This week, Eric Cartman in Dante's Inferno, the definitive biography of Julia Child, and the highly anticipated In the Shadow of the Banyan. Plus: a post-apocalyptic literary novel that reads like Billy Collins adapting a George Romero zombie flick.
The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster) - In this diverse collection of essays, spanning 15 years, Baker offers gorgeous prose and poses important questions about our era of digital readership. As he notes in his essay on the Kindle 2, there is a distinction between a writer’s work and its presentation in book form. While his musings on video games and the neighborhood trash dump are memorable, the collection’s real value lies in its essays on reading. Baker practices what he preaches by collecting his own work, so that somewhere, people will be turning paper pages. Though it would have been wonderful if the collection included a new, unpublished essay, readers of this book will still find themselves agreeing with him: books are still worth getting.
Inferno by Dante Alighieri, trans. by Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf) - Bang has done for Dante’s most famous poem something akin to what Baz Luhrmann did for Shakespeare in his 1996 film of Romeo and Juliet: updated the presentation of a classic for a contemporary sensibility without sacrificing its timelessness. She modernizes the metaphors; where Dante looked to the politics and culture of his contemporary Italy for allusions to illustrate his sense of faith and morality, Bang mines American pop and high culture. Yes, traditionalists and scholars may shriek upon seeing Eric Cartman (of South Park fame), sculptures by Rodin, John Wayne Gacy, and many others make anachronistic cameos in Bang’s version of Hell, but this is still very much Dante’s underworld, updated so it pops on today’s page. The result is an epic both fresh and historical, scholarly and irreverent. This will be the Dante for the next generation. Read how Bang went about modernizing the epic.
The Game of Boxes by Catherine Barnett (Graywolf) - Though the poems in the long-awaited second collection from Barnett (Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced) are only a handful of lines each, they are deceptively sophisticated. The book’s title originates from a game that the speaker plays with her son, “a simple game,/ seven dots by seven, eight by eight:/ there’s no end to it.” Structurally, the game parallels Barnett’s poems, which are tight and self-contained but when stacked, build into larger suites. Barnett’s emotions are so potent they become something you could choke on: “He’s a lozenge of smut,” she writes, with the acute, straightforward vulnerability that makes these poems brave. “Perhaps I’ll/ be, in my next life, mist,” Barnett muses. “When did it/ get so mysterious? This isn’t me speaking/ but the old gentle hiss of a slow glass ship in a bottle on the sea.”
Rise by L. Annette Binder (Sarabande) - The winner of the 2011 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction is a Binder's story collection that puts fairy tales in Colorado and the witch, Hans, and the frog prince as characters at the fringes of everyday life. Binder makes distortions of the plausible, such as the gigantic woman in “Nephilim” (which won a Pushcart Prize) who builds a long, bittersweet bond with a neighborhood boy who grows up doing odd jobs for her, or are rooted firmly in the everyday, such as “Tremble,” ostensibly about a disagreement between neighbors, the characters are enmeshed in a mingling of the spiritual and the nightmarish. The complex interweaving of themes, rendered through precise detail, is akin to a powerful subterranean disturbance that sends seismographs jumping but leaves few visible effects. Read an essay from Binder on the wolf as a symbol of evil.
Hearts of Darkness by Kira Brady (Kensington/Zebra) - In this dazzling debut, Brady blends Norse, Babylonian, and Native American mythology to create a dark and compelling story set in an alternate present day. After Philadelphia nurse Kayla Friday’s beloved sister is killed, Kayla goes to Seattle (which looks like “some war-torn, third world country”) to identify the body and promptly plunges into a world of dueling ancient clans. This dark paranormal story moves quickly to a thrilling finish, setting the stage for the next installment of this irresistible new series. Check out a Q&A with Brady.
