This week: Jacqueline Woodson's first adult novel in 20 years, plus a look at the microbes within us.
Xan, a kindhearted witch, lives in the woods with an erudite swamp monster, Glerk, and a lovable “Perfectly Tiny Dragon,” Fyrian. Every year she finds a new home for a baby the sorrowful people of the Protectorate leave in the woods on the Day of Sacrifice. One year, she accidentally “enmagicks” a baby with moonlight, so the three decide to raise her as their own, their Luna. But Luna’s magic is strong, and before her 13th birthday, events unfold that will change everything she has known. Barnhill (The Witch’s Boy) crafts another captivating fantasy, this time in the vein of Into the Woods. Via intricately woven chapters that follow Luna, her unusual family, the devious Grand Elder of the Protectorate, his honorable nephew and niece, the mysterious Sister Ignatia, and a sympathetic “madwoman” in a tower, Barnhill delivers an escalating plot filled with foreshadowing, well-developed characters, and a fully realized setting, all highlighting her lyrical storytelling. As the characters search for family, protect secrets, and seek truth, they realize that anything can happen in the woods—when magic is involved.
Launched into the collective consciousness by the podcast Serial, the investigation into Adnan Syed’s involvement in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend continues to fascinate in this gripping account from attorney Chaudry, a friend of Syed’s family, who first brought the case to the attention of the podcast creators. Chaudry uses her unique perspective to craft a gripping and meticulously detailed account of the case including letters, court transcripts, and documentary evidence that fill in the show’s gaps and provide the latest updates. Readers new to the story will have no trouble following—the narrative is outlined extensively from the beginning—and podcast listeners will find plenty of previously undisclosed material. Chaudry explains what Serial missed, including a lack of legal perspective, and she argues that host Sarah Koenig failed to convey the enormity of Syed’s (later disbarred) attorney’s incompetence. She strongly makes the case for cultural and religious bias in the investigation and conviction and presents damaging evidence of police misconduct, including tampering with evidence and a witness. She also examines other suspects and their possible motives and alibis. Syed provides running commentary that creates a depiction of the damage inflicted on a person when the system fails. Chaudry’s version of a story of “justice, bigotry, faith, community, devastation, healing, and hope” points to an intentional, systematic framing of Syed by investigators, allegations that will surely spark controversy as his legal ordeal continues.
Argentine writer and translator Cortázar (1914–1984), best known for his inventive fiction, beguiles in this expanded bilingual second edition of his poems. Cortázar, espousing the notion that “poetry and prose reciprocally empower each other,” constructs hybrid “prosems” or “peoms” that contend with love and loss, nationalistic ambivalence, literary theory, and memory. Something of a lovable crank, he declares listening to headphones “stupid and alienating” and a “psychological prison” in a lyrical essay ostensibly in favor of them, and heaps inexplicable scorn on knitters and Notre Dame Cathedral. Cortázar pithily laments his own squareness—“I accept this destiny of ironed shirts”—and the aging process, during which time is “a truckload of rocks/ dumped on your back, puking/ its insufferable weight.” A political expatriate to Paris, Cortázar footnotes one poem praising Argentina with an ominous implication of state-sanctioned murder, while elsewhere he fondly recalls “wisps of smoke/ gracefully streaming from the peanut vendors’ carts” in the Plaza de Mayo. Cortázar’s verse is more traditional than his fiction, but his style and themes are in harmony across genres: eccentric, mystical, full of animals but deeply human. Cortázar is a people’s poet, accessible from every angle, and his position as a titan of the Latin American boom is indisputable.
In this courageous mix of scientific investigation and memoir, journalist Dittrich recounts the life of Henry Molaison (1926–2008), an epileptic man hailed by many as the most important human research subject in the history of neuroscience. A 1953 operation by Yale neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville (1906–1984), Dittrich’s grandfather, on Molaison’s hippocampus left the 27-year-old without memory, in a world where “every day is alone in itself.” The story of “what led my grandfather to make those devastating, enlightening cuts,” Dittrich writes, “is a dark one, full of the sort of emotional and physical pain, and fierce desires, that Patient H.M. himself couldn’t experience.” And he unravels it by documenting the decades-long studies Molaison’s extraordinary amnesia spawned and the researchers he would inspire and confound. Those threads are woven around the history of neurosurgery—including the professional infighting that can obscure the legacy of scientific advances and failures, the torturous mid-20th-century treatment of the mentally ill, and the rise and fall of lobotomies. At the heart of this breathtaking work, however, is Dittrich’s story of his complicated grandfather, his mentally ill grandmother, and a long-held family secret, with Molaison stranded “where the past and the future were nothing but indistinct blurs.”
Ermelino (The Black Madonna), reviews director at PW, offers a collection of arresting short stories that call to mind the work of Lucia Berlin in their sparse realism and humor, as well as their fine attention to the often-harsh details of women’s lives. “Where It Belongs,” in which old-world Italian traditions surrounding childbirth and death frame a stark portrait of a young woman’s life rocked by the violence of men, is a fitting opening story for a volume titled after the popular Italian song that speaks of a woman loved, hated, and regarded as less than virtuous. In the haunting “Six and Five,” Santino marries because he wants “the good things in life” and to have sex “regular,” but the girl isn’t from the neighborhood, and just enough is revealed to let us know that Santino’s choice is a disappointment to him. In “The Baby,” a decades-spanning story involving Robin and Christina, a pair of close friends, there’s a pregnancy, a sojourn in countries where their foreignness is palpable, and the sense that there is often a truth in memory, and in the telling of stories, that feels truer than what happened. Birth and death, love and friendship, drugs and violence, home and abroad: the stories’ themes are elemental and affecting, lingering in the mind like parables or myths sketching something vital, sad, and true.
