This week, new Lawrence Wright, new Sarah Waters, new Margaret Atwood.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday/Talese) - Atwood, a bestselling master of fiction, delivers a stunning collection—her first since 2006's Moral Disorder. Most of the nine stories feature women who have been wronged as girls but recover triumphantly as adults. Atwood brings her biting wit to bear on the battle of the sexes. The first three stories in the book—"Alphinland," "Revenant," and "Dark Lady"—are linked by a pretentious poet and his girlfriends, who best him professionally and personally as he ages into an impotent, disgruntled old man with a wife 30 years his junior: "He probably has more horns on his head—as the bard would say—than a hundred headed snail." This grande dame is at the top of her game.
The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers) - In a story of an unexpected hero, a thief’s daughter, and some very tricky magic, Barnhill weaves a powerful narrative about the small tragedies that happen when parents fail their children, even with the best intentions. After Ned’s twin brother, Tam, drowns, his mother, the village’s Sister Witch, binds Tam’s soul to Ned, who grows up as an awkward, stuttering boy ostracized by the rest of his village. Áine’s widower father loves her, but he loves his life as a Bandit King more. The magic that touches both Ned and Áine draws their lives inexorably together as they are caught up in the machinations of King Ott’s selfish empire-building.
Epilogue: A Memoir by Will Boast (Norton/Liveright) - Family tragedy leads to almost unbearable darkness but also renewal and hope for a young man in this excellent memoir. Boast (Power Ballads) was in college when his mother died of cancer, his younger brother Rory was killed in a car crash, and his father succumbed suddenly to a booze-assisted perforated ulcer. Then, sifting through documents in the family’s Wisconsin home, he discovered that his father had a secret second family in England; he had two older half-brothers whom he’d never met. He connected with them to explore the mystery of his past—and to reinsert himself into it. Boast writes with unsparing clarity, in precisely observed domestic scenes that reveal mountains of unspoken feeling, of the grief his family endured—his father’s final lonely year is a heart-breaking tableau of anguish—and of the disorientation of a life that felt like a “tacked-on epilogue that went pointlessly on and on."
A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions) - Bianca and her brother are orphans—“somehow that justified everything,” she says in the opening paragraph—and the death of their parents triggers an extended disillusioned period in her life. Bianca works at a salon and her brother works at a gym; one day, he brings home two men (“They weren’t his friends, though my brother chose to think they were”), known only as the Libyan and the Bolognan. Eventually, the four hatch a plan to rob an old, blind movie actor. This is a glittering gem, as maddening and haunting as you’d expect from Bolaño.
Sugar Skull by Charles Burns (Pantheon) - Completing his trilogy that began in 2010 with X’ed Out and continued with The Hive in 2012, Burns brings the story of amnesiac Doug to a devastating conclusion. Only an artist of Burns’ precision and vision could keep all the plates of this dimension and time hopping tale spinning so smoothly. In the first two volumes we met Doug, whose story jumps back and forth in between his relationship with a girl named Sarah and his future as a pill-popping loser. Along the way his avatar, Nit-Nit, has surreal adventures in a bleak parallel world full of disgustingly pitiful creatures. In the final volume, the horrors pile up as the many careful symbols that Burns has set up in the previous 128 pages—a pig fetus, a mask, a Polaroid, a pink blanket—manifest into a nightmarish existence that Doug can’t escape from, whether it’s the real world, in which Doug’s attempts at a relationship are sabotaged by his break-up with Sarah, or his fantasy, in which we learn, in grotesque detail, just where those eggs seen on the cover of The Hive are coming from. Like Black Hole, this trilogy is a masterpiece of dread and wasted opportunity.
Collection of Sand: Essays by Italo Calvino, trans. from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin (HMH/Mariner) - Calvino’s diverse interests are on full display in this collection of delightful and erudite essays by the author of Invisible Cities. Originally published in Italian in 1984, it was the last volume of new work published in his lifetime. Many of the eclectic pieces are collected from a newspaper column Calvino (1923–1985) wrote for La Repubblica, and from a series of travel essays set in Iran, Japan, and Mexico. Museum exhibitions draw Calvino’s attention to the natural world, to the bizarre—and to the past. His subtle humor threads its way through staid descriptions of wax museums, automata, knots, and the ruins of a pig sty. The collection includes a moving remembrance of Roland Barthes and several idiosyncratic but valuable book reviews. Calvino’s travelogues, particularly those set in Japan, are the best example of his ability to capture the real world with the same vigor and verve as his imaginative fiction.
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett (Dutton) - In the ambitious, commanding capstone to his multigenerational Century Trilogy (after Winter of the World), Follett expertly chronicles the pivotal events of the closing decades of the 20th century through the eyes of a vast array of deftly-drawn characters, all suffering the slings and arrows of a world marred by war and global unrest. Among them is Rebecca Hoffman, a good-natured school teacher in Communist Berlin, who discovers in 1961 that her secretive husband, Hans, is a clandestine Stasi agent and has been spying on her for years. When she eventually confronts him, he angrily vows to destroy her family. Elsewhere, mixed-race, civil-rights-minded George Jakes forsakes a lucrative law career to work for Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department, then battles racial inequality as a congressman. Dmitri “Dimka” Dvorkin, an aide to Nikita Khrushchev, finds himself embroiled in heated U.S.-Soviet nuclear political power plays and his sister, Tanya, thrusts herself into the fray of governmental global turmoil. Sweeping through the Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan administrations, Follett’s smooth page-turner concludes in 2008 with an epilogue set on the night of President Obama’s electoral victory.
Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernandez (Drawn & Quarterly) - Following up on his portrait of childhood in Marble Season, Hernandez returns with this heartbreaking, ambitious, and fascinating portrayal of Bobby, a kid growing up in Oxnard, Calif. The book is broken into five parts, each focusing on a key juncture in Bobby's life, that together span the period from childhood to middle age. Bobby falls for and loses girls; he's manipulated and beaten up, then broken down and wounded by his father and his boss at the office building where he's a janitor. He is brought into and pushed out of various music scenes and groups of friends, and we're with him every step of the way; his frailties are as universal as his dreams, as revealed through first-person narration that expresses his confusion, anger, and, sometimes, joy.
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (Dial) - Twins Noah and Jude are inseparable until misunderstandings, jealousies, and a major loss rip them apart. Both are talented artists, and creating art plays a major role in their narratives. Both also struggle with their sexuality—Noah is gay, which both thrills and terrifies him, while Jude is recovering from a terrible first sexual experience at age 14, one of two important reasons she has sworn off dating. Nelson unravels the twins’ stories in long chapters that alternate between their perspectives. Noah’s sections are set when the twins are 13, Jude’s at age 16, giving readers slanted insights into how their relationship deteriorated and how it begins to mend.
The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg (Crown) - A look at the furtive world of girls who pose as boys illuminates the cruelties of Afghanistan’s tradition of male supremacy in this searing exposé. Journalist Nordberg explores the lives of bacha posh—girls who are made over as boys so that their parents can claim the honor of having a son (or, according to folklore, improve their chances of conceiving a real one). Bacha posh experience what few Afghan females ever do: the freedom to go outside without a chaperone, speak their minds, and lead public lives—until adolescence arrives and they are forced back into femininity and sold off in arranged marriages to live in domestic confinement under their husband’s thumb. Nordberg’s vivid profiles of these girls takes in the quiet, harrowing struggles of other women in a society that accords them few rights.
Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution by Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury) - Journalist and activist Penny (Meat Market) combines unsparing autobiography and searing political analysis in her latest book; the result is a powerful feminist polemic that critiques the structure of society. Though she adopts a radical perspective, Penny avoids the usual hectoring that overvalues the politics of the personal, and she makes it clear that, as a feminist, she’s not interested in how women dress or whether they wear makeup. Instead, Penny tackles broad issues of gender and sexuality. The book is chilling and accessible, a majestic treasury of ghost stories that are, in fact, all too real. Penny has given us a feminist book for our time that burns with a wild light and deserves attention.
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illus. by Shane W. Evans (Little, Brown) - Told in free verse and set in the South Darfur region of Sudan in 2003 and 2004, this potent novel from Pinkney (Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America) is built around the distinctive voice and drawings of 12-year-old narrator Amira. The first half of the novel examines Amira’s life in her rural village, where she helps out with farm chores, wishes she could attend school, and has a close relationship with her father, Dando, who “sees what is possible in me.” After Janjaweed militants invade, inflicting great loss, Amira flees to a refugee camp, where she expresses her creativity through art, after a teacher gives her the pencil of the title.
Sway by Kat Spears (St. Martin's Griffin) - This engrossing debut novel recounts the exploits of high school senior Jesse Alderman, who runs a lucrative business making things happen: “brokering term papers, getting juvenile delinquents kicked out of school, and delivering party favors for keggers.” A possible musical prodigy who abandoned the guitar after his mother’s suicide, Jesse has more intellectual energy than he knows what to do with, and he keeps himself busy to avoid thinking. When rich football star and “all-around douche” Ken hires him as matchmaker, Jesse becomes a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, enamored of sweet Bridget even as he’s employed to manipulate her to fall for a creep. Sharp dialogue, edgy humor, and an unlikely hero make this page-turner a winner.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead) - With two brothers killed in WWI and a debt-ridden father who followed them to the grave soon afterward, 27-year-old spinster Frances Wray knows that she and her mother must take in lodgers (euphemistically described as “paying guests”) to maintain their large house in a genteel section of London. In the postwar social landscape of England in 1922, the rise of a new middle class and the dwindling of the old servant class are disrupting longtime patterns of life. The disruptions occasioned by the advent of their tenants, the lower-class couple Leonard and Lilian Barber, are minor at first. But as Frances observes the tensions in the Barbers’ marriage and develops a sexual attraction for the beautiful Lily, who soon reciprocates her love, a fraught and dangerous situation develops. A breathtaking novel.
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright (Knopf) - Wright (Going Clear), Pulitzer Prize winner and staff writer for the New Yorker, offers a thorough study of the Camp David Accords of 1978 in this meticulously researched affair, which goes beyond the core events to address a multitude of historical factors. On the surface, this is about U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the 13 days the men and their respective staffs spent trying to hammer out a peace treaty. Wright takes the conference day by day, detailing the clashes and compromises that marked the final results. He also delves into biblical events and the numerous conflicts following Israel’s creation in 1948. As Wright puts it, “This book is an account of how these three flawed men, strengthened but also encumbered by their faiths, managed to forge a partial and incomplete peace, an achievement that nonetheless stands as one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the twentieth century.”