The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship; Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

Patricia Bell-Scott. Knopf, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-679-44652-1

Bell-Scott (Life Notes), professor emerita of women’s studies and family science at the University of Georgia, deftly reveals two women’s crucial involvement in the struggle for civil rights. Pauli Murray, a young African American woman, crossed paths with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934 when Murray was living at Camp Tera, a New Deal facility for unemployed women. The burgeoning professional relationship between these two smart, strong-minded, and ambitious women developed into genuine affection. They shared similar ideas about social justice, and each chose her own course of action. The fascinating, complex Murray takes center stage in this absorbing historical page-turner.

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family

Gail Lumet Buckley. Atlantic Monthly, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2454-8

In this thoroughly engaging family chronicle, Buckley (The Hornes) reveals an expansive tapestry of African-American history since the Civil War. The story begins with her great-great-grandfather Moses Calhoun, a freed slave turned businessman. Buckley never loses sight of the broad canvas, even when her mother, singer and actress Lena Horne, “unavoidably becomes the star of the story.” Giants of African-American culture, often personally connected to the Calhouns, move fluidly through the pages, among them W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Walter White. The family itself produced poets, physicians, politicians, military men, educators, and journalists, as well as a gambler and “rake” connected to the 1919 Black Sox scandal. But as Buckley shows, for all of the comfort of their middle-class status, the Calhouns also lived under the shadow of lynchings, riots, and racist legislation. Ever-present details of domestic life (courtship, marriage, children, family squabbles, divorces) hold the sprawling tale together.

The Flood Girls

Richard Fifield. S&S/Gallery, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4767-9738-0

In Fifield’s excellent fiction debut, alcoholic Rachel Flood returns to her hometown of Quinn, Mont. (pop. 956), after a nine-year self-imposed exile, coming back to atone for her teenage behavior—out-of-control fighting, drinking, and promiscuous sex. Her mother, Laverna Flood, is the hard-boiled, vulgar owner of the Dirty Shame, a bar where mixed drinks are too much trouble to make and fistfights are encouraged. Rachel and Laverna haven’t spoken since she left. Rachel’s unexpected appearance is not welcome, but she is determined to complete Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12-step program, to make amends and redeem herself. Fifield has created a colorful, quirky, and amusing cast of small-town characters.

Window Left Open

Jennifer Grotz. Graywolf (FSG, dist.), $16 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-55597-730-6

The curiosities of a poet aren’t just for proof of the sublime, and Grotz (The Needle) finds reason for intellectually excavating even the simplest of objects and creatures, such as snow, scorpions, sundials, and poppies. Her poetry can be playful as she speaks in accessible riddles, always aware of the line between a lush metaphor and an excessive, hollow display. The opening stanza of “The Snow Apples” is one example of Grotz’s preference for the power of simplicity: “the snow apples that still hang/ on otherwise bare branches,/ why won’t they let go?” Their stubborn refusal to detach from the tree can be viewed as an action that is just as human as someone refusing to let go of the past, a relationship, or a memory. The following poem, “Snow,” further showcases Grotz’s keen eye as she contrasts her desert upbringing with the realities of northern climes. Her humble, trance-like assessment of the natural world continues into “Snowflakes,” where each flake presents the chance to contemplate unreplicated beauty.

The Vegetarian

Han Kang, trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Random/Hogarth, $21 (192p) ISBN 978-0-553-44818-4

You may think you know where Han's English-language debut novel is going, but you have no idea. At first, its mundane strangeness may remind you of the works of Haruki Murakami: Mr. Cheong, a Seoul businessman wakes up one night to find his wife, Yeong-hye, standing in the kitchen in front of their refrigerator. Mr. Cheong, who is drawn to Yeong-hye for no particular reason other than her passiveness, is taken aback. He's even more surprised when "the most ordinary woman in the world" declares she won't eat meat because she's had a bloody dream. To go into much detail the plot of The Vegetarian is doing it a disservice. Suffice it to say, Mr. Cheong's true nature is revealed, and Yeong-hye's family members are soon swept up in her mysterious change, which manifests itself in increasingly odd ways: she begins to eat less and less, and then not at all, and she becomes fond of taking off her clothes on sunny days. The atmosphere of growing dread is entrancing and tense, and readers will find a bounty of bizarre, ominous images: an IV bag filling with blood, a bird squeezed in a fist, and a psychiatric ward in the forest where a gloomy rain is continually falling. This is an ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable novel.

