This week: Ian McEwan's new novel, which is narrated by an unborn baby, plus novels from Ann Patchett and Alan Moore.
D.C. lawyer and author Ackerman (Young J. Edgar) takes the obscure story of Leon Trotsky’s 10-week stay in New York City in early 1917 and succeeds in painting a picture of a man on the cusp of greatness. When Trotsky arrived with his family in January, he was entrenched in an ideological schism with Lenin, precipitated by the 1915 Zimmerwald conference that divided European socialists over the socialist response to WWI. Trotsky was virtually unknown in America outside of certain émigré circles, but he quickly insinuated himself in the activities of the Socialist Party of America, becoming a thorn in the side of its leader, Morris Hillquit, and undermining Hillquit’s vision of what the party should be as well as its level of militancy in opposing WWI. Ackerman shows how, in that span just preceding the Russian Revolution, Trotsky managed to plant the seeds of dissent that would eventually splinter the SPA.
The narrator of Alison’s (The Love-Artist) wonderful novel, J, lives alone in the paradise of a Miami Beach high-rise condo. J spends most of her days going to the pool, working on translating (or “transmuting”) Ovid’s stories, sitting on her balcony, and watching her neighbors in a building across the way. She’s been contacting some of her various lovers from the past, whom she refers to as “Sir Gold,” “The Devil,” and other monikers—but none of them lead to anything serious. As she contemplates retiring from love for good, she cares for her aging cat, Buster, and a duck stranded on a traffic median. She befriends her enigmatic and troubled neighbors on the floor above her and becomes further and further entangled with them. Maybe it’s due to the oppressive heat or her active imagination, but Ovid and Miami begin to blur: she sees Ovid’s girls (as the narrator refers to them) in the trees, people who transform, and symbols everywhere. J faces a certain ennui: she is alone, she lacks a mate, yet her inner life is a vivid struggle to find happiness, to connect with the world outside her apartment. Yet how can she live without pleasure? With echoes of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, Alison has forged a haunting and emotionally precise portrait, a beautiful reminder that solitude does not equal loneliness.
The Frenches, Pulitzer-winning journalists, put forth a love story about their daughter, with highs and lows throughout and moments of sheer joy that will keep readers involved until the very last page. This achingly tender memoir is also a roller-coaster. Juniper French was born weighing just 575 grams (the mass of $2.28 in pennies, or a bottle of Gatorade) and was the length of a Barbie doll. She fought with every breath. Her parents kept watch; they sang, they read, they were mesmerized. Thomas even read the Harry Potter series to his tiny bundle, as he did with his older boys from a previous marriage, hoping the protagonist’s spirit would be emitted in every syllable. In alternating chapters, the Frenches recall trying everything to conceive, then later trying everything to keep their baby alive. For nearly seven months, they lived in and out of the hospital while family, friends, and colleagues maintained a tight network of support. The narrative sparks a need to reassess the meaning of a miracle, and the story will resonate for days after the last word.
Kluger, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Ashes to Ashes, celebrates the power of free expression in his book on John Peter Zenger’s pioneering colonial newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal. Contextualizing the pre-revolutionary situation in which Zenger launched his paper, Kluger accurately describes the relentless royal prosecution of anyone printing anything without a license, which opened violators to charges of “seditious libel” in disturbing the peace and subversion. In 1710, Zenger became an apprentice to printer William Bradford, but Bradford was soon tried for libel, surviving when his suit was dismissed on a technicality. Zenger returned to Bradford’s employ in 1725 before going on to produce his own four-page paper. In 1733, amid a messy, politicized environment of accusations, scandal, and power shifts, Zenger himself was charged with libel for revealing the aggressive, dominating policies of the British officials. He was jailed for nine months before his historic one-day trial. Framing his work with F.D.R.’s monumental 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, Kluger produces a comprehensive tribute to Zenger’s legal battle against censorship and reprisal, which sparked progressive thought later appearing in the basic political documents of the young American republic.
