This week: Ursula K. Le Guin, Elena Ferrante, and Jonathan Franzen.
Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City edited by Javier Auyero (Univ. of Texas) - Sociologist Auyero (Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown) and his graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin deliver exceptional in-depth longitudinal studies of 11 people living in precarious social and economic conditions in their city. Their subjects include a multilingual, highly educated Nepalese cab driver; an impeccably dressed food industry worker in her 50s who lives in a storage unit; a copier repairman with bad knees and failing eyesight who can’t afford to retire; a musician whose career doesn’t afford him the luxury of having a family in the “live music capital of the world”; a 65-year-old injured Mexican laborer who began working when he was five; and a waitress turned exotic dancer. At the heart of these narratives is Austin, whose hip, progressive reputation belies its worsening income inequality and long history of racial and economic segregation. Lucid and empathetic, these insightful portraits reveal how life histories are intertwined with political and economic forces beyond any individual’s control.
Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman (HMH) - In a tale set in 1877 and inspired by the legend of the Lost Dutchman, Kate Thompson sets out on a quest for revenge after her father is strung up by outlaws; disguised as a man, she gets caught up in two brothers’ hunt for gold in the Superstition Mountains of the Arizona Territory. Bowman (the Taken series) crafts an unflinchingly bloody tale of the Wild West, with flesh-and-bone characters she doesn’t hesitate to obliterate with a bullet. Each plot twist—and there are many—is purposeful, driving Kate toward her goal while allowing her to grow, alternately showing a steely nerve and a compassionate side. In Jesse, Kate finds a perfect foil, and their friendship, marred by lies and betrayal, is the stuff of reality rather than folk legend. Kate’s narration, peppered with phrases like “I says” and “it weren’t,” is initially jarring, but the driving force of her story quickly vanquishes any stumbling over her diction. Kate’s pursuit of the murderous Rose Riders, intertwined with gold-rush greed driving men to madness, makes for a thoroughly engrossing read.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (S&S/Scout) - In this sorrowful and deeply probing debut novel, literary agent and memoirist Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man) delivers a story of loss and its grueling aftermath. The story opens with an unimaginable tragedy: a Connecticut house is consumed by fire in the wee hours before a wedding. The bride's mother, June, is the only survivor. Everyone else—Lolly, June's daughter, with whom she had a strained relationship; June's womanizing ex-husband, Adam; June's ex-con boyfriend Luke, 20 years her junior; and Lolly's fiancé, Will—all die in the blaze. But where was June when the explosion occurred? Clegg pieces the mystery together through the voices of his characters. There's Luke's lonely, scandal-courting mother, Lydia, who shoulders secrets about her son; 15-year-old Silas, a stoner who was the last to see Luke, with June, the night before he died. And there's Rebecca, Kelly, and Cissy—caretakers of the Moonstone motel in Moclips, Wash., where June holes up for nine months after the fire and wastes away. Clegg's deft handling of all the parsed details—missed opportunities, harbored regrets, and unspoken good intentions—makes the journey toward redemption and forgiveness memorable.
