This week, Sally Mann's amazing memoir, original sin, and the latest from Anne Enright.
The Rose Hotel: A Memoir of Secrets, Loss, and Love from Iran to America by Rahimeh Andalibian (National Geographic) - This brave, beautifully written memoir, originally published as a novel in order to safeguard identities, is the story of a wealthy, young Iranian girl whose family is traumatized by events surrounding Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the subsequent fallout that caused the family decades of suffering. Andalibian’s family owned an upscale hotel near a revered pilgrimage site; her strictly religious father, Baba, forbade alcohol, unrelated couples, and music in the hotel. As the revolution loomed, a rape and a murder occurred, resulting in false accusations and the devastating arrest of Andalibian’s eldest brother, Abdollah. Kangaroo-court justice prevailed amid chaos and violence, leading to Abdollah’s imprisonment and the rest of the family’s eventual move to California. Tremendous hardship followed in America: Andalibian’s mother, Maman, became severely depressed; her loving but authoritarian father had crushing financial losses; and her brothers indulged in reckless teen rebellion, followed by substance abuse, addiction, and numerous failed marriages. Touching on family, faith, assimilation, grief, and closure, Andalibian writes movingly about using her training as a clinical psychologist to heal herself and her family, homing in on secrets carried from Iran as the root of her family’s complex trauma.
Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, trans. from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk (Puskin) - The stories in this classic collection are set in the summer of 1920, when Babel was 25 and sent to cover the Polish-Soviet War for the Red Cavalryman newspaper. Sympathetic to the revolution yet having a satiric eye, he describes the newspaper’s writers who “roam about in the barren dust of the rear and spread the riot and fire of their leaflets.” Babel was a Jew assigned to a Cossack regiment; his stand-in first-person narrator overcomes the soldiers’ animosity when, in the story “My First Goose,” he breaks a fowl’s neck and orders it to be roasted up. In “The Story of a Horse” and “The Story of a Horse, Continued,” a dispute between a squadron commander and a division commander over a horse produces an exchange of letters full of heartfelt (though jargony) prose and brutal honesty—the commanders have more of an emotional connection to the horses than to other people. Casual violence (“[he] grabbed her hair, bent back her head and smashed her face with his fist”) alternates with beauty, sometimes in the same sentence (“We fled without staining our swords crimson with the wretched blood of traitors”).
The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado by Holly Bailey (Viking) - Journalist Bailey grew up in central Oklahoma’s “tornado alley” and was accustomed to storms, but the tornado that struck Moore, Okla., the city where she’d spent much of her childhood, on May 20th, 2013, was one of truly epic and horrifying proportions. She revisits that terrifying day in this remarkable account, putting readers on the ground as the storm grows. Interviews with residents—including the charismatic Gary England, then chief meteorologist for Oklahoma City’s KWTV-9; Amy Simpson, head principal of one of Moore’s hardest-hit elementary schools; and Steve Eddy, Moore’s relentlessly determined city manager—highlight the tornado’s personal toll and make for an almost unbearable page-turning experience. The storm began as “nothing more than a wispy little funnel” but metastasized into a monstrous tornado “more than a mile wide” with winds “well in excess of 210 miles per hour.” It also hit during the worst possible time: late afternoon, when children were still in school. Bailey ramps up the tension with a skilled hand, following the tornado’s path through town until residents emerge from the wreckage to a landscape they “no longer recognized.”
Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World by James Boyce (Counterpoint) - The doctrine of original sin, which has roots in the theological urgings of St. Augustine, has long been a requisite element of Western Christian orthodoxy. Although this teaching has faded from public discourse in recent years, historian Boyce makes a compelling argument for its initial and continuing relevance to Western cultures, influencing government and society as well as religion. Not so much a theological treatise as a history of an idea, this fascinating work by an accomplished scholar is an engrossing study of the development of the Western church and Western society, showing how original sin helped define the political, economic, and social evolution of the West. Boyce leads us into new understandings of some of the central figures in Western culture. Artists, poets, and others take on new life in light of the effects of original sin in their thinking. Especially intriguing are his insights into America’s founding fathers’ reflections on human depravity and their hope for an enlightened democracy, a yearning that shrugs off some of Western Christendom’s orthodoxy. This is an exceptional, highly recommended work, innovative and creative in surprising ways.
