This week: a creepy blend of true crime and modern ghost story, plus essays on 25 groundbreaking female artists.
The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault (Morrow) - Arsenault (The Broken Teaglass) deftly shifts among three perspectives in this exquisitely creepy blend of historical true crime and modern ghost story: the conversational confession of Frances Barnett, a young mother, to her brother from a lunatic asylum in Northampton, Mass., in 1885; Frances’s diary, full of obsession with the bloody details of a popular murder case and increasing mental instability as she tries to care for a baby alone and without support; and the increasingly fearful viewpoint of Abby Olson Bernacki, who’s living in the Barnett house in Haverton, Conn., in 2014 and fighting the demons of her own past while seeking the missing pieces in the story that Frances’s diary tells, in the hope of understanding the bruises on her baby, Lucy, and the eerie hushing sound in the nursery upstairs.
City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway) - Bennett’s astonishingly good sequel to 2014’s City of Stairs makes a riveting and often heartbreaking case against war. The Continent, a land that’s somewhat like Russia, once colonized Saypur, a land that’s somewhat like India; then the Saypuri discovered how to kill the Continental gods, and they conquered their former oppressors. Tensions between the two lands remain high. Saypuri prime minister Shara Komayd coerces retired general Turyin Mulaghesh into visiting the Continental city of Voortyashtan, where the goddess of war and death once ruled, and where a spy recently vanished. On her mission, Turyin meets Signe, the daughter of Shara’s former assassin, Sigrud. She’s the CTO of a company intent on revitalizing the local harbor. Turyin is also reunited with her wartime comrade Biswal, with whom she committed atrocities that still affect them decades later.
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor (Melville House) - Shira Greene is working as an office temp and living with her daughter, Andi, and Ahmad, her best friend, when she gets a life-changing telegram: Romei, the mysterious winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, wants her to translate his latest, a work of poetry and prose based on Dante’s La Vita Nuova (literally “new life”), the same work that Shira was translating when she abandoned her Ph.D. At first, Shira thinks that someone is playing a joke, but she’s happy to have a second chance at her career; she even begins to imagine love with the eccentric part-time rabbi and owner of the neighborhood bookstore that publishes Gilgul, the literary journal where one of Rachel’s stories caught Romei’s eye. Cantor’s follow-up to 2014’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario (which PW starred) starts light and shimmers with humorous touches, but as Romei’s faxed pages begin arriving, Shira panics, fearing the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.
The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman (Viking) - In a delicious collision of Regency romance and dark fantasy, Goodman (Eona) tells the story of Lady Helen Wrexhall, a wealthy 18-year-old orphan on the eve of coming out at the court of King George III. If things go as planned, she will pass from the house of her choleric uncle to that of a suitably noble husband. Rumor has it that the Duke of Selburn (the catch of the season) is interested; unfortunately, so is the disreputable Earl of Carlston, though he has something other than marriage in mind. Helen is dissatisfied with a vapid life of endless parties, and she’s also aware that she has begun to develop abilities that seem inappropriate for a young noble woman, like extraordinarily acute hearing and lightning-fast reflexes. Then Carlston tells her about the Dark Days Club, its secret battle to preserve English society from a monstrous enemy, and her destined role in that battle.
The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe by J. Richard Gott (Princeton Univ.) - With an insider’s insight and a storyteller’s eye for detail, Gott (Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe), professor of astrophysics at Princeton University, explores the ways scientists have worked to reveal the large-scale structure of our universe. Gott begins with early 20th-century observations by astronomer Edwin Hubble, which showed that the Milky Way is just one of millions of galaxies spread across an expanding universe. Further observations revealed clusters and superclusters of galaxies, like “meatballs within meatballs within meatballs.” Gott shows how early researchers struggled to explain these density fluctuations, modeling the inflation of the universe after the Big Bang with models that imagined “pancakes” of galaxies forming the walls of “honeycombs” in a kind of “Swiss cheese” or sponge-like universe—which could be just one of an infinite series of “bubble” universes. Mixing accessible science with entertaining anecdotes and personal stories, Gott offers a thorough, vivid, and fascinating look at the cosmic web that makes up our universe.
25 Women: Essays on Their Art by Dave Hickey (Univ. of Chicago) - Throughout these trenchant essays on female artists, Hickey (Air Guitar) is characteristically incisive, challenging, and weird; he’s just as likely to cite a Rolling Stones concert or Lou Reed lyric as the theory of Gilles Deleuze or Jacques Derrida. Hickey turns his incisive lens to the careers of various female visual and performing artists in this bustling essay collection. The range of names represented here is considerable (including some the reader may never have heard of, such as painters Sharon Ellis and Michelle Fierro), and regardless of reputation, Hickey always deploys the same lively rigor. He describes the late Elizabeth Murray as “the absolute mistress of high physical comedy... like Keith Haring with a domestic life and a Ph.D.” On Bridget Riley, he explains how her “fatally misconstrued” works of op art (using optical illusions) “compromise our current penchant for reading art rather than experiencing it.” There are other taut, complex essays on Vija Celmins, Roni Horn, Anne Hamilton, and Joan Mitchell (“In the last ten years, nothing has gotten better but mobile phones and Joan Mitchell’s paintings”). The introduction, titled “A Ladies’ Man”, in which Hickey explains how ”most of my favorite people are women,” emerges as a surprisingly powerful piece of memoir.
Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature by Meredith Maran (Plume) - In this collection, 20 authors address the challenges of personal writing, from self-reflection to respecting the feelings of the other people in one’s life. Maran (My Lie), an accomplished memoirist herself, has selected a diverse group of contributors to speak from their personal experiences while also reflecting on memoir as a genre. Edwidge Danticat describes the year of grief that compelled her to write her first memoir, A.M. Homes grapples with her distaste for personal writing, and Cheryl Strayed ruminates on the repercussions of her runaway success. Each contributor’s section has four distinct components: Maran’s introduction to the writer’s themes and works, a biographical CV, the writer’s thoughts on memoir, and bullet-pointed items of “wisdom for memoir writers.”
The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore (HMH) - This exquisite tale of obsession from Bram Stoker Award–finalist Moore (Redheads) opens with Caleb Maddox, a toxicologist and pain researcher, looking in the mirror of a San Francisco hotel bathroom as he picks tiny shards of glass out of his bleeding forehead. A short time before, his live-in lover, now his ex-girlfriend, threw a tumbler in his face. “It was good glass. Murano crystal, maybe,” from a set they had bought at Macy’s just before she moved in a year earlier. Caleb later leaves the hotel and goes to a bar called the House of Shields, where he meets a mysterious absinthe-drinking woman, Emmeline, who mesmerizes him with a whisper and a titillating silken touch. Caleb’s hard-drinking week-plus pursuit of Emmeline parallels the serial killings that he has been secretly investigating with his oldest and closest friend, medical examiner Henry Newcomb. Male bodies have been washing up in the bay with evidence of unspeakable torture.
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Knopf) - Like Life Is Beautiful and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, this deeply moving debut novel, set in Poland and Germany during WWII, casts naïveté against the cruel backdrop of inhumanity. Late one autumn morning, seven-year-old Anna is put under the care of a pharmacist. Her father is supposed to retrieve her in a few hours, but he never returns. Cast from her caretaker’s shop, Anna has nowhere to turn until she falls in with a reluctant stranger, a tall, reticent man. Thus begins a years-long journey through the woods and beyond that draws Anna closer and closer to the strange man, who communicates with birds and speaks in metaphors (“Everything he said—even, perhaps especially, the things he left out—seemed to carry the reliable weight of truth”). In his quiet yet firm manner, the Swallow Man teaches Anna lessons of survival, some of which challenge her instincts to be honest and compassionate.
The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks (Norton/Liveright) - The images tumbling from Sparks’s mind in her extraordinary second story collection (following May We Shed These Human Bodies) are fantastical and sublime, whether she is unveiling the secret life of a janitor working in a space station, exposing the heart of darkness in a twin who is set on revenge, or—as in the title novella—pairing two lovers in the 1920s who have widely diverging backgrounds. In present-day, historical, and fantasy settings, the author is assured; her spare but colorful prose takes the reader on journeys of longing and mystery, often into uncharted territory, all the while capturing setting and character in a few words—“Teesa is one of those people who substitute scarves for personality.” As Sparks explores the glory of a daughter killing a werewolf in “Take Your Daughter to the Slaughter,” the tenderness of the man who builds “death houses” in “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly,” or the obsession of a time traveler in “Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting,” the breadth of her imagination never ceases to amaze.
The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork (Scholastic/Levine) - Vicky Cruz, 16, “put[s] on strong every morning,” trying to please her demanding father, a emotionally stunted man who married his assistant shortly after the death of his wife, six years earlier. But when Vicky’s father summarily fires her beloved, arthritic nanny, paying for her to return to Mexico, Vicky surrenders to the “soul pain” she has felt for years and swallows a bottle of her stepmother’s sleeping pills. Stork (Marcelo in the Real World) writes sensitively about Vicky’s journey from near death to shaky recovery, discussing his own experience with depression in an afterword. Awakening in a public hospital’s psych ward, Vicky attends group therapy with patients who have a catalogue of disorders, and learns from them to value her strengths. Various studies have estimated that perhaps as many as one in five teens has a diagnosable mental health problem; it’s a subject that needs the discussion Stork’s potent novel can readily provide. Vicky isn’t healed, but she finds a reason to keep living, and that constitutes progress worth celebrating.
The Cowboy Bible by Carlos Velazquez, trans. from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (Restless Books) - The Cowboy Bible is a book of scripture. It is an inebriated burrito vendor, a talisman, and an anxious teenage girl seeking opportunities to rebel. It is an overweight single mother, a musical instrument, and the enigmatic forces binding Velázquez's surreal collection of prose in his English language debut. Eluding easy classification, the book has three parts: Fiction, Non-fiction, and Neither Fiction Nor Non-fiction. The stories take place in the fictional Mexican state of PopSTock! In the title story, the son of a professional wrestler continues his father's legacy, stepping into the ring under the alias Menace Jr., while also pursuing a career as a DJ, a musician, and a visual art critic. "The Post-Norteño Condition," is mostly dialogue and incorporates a stage play format. Its protagonist, Old Man Don Paulino, attempts to trade his soul and his wife to the Devil for a pair of rare boots. Like these narratives, all of the stories are distinct but share similarities in tone and structure: layers of pop culture references, quoted verses and song lyrics, and references to events mentioned in other portions of the book.
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams (McSweeney's) - Surprising, funny, and evocative, the narratives in Williams’s (Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty) newest collection mine small instances for larger meanings. Despite their brevity, these 40 stories exhibit great depth. They explore loneliness, passion, and the “mysteries of daily life.” The opening piece, “Beauty, Love and Vanity Itself” quickly establishes the theme and tone. In a digressive, conversational style, an unnamed narrator speaks of her longing for romance. She recalls former lovers and a shared moment with a stranger at a hotel pool that gave her a deeper understanding of her own life. In “Cinch,” a homeowner attempts to rid the yard of a gopher. In “Gulls,” a woman watches two birds collide in flight. “The Poet” depicts a woman trying to slice bread to feed hungry house pets. The detail and characterization warp the mundane into touching and haunting situations. Each story is a swift bursts of life that encourages repeated readings and opens new interpretations with each encounter.