This week: studying the dead, and a brilliant adventure yarn set aboard a Yorkshire whaler.

A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century

Jerome Charyn. Bellevue Literary (Consortium, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-934137-98-7

Novelist and nonfiction author Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson) presents a postmodernism-flavored study of Emily Dickinson’s life and work. His lively reassessment draws on the work of other scholars, close readings of Dickinson’s poems and letters, and vivid commentary on the artists she inspired. Joseph Cornell created shadow boxes based on her poems, and Joyce Carol Oates’s futuristic short story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” evokes the doll-like mystery of the only extant image of Dickinson—a daguerreotype taken when she was 16. At the heart of Charyn’s study is a quest to find out who Emily Dickinson really was. His answer is that she was not the reclusive virgin often pictured, but rather a woman of “Promethean ambition” who raged against a culture that had no place for unmarried, childless women. For Charyn, Dickinson has no equal as a poet, except perhaps Shakespeare. No one else, he says, took the risks she did.

Playing for the Devil's Fire

Phillippe Diederich. Cinco Puntos (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 (232p) ISBN 978-1-941026-29-8

A severed head in the town square is the first sign of trouble in the small Mexican town of Izayoc, where new money is moving in with bloody force. As this grim murder mystery unfolds, 13-year-old Boli and his best friend Mosca become reliant on a luchador named Chicano, a masked wrestler working the amateur circuit, as a real-life hero and protector after Boli's parents go missing, and the body count mounts. The boys' lost innocence is represented with a game of marbles, which dovetails and overlaps with the disillusionment and loss of the entire community, Chicano's transformation from caped crusader to mere man as he ditches the affectations of his theatrical profession, and a host of new responsibilities for Boli, including helping to run the family business and care for a grandmother whose mind is slipping. The narration and dialogue are shot through with Spanish words and phrases, readily discernable through context, and also collected in a glossary. Diederich (Sofrito) portrays Mexico with a stark intensity and raw emotional turmoil as Boli navigates a mercilessly cruel world.

Free Verse

Sarah Dooley. Putnam, $16.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-16503-0

Dooley (Body of Water) brings to life the hardscrabble existence of residents in the fictional town of Caboose, W. Va., through the eyes of 12-year old Sasha, as she adjusts to living with her new foster mother, Phyllis. Sasha’s matter-of-fact narration belies her anguish at repeated losses: her mother’s disappearance and the deaths of her coalminer father and firefighter brother. Stressful events (Phyllis singing Sasha’s mother’s song, a school bully’s teasing) trigger violent or disassociated responses, which Sasha can’t remember (“There’s this thing that happens sometimes”) or which compel her to run away. While Sasha feels pressed to fulfill her brother’s wish that she escape Caboose, her discovery of cousins next door presents her with the daunting awareness of more people to love (or to lose) and her power to make choices. A 60+ page section of Sasha’s poetry powerfully reveals how she uses poetic forms like haiku, quatrains, and epistles to express overwhelming feelings. In this gripping story, Dooley balances a clear-eyed depiction of families wrestling with addiction, financial stress, and trauma with the astonishing resilience of children and the human capacity for love.

Margaret the First

Danielle Dutton. Catapult (PGW, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-936787-35-7

Dutton’s remarkable second novel is as vividly imaginative as its subject, the 17th-century English writer and eccentric Margaret Cavendish. Even as a shy young girl, Margaret Lucas covets fame and writes prolifically. Years later, she is an attendant to the queen, and when the English Civil War begins, Margaret flees with the court to Paris, where she meets and marries the aristocratic William Cavendish. Blossoming in an intellectual milieu that includes Descartes and Dryden, she begins to write even more seriously. Back in England after the war ends, she publishes wildly unconventional books to a mixture of admiration and scorn, refusing to write anonymously like other women of her time, or to let her lack of formal education silence her. Though Dutton doesn’t shy away from the “various and extravagant” antics (such as attending the theater in a topless gown) that earned her subject notoriety and the nickname “Mad Madge,” her Margaret is a woman of fierce vitality, creativity, and courage. Dutton’s boldness, striking prose, and skill at developing an idiosyncratic narrative should introduce her to the wider audience she deserves.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

E.K. Johnston. Dutton, $17.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-101-99458-0

Johnston (A Thousand Nights) draws from Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," and perhaps as much from too-common present-day headlines, in the fearless story of a 17-year-old Ontario cheerleader getting a sense of her new normal after being drugged and raped at cheer camp. While Hermione's lack of specific memories of the assault offer a kind of protection, triggers surface (the smell of pine, the bass line of a song), and there's the awful reality that any of the six male members of her own team could have been involved. Hermione's relationship with her boyfriend collapses, and a pregnancy test comes back positive, but friends like her co-captain, Molly, are beyond steadfast—Johnston makes it abundantly clear what assets Hermione has in her own physical and mental discipline, as well as in the bedrock unity of her team. While Hermione is a victim, Johnson never portrays her as victimized, instead focusing on how Hermione reasserts control over her life with help from family, friends, and therapy, using her own decisions to push back against something in which she had no such choice.

