This week: Milan Kundera's latest, Don Winslow's epic of the Mexican drug wars, and a Dickensian novel about Dickens.
The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango, trans. from the German by Imogen Taylor (Atria) - German scriptwriter Arango’s exceptional first novel, a highly entertaining thriller, focuses on Henry Hayden, a successful author who lives in a “nondescript coastal town.” Wealthy beyond imagination, he appears to be a loving husband to his wife, Martha, and is so humble that people automatically like him. In truth, the vain and selfish Henry is seeing a mistress, Betty Hansen, who’s also his editor, and a few other women besides. As for those bestsellers, Henry never wrote one word—Martha did, allowing him to take credit as long as her authorial role remained a secret. Henry’s carefully constructed world is in danger when Betty becomes pregnant. His decision to take drastic action results in an accidental death. Dodging the police inquiry and an old acquaintance determined to expose his erratic past, Henry takes charge of his own fate. Wry humor punctuates this insightful look at a soulless man.
Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway (HarperTeen) - Ten years ago, Emmy’s friend and next-door neighbor, Oliver, was kidnapped by his father, and his mother has been searching for him ever since. Meanwhile, Emmy’s shaken parents have become stiflingly overprotective (“In the years since Oliver had disappeared, my parents had reacted by making sure I wouldn’t disappear, too”). But now Oliver, found in New York City, has returned home, and high-school senior Emmy tries to rekindle a friendship with a boy who has become a stranger. In a novel sensitively tracing an awkward reunion that blossoms into romance, Benway (the Also Known As series) examines split loyalties, the impact of confessionals, and how broken bonds can be mended.
Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems; A Bilingual Edition by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, trans. from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith (FSG) - One of Brazil’s most important poets, the wry, dry, self-deprecating Drummond (1902–1987), claims a respectable American following, and this large, bilingual collection, ably introduced by veteran translator Zenith, should see that reputation expand further. The early poems, puzzle-like and spare, that made Drummond’s name (“I will never forget that in the middle of the road/ there was a stone”) serve to introduce his friendlier narratives and parables, particularly the long, affectionate, imaginary family reunion entitled “The Table,” or an extended comparison of poetry to a stuffed elephant, “ready to go out and look/ for friends in a jaded/ world that doesn’t believe/ any more in animals.”
The Rival Queens: Catherine de' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom by Nancy Goldstone (Little, Brown) - Goldstone upends conventional thought with this well-researched and well-written book, arguing that Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589), the French queen mother, was less Machiavellian in nature than generally believed and that she reacted to geopolitical situations with disastrous results for both her family and France. As a Catholic “power broker,” de’ Medici manipulated friends and rivals in her meticulous plan to ensure the marriage of her reluctant daughter Marguerite marriage to a French Huguenot (Protestant) prince—then just as carefully had the new husband’s wedding party slaughtered four days later. While this was clearly a ploy to combat the threat of a rising Protestantantism, it created an untenable political situation in France. For her part, Marguerite showed considerable intellect and negotiating skills as she maneuvered around religions, powerful French families, and constantly shifting political terrain while being sabotaged by her family and husband. Goldstone’s witty comments make this historical family drama as easy to read as the best fiction, but it’s all the more tragic for being true.
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Grand Central) - Using as touchstone the astonishing self-revelatory memoir Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp, Salon editor and Dallas journalist Hepola delves into her own lush life as the merry lit gal about town with unique intensity. Growing up in Dallas in the late 1970s and '80s, Hepola was an early convert to the sensation of intoxication that alcohol induced: she snuck sips of beer from her mother's open cans left in the refrigerator, and later found drinking an effective way out of adolescent self-consciousness. By college in Austin, she had embraced the drinking culture with gusto, though she did recognize by age 20 that she had a drinking problem; her nights out were often accompanied by blackouts, after which she relied on friends to fill in the messy details. Working as a journalist at the Austin Chronicle and the Dallas Observer before moving to New York City to freelance at age 31, Hepola naturally equated writing with drinking, because "wine turned down the volume on [her] own self-doubt." But the blackouts began to take their toll, and waking up in strangers' beds with no memory of how she got there felt terrifying. In this valiant, gracious work of powerful honesty, Hepola confronts head-on the minefield of self-sabotage that binge drinking caused in her work, relationships, and health before she eventually turned her life around.
Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (FSG) - In this astounding first novel, Jarvis re-creates, in loving and exhaustive detail, the writing and publication of Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, in 1836. Written under the pen name Boz, Pickwick made Dickens perhaps the first literary celebrity. But who deserves credit for creating Pickwick, the book’s protagonist: Dickens, the man who created the text, or Robert Seymour, the caricaturist who came up with the name and the graphic image of the rotund Englishman? Jarvis is clearly on the side of Seymour—and the book offers an impressively imagined account of Seymour, Dickens, and a huge host of others (the sheer scale of the book is, itself, Dickensian). This picaresque novel is structured with a framing story—a conversation between a present-day narrator and a Mr. Imbelicate, who wants assistance in writing the results of his life’s research on Dickens’s “immortal book.” This is a staggering accomplishment, a panoramic perspective of 19th-century London and its creative class.
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera, trans. from the French by Linda Asher (Harper) - After over a decade away from writing novels, Kundera (Ignorance) returns with this slight lark about four laissez-faire Parisians. In the tradition of existential comedies, the drama is in the dialogue. The four characters—Alain, Ramon, Charles, and Caliban—spend their days in Paris’s gardens, museums, and cafes, chatting and philosophizing. During a daytime stroll in Luxembourg Garden, Ramon bumps into a former colleague who, lying about having cancer, asks for Ramon’s help planning his birthday/death party. Similar to Kundera’s previous novels, the book uses levity and humor to comprehend the lasting effects of horrors perpetrated during World War II, though it’s set in the present. Much time is spent debating disparate, seemingly random issues: Stalin’s decision to rename a German town Kaliningrad, a marionette play that Charles imagines, a fake language Caliban invents for dinner parties. The four friends’ conversations are frivolous yet weighty, leaping from idle musings to grandiose declarations—from the sexual worth of a woman’s navel to the nature of motherhood, from Schopenhauer’s relationship to Kant to Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe.
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai (Viking) - Doublings and parallels distinguish the 17 exceptionally well-told stories in Makkai's (The Hundred-Year House) outstanding debut story collection. In "November Story," a producer for a reality-based television program manipulates its participants into a romantic relationship even as she herself is manipulated in her relationship with her partner. In "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," an English professor who teaches her pupils Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" experiences a poetically appropriate streak of misfortunes in her career and personal life when she herself accidentally kills an albatross. In "The Briefcase," a political refugee who assumes the identity of an imprisoned professor so thoroughly immerses himself in the man's life that he refuses to accept that he is not the professor when the professor's wife exposes his deception. The structural balance and order of these doublings contrast with the emotional lives of Makkai's characters, whose tenderly wrought frailties and inconsistencies make them seem all the more fallibly human.
Keepers: The Greatest Films--and Personal Favorites--of a Moviegoing Lifetime by Richard Schickel (Knopf) - Film critic Schickel saw his first film in 1938 (Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) and started reviewing movies professionally in 1965. Since then, he estimates, he’s seen 22,590 films. In this entertaining and informative journey through cinema history, the renowned Time critic—and author of 37 Hollywood biographies and histories—presents readers with a primer on film history and shares his unique insights on movies big and small. Schickel is clear from the start that he’s a fan of popular (rather than “art”) cinema and considers himself more of an expert on American film than international, despite later, perfectly cogent sections devoted to foreign directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard. Moving roughly in chronological order, Schickel begins by paying his respects to the silent films of D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford and the 1930s screwball comedies of Howard Hawks—he readily admits that his “loyalty, historically and emotionally speaking, is to the first two decades or so of the talkies.” Then he moves on through Bonnie and Clyde and Star Wars. His taste is eclectic (Errol Flynn is his favorite movie star, Orson Welles is a disappointment) but his opinions are always fully backed up with examples.
The Cartel by Don Winslow (Knopf) - Set in 2004, Winslow’s masterly sequel to The Power of the Dog (2005) continues his epic story of the Mexican drug wars. DEA agent Art Keller has withdrawn from the world, tending bees for a New Mexico monastery, when he receives word that his old nemesis, Adán Barrera, leader of the Sinaloan cartel El Federación, has escaped from prison and is intent on reestablishing control of his empire. Keller agrees to return to duty and spearheads several attempts to capture Barrera, who remains elusive and seemingly protected by the Mexican police and government. As a war between Barrera’s cartel and several different competing factions ensues, violence overwhelms the city of Ciudad Juárez. This exhaustively researched novel elucidates not just the situation in Mexico but the consequences of our own disastrous 40-year “war on drugs.”