In this exciting book, novelist and critic James (The Snake Charmer) examines six artists (and many interesting secondary figures) whose travels allowed them to find inspiration and belonging far from their homelands in locations across the globe. James primarily focuses on the painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who left Paris to settle in Tahiti; Raden Saleh (1814–1880), a Javanese painter who traveled across Europe; and French poet and doctor Victor Segalen (1878–1919), for whom China became a second home. Also dominant are Isabelle Eberhardt (1877–1904), a Swiss writer who emigrated to French Algeria dressed as a man; Walter Spies (1895–1942), a painter nearly forgotten in modern Germany, who moved to Bali; and the American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917–1961), who immersed herself in voodoo culture in Haiti. In addition to analyzing his subjects’ art, James details their rich lives, mining their published works, personal archives, journals, and letters, and often revealing serendipitous connections between the artists. Many of his subjects refused to conform to the social norms of their birthplaces, namely monogamy and heterosexuality, and the description of these struggles is illuminating. James also includes his own perspective, reflecting on his travels through Asia, South America, and Europe, and his permanent relocation to Bali, where he has witnessed firsthand the effects of globalization. This well-written text is a sharp, thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing conversation about transculturation.
Set in 1942, Kelly’s pleasantly baffling second whodunit featuring Det. Chief Insp. Thomas Lamb of the Hampshire Constabulary fulfills the promise of 2015’s The Language of the Dead. When the Rev. Gerald Wimberly finds a corpse in the cemetery adjoining his church in the village of Winstead, he alerts the police. The victim is identified as conscientious objector Ruth Aisquith, a member of the Women’s Land Army. She was shot in the back and left facedown next to a grave. After Lamb interviews the oily Wimberly and his wife, Wilhemina, who are both less than forthcoming about what happened, he quickly gets a sense that solving the murder will be tricky. When a man working on the site of a new POW camp unearths a skull, the case takes a different turn, raising speculation that Aisquith’s death is related to an older crime. Fans of the TV series Foyle’s War, which similarly addresses the role of the police during WWII, will be pleased.
Never was there a cityscape as immersive, or a populace as rife with iniquity, as in Argentinian writer Saccomanno’s noirish Gesell Dome, his first novel to be translated into English. The Argentinian town referred to as Villa is a seaside summer resort spot—but when the tourists leave and only the locals remain, a tangle of outlandish corruption, violence, and dark histories are unveiled. To begin with, there’s the suicide of a pregnant middle schooler, a sexual abuse scandal at a kindergarten, and a devastating real estate development known as the Twin Towers that divides the town. But this turns out to be nothing compared to the secret lives of the three Quiroses brothers: crooked lawyer Alejo, Braulio, and Julián, the Villa’s so-called Kennedys, who do their best to control their constituents. These include the mayor’s unruly son, Gonzalo, whose attempt to blackmail Alejo backfires miserably; Julián’s wife, Adrian (willing to go to absurd lengths for her Pilates studio); and Dante, editor and sole contributor to El Vocero, who, with the help of limo driver Rimigio, chronicles his township’s ills. Tales range from the story of El Muertito, the monster who stalks the forests at night, to whispers of the Villa’s Nazi diaspora. Then there are oddballs such as the loan shark called the Duchess, and cursed painter Claude Fournier, who all have a part to play in the Villa’s mounting intrigues. Like Twin Peaks reimagined by Roberto Bolaño, Gesell Dome is a teeming microcosm in which voices combine into a rich, engrossing symphony of human depravity.
In her first adult novel in 20 years, acclaimed children’s and YA author Woodson (winner of the National Book Award for her last book, Brown Girl Dreaming) combines grit and beauty in a series of stunning vignettes, painting a vivid mural of what it was like to grow up African-American in Brooklyn during the 1970s. When August, an anthropologist who has studied the funeral traditions of different cultures, revisits her old neighborhood after her father’s death, her reunion with a brother and a chance encounter with an old friend bring back a flood of childhood memories. Flashbacks depict the isolation she felt moving from rural Tennessee to New York and show how her later years were influenced by the black power movement, nearby street violence, her father’s religious conversion, and her mother’s haunting absence. August’s memories of her Brooklyn companions—a tightly knit group of neighborhood girls—are memorable and profound. There’s dancer Angela, who keeps her home life a carefully guarded secret; beautiful Gigi, who loses her innocence too young; and Sylvia, “diamonded over, brilliant,” whose strict father wants her to study law. With dreams as varied as their conflicts, the young women confront dangers lurking on the streets, discover first love, and pave paths that will eventually lead them in different directions. Woodson draws on all the senses to trace the milestones in a woman’s life and how her early experiences shaped her identity.
British science journalist Yong succeeds in encouraging readers to recognize the critical importance of biological microorganisms. He argues that humans must move past the belief that bacteria are bad and need to be eradicated, and adopt a deeper understanding of the positive role they play in the lives of most organisms. Yong makes a superb case for his position by interviewing numerous scientists and presenting their fascinating work in an accessible and persuasive fashion. Throughout, he takes a holistic ecological perspective, contending that it makes no sense to examine bacteria in isolation. As in all ecological systems, context is everything, and the complex community structure of the microbiome does much to determine the effects of various bacteria. Yong demonstrates that this more inclusive view has led to a reconceptualization of how the immune system might work, how microorganisms can shape the development of organ systems, how bacteria might play a role in autism, and how the microbiome may influence an organism’s propensity for obesity. He also shows that scientists have moved beyond the theoretical by successfully performing “ecosystem transplants” of human gut microorganisms, and he envisions a future that includes “artisanal bacteria” designed to perform specific tasks. Yong reveals “how ubiquitous and vital microbes are” on scales large and small.