This week, new Ian McEwan, new Joseph O'Neill, and the stunning debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us by Diane Ackerman (Norton) - Ackerman addresses a currently vogue topic, the Anthropocene—the geologic age humans have shaped by altering the world’s ecosystems—and in doing so raises the bar for her peers. “We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface,” Ackerman points out, “preserving some pockets as ‘wilderness,’ denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming.” Yet in the face of massive changes that have “created some planetary chaos that threatens our well-being,” she finds hope. Whether Ackerman is writing about an iPad-using orangutan or Polynesian snails whose “interiors belong in a church designed by Gaudí,” her penetrating insight is a joy to behold.
Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found by Rebecca Alexander, with Sascha Alper (Gotham) - In her profoundly inspiring account of life with a disease that is steadily stealing her vision and hearing and has been since childhood, Alexander offers an optimist’s take on how to live with meaning and not succumb to pity or fear. It isn’t until Alexander, a soccer-loving girl who likes to run around with her brothers, reaches adolescence that her family discovers an explanation for her falls and lack of balance: an inherited rare genetic mutation called Usher syndrome type III. Her version of events, which is less severe, makes her feel “comparatively lucky... and grateful” because she was able to enjoy years of blissful normalcy and her eyes and ears had the chance to take in countless memories absent later worries and heartbreak.
The Search for Heinrich Schlogel by Martha Baillie (Tin House) - In the latest from Baillie, written in beautiful prose, 20-year-old Heinrich Schlögel sets off on a hiking trip into the Arctic wilderness of Canada’s Baffin Island in 1908. He emerges two weeks later to find that, although he has not aged, 30 years have elapsed since he began the trip. An archivist, whose own motives and history we learn about primarily via footnotes, pieces together his mysterious life; she collects letters, diary entries, even a drawing of a map (included in the text), but reminds us that, given the same evidence, another narrator might “tell Heinrich’s story differently than I do, what they’d want from Heinrich would be different.” Baillie delivers a work of magical realism that captures the experience of postcolonial guilt.
The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare (Scholastic) - Set in a magic-inflected version of the present-day U.S., this first title in the Magisterium series combines the talents of Black (Doll Bones) and Clare (the Mortal Instruments series) in a thrilling coming-of-age story that embraces fantasy tropes while keeping readers guessing. Twelve-year-old Callum Hunt has been raised to distrust magic. Mages killed his mother, and his father has warned him that the Magisterium, a school where young mages are trained, is a deathtrap. Callum’s attempts to fail the entrance exam go awry, and he is chosen to apprentice under Master Rufus, along with fellow students Aaron and Tamara. As Callum, Tamara, Aaron, and their classmates embark on their first of five years of schooling, Callum realizes how little he knows of his own heritage. The strange, subterranean Magisterium is vividly rendered, and a string of ominous revelations will leave readers eager for future installments.
Gaza: A History by Jean-Pierre Filiu (Oxford Univ.) - French historian Filiu (The Arab Revolution) presents a straightforward, chronological history of one of the most politically important and controversial places in the world, the city of Gaza and its surrounding territory. Filiu asserts that it is impossible to understand the essence of the current situation in Palestine without understanding the history of Gaza. Relying mostly on Arabic archival materials and interviews with prominent individuals, Filiu makes the case that Gaza and its history are uniquely Arabic, unlike much of Palestine, and therefore central to the eventual creation of an Palestinian Arab state. He traces the history of the city from its ancient establishment through 2011, with an emphasis on the post-WWII conflict between native Arabs and the new state of Israel.
The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah (Morrow) - Hannah does a superb job of channeling Agatha Christie in this wholly successful pastiche authorized by the Christie estate. One evening in February 1929, Hercule Poirot is dining alone at a London coffee shop when a woman arrives who looks as if she had "come face to face with the devil." Poirot joins the distraught woman, known at first as Jennie, who tells the sleuth that no one can help her because she's "already dead," and that no one should search for her killer. Lovers of classic whodunits can only hope Hannah continues to offer her take on the great Belgian detective.
