This week: adventures in the human body, new Colum McCann, and the dark side of Mark Twain.
A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond (Delacorte) - Almond (The Tightrope Walkers) gracefully interfuses ancient archetypes with contemporary situations in this retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Set in northern England—a landscape familiar to Almond’s fans—the novel is told from the point of view of Claire, a restless high school student, whose dreams and imagination reach beyond the confines of her cold, dreary surroundings. “I wanted to experience that thing of being just me, moving on my own across the earth,” she laments. During a much-anticipated trip to the beach with some close friends, Claire is enchanted by Orpheus, a wandering musician whose beauty and skills with the lyre seem otherworldly. When Claire’s best friend Ella instantly falls in love with this stranger, Claire has misgivings; after it becomes apparent that Orpheus is just as smitten with Ella, Claire agrees to help them secretly elope, not knowing the height of wonder and depth of despair that will follow.
Twain's End by Lynn Cullen (Gallery) - The extraordinary relationship between the popular, complicated author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, and his longtime secretary Isabel Lyon is wonderfully reimagined in this absorbing novel. Cullen (Mrs. Poe) depicts an immensely talented and virile, yet crude, hot-tempered, self-centered late-in-life Samuel, whose own children fear him and who remains tormented by his childhood with slave-owning parents—sordid realities that lie beneath the famous wit. Raised wealthy, Isabel must work after her father dies; she becomes social secretary to Livy Clemens, Samuel’s seriously ill wife, but in reality, she works for Samuel. Isabel is devoted, scheduling appearances, managing employees, paying bills and becoming the confidante to an aging, increasingly troubled, regretful man: “I kill the people I love with words,” he confides to Isabel. An intimacy develops, yet certain lines are not crossed. Messy romantic entanglements involving Samuel’s daughter Clara and her lover, Samuel’s business manager and Isabel, and even a visiting Helen Keller and her teacher’s husband make Samuel enraged and distrustful. Isabel and Samuel’s memorabilia are the basis of Cullen’s fascinating interpretation of this early 20th-century literary immortal, distinguished by incisive character portrayals and no-holds-barred scrutiny.
Saving Gotham: A Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for Eight Million Lives by Tom Farley (Norton) - Farley, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene from 2009 to 2014, revisits the controversial public health initiatives introduced during his tenure and that of his predecessor, Tom Frieden (in office from 2002 to 2009), under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg. Their mission was “to save lives millions at a time,” but it was the method that was revolutionary: shifting focus from preventing communicable diseases to noncommunicable ones, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease. To wage this monumental battle, Bloomberg and his health department took on the tobacco and food industries by levying a cigarette tax, banning trans fats from restaurants and requiring calorie labels on menus, carving out smoke-free public areas, and helping cut salt in foods. There were losses, too—most famously Bloomberg’s soda tax—as well as a skeptical media that chided the administration as an intrusive nanny state. Nevertheless, between 2001 and 2010, life expectancy in New York City increased by three years, compared with 1.8 years nationwide; and the number of New Yorkers who died of heart disease caused by smoking, diet, and physical inactivity in 2012 was down by more than 8,000 compared to 2000.
Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum by Gavin Francis (Basic) - Scottish physician Francis (Empire Antarctica) couples his wealth of medical experience with his humanistic perspective to produce a user’s guide to the human body, easily conveying the sense of awe that arises from his intimate knowledge of how bodies work. Each of his 18 chapters focuses on a specific body part and includes an intricate blend of case studies, underlying anatomy and physiology, historical perspectives, and ties to artistic work. The package is a joy to read and demonstrates that the best of medicine operates in the intersection between science and the humanities. “When language is called ‘clinical’ it is usually to imply that it is without emotion,” Francis notes. “Yet clinics are often awash in emotional transactions.” Such emotion can be seen throughout the book, but it is most striking in his chapter on the breast, in which he describes how the concept of “healing” needs to be envisioned broadly. His skill as a writer and an observer of human nature become obvious when he is able to make a chapter entitled “Large Bowel & Rectum” thoroughly engaging.
Calf by Andrea Kleine (Soft Skull) - At the start of this debut novel, Kleine explains that the story was influenced by two acts of violence in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s: John Hinckley Jr.'s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan, and the murder of a young girl by her socialite mother, Leslie deVeau (Hinckley and deVeau became lovers after both were found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the same mental institution). Kleine uses these incidents as springboards for her story, but she smartly deviates from the facts to maximize suspense. Hinckley's stand-in here is Jeffrey Hackney, a college dropout from Texas with dreams of fame. He moves to Los Angeles before heading to D.C. in hopes of attracting the attention of a young starlet. Like his real-life counterpart, Hackney suffers from delusions, manipulates his family, and becomes more and more mentally unstable. Meanwhile, 10-year-old Tammy moves from Virginia to the nation's capital with her mother, sister, stepbrother, and stepfather after her parents divorce. Though Tammy makes friends at her new school, she feels isolated, and when her friend Kirin is murdered in her sleep by her own mother, Tammy too becomes unstable and starts down a dark, dangerous path. Dread stalks every page, and the result is unsettling, scary, and often brilliant. For readers looking for a sharp, twisted narrative, this is a keeper.
