This week: the latest from Jhumpa Lahiri, plus A. O. Scott on how to think about art.
After three young adult novels, Les Becquets scores big with this very adult thriller about two women facing life and death challenges in western Colorado’s rugged wilderness. During a November elk-hunting trip, Amy Raye Latour disappears while hunting early one morning. Married with children, Amy Raye is an experienced outdoorswoman and a skilled bow hunter, so it’s a surprise when she simply vanishes. Pru Hathaway is a ranger with the Bureau of Land Management, a capable, self-reliant law enforcement officer, raising a teenage son as a single mom. Pru and her search and rescue dog, Kona, join the county sheriff in the desperate search as winter weather closes in. The search reveals few clues, but Pru and the sheriff both fear the worst—that Amy Raye is dead, by accident, suicide, animal attack, or something else. After four days, the search is called off, but Pru isn’t convinced Amy Raye is dead and continues to search. In alternating chapters, the lives of the two women are exposed. Amy Raye hides a disturbing secret from her husband, which makes the sheriff look at a motive for possible murder.
In his second work to be translated into English, Enrigue (Hypothermia) ingeniously uses a 16th-century game of pallacorda—a forerunner to tennis—between two hungover players to explore the beauties and atrocities of Renaissance Europe. In his fanciful mixing of historical fact and fiction, as well as his linguistic blend of earthiness and erudition, Enrigue can be compared to Roberto Bolaño. The novel recounts a match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the notorious painter Caravaggio, “brutal and vulnerable, fragile behind his armour of grease, grappa, and cussedness.” During the novel’s changeovers, so to speak, Enrigue delves into the early literature of the sport (including a medieval account in which “four demons” bat around “the soul of a French seminarist”), expounds on Caravaggio’s life and art, and profiles 16th-century political figures in the Old and New Worlds. Two talismanic objects thread their way through the narrative: a tennis ball wound with hair taken from the decapitated head of Anne Boleyn, and an iridescent scapular made from the hair of the Aztec emperor Cuachtémoc, executed by Hernán Cortés. This is an unpredictable, nonpareil novel that, like the macabre tennis ball at its center, “bounce[s] like a thing possessed.”
In this dazzling debut collection, Gustine shows tremendous range, empathy, and spark. In the excellent title story, Simon and Molly move back to Ohio after he has finished his degree at UC Berkeley. Molly is astounded that so many people in Ohio “still believed in God.” There are various faiths, yes, but as she notes, “diversity provided no cover”: the problem is that Simon, a philosopher, has written a book on atheism, and the couple’s two elementary school age daughters suffer from the stigma of having atheist parents. In “Prisoners Do,” Mike, a radiologist, is sleeping with a colleague from the hospital while his wife, Fawn, sits on the couch at home, incapacitated after a stroke. Everyone’s in an impossible position, and yet, in that stasis, they also provide one another with a kind of comfort. In “Coyote,” Cory is the mother of a toddler whose paranoia about keeping her son safe veers into obsession. Gustine’s language is uniformly remarkable for its clarity and forthrightness.
Readers who have followed Pulitzer-winner Lahiri's stellar career might be surprised to discover that she has written her latest book in Italian. In this slim, lyrical nonfiction debut, Lahiri (The Lowland) traces the progress of her love affair with the Italian language and the steps that caused her to move to Italy and stop reading and writing in English. Unlike Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov, who also wrote in adopted languages, Lahiri doesn't leap directly into fiction. Though the book contains a short story, "The Exchange," Lahiri's first order of business is to tell her own story. She writes exquisitely about her experiences with language: her first language was Bengali, but when her family moved to the United States, she made a difficult adjustment to using English at nursery school. Now, she reports, her literary life in English seems distant and unmoored from her self. Lahiri's unexpected metamorphosis provides a captivating and insightful lesson in the power of language to transform.
Belief in “The Story” is all that 15-year-old Melon Fouraki has left after her mother is killed by a London bus. Melon’s best (and only) friend avoids her, she’s miserable at school, and she has no close relatives, so her mother’s boyfriend—whom she barely knows—comes to stay with her. Melon writes down, and irrationally clings to, the story she has often heard about her mother’s past, but through revealing chapters that flash forward and backward from the day of the accident, debut author Mayhew skillfully hints at the truths Melon can’t yet accept. Melon’s anger, guilt, and denial about her mother’s death and their relationship while she was alive cause Melon to take her feelings out on everyone around her. She is a prickly and fairly unreliable narrator, but Mayhew provides sufficient backstory to sympathetically illuminate Melon’s anguish. The dramatic and painful final events on a trip to her mother’s homeland of Crete emphasize the significant mourning and healing Melon still has to do. Mayhew’s poetic language and careful handling of a sensitive subject highlight a promising knack for storytelling.
Poet and translator Novey’s briskly paced first novel is a clever literary mystery and a playful portrait of the artist as a young translator. Novey depicts her heroine, Emma, becoming embroiled in the life of an enigmatic Brazilian author, Beatriz Yagoda, whose books she has translated for years. When Beatriz, last seen puffing on a cigar and perched on a tree branch with a suitcase, goes missing, Emma leaves Pittsburgh, Pa., and her stick-in-the-mud fiancé behind to fly to Rio and find Beatriz, the author of works “so strange and spare that it felt like a whispered, secret history of the world.” Emma is convinced that these works, along with a cryptic, unfinished manuscript left behind, could elucidate the mystery of Beatriz’s whereabouts. The search is conducted alongside Beatriz’s two adult children, one who resents the “gangly tourist” and the other who seduces her, and it has its share of violence and romance—it reads like an Ali Smith novel with a fun Brazilian noir vibe.
