This week: an unreliable narrator and her missing daughter, a crime novel that's like watching a slow-motion train wreck, and a biography of PTSD.
Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History by Bernard Bailyn (Knopf) - Bailyn (The Barbarous Years), a Pulitzer Prize winner and emeritus Harvard historian, has long pursued the history of the era of the American Revolution, of the ideas that animate humans, and, in his latest works, of the peopling of the Western Hemisphere. Here, his muscular style undiminished, Bailyn reflects on all three subjects, plus the challenges of thinking historically. The nine essays in this volume, three of them previously unpublished, go back as far as 1954, the latest being from 2007. Nonspecialists shouldn’t be daunted by the subjects of the essays—current trends (not so current now) in historical scholarship, why history’s losers must be made part of the story of the past, the history of Britain’s provinces, and comparisons between the settling of North America and Australia.
Glow by Ned Beauman (Knopf) - This droll, clever, and intelligent novel has an undercurrent of thriller, but it’s a young man’s thriller—or, more accurately, a slacker’s thriller. The setting is 2010 London amid a milieu of underemployed 20-somethings in search of love, raves, and drugs, most notably the “glow” of the title, a new, Ecstasy-like designer drug with an epic reputation. Protagonist Raf’s primary occupation seems to be walking the dog who guards the transmitter of a pirate radio station. He’s also dealing with a “non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome”—he has an abnormal circadian rhythm—that requires a strict, complicated sleep regimen (“It’s like his brain is wearing a novelty watch”). At a rave, he first hears of “glow” and meets the beautiful Cherish. Raf is odd, but the events happening around him are odder still, including the abduction of his friend Theo by a couple of guys driving “a grimy white builder’s van.”
See How Small by Scott Blackwood (Little, Brown) - Whiting Writers’ Award–winner Blackwood (We Agreed to Meet Just Here) has produced a genre-defying novel of powerful emotion, intrigue, and truth. From the opening pages, which artfully skirt from past to present, it’s clear that an atrocity has befallen Elizabeth, Zadie, and Meredith, the three teenage girls staffing the front counter at Sandra’s ice cream shop. Killers assault the girls, bind them, and set the building on fire. The merciless crime’s aftermath, affecting everyone in the Texas town—including devastated, revenge-consumed mother Kate, town firefighter Jack, and the arsonists themselves—forms the core of the story as each character’s life is detailed through the 60 brief, vividly realized chapters. As anniversaries of the murders pass, Blackwood resurrects the three young women on a ghostly plane. They populate Kate’s dreams, hang around town, and appear to the eccentric Hollis Finger, who may hold the key to solving the crime.
Sweetland by Michael Crummey (Liveright) - Sweetland is both a place—a small island off Newfoundland—and a person—Moses Sweetland—and both have seen better times. The provincial government is offering resettlement money to Sweetland residents, but only if everyone agrees to leave. Moses Sweetland is 69 years old and has been disfigured by an industrial accident. When the story opens, he is the only person—aside from the man considered the island idiot—who opposes the government’s proposition. He’s under plenty of pressure to accept, but the island named for his ancestors, where he takes his great-nephew rabbit hunting and hands down family legends, is the only place Moses can imagine living. Crummey, whose last book, Galore, won the Commonwealth Prize, does both man and place justice: Moses is a memorably strong-willed character, whose manner of thinking and speaking are dying out. The novel also conveys the way that a sense of place is the product of relationships—among the living, with the dead, and, in Moses’s case, arising from intimate connections to land and sea. At the end of the story, Moses remains alone on the island, his supplies dwindling, beset by injury, cold, and memories—the question isn’t what will happen, but how.
Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera, trans. from the Portugues by Alison Entrekin (Penguin Press) - Brazilian writer Galera’s novel follows a young man in a beautiful but impoverished coastal town as he tries to uncover the details behind his grandfather’s death. Still reeling from a complicated breakup, the unnamed protagonist visits his ailing father, where he’s told the mysterious story of his grandfather’s murder: no body was ever recovered, no guilty party ever found. After the young man’s father dies, the listless fellow leaves Porto Alegre for coastal Garopaba, desperately seeking some kind of personal peace while also searching out the truth about his grandfather’s end. The bulk of the story has the young man exploring tropical settings, exercising, or attempting to infiltrate the loose social network of Garopaba’s highly secretive, nefarious inhabitants. The task is made significantly more difficult by the young man’s rare condition—he’s unable to recognize faces, even those of people he’s known for years, within minutes of looking away from them. This blunt translation presents a stoic journey of self-discovery, the murder mystery functioning merely as a backdrop.
Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant's Pursuit of the Truth About Guantanamo by Joseph Hickman (S&S) - This disturbing eyewitness account covers the mysterious deaths of three Arab prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in 2006. A proud soldier who re-enlisted with the Maryland National Guard after 9/11, Hickman was on duty the night two Saudis and a Yemeni committed suicide in their cells, according to the official story told by the U.S. military and reported by the international press. But Hickman alleges that the suicides were a cover-up by the U.S. government, and he suspects the men were killed by experimental torture methods being deployed at the site. After his Gitmo tour of duty ended in late 2008, the author took his story to Mark Denbeaux, a professor of law and director of Seton Hall University Law School’s Center for Policy and Research, which had published a detailed profile of Guantanamo detainees in early 2006. With the aid of Denbeaux’s students and Hickman’s own lawyer, Denbeaux’s son, Josh, Hickman dissected thousands of documents to prove his theories, which major media outlets and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service mostly ignored
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (S&S) - Hooper’s arresting debut novel, with its spare, evocative prose, seamlessly interweaves accounts of the present-day lives of its eponymous main characters with the stories of their pasts and how they first connected with each other. The book starts with a note that Etta leaves for her husband: “Otto, I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.” Thus begins elderly Etta’s journey from Saskatchewan to the coast, and the same ocean that once took her dear husband overseas to fight in WWII. She is armed with minor provisions, some clothes, and a sheet of paper with names on it, starting with “You: Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.” Along the way, Etta meets a coyote she names James; she considers him her friend and they have many long conversations as they travel together. As Etta walks thousands of miles to her destination, three touching stories unfold: those of Otto, from a family of 14 brothers and sisters; Russell, the abandoned boy who lived next door to Otto and becomes a de facto part of his family; and Etta, who lost her sister at a young age.
Black River by S.M. Hulse (HMH) - This top-of-the-line modern American Western debut explores the themes of violence, revenge, and forgiveness with a sure hand. Security guard Wes Carver, age 60, lives in Spokane, Wash., with his wife, Claire. When she dies after a lengthy battle with leukemia, he fulfills her request to transport her ashes to their first home of Black River in the Montana outback. His 34-year-old stepson, Dennis Boxer, a successful farrier, puts up Wes at the old homestead despite the history of acrimony between the two men. Black River is a “prison town” where the majority of its residents are employed by the Montana State Prison operating there. Two decades before, when Wes lived in Black River and worked as a correctional officer, a prison riot erupted, led by sadistic thug Bobby Williams, and Williams tortured the captive Wes for 39 hours before rescuers arrived. Williams, who has been a born-again Christian and model inmate since the riot, is coming up for parole, and Wes intends to speak in opposition to it. Meantime, Wes, also a man of faith, has a moral struggle over accepting the sincerity of his former tormentor’s religious conversion.
The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David J. Morris (HMH) - Former marine infantry officer Morris blurs the line between clinical and creative literature in a lucid etiology of a “species of pain that went unnamed for most of human history... now the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the United States.” Morris draws from his own traumatic Iraq War experiences and ancient “historical antecedents” such as the Sumerian Lamentation of Ur and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He moves on to postbellum America, reminding us that many of the Wild West’s most famous gunslingers were Civil War veterans, then to WWI, the “first conflict where war neuroses were officially identified and treated,” and finally the Vietnam War, the “single most important event in the history of psychological trauma.” The book’s second half describes and assesses the various ways in which PTSD is currently treated, using Morris’s own treatment as an example (he found yoga most effective). Morris offers balanced criticisms of the VA, and though he’s focused on American veterans, he attends to “rape, genocide, torture, and natural disaster” as other causes of PTSD in civilians. Well-integrated autobiographical elements make this remarkable work highly instructive and readable.