The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature

Edited by Yunte Huang. Norton, $39.95 (752p) ISBN 978-0-393-23948-5

Guggenheim fellow and Edgar Award–winning author Huang (Charlie Chan) edits and does much of the translation in this superb and suitably massive compendium of Chinese literature that stretches from the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 to the present. In his introduction, Huang calls this a "search for the soul of modern China." That search takes readers from the sometimes giddy works of the republican era through the constrained literature of Maoist times to the broad range of styles in the post-Mao period. Among the many novel excerpts are selections from Nobel laureate Mo Yan's Red Sorghum, full of vibrant colors, odors, sounds, and action, and from Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian's thoughtful Soul Mountain. Shorter works appear in abundance as well, with pieces from Lu Xun opening the collection, including "A Madman's Diary," his disturbing allegorical critique of traditional Chinese society. A treasure trove for any reader interested in Chinese literature.

The High Mountains of Portugal

Yann Martel. Random/Spiegel & Grau, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9717-0

An Iberian rhinoceros, two chimpanzees, three dead wives, and two dead toddlers all figure in this highly imaginative novel. Martel’s narrative wizardry connects three novellas set seven decades apart in the eponymous region of Portugal. In the first section, titled “Homeless” and set in 1904, Tomás Lobo, a young resident of Lisbon whose wife and son have died, begins to walk backward “to face the uncertainty of the future,” since everything he cherished in life has been taken away. Though he has lost his religious faith, he vows to find a “strange and marvelous” crucifix that resembles a chimpanzee in a church in the tiny village of Tuizelo. His quest goes awry in highly comic ways: an episode that finds him naked in a meadow rubbing lice powder over his body rivals the hilarious meerkat scene in Martel’s Life of Pi. Characters from Tuizelo figure in the second section, “Homeward,” set in 1938. A pathologist receives a visit from his dead wife and later discovers a dead chimpanzee curled in the body of a man on whom he does an autopsy. Martel handles this improbable scene with convincing magical realism. “Home,” the third section, is set in 1981 Canada, where a politician mourning his dead wife impulsively buys a chimpanzee called Odo and travels to Tuizelo, where he was born. Martel is in a class by himself in acknowledging the tragic vicissitudes of life while celebrating wildly ridiculous contretemps that bring levity to the mystery of existence.


Sara Pennypacker, illus. by Jon Klassen. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-237701-2

Peter found Pax, a fox, when he was an orphaned kit, and he has kept him as a pet since his mother’s sudden death, five years earlier. Now Peter’s stern father is bound for an unspecified war—one fought at least partly on domestic soil—forcing 12-year-old Peter to move in with his grandfather, and to release Pax. It takes less than a night for Peter to become overwhelmed with remorse—by morning, he is hiking hundreds of miles to the spot where he reluctantly abandoned Pax. The aftermath of that separation is told in chapters that alternate between the fox and the boy’s points of view. In an exceptionally powerful, if grim story, Pennypacker (Summer of the Gypsy Moths) does a remarkable job of conveying the gritty perspective of a sheltered animal that must instantly learn to live in the wild (“Orphaned before he’d been weaned, Pax had never eaten raw prey. His hunger rose at the blood-scent and so did his curiosity”). Both boy and fox encounter characters who drastically rearrange their worldview.

