This week: new books from Stephen King, Isabel Allende, and Oscar Hijuelos.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende, trans. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson (Atria) - Allende’s (The House of Spirits) magical and sweeping tale focuses on two survivors of separation and loss: the elderly, renowned designer Alma Belasco, whose silk-screened creations fuel the family foundation, and her young secretary, mysterious Irina Bazili, who works at the progressive old people’s home, Lark House, where Alma lives. Their narratives, however, go far beyond the retelling of Alma’s remarkable affair with a Japanese gardener’s son, Ichimei Fukuda, its heartbreaking end, and her subsequent marriage to loyal friend Nathaniel—or Irina’s heartbreaking struggle to break free of her haunting past. Allende sweeps these women up in the turmoil of families torn apart by WWII and ravaged by racism, poverty, horrific sexual abuse—and old age, to which Allende pays eloquent attention. Befitting the unapologetically romantic soul bared here—the poignant letters to Alma from Ichimei are interspersed throughout—love is what endures.
Trashed by Derf Backderf (Abrams ComicArts) - After the gut-wrenching psychological investigation/memoir My Friend Dahmer, indie comic stalwart Backderf returns to the scabrous humor and pointed commentary of his earlier work with a loose scattering of stories about the garbage men in a small, decaying Ohio town. A onetime garbage man himself, Backderf has a clear affinity for these hardworking stiffs and their travails. If they’re not getting hassled by their uptight boss, they’re dealing with the daily challenges of the sanitation business: liquefied garbage frozen solid in their cans, swarms of maggots, corpse-waking smells, biblical weather, the puzzle of how to get an upright piano weighing several hundred pounds into a garbage truck. A downbeat but entertaining ode to the odiferous realities of getting by.
This Bridge Will Not Be Gray by Dave Eggers, illus. by Tucker Nichols (McSweeney's) - Simple questions make fine picture books. Why is the Golden Gate Bridge orange? National Book Award finalist Eggers (A Hologram for the King) begins before the bridge was built, as some Bay Area residents protest the idea: “It will mar the beauty of the land, they said. What’s wrong with boats? they said.” But the project goes ahead, and public opinion swings around to support it. Eggers’s featherlight humor provides laughs throughout, as in the description of the bridge’s steel parts journeying through the Panama Canal: “It was a long trip, but the pieces of steel did not mind, for they are inanimate objects.” Although the Navy wants to stripe the bridge black and yellow, and most people expect it to be gray, Irving Morrow, the project’s idiosyncratic champion, defends the vivid orange of the steel’s anti-rust paint, making the proclamation that gives the book its title.
Da Vinci's Tiger by L. M. Elliott (HarperCollins/Tegen) - “I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger.” This is the only surviving sentence from the poetry of Ginevra de’ Benci, who posed for a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1470s. The creation of this portrait is the subject of Elliott’s (Flying South) delicately beautiful novel. Ginevra, a well-educated and intelligent young woman, seeks intellectual and romantic fulfillment in the aristocratic circles of Florence. Her arranged marriage, while friendly, is dull, and the ambassador from Venice, Bernardo Bembo, wants her to be his Platonic muse—a Renaissance form of romance in which a man idealizes a woman, declaring that he will meditate on her beauty, grace, and virtue to guide his soul to God. Bembo’s love can give Ginevra access to the sparkling life of the court, but she finds the painter he hires for her portrait very distracting indeed. Elliott’s novel is thoroughly researched, portraying three-dimensional characters in a lively atmosphere of love and art.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown) - Acclaimed music historian Guralnick has written landmark accounts of Elvis (Last Train to Memphis), Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie), and the history of American roots music (Lost Highway), and he now turns his considerable skills to the life of Sun Records producer Sam Phillips in this delightful and comprehensive volume. While he builds the story on the skeleton of the facts of Phillips’s life—his birth outside of Florence, Ala.; his production of the jam session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, later released as the Million Dollar Quartet tapes; and his tireless work ethic—Guralnick portrays a man deeply passionate about giving black musicians opportunities to share their music and voices in a South that seldom allowed them to do so. Drawing on extensive interviews from his 25-year friendship with Phillips, as well as on interviews with many of the musicians Phillips produced (Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner among others), Guralnick energetically tells the must-read tale of a Southern boy intent on enacting his vision of freedom and justice through music.
Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos (Grand Central) - This vividly imagined and detailed epic about two giants of the 19th century is the product of over a decade of work; Hijuelos was still revising the manuscript up until his untimely death in 2013. In his late teens, the author became captivated by Sir Henry Morton Stanley and his extraordinary trajectory from a poverty-stricken Welsh orphan to a world-renowned explorer; Hijuelos also discovered that Stanley had a friendship with Mark Twain. Using third-person narrative, letters, and journal entries (all fabricated), and by bringing in Stanley’s wife, the painter Dorothy Tennant, as a foil between the two men, the author brilliantly breathes life into Victorian times. Particular focus is paid to Stanley’s early life in America, and an entirely concocted journey he took to Cuba with Twain in search of Stanley’s adoptive father and namesake. Stanley, formal and somewhat rigid, though certainly erudite and keen for adventure, contrasts with Twain, the more relaxed and gifted speaker whose humor endeared him to audiences around the world.
Bird by Noy Holland (Counterpoint) - In her powerful debut novel, Holland (What Begins with Bird) tells the story of Bird, a mother and wife who, over the course of an innocuous weekday, reminisces about her drug-fueled spell with Mickey, a past flame, after a telephone call from an old friend, Suzie, tips her off to his latest escapades. Alternating between past and present, Bird mentally slips into her former life—a time of squatting in rundown buildings, risky sex, suffering a miscarriage, traveling cross-country, and encountering odd characters—as her contemporary self watches her son board the school bus and, later, soaks in the tub with her infant daughter, in Bird’s rural home in a vague Northeast setting. Telephone conversations with Suzie, who is embracing the wild existence Bird abandoned, bridge the eventually blurring time lines and result in a surreal journey. Holland crafts a deceptive narrative, one that on the surface appears to chronicle the dreariness of domesticity, yet ultimately transforms itself into a densely layered tale of lust and ache, filled with touches of the bizarre. A fascinating novel.
Ball by Tara Ison (Soft Skull) - The synthetic blond, the berserk lover, the horny teenager—Ison delves into the minds of these characters and others in this captivating and disturbing collection of stories: think Mary Gaitskill or Miranda July, but more demented. Ison writes about sex as the undercurrent of all adult life. Past abuse, current relationships, future encounters—none dispel the magnetic tug of human sexual attraction. The erratic narrator of the title story is just as annoyed by her dog’s obsession with playing ball as her boyfriend Eric is annoyed by her obsession with the dog. Eric breaks up with her, but she can’t break up with the dog. Or can she? In “Fish,” the main character waits for her dreaded uncle to die so that she can quietly feed his remains to the fish at a botanical gardens. Another story dramatizes the wig shopping one friend must do for her friend dying of cancer. The resentment between the friend builds to a startling climax with a pair of tweezers. These stories may shock but they also provoke, with many leading to an unexpected, and not always happy, ending.
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul, trans. from the Danish by Martin Aitken (Coach House) - The first North American release of Juul's 2009 novel, which won Denmark's Danske Banks Litteraturpris, is long overdue. The story follows Bess, a deliciously selective narrator, in the wake of the death of her famed lover, Halland. His murder triggers a chain of events and discoveries, including the revealing of Halland's double life with his pregnant foster niece, Pernille, whose baby might be Halland's, and the restoration of Bess's relationship with her daughter. But the book's primary focus is on more existential revelations. Juul concerns herself principally with character, and her writing is sparse, ascetic, and exquisite, especially when she writes atmospheric passages or captures the novel's central ethos through Bess's love of TV police procedurals. Bess admits, "The puzzle attracted me—the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life." Apropos, the book is intentionally without resolution; Halland's murder left unsolved, though readers have enough information to draw their own conclusions. But his death isn't the point; it's the catalyst for a beautifully wrought narrative about reclamation, letting go, and moving on.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (Scribner) - Renowned author King’s impressive latest collection (after 2010’s Full Dark, No Stars) wraps 20 stories and poems in fascinating commentary. Each work’s preface explains what inspired it and gives readers insight into King’s writing methods, with occasional tidbits of his daily life. The stories themselves are meditations on mortality, destiny, and regret, all of which showcase King’s talent for exploring the human condition. Realistic and supernatural elements sit side by side. The tragic “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” contrasts the charmed lives of two world-famous poets enjoying a roadside picnic with the grim existence of two single mothers who are taking one last road trip. “Under the Weather” tells of a man’s fierce love for his wife and the terrifying power of denial. “Summer Thunder,” a story about a man and his dog at the end of the world, is a heart-wrenching study of inevitability and the enduring power of love. Other standouts include “Ur,” about a Kindle that links to other worlds, and “Bad Little Kid,” about a terrifying murderous child (complete with propeller hat).
