This week: Salman Rushdie, Lee Child, and one of the best novels of the year.
Stand-Off by Andrew Smith, illus. by Sam Bosma (S&S) - In this thoroughly enjoyable sequel to 2013’s Winger, 15-year-old Ryan Dean West, now a senior at Pine Mountain, is still recovering from the death of his friend Joey, which has left him with nightmares and a recurring sense of dread (personified, in his artwork, as a ghoul dubbed “NATE,” the “Next Accidental Terrible Experience”). Ryan Dean’s rugby coach wants him to step up as captain of the team, a responsibility he isn’t sure he has earned, and he has been saddled with a claustrophobic 12-year-old genius freshman as a roommate. Ryan Dean has to overcome his fears of the future and of letting anyone get too close all while bonding with his rambunctious teammates, trying to have some time alone with his girlfriend, and getting to know Joey’s younger brother, Nico. Ryan Dean’s voice remains engaging, honest, and idiosyncratic. Smith capably expands on Ryan Dean’s coming-of-age and path to emotional recovery, chronicled through his crude comics and growing maturity.
The Magic of Math: Solving for X and Figuring Out Why by Arthur Benjamin (Basic) - Pizza and poker hands, ice cream and “immortal” rabbits—these items aren’t typically to be found in math books, but Benjamin, professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, welcomes them all with open arms in this positively joyful exploration of mathematics. His approach is simple and refreshingly practical. A look at number patterns introduces tricks for carrying out “fast mental calculations”; a chapter on the properties of the number nine reveals methods for easily calculating calendar dates. Without ever using the word “statistics,” Benjamin deftly covers the basics of calculating the odds of having a winning lottery ticket or poker hand. Whether figuring out compound interest, using trigonometry to determine the height of a tree, or employing calculus to work out a shortest possible walking route, each topic is presented in the clearest, simplest way possible. There’s even room for explorations of more abstract concepts such as pi, imaginary numbers, and infinity.
Make Me by Lee Child (Delacorte) - Bestseller Child’s superb 20th Jack Reacher novel (after 2014’s Personal) begins with the disposal of the body of someone named Keever, with a backhoe in a hog pen near an almost-forgotten town in the Midwest called Mother’s Rest, which Reacher decides to visit (as he points out, he has “no place to go, and all the time in the world to get there”). The mystery deepens dramatically after he meets Michelle Chang, who’s looking for her PI colleague: Keever. Reacher and Chang make a formidable team faced with a formidable challenge: finding out what happened to Keever, the only clue a cryptic note that reads “200 deaths.” The investigation takes the two from Mother’s Rest to Chicago, Arizona, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley—and to the Internet’s netherworld, the “Deep Web.” What they discover is beyond gruesome and almost beyond belief—it’s decidedly not for the faint of heart—but Child’s complete command of the story makes this thriller work brilliantly.
Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier by Michelle Cuevas (Dial) - This wise and funny (faux) memoir begins with eight-year-old narrator Jacques Papier admitting that he is baffled by his unpopularity. It isn’t that he’s picked last for kickball—he isn’t picked at all. Teachers ignore him, bus drivers close the door in his face, his own dog growls at him. Luckily Jacques’s twin sister, Fleur, loves him unconditionally. A playground encounter with a roller-skating cowgirl only Jacques can see forces a harsh reckoning—he isn’t Fleur’s brother; he’s her imaginary friend. One day he was a boy, the next he is “what? Ethereal? Intangible? Invisible?” In one of many hilarious scenes, he joins a support group, Imaginaries Anonymous, whose leader, Stinky Sock, invites Jacques to tell the group why he is there. “I’m not actually here. That’s why I’m... here,” says Jacques. In the same way that Toy Story 2 imagined an afterlife for the playthings kids outgrow, Cuevas’s novel—brimming with metaphors, gorgeous imagery, and beautiful turns of phrase—considers the fate of devoted but invisible companions. Have tissues on hand for the bittersweet ending.
Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Norton/Liveright) - This compilation of a half-century’s worth of travel journals, most of them previously unpublished, constitutes a lively “on the road” chronicle for poet and City Lights Booksellers cofounder Ferlinghetti. Spanning 1960 to 2010, these “peripatetic pages,” as he calls them, capture their author criss-crossing America, traveling through Europe and Latin America, and, in one memorably bleak report, riding the Trans-Siberian Express across Russia in midwinter in 1967—and then riding it back to Moscow after being denied berth on a Japan-bound ship. Some of Ferlinghetti’s accounts, like those of his travels to Latin America in 1960, are little more than collages of photographic details of the land and its people. Others, like his “Mexican Night” journal from 1970, are freewheeling fantasias rife with ribald imagery. Two standout chronicles, of travels through postrevolutionary Cuba in 1960, before the Bay of Pigs invasion, and through Spain under the Franco regime in 1965, are examples of travel writing at its best, filled with sympathetic and enlightening portraits of people and countries whose reality frequently contrasts with depictions of them in the popular press. Illustrated with many of his hand-drawn sketches, these journals illuminate the inspirations for some of Ferlinghetti’s best poems and are a major addition to his literary legacy.
Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, trans. from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (New Directions) - At the beginning of this English-language debut from Indonesian author Kurniawan, Dewi Ayu, who was once the most respected prostitute in the fictional coastal town of Halimunda, rises from her grave after being dead for two decades. She's returned to pay a visit to her fourth daughter, Beauty, who is famously ugly. What follows is an unforgettable, all-encompassing epic of Indonesian history, magic, and murder, jumping back to Dewi Ayu's birth before World War II, in the last days of Dutch rule, and continuing through the Japanese occupation and the mass killings following the attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in the mid-1960s. Kurniawan centers his story on Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and their families. Readers witness Dewi Ayu's imprisonment in the jungle during the war, a pig turning into a person, a young Communist named Comrade Kliwon engaging in guerrilla warfare, and a boy cheating in school by asking ghosts for help. Upon finishing the book, the reader will have the sense of encountering not just the history of Indonesia but its soul and spirit. This is an astounding, momentous book, one of the best of the year.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie (Random) - In his latest novel, Rushdie invents his own cultural narrative—one that blends elements of One Thousand and One Nights, Homeric epics, and sci-fi and action/adventure comic books. The title is a reference to the magical stretch of time that unites the book's three periods, which are actually millennia apart. In the first period (the 12th century), jinn princess Dunia falls in love with real-life philosopher and advocate of reason and science Averroes (aka Ibn Rushd) and bears multiple children. In the second period (current day), Dunia's descendants, a group including a gardener and a young graphic novelist, are unaware of their powerful lineage (despite the fact that they inherited Dunia's trademark earlobelessness). Then they witness a great storm devastating New York; worse, a slit between the jinn world and the human world opens and the dark jinn slip through. The gardener suddenly finds himself levitating, the artist hosting jinn in his room. Dunia returns to defend the human race by confronting her four fiercest enemies, one by one: Zumurrud, Zabardast, Shining Ruby, and Ra'im Blood-Drinker. Rushdie even incorporates a third period, a far-future millennium, further tying his story together across time. Referencing Henry James, Mel Brooks, Mickey Mouse, Gracian, Bravo TV, and Aristotle, among others, Rushdie provides readers with an intellectual treasure chest cleverly disguised as a comic pop-culture apocalyptic caprice.
The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools? by Dale Russakoff (HMH) - Washington Post reporter Russakoff’s fascinating study of the struggle to reform the Newark school system reveals the inner workings of a wide range of systemic and grassroots problems (charter schools, testing, accountability, private donors) plaguing education reform today. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to help transform the schools of Newark, N.J., and create a national model of education reform. The move immediately sparked a series of competing political and social decisions for Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie. Russakoff sets up the struggle to control the schools with a big-money, top-down approach on one side and a teacher-based, student-by-student, bottom-up approach on the other. Her investigation shows how the powerful Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg triumvirate struggled to truly engage the community and ultimately failed to overcome the mighty Newark political machine. Russakoff accurately depicts individual teachers working in neighborhood schools and parents and staff in the charter system, including through their own words. Russakoff’s eagle-eyed view of the current state of the public education system in Newark and the United States is one of the finest education surveys in recent memory.
