This week: our future in space, Chigozie Obioma's wonderful debut novel, and new Amelia Gray.
I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Garda (Litle, Brown) - In 1997, a 12-year old girl from Hatfield, Pa., and a 14-year-old boy from Mutare, Zimbabwe, began a pen-pal relationship. In alternating chapters, Alifirenka and Ganda recount how their mutual curiosity led to an increasingly honest, generous correspondence. Martin loves receiving Caitlin's photo, but when she requests one in return, "My heart went from sprinting to a standstill." He sends her the only photo his family owns. Hearing BBC accounts of Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil alarms Caitlin, but a letter written on a popsicle wrapper shocks her: "I gasped. My friend was writing me on trash." She begins to send him her babysitting money—which Martin's family uses to buy food and to pay school fees and rent—and Caitlin's family eventually decides to sponsor Martin's education. Sensitively and candidly demonstrating how small actions can result in enormous change, this memoir of two families' transformation through the commitment and affection of long-distance friends will humble and inspire.
Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1939 by Philipp Blom (Basic) - In the beginning of this thoughtful portrait of the interwar years, Blom (A Wicked Company) asks the central question that arose for so many everyday people: after the devastation of WWI, “What values were there left to live for?” Blom is thorough in documenting the many attempts to answer this question, from the noble to the insidious to the tragic. He adeptly roams across topics and locations, including the early stirrings of fascism when the Italian poet D’Annunzio marched on Fiume; H.G. Wells’s scathing review of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis; the sickening activism of American eugenics enthusiasts; the wonders of Magnitogorsk, the “Magnet City” built in the Urals; and the growing risk of totalitarian regimes, such as Mussolini’s, that pandered to the hopeless and the lost. Dread, paranoia, and anger pervade these stories. This well-written account brings a refreshing clarity to such uncertain times.
Secret Warriors: The Spies, Scientists and Code Breakers of World War I by Taylor Downing (Pegasus) - Downing offers an ingenious history that sets aside WWI’s immense slaughter in order to concentrate on those who labored behind the scenes (primarily in Britain). Though he fails to provide a unifying theme (an introductory chapter attempts to do so by describing the world-changing 19th-century advancements that defined the pre-WWI era), few readers will complain as they proceed through five unrelated but completely engrossing sections on aviation, intelligence, weapons, medicine, and communication. Even readers familiar with Bletchley Park’s dazzling feats in WWII will marvel at how Britain was able to decipher Germany’s military and diplomatic codes nearly from the start of WWI. Downing’s fine history of the war’s most notable weapons—machine guns, tanks, poison gas—precedes chapters giving even finer histories of vast advances in surgery (90% of wounded soldiers in WWI survived, versus 60% during the American Civil War) and sanitation (10% of deaths stemmed from disease in WWI, versus 70% in the Civil War). He also outlines how Hitler and Goebbels admired and emulated Britain’s surprisingly effective journalism and propaganda operations during WWI, which have been adopted by countries at war ever since.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (HMH) - Flounoy’s debut is a lively, thoroughly engaging family saga with a cast of fully realized characters. Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children have lived in a house on Detroit’s East Side for more than 50 years. In its prime, Yarrow Street was a comfortable haven for black working-class homeowners. In 2008, after Detroit’s long economic depression, Francis has died and Viola is about to lose the house, the value of which has declined to less than the owed mortgage payments, and the siblings are faced with a difficult decision about the house’s fate. Flournoy focuses on three of the Turner siblings—Cha-Cha, the eldest son, who drove an 18-wheeler carrying Chryslers before an accident took him off the road; Troy, the youngest son, a policeman with an ambitious, illegal plan; and Lelah, the unstable youngest daughter, who has a gambling addiction. In addition to the pressing financial issue regarding their family home, the plot touches on the moral, emotional, marital, and psychological problems that affect the siblings. Flournoy evokes the intricacies of domestic situations and sibling relationships, depicting how each of the Turners’ lives has been shaped by the social history of their generation.
The Buddha's Return by Gaito Gazdanov, trans. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Press) - Gadzanov's previous novel to be translated into English, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, a masterly Dostoevskian and noir-ish narrative of doubled identities, turns out to have only been a taste of the dizzying strangeness to which this novel ascends. A troubled student experiences a crisis and "dies,"only to be arrested by a mysterious—and dysfunctional—bureaucracy working for the "Central State." Released into the nightlife of Paris, the unnamed student becomes acquainted, and eventually obsessed, with one Pavel Alexandrovich Scherbakov, a former beggar who has become a glamorous arriviste. Together, they spend nights discussing philosophy, religion, and literature—but Pavel Alexandrovich retains connections from the Paris criminal underworld and is drawn into the schemes of Zina and Lida, a vicious mother-daughter team, even as the student begins to be visited by an enigmatic lieutenant calling himself the Gentleman, who insinuates that there may be more than lucky accident behind Pavel Alexandrovich's change in fortune. This is an excellent novel by any standard, and especially remarkable for joining the philosophical underpinnings of the Russians with the intrigue of a French thriller.