The Story of Hong Gildong

Author unknown, trans. from the Korean by Minsoo Kang. Penguin Classics, $15 (128p) ISBN 978-0-14-310769-9

In this old Korean tale, the illegitimate son of a government minister, barred from civil and military service, becomes the leader of a group of righteous bandits and later king of his own lands. The fast-paced, sometimes fantastical story of the underdog who becomes a hero—which has been adapted into books, films, television shows, video games, and comics—is “arguably the single most important work of classic (i.e., premodern) prose fiction in Korea,” according to translator Kang, associate professor of European history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. In his helpful introduction, Kang (Sublime Dreams of Living Machines) challenges modern understandings of the story’s origins and intent, asserting that the work most likely comes from the 19th century—traditional scholarship places the work in the 17th century. Kang also explains the social context of Hong Gildong’s dilemma during the Joseon dynasty of the 16th century and discusses the story’s significance to modern Koreans. This engaging, essential tale will interest not only students of classic East Asian literature but enthusiasts of Korean modern culture.

The North Water

Ian McGuire. Holt, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-62779-594-4

McGuire’s novel is a dark, brilliant yarn set on a 19th-century Yorkshire whaler in the dead of winter. An ex-army surgeon named Patrick Sumner, his reputation ruined by an ignoble incident in wartime India, seeks to escape his past by shipping out as doctor on the whaling ship Volunteer, bound for the Arctic Circle. But the voyage to the waters north of the British Isle is doomed from the beginning: the men responsible for the ship have no intention of bringing it back in one piece. And if that weren’t enough, a debauched murderer named Henry Drax is aboard. The harpooners meet with some success while at sea, whaling, sealing, and capturing a bear cub, but a test of wills begins after the mutilated body of a cabin boy is discovered below deck in a cask used to store minced-up whale blubber. Sumner challenges the suspected culprit, violence ensues, and soon the ship is without leadership. The frozen seas threaten to cripple the ship, and what’s left of the crew tries desperately to survive the worst of the winter trapped in the ice. There is no light, no letup in this gruesome tale, so there is great significance in the rare but moving acts of kindness and camaraderie between these men in peril. An amazing journey.

A Life Apart

Neel Mukherjee. Norton, $16.95 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-0-393-35210-8

Following his mother’s death, and soon after his father’s, protagonist Ritwik is surprised to find himself entirely alone in his Calcutta neighborhood at age 21, not nearly as happy as he’d hoped he’d be with his mother gone (she was both the “proudest” mother in the area and, seemingly, the most abusive, “always on the edge of fury,” if not in its throes). His loneliness follows him to rainy rural England, where a scholarship gets him two years in university, and then on to London, where he stays without working papers. Ritwik is unable to shake the trauma of his mother’s cruelty, punishing himself once she no longer can. Throughout this time, which is set in the early days of AIDS, Ritwik finds men with whom he can have brief, furtive encounters in bathroom stalls and on unlit backstreets, never learning their names, never allowing himself affection or trust. And yet he’s not without hope. Calcutta native Mukherjee (The Lives of Others) illuminates the crevices of shame and despair with his beautiful prose.

Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

Samuel J. Redman. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (390p) ISBN 978-0-674-66041-0

"There is nothing natural about systematically collecting and studying the dead," writes Redman, assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in this remarkable examination of scientific racism, biological anthropology, and the mission of medical museums. Redman opens his account with a startlingly grim piece of history: the cracked and disfigured remains of a Native American man, who was shot twice by militiamen on the Minnesota frontier in 1864, spent over a century in museum "bone rooms" for study before his remains were finally returned to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Nation for reburial. In the U.S. alone, some 500,000 Native American skeletal specimens are housed in such institutions. Scrutinizing these institutional collections exposes a little-examined corner of the history of medicine, as well as the troubling legacy of racial science left by Aleš Hrdlička, the Czech-born anthropologist whose collection of bones was instrumental in helping to understand human history. "For museums in the United States, even the distant human past represented an opportunity to illuminate the most central of American problems—race," Redman writes.

The Cosmopolitans

Sarah Schulman. Feminist, $15.95 ISBN 978-1-55861-904-3

With a plot and characters inspired by Balzac’s Cousin Bette, the latest from novelist and nonfiction writer Schulman (After Delores) is intended in part as a feminist response to James Baldwin’s Another Country. Like its realist forebears, the novel offers a rich evocation of its time and place—in this case, Greenwich Village in 1958. Earl, a gay, black aspiring actor, and Bette, a straight, white secretary at an ad agency, have been neighbors and best friends for years, creating a relationship out of shared loneliness (whether it’s the result of their race, gender, or sexuality), one that for Bette, at least, seems fulfilling. But the unexpected arrival of Bette’s vivacious young cousin Hortense offers Bette an unpleasant reminder of the scandalous past that caused her to flee her Midwestern upbringing decades earlier. Earl, who longs for a kind of love that Bette just can’t provide, seizes an opportunity presented by Hortense, also an aspiring actor, setting in motion a series of betrayals that drive a wedge between Bette and him for the first time. Simultaneously a realist exploration of a particular milieu, an illustration of the changing roles and possibilities for women at that time, and a series of thoughtful musings on the nature of companionship and platonic love.