Instead of Picks this week, we’re naming September 14 as The Best Book Day of 2015. Why? Because on the week of September 14, there are more great books landing than on any other pub date this year--the 18 books below all received starred reviews.
The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky (Dzanc) - Banasky’s memorable, intricate, and inventive debut novel uses vulnerable characters to probe themes of time, identity, perception, and love. In 1959 Manhattan, Freddie Bishop commissions an artist known only as Nicolette to paint a portrait of his wife, Claire. Unexpectedly, the finished work depicts fragmentary moments in Claire’s life, ending with a leap off the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite Nicolette’s reassurance that the painting will protect her from the fate it depicts, Claire—fearful of her family’s history of mental instability—attempts unsuccessfully to destroy it. When schizophrenic West Butler sees the painting in a gallery in 2004, he becomes convinced that it is the work of his artist ex-girlfriend, also named Nicolette. Spiraling into a delusion of conspiracy and time travel that explains her disappearance from his life and the contradiction in dates, West concludes that the canvas can change reality as well as help him find Nicolette. With its dancing time frames, recurring motifs, glimpses of history, and shifting realities, all united by striking prose, the novel is both an intellectual tour de force and a moving reflection on the ways we try to save ourselves and others.
The Blue Guitar by John Banville (Knopf) - Readers will hang on to every word written by Man Booker Prize winner Banville, because he knows their thoughts before they do. Narrating this tale is the curmudgeonly, melancholy, and hapless Olly Orme, who, "pushing fifty and [feeling] a hundred," is back in the English village of his birth and suffering through a mid-life crisis. A modestly successful "paintster" who gives up painting for existential reasons ("What's the difference between a blimp and a guitar? Any old object serves..."), and a rather philosophical thief for whom the thrill of stealing eventually wanes, Olly stumbles through an affair with Polly, his friend Marcus's companion. When the lovers are found out, Olly runs away to the house where he was born, but is set upon by Polly and dragged to her own family home. A mad-hatter couple of days ensues in which Olly is tortured with cups of tea and English damp—and for the first and last time is caught stealing, in this case a little volume of poetry bound in crimson cloth. When he finally escapes and encounters his sensible wife again, she reveals a secret of her own. Olly muses on each escapade, hilarious until such sadness sets in that no one inside or out of the story seems likely to survive it. And yet, Banville is such a fine architect of sentences—infusing them with wit and yearning—that the plot hardly matters. For what a brilliant navel-gazer Banville is: he creates loop-de-loops of self-absorbed prose that resonate so deeply about the human condition that they never become tiresome. Bon mots fill these pages, every one essential.
Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton (D&Q) - As the sequel to her bestseller Hark! A Vagrant, this collection—once again bringing together strips from Beaton’s popular website—is a wonderful second installment. It offers her take on a variety of different historical, literary, and cultural institutions, usually by finding something absurdly idiosyncratic in them and taking this to its ridiculous and, indeed, hilarious conclusion. Whether it’s a retelling of Cinderella that involves a night of weight lifting or an exploration of what the Lady of Shallot might have actually seen her knight doing when she looked out of her tall tower, Beaton has an uncanny ability to take the sacred and shake its foundations with the delightfully mundane. Her apparently “simple” art style uses a wide variety of sophisticated visual techniques that perfectly accompany the wit and humor of her prose. From Julius Caesar to The Secret Garden and from the late Romantics to Kokoro, Beaton knocks it out of the park, having a go at anything and everything with her razor-sharp wit.
House of Thieves by Charles Belfoure (Sourcebooks Landmark) - In this engrossing Gilded Age novel, Belfoure (The Paris Architect) fully immerses the reader in the historical setting and the lives of the characters. John Cross and his beautiful wife, Helen, are the relatively poor relations of prominent socialite Caroline Astor. Their behavior, and their children’s, must remain impeccable if they are to maintain their precarious position as Knickerbockers (old-monied aristocrats). Their eldest son, George, a brilliant mathematician—and gambling addict—may not live long enough to start graduate school at Columbia. He owes James T. Kent, the leader of the gang Kent’s Gents, $48,000. When Kent discovers that George’s father is an architect, he spares the son and forces the father into using his skill and blueprints to help execute a series of daring burglaries. Meanwhile, middle daughter Julia, about to make her debut, is no simpering miss. A hopeful novelist fascinated by Dickens’s Oliver Twist, she plans to attend Vassar, but when she lays her eyes on a handsome pickpocket, she too begins to live a secret life. And when 10-year-old Charlie ventures out of his neighborhood, he falls in with a slightly older newsboy who grew up fast. In a delightful turn of events, John’s confession of his involvement with Kent to Helen transforms the estranged couple into a criminal Victorian version of Nick and Nora Charles. A most memorable, evocative read.