Black Deutschland

Darryl Pinckney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-11381-0

Two distinct settings—West Berlin and Chicago—serve as backdrops for this richly imagined second novel by Pinckney (High Cotton). Set in the 1980s, the story spans several years in the life of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man with a rehab stint in his past and an Isherwood-nurtured sense of Berlin as a site of intellectual and sexual liberation. “Like most American queers in West Berlin,” he says, “I was in love with Weimar culture.” In his late 20s, Jed, a lover of architecture, flees his native Chicago for Germany to work for N.I. Rosen-Montag, a famous and controversial architect on a “back-to-the-eighteenth-century-scale crusade.” When the gig eventually falls through, Jed sticks around, having a cadre of fellow expatriates, part- and full-time lovers, and family—a second cousin, Cello, who embodies Berlin’s “traditional high culture”—to rely on (or not). Teeming with characters, historical minutiae, and observations on art, Pinckney’s novel is a lively, inviting, and beautifully written story of survival by intellect.

Salt to the Sea

Ruta Sepetys. Philomel, $18.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-16030-1

Sepetys delivers another knockout historical novel, after Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy, that offers insight into the ugly realities of WWII and culminates with a forgotten event, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Set in East Prussia during the brutal winter of 1945, in the waning days of the conflict, and tautly narrated by four strong, distinct voices, the narrative highlights the plight of refugees as Germany tries to evacuate soldiers and civilians: “The brutality was shocking. Disgraceful acts of inhumanity. No one wanted to fall into the hands of the enemy. But it was growing harder to distinguish who the enemy was.” The narrators include Florian, a Prussian boy carrying a secret parcel; traumatized 15-year-old Amelia, a Polish girl without papers who hides a mysterious pregnancy; Joana, a repatriated 21-year-old Lithuanian nurse, who believes she’s a murderer; and Alfred, a German soldier who imagines writing self-important missives to a girl back home. Their stories collide—first as the three refugees travel through the countryside with a larger group, and then as they try to gain passage on Alfred’s ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, which is doomed to maritime disaster with casualties exceeding those of the Titanic and Lusitania combined.

Sweaterweather and Other Short Stories

Sara Varon. First Second, $19.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-62672-118-0

Varon has added 10 stories to the eight gathered in her 2003 comics collection of the same name, along with brief introductions for all 18. Most of the stories are short, and most feature animals. In one, a bird and a monkey batter each other in a boxing match, then sit companionably on the couch nursing their wounds. A lion borrows a library book called How to Fit In in the African Grassland and tries various techniques for socializing with his prey (then gives the book a five-star review). There’s a snapshot of the Mexico City subway and its hawkers (“Cacahuetes! Diez pesos!” a bear cries), and a series of nervous interviews of her artist friends as Varon prepares to quit her job and work from home (“Coyote says that the times she has to really struggle to figure out what’s next, though uncomfortable, are the times she grows the most”). Varon’s characters, their sheepish expressions, and their animated conversations are unfailingly delightful, while flashes of graphic inventiveness—a fake flyer bound into the book, a set of carefully engineered paper dolls—are icing on the cake.

Into the Heart of Our World: A Journey to the Center of the Earth; A Remarkable Voyage of Scientific Discovery

David Whitehouse. Pegasus, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-60598-959-4

Guided by the most up-to-date scientific findings, British science journalist Whitehouse (Renaissance Genius) commands an imagined voyage into Earth’s interior. He frames his journey with Jules Verne’s 1864 novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and interweaves elements of Verne’s work into his own narrative. After a quick discussion of Verne’s life and oeuvre, Whitehouse presents a quick synopsis of our current understanding of the Earth’s layers and then descends into the Earth’s crust as far as he is physically able—in his case, going down into the Boulby potash mine in northeast England. Filling his pages with curious facts, brief biographies, and scientific theories about Earth’s inner structure, Whitehouse proffers explanations of Earth’s formation, the origin of the Moon, and more. This is a fascinating investigation of geologic history.