This week: surviving the Rapture, a haunted possum, and a Kafkaesque thriller.
Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle (HMH) - Level-headed straight-A student Vivian Apple and her wild best friend Harp are among those left behind after thousands of believers in the evangelical Church of America are “Raptured,” exactly as prophesied by the church’s founder, Beaton Frick. After receiving a mysterious phone call from California, the girls, wondering if their vanished parents might still be alive, drive cross-country in search of the truth behind the church, whose popularity has skyrocketed in the wake of national tragedies. Along for the ride is cute but cagey Peter, who knows more about the organization’s inner workings than he’s letting on. Coyle imagines an America in which politics, capitalism, and entertainment, and religion have combined to create a culture of intolerance and judgment that doesn’t end with the Rapture. The result is a scathing commentary on contemporary religiosity and fear-mongering in the face of the unknown, as well as the extent to which we surrender ourselves to interests that are not our own.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper (S&S/Atheneum) - After 11-year-old Stella and her brother witness late-night Ku Klux Klan activity, word spreads through their North Carolina town. It’s 1932, and every “Negro family in Bumblebee knew the unwritten rules—they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another.” Draper (Panic) conveys a rich African-American community where life carries on and knowledge is passed along (“My mama taught me. I’m teachin’ you. You will teach your daughter”), despite looming threats. While in town, Stella notes the white children’s fine school building and speculates about who might be Klansmen; in her parents’ backyard, spontaneous potluck celebrations chase away gloom as adults trade tall tales: “remember last summer when it got so hot we had to feed the chickens ice water to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs?” Stella’s desire to become a writer parallels her father’s determination to vote. In a powerful scene, the entire black community accompanies three registered black voters to the polling location and waits silently, “Ten. Fifteen. Twenty-five minutes,” until the sheriff steps aside. This compelling story brims with courage, compassion, creativity, and resilience.
The Long Green Shore by John Hepworth (Text Classics) - There have been few great novels of WWII in the Pacific, and this is one of them. Australian author Hepworth (1921–1995) based this story on his own wartime experience, creating a gritty, vivid, and convincing tale of Australian infantrymen fighting the elusive Japanese in the steaming, rotting jungles of New Guinea in early 1945. Written in 1949, this novel is a masterpiece of war fiction, depicting the grim lives of Aussie soldiers in an obscure and unnecessary campaign against a starving, disease-ridden enemy. Pez and Janos are close friends in an infantry platoon, veterans of North Africa and Greece, now stuck on a miserable island where sickness and snipers take a daily toll. The New Guinea campaign goes on for months, with the troops suffering from illness, boredom, and the petty discipline of martinet officers.
A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan (Picador) - British writer Hogan’s fourth novel is a gripping psychological thriller that pegs out the creep-o-meter with its chilling, original plot. Mr. Heming is a real estate agent in an English village, very successful, very curious, and very dangerous. He has sold hundreds of houses in 17 years and has kept the keys to all of them. He uses the keys to enter homes and spy, obsessively and surreptitiously interjecting himself into the homeowners’ lives, occasionally altering things for his own amusement, learning everything about each family: “I squeezed the juice out of them, though they didn’t know it.” Mr. Heming doesn’t think of himself as a stalker or voyeur, and he doesn’t consider himself a thief. He is, however, a man who will act decisively if threatened or even merely annoyed. His orderly life is suddenly complicated when he becomes smitten with Abigail Rice, a young woman to whom he sold a house. Hogan’s Mr. Heming is a monumentally diabolical character—the fact that he narrates the story further ups both the stakes and the tension. Readers won’t soon forget this first-rate, white-knuckle suspense novel.
Descent by Tim Johnston (Algonquin) - In Johnston’s sorrowful and suspenseful first adult novel, a family is forced to face its worst nightmare when one of its members goes missing. Caitlin Courtland, an 18-year-old runner about to enter college on a track scholarship, is vacationing with her family in the Rockies when she fails to come back from an early morning run. Over the course of the next two years, the family fractures as no sign of Caitlin is ever found. Grant Courtland, Caitlin’s father, remains in the Rockies, while mother Angela tries to pick up the pieces back home in Wisconsin, where she eventually makes a failed attempt at suicide. Meanwhile, Caitlin’s younger brother, Sean, drives aimlessly around the country, getting in and out of trouble. Although it begins as one more variation on Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, a late-in-the-novel coincidence sends the narrative in a new direction and turns it into a survival story involving a character who, heretofore, has played a relatively minor part in the drama. Johnston (Irish Girl) has a poet’s eye for the majestic and forbidding nature of the Rockies, and a sociologist’s understanding of how people act under pressure.