Newton's Apple and Other Myths about Science edited by Ronald L. Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis (Harvard Univ.) - Myths die hard no matter how often they are refuted, and this splendid essay collection, edited by Numbers (professor emeritus of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Kampourakis (of the University of Geneva, Switzerland), tackles many of the most prevalent and destructive myths about science. A few, such as the idea that before Columbus everyone believed the planet was flat, are well known to be false. Others, especially those about recent scientific developments, are still believed by the general public. One of the most pervasive myths, addressed in many ways throughout the collection, is that science and religion are in a fight to the death. Several other essays address Darwin and aspects of evolutionary theory. The book’s real value lies in the way that each author not only refutes a myth, but traces its origins and points out why it has lasted so long; each brief, well-written essay—they average eight pages—gives the historical context and explains the relevant science.
The Boys by Toni Sala, trans. from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem (Two Lines) - In a fatal car crash in the small Catalan town of Vidreres, two young men have died, leaving the entire town afflicted with a powerful grief. The story homes in on four of those townspeople, both directly and indirectly related to the dead: Ernest, a banker; Miqui, a coarse truck driver; Iona, the fiancée of one of the dead boys; and Nil, an unhinged artist in pursuit of Iona. In the days that follow the accident, these four make the dark, interconnected narrative: Miqui introduces Ernest to prostitutes, even while taking a fancy to Iona, and Nil tries to introduce the grieving Iona to a form of pyromania especially cruel to animals. “The dead gave life shape,” the book states, and indeed, readers witness how the four lives are suspended and altered in the wake of the accident. Sala is a master of meditation, and the excitement and intrigue are never sacrificed despite digressive passages on Internet alienation, art, violence, phrases of grief, the Spanish recession, and love. One hopes this tremendous novel, already an award-winner overseas, will receive the attention it deserves here.
Captivity by Gyorgy Spiro, trans. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (Restless Books) - Uri, the hero of Spiró's enormous novel, is a Jewish Candide, although the scope of his exploits suggests more of a naive Don Quixote type—a wide-eyed and resilient innocent, faithful to both his family and his religion. His big dream is to travel from his native Rome to Jerusalem, which he does in the course of this episodic epic. Set in the first century A.D., the novel (first published in Hungary in 2005) covers roughly the same period as Robert Graves's classic I, Claudius, but Uri is on the ground with the rabble instead of in the exalted halls of intrigue. Indeed, a good chunk of the story involves Uri and his friends' retelling the exploits of the royals. The pacing is slow but deliberate, evocative and richly detailed. Spiró's elaborate style reflects Uri's acute observation, with the hint of a wink at the reader. Whether he is imprisoned next to Jesus Christ or is conversing with Pontius Pilate or Kainis, his ex-wife, who happens to be a faux empress, Uri remains his earnest self. A thoroughly impressive literary feat.
Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist by Samuel Steward, edited by Jeremy Mulderig (Univ. of Chicago) - This remarkable collection assembles Steward’s essays for an unlikely venue: the Illinois Dental Journal. Steward, a once-neglected figure in queer history, palled around with Gertrude Stein, kept a “stud file” of his sexual conquests, and ran a successful tattoo parlor catering to sailors. In 1944, he was asked by his dentist, the journal’s editor, to write a column providing a “worm’s-eye view” of dentistry. The essays that followed, under the pen name Philip Sparrow, were elegantly constructed, bitingly funny, and likely to be utterly baffling to the original readership—particularly the coded gay references. The first column, “The Victim’s Viewpoint,” features a patient’s musings on “the Dentist as Iago.” Steward’s focus quickly broadened to a wider range of topics, including wartime life, opera, teetotalers, and men’s fashion.
Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer by Tomas Tranströmer, trans. from the Swedish by Patty Crane (Sarabande) - Swedish Nobel laureate Tranströmer (1931–2015) was often admired for his melancholy single lines, his wintry Scandinavian seascapes, and his evocative, terse, almost dreamlike poems: “I am cradled in my shadow,” one says, “like a fiddle/ in its black case.” Tranströmer was also regularly translated by notable U.S. and U.K. poets, so why this new version? It’s far-ranging: not all-inclusive, but attentive to all the decades of his career. It holds, for example, the big sequence “Baltics,” with its long views of the sea and of Swedish history, and the entirety of The Sorrow Gondola. Crane’s verse sounds good in English, and it comes with facing-page Swedish. It also reflects the cooperation of the poet’s wife: Crane visited Tomas and Monica Tranströmer periodically from 2007 to 2010, when she had begun to render the poems, often with masterly care, into syllables sharper, more brittle, more urgent, than some prior translators chose.