This week: new Kazuo Ishiguro, and one of the best books of the year, Thomas McGuane's "Crow Fair."
The Musical Brain by Cesar Aira, trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions) - Aira’s output has been a steady trickle of irrefutable genius and deepening strangeness, from the haunted architecture of Ghosts to delirious westerns set in the pampas of South America, such as The Hare. Now we have the first collection of Aira’s stories, which might be his masterpiece. Essentially 20 novelettes, this book includes the tales “A Thousand Drops,” in which the paint droplets constituting the Mona Lisa evacuate to start lives of their own, and the title story, in which Aira’s hometown of Coronel Pringles, Argentina, becomes a phantasmagoria of flying dwarves. Aficionados will recognize the author’s imitable modes: the philosophic wormhole (as the logic of numbers leads to the brink of absurdity in “The Infinite”), the comedy of coincidence (as in “The All that Plows Through the Nothing,” which begins with an overheard conversation at a gym and ends with the death of a man who claims to have “become literature” after seeing the back of a ghost), and the gnomic furniture dramas (such as “Acts of Charity,” which consists entirely of the description of a house that a priest is constructing for his successor).
The Last Two Seconds by Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf) - The impressive and challenging Bang, winner of the 2007 NBCC Award for Elegy, has never been accused of optimism, but this powerful, caustic set of lyrical and antilyrical works might be her harshest collection yet. Bang rebukes herself and her readers, dresses down civilization, takes on species extinction, militarism, and bodily decay while warning us—in as many ways as the language can bear—that the end of everything is near. A map is “an empire/ of uncommon horror: the human speaking:/ ‘Every moment all that matters is me.’ ” Thought won’t help: in the title poem, “[T]he mind/ isn’t everything, only a gray-suited troop of mechanics/ working to ratchet the self through the teeth of a wheel.” Animals, species, ways of life die off: “[E]very last scene lasts for no more/ than a second; some ceramic panther/ stands in for the extinct. Is it today yet?” Bang addresses sources of doom that are not our fault (mortality) and those that are (climate change); her pessimistic conclusion draws on cultural lodestones from Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka to Walter Benjamin and Cyndi Lauper. Attentive readers who delve into Bang’s sharply articulated vision will find them unforgiving indeed—and those same readers will praise her to the skies.
Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Grove/Black Cat) - Barrett’s accomplished debut collection, winner of the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2014, brims with young men affixed to bar stools with drained pint glasses, recalling tales of past failures over pub chatter. The stories’ protagonists function on society’s fringes—as bouncers, washed-up musicians, cheap muscle—yet all eschew the single dimension often reserved for such characters, instead speaking in voices both world-weary and wise, equally confident and lost. In “Stand Your Skin,” a disfigured service-station employee attempts to return to his old haunts after he’s invited to a coworker’s going-away party, only to realize he can’t slip into his former self. “Diamonds” finds a recovering alcoholic tempted to fall off the wagon by a new face at his AA meeting and her exotic stories of diamond mines. The centerpiece of the volume is a masterly novella, “Calm with Horses,” that follows a thug nicknamed Arm while he navigates fatherhood and the anguish of his profession as the right-hand man to a local drug dealer.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (FSG) - Beatty’s satirical latest (after Slumberland) is a droll, biting look at racism in modern America. At the novel’s opening, its narrator, a black farmer whose last name is Me, has been hauled before the Supreme Court for keeping a slave and reinstituting racial segregation in Dickens, an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles inexplicably zoned for agrarian use. When Dickens is erased from the map by gentrification, Me hatches a modest proposal to bring it back by segregating the local school. While his logic may be skewed, there is a perverse method in his madness; he is aided by Hominy, a former child star from The Little Rascals, who insists that Me take him as his slave. Beatty gleefully catalogues offensive racial stereotypes but also reaches further, questioning what exactly constitutes black identity in America. Wildly funny but deadly serious, Beatty’s caper is populated by outrageous caricatures, and its damning social critique carries the day.
