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How to Party with an Infant

Kaui Hart Hemmings. Simon & Schuster, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0079-6

In her funny and sensitive fourth novel, Hemmings (The Descendants) explores the intersection of personhood and parenthood. Mele Bart is a single mother in San Francisco navigating the world of potty-training specialists, elite preschools, playdate etiquette, and nanny envy. To top it all off, she is contemplating attending the wedding of the father of her child, the man who left her when she told him she was pregnant. After multiple failed attempts at seeming like another perfect privileged mother, Mele finds refuge among the other misfit parents in her daughter’s playgroup—Annie, Barrett, Georgia, and Henry. With their encouragement, she decides to revisit her dream of becoming an author and enters a cookbook-writing contest sponsored by the San Francisco Mother’s Club. Interspersing recipes inspired by her own life with recipes inspired by the other parents in her group, all of whom are dealing with feelings of inadequacy, Mele devises a cookbook that is equal parts introspection and sharp observation. Mele’s candor, her friends’ stories, and some hilariously cringe-worthy interjections from the Mother’s Club online message board come together in a layered narrative that is both ruthless and empathetic, satirical and sincere. Agent: David Forrer, Inkwell Management. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Cooking for Picasso

Camille Aubray. Ballantine, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-17765-1

In 1936, Céline’s grandmother Ondine Belange was a beautiful 17-year-old girl living in a tiny village in the south of France. The daughter of café owners, Ondine is sent to cook for a mysterious man who has rented a villa in Juan-les-Pins. When the temperamental 54-year-old turns out to be Pablo Picasso, known to have intense love affairs, Ondine’s life (and ultimately Céline’s) is changed forever, especially once she begins posing for him. In the modern day, Céline has come to France under the guise of taking a cooking class to search for the painting that her mother has told her Picasso gave her grandmother. She enlists the help of a celebrity chef, Gil Halliwell, to look for the painting that she is sure holds the key not only to her past but her future. The novel alternates between Ondine’s encounters with Picasso and the repercussions of that brief affair, and Céline’s adventures with cooking, love, and history along the Mediterranean. Both plot lines include a romance—one too sensationalized and one that climaxes without enough buildup. The real meat in this novel is the details (both real and imagined) of Picasso’s fascinating life. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Grand Tour

Adam O’Fallon Price. Doubleday, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-54095-7

Overweight, middle-aged, and alcoholic, Vietnam veteran and failed writer Richard Lazar is living in a trailer in the Arizona desert in 2005 when his Vietnam War memoir is published and becomes a smash hit. Richard is launched on a cross-country book tour of signings and readings, a disaster waiting to happen. In Price’s excellent debut novel, he nails Richard’s unpleasant character perfectly, a weak and flawed man who disappoints everyone around him, especially himself. At a reading at a college in Washington, Richard meets Vance Allerby, a college dropout and wannabe writer, who idolizes Richard and is his most ardent fan. These unlikely pals, the cynical drunk and the naive idealist, team up for Richard’s book-tour road trip (Richard hates to fly and Vance likes to drive). Together they embark on an alcohol-fueled adventure filled with embarrassing public pratfalls, funny and poignant barroom philosophy, and the uncomfortable realization that they actually need each other, even for just a few months. Richard is suddenly famous and can’t handle it, but Vance is a lonely guy whose only manuscript Richard has thrown into the trash. Vance has always wanted to be an ideal version of Richard but is utterly disappointed that his idol is a bum. Still, the two make it to New York City, where a surprise ending caps off the story. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Trees

Ali Shaw. Bloomsbury, $26 (496p) ISBN 978-1-63286-283-9

In Shaw’s (The Girl with Glass Feet) atmospheric modern fairy tale, Adrien Thomas prefers to sit on the sidelines and watch life go by until trees begin suddenly pushing up from the ground. Adrien walks outside to find England in ruins; the trees have killed numerous people (usually impaling them on their branches) and completely destroyed civilization’s infrastructure. When he meets Hannah and her teen son, Seb, they set out to find her brother, Zach, a park ranger, and if possible, get to Ireland to find Adrien’s wife, Michelle, who is on a business trip. Along the way they meet Inoue Hiroko, a girl who proves handy with a slingshot; meanwhile, Adrien repeatedly glimpses tiny creatures constructed of forest detritus. Shaw offers a postapocalyptic world where the woods reign, described in lush, evocative prose, and characters that shine. During the journey, Adrien finds within himself a courage that he never thought possible, and Hannah begins to see nature in an entirely different way. It’s a coming-of-age for Seb, and a chance to bond with his mother, while the enigmatic Hiroko battles her own demons. This stunning exploration of love, hope, and the wildness inside us all will have readers enchanted from the first page. Agent: Susan Armstrong, Conville & Walsh Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Kukotsky Enigma