A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot (Crown) - In this charming, understated memoir, author and translator Richmond Mouillot finds clues to her past as well as her future in a house her French-Jewish grandparents bought in 1948 in Alba, in the Ardèche region of Southern France. Born in 1981 and growing up in Asheville, N.C., Richmond Mouillot was close to her voluble Romanian-born grandmother, Anna, who was a longtime supervising psychiatrist at New York’s Rockland State Mental Hospital; yet, when she was young, the author saw very little of her prickly Zurich-born grandfather, Armand, a U.N. translator at the Nuremberg trials and a later resident of Geneva. The brainy pair met in the 1930s as students in Strasbourg and fled to Switzerland to escape the Nazis. They picked grapes, scrounged for food, and were eventually smuggled to safety. They immigrated to New York in 1948 with their two children, but that year Anna left Armand, who had grown emotionally distant after the horrors of war. When she was in college, Richmond Mouillot came to stay periodically at the house in Alba, developing a deep affinity with the place and spending more time with her solitary grandfather in Geneva, even bringing the embittered man back to the rituals of Judaism, as she describes in one moving passage. Her memoir is a wonderful evocation of the way that the Holocaust has haunted many generations.
The Train to Crystal City: F.D.R.'s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell (Scribner) - During WWII, thousands of people of German, Italian, and Japanese descent living in the United States and Latin America were imprisoned as potential enemy aliens and forced to live in internment camps. Sometimes entire families were gathered together and shipped to a camp outside of Crystal City, Tex., to be traded for Americans imprisoned overseas. Russell draws on historical records and extensive interviews to revisit a confusing, shameful episode in American history. Using two American-born teenagers as her focal points—one of Japanese descent, the other German—she examines the process that transformed law-abiding Americans, regardless of citizenship, into internees and repatriated many to countries they’d never known. Russell pulls no punches describing the cost of war and the conditions internees endured. “The fundamental questions of citizenship, the status of aliens—indeed the definition of who is and who is not an American—are perennial. The travesty in Crystal City,” Russell notes, “is that in the effort to win the war... the cost to civil liberties was high.”
Coyote by Colin Winnette (Les Figues) - Like a modern-day Poe, Winnette (Fondly) has fashioned a narrator whose pull on the reader’s sympathy gradually fades as she recounts the aftermath of her daughter’s mysterious disappearance. The girl, who remains unnamed (like her parents), was put to bed one evening and simply vanished in the night. As her parents appear on various talk shows in an effort to find their daughter, her mother recounts, in small, minutely observed sections, the devastation wrought by the loss of a child. At first, the reader shares the woman’s pain as she struggles to come to grips with her loss. Slowly, however, the reader becomes aware that first impressions are not to be trusted, as the narrator begins to reveal less about her child and more about her own tenuous grasp on sanity. Winnette’s deeply affecting story is hard to put down and even harder to forget.
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski (Putnam) - In the prologue of this outstanding crime novel from Pushcart Prize–winner Wisniewski, Douglas "Deesh" Sharp, an African-American who has been charged with multiple murders, receives an unexpected visitor in the Bronx jail where he's being held. Jan Price, an attractive white woman, is willing to help exonerate him of the murder of jockey Tom Corcoran, whom Jan knew personally, if Deesh can convince her that he's also innocent of killing two other people. Wisniewski deftly alternates perspectives and narrative threads, starting with Deesh's account of how he wound up incarcerated. Deesh agrees to join two friends on a job in upstate New York to haul away some junk that turns out to be a highly suspicious oil drum. Deesh is sure from the outset that the drum contains a corpse. The lure of money overcomes his fears, and reading what follows is like watching a slow-motion train wreck.