The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks (Carolrhoda Lab) - The fragmented, occasionally incoherent diary of 16-year-old Linus Weems, trapped with five strangers in an underground bunker, offers a disturbing window into the mind of a boy struggling to find sense in a senseless situation, as the possibility of escape or rescue—and the ability to cling to any semblance of hope—diminishes by the day. Each inmate has a tale of being snatched and drugged, awakening in an elevator that opens into the bunker. Every room is surveilled by camera and microphone; the bedrooms are equipped with a Bible, pen, and notebook. Requests sent to their captor via elevator are sometimes answered, sometimes ignored, and sometimes terribly perverted. There’s little by way of character development; Linus at the end is the same boy he was at the beginning, with a lot more experience of suffering. The Man Upstairs, literally and figuratively (Linus begins to think of him as He), is never revealed. Relentlessly bleak, this recent Carnegie Medal–winner fascinates, provokes, and horrifies as Brooks (iBoy) stays true to his nihilistic aims, pushing readers toward an inexorable conclusion.
Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler (Knopf) - Butler, editor of My Dear Mr. Stalin, a collection of correspondences between F.D.R. and Stalin, focuses on the complex negotiations that F.D.R. orchestrated in order to create a version of Woodrow Wilson’s failed League of Nations, in this illuminating and exhaustive book. F.D.R. had been developing a proposal for the United Nations as early as 1939, but in order to succeed where Wilson failed, he understood that he needed the cooperation of the world’s other rising power: Russia. Earning Stalin’s trust required F.D.R. to carefully manage the wartime alliance among America, the U.S.S.R., and Great Britain, a three-way relationship rife with tension and distrust thanks to the antipathy between Churchill and Stalin. What’s most surprising in Butler’s narrative is the warmth that blossomed between Stalin and Roosevelt: a partnership born out of strategic necessity, which transformed into a mutual respect instrumental in winning the war and establishing the United Nations.
The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell (S&S) - Caldwell follows 2004’s The Rule of Four (cowritten with Dustin Thomason) with another superior religious thriller, notable for its existential and spiritual profundity. Set in 2004 in and around the Vatican, the story revolves around two brothers: Alex Andreou, a married Greek Catholic priest who’s estranged from his wife and lives with his five-year-old son; and Simon Andreou, a Roman Catholic priest who works as a diplomat. Both brothers are involved with a controversial museum exhibit involving the Shroud of Turin. Dr. Ugolino Nogara claims that he has proven that the carbon tests dating the shroud to the medieval period are wrong, and that it is indeed the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. When the exhibit’s curator is found murdered and Simon is arrested, Alex sets out to find the truth—and becomes entangled in a grand-scale conspiracy that could resurrect a “poisonous ancient hatred.”
Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel by Annie Cohen-Solal (Yale Univ.) - In this gripping biography, Cohen-Solal (Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli) examines the life and work of Rothko, an artist motivated by his spirituality and one of the most distinguished painters of the 20th century. The meticulous text begins with the artist’s birth as Marcus Rotkovitch in the Russian Empire in 1903, during a time of “tensions, persecutions, and latent hostility” toward Jews, followed by his emigration to Portland, Ore., at age 10. It goes on to catalogue the political, social, and religious forces that contributed to Rothko’s success and also caused him considerable setbacks throughout his career. Digging into archives and conducting interviews with scholars and the artist’s relatives, Cohen-Solal illuminates the lifelong impact Rothko’s time in Talmudic school, as well as the support he received from the immigrant Jewish community in Portland during his years as a minority student in high school. The book richly illustrates a contentious period in the American art world, including the Armory Show, clashes between artists and institutions, and the growing influence of European artists such as Rodin, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse in the United States. This novelistic account is a rewarding close-up of Rothko’s personal life and his experience as a Jewish immigrant.