One by Sarah Crossan (Greenwillow) - Grace and Tippi are 16-year-old conjoined twins attending private school after only being homeschooled. With an alcoholic and unemployed father, an anorexic sister, and a mother frantically trying to hold her family together, the girls cling to new friends Yasmeen and Jon, two outcasts who defend the girls and treat them as equals. Just when Grace falls for Jon despite Tippi’s warning—“We can never ever fall in love”—the girls learn that an illness in one jeopardizes both. Facing financial hardship, they are asked to make a difficult decision that carries enormous consequences. Crossan’s free-verse deftly conveys the twins’ heightened emotions through repetition, creative spacing, and lyrical similes (“Her breath is as delicate as lace”). Writing mainly from Grace’s perspective, Crossan (The Weight of Water) interjects the voices of friends and family, offering a glimpse of the difficulties conjoined twins and their loved ones’ face.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (Ecco) - In his delightful and dark new novel, Booker nominee deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) brings his amusingly off-kilter vision to a European folk tale. After nearly dying from an illness that claims his father, Lucy Minor, a bored and pompous young man, leaves his fairy tale–like hamlet of Bury to begin a new life as assistant to the majordomo at Castle Von Aux. Just getting there proves to be an adventure: Lucy is beset by thieves, learns of his predecessor’s awful fate, and is relieved of his last coin by Adolphus, an exceptionally handsome soldier fighting a war in the forest. Once at the castle, Lucy befriends the thieves who robbed him, competes with Adolphus for the love of the beguiling Klara, and attempts to restore the Baron Von Aux to sanity. Lucy’s earnest actions only create more trouble when a dinner party descends into grotesque bacchanalia, a lecherous guest loses his teeth, and Adolphus makes a final play for Klara’s heart, driving Lucy to the edge of the Very Large Hole, where he vacillates between killing himself and someone else.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Riverhead) - In a swirling miasma of language, plot, and Greek mythology, Groff (Arcadia) weaves a fierce and gripping tale of true love gone asunder. Told in two interwoven parts, the fable-like story of Lancelot (Lotto) and Mathilde's 24-year marriage unfolds, first from Lotto's perspective, then Mathilde's. "Fates," the first part, takes readers through Lotto's mopey years as a failed actor living in "glamorous poverty" in New York City's Greenwich Village, his overnight success as a playwright, his struggles with aging, his perpetually hungry ego, his estrangement from his millionaire mother, and his gleeful infatuation with and dependency on his pale, bewitching wife. Meanwhile, Mathilde's all-consuming adoration for her husband doesn't completely jive with the dark secrets she's hiding from him. Of course, there's always the sex. Groff's prose is variously dewy, defiant, salacious, and bleak—a hurricane of words thrown together on every page. Yet so much of the power in this book lies in what's unspoken—Lotto's bottomless sorrow and self-pity flanked by Mathilde's white-hot rage and, later, her thirst for revenge.
The Scribe by Matthew Guinn (Norton) - Set in Atlanta in 1881, this superior whodunit from Edgar-finalist Guinn (The Resurrectionist) stars Thomas Canby, a former detective on the Atlanta Police Force, who lost his job after a false accusation of taking bribes. When someone murders barber Alonzo Lewis, “the richest Negro in Atlanta,” severing his head and carving the letter M on his forehead, Canby’s old boss recalls the disgraced detective. The powers that be have suppressed the news, as the city is relying on the success of the International Cotton Exposition to revitalize municipal finances. Another wealthy African-American is killed soon afterward, but this time the letter A is left as the killer’s mark. Canby, who is white, partners with the city’s first African-American police officer, Cyrus Underwood. Since Underwood was the first to find both dead men, he himself is an obvious suspect, but the plot takes numerous turns before the final, painful resolution. The richness of the characters and period detail make the prospect of a sequel welcome.
Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America by Wil Haygood (Knopf) - Haygood (The Butler) effectively uses the 1967 Senate confirmation hearings for Thurgood Marshall’s barrier-breaking nomination to the Supreme Court as the framing device for a biography of this pioneering American. Marshall, who became the first African-American to serve as a Supreme Court justice, had previously enjoyed a remarkable career as a civil rights advocate, and Haygood provides details of his legal triumphs in an accessible way, along with a moving account of his upbringing in Baltimore, where he directly experienced the cruel injustices of segregation. In between the flashbacks to Marshall’s life before July 1967, when he received President Johnson’s nomination, Haygood paints well-rounded portraits of the powerful Southern Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, such as John McClellan and James Eastland, who fought bitterly to keep the Supreme Court lily-white. The behind-the-scenes look at the hard-fought battle that Lyndon Johnson and his supporters waged on Marshall’s behalf creates suspense, even though readers will already know of their ultimate success. This is the definitive account of the life of a major American hero who deserves wider recognition.