Gutshot by Amelia Gray (FSG) - Strange, fable-like, and physical, Gray’s (Threats) stories are driven by uncanny forces and set in organic yet unnatural worlds. The first story, “In the Moment,” sets the tone, in which a man afraid of losing his beloved is soothed by her detached sensory perceptions: “Emily taught him to view each day as a wild element divorced from past and future. He needed not only to exist at a point on a vector but ultimately to destroy the vector and inhabit that solitary point, like living inside a meteor without fear or knowledge of its movement.” The recurrence of a phenomenological experience of time flows through the stories, along with a materialist understanding that pushes in on human perception. In “The Year of the Snake,” a massive snake bisects a town and disrupts the citizens until eventually the story’s protagonist, a scientist, cuts open the snake, “peeling back to reveal that the flesh inside formed a cavern. She saw a lantern swinging gently from the knobby spine ceiling. A man sat at a table, calm as the moon.” In “A Contest,” the gods hold a contest: the mortal who grieves the most on Earth will be reunited with her departed, and at the story’s abrupt end, an old, lonely woman is reunited with her cat. Gray dazzlingly renders the wide array of human experience in these potent, haunting stories.
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey (Norton) - As governments debate the value of funding space science, Impey (Humble Before the Void) delivers a timely book covering a wealth of reasons to care about space and what we could accomplish there if we accept the challenge. The “profound human urge to explore” is in our genes, Impey says. Rockets provide a way to escape Earth, but the Cold War “Space Race” between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. highlighted the struggle to balance funding—as well as competing motivations—between military and civilian space science, which has left NASA in its current “doldrums.” Currently, private space companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic offer potential new routes off Earth, while others explore ways to settle “[the] Moon, Mars, and beyond”—though Impey cautions the reader about the inherent risks, particularly that “people are going to die.” With vivid writing that skillfully walks the line between visionary and pragmatic, Impey finds equal opportunity for both humans and robotic explorers on a journey that could not only teach us about new worlds, but “how to be better caretakers of this one.”
The Truth Commission by Susan Juby (Viking) - In a story framed as a creative nonfiction assignment (complete with footnotes), Normandy Pale, a student at a prestigious fine arts high school, recounts the often harrowing and sometimes hilarious events of the first semester of her junior year. It all begins when Normandy and best friends Dusk and Neil form a “Truth Commission” in order to answer some pressing questions. Why did their pretty classmate Aimee get plastic surgery? Why is school secretary Mrs. Dekker so grumpy? Is Tyler Jones really gay? The trio’s strategy is straightforward: just ask the persons in question. Some are relieved to confess to the Commission, yet Normandy resists investigating the biggest mystery in her life: why has her sister, a famous graphic novelist, dropped out of college and returned home? With a deft hand and an open mind, Juby (the Alice trilogy) presents many layers of truth while evoking Normandy’s pain over being the subject of ridicule in her sister’s books.
Born with Teeth: A Memoir by Kate Mulgrew (Little, Brown) - In Mulgrew’s assured gem of a memoir, fans of the actress (Star Trek: Voyager, Orange is the New Black) will delight in discovering her writing chops are as accomplished as her award-winning acting. Growing up, she lived in Derby Grange, a massive 1850s house in Dubuque, Iowa, where Mulgrew and her seven siblings enjoyed magical childhoods. Her eccentric artist mother, whose best friend was Jean Kennedy Smith, sent the budding actress to New York at 18, where she studied with the legendary Stella Adler. Mulgrew’s career took off quickly when she landed the lead in the soap Ryan’s Hope in 1975. Her unplanned pregnancy during that time was written into the script, although only a handful knew the baby girl was placed for adoption at birth. The events devastated Mulgrew, as did the early deaths of two beloved siblings and a rape she survived near her Manhattan apartment. But she kept moving forward, powerfully devoted to her life through broken romantic relationships. Readers will savor Mulgrew’s gift for erudite, honest writing.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Little, Brown) - Seamlessly interweaving the everyday and the elemental, Obioma’s strange, imaginative debut—the translation rights to which have been sold in 12 countries—probes the nature of belief and the power of family bonds. Set in 1990s Nigeria, it is narrated by Benjamin Agwu, who is nine when his father departs for a distant banking job, leaving his wife and six children behind in the village of Akure. Despite stern admonitions, the four oldest brothers soon test their mother’s discipline. Their worst transgression is to fish in the Omi-Ala, a once-pure river that has become dirty and dangerous. There they encounter a mentally ill man named Abulu, who is locally believed to have powers of prophecy. Inexplicably, Abulu knows the eldest Agwu brother, Ikenna, by name. In a trance, he foretells the teenager’s death in detail, adding that it will be at “the hands of a fisherman.” Obioma excels at juxtaposing sharp observation, rich images of the natural world, and motifs from biblical and tribal lore; his novel succeeds as a convincing modern narrative and as a majestic reimagining of timeless folklore.