Internal Medicine: A Doctor's Stories by Terrence Holt (Norton/Liveright) - Writing to make sense of his medical residency, Holt, a fiction writer (In the Valley of the Kings) and geriatric specialist at the University of North Carolina, elegantly tells a more far-reaching tale of illness and healing in nine stories. Holt narrates through the voice of a young doctor—a composite figure, as are his “patients”—beginning with the frustrating case of a woman too claustrophobic to wear an oxygen mask and too ill to be without it, whose agonizing death teaches the doctor that no singular heroics are necessary. Each exquisitely crafted and evocative tale reveals not only the power of Holt’s storytelling, but the stark realization that for doctors and patients alike, it’s our bodies that “remain the essential mystery we keep trying to solve.”
World Order by Henry Kissinger (Penguin Press) - Former U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger elicits strong reactions; the man some call "war criminal" also won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. At 91, he is still crafting his own record and place in history. A fixture in international politics since the 1960s, Kissinger argues that, assisted by the U.S., the spread of independent sovereign states, democratic aspirations, and global networks in communications, finance, and health have brought the "enterprise of world ordering... to fruition." Kissinger's guiding principle is what he calls the "global Westphalian system," named for the 17th-century treaty that ended the 30 Years' War. In studying the U.S.'s role in this system, his main theme is the "contest between idealism and realism" in American foreign policy. Kissinger's thoughts, grounded in some 50 years of experience, deserve a wide, attentive audience that should include anyone interested in foreign affairs or the global future.
Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire (Candlewick) - An imprisoned monk narrates this fabulist tale from Maguire, which draws inspiration from Russian folklore, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, while incorporating a modern thread about the threat of climate change. On her way to be presented to the Tsar’s godson, wealthy Ekaterina is marooned in a rural village when a broken bridge stops her train. Peasant Elena approaches the luxurious train to beg, and the two girls take tentative steps toward friendship; when the train starts moving again, the wrong one is aboard.
Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (Candlewick) - Link and Grant present an engrossing, morally complex anthology of 15 stories centered on the seemingly antagonistic concepts of monsters and love. Throughout, troubled protagonists meet genuine monsters—some traditional, like vampires, others much less so. Almost invariably, it’s understood that other people in the protagonists’ lives are far worse than the monsters. In Paolo Bacigalupi’s poetic “Moriabe’s Children,” a teenager fleeing her abusive stepfather finds sisterhood with the kraken that haunt the nearby sea. In Holly Black’s bloody but funny “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind),” a girl stows away on her uncle’s spaceship, fights off pirates, and partners with a purported alien killing machine. Additional stories are written by Cassandra Clare, Patrick Ness, and others; all of the entries are strong, and many are splendid.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Coffee House) - Growing up in a poor backwater town in Ireland, the narrator of McBride’s powerful debut novel, dark horse winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize, was closely attached to her older brother, both of them in league against their volatile mother. Shortly before the narrator’s birth, however, an invasive tumor had been removed from her brother’s brain, causing him to be developmentally “slow” and leaving him with a livid scar on his head and a prominent limp. The prose is permeated with imagery that convey the squalid conditions of their existence. Their father has flown, and their mother alternates between obsessive prayer and screaming rants threatening hell for impiety. The narration is written in a Joycean stream of consciousness with an Irish lilt, and sentence fragments transmit the pervasive sense of urgency, of thoughts spinning faster than the tongue can speak. Those who persevere through this challenging story will have read something unforgettable.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Doubleday) - The 1989 Children Act made a child’s welfare the top priority of English courts—easier said than done, given the complexities of modern life and the pervasiveness of human weakness, as Family Court Judge Fiona Maye discovers in McEwan’s 13th novel (after Sweet Tooth). Approaching 60, at the peak of her career, Fiona has a reputation for well-written, well-reasoned decisions. She is, in fact, more comfortable with cool judgment than her husband’s pleas for passion. While he pursues a 28-year-old statistician, Fiona focuses on casework, especially a hospital petition to overrule two Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions for Adam, their 17-year-old son who’s dying of leukemia. Adam agrees with their decision. Fiona visits Adam in the hospital, where she finds him writing poetry and studying violin. Childless Fiona shares a musical moment with the boy, then rules in the hospital’s favor. Adam’s ensuing rebellion against his parents, break with religion, and passionate devotion to Fiona culminate in a disturbing face-to-face encounter that calls into question what constitutes a child’s welfare and who best represents it.