F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature by William J. Maxwell (Princeton Univ.) - At 1,884 pages, James Baldwin’s FBI file is the fattest among the “51 files on individual African-American authors and critics active during the Hoover years, 1919 to 1972” scrutinized in this bold, provocative study. Maxwell (New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars) uses the documents to probe the FBI’s “institutionalized fascination” with black authors like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka. Other writers treated here in depth include Claude McKay (“the earliest Afro-modernist author to impress his way into his own FBI file”), Richard Wright, John Williams, and Lorraine Hansberry, but going by this account, few, if any, working African-American writers entirely slipped past the FBI’s gaze during Hoover’s tenure. Maxwell weaves a complex narrative tapestry, incorporating the life stories of both Hoover and the FBI, as well as WWII-era harassment of the black press, the impact of McCarthyism, and the “utility of New Critical close reading” to FBI agents required to practice an unlikely kind of literary criticism in the pursuit of “subversives.”
Against the Country by Ben Metcalf (Random) - Metcalf, essayist and former literary editor of Harper’s, debuts with a virtuosic tour de force of Southern malfeasance. The largely plotless narrative records a rural boyhood in Goochland County, Va., the narrator’s relationship with his ever-vengeful father, and the rigors of farm-life. Sprawling and underpopulated, Goochland is the setting for the indignities of grade school, boozy first love, rejection of “the killer-God idea,” and salvation in literature. But even amid the requisite episodes of racial disharmony and religious fervor, Metcalf’s storytelling often digresses, and, in short sections with titles like “I Feared the Corn,” he obsesses over every particular of the land. From blackberries, chickens, and ringworm to meditations on Jehovah’s Witnesses and an appendix on dogs, the all-American life is lovingly deconstructed in a passionate screed that feels like a confession from the tortured heart of the South itself. In the end, this isn’t a Southern novel, because it isn’t exactly a novel. It’s more like man’s revenge on God for the world he made—and anyone who disagrees must be a Yankee.
The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura, trans. from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter (Columbia Univ.) - A bestselling sensation in Japan, this erudite but accessible volume from novelist Mizumura (A True Novel) functions as a stirring call to consciousness about the role of language. Originally focused on concerns particular to Mizumura’s native Japan, the book has been revised and translated with an eye to reaching a broader audience. This is either apt or ironic, considering its main concern is with the fate of national languages at a time when English has become the world’s dominant “universal” language. To explore the subject, Mizumura offers a collection of smartly written meditations, history lessons, and theories about language. She also delves into autobiography to illustrate how her thinking was formed: after living in the United States for 20 years from the age of 12, without ever feeling completely at home there or with English, she first studied French and then moved back to Japan to write in her first language. For English speakers, the book presents an important opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Knopf) - Seniors Theodore Finch and Violet Markey run into each other on their school bell tower, contemplating what it would be like to jump. It’s more dark-cute than meet-cute, which also describes the book. Finch thinks about suicide every day; Violet was happy until her sister died in a car crash. While Finch, aka “Theodore Freak,” is a marginal presence in their high school, he’s smart and handsome—a musician who, readers gradually realize, suffers from undiagnosed manic depression. Violet is equally smart, and as they traverse Indiana for a geography project, looking for “wonders,” they flirt, argue, admit dark secrets, and fall in love. In her YA debut, adult author Niven creates a romance so fresh and funny that it seems like it could save Finch; she also makes something she foreshadows from the first line surprising. The journey to, through, and past tragedy is romantic and heartbreaking, as characters and readers confront darkness, joy, and the possibilities—and limits—of love in the face of mental illness.
