This week: a mold-breaking time travel saga, plus a chronicle of years spent in a Red Hook bar.
Awad opens her assured and terrific debut collection of linked stories with a quotation from Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle:“There was always that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin...” Roughly following that 1976 novel’s coming-of-age trajectory from miserable overweight youth to precarious (but fashion-model size) adulthood, Awad artfully revisits themes related to body mass, femininity, cultural values, and resistance, finding virtually no reasons to be optimistic. Though Atwood’s Joan ultimately carves out a niche for herself on her own terms, Awad’s furious and damaged Lizzie is deformed by external pressures. She finds nominal success in too-tight bandage dresses, and she obsessively measures food intake while worrying about maximizing her sessions on an elliptical machine. From a half-correct bitter prediction Lizzie makes as a teen Goth in suburban Ontario (“I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time”) to glimpses of her days as an angry, dissatisfied temp, Awad portrays Lizzie careening between raging at the world and scrutinizing her failings in the mirror.
Equally erotic and shrewd, the latest from Bohman (Drowned) reads like a confession, or diary, as it chronicles the budding relationship between a nameless female hospital cafeteria employee, and an older, married doctor. Dissatisfied with her station, and longing to one day complete a writing degree, the nameless woman, also the novel’s narrator, strikes up a friendship with Dr. Carl Malmberg one evening when he offers her a lift home. One ride leads to another, and before long, she welcomes Carl into her shabby apartment. Their affair flourishes and turns increasingly risqué, yet—despite her new beau’s enthusiasm—she regularly wonders how long such a liaison can last without heartbreak. The author’s prose is breathtaking, oscillating between her narrator’s tumultuous feelings toward her lover and the narrator’s curiosity—and occasional disdain—for the world around her. In brilliant asides, she questions her own loyalty toward women, speaks frankly about her sexual aura, considers the ease with which men survive, and shares the rules to being a proper mistress (no lipstick, no perfume, and never adjust the passenger’s seat). An elegant, rich take on an age-old narrative.
For this sparkling collection, bestseller Camilleri (A Beam of Light) selected 21 of his 59 published stories featuring Chief Insp. Salvo Montalbano of Sicily's Vigàta police. The title tale, one of the longest and most satisfying, is the only one to have previously appeared in English translation. In 1985, Montalbano is transferred to Vigàta, where he deals first with a sensitive case involving Giuseppe Cusumano, the favorite grandson of Don Sisino Cuffaro, the head of a powerful Mafia family. The story showcases Montalbano's love of good food, his perfect little house, his curiosity and sympathy, and his unconventional but shrewd problem solving. Some of the best stories are quite brief and moving, such as "The Pact," in which Montalbano stops to help an old woman walking alone at night, and the metafictional "Montalbano Says No," in which the detective has a dispute with his creator. This is a treat for admirers of the Montalbano novels and a superb introduction for new readers.
Downham (You Against Me) examines the family battles and internal conflicts of three generations of women in this novel about a household in crisis. Seventeen-year-old Katie’s life takes an unexpected turn when her estranged grandmother Mary, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, moves into their small apartment. While Katie’s mother tries to find another place for Mary to stay, Katie is drawn to the elderly stranger, a woman tormented by a past she can’t reliably remember. Even though Katie already has her share of responsibilities, trying to meet her mother’s high standards and looking after her disabled brother, she offers to become Mary’s caretaker. She is determined to unlock secrets about Mary’s history but doesn’t realize how her own past is intertwined with her grandmother’s. Alternating between Katie’s and Mary’s point of view, Downham shows extraordinary skill in expressing the complex psychologies of two very different women while exploring how people are shaped by events, unrealized dreams, and restrictions.
