This week, new Martin Amis, Marlon James's epic masterpiece, and the amazing "On Immunity."
The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Knopf) - An absolute soul-crusher of a book, the brilliant latest from Amis is an astoundingly bleak love story, as it were, set in a German concentration camp, which Thomsen, one of the book’s three narrators, refers to as Kat Zet. Thomsen, the nephew of Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, has a vague role as a liaison at Buna Werke, where the Germans are attempting to synthesize oil for the war effort using slave labor. He sets his sights on Hannah Doll, wife of camp commandant Paul, who is the second of three narrators as well as a drunk whose position is under threat. As Thomsen gets closer with Hannah, both of them, horrified at what’s going on, conspire to undermine Paul—Hannah at home and Thomsen around the camp. Paul, meanwhile, follows up his suspicions about his wife and Thomsen by involving Szmul, the book’s third narrator and a Jew who disposes of the corpses in the gas chamber, in a revenge plot. Amis took on the Holocaust obliquely in Time’s Arrow. Here he goes at it straight, and the result is devastating.
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss - Biss advocates eloquently for childhood immunization, making her case as an anxious new mother intent on protecting her son—and understanding the consequences. Her exploration is both historical and emotional, and she receives some metaphorical guidance from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a story that to Biss invites an “enduring question—do we believe vaccination to be more monstrous than disease?” Her son’s birth coincided with an outbreak of the H1N1 flu (popularly known as “swine flu”), triggering an inquiry that involved her doctor father, other mothers, researchers, and her own copious research. Biss’s study ranges from the beginnings of vaccination—a “precursor to modern medicine”—in the 1700s, through Andrew Wakefield’s disastrous, and later retracted, 1998 study that proposed the MMR vaccine might be linked to autism. Protecting her baby set off an “intuitive toxicology,” Biss writes, but grew to understand that we harbor “more microorganisms in our guts than we have cells in our bodies.”
The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco (Ecco) - Growing up in the 1970s in a Cuban-American community in Miami, poet Blanco was besieged by his exiled relatives’ nostalgia for the life they had left behind in Cuba in the 1960s; yet he also yearned for a American identity free from the immigrant experience. In seven chapters Blanco moves through the milestones of his adolescence living with his mother, father, older brother, Carlos (“Caco”), and grandparents, specifically his overbearing abuela, who had saved enough money working as a bookie in New York City for the family to move to a new house with a terra-cotta roof and lawn in the Westchester suburb of Miami—pronounced “Guechesta.” Blanco has a natural, unforced style that allows his characters’ vibrancy and humor to shine through.
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama (FSG) - The distinction between strong and accountable government is seen as a driver of history in this second volume of the author’s magisterial study of politics and the state. Following up The Origins of Political Order, Stanford scholar Fukuyama surveys political developments of the past 250 years, from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, focusing on the often clashing imperatives of democratic accountability, rule of law, and effective governmental administration. Organizing his commentary around these three themes, Fukuyama addresses an enormous range of moments in political history, paying close attention to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as to the West. (The U.S. figures less as a paragon than as a governmental slacker whose current problems with legislative gridlock, corruption, and chaotic administration-by-lawsuit makes it an exemplar of political decay.) Fukuyama’s erudition is complemented by lucid, graceful prose and an inveterate even-handedness that fairly assesses liberal, conservative, and Marxist traditions.
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner) - Journalist Gwynne follows his bestselling Empire of the Summer Moon with a stimulating study of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Jackson today remains a figure of almost mythical proportions and embodies the more heroic elements of the Southern cause. Gwynne, in a primarily chronological narrative, reveals him to have been an early master of modern mobile warfare and a clear-eyed interpreter of what modern “pitiless war was all about.” In 1861, Jackson was “part of that great undifferentiated mass of second-rate humanity who weren’t going anywhere in life.” But underneath his efflorescent eccentricities, he was “highly perceptive and exquisitely sensitive,” as well as an “incisive and articulate observer.” In the spring of 1862 those qualities shaped the brilliant Shenandoah Valley campaign that reinvigorated a stagnant Confederate war effort and established him as the “most famous military figure in the Western world.”
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead) - There are many more than seven killings in James’s (Dayton Literary Peace Prize winner for The Book of Night Women) epic chronicle of Jamaica’s turbulent past, but the centerpiece is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on December 3, 1976. Through more than a dozen voices, that event is portrayed as the inevitable climax of a country shaken by gangs, poverty, and corruption. Even as the sweeping narrative continues into 1990s New York, the ripples of Jamaica’s violence are still felt by those who survived. James’s frenetic, jolting narrative is populated by government agents, ex-girlfriends, prisoners, gang members, journalists, and even ghosts. Memorable characters (and there are several) include John-John K, a hit man who is very good at his job; Papa-Lo, don of the Copenhagen City district of Kingston; and Josey Wales, who begins as Papa-Lo’s head enforcer but ends up being a major string-puller in the country’s most fateful events. Upon finishing, the reader will have completed an indispensable and essential history of Jamaica’s troubled years. This novel should be required reading.
Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Scholastic/Levine) - Emily Bird knows what she’s supposed to do: graduate from her posh Washington, D.C., prep school; attend an Ivy League school; hold onto her appropriate boyfriend; keep her too-kinky hair chemically tamed; and assume her place among the elite. But a flu pandemic, which may be bioterrorism, means drones, tanks, quarantines, and more work for Emily’s parents—government scientists so busy that they don’t come home when Emily ends up in the hospital. That’s where Johnson’s story starts, with Emily under government observation, wondering whom to trust, and trying to figure out whether she’s ready to quit being good-girl Emily and become independent Bird. Johnson (The Summer Prince) blends high school drama, cloak-and-dagger intrigue, race and class inequities, coming of age, and a passionate love story, blending these disparate elements into a narrative that both requires and repays attention.
How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson (Riverhead) - In this fascinating book, Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) presents a “history of ideas and innovation,” focusing on six important technical and scientific innovations that have shaped the modern world but that we often take for granted. The book reveals what Johnson calls “the hummingbird effect,” when “an innovation... in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” We learn how Gutenberg’s press created a market for spectacles, which, in turn, led to the development of the microscope, the telescope, and the camera; how muckrakers were empowered by flash photography in the Progressive Era; and how the modern advertising business has roots in the germ theory of disease.
Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian (Carolrhoda Lab) - As his junior year ends, people keep asking Sean Norwhalt what he’ll do next. But it’s hard to focus on that, when his alcoholic father is gone and he’s living with his mother in a crappy rental. Then a pretty senior’s Frisbee hits in him the face, and suddenly he has a girlfriend—his first. Mesrobian, who took on hookup culture in her acclaimed debut, Sex and Violence, excels at conveying the awkwardness and wonder of sex, and the erotic life of a teenage boy (in this case featuring Sean’s constant, albeit inconvenient hormonal companion, “The Horn”). Sean’s not interested in college, and the main events of senior year are his job at the Thrift Bin; his growing friendship with Neecie, a classmate and co-worker with her own sex quandary; and deciding whether to join the Marines. As Sean comes to some peace with his family, spends time with Neecie, and makes some decisions, nothing very dramatic happens. Yet Mesrobian deftly conveys just how much drama there is in the everyday, especially for a 17-year-old trying to figure out not just what’s next, but what’s happening right now.
Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy by Darryl Pinckney (NYRB) - The tactics have changed since the days when an “all-white school board in [Alabama] fired 32 black teachers who’d applied to register,” and when “no blacks were registered to vote” in a Mississippi county “that was 81% black,” but as novelist and essayist Pinckney (High Cotton) observes, there are now “new means by which to achieve the old aim: voter exclusion.” Pinckney conveys, calmly and lucidly, what this portends for American democracy. Other themes are embedded in his observations about the ballot: the impact of Obama’s presidency, which encompasses both his profound symbolic significance and the unfulfilled promise of a post-racial society; a purposeful and moving tribute to Pinckney’s parents and their generation’s engagement with civil rights; and the changes that have occurred since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the “most important piece of civil-rights litigation since the Fifteenth Amendment.”
Collected Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf) - “The secret voice of being telling us/ that where we disappear is where we are,” is written in the confident, inviting, yet almost “always mournful, always sad” voice Strand has sustained for 50 years, in blank verse, chiseled stanzas, and compact prose poems. Nothingness, the void; solipsism, the lure of the mirror; blank otherness, as seen in the moon and the seashore—these simple symbols predominate in oeuvre most influential in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when its stripped-down lyrics and asides matched a national trend. Later, the former U.S. Poet Laureate and 1999 Pulitzer Prize–winner leavened the bleakness with avuncular jokes, extended meditative passages, and comical alter egos. Now based in Madrid and teaching at Columbia University, Strand enjoys wide respect among poetry’s institutions. First-time readers may be surprised at the short length of the volume, which is Strand’s first collected edition, but they may also find it absorbing in its focus on first and last things. For all the streamlined sadness of his dreamlike domain, Strand remains aware of other poets, which is particularly evident in his homages, translations, and elegies.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton) - When 10th grader Jam Gallahue meets British exchange student Reeve Maxfield, she fees like she finally understands love, and when she loses him, she can’t get over it. Her grief eventually lands her at the Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers. There, she’s selected for Special Topics in English, a legendary class whose eccentric teacher handpicks her students and gives out journals that, Jam learns, seem to have the ability to take students back to their lives before the disasters that changed them. Making her YA debut, acclaimed author Wolitzer writes crisply and sometimes humorously about sadness, guilt, and anger—Jam’s fellow students each have lines that divide their lives into before and after, and all of them need to move forward. Jam’s class is studying Sylvia Plath, and Wolitzer weaves her life and work into the story with a light hand.
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink (Dorothy, a publishing project) - Zink’s debut novel is a weird, funny, sad, and sharp story of growing up. Opening with a car accident in which young married couple Tiffany and Stephen hit a wallcreeper (a bird that Stephen, a fanatical birder, adopts as a pet and names Rudolf), causing Tiffany to miscarry, the bulk of the novel follows the couple’s push-and-pull years in Europe. Stephen, a stubborn and secretive pharmaceutical researcher stationed in Berne, makes enough money to support both of them; and Tiffany, who was bored at her last real job as a secretary, makes no bones about not wanting to work. Zink masterfully captures the slippery nature of human intimacy, the ways in which relationships both thrive on emotional gray areas and jump from one black-and-white area to another (jealousy and indifference; blame and forgiveness; listlessness and wonder). This is the introduction of an exciting new voice.