This week, new Marilynne Robinson, new Walter Isaacson, and the incredible "Citizen."
Lamentation by Joe Clifford (Oceanview) - Jay Porter, the narrator of this powerful novel set during a bitter New Hampshire winter, is drifting through life, stuck in his hometown, where he has a dead-end job sorting junk and a hopeless relationship with his ex-girlfriend and their toddler son. He’s marinating in sour anger that spills out at those who criticize his listless existence—largely because he realizes they’re right. When his junkie older brother, Chris, is suspected of murdering his partner in a computer recycling computer business, Jay is barely motivated to help; he doesn’t believe Chris’s statement that the hard drive of a discarded computer contained evidence of an evil conspiracy. It gradually becomes obvious, though, that local powerbrokers are panicked about something on the missing drive, so Jay has one last chance at salvation if he’s able to act.
Man v. Nature by Diane Cook (Harper) - The characters in Cook’s debut story collection inhabit isolated worlds, bubbles where scores of children are kidnapped and the police don’t notice; where, in keeping with the sharp title story, lost fishermen wait for rescue after a pleasure trip goes awry; and where unwanted boys take to a deserted forest and live out a Lord of the Flies–style tragedy. There’s also an intense fear of the outside world lurking throughout. In “Flotsam,” a woman considers installing an alarm system after random clothing regularly appears in her dryer. “Marrying Up” finds a woman constantly remarrying after her husbands are murdered by groups of riotous thugs occupying the outdoors. And “The Mast Year” chronicles the life of a young woman who, after a string of good fortune, becomes a talisman for the less privileged that arrive at her front door, hoping her luck will rub off.
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Young Readers) - With self-deprecating wit (“Now I have all the proof I need that my entire life is a sitcom designed by God for His personal enjoyment”) and a keen eye for interpersonal dynamics, Iranian-American narrator Leila Azadi details the dramas taking place in the intersecting circles of her elite New England private school and high-achieving Persian community. When a family friend comes out, his parents’ obnoxious bragging turns to silence (“it’s like Kayvon never existed”), causing Leila to fear being disowned for her “lady-loving inclinations.” An unanticipated crush on stunning, enigmatic new student Saskia compels Leila to explore unfamiliar terrain emotionally and socially. This is a fresh, humorous, and poignant exploration of friendship and love, and a welcome addition to the coming-out/coming-of-age genre.
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman (Norton/Liveright) - British social historian Goodman reveals what life was like in the Victorian era in a manner most readers have likely never encountered before: by personally subscribing to Victorian mores and way of life. Goodman’s impeccably researched account will raise readers’ eyebrows with her adventures “living history.” Along the way, she replicates an array of activities and behaviors: she creates and wears numerous styles of period clothing, tries out popular calisthenics for women and girls, uses 19th-century hygiene practices, adjusts to the discomfort of the corset, launders clothes laboriously by hand, and does much else. Goodman has meticulously documented the common Victorian man and woman, explaining practicalities, expenses, and rationales for their actions.
Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy by Christopher R. Hill (Simon & Schuster) - A diplomatic career spent under fire—sometimes literally—is recounted with energy and humor in this lively memoir. Hill recaps 33 years of State Department service in global hot spots: Bosnia and Kosovo, where his SUV was shot while he was at work on a peace settlements; North Korea, where he conducted high-wire nuclear disarmament negotiations; and Iraq, where his motorcade weathered an IED explosion during his as ambassador. Just as riveting are his intimate accounts of combat in the conference room; diplomats cajole and pressure one another toward compromises that depend on subtle shifts in mood and language. (He rescued one joint communiqué by replacing the phrase “peaceful coexistence” with “exist peacefully together.”) Ever attuned to personal relationships, Hill pens vivid portraits of everyone from Serbian war criminals to Mother Teresa.
The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson (S&S) - The history of the computer as told through this fascinating book is not the story of great leaps forward but rather one of halting progress. Journalist and Aspen Institute CEO Isaacson (Steve Jobs) presents an episodic survey of advances in computing and the people who made them, from 19th-century digital prophet Ada Lovelace to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. His entertaining biographical sketches cover headline personalities (such as a manic Bill Gates in his salad days) and unsung toilers, like WWII’s pioneering female programmers, and outright failures whose breakthroughs fizzled unnoticed, such as John Atanasoff, who was close to completing a full-scale model computer in 1942 when he was drafted into the Navy. Isaacson examines these figures in lucid, detailed narratives, recreating marathon sessions of lab research, garage tinkering, and all-night coding in which they struggled to translate concepts into working machinery.