1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar by Eric Burns (Pegasus) - Burns takes readers on a thorough tour of the upheavals and events of the year when “the Roaring Twenties first began to roar.” More than a “preview of a decade,” 1920 was “a preview of the entire century and even the century to follow.” In particular, Burns focuses on the beginning of Prohibition, the passing of the 19th Amendment, the popular explosion of jazz, and the rise and fall of Charles Ponzi. He also touches upon corruption in the White House, the Teapot Dome Scandal, and the radical inequality of wealth distribution. The railroads, radio, and Planned Parenthood all saw development in 1920; the urban population overtook the rural for the first time. Burns leaps from one captivating topic to the next, displaying his expertise and sometimes drawing from his previous books to bring these trends and events to life. It’s an entertaining and informative look at a pivotal period, kicking off “a time of excitement, excess and enthusiasm” and “a century’s worth of turmoil and jubilation, irrationality and intrigue, optimism and injustice.”
It Starts with Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing by Clark Davis (Univ. of Texas) - In this stellar biography, Davis (After the Whale) deftly examines the life of a complex and overlooked figure in the history of American literature. William Goyen emerged from smalltown East Texas and the WWII-era Navy to write the sort of lush, dreamlike prose more commonly associated with European writers than the Americans of the postwar period. Harnessing extensive archival research and new interviews, Davis stakes out the boundaries of Goyen’s involvement with the literary community and his evolution as an artist. Throughout, Davis expertly weaves in literary criticism of Goyen’s masterpiece, the novel The House of Breath, and his other fiction, which in combination reveal the urgency of his search for place and identity. Goyen found refuge from his outsider status in friendships with luminaries like Frieda Lawrence, Stephen Spender, Anaïs Nin, and Katherine Anne Porter. This lively and enlightening biography will resurrect Goyen’s brilliant writing for a new generation of readers.
The Green Road by Anne Enright (Norton) - The eponymous road of Enright’s flawless novel is in County Clare in Ireland, running from the impoverished farm of handsome Pat Madigan in Boolavaun, to a house called Ardeevin, where he wooed Rosaleen Considine, daughter of the town’s leading family. A volatile drama queen, Rosaleen is the fulcrum about which her children warily move. In 1980, Rosaleen takes to her bed when Dan, the eldest and her favorite, announces his intention to become a priest. She is even more aggrieved when he abandons the priesthood for the art community in New York in the 1990s and eventually allows his true sexual nature to emerge in a series of ardent gay trysts. The tone is much different in the chapters set in Ardeevin, where the lilt of Irish vernacular permeates the dialogue. Meanwhile Emmet, the second son, is engaged in relief work in Mali, trying to retain his sanity as the death toll from famine mounts and his girlfriend lavishes her love on a mangy dog. Hanna, his sister, is an aspiring actress and a drunk who confronts reality at 37, bitterly ambivalent about being the mother of an unplanned baby. The fourth sibling, Constance, who has married well and lives with her happy family in Limmerick, is her mother’s dogsbody and the unappreciated provider. Enright, winner of the Man Booker, has crafted a vibrant family portrait
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squib (Faber and Faber/n+1) - The spirited, eye-opening examinations of various American cities in this intelligent collection of essays, many republished from n+1 magazine, tell a common story of economic vibrancy and ambitious vision followed by "postindustrial malaise," economic depression, ecological devastation, and rising crime. Some chapters peer revealingly into small pockets of a business or a lifestyle; others analyze structures such as highways, skyscrapers, and schools. The most thoughtful and thought-provoking provide personalized histories of various cities' struggles, illuminating their current economics (a study of denim production in Greensboro, N.C.; another of a brothel in Washington, D.C.), colorful pasts, and attempts at renewal: fracking in Williston, N.D., volunteerism in New Orleans, the DestiNY U.S.A. mall in Syracuse, N.Y., and reality TV in Whittier, Alaska. While the collection paints a depressing picture of the modern American city as home to strangling politics, entrenched racism, and desperate poverty, and subject to ongoing gentrification and exploitation by the very wealthy, several essays sow seeds of hope for a more promising future: one of environmental renewal and new civic institutions that can renegotiate livable, thriving communities out of a present crisis and a blighted past.
