This week: one of the best novels of the year, Ta-Nehisi Coates's unforgettable new book, and the very last American killed in World War II combat.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau) - In the scant space of barely 160 pages, Atlantic national correspondent Coates has composed an immense, multifaceted work. This is a poet's book, revealing the sensibility of a writer to whom words—exact words—matter. Coates's bildungsroman shows the writer as a young man, in settings that include Baltimore's streets, Howard University's campus, and Paris's boulevards. It's also a journalist's book, not only because it speaks so forcefully to issues of grave interest today, but because of its close attention to fact. (The real-life killing of unarmed Howard student Prince Jones, in 2000, by an undercover police officer gradually becomes a motif, made particularly effective by the fact that Coates knew Jones, and his conversation with Jones's mother, which concludes the book.) Coates intimately presents the text as a letter to his son, both an expression of love and a cautionary tale about "police departments... endowed with the authority to destroy his body." As a meditation on race in America, haunted by the bodies of black men, women, and children, Coates's compelling, indeed stunning, work is rare in its power to make you want to slow down and read every word. This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time.
No Such Person by Caroline B. Cooney (Delacorte) - Jangling suspense juxtaposed with cozy details of family life keeps thriller master Cooney’s latest zooming along. While spending the summer at their family’s home on the Connecticut River, easy-going 15-year-old Miranda Allerdon and her driven, med-school-bound sister, Lander, witness what appears to be a freak water-skiing accident. Miranda is one of the few bystanders to see that the boy driving the motorboat seemed to intentionally maneuver the water-skier he was towing in front of a giant barge. Ignoring Miranda’s suspicions, Lander is smitten with the motorboat driver and begins dating him. Miranda’s talents get a chance to shine when another apparent accident, chillingly teased in the opening pages of the novel, thrusts Lander outside the boundaries of her carefully planned life. An unexpected romance for Miranda provides a sweet counterpoint to the novel’s knife-edge mayhem.
Last to Die: A Defeated Empire, a Forgotten Mission, and the Last American Killed in World War II by Stephen Harding (Da Capo) - Japanese emperor Hirohito officially surrendered to Allied forces on Aug. 15, 1945, but the message wasn’t delivered to all outposts and command centers until a few days later—a lapse that would have serious consequences for both Japanese and American forces, as Harding (The Last Battle) illustrates in this meticulously researched account of the days following Japan’s surrender. To verify that the Japanese military was complying with the peace treaty, it was necessary to confirm that military activity had ceased. This was to be accomplished by flying over key bases and installations in order to photograph them. The first of these missions was uneventful, but a subsequent mission encountered opposition from a handful of Japanese fighters and were unable to fully document all the sites. Despite this, it was decided that another mission was to be conducted the next day, with deadly consequences for U.S. Army Sergeant Anthony Marchione, the last American killed in WWII combat. This gripping account of the fight between Japanese and American forces is delivered in breathless detail, and the tale is impressive and inspiring.
Imperium by Christian Kracht, trans. from the German by Daniel Bowles (FSG) - One of the best novels of the year, Kracht's fascinating tale is an impressionistic portrait of a thumb-sucking, mad-for-coconuts German nudist. Set during the early 20th century and based on a real historical figure, the novel opens on a ship headed to the far-flung protectorate of New Pomerania in German New Guinea. Onboard is the shy, idealistic young August Engelhardt, who looks in horror at his "sallow, bristly, vulgar" countrymen as they gorge on heavy meals on deck. Disgusted by German society and its voracious appetite for meat and money, the vegetarian Engelhardt starts a coconut plantation on the remote South Seas island of Kabakon. There he subsists entirely on the "luscious, ingenious fruit," worships the sun sans clothes, and welcomes adherents to join his soul-cleansing retreat. Before descending into madness and revising his diet in a particularly ghoulish way, the lonely and loveless cocovore is repeatedly duped by con men, fakirs, and sensualists who profess to share his ascetic ideals but leave him more isolated than ever. Alternately languid and feverish, the narrative is as nutty as Engelhardt's prized foodstuff, and one readers won't soon forget.