The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. by Gina B. Nahai (Akashic) - Like Cry of the Peacock and Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, Nahai’s new work is a multigenerational epic of Iranian Jews. It shifts from modern L.A. to old Tehran as it follows the wealthy, influential Soleyman family. Raphael’s Son (as he is called throughout), a Soleyman bastard, in one or possibly both senses of the word, is found murdered in L.A. But is he really dead? His body has disappeared. Hated by rival family members and acquaintances alike, he could have been killed by anyone, from his long-suffering wife to any of the clients ruined by his Ponzi scheme. Nahai’s retelling of Iran’s recent history and her depiction of Iranian Jews—both in their homeland and as exiles—is both riveting and eye-opening.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf) - In this trenchant new work about racism in the 21st century, Rankine, recently appointed chancellor of the American Academy of Poets and winner of the 2014 Jackson Poetry Prize, extends the innovative formal techniques and painfully clear-sighted vision she established in her landmark Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Accounts of racially charged interactions, insidious and flagrant, transpiring in private and in the public eye, distill the immediate emotional intensity of individual experience with tremendous precision while allowing ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction, and exhaustion to remain in all their fraught complexity. Combining poetry, essay, and images from media and contemporary art, Rankine’s poetics capture the urgency of her subject matter. Rankine inspires sympathy and outrage, but most of all a will to take a deep look at ourselves and our society.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (FSG) - This third of three novels set in the fictional plains town of Gilead, Iowa, is a masterpiece of prose in the service of the moral seriousness that distinguishes Robinson’s work. This time the narrative focuses on Lila, the young bride of elderly Reverend Ames, first met in Gilead. Rescued as a toddler from abusive caretakers by a rough but kind drifter named Doll, raised with love but enduring the hard existence of a field worker, and later, in a St. Louis whorehouse, Lila is a superb creation. Largely uneducated, almost feral, Lila has a thirst for stability and knowledge. As she yearns to forget the terrible memories and shame of her past, Lila is hesitant to reveal them to her loving new husband. The courtship of the couple—John Ames: tentative, tender, shy, and awkward; Lila: naive, suspicious, wary, full of dread—will endure as a classic set piece of character revelation, during which two achingly lonely people discover the comfort of marital love.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley (Knopf) - In the first volume of a planned trilogy, Smiley returns to the Iowa of her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, but in a very different vein. The warring sisters and abusive father of that book have given way to the Langdons, a loving family whose members, like most people, are exceptional only in their human particularities. The story covers the 1920s through the early ’50s, years during which the family farm survives the Depression and drought, and the five Langdon children grow up and have to decide whether to stay or leave. Smiley is particularly good at depicting the world from the viewpoint of young children—all five of the Langdons are distinct individuals from their earliest days. The standout is oldest son Frank, born stubborn and with an eye for opportunity, but as Smiley shifts her attention from one character to another, they all come to feel like real and relatable people.
We Are Not Good People by Jeff Somers (S&S/Gallery) - Somers’s heartbreaking second Ustari Cycle installment (after Trickster) is soaked in blood and steeped in deadly power and desperation. Lemuel “Lem” Vonnegan is a low-level magician by choice. Though he has tremendous potential, Lem uses only his own blood for his spells, refusing even voluntary sacrifices that would lend him power. Pitr “Mags” Mageshkumar, his faithful friend, lacks the skills to make use of the power he carries in his veins. The pair live as lowly Tricksters until a chain of misfortunes and ruined con jobs lands them in a war against mages who are eager to bleed the world for power. Somers conjures a riveting setting that bends and breaks time and again, each iteration raising the stakes for his accidental hero. By turns frightening and sorrowful, this is a story that offers no good choices to its characters.
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, trans. from the Hungarian by Len Rix (NYRB) - In this 1937 masterpiece from the late Hungarian novelist Szerb, businessman Mihaly takes his new bride Erzsi to Italy on their honeymoon, but from their first night in Venice, when Mihaly gets lost wandering the back alleys, their plans for an orderly vacation are thwarted by fate. With each chapter, mysterious characters from the past appear, strange letters are received, and locales shift from the merely exotic to the fantastical. It emerges that in Mihaly's youth, he had an intense friendship with wealthy brother and sister Tamas and Eva. The shadow of this passionate entanglement hangs over Mihaly's adult life; Italy turns out to be full of clues relating to Tamas's death, and Eva seems to literally be around every corner (at one point spying on Mihaly though holes cut in a tapestry). The romanticism crossed with middle-European emotional claustrophobia and the surreal suggests a love child of Stendhal and Kafka.
Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free by Hector Tobar (FSG) - Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist Tobar (The Barbarian Nurseries) presents the riveting story of the 33 men who spent 69 days trapped more than 2,000 feet underground in Chile’s San José Mine in 2010. Noting that the abundance of minerals under the hills of the Atacama desert drew workers from all corners of Chile, Tobar—who was granted exclusive access to the miners and their families—compassionately recounts the miners’ personal histories, experiences during the 17 days they were without outside contact, extended rescue, and the drama above ground with the families living near the mine in their makeshift “Camp Esperanza,” mingling with government ministers, NASA advisors, engineers, mechanics, and drillers. Particularly moving is the reenactment of the first 17 days when the “33” banded together, drinking dirty water used to cool off the mine’s drilling systems and sharing their meager food supplies. Rich in local color, this is a sensitive, suspenseful rendering of a legendary story.