The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century by D.W. Gibson (Overlook) - In this impressive and multifaceted oral history, Gibson (Not Working) explores “how gentrification affects lives” by interviewing a wide range of people living and working in New York City. As the author makes his way through the gentrified and gentrifying portions of Brooklyn (Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Red Hook) and Manhattan (the Lower East Side, Chelsea, Harlem), he interviews real estate agents, contractors, landlords, renters, housing lawyers, community organizers, city government workers, architects, artists, a squatter, a drug dealer, and an investment banker, among others. Common themes include displacement, the contradictory class positions people occupy, the rising homeless population and their “criminalization,” the declining stock of affordable housing due to buyouts and deregulation, the way universities (particularly NYU and Columbia) have become some of the biggest landowners in the city, the ballooning waiting list for public housing, absentee landownership, and the forces of capitalism versus democracy. Central to this work are the distinctive voices of the New Yorkers Gibson interviews, the niches they carve out for themselves, and the myriad ways they are molding, and being molded, by their neighborhoods. Gibson manages to capture a global city in flux, in grave danger of losing its diversity.
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Abrams/Amulet) - In this painful and powerful tale set in post-WWI England, readers meet 11-year-old Triss, the coddled daughter of a respected civil engineer and an overprotective mother, as well as her jealous younger sister, Pen. As the story opens, Triss has somehow fallen into a local pond, barely escaping with her life, and she regains consciousness to find that the world has gone strange. Her memories are spotty and inconsistent, store mannequins and dolls turn their heads to follow her movements, and every time she closes her eyes she senses “dreams waiting at the mousehole of her mind’s edge, ready to catch her up in their soft cat-mouth and carry her off somewhere she did not want to go.” Triss feels an overwhelming hunger that cannot be assuaged by human food and suspects she is no longer human.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll (S&S) - One woman’s carefully orchestrated, perfect life slowly cracks to reveal a dark underbelly in Knoll’s knockout debut novel. Ani FaNelli has left her Main Line suburban Philadelphia roots behind to reinvent herself as a writer for a successful New York magazine. She is now engaged to the successful, wealthy Luke. But her past threatens to come back to haunt her, in the form of a documentary about a school shooting that happened at her prestigious private high school years ago. Ani leaves New York to travel back to suburban Philadelphia to tell her side of the story. Knoll carefully unravels Ani’s past, her fractured relationship with her mother, and her suffering at the hands of her fellow high school students. Yet what sets this novel apart is the author’s ability to snare the reader from page one, setting the tone for a completely enthralling read as the secrets are revealed.
How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz (HMH) - Bestselling author Lutz (the Spellman Files series) hits a home run in this glorious exploration of friendship, which follows the trajectory of three college friends over 20 years. First there’s Kate Smirnoff (yes, “like the vodka,” she proclaims) raised by her grandfather after her parents’ accidental death when she was eight, destined to own her family’s business, a diner in Santa Cruz. There’s Anna Fury, an independent woman (yet needy for love) who eschews her upper-class background and has a penchant for adventure that almost upends her life. And then there’s George (Georgiana) Leoni, a gorgeous outdoorsy type with an uncanny perception about what makes people tick, yet who keeps falling for the wrong man. A traumatic event in their 20s binds the three women, and Lutz, moving back and forth in time, brilliantly intertwines their lives over the next two decades, as Kate leaves her sheltered life and explores the world, Anna pursues an M.D., and George becomes a forest ranger.