The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett (Small Beer) - This spellbinding novel shares a setting—the present day, layered with magic—with Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People and The Liminal War, but it stands well on its own. “Normal” is not part of protagonist Chabi’s world: she was raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., and has been mute from birth, but she discovers she can push her mental voice into people’s minds. Faced with public school and its hazards, she asks a local martial arts master, Narayana, to teach her to fight. Narayana makes Chabi a weapon: a superhuman bar fighter and brawler. She’s able to shatter skeletons with her understanding of the powers of entropy. Chabi uses her deadly skills first to protect a likable trio of marijuana farmers, then as a security guard for an impossibly rich hotel magnate who’s as dangerous in his own way as Narayana. Rooted in Chabi’s voice, the story is spare, fierce, and rich, and readers will care just as much about the delicate, damaged relationship between Chabi and her mother as the threat of world destruction.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr (Harper) - Karr (The Liars’ Club), the author of three lauded memoirs, teaches a selective memoir writing graduate class at Syracuse University, and offers her wisdom in this instructive guide to the genre. Not only does Karr write exquisitely herself (and without pretense, often with raw authenticity—“One can’t mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit”), she clearly adores memoirs; the appendix of nearly 200 suggested (“required”) memoirs is a delightful and useful bonus. The text is a must-read for memoirists, but will also appeal to memoir lovers and all who are curious about how books evolve. For writers in particular, Karr covers such essential topics as the quest for truth (probing its elusive nature), finding one’s own “true” voice or “you-ness,” (“Most memoirs fail because of voice,” she asserts), the crucial process of revision, evoking the five senses, and how to deal with family and others who play major parts in the memoir (she sends her polished manuscripts out in advance for inspection and lets friends pick their own pseudonyms). As if auditing her class, readers learn from her commentary on the memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Herr, Frank McCourt, Hilary Mantel, and others.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, trans. from the Spanish by Christina McSweeney (Coffee House) - One of the most unforgettable images in any book this year is that of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, the protagonist of Luiselli’s delightfully unclassifiable novel, walking around the streets of Mexico City, smiling at people with the teeth of Marilyn Monroe installed in his mouth—teeth he won at an “auction of contraband memorabilia in a karaoke bar in Little Havana.” Auctioneering is Highway’s trade, and, according to him, he’s the best at what he does because he’s a “lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” Luiselli’s novel takes the same liberties with traditional storytelling as Highway: this isn’t so much a novel as a contorted collection of narrative yarns. In one section, Highway auctions 10 of his original teeth (remember, he has Marilyn Monroe’s in his mouth), passing them off as the teeth of Virginia Woolf, Plato, and G.K. Chesterton, among others. Luiselli’s (Faces in the Crowd) novel so completely buys into its conceit that it’s difficult not to follow wherever it takes you.
Dumplin' by Julie Murphy (Balzer + Bray) - About the only thing Clover City has going for it is its beauty pageant, the oldest in Texas. It’s run by Willowdean Dickson’s mother—a former winner—who has a hard time with the reality that Willowdean, a self-described “fat girl,” will never be a beauty queen. Willowdean is okay with her size, mostly, but with 10th grade ending and her best friend considering having sex with her boyfriend, Willowdean feels like she is being left on the wrong side of the experience divide. An unexpected kiss with Bo, her handsome fast-food restaurant coworker, is thrilling, but she’s also horrified at the idea of him touching her anywhere there is extra flesh. And that very reaction horrifies her, too; she thought she was at peace with herself. Murphy successfully makes every piece of the story—Dolly Parton superfans, first love, best-friend problems, an unlikely group of pageant entrants, female solidarity, self-acceptance, and Willowdean’s complicated relationship with the mother who nicknamed her “Dumplin’ ”—count, weaving them together to create a harmonious, humorous, and thought-provoking whole.
