This week: a grind house horror shoot gone wrong in the Colombian rain forest, plus Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel in over a decade.
Brignull, a British screenwriter whose credits include the upcoming film adaptation of The Little Prince, debuts with an instantly engrossing novel about two girls—one a witch, destined to be queen, the other a human “chaff”—who are magically switched at birth. Poppy, raised a chaff, and Ember, raised a witch, endure lonely childhoods, unable to fit in with their families or peers, always the odd girl out. After a chance meeting in the woods, the girls find solace in each other but are driven apart by a homeless boy named Leo, who captures their hearts. Brignull’s prose starts with a simmer and burns brighter as the relationships among these three teens grow increasingly complicated and intricate. Even though readers are aware of the girls’ shared circumstances from the start, the revelations are captivating as Brignull unspools the details of the shocking truths around them. It’s a fantasy with the air of a classic, yet one that’s also entirely contemporary in its tight focus on identity, friendship, and romance.
Butler’s assured, elegant novel explores a family fractured by the Vietnam War as its members face the losses of age. In 1967, Robert Quinlan enlists, hoping to secure a noncombatant role in Vietnam, while his younger brother, Jimmy, cuts family ties after his father violently rebukes his antiwar stance. While dining out in Tallahassee, Fla., 47 years later, Robert—now 70 and a university professor—meets a mentally ill homeless man, also named Bob, whom he takes for a Vietnam veteran. He is wrong, but the encounter reawakens memories of the Tet Offensive, when a split-second decision burdened Robert with secrets and guilt. The day after the encounter, Robert’s father, William, shatters his hip, and Jimmy, a resident of Canada since his flight to avoid the draft, is told of William’s uncertain prognosis. As the brothers and those around them face the possibility of a reunion, they look at their relationships anew; meanwhile, an increasingly delusional Bob crosses paths with the family again. The novel has obvious links to Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, but its characters struggle to adapt to the dislocations caused not by war or geography but by time. Eddying fluidly through its half-century span, the book speaks eloquently of the way the past bleeds into the present, history reverberates through individual lives, and mortality challenges our perceptions of ourselves and others.
Cardenas’s exuberant, cacophonous debut novel profiles a group of Ecuadorans trying, some harder than others, to change the political situation in their country. Occasionally taxing but always stimulating, the novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the country’s strong-arm oligarchs, populist rabble-rousers, intellectual elite, and suffering workers. The primary character is Antonio, a Stanford graduate from the Ecuadoran town of Guayaquil who hasn’t returned to his native country since leaving 12 years earlier. When an old friend calls him from Ecuador during a period of political upheaval, Antonio, motivated by guilt, nostalgia, and the image of himself “on a white horse returning to solve the problems of transportation, alimentation, lack of sustenation,” agrees. Though the characters are nominally concerned with the future of Ecuador, the book is really a journey into the past of Antonio and the gifted high school friends he left behind, a “mafia of nerdos” who demonstrate their affection through constant, often puerile banter. For some, youthful idealism has succumbed to toadyism or apathy; others, outraged by the country’s disastrous leadership, are earnestly engaged in “conscientizing the people.” The political action tends to take place on the periphery as Cardenas dizzyingly leaps from character to character, from street protests to swanky soirees, and from lengthy uninterrupted interior monologues to rapid-fire dialogues and freewheeling satirical radio programs, resulting in extended passages of brilliance. This inventive novel shares some of the revolutionary spirit of Ecuador’s ill-served people, who, as one character puts it, “want to trounce the same old narratives.”
First-time author Corbett traces the lives of two great artists, poet Rainer Maria Rilke and sculptor Auguste Rodin, in a smartly written biography. Corbett begins, somewhat shakily, by sketching in Rilke and Rodin’s lives before their meeting. Despite these two mini-biographies being roughly equal in length, the Rodin piece feel rushed and the Rilke piece feels drawn out. When they do meet, the book kicks into gear. Corbett skillfully tracks Rilke’s process of finding his artistic voice, and by the time of Rilke and Rodin’s famous split, though it’s clear that both could be rather unpleasant people, the reader fully sympathizes with their pain over their estrangement. The pair’s eventual reconciliation is thus all the more satisfying. Also of note are the book’s glimpses of the figures in orbit around Rodin and Rilke’s story, including George Bernard Shaw, Jean Cocteau, and Paul Cézanne, as well as Louise Andreas-Salomé, a poet who was Rilke’s lover and muse, and Clara Westhoff, a student of Rodin’s who eventually married Rilke. Rilke and Rodin, both intriguing figures in their own right, are only the more fascinating when treated together as fellow artists and close friends.