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (Little, Brown) - Photographer Mann’s sensuous and searching memoir finds her pulling out family records from the attic, raising questions about the unexamined past and how photographs “rob all of us of our memory,” and calling upon ancestry to explain the mysteries of her own character. Rockbridge County, Va., a place of great beauty, is the site of Mann’s uncontained childhood; her wedding to her lifelong companion, Larry Mann; and the idyllic family farm, where she took the photographs collected in Immediate Family (1992). Those photos of her three young children in the nude, and the controversy that erupted around them, “changed all our lives in ways we never could have predicted, in ways that affect us still,” she says, firmly stressing that photography is mere artifice, that the images “are not my children.” The pictures and fallout attracted a fanatic stalker, who kept the Mann family on edge for years. (Indeed, this memoir periodically reads like a crime thriller.) The vivid descriptive energy and arresting images in this impressive book will leave readers breathless.
And Sometimes I Wonder About You: A Leonid McGill Mystery by Walter Mosley (Doubleday) - Leonid McGill slogs his way through a morass of personal and professional problems in Mosley's outstanding fifth mystery featuring the New York City PI (after 2012's All I Did Was Shoot My Man). People giving him trouble include a modern-day Fagin, who's entangled with McGill's son Twill in some criminal enterprises; the ex-fiancé of a woman McGill is involved with; and a client he rejected. Women have always complicated McGill's life and continue to do so: his emotionally fragile wife, Katrina, is in a sanatorium after a failed suicide attempt; his sometime lover, Aura Ullman, is keeping her distance; and he's attracted to the beautiful Marella Herzog, whom he meets on the train from Philadelphia to New York. McGill deals with his professional problems with a combination of brute force and wiliness, while the women in his life tie him in emotional knots. The return of his father, Tolstoy McGill, the left-wing revolutionary who abandoned his family years ago, roils McGill even more than the women.
Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey (Basic) - The future of libraries is filled with potential, according to Palfrey, the former director of the Harvard Law School Library and founding chair of the Digital Public Library of America. His new book carves out a strong and exciting vision for libraries in the 21st century, one that maintains the core activities of librarianship (“ensuring access to and preservation of information”), by combining the virtues of the library as a public space situated in a community with the vast networking capabilities afforded by the digital era.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (HarperTeen) - In Stevenson’s funny, smart, and provocative graphic novel (which originated as a webcomic), a gentlemanly clash between rivals is disrupted when an energetic shapeshifter raises the stakes with her predilection for violence. Set in a medieval-meets-modern fantasy kingdom, the story begins when Nimona offers her services to Lord Ballister Blackheart, banished evil genius and friend-turned-nemesis of Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, champion of the powerful Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Through Nimona’s influence, Ballister’s tepid schemes graduate into deadly and destructive plots, forcing the Institution to respond with drastic measures that reveal its own nefarious leanings. Initially poking fun at hero and villain stereotypes (“You can’t just go around murdering people. There are rules, Nimona,” Ballister tells the pierced, pink-haired shapeshifter after she suggests a bloody public execution of the king), Stevenson’s tale presents a nuanced view of morality while offering thoughtful comment on friendship and individuality.
The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry by Helen Vendler (Harvard Univ.) - In this triumphant collection, Vendler (Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries) reminds us why she is one of the most important living scholars of poetry. Although her renowned work has included several studies of Yeats and painstaking close readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, most of the 27 essays showcased in this book are rooted in American soil. But the geographically grounded collection is anything but constricted: its essays, in their varied approaches, open up America’s haunting, startlingly alive poetic landscape. The first entry analyzes the Wallace Stevens poem “Somnabulisma,” the imagery of which inspired this book’s title, while later essays illuminate key poets like John Ashbery, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney. The most rewarding selection, however, may be the introduction, in which Vendler turns to her own history and experience as a scholar. This book, with its oceans of depth, reminds us why we need poetry—as well as teachers like Vendler to bring it to transformative life.