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick) - Desperate for the education her father denies her on their Pennsylvania farm, 14-year-old Joan runs away to Baltimore in 1911, where a well-to-do Jewish family hires her to help their obstinate, aging housekeeper. Schlitz (Splendors & Glooms) has crafted another exquisite literary gem, one told entirely via Joan’s vivid, humorous, and emotionally resonant diary entries over a year and a half. Through Joan’s naïve perspective, Schlitz frankly discusses class, religion, women’s education, art, literature, and romance. Joan has trouble reconciling her devout Catholic faith with Judaism, mixing up kashrut and even attempting to convert her employers. Yet because Joan is a hard worker, the Rosenbachs are forgiving and good to her, even encouraging her to read from their library. Joan is reminiscent of heroines like Anne Shirley, Jo March, Cassandra Mortmain, and her own favorite character, Jane Eyre (Joan even gives herself a fittingly literary alias, Janet Lovelace). Her overactive imagination, passions, and impulsive disregard for propriety often get Joan into trouble, but these same qualities will endear her to readers everywhere.
Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon, trans. by Anthea Bell (Little, Brown) - In this captivating story, Simon tells of her years in hiding as a Jewish woman during WWII. While still a teenager, she works as forced labor in a factory, leaving her middle-class life behind. Before Jalowicz is 20, she’s orphaned, losing both parents to illness, and must grow up fast. Having decided she won’t voluntarily submit to the Nazis, she’s even more determined after her aunt receives deportation papers in late 1941. She arranges to get herself fired from a factory and then convinces the authorities she’s already been sent away. She utilizes her time to walk different neighborhoods in Berlin, testing whether she will be harassed by police for not wearing the Jewish star and gaining the confidence she needs to mask her fear in encounters with Nazis or anyone suspicious of her. Jalowicz gets by on her wits, able to lie her way out of trouble when she’s threatened with arrest, and, amazingly, is never “denounced” by those who know the truth. Jalowicz’s story is unquestionably tragic in so many ways, but is also full of miracles, hope, and a future.
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder (Crown/Duggan) - This brilliant book—effectively a companion volume to Snyder’s critically acclaimed 2010 work, Bloodlands—focuses on the Jewish victims of the grotesque policies of the Nazis and their shifting allies in the lands contested by Germans, Soviets, Poles, and others in the years of the Holocaust. Snyder brings two fresh elements to his dizzying, harrowing tale. The first is his extraordinarily wide and deep research into the remarkable stories, many unknown, of individual Holocaust survivors, the subject of the last half of his book. The second element, likely to be controversial, is his argument, asserted and reasserted, that, at its roots, the Holocaust was made possible by the failure of national states—by the Soviets and the Nazis stripping public, legal protections from millions of people, who were thus left exposed to removal and death. Hence the “warning” of the book’s subtitle: the weakening of strong national states threatens human survival wherever it occurs, as it did in the case of the Anschluss, in which Germany absorbed Austria, and as it did in the case of the destruction of the Polish state.
Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash (Candlewick) - Newcomer Thrash’s graphic storytelling style, with its blank-eyed, manga-esque characters, might surprise readers accustomed to more polish. The good news is that her dialogue is so smart and snappy that a few pages in, they’ll find it doesn’t matter. Thrash portrays her 15-year-old self as a cynical Atlanta pre-cotillion deb who has been attending the same Appalachian sleepaway camp for years. Everything changes when a random caress from an older counselor, Erin, awakens a storm of desire. Maggie is unprepared for the turmoil of first love, and the camp is, to put it mildly, unwelcoming to teens questioning their sexuality. “Apparently they were on the tennis court,” two campers gossip. “Blythe said they were pretty much doing it with a racket.” Thrash writes with an intoxicating mix of candor, irony, and fresh passion.
Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy (Picador) - In this eye-opening memoir, Tweedy, a black psychiatrist who interned at Duke University Medical School in the mid-1990s, vigorously confronts his profession and its erratic treatment of African-American patients. Tweedy, raised in a segregated working-class neighborhood, gets a full scholarship to the white academic world of Duke, where he's challenged on every level, including by a professor who wrongly assumes he's a janitor. Though Duke, like many elite colleges, tried to recruit minority students, Tweedy notes that the constant subliminal and overt racism at the school—which former professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. termed "the Plantation"—caused many non-white recruits to suffer self-doubt and anxiety. His painful anecdotes, both as an intern and physician, show the critical health crisis within the black community; his patients included a drug-addicted girl pregnant with a dead infant, an older woman suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, a man struggling with mental illness, and a young woman who contracted AIDS from her boyfriend. Tweedy nicely unravels the essential issues of race, prejudice, class, mortality, treatment, and American medicine without blinking or polite excuses.