Brain Storms: The Race to Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson's Disease by Jon Palfreman (FSG/Scientific American) - Award-winning journalist Palfreman’s fast-paced, captivating, and crisp narrative of patients, doctors, and researchers is part scientific investigation, part medical detective story, and part memoir, and it opens wide a window into the world of Parkinson’s. He introduces readers to James Parkinson, who in 1817 offered the first clinical description of the disease; Jean-Martin Charcot, who accurately described the signs and symptoms of what appeared to be a movement disorder; Constantin Tretiakoff, who demonstrated that the disease was caused by damage to the substantia nigra portion of the brain; and Frederick Lewy, who discovered the pathological hallmarks of Parkinson’s. Palfreman, who was diagnosed with the disease during his research, investigates drug therapies, such as the routine L-dopa therapy initiated in the 1960s and still used frequently today, and experimental drugs such as NPT088, which has yet to be approved by the FDA. There are more than seven million Parkinson’s sufferers worldwide and Palfreman shares some of their stories, including that of dancer Pam Quinn, who has learned to “trick” her symptoms and teaches her methods to other Parkinson’s patients.
The Marvels by Brian Selznik (Scholastic Press) - Selznick imagines an alternate backstory for a real English tourist attraction, the Dennis Severs’ House: 10 meticulously curated rooms that suggest what life might have been like for a family of Huguenot silk weavers in 18th-century London. The first 500 pages are double-page pencil drawings that (almost) wordlessly tell the story of the Marvel family, beginning with a 1766 shipwreck and following successive generations as they gain fame in London’s theater community. As he did in his Caldecott Medal–winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick uses a telescoping point of view with great success, bringing the audience effortlessly from the general to the specific, from wide shot to close-up. The next 200 pages are prose, jumping forward to 1990 when a boy named Joseph Jervis has run away from boarding school in search of an uncle he has never met. This is a powerful story about creating lasting art and finding family in unexpected places.
The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck (Atlantic Monthly) - National Book Award winner Tuck blends history, biography, memoir, and fiction in this gleefully chaotic metanarrative, which closely parallels the author’s own life. Tracking the emotional and intellectual development of its protagonist, Liliane, who is born in France in the 1930s but raised largely in the U.S., the novel encompasses many of the early 20th century’s most monumental—and most horrific—developments. Sections centering on Liliane’s parents and family members offer insights into the tribulations faced by European Jews during World War II, as well as the experiences of migrants to the U.S. in the years during and after the war. Along the way, the novel, restless and roving, delivers reports on Liliane’s impressive family history (celebrity relatives include Moses Mendelssohn and Mary, Queen of Scots), while mapping the various places her peripatetic clan has called home (Peru, Italy, and Tanzania among others). While stretches of the novel verge on seeming crammed and distracted, Tuck succeeds in balancing the bounty of the information she relays with playful, buoyant prose and poignant scenes—particularly those between Liliane and her mother, Irène—that quicken the heart. In Tuck’s prose—messy, lively, dizzy, happy—one gets a contagious sense of fun that she has transmuting life into words.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf (Knopf) - Wulf makes an impassioned case for the reinstatement of the boundlessly energetic, perpetually curious, prolific polymath von Humboldt (1769–1859) as a key figure in the history of science. She marshals as evidence evocative descriptions of his expeditions—measuring instruments in hand—through the most brutal terrains of South America and Russia; delightful stories of his inspired interactions with other contemporary luminaries, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolívar; and demonstrations of his personal and intellectual influence on later seekers of truth in nature such as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Ernst Haeckel. But the greatest single idea Wulf credits von Humboldt with establishing is the interconnectedness of nature—the animated, interactive forces of life he described as a “living whole” that bound organisms in a “net-like intricate fabric”—rather than the mechanistic, taxonomic schema of his predecessors, from von Humboldt’s early explanation of plant life in the Andes through his Naturgemälde to his encyclopedic work, Cosmos. Wulf’s stories of wilderness adventure and academic exchange flow easily, and her affection for von Humboldt is contagious.
Shanghai Redemption: An Inspector Chen Novel by Qiu Xiaolong (Minotaur) - Chinese exile Qiu once again movingly and convincingly portrays the plight of an honest cop in a police state, in his ninth novel featuring Insp. Chen Cao (after 2013’s The Enigma of China). Chen’s life and career (he’s also a poet) have never been in more jeopardy. To his dismay, he has learned that he has been unexpectedly “promoted” from his position as deputy Party secretary and chief inspector in the Shanghai Police Bureau to director of the Shanghai Legal Reform Committee. In a country where the interests of the Communist Party come before those of legal reform, Chen realizes that his new job is “merely a reassuring gesture... to the public, at a time when ‘stability maintenance’ was a top political priority.” His fear that he’s going to be discredited is magnified after an invitation to read at a book party celebrating his translations of T.S. Eliot turns out to be a setup. By chance, he avoids being found in a compromised position, but his narrow escape only intensifies his search to identify which of his recent investigations has brought him to the attention of his country’s rulers. The suspense is palpable, and Qiu gives readers a chilling vision of life under authoritarian rule.