The Opposite House by Claudia Emerson (LSU) - Each poem in this last work from the late Emerson, who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Late Wife, is a finely detailed portrait. Her subjects include everything from inanimate objects (a drive-in movie theater, wisdom teeth), archetypical characters (the middle child, the aunt, a woman with Alzheimer’s, a greengrocer), and more specific figures such as those found in her poem “Dr. Crawford Long, Discoverer of the First Surgical Anesthetic, and the Case of Isam Bailey.” Emerson is an intense, intelligent, and authoritative poet who expresses herself through spare, sharp lines that burst with emotion. She also understands the interplay between language and her very human subjects, as when she writes of an old telephone operator, “All morning she has answered, ever pleasant,/ the one no one wants, but must reach for.” As for her greengrocer: “Customers handle all of what he has displayed,/ worried, he has come to think, skeptical,/ the way they might be about a child.”
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf) - Ishiguro's new novel is set in Arthurian England—not the mythic land of knights, castles, and pageants most of us are familiar with, but a primitive and rural country likely far closer to historical reality. This is a gray and superstitious place, rather than a battlefield alive with the color and movement of steeds and fluttering banners; it's sparsely inhabited and scarcely advanced. Here British peasants eke out a hardscrabble existence from caves dug into hillsides, while the recent Saxon invaders live in more-advanced villages of rudimentary huts. A strange fog hovers over the dreary countryside—where an uneasy peace has balanced on a knife edge since the end of the most recent wars—robbing the populace of its memories. Into this countryside the protagonists—an elderly, ailing British couple named Axl and Beatrice—embark on a pilgrimage to the village of their half-forgotten son. This patient novel will be difficult for readers to forget.
Call Me Home by Megan Kruse (Hawthorne) - Lydia and Jackson grew up hiding in the woods of Washington state whenever their parents fought; they had to help their mother, Amy, clean the house after their father, Gary, broke her arm. Kruse’s sweeping debut novel tells of a life punctuated by violence and underscored with fear—a life that Amy hopes has enough moments of beauty for her children. After a particularly bad argument, Gary pushes her out of the window, and she knows that this time, she must get her children away from him for good. After 18-year-old Jackson, torn between hate for his father and an intense desire for a father figure, gives Gary some potentially dangerous information about Amy, she is forced to flee with Lydia to Texas to start a new life. Burdened by guilt but determined to give her 13-year-old daughter a sense of hope, Amy reexamines her relationship with Gary, trying to pinpoint the moment when love became fear. Meanwhile, Jackson flees from smalltown Washington to Portland, and then to Idaho, where he finds work on a construction crew and falls into a passionate affair with Don, his married boss. A powerful story told with ferocity and grace.
Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier (Soho Teen) - In a place like Razorhurst—a slum of 1932 Sydney, where guns are outlawed and men kill with blades—it’s little surprise that Kelpie and Dymphna meet over the slit throat of a dead body. Though circumstance unites them, the girls couldn’t be more different: street urchin Kelpie stumbles upon Jimmy Palmer’s corpse while looking for food. Dymphna, though a teenager, looks and acts like an adult woman: she’s the top-earning prostitute in Glory Nelson’s criminal empire, and Jimmy is only the most recent of the dead lovers who have earned her the nickname “Angel of Death.” But both girls can see ghosts, and thanks to the cascading effects of Jimmy’s murder, both may die before the day ends. Larbalestier (Liar) packs plenty of danger into the single day this novel covers, but frequent interludes of backstory keep things from feeling rushed.
The Four Books by Yan Lianke, trans. from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Grove) - Yan, a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, pens a biting satire about Chinese re-education camps during the Great Leap Forward that’s as haunting as it is eye-opening. In this tale, intellectuals and dissidents are sent to a labor camp, where they promise to perform impossible tasks in order to gain their freedom. These intellectuals—“the Musician,” forced to prostitute herself for food; her lover, “the Scholar”; “the Theologian,” who ends up cursing God for his fate; and “the Author,” commissioned to write reports on the sins of the others, struggle for survival. Overseeing all of them is “the Child,” who is as vulnerable to the whims of his bureaucratic superiors as his prisoners are to him. As the prisoners careen from impossible production quotas to slow death by starvation, the Child eventually offers to sacrifice himself for their freedom, in a stark parody of both Maoist ideals and Christian scripture. Yan has created a complex, epic tale rife with allusion.