The Joy of Killing by Harry N. MacLean (Counterpoint) - A man’s desperate struggle to recapture his past propels this brilliant first novel from Edgar Award–winning true crime writer MacLean. The unnamed narrator, who’s spending the night alone in a lakeside house, is trying to type up his significant memories on an old Underwood. He’s sure that in 1958 he had a wild sexual encounter at age 15 with a girl on a train to Chicago, on his way home from prep school in Massachusetts. He also recalls the drowning death of a teenage friend in the lake, and an afternoon when he and another boy were lured to an older man’s rented room—but he also realizes that his recollection is undependable, edited for his comfort. Amid fragmented images of violence, he strains to understand what really happened to him. Though the narrator insists that nothing matters, truth obviously does matter, and MacLean skillfully takes readers along as the narrator spins and stumbles through a tangle of disturbing meditations on innocence and guilt.
All This Life by Joshua Mohr (Soft Skull) - Mohr’s poignant and darkly funny fifth novel weaves together the stories of seven protagonists whose lives are all touched by a bizarre mass suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Paul and his 14-year-old son, Jake, witness the event firsthand as Jake films the jumpers hurling themselves into the water. He finds solace in uploading the video to the Web and watching its number of views rise. Noah, who (unbeknownst to Jake) is a brother to one of the suicides, corresponds with Jake via the comments section of the video. During his many hours online, Jake also watches a sex tape featuring Sara, a 19-year-old from Traurig, a small town in Nevada, after Sara’s ex-boyfriend posts it on a porn site. The clip goes viral and ruins Sara’s reputation in Traurig. After everyone turns their back on her, Sara realizes that her childhood sweetheart, Rodney, who once had an accident that damaged his ability to speak, still cares for her. She embraces Rodney’s suggestion that they drive to San Francisco to find the mom who abandoned him shortly after his accident. That mom, Kathleen, is fighting demons, and Rodney’s 18th birthday comes and goes. Guilt and regret build to a crescendo, and the book’s momentous climax takes the characters back to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The New World by Andrew Motion (Crown) - Motion, poet laureate of the U.K. from 1999 to 2009, provides a strong dose of swashbuckling, adventure-driven historical fiction in this second of a trilogy, a cheeky reimagining of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Motion’s story catches up with characters from his first book (Silver), Long John Silver’s daughter, Natty, and Jim Hawkins’s son, Jim. Natty has persuaded Jim to sail with her to Treasure Island to recover the silver Jim’s father believed was left behind. As this novel begins the youths find themselves the only survivors of their shipwreck off the Gulf Coast of Texas. Ashore, they attempt to journey north and east through desert and thicket to the Mississippi River, which they hope will eventually lead them home to England. But Jim, stricken perhaps by the same greed as his father, has stolen a beautiful power-laden silver necklace from Black Cloud, who had captured and thrown Jim and Natty into a cabin. Jim and Natty manage to escape with the help of a child, but they realize soon enough that Black Cloud and his sidekick, the Painted Man, are willing to pursue them to the ends of the Earth to recover the necklace. There is meaning and metaphor just under the surface of Motion’s New World, including the symbolic killing off of one Mr. Stevenson, who is on board the ship. Jim and Natty learn much about themselves from the land they cross and the Native Americans they meet, some of whom they live among and grow to love. But then again the novel, which was labeled crossover fiction in Great Britain, can satisfy simply as a good, page-turning yarn.
Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor (Penguin) - O'Connor brings one of America's most beloved poets to life in this novel, which enters into the mind of Emily Dickinson as she retreats into a reclusive life amongst her parents and sister at their estate, the Homestead in Amherst, Mass., in the 1860s. O'Connor has conjured a fictional confidant for Emily in Ada Concannon, a headstrong 18-year-old Irish maid, who is hired by the Dickinson family on the day she arrives in town. The story unfolds as chapters alternate between first-person accounts by Emily and Ada. Emily grapples with her introversion and her chosen escape of writing: "The rustling passions of life are contained more truly for me in the words of poetry than in the everyday world." Ada greets stablehand Daniel Byrne, "trying to be a little formal, but something about him makes my mouth twitch and beam"—and just like that, a courtship begins. O'Connor is a gifted writer; not only does she bring a believable sense of poetry (clay is "deathly cool around my fingers") and self-assurance to Emily, she is also capable of conveying complex feeling succinctly, a talent shared by her historical heroine. The fascinating story has the potential to be a book club juggernaut.