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy (Grand Central) - A postapocalyptic America mired in political intrigues serves as the backdrop for this visionary thriller from Percy (Red Moon). Years after a super-flu and nuclear Armageddon have decimated civilization, the remnants of U.S. citizenry cower inside the Sanctuary, a foundering stronghold on the outskirts of St. Louis, the tyrannical leaders of which rule by fearmongering and intimidation. When a visiting emissary from Oregon proves that life flourishes elsewhere, bookish Lewis Meriwether and rugged Wilhemina Clark flee with an entourage of fugitives. They embark on a northwestern trek through the wilderness known as the Dead Lands, mirroring the historical exploration of America’s Louisiana Purchase. Percy throws a number of frightening obstacles in his adventurers’ way, including giant spiders, enormous predatory bats, and human slavers, but the greatest challenges his characters face are their own doubts about the future and their place in the society they are fleeing to.
The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe by Michael Pye (Pegasus) - Pye (The Pieces from Berlin) takes readers on a far-ranging tour of Europe during the Dark Ages, looking at how civilization developed and evolved through the cultures “around the North Sea in times when water was the easiest way to travel, when the sea connected and carried peoples, belief and ideas, as well as pots and wine and coal.” His style is leisurely yet authoritative, scholarly but engaging; his approach resembles that of a docent leading a group through a vast museum, with each section devoted to a different aspect of society. Pye looks at the establishment of money and currency, the rise of books and written knowledge, the vagaries of fashion and the progress of law, and the clash of cultures and societies. It’s a series of broad topics, condensed into an entertaining attempt to convey the true wealth of cultural growth during a commonly misunderstood era. This is an eye-opening reexamination of the era, and delightfully accessible.
What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford edited by Michael Wiegers (Copper Canyon) - In this comprehensive and essential retrospective, the body of work left behind by Stanford—who took his own life in 1978, at age 29—more than makes good on his insistence that “poetry busts guts.” The volume presents a vital and distinctly American surrealist impulse, as Stanford, whose legacy is somewhat obscured by his extensive self-mythologizing, fearlessly explored the terror and wonder of the mind and the physical world. Published and unpublished poems coexist alongside excerpts from his 15,000-line epic, “Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You,” as well as selected bits of energetic prose and other ephemera. In the course of reading, one witnesses the prismatic and visionary effects of his imagination on a richly figured world of Southern objects—knives, rivers, boats, cypress trees—where the moon can be everything from “a dead man floating down the river” to “dead fish” to the “blind eye of a fish/ in the back of a cave.” Stanford demanded of poetry that it “mean and sing,” and this is the definitive document of his uncanny ability to do just that.
All the Rage by Courtney Summers (St. Martin's Griffin) - As Romy Grey enters her senior year, she learns firsthand that the town of Grebe does not take kindly to girls who accuse the sheriff’s son of rape. Romy’s only escape from the brutal torments she suffers daily at school is her waitressing job, far enough from Grebe that no one there knows what happened to her—including her coworker Leon, whose unassuming romantic interest she hesitantly begins to return. But when Romy attends the town’s infamous senior party and wakes up on the side of the road with the night an awful blank behind her, her life comes crashing down anew: her former best friend Penny has vanished. The book takes a while to gain momentum, but Penny’s disappearance gives direction and purpose to Romy’s harrowing emotional journey as she struggles to reconcile her own fate with Penny’s. The narrative never shies from its charged subject, and Summers portrays the unforgiving mind-set of Grebe’s citizens with grim realism. Through its resolution is neither tidy nor simple, Romy’s powerful story creates a space for change.
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann (FSG) - “The concentration camps embodied the spirit of Nazism like no other institution in the Third Reich,” writes Wachsmann (Hitler’s Prisons)—at least 2.3 million people passed through them; at least 1.7 million died in them—and yet there exists no comprehensive analysis of the camp system, its principles and dynamics, or the forces and people that shaped it. Wachsmann, of Birkbeck College, University of London, fills that gap brilliantly. Working from a mass of documentary evidence—some of which was only made available in the last quarter century—and with a corresponding body of first-person accounts, he establishes the camps, referred to as KL (from the German konzentrationslager), at the center of the Nazi terror system. Wachsmann demonstrates that “the main constant of the KL was change,” and the system’s protean, responsive nature sustained and exemplified the Reich. Wachsmann’s exhaustive study will be seen as the authoritative work on the subject.