This week: Mia Alvar's amazing debut story collection, finding a pirate ship, and Aziz Ansari on modern romance.
In the Country by Mia Alvar (Knopf) - In this stunning debut collection, the yearnings of the characters resonate well beyond the page, and each story feels as rich, as deep, and as crafted as a novel. Equally impressive is the confident fluidity with which Alvar moves from Manila to Bahrain to Tokyo, from 1971 to 1986 to the 21st century. In “The Kontrabida,” Steve, a pharmacist in New York, returns home to the Philippines to visit his dying father with a highly regulated sedative to ease his father’s pain and, more so, his mother’s. Although his risky action creates tension, a deeper strain arises when he attempts to help out in his mother’s store and realizes he can’t follow even the simplest requests: “It was a way of shopping I had completely forgotten: egg by egg, cigarette by cigarette, people spending what they earned in a day to buy what they would use in the next.” Throughout Alvar’s stories, the language is as elegant as it is durable, while the lines of class, race, gender, and history are both blurred and crystallized.
Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari, with Eric Klinenberg (Penguin Press) - Inspired by his own romantic woes, comedian Ansari teamed up with sociologist Klinenberg in 2013 to design and conduct a research project to better understand the dating game as it’s played today. This books collects the insights gleaned from a variety of research methods: focus groups in major cities around the world, crowdsourcing on the website Reddit. Ansari addresses the effects of technology on modern relationships with an amusing historical overview, beginning with the classified ads of the 1980s and ’90s and video dating services before chronicling the rise of industry giants such as Match.com and Tinder. He also dives into the sociological theory at play, discussing “the paradox of choice,” the differences between “companionate” and “soul mate” marriages, and a generational conversation spurred by a visit to a retirement community. The book is steeped in pop culture, featuring examples from the popular Tumblr “Straight White Boys Texting,” sex columnist Dan Savage’s thoughts on open relationships, and Ansari’s personal dating maxim, hilariously dubbed “the Flo Rida Theory of Acquired Likability Through Repetition.”
Goblins on the Prowl by Bruce Coville (S&S/Aladdin) - More than 20 years after Coville introduced readers to the enchanted realm of Nilbog in Goblins in the Castle (1992), he returns with the story of Fauna, who lives in the forest near Toad-in-a-Cage castle and who has a big secret. When her cabin is invaded by goblins looking for a magical object, Fauna is thrust into a decades-old battle between good and evil that threatens the life of her friend William and sends her and a motley band of heroes on a wild adventure to save him. Coville's imagination runs brilliantly amok, with memorable characters like the lovable, speech-impeded Bwoonhiwda ("I just have a w pwobwem.... This has caused many pwobwems in my wife") and Bonecracker John ("With ears as big as mine, I can hear a cricket fart"). The pages are filled with lively and unpredictable escapades, wondrously magical settings, and heroes who, despite their otherworldly abilities, are flawed and relatable.
The Precipice by Paul Doiron (Minotaur) - Doiron brings his gift for making the Maine woods live and breathe to a taut whodunit in his stellar sixth novel featuring game warden Mike Bowditch (after 2014’s The Bone Orchard). Bowditch is pulled away from a romantic weekend with his biologist girlfriend, Stacey Stevens, when word reaches the authorities that two young women have disappeared while hiking the Appalachian Trail’s daunting Hundred Mile Wilderness. Samantha Boggs and Missy Montgomery, recent graduates of Pentecost University, a Christian school in the South, failed to check in with their parents in Georgia three days earlier, triggering a massive manhunt. Bowditch is teamed with an unusual volunteer, Bob Nissen (known as Nonstop for his record pace hiking the entire trail), and is soon able to narrow the parameters of the search. Bowditch identifies the women’s “point last seen” via a logbook entry that contains an ominous reference to coyotes.
The Night World by Mordicai Gerstein (Little, Brown) - Caldecott Medalist Gerstein (The Man Who Walked Between the Towers) lifts two everyday miracles up for celebration—the way that night transforms objects into unfamiliar forms and shadows, and the way that morning restores them to their original splendor. One morning before dawn, a black cat jumps onto the bed of a boy. “Me-out!” Sylvie tells him. “It’s coming.” Gerstein paints the two as black shapes on soft gray; as they creep through the house, sleeping family members and bulky pieces of furniture create graceful, abstract compositions. For Gerstein, night is not a problem to be solved. The boy wanders without anxiety, and everything unfolds with a sense of leisurely pleasure. He wonders at the starry sky (“The air is warm and sweet.... This is the night world. There are shadows everywhere”) and struggles to identify familiar things. “Are those lilies and sunflowers? Where are their colors?” Now, animals begin to gather in anticipation: deer, an owl, a porcupine, rabbits. “It’s coming,” they murmur. What’s coming is clear, but readers will find their hearts beating faster despite themselves. The sky begins to lighten, becoming a pale, milky green. A turn of the page and the sky grows brighter; the animals retreat: “This is our bedtime.” Yet another page turn, and the boy greets the rising sun. “It’s here!” says Sylvie.
The Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret (Riverhead) - In this slim, episodic set of recollections, acclaimed Israeli fiction writer Keret (The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God) covers the span between the birth of his son and the death of his father. In spare, wry prose, he recounts his child’s birth, the same day as a terrorist attack, and sums up the violent underpinnings of current Israeli life when he tells a disappointed journalist that “the attacks are always the same. What can you say about an explosion and senseless death?” This apolitical, irreligious, and wry fatalism recalls a great deal of Jewish humor, a meditation on the absurd and vital. The initial courtship of Keret’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, is lovingly described with a thirst for life that reflects the vitality of Israel’s earliest decades. Keret thinks and feels deeply, but he makes heavy points with a light touch, describing a childhood friend as having “the smiling but tough expression of an aging child who had already learned a thing or two about this stupid world.” Keret’s lovely memoir retains its essential human warmth.
Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson (Random) - The odds of finding a bona fide pirate ship are quite rare, a fact Robert Kurson (Shadow Divers) points out in the first few pages of this extraordinary adventure. Only one—the Whydah—has ever been positively identified as belonging to pirates. The subjects of Kurson’s latest, John Chatterton and John Mattera, are undeterred by such unlikelihood in their conquest to locate the elusive Golden Fleece, the 17th-century ship captained by Joseph Bannister, lost somewhere in the waters near the Dominican Republic. Kurson takes readers on a wild ride alongside these bigger-than-life pirate hunters as they navigate the red tape of maritime code, dead ends, and dwindling resources, as well as rival hunters keen on beating Chatterton and Mattera to the prize. Kurson’s own enthusiasm, combined with his copious research and an eye for detail, makes for one of the most mind-blowing pirate stories of recent memory, one that even the staunchest landlubber will have a hard time putting down.
The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, trans. from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Seven Stories) - Mexican author Nettel, named Best Untranslated Writer by Granta, presents a moving account of the childhood experiences that shape identity. In this, her first novel to appear in English, a woman recounts the traumas and small events of her early life to her therapist. Born with a “white beauty mark” on her cornea that forces her to wear an eye patch, the unnamed narrator is immediately branded an outsider wherever she goes. Shunned by most of her classmates and weary of her overbearing parents, she withdraws into the rich, bizarre world of her imagination and spends hours climbing trees and making up stories. When her parents unexpectedly separate, she moves with her mother and younger brother from Mexico City to Aix-en-Provence, France, where she must also overcome the barriers of language and culture. Jumping between past and the present, the narrator tells her doctor of the memories she remembers best: her parents’ enthusiastic but klutzy embrace of 1970s idealism, her friendship with the mysterious goth Sophie, her tumultuous relationship with her grandmother, and her return to Mexico City. With straightforward, honest prose, Nettel paints a vivid portrait of a girl always just on the edge of community and illustrates the beauty and strength of a mind shaped by hardship.
Heaven: Poems by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (FSG) - Phillips (The Ground), in his second collection, deals in illusions, highlighting the hidden wonders he finds within the world. In measured poems that echo conversations one might have in a museum, Phillips presents scenes that build to final-line revelations. Along the way, he mulls various aspects of the concept of heaven—the realness of it, the mutations of it. Phillips opens in “Perpetual peace. Perpetual light,” yet “it all seems graffiti.” In order to investigate more deeply, he analyzes scenes from Dante and Homer, even turning to artist Chuck Close, a fellow illusionist. Close’s paintings appear to be hyperrealistic portraits from far away, but when seen up close, they disintegrate into small dots and blobs of dissonant color, as if Close were painting the atoms of his subjects. In his quest to see beyond the visible into the atoms of the world, Phillips has a transformative experience in viewing one of Close’s paintings. The poet also discovers that it is possible for people to find heaven in each other, and that heaven always shifts and changes; it is indefinable.
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (Soho Teen) - Aaron Soto, 16, lives in the projects in a Bronx similar to the real one except for the existence of the Leteo Institute, a neighborhood facility where patients can have painful memories erased (the most fantastical element of this procedure perhaps being that it is covered by Aaron’s insurance). If anyone deserves to have his past wiped clean, it’s Aaron, who has experienced poverty, his father’s suicide, and the violent death of friends in his short life. But what Aaron wants most to forget is that he’s gay, especially because the boy he loves is no longer able to be with him, and because his own inability to fly under the radar has made him a target. Silvera’s debut is vividly written and intricately plotted: a well-executed twist will cause readers to reassess what they thought they knew about Aaron’s life.
Blackbird by Tom Wright (Europa/World Noir) - Set in the tristate area of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, Wright’s expertly crafted second novel updates the careers of Jim Bonham and Jim’s only cousin, Lee Ann Rowe, who were adolescents in Wright’s CWA Dagger Award–finalist debut, What Dies in Summer. Now a police lieutenant, Jim leads the investigation into the crucifixion and mutilation murder of psychologist Deborah Gold. Jim discovers that the victim was involved in a small group of S&M and cocaine enthusiasts. Soon after this grisly crime, the corpse of another group member, Benjamin Frix, is found in Frix’s burnt-out house. Lee Ann, now a therapist, assists the police team with her insight while providing Jim with perspective and support. Wright has a gift for creating distinct and intriguing characters, none more so than Jim, a fully rounded person with friends and family who works closely with his fellow police officers—a refreshing change from the typical hard-bitten rogue cop so popular in the genre today.