Newbery Medalist MacLachlan creates a spare, moving tale told from the perspective of Teddy, the dog of the title. Teddy can speak, but only poets and children can understand him, so Teddy isn’t surprised when both Nicholas (Nickel) and his younger sister, Flora, ask him for help when they get lost in a snowstorm. Since the death of his owner and friend, Sylvan, Teddy has relied on Sylvan’s student, Ellie, for care. But Ellie and Teddy know that the arrangement isn’t forever, and Teddy needs to find a way to move on and love again. Using simple words that even youngest readers will understand and enjoy, MacLachlan tackles subjects such as death and mourning with understated grace (“And he closes his eyes, his hands still on my neck. By the time Ellie gets there he is still. Silence”). Overarching themes of love and family permeate the narrative, providing readers of all ages with a deep understanding of the relationship Teddy had with his previous owner and the one he is building with his new family.
McEwan’s latest novel is short, smart, and narrated by an unborn baby. The narrator describes himself upside down in his mother’s womb, arms crossed, doing slow motion somersaults, almost full-term, wondering about the future. His mother listens to the radio, audiobooks, and podcasts, so just from listening he has acquired knowledge of current events, music, literature, and history. From experience, he’s formed opinions about wine and human behavior. What he’s learned of the world has him using his umbilical cord as worry beads, but his greatest concern comes from overhearing his mother and her lover plotting to kill his father. The mother, Trudy, is separated from John, the father. John is overweight, suffers from psoriasis, and, perhaps most annoying for Trudy, loves to recite poetry. Trudy’s lover, Claude, is a libidinous real estate developer who covets both John’s wife and their highly marketable London home. Claude also happens to be John’s brother. Echoes of Hamlet resound in the plans for fratricide, a ghost, and the baby’s contemplation of shuffling off his mortal coil. The murder plot structures the novel as a crime caper, McEwan-style—that is, laced with linguistic legerdemain, cultural references, and insights into human ingenuity and pettiness. Packed with humor and tinged with suspense, this gem resembles a sonnet the narrator recalls hearing his father recite: brief, dense, bitter, suggestive of unrequited and unmanageable longing, surprising, and surprisingly affecting.
In this staggeringly imaginative second novel, Moore (Watchmen) bundles all his ruminations about space, time, life, and death into an immense interconnected narrative that spans all human existence within the streets of his native Northampton, U.K. Reading this sprawling collection of words and ideas isn’t an activity; it’s an experience.The book is divided into three parts, each 11 chapters long, with a prelude and “afterlude.” The bookends involve Alma Warren and her brother, Mick, who as a child choked on a cough drop and died, only to be revived; their inquiries into the mysteries of death provide a faint glimmer of plot. The first section crisscrosses Northampton with startling chapters that introduce sad ghosts who drift around town, have sex with each other, and seek nourishment in the form of strange plants known as Puck Hats. Living characters include Ern Vernall, who survives a sanity-ending encounter with a talking painting while trapped on scaffolding, and Alma and Mick’s grandmother, May, who grieves the death of her too-beautiful daughter and becomes a “deathmonger,” overseeing local funerals and births. The second section takes place entirely between Mick’s death and his revival, with a long adventure in an afterlife only Moore could have imagined. The third and most difficult part is written in a series of literary pastiches, including a Beckett-like play and an entire chapter written in a language invented by Lucia Joyce, the institutionalized daughter of James Joyce. Challenges and all, Jerusalem ensures Moore’s place as one of the great masters of the English language.
Mullen (The Revisionists) uses the lens of a twisted murder mystery to unsettle readers with his unflinching look at racism in post-WWII Atlanta. That city has just hired its first black police officers, but the eight men given the responsibility for guarding black neighborhoods are still relegated to second-class status. For example, they’re barred from wearing their police uniforms when traveling to and from court to testify. One of those officers, Lucius Boggs, ends up being responsible for a sensitive murder investigation after Brian Underhill, a drunken white man