The Doublecross (And Other Skills I Learned as a Superspy) by Jackson Pearce (Bloomsbury) - Pearce (Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures) spins a thoroughly enjoyable story about a secret spy agency, the Sub Rosa Society, where agents are trained from birth in subjects like Body Language Analysis and Emergency Undercover Ops. Hale Jordan, the chubby 12-year-old son of “The Team”—two of SRS’s most decorated agents—wants desperately to follow in his parents’ footsteps, but he can’t pass the physical exam to become a junior agent. After his parents go missing, Hale’s spy skills are tested in the real world, where villains don’t always look like villains. Pearce’s spy gadgetry and scenes of agent training are clever and fun, but it’s the always-underestimated Hale, with his systematic—and unconventional—approach to every challenge (“Mission: Get sent on Friday’s mission. Step 1: Wait for chili day”), who makes this such an entertaining and memorable story.
ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano, trans. from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss (Penguin Press) - Following 2006’s Gomorrah, reporter Saviano returns with another blistering crime exposé, this time delivering a wide-ranging and disturbing look at international cocaine trafficking. To give a sense of the amount of money involved in the cocaine trade, reporter Saviano notes, “there are two kinds of wealthy people: those who count their money and those who weigh it.” With the U.S.’s War on Drugs greatly overshadowed by the War on Terror, many readers will be surprised at how active and violent drug trafficking remains. Saviano is particularly apt at making complex facts accessible; for example, to illustrate his point that “no market in the world brings in more revenue than the cocaine market,” he compares the return on investment of the narcotic with that of Apple stock. Strong stomachs are needed for graphic descriptions of the horrific violence the cartels inflict on those who dare to cross them. His eventual and surprising conclusion—that cocaine legalization is the only reasonable solution to the problem of trafficking—will generate controversy.
North Korea Undercover: Inside the World's Most Secret State by John Sweeney (Pegasus) - In 2013, BBC reporter Sweeney traveled to North Korea, posing as a university professor on an eight-day tour with a group from the London School of Economics. Drawing on surreptitiously captured footage, the official tour video, firsthand experiences, and interviews, he constructed a documentary for BBC Panorama. In this enlightening, often irreverent companion volume, he goes into further detail about his time in the isolated country and how it evolved into its current state. He begins by comparing the country to “a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in the library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that’s no gun and it isn’t smoking and this isn’t a library.” This analogy serves as an apt introduction to North Korea’s bizarre contradictions, and particularly its seemingly brainwashed population. The book is an outsider’s rare look into a mysterious and terrifying place ruled and ruined by three generations of tyrants, a land experiencing a “living death.” One of Sweeney’s primary contentions is that “Kim Jong Un’s talk of nuclear war is a confidence trick... blinding us to a human rights tragedy on an immense scale.” This account is shocking and unsettling, but also darkly entertaining.
Ask Me by Bernard Waber, illus. by Suzy Lee (HMH) - In this posthumously published tale by Waber, best known for his Lyle the Crocodile books, a girl directs a conversation with her father. “Ask me what I like,” she says. “What do you like?” he asks. Lee (Open This Little Book) pictures the duo on a park outing, and the girl delights in falling leaves as she admires the natural surroundings (“I like geese in the sky. No, in the water. I like both”). After naming many favorite things, she gets more specific: “How come birds build nests?” Her father warmly responds, “All right, how come birds build nests?” sustaining the give-and-take. The girl’s words appear in black type and the father’s in dark blue, so readers know who is speaking despite the untagged dialogue and lack of quotation marks. Taking advantage of negative space to emphasize a bright sky, people’s faces, and the girl’s swingy dress, Lee lines the characters in charcoal-gray pencil and frames the pages in scribbles of maple-leaf red, autumnal gold, and denim blue. The easygoing verbal exchange and affectionate visuals celebrate a close father-daughter relationship while recognizing beauty in everyday simplicity.