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Little, Brown) - Following Binocular Vision, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Pearlman offers this affecting collection that periscopes into small lives, expanding them with stunning subtlety. The title story is a perfect case in point, a snapshot of a private girls’ school in Massachusetts, where Alice, the respectable headmistress, has become pregnant by Richard, the father of Emily, a troubled but brilliant 11th grader. In this story, as in others, the relationships of the characters reflect the “nature of people to defy their own best interests.” In “Puck,” also set in a small Massachusetts town, antique store owner Rennie, “known for discretion and restraint,” is drawn to Ophelia, a customer who confesses to a love affair. Rennie breaks “cardinal rule one” and advises Ophelia to pursue another customer. Rennie’s heart opens wider in the moving “Assisted Living,” in which she lets the elderly Muffy help out at the antique store, and then is required to dispose of Muffy’s treasures as a series of accidents leads to an inevitable decline.
Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce (Riverhead) - Pierce's first short story collection is full of compulsively addictive and delightfully strange fare. Some of the 12 offerings are new, others are culled from the New Yorker, the Oxford American, and elsewhere; each takes a mundane experience and adds an element of the extra weird. In "Shirley Temple Three," the opening, a mother begrudgingly agrees to hide a cloned prehistoric miniature woolly mammoth in her laundry room as a favor to her son, who is a reality show host. The protagonist of "The Real Alan Gass" becomes jealous when his girlfriend reveals that she's happily married to another man in her dreams. "Videos of People Falling Down," which is about just that, is a funny, yet quietly poignant interconnected series of vignettes that showcase characters at their most vulnerable. Echoing an old ghost story, the wicked "Saint Possy" shuttles a couple to their wits end as the skull of a dead possum (maybe) simultaneously haunts and taunts them.
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (Candlewick) - This fictionalized account of the boy who became Malcolm X maintains a suspenseful, poetic grip as it shifts among moments in his life between the years 1930 and 1948. The first-person, present-tense narrative emphasizes the experiences that affected Malcolm from early childhood to his eventual imprisonment. Memories, such as a favorite teacher telling him, “Be as good as you want in the classroom, but out those doors, you’re just a nigger,” or his sighting of a lynched man, trigger a sense of hopelessness that leads to self-destructive choices. Significant people in Malcolm’s life offer different messages: his white lover, Sophia, fears being seen with him, while his siblings believe he has the potential for greatness. Shabazz (Growing Up X), one of Malcolm X’s daughters, and Magoon (How It Went Down) capture Malcolm’s passion for new experiences, the defeatism that plagued him, and the long-buried hope that eventually reclaimed him.
The Love Book by Nina Solomon (Akashic) - Solomon’s follow-up to her 2003 debut Single Wife revolves around four unlikely friends who first meet during a disastrous Flaubert-themed bike trip in France. There, one of them comes across the titular book about attracting a mate. While the premise of four disparate personalities meeting cute may seem trite at first, Solomon’s effort eventually blossoms into a compelling mix of story lines. Back in Manhattan, Emily, a freelance writer with an impressionable 10-year-old son, catches the eye of Duncan, a charming author with a mean streak that rivals Emily’s ex-husband’s. Fellow New Yorker Max, a tough tomboy who guards her heart fiercely and worries about having fallen for too-good-to-be-true Garrett, works as a personal trainer. Superstitious Cathy, who found the Love Book and keeps trying to get the four together to follow its exercises, lives with her elderly father after having lost her home in a fire. She’s dying to find her soul mate, unlike fiery Beatrice, who is fiercely independent at 69 and determined not to let any man tie her down, even her married paramour Freddy, who wants to marry her, or his brother Malcolm, who is clearly the guy for her.
The Guard by Peter Terrin (Quercus) - Guards Harry and Michel inhabit the basement garage of the luxury apartment building whose erstwhile residents they were hired to protect. Confined to the quarters supplied by their invisible employer, their work is their existence, even as they wonder why the tenants have fled. Terrin twists this absurdist nightmare with the arrival of a unnamed third guard, who is evasive about the outside and the reasons for his presence. As an increasingly unnerved Harry demands answers, Terrin uses a pesky fly, a faulty toilet, and mounting uncertainty about the nature of the guards’ employer to create a claustrophobic world that recalls the works of Pinter and Kafka. Harry and Michel’s ascent to the residential level to locate and protect the building’s possibly mythical last tenant grows increasingly hallucinogenic, and is related through Michel’s unreliable narration. Terrin unabashedly invokes existentialist philosophy, and his vivid portrayal of characters gripped by unresolved fears and faced with absurd situations makes his work nectar for reflective readers.