Though billed as a novel, The Fortunes could more aptly be described as a collection of four novellas, each of which explores a different facet of Chinese-American experience. The first section, “Gold,” is set during the mid-19th century and follows Ling, an orphan, from his childhood on Pearl River in China to Gold Mountain, Calif., where he works first in a laundry and then as a valet before becoming an unlikely organizer of Chinese workers building the Central Pacific Railway. In “Silver,” Davies imagines the lonely inner life of 1930s actress Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star, who has affairs with many leading men but never marries any of them. “Jade” takes place in the 1980s, against the backdrop of the dying American auto industry, and focuses on the mistaken identity of a Chinese-American man taken to be Japanese in a deadly strip club brawl. In “Pearl,” the final section, a present-day middle-aged American writer, whose mother was from China, now finds himself there for the first time to adopt a baby girl with his Caucasian wife. The book’s scope is impressive, but what’s even more staggering is the utter intimacy and honesty of each character’s introspection. More extraordinary still is the depth and the texture created by the juxtaposition of different eras, making for a story not just of any one person but of hundreds of years and tens of millions of people. Davies (The Welsh Girl) has created a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece.
Great-grandfather Isaac Bloch's voice opens Foer's intensely imagined and richly rewarding novel. What follows is a teeming saga of members of the patriarch's family: Isaac's son, Irv, a xenophobic, self-righteous defender of Israel who claims that "the world will always hate Jews"; his grandson, Jacob, achingly aware that his decade-plus marriage to Julia is breaking down; and Jacob and Julia's son Sam, whose imminent bar mitzvah may be cancelled if he doesn't apologize for the obscene material discovered in his desk at Hebrew school. The Blochs are distinctively upper-middle-class American in their needs, aspirations, and place in the 21st century. Foer excels in rendering domestic conversation: the banter and quips, the anger and recrimination, and Jacob and Julia's deeply felt guilt that their divorce will damage their three sons. Things are bad enough in the Bloch family when world events intervene: a major earthquake levels the Middle East, spreading catastrophic damage among the Arab states and Israel. In an imaginative segment, Foer depicts the reaction of the media when Israel ceases helping its Arab neighbors to save its own people and the Arab states unite and prepare for attack. The irony is evident: Irv, the fearmonger, has been proven correct. Foer fuses these complex strands with his never-wavering hand. Throughout, his dark wit drops in zingers of dialogue, leavening his melancholy assessments of the loneliness of human relationships and a world riven by ethnic hatred. He poses several thorny moral questions, among them how to have religious faith in the modern world, and what American Jews' responsibilities are toward Israel. That he can provide such a redemptive denouement, at once poignant, inspirational, and compassionate, is the mark of a thrillingly gifted writer.
In this powerful debut, Girard explores questions of family, friendship, loyalty, and identity through the voice of Pen Oliveira, a 16-year old girl who’s “not into dudes,” looks and dresses like a boy, and doesn’t “get why it’s such a big deal to people, the way I am.” The second child of conservative Portuguese parents who immigrated to Ontario, Pen has long felt accepted and protected by her older brother, Johnny, and her childhood friend Colby, who treats her like one of the guys. With Colby increasingly acting like “an entitled jerk,” especially toward girls, Pen confronts difficult choices about where her loyalty lies. New friendships with Colby’s ex Olivia and a girl named Blake, who shares Pen’s love of gaming and wants to be her girlfriend, make her reconsider the meaning of respect, which her parents have always demanded. Girard forcefully conveys the fear Pen lives with, having experienced frequent mockery and bullying, and her courage in aspiring to a safe, loving community for herself and her friends.
Without sentimentality, Konar’s gripping novel explores the world of the children who were the subjects of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s horrifying experiments at Auschwitz. Stasha and Pearl, 12-year-old Jewish sisters from Poland, are placed in Mengele’s “zoo” because they are twins, rather than being sent to the gas chambers. Stasha is impulsive, a little melancholy, and given to storytelling; Pearl is more restrained and observant, and less dependent on her sister. Mengele selects one of the sisters to torture and uses the other as a control in his experiment. The two narrate alternating chapters of their story, which begins when they are sent to the camp in the autumn of 1944. The latter part takes the novel into the chaotic months after Auschwitz was abandoned, when some of the inmates were set on a death march and others were liberated by the Allies. Konar neatly avoids making Mengele the center of attention, instead focusing on the girls and the people they meet in the zoo, including brash, mouthy Bruna; conflicted Dr. Miri, a Jewish physician conscripted to work for “Uncle Doctor” Mengele; and messenger boy Peter, whose affection for Pearl threatens the closeness of the twins. Konar makes every sentence count; it’s to her credit that the girls never come across as simply victims: they’re flawed, memorable characters trying to stay alive. This is a brutally beautiful novel.
