 1783, Washington went from being a “Virginia provincial” to a national leader, one who “held together the political structures that constituted the United States” by integrating state militias. He devotes about one quarter of his book to the French and Indian War, and three quarters to the Revolutionary War. During the latter, Washington complained repeatedly to the Continental Congress of a shortage of supplies and lost more battles than he won. But he kept the colonies in the war through daring triumphs at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, responded with equanimity to criticism when campaigns went badly, and showed great “strategic sense” in choosing to fight a war of attrition.
Crow-Work by Eric Pankey (Milkweed) - A seasoned but humble craftsman, Pankey (Dismantling the Angel), whose 1984 collection For the New Year won the Walt Whitman Award, searches through works of art and our collective history for a “stark clarity.” His ekphrastic dig through sketches and detritus, through the play of light and dark, is a sonically-precise thrill to read: “The mind is a vertiginous space: The world beyond it anchored in mere shadow.” The collection teases out a murky past discolored and tarnished by flawed memory, but one that lives on in the evolutions of art like a kind of palimpsest. “Unwilled,” Pankey writes, “the present leaks into the past, tinctures it./ A poem is not a séance and yet how quickly the shades crowd in// Expecting elegy and lamentation.” These shades or shadows haunt a journey down a path lit with a sputtering ember. In Pankey’s world, night is always about to fall, “a mirror fails to glean,” and darkness does not signal rest, but “a long portage through a forest.” Darkness is exploration, but the darkness is also depression, something that Pankey has struggled with throughout his life, which he describes as an “alloy of lead and slumber.”
God's Bankers: A History of Money & Power at the Vatican by Gerald Posner (S&S) - Posner uses his superlative investigative skills to craft a fascinating and comprehensive look at the dark side of the Catholic Church, documenting “how money, and accumulating and fighting over it, has been a dominant theme in the history of the Catholic Church and its divine mission.” He opens with the various spiritually creative methods the Church has used to make ends meet, such as the sale of indulgences and Pope Urban II’s offer of full absolution to those who volunteered to fight in the Crusades. The bulk of the book focuses on the mid-20th century and includes the Papacy’s accommodations to the Nazis. While this is familiar terrain, Posner convincingly buttresses his unusual position that money swayed Pope Pius XII “to remain silent in the face of overwhelming evidence of mass murder.” And the author’s access to previously undisclosed documents enables him to flesh out the Vatican Bank scandal, which reached its nadir with the mysterious hanging—from London’s Blackfriars Bridge—of Italian banker and convicted fraudster Roberto Calvi. Accessible and well written, Posner’s is the definitive history of the topic to date.
Disgruntled by Asali Solomon (FSG) - An air of dissatisfaction pervades this unsentimental portrait of one girl’s rocky journey to adulthood, in an impressive debut novel from Solomon (following her story collection Get Down). Growing up in West Philadelphia in the late ’80s, eight-year-old Kenya Curtis is old enough to notice that her family is different from her classmates’. Her charismatic father gives speeches on philosophy, race, and religion at weekly meetings of a motley group called the Seven Days, but Kenya never falls under his spell as some of the Seven Days do. After a traumatic event, Kenya’s world shifts: she moves from a small house in the city to a big one in the suburbs, and from public to private school. The perpetual outsider, Kenya searches for her place in society as she bounces between schools, friend groups, and family members. This is a bildungsroman with a kick.
Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen, illus. by Amy June Bates (S&S) - Evocative first-person poems divided into three sections—“Crawl,” “Dissolve,” and “Fly”—combine with small, delicate b&w illustrations from Bates to provide a framework that helps organize the chaotic feelings 11-year-old Kara struggles to express. Mysteries pervade her life: although ethnically Chinese, she lives in China in near poverty with her Caucasian mother, hiding her misshapen right hand in long sleeves, speaking English at home, unable to attend school. Mama promises that someday they will live with Kara’s father in Montana, but for now: “Don’t ask me,/ Kara,/ don’t ask me.” Piecing together her story, Kara realizes Mama discovered her, an abandoned baby, and stayed in China illegally to raise her. After this transgression is discovered, Kara finds herself in an orphanage as her Montana parents vie with another family to adopt her.
Will Starling by Ian Weir (Steerforth) - "What is this world's true calling, after all, save the driving of its denizens mad?" Such is the tenor of 19th-century London when filtered through Weir's magnificent new novel. (Daniel O'Thunder was shortlisted for multiple awards, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for First Book). An exuberant yarn related by young Will himself — "Your Wery Umble Narrator" — it is a sumptuous Frankensteinian potboiler of knockabout slang, scientific lore, rollicking personalities and atmosphere thick as fog. After the Napoleonic Wars, Will finds himself working as a surgeon's assistant in London's grungy Cripplegate district, where "sunlight itself is sullied." As intelligent as he is inquisitive, Will becomes well acquainted with unsavory elements of medicine, especially the grave robbers who keep the College of Surgeons in cadavers. He also learns of orphans disappearing; of corpses refusing death; and of Dionysus Atherton, a charismatic surgeon who, Will believes, is intrinsically linked to the city's evils. Weir's gift with idiom is without peer; as his narrative gambols about, the deft wordplay breathes grimy life into a wretched London.