The Metaphysics of Ping Pong: Table Tennis as a Journey of Self-Discovery by Guido Mina di Sospiro (Quest) - At first blush, readers might wonder just how the game of ping pong can be related to the metaphysical enterprise. But di Sospiro sees in the question "to spin or not to spin" a deeply spiritual quest for understanding of the self and of one's place in the larger philosophical search for meaning and understanding. The author acknowledges no borders— the I Ching takes its place alongside Plato in the rich tapestry of esoterica laid out here. Readers will be fascinated by di Sospiro's growing passion for the game of ping pong as he challenges remarkable players who offer him both stiff competition and an opportunity to grow in self-understanding. Breezily written, not for the scholar but for the layperson, this excellent work can constitute a perfect introduction to the vast history of humankind's quest for philosophical clarity. And where else can you find Sheryl Crow, Carl Jung, and Google mentioned side by side? Readers wanting to experience the broad flow of philosophical exploration will find this to be a gold mine.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa) - In Ferrante's fourth and final Neapolitan novel, she reunites Elena, the accomplished writer, with Lila, the indomitable spirit, in their Southern Italian city as they confront maturity and old age, death, and the meaning of life. The two friends face the chaos of a corrupt and decaying Naples while the lives of the people closest to them—plagued by abandonment, imprisonment, murder, and betrayal—spiral out of control. "Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?" Lila asks Elena, disparaging her friend's career choice in the process. Readers will need the accompanying index of characters to keep track as Ferrante resolves the themes and events from earlier titles (My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) with a force and ferocity recalling the devastating earthquake of 1980 and Vesuvius's volcanic eruptions, which themselves provide the unsettling background to the narrative. This stunning conclusion further solidifies the Neapolitan novels as Ferrante's masterpiece and guarantees that this reclusive author will remain far from obscure for years to come.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen (FSG) - Secrets are power, and power corrupts even the most idealistic in Franzen's (Freedom) exhaustive bildungsroman. Two years out of college, self-conscious, acerbic Purity "Pip" Tyler is saddled with crushing student loans and an overbearing, emotionally disturbed mother who refuses to reveal the identity of Pip's father. Living in Oakland, Calif., Pip meets and confides in beautiful German activist Annagret, who calls on her former boyfriend, Andreas Wolf, to give Pip an internship working with Wolf's cultish Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-like operation based in Bolivia. Once there, Pip is both flattered by and suspicious of the attention she receives from the magnetic Wolf; when she returns to America to do his bidding in secret, she becomes increasingly attached to people he may want to hurt.
Waiting by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow) - Waiting can make anyone feel helpless and frustrated, so the five toylike knickknacks in Henkes’s (Penny and Her Marble) story should be at their collective wits’ end. Perched on a windowsill, this odd, diminutive crew—a pig with an umbrella, a bear with a kite, a puppy attached to a sled, a rabbit on an accordion spring, and an owl—have little volition of their own (“Sometimes one or the other of them went away, but he or she always came back”). But while their lives are spent waiting, their existence seems full and rich with meaning. Waiting reinforces their sense of identity: the pig waits for the rain and when it comes, “the pig was happy. The umbrella kept her dry.” Waiting also connects them to each other: looking out the window together, “they saw many wonderful, interesting things,” like frost on the windowpane or a sky lit up with fireworks. Henkes never tells readers explicitly what he’s up to, and several incidents are wide open to interpretation—and that’s what makes this enigmatic, lovely book intriguing and inimitable.
Dryland by Sara Jaffe (Tin House) - Jaffe’s exceptional debut, a heartfelt coming-of-age story set in Portland, Ore., in 1992, exquisitely captures the nostalgia and heartbreak of youth. Teenage Julie Winter tries to make meaningful connections as she navigates the tricky world of high school cliques, while living in the shadow of her older brother, Jordan, a former Olympic hopeful now living in Germany. She and her friend Erika hang out together, dissecting every nuance of their peers’ actions. Julie surreptitiously checks the swimming magazines at the local news store to see whether her noncommunicative brother has reentered the sport that once dominated the Winter family when he was an up-and-coming star. A radical shift occurs when the popular Alexis, cocaptain of the swim team, invites Julie to try out. Erika joins as well, and Julie feels both overwhelmed and at home in the water, coping with her brother’s legacy yet wanting to make her own mark. Using spare, precise prose, and with a fresh, strong voice, Jaffe explores Julie’s budding sexuality, her unexpected attraction to Alexis, her awareness of the limitations of friendship, and the angst young women face as they begin to confront adulthood.
Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin (HMH) - This is not a book for beginners, warns Le Guin, but it would be churlish to deny the benefits of this thoughtful, concise volume to anyone serious about becoming a writer. Originally written in 1998 and based on Le Guin’s workshop of the same name, the book has been revised by her based on reader feedback and on the vast changes that have occurred in publishing over the years. But some issues remain constant, and Le Guin explores them in a familiar, breezy style that is admirably direct, and as entertaining as it is enlightening. The topics she examines include the sound and rhythm of language in writing; the need to understand the rules of grammar, if only to break them; point of view and narrative voice; and the judicious use of adjective, adverbs, and verbs. In essence, Le Guin reveals the art of craft and the craft of art. Each chapter ends with writing exercises that can be attempted in groups or alone. To borrow Le Guin’s nautical imagery, this book is a star by which to set one’s course.
Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler (HarperTeen) - During high school orientation, five ninth graders write letters to their future selves, promising to reunite on graduation day and read them together. Each student starts school with hopes and fears, and over time faces trials related to friends, family, unrequited love, body image, school, and extracurricular interests. In eighth grade, Jake came out to his best friend, who promptly dropped him; knowing that word has spread, Jake avoids sports teams and hides in the art room, trying to find his niche. Popular Whitney repeatedly chooses friends who prove not to be friends, leaving her with no confidence when her parents’ divorce shatters her world. While the five rarely interact at first, they become increasingly supportive of each other, fostering courage: while family chaos has long threatened Zoe’s happiness, “she realized that, somehow, she was going to muddle through.” The story unfolds by year and month; each month contains short chapters from one or more teen’s perspectives. Mackler keeps all five story lines clear, absorbing, and integral to the larger story of friendship, perseverance, and hope.
Drought-Adapted Vine by Donald Revell (Alice James) - Ecstatic and eminent, reverent and much-revered, Revell (Essay: A Critical Memoir) continues his rapturous and challenging attention to the presence of divinity in nature, and to the reminders of death in daily life. In his visions, he takes opposites—such as grief and worship, or transcendence and emptiness—and turns them into complements: “The day is mountains, too many mountains,” yet “flowers are never out of place,/ Never wrong.” Revell’s unrhymed sonnets, his paradoxical verse prayers, and his central sequence (which has no standard form) also amount to an elegy for his mother, whose funeral recurs among his images of flowering trees, “forsythia/ Starry for hopeful, root and branch.” Each boldly sketched scene--animals, trees, and buildings--is a momentary conjunction of faith with language, addressed with a pellucid power that invites even unprepared readers to join in.
Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart (HMH) - Hardened criminals are no match for pistol-packing spinster Constance Kopp and her redoubtable sisters in this hilarious and exciting period drama by bestseller Stewart (The Drunken Botanist). This is an elegant tale of suspense, mystery, and wry humor set in 1914 in Paterson, N.J. A crash between the Kopp sisters’ horse and buggy and an automobile driven by arrogant factory owner Henry Kaufman begins a disturbing cycle of menacing behavior: Kaufman refuses to pay for the buggy damage, angry and humiliated in an embarrassing confrontation with a tall, imposing, and formidable woman. Intimidation and threats of violence follow Constance’s every effort to make Kaufman pay, finally resulting in her appeal to the Bergen County Sheriff to help her collect. Sheriff Robert Heath has been itching to lock up Kaufman and his thuggish pals, and sees this as an excellent opportunity to rid Paterson of the pack of criminals. The Kopp sisters live alone on a remote farm and are taunted, burglarized, and shot at by crooks of the Black Hand gang as retaliation for involving the police and causing trouble for Kaufman. But when Constance starts to pack a revolver and doesn’t hesitate to shoot back, the game changes drastically. An exhilarating yarn.
Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson (Scribner) - Journalist Wilson (Mad Girl’s Love Song) presents a thorough and emotionally compelling exploration of the life, work, and inner demons of fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Wilson recounts McQueen’s childhood in East London, where he was sexually abused by his brother-in-law. The abuser also battered his sister, Janet; McQueen admired her fortitude, and she was his earliest and most prevalent muse. Wilson follows McQueen through the early stages of his career, including a short stint as a tailor’s apprentice on Savile Row and his education in fashion design at London’s Central Saint Martins, where he staged his first show, “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” in 1991. It was followed by the show “Nihilism,” which saw the debut of McQueen’s now signature “bumsters” look. Interviews with friends, family, and former lovers allow Wilson to capture McQueen’s many facets, from his “cackling fishwife laugh” to his dramatic shifts in temperament and “near-pathological obsession with the macabre,” making this a fully realized representation of a complex and enigmatic artist.