Betty MacDonald’s beloved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle always had one-of-a-kind ways to remedy children of their annoying or impolite habits. Now, nearly 70 years later, her singular magic can enchant a new generation, thanks to this delightful contemporary follow-up from Martin (Rain Reign), writing with MacDonald’s great-granddaughter, Parnell. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is off searching for her husband, “called away some years ago by the pirates,” so great-niece Missy Piggle-Wiggle arrives in Little Spring Valley to take over her duties. After settling into the upside-down house and reacquainting herself with Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s unusual pets, Missy follows in her great-aunt’s footsteps, using a “Greediness Cure” on Petulance Freeforall (it shrinks everything she claims for herself) and a watch that chimes with “the sound of a thousand bells gonging and a million phones ringing” to help with Heavenly Earwig’s tardiness, among other humorous fixes. (the authors are more than up to the task of coming up with wonderfully oddball names for the children, as in MacDonald’s original books.) Missy’s blossoming romance with a quirky bookstore owner gives this magical tale extra spice.
Scurr follows her acclaimed first biography, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, by immortalizing a Renaissance man of 17th-century England. John Aubrey (1626–1697), a biographer himself, is known primarily for his book Brief Lives. Scurr brings him brilliantly to life by using surviving letters and manuscripts to craft the diary he never wrote. Living in a century of religious and political upheaval, Aubrey sought to preserve the old and discover the new, researching and engaging in correspondence on a wide range of subjects including medicine, architecture, and archaeology. Scurr’s diary format allows us to watch him grow from a curious boy who “like[s] to think about the past” to a man quietly passionate about everything ancient: “If I do not keep careful notes... no one else will make these records.” He is a humble friend who values and amplifies the ideas of others, an omnivorous thinker always asking “Why?”, and an enthusiastic collector of details about contemporary and historical personalities. Indeed, the Aubrey whom Scurr recreates for us is as charming and entertaining as his “diary,” which Scurr has rendered accessible by modernizing spelling and word choices. This book is both a wonderful historical resource and a delight to read.
In Wilson’s gripping, ambitious debut novel, a struggling actor flies to the rain forests of Colombia to star in Jungle Bloodbath, a grind house horror film directed by an eccentric Italian auteur. Roughly based on the infamously brutal production of Cannibal Holocaust, the novel tracks a wide cast of characters, including guerilla rebels, effects artists, and the director himself, as they slowly descend into barbarism. Interspersed with the alternating perspectives are transcripts from an Italian court, where the director stands accused of abuse, negligence, and murder, most of which seem to have occurred during the grueling shoot. In the name of supposed verisimilitude, the crew sets fire to an indigenous village and mutilates animals at whim, all without seeing a script. The drama builds palpably and haphazardly, drawing the invading crew and invaded population together until, in a moment of cathartic bloodshed, reality and fiction collide. Though Wilson novel’s reach occasionally exceeds its grasp, the story never flags thanks to the ferocious momentum of her prose. This is a vivid, scary novel.
This third collection from Youn (Ignatz) finds her tightly yet playfully interrogating inheritance and legacy, real and fictional landscapes, and the particular bodily experience of a woman hoping to conceive. The title refers to a legal term denoting a type of fictional entity, a hypothetical real estate; Youn’s legal background (she was a practicing lawyer for years) emerges in her attention to detail and ability to parse concepts. Formally and syntactically diverse, the poems often portray a mature, professional woman wrestling with the philosophy and psychology of all that that life entails. Word play abounds (“a statement// of intent, of well-meant/ amends; an acquiescent an-/ athema in its seam-/ less unseen net”), as do references to working life and an intellectualized distancing when dealing with corporeality (“one day they showed me a dark moon ringed/ with a bright nimbus on a swirling gray screen/ they called it my last chance for neverending life/ but the next day it was gone”). Throughout, Youn’s lawyerly analyses—of life, of herself, her feelings, and of language—cut through the poetic to a place that lies triangulated between poetry, lyric memoir, and textual analysis. It is in that latter element that Youn deconstructs the nature of possession and boundedness; in the act of self-claiming, Youn wonders, did she make herself “into a resource that was bounded, and, therefore, exhaustible?”