Ludmila Ulitskaya, trans. from the Russian by Diane Nemec Ignashev. Northwestern Univ., $24.95 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-8101-3348-8

Soviet life, a version of the afterlife, the results of medical science and brutal political repression, the death of Stalin, and the birth of thousands of infants into the hands of Dr. Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky, a Russian gynecologist with a diagnostic gift, constitute the rich cosmos of Ulitskaya’s fourth novel, published for the first time in English, in an uneven translation. Kukotsky, also a hereditary physician, meets Elena, a patient, in Siberia during World War II. Saving her from near-fatal peritonitis, Pavel marries Elena and the becomes the loving adoptive father of her two-year-old daughter, Tanya. But their familial bliss doesn’t last: Pavel’s campaign to improve conditions for women, including petitioning the government to legalize abortion, at great personal and professional danger to himself, flies in the face of Elena’s beliefs about the sanctity of life. As the years pass and the family unit unravels—Pavel throwing himself into work and drink, Tanya abandoning her studies and joining the bohemians of the Leningrad jazz scene, and Elena increasingly cut off by an Alzheimer’s-like illness—Ulitskaya knits together these and other loves and lives in a virtuoso segment taking place in an apparent afterlife, a deserted place through which the dead wander unknowingly, but not alone, and not forever. This is a novel of great warmth and scope, leavening precise realism with metaphysical excursions, that will enthrall and delight. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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War and Turpentine

Stefan Hertmans, trans. from the Dutch by David McKay. Pantheon, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-101-87402-8

In this autobiographical novel, Flemish essayist, novelist, poet, and playwright Hertmans draws on his extensive fine arts background in a stirring remembrance of his grandfather Urbain Martien—World War I hero and devoted painter—to create a masterly treatise on the interconnections of life, art, memory, and heartbreaking love. Shortly before his grandfather’s death in 1981, the narrator inherits the notebooks that Martien wrote in the last two decades of his life. “I wasted precious years diligently working on countless other projects and keeping a safe distance from his notebooks: those silent, patient witnesses that enclosed his painstaking, graceful pre-war handwriting like a humble shrine,” Hertmans writes of his reticence to retell his grandfather’s extraordinary life. But the notebooks provide insight into Martien’s many facets, not least his childhood as the son of Franciscus, a talented but poor church painter, his heroism, and a lifetime paying obeisance to the capricious gods of art. In the two bookend sections, Hertmans demonstrates a painter’s eye for the smallest detail, gracefully melding art criticism and philosophy. The book’s middle section focuses on the war. Variously chaotic, horrifying, and hauntingly beautiful, Martien’s war experience ends with his declaration of love for Maria Emilia, a woman from the neighborhood he watched from his bedroom while he convalesced, physically and mentally, from the war that shattered his life. Hertmans’s prose, with a deft translation from McKay, works with the same full palette as Urbain Martien’s paintings: vivid, passionate—and in the end, life-affirming. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Mr. Eternity

Aaron Thier. Bloomsbury, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63286-093-4

In Key West, two budding documentarians find a willing subject in the “ancient mariner” Daniel Defoe, who claims to be 560 years old, in Thier’s second novel (after The Ghost Apple). Not only is Defoe telling the truth about his longevity, his life has only just begun. We flash back to 16th-century Granada, where Defoe is a conquistador searching for the fabled El Dorado, then forward into our future (approximately 2216) and Defoe’s quest for his long-lost love Anna Gloria among the ruins of America. In 1750, he is a guest on a plantation in the Bahamas with his faithful companion Quaco (who plays Sancho Panza to the adventurer Defoe’s Quixote), and in the year 2500 he is advisor to the ruler of the Mississippi States; each story line follows a different narrator and a different style, but Defoe himself is constant, voyaging through the echelons of power, sometimes a servant, occasionally a pirate, always a raconteur. Defoe regales his documentarians with recollections of Christopher Columbus; in the future, he recalls a 20th century long forgotten. Thier uses his deathless protagonist to chart the rise and fall of the American empire, and also those certainties—love, trade—that afflict every age. The novel can be jarring in its narrative jumps, but the moral imagination behind Defoe’s adventures rivals that of his namesake, begging comparison to the best literature has to offer. Agent: Cynthia Cannell, Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Good Morning, Midnight