Copia by Erika Meitner (BOA) - Meitner, National Poetry Series Winner for Ideal Cities, delivers a collection that bursts with American abundance while simultaneously describing its decline. With rich language and an eye for the texture of common objects, Meitner’s poems take shape from “charcoal detritus,” “gnawed Bic pen caps,” and “envelopes/ whose lips sealed shut from humidity.” The poems vary in size and scope, moving from a catalogue of bizarre, terrifying events like the woman in a Walmart parking lot who “tried to sell six/ Bengal tiger cubs to a group of Mexican day laborers,” to broken recollections of Meitner’s late grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. The collection centers around poems Meitner wrote after a commissioned trip to Detroit for Virginia Quarterly Review; inspired by urban exploration and what John Patrick Leary defined as “ruin porn” in his article “Detroitism.”
The Dog by Joseph O'Neill (Pantheon) - As he did brilliantly in Netherland, O’Neill, in his latest, creates a character who is alienated from his home and social class, and who feels dangerously vulnerable in a country in which he lives a luxurious but precarious existence. The unnamed narrator (we do learn that his given name begins with X) fled from his position in a Manhattan law firm after a bad breakup with a colleague. Feeling lucky at first to get a job in Dubai as “family officer” of the wealthy Batros family, the narrator discovers that he must ignore his ethical principles in order to do the blatantly illegal work required of him. Clever, witty, and profoundly insightful, this is a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.
The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino (Drawn & Quarterly) - Best-known for his long-running King-Cat mini-comics, Porcellino’s memoir is sometimes brutal but exceptionally honest. The illnesses that plague Porcellino—chronic pain from an unknown cause and OCD—are exhausting and endless. The toll these various health challenges ultimately take on Porcellino’s life range from minor irritations—the avoidance of certain foods, worries about “contamination”—to major disruptions, including stress on his marriage. Porcellino is well aware of his quirks, but like many OCD sufferers, unable to resist them; he’s already a victim of anxiety and a rare disorder called hyperacusis before the afflictions detailed here begin. The ups and downs of his largely undiagnosed ailments and the endless parade of doctors, specialists, and hospitals only heighten his paralyzing anxiety.
Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz (Little, Brown) - "In his last year, what kind of man had Martin Luther King, Jr. become?" is the question Smiley raises, asserting that he has "come to firmly believe that, in a critical way, [King] is misunderstood." The book focuses for the most part on the year between King's April 4, 1967 anti-war speech in New York and his April 4, 1968 assassination in Memphis, but also passes through such earlier landmarks as the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. Snippets from King's sermons, speeches, and press conferences abound, along with tidbits from the media coverage of the time. Smiley also covers King's marital problems, depression, smoking and drinking habits, musical tastes, and even his (hypothetical) internal thoughts.
The Roosevelts by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf) - In this impressively thorough history, and companion piece to a forthcoming PBS series, historian/screenwriter Ward and producer/director Burns (Baseball: An Illustrated History) examine the lives and careers of one of America’s most memorable political dynasties, the Roosevelts, as represented by Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin. Starting with Teddy’s asthma-plagued youth and ending with Eleanor’s death in 1962, every aspect of their lives and legacies is touched upon. Hundreds of photos, newspaper clippings, and accompanying captions flesh out the story, which expands to cover their friends and family, enemies, and (alleged) lovers.