The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook (Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious) - The suicide of unhappy true crime writer Julian Wells propels this spellbinding thriller from Edgar-winner Cook (The Quest for Anna Klein). As literary critic Philip Anders tries to piece together his closest friend’s final days, Philip discovers that Julian may have been planning to return to Argentina, where years earlier, on a visit, the pair met a young woman, Marisol, whose subsequent disappearance haunted Julian. Cook threads the narratives of Julian’s unsettling oeuvre throughout Philip’s increasingly obsessive journey to unearth the reason behind his friend’s decision to end his life. The stories of real-life criminals—from a 17th-century Hungarian countess with a penchant for torture to notorious Soviet-era serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, the subject of Julian’s last manuscript—add to the aura of unease.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf) - In the tradition of postapocalyptic literary fiction such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, this hypervisceral novel takes place nine years after a superflu has killed off much of mankind. Hig, an amateur pilot living in Colorado, has retreated to an abandoned airport from which he flies sorties in his vintage Cessna over isolated pockets of survivors. His only neighbor is the survivalist Bangley, who’s sitting on a stockpile of weapons, and the only visitors are plague survivors who have descended into savagery. Hig’s one comfort, besides the memory of his dead wife Melissa, is his dog, Jasper. With its evocative descriptions of hunting, fishing, and flying, this novel, perhaps the world’s most poetic survival guide, reads as if Billy Collins had novelized one of George Romero’s zombie flicks. From start to finish, Heller carries the reader aloft on graceful prose, intense action, and deeply felt emotion. Check out a Q&A with Heller on his vision of the apocalypse.
The Forrests by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury) - Perkins’s transcendent newest (after Novel About My Wife) tracks the dysfunctional Forrest family across the globe and through time. The book opens in New Zealand with the father directing the young children—Dorothy (aka Dot); her older brother and sister, Michael and Eve; the youngest, Ruth; and the unofficial additional family member, Daniel, whose troubled home life leads him to the Forrests—in a strange home movie whose poignancy is revealed late in the novel. The gravity of Dot’s first love for Daniel is never far from her mind, and Perkins knows how to artfully reveal her characters’ inner machinations as they cope with whatever comes their way.
The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff (Pegasus) - In this accessible work of alternative literary history, Popoff (Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography) attends to the wives of the great Russian authors, with a chapter each devoted to Anna Dostoyevski, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Véra Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. The women, who preserved, edited, translated, and promoted their husbands’ work, emerge in remarkable biographies. Whether out of love or a shared mission to resist oppression, these wives threw themselves so passionately into their husbands’ work, and Popoff’s compassionate treatment reminds us of the wives’ integral role in the creation of Russia’s astonishingly rich literature. Read an essay from Popoff about the relationships these extraordinary women had with their husbands.
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster) - The struggle for survival is relayed with elegance and humility in Ratner’s autobiographical debut novel set in Khmer Rouge–era Cambodia. Raami is seven when civil war erupts, and she and her family are forced to leave Phnom Penh for the countryside. As minor royalty, they’re in danger; the Khmer Rouge is systematically cleansing the country of wealthy and educated people. Raami’s story closely follows that of Ratner’s own: a child when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, she endured years under their rule until she and her mother escaped to the United States in 1981. This stunning memorial expresses not just the terrors of the Khmer Rouge but also the beauty of what was lost. A hauntingly powerful novel imbued with the richness of old Cambodian lore, the devastation of monumental loss, and the spirit of survival. Check out a Q&A with Ratner.
Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos by Caleb Scharf (FSG/Scientific American) - “Weird, destructive, time-warping, overwhelming, alien... fearsomely noisy and rambunctious,” black holes are the bad boys of the universe. And according to Scharf, director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, black holes also play a critical role in shaping the universe. Scharf’s explanations are vivid and accessible, evoking the awe of cosmic grandeur in a way that’s as humbling as it is fascinating. Check out an essay from Scharf explaining just how black holes work.
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz (Knopf) - In this affectionate and entertaining tribute to the witty, down-to-earth, bumptious, and passionate host of The French Chef, Spitz (The Beatles) exhaustively chronicles Child’s life and career from her childhood in California through her social butterfly flitting at Smith and her work for a Pasadena department store to her stint in government service, her marriage to Paul Child, and her rise to become America’s food darling with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her many television shows. Released to coincide with Child’s centenary, Spitz’s delightful biography succeeds in being as big as its subject.
Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi (Pantheon) - Both playful and philosophical, this extravagant book addresses questions about the root of consciousness in a unique way to illustrate Tononi’s innovative view of consciousness in terms of information theory, the brain as an integrated network of signals. Professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, Tononi takes an aging Galileo—and the reader—on a complex intellectual journey in three parts, each led by a prominent scientist. The book is a visual delight as well as an impressive read, its lavish artwork and literary references demonstrating just how fully complementary art and science can be.