Lily Brooks-Dalton. Random House, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9889-4

In Brooks-Dalton’s (Motorcycles I’ve Loved) ambitious debut novel, the human population of Earth has gone silent, “as if there were no radio transmitters left in the world, or perhaps no souls to use them.” At the Arctic’s Barbeau Obervatory, renowned curmudgeon and astronomer Augustine, nearing 80, chooses to stay behind as his colleagues depart from the research station (in response to the unspecified crisis) so he can live out his life untethered from society. When he discovers Iris, a young girl “left behind like a forgotten piece of luggage,” Augustine’s life—and his uninterrupted opportunity to “quantify the guts of infinity, to look back into the dawn of time and glimpse the very beginning”—gets complicated. At the same time, the six-person crew of the Aether, the first manned flight to explore Jupiter and its moons, turns back toward Earth. Neither Augustine nor the crew of the Aether know what fate has befallen humanity, only that their entreaties remain unanswered, as if sentient life had never existed. When Augustine, a ham-radio enthusiast, catches the attention of Sully, the Aether’s communications specialist, the two converse briefly. But time and space conspire to separate the planet’s last remaining inhabitants. Brooks-Dalton’s prose lights up the page in great swathes, her dialogue sharp and insightful, and the high-concept plot drives a story of place, elusive love, and the inexorable yearning for human contact. Although the book’s two parallel threads often read less like a novel than a pair of expertly crafted—if only tangentially related—novellas, the memorable characters explore complex questions that resonate with the urgency of a glimpse into the void. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Chosen Ones

Steve Sem-Sandberg, trans. from the Swedish by Anna Paterson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (576p) ISBN 978-0-374-12280-5

In Sem-Sandberg’s previous novel, The Emperor of Lies, the Swedish writer took as his subject the Łódz´ ghetto in Poland during WWII. In his latest, he revisits the savagery of that war by focusing on Am Spiegelgrund, a real-life Viennese clinic where children “diagnosed with mental illness, mental retardation, or severe malformations” were the victims of Nazi eugenics and euthanasia programs. Epic in scope, the novel follows Adrian Ziegler a “patient” of the institution, as he lives there off and on from January 1941 to May 1944, and Anna Katschenka, a nurse who works in the clinic from 1941 until the Russians reach the city at the war’s end. Adrian, thought to be of inferior racial stock, with a “Gypsy-type” skull and ears that exhibit a “Semitic curvature,” undergoes the brutal torment and abuse the staff inflict on their charges. He suffers endless cruelty and sexual abuse and bears witness to the murders committed within the clinic’s walls. Anna is a loyal disciple of Dr. Jekelius, the medical director, who unquestioningly becomes party to the Nazis’ state-sanctioned policy of euthanasia, which is, as the doctor tells her, “acts of mercy in the spirit that has always guided medical science, that is to ameliorate or remove sources of pain and suffering.” The novel’s horror is not merely that the crimes it relates are true but the way the most unspeakable atrocities can be committed by the state under the guise of science. With a gift for finding humanity in even the darkest of stories, Sem-Sanberg has written an indelible, moving novel. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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I, Vampire

Jody Scott. Digital Parchment Services, $2.99 e-book (216p) ISBN 978-1-61508-620-7

The second book of Scott's Benaroya Chronicles (after Passing for Human), first published in 1984, is still one of the most astonishing works of science fiction ever written. Sterling O'Blivion is hard at work fleecing ordinary citizens out of their life savings when she unexpectedly runs into Virginia Woolf in the ladies' room. But Woolf isn't Woolf—she's the titular vampire, Benaroya, a 36-foot-tall body-swapping alien trying to save humanity from the sinister Sajorians. Naturally, Sterling falls madly in love with her. Benaroya's plan involves selling Famous Men's Sperm Kits to adjust human perceptions and coaxing the world into psychic enlightenment over several centuries, unless the Sajorians (or Sterling's own morbid self-pity) get in the way. Scott's complex theories of reality will be a barrier to comprehension for many, but readers who can stick out the obtuse bits will be rewarded with a stunning piece of iconoclasm as Scott takes human society to task for its casual cruelties, meaningless obsessions, and ironic hatred of love. Most notably, Sterling's vampirism and lesbian identity work in tandem to make this an early and invaluable work of queer feminist SF; its historic nature alone is worth the price of admission. Introduction by Theodore Sturgeon. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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