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, trans. from the Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso) - Kurniawan makes his U.S. debut with this novel, along with the tour-de-force epic Beauty Is a Wound, also being published this fall. Tragic and imaginative, the story begins with the murder of Anwar Sadat, a known womanizer in a rural Indonesian village. An angry young boar hunter named Margio initially confesses to the killing, and one of Anwar’s daughters, Maesa Dewi, witnessed Margio at the scene of the crime. However, Major Sadrah, the town’s only military commander, can’t find a motive. When Sadrah speaks with Margio at the police station, Margio reveals that he is not the killer—rather, Margio believes a ghostly ancestral tiger that lives inside his body committed the murder. Kurniawan is a sly raconteur, and the easy flow of his prose shines in Sembiring’s translation. The narrative is told in a style that evokes oral storytelling traditions. It is conversational, cyclical, and tangential. The frequent digressions are used effectively for characterization and provide a larger understanding of the events leading to Anwar’s death. The world Kurniawan invents is familiar and unexpected, incorporating mystery, magical realism, and folklore. Biting and beautiful, the book’s mythical elements are grounded by grim accounts of Margio’s troubled family and its abusive patriarch, Komar bin Syueb. This wild and enthralling novel manages to entertain while offering readers insight into the traditions of a little-known South East Asian culture. Kurniawan has officially put the West on notice.
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann (Random) - A novella evoking insecurity in the age of security cameras and three heartbreaking stories make up McCann’s (TransAtlantic) latest short-fiction collection. Various ways of looking—which are referenced in the title novella and serve as the highlight of this outstanding volume—include cameras installed in elderly Judge Mendelssohn’s Upper East Side apartment, at the neighborhood restaurant where Mendelssohn meets his son for lunch, and along the street where Mendelssohn, walking home alone, is assaulted just outside camera range. Mendelssohn’s memories and observations alternate with video images that police examine and reexamine to identify his assailant. Human and technical perspectives (and even a housefly’s) are captured in spare, suggestive prose. Videotapes, for example, show something of a Greek epic, “the old gray man with his walking stick, venturing out, into the snow, out of frame and away like an ancient word stepping off a page.” Insights into aging, the justice system, and dislocation widen the novella’s scope; details of how things work keep it real. The second story, for instance, details the process of writing stories. A writer imagines a Marine in Afghanistan phoning home; the image becomes a story; details emerge; the story takes on a life of its own. The collection finishes with “Sh’khol,” which follows the adoptive mother of a mentally disabled boy missing in Galway Bay, in Ireland, and “Treaty,” about a nun, scarred from brutal torture in Latin America, who sees her abuser on television—a statesman negotiating a peace treaty.
Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea (Catapult) - McCrea’s richly imagined debut novel is narrated by Irishwoman Lizzie Burns, the longtime lover of The Communist Manifesto coauthor Frederick Engels. In 1870, the couple leaves Manchester (where the wealthy Engels family once employed Lizzie at their cotton mill) to reside in London. Lizzie’s new life is opulent but empty: she is uncomfortable with upper-class society and excluded from most of Frederick’s activities, including his cerebral efforts to liberate her own class. Struggling to find a purpose, Lizzie seeks out her old flame, the Irish radical Moss O’Malley, whose cause always needs funds. She attempts to help the illegitimate son that Frederick had two decades before and seems to have forgotten. Even as she fights for others, Lizzie nurses wounds of her own: she longs to be married, despite Frederick’s disdain for such conventions, and she fears that he will never forget her deceased sister Mary, who was his former lover. McCrae gives the illiterate Lizzie a vivid, convincing voice, sparkling with energy and not untouched by pathos.
The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East 1908-1923 by Sean McMeekin (Penguin Press) - In this magisterial history, McMeekin (July 1914), a prolific military historian at Bard College, recounts the epochal social, political, and demographic transformations unfolding across the Middle East in the run-up to and aftermath of WWI. Giving events in the Ottoman theater the same attention to detail usually reserved for the Western front, McMeekin argues that principals on all sides were stymied by myopic preconceptions as the war gained steam, with movements on the ground easily overcoming any pretense of rational planning. For example, of the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign, he writes, “Churchill’s notion that enemy morale was about to crack... flies so powerfully in the face of logic that it is remarkable historians have ever given it credence.” Meanwhile, Russian czars’ centuries-old coveting of Constantinople, a powerful driver of the conflict, was nullified in an instant by a revolutionary Russia that abjured adventurism abroad: “Of all the deathbed miracles that had saved the Ottoman Empire in the modern era, Lenin’s revolution was surely the greatest.”
Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner (Ecco) - This riveting memoir takes place primarily in Kibera, one of Kenya’s worst slums (which range in population from 170,000 to 1 million), and the authors narrate in alternating chapters. Odede, a community organizer in his early 20s, grew up in Kibera, and tells of his childhood of poverty, abuse, and struggle; Posner, a privileged, 20-year-old Wesleyan University student on a semester abroad project, arrived in 2007 hoping to help out with a theater group that Odede runs. Wanting an authentic experience, Posner moves in with Odede in the slum; there the eyes of the Denver-raised American are opened to another world, and she begins to fall under the spell of the charismatic, courageous young man who founded the nonprofit community organization Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) and is known unofficially throughout Kibera as “Mayor.” Before long, Odede’s dream of building a school for girls (many of whom have been abused and/or raped) is put into motion, and with Posner’s help, grants are secured to bring this dream, and others, to life.
Wrath of the Furies: A Novel of the Ancient World by Steven Saylor (Minotaur) - A highly suspenseful plot and a moving resolution distinguish Saylor’s masterful third novel featuring Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder in his younger years (after 2014’s Raiders of the Nile). In 88 B.C.E., King Mithridates of Pontus, who views himself as the military heir to Alexander the Great, has had an impressive string of victories against Roman forces in Asia. Gordianus, who has settled in Alexandria, is reeling from the revelation that his guide and teacher, the poet Antipater, betrayed his people to spy for Mithridates. When Gordianus learns that Antipater may be in peril, however, he concocts a way to enter Ephesus, a city now controlled by the Pontic king, to come to the poet’s aid. Gordianus’s arrival coincides with a horrific plan by Mithridates to coordinate simultaneous massacres of tens of thousands of Romans trapped in areas under his control. Even readers who know how history played out will be engrossed.
The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir by Riad Sattouf (Metropolitan) - This first part of former Charlie Hebdo columnist Sattouf’s autobiography was a controversial bestseller in France. It follows his early childhood through stints in France, Libya, and Syria, and his cross-cultural alienation from all of them. Sattouf’s father is Syrian, his mother French, and his story recounts the way his father commandeered their family life to reconcile himself with his Arab heritage. Though he is often forced back to France, Sattouf’s father takes teaching jobs in dictator-run Arab countries, then works to convince himself, and his family, that their near-utopian dreams are close to coming true. But through the author’s young eyes these regimes are revealed for all their weirdnesses and hardships. Despite his father’s determination to integrate his son into Arab society, little Sattouf—with his long blond hair—never fully fits in, and this report reads like the curious pondering of an alien from another world. Caught between his parents, Sattouf makes the best of his situation by becoming a master observer and interpreter, his clean, cartoonish art making a social and personal document of wit and understanding.
MARTians by Blythe Woolston (Candlewick) - Woolston (Black Helicopters) nods to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as she envisions a bleak, near-future suburban wasteland of empty housing developments and thriving big box stores. After an unexpected early graduation when her high school is permanently closed “in the interest of efficiency,” Zoë Zindleman receives a job referral for AllMART. That same day her “AnnaMom” announces that she’s moving away and leaving Zoë behind. Eventually Zoë goes to live with other homeless kids at the Warren, an abandoned strip mall across from the AllMART. Snapshots of Zoë’s life as a trainee provide glimpses of a pervasive corporatocracy, and a populace all but deadened to reality. Zoë’s flattened narration reflects the disjointed, disconnected nature of her existence, and while Woolston keeps the focus on Zoë, offhandedly mentioned details about her world (“I’m not an Otakusexual—although I respect toonophilia as a sexually responsible choice”) and chilling corporatespeak (“Your smile is AllMART’s welcome mat”) will set imaginations spinning. It’s a terrifying extrapolation of the here-and-now and, like much of Woolston’s fiction, far too close for comfort.
The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones (Candlewick) - Wynne-Jones (Blink & Caution) deftly blends realism and fantasy in this eerie tale featuring Evan, a high school student mourning his late father, and Griff, the crusty grandfather Evan meets for the first time. Evan always knew that his ex-Marine grandfather and draft-dodger father never saw eye to eye, but he wasn’t aware of his grandfather’s unearthly encounters during WWII until he discovers the mysterious diary of a Japanese soldier. When Griff shows up at Evan’s door, Evan is immediately put off by his grandfather’s controlling tendencies, but his curiosity is piqued. Could this be the same man mentioned in the diary, who visited an island filled with flesh-eating monsters and the ghosts of unborn children? Readers will be swept up quickly in the tense relationship between Evan and Griff, as well as the unlikely friendship between enemy soldiers fighting for survival in a surreal landscape.