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (Grove) - Already the winner of multiple literary prizes and a bestseller in the U.K., this elegant synthesis of memoir and literary sleuthing features an English academic discovering that training a young goshawk helps her through her grief over the death of her father. With her three-year fellowship at the University of Cambridge nearly over, Macdonald, a trained falconer, rediscovers a favorite book of her childhood, T.H. White's The Goshawk (1951), in which White, author of The Once and Future King, recounts his mostly failed but illuminating attempts at training a goshawk, one of the most magnificent and deadly raptors. Macdonald secures her own goshawk, which she names Mabel, and the fierce wildness of the young bird soothes her sense of being broken by her father's untimely death. The book moves from White's frustration at training his bird to Macdonald's sure, deliberate efforts to get Mabel to fly to her. Macdonald describes in beautiful, thoughtful prose how she comes to terms with death in new and startling ways as a result of her experiences with the goshawk.
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane (Knopf) - One of the best story collections you'll read this year (or any year), McGuane's funny, sad, awfully human Crow Fair features aging cowboys, middle-aged men resistant to growing up, and the women who plague and perplex them. The title story recounts how two brothers handle their dying mother’s revelation of her long-ago love affair at the Crow Fair powwow/Wild West Show. With imagery as sparse and striking as the landscape, houses figure prominently. “Weight Watchers” shows a man who builds homes only for other people. The repossessed “House on Sand Creek” becomes home to a real estate lawyer, his Eastern European wife, her infant son, and Bob the babysitter. At the “Fishing Camp,” two longtime friends find their wilderness guide cannot stand being in the wilderness with men who keep arguing about the past. McGuane’s stories highlight the detachment of young from old, husband from wife, neighbor from neighbor, the dying from life itself.
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso (Graywolf) - The subtitle of Manguso’s elegant, slim meditation is both deceptive and true. Though she despises endings—time, she reiterates, is not a journey from one fixed point to another but rather a never-ending continuum—she wants to explore what it means to end something that for so long made up a crucial part of her identity: for 25 years, Manguso kept a diary, a document that’s now more than 800,000 words. Rather than just recording momentous events, she admits that “I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.” Curiously, this new volume, which is not the diary—an afterword discusses her decision process whether or not to excerpt it—but a reflection on the process itself and what it meant to her to be so focused on documenting and giving meaning to moments that might, in fact, have no meaning. It would be too simplistic—and nothing about Manguso’s prose, despite its sparseness, is simple—to conflate her role as a mother with her changing views on the nature of time and the meaning, or lack thereof, of moments. Manguso’s essay is both grounding and heady, the spark of a larger, important conversation that makes readers all the more eager for her future output.
Firstborn by Tor Seidler, illus. by Chris Sheban (S&S/Athenum) - The designation “firstborn” applies to several characters in Seidler’s animal adventure—the effervescent narrator, Maggie the magpie; Blue Boy, a wolf who accepts Maggie as an unofficial pack member; and Lamar, Blue Boy’s eldest son, who wrestles with familial duties and his unorthodox love for a coyote. After Maggie realizes that she is different from other magpies (“the thought of spending my whole life with Dan and his junk made me shudder”), she takes off to explore the wilderness of Montana and Wyoming just as wolves are being reintroduced to Yellowstone Park. National Book Award finalist Seidler illuminates a world full of beauty (“leaves had broken out of their buds, like butterflies out of their cocoons”), danger, and the struggle to survive: deaths come fast and frequent for predators and prey alike. Themes of self-acceptance, devotion, and integrity resonate as Maggie and others act on wisdom she learns from her first friend, Jackson the crow: “you can’t be loyal to others if you’re not loyal to your own nature first.” A moving acknowledgement of true friendship provides a heartwarming conclusion to this absorbing tale.