A son grapples with the lurid, overbearing legacy of his eccentric father in this conflicted memoir. Novelist and screenwriter Offutt (The Good Brother) catalogued the literary oeuvre of his father, Andrew, after his death. The list included more than 400 pornographic novels published under various pseudonyms from the 1970s through the 1990s (sample titles: Oversexed Shana; The Submission of Claudine) and dozens of more mainstream sci-fi and fantasy novels. The fraught experience of creating that catalogue frames Offutt’s gnarled recollections of Andrew: a domestic tyrant whose wife and children tiptoed around his temper; a sharp if oddly balanced intellectual; an epic crank who bombarded presidents and popes with cantankerous letters and alienated almost everyone; an insecure narcissist who felt safe only within his fantasies or soaking up the applause of acolytes at science fiction conventions. Offutt nicely balances a fascinating, appalling portrait of this larger-than-life figure with shrewdly observed insights into Andrew’s secret frailties and the intense, squirmingly awkward relationship that sprouted between them.
In this ambitious first novel, Peevyhouse tells five stories, each set further into the future and loosely connected to the others until, eventually, time begins to lose all meaning. Dylan is able to catch glimpses of another, fairy tale–like world, something that has caused him endless trouble. One day, he actually travels to the “Other Place,” where he spies “a distant city of glass like a gathering of soap bubbles,” ruled by a beautiful “Girl Queen.” Our world and an alternate universe have collided, he discovers, and people like Dylan can cross over, at least for a while. In the successive stories, the two worlds become increasingly entangled until disaster strikes. With each tale fitting into different subgenres of science fiction or fantasy—cyberpunk, heroic quest, mystical adventure—and new protagonists appearing every 60 pages, it’s a novel that keeps readers on their toes. Fans of adventurous, challenging fiction from the likes of A.S. King, David Mitchell, and Marcus Sedgwick should find this an exciting ride.
This stunning treatise on criticism from New York Times film critic Scott is a complete success, comprehensively demonstrating the value of his art. His first major assertion is that criticism is indeed an art, and that “a work of art is itself a piece of criticism.” From here he moves swiftly, with humor and insight, to show how art works hand in hand with critics’ “activity of loving demystification.” Scott ties criticism to philosophy, most compellingly citing Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Judgment, which asserts that “the judgment of taste... cannot be other than subjective.” He is equally comfortable discussing Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and Marina Abramovic’s performance art piece The Artist Is Present. His most striking observations come in a chapter entitled “How to Be Wrong,” which Scott calls “the one job [critics] can actually, reliably, do.” This is a necessary work that may enter the canon of great criticism.
This oral history delves behind the scenes of Tinseltown’s most illustrious bloodlines, providing rare insight into the lives of such Hollywood notables as the Warners, Dohenys, and Garlands. “I had the sense that my world was make-believe,” writes Stein (Edie: An American Girl), who grew up immersed in the company of Hollywood’s most elite families. She includes anecdotes about Arthur Miller, Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda, as well as fascinating Hollywood stories about the crony-capitalist Teapot Dome scandal, affairs between starlets and studio executives’ wives during the 1950s, the vicious relationship Jack Warner developed with his son Jack Jr., how the Conference of Studio Unions strikes of 1945 led to the House Un-American Activities Committee’s Communist witch hunt, and Ronald Reagan’s transformation from liberal actor into conservative figurehead. Stein’s exhaustive research and brand-new interviews make this an invaluable resource for any student of pop culture, or indeed of 20th-century American history.
In Tennant-Moore’s sharp, confident debut novel, Elsie, a bright young woman in her 20s who is equal parts self-assured and self-destructive, isn’t afraid to name her feelings: “lust, rage, lust, rage.” But she’s at a loss for how to reconcile herself with the injustice in the world and “just be a decent person.” Encouraged by her indulgent father, who, thanks to inheriting a small fortune, floats her money when she needs it, she skips college for a life made on her own terms, travelling around the world: to Paris where she’s “overcome by [her] own worthlessness” at not being able to communicate and sublimates it by attempting to translate an out-of-print book about stray cats; to California, where she can’t escape a destructive attraction to Jared, a small-time drug dealer; and New York City, where her career ambitions give way to a relationship with Brian, who is stable and successful—but ultimately square (not to mention a selfish lover)—and quick to break off their short-lived engagement. Seeking a change in her life, Elsie backpacks around Sri Lanka, but Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East. Instead, Tennant-Moore provides no easy answers, deftly illustrating Elsie’s inner monologue as she tries to face up to herself and the people around her.
In this debut story collection, Wink stakes his bold claim to Big Sky literary territory, the terrain of Thomas McGuane, Norman Maclean, and Jim Harrison. Most of the stories feature men who find themselves in sticky situations, providing surprises for readers. In the title story, a sawmill worker goes on the run with a dog he has taken from a local businessman. A teacher from Montana with a problematic love life vacations in Texas, where he impulsively takes a job working on a ranch (“Exotics”). A college dropout training to be an EMT falls in love with an older woman with two children (“Runoff”). In “One More Last Stand,” a Little Bighorn reenactor playing the part of Custer has an affair with a Crow Tribe woman who plays his killer on the battlefield. In “Off the Track,” a young man sent to prison for manslaughter inherits his grandfather’s house and the memories it contains. And in the longest and best story, “In Hindsight,” the author charts the history of a veterinary assistant who, nearing the end of her long life, learns it’s never too late to find grace. Through the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book.