Blurring the lines between fiction and memoir, Meruane’s first novel translated into English explores mortality, identity, and personal transformation. Lina, a fictionalized version of the author, experiences a severe ocular hemorrhaging that impairs her sight. The dark blood clouding Lina’s eyes makes it difficult for her to move around her New York City apartment or navigate the busy streets alone. She must rely heavily on her lover, Ignacio. While trying to accept the possibility that she might be blind permanently, Lina and Ignacio visit her family in Santiago, Chile. The trip home prompts Lina to examine the limitations of her ailing body, the future of her writing and doctorate studies, and the effect her illness has on those around her. As Lina’s condition worsens and she faces surgery, the strength of her relationship with Ignacio is tested. The book is composed of short scenes with titles, much like flash fiction. These brief glimpses into Lina’s life accumulate to depict a woman trying her best to hold on to a sense of self as her world disappears from sight. This is a penetrating autobiographical novel, and for English-Language readers this work serves as a stunning introduction to a remarkable author.
Palmer’s lengthy, complex, highly challenging second novel is more brilliant than his debut, The Dream of Perpetual Motion. Philip Steiner is working to develop a causality-violation device—a machine that will make it possible to visit and interact with the past. Meanwhile, Philip’s wife, Rebecca Wright, an employee at an online dating company, must cope with past tragedy. Far more than a standard-model time travel saga, this science thriller deals with love, politics, history, loss, tragedy, bonding, craft beers, jogging, Internet dating, alcoholism, temptation, sin, redemption, rock ’n’ roll, jazz, Rudolph Fisher, and gourmet cooking. It takes place in the very near future, or perhaps in a slightly variant universe where reality can vary from one moment to the next. Is that really Ronald Reagan’s face on a $20 bill, or the face of another president (definitely not Andrew Jackson)?
Sullivan (Golden Boy) shines a harsh light on the horrors of modern-day slavery through 15-year old Amadou’s struggles to care for his eight-year old brother, Seydou, while farmers force them to harvest cacao on an Ivory Coast plantation. Amadou’s understated narration accentuates his desperation: “I don’t count how many times I’ve been hit for being under quota. I don’t count how many days it’s been since I’ve given up hope of going home.” Tricked two years earlier into believing they had been offered seasonal work, the boys are locked in a shed at night, beaten for the smallest infraction, and punished with food deprivation. Escape attempts by a newly arrived 13-year-old girl, Khadija, inadvertently lead to Seydou suffering grievous injury. Terrified, but recognizing that Seydou will die if they remain enslaved, Amadou and Khadija make one more attempt at freedom.
Through this polished, affecting look at remarkable barkeep Sunny Balzano, journalist and editor Sultan recreates a neighborhood in Brooklyn that now seems impossibly distant. After a wrong turn in 1995, Sultan ended up in desolate Red Hook and stumbled across a bar on the one night a week it was open. This first visit to Sunny’s was followed by many others as Sultan fell under the spell of both Balzano, the bar’s owner, and the deserted waterfront. Over a decade, Sultan became Sunny’s part-time barman and Boswell, recording the unique anecdotes and mannerisms of a true bohemian. As Sultan explores Red Hook’s past and present, he depicts his own life against the backdrop of rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. The genial, boisterous Balzano, a blue-collar Brooklyn native, for his part, had previously been an abstract expressionist painter and had then spent years in an ashram in India, before returning to a family bar and transforming it into a noted destination. In elegant prose, Sultan deploys laconic humor, an instinct for telling details, a taste for eccentricity, and above all, clear-eyed compassion for our all-too-human failings.
In response to a college application question (“What was the single most important experience of your life?”), Parker Santé, a mute, Hispanic 17-year-old, writes an incredible story. When he steals a wad of cash from a silver-haired, sharp-witted girl named Zelda, who is planning to throw herself off the Golden Gate Bridge, Parker isn’t sure what to make of her. After agreeing not to jump until her money is spent and Parker promises to apply to college, the two embark on a breakneck tour of parties, shopping, and confrontations with Parker’s mother, an alcoholic consumed by memories of her deceased husband. Parker may not believe that Zelda is, as she claims, 246 years old, but there’s no doubt that she helps him rediscover a longing to participate in the world. Wallach (We All Looked Up) delivers well-rounded, witty characters (“Thinking of your parents being young is like thinking of Winnie-the-Pooh going to the bathroom: just fucking weird”)—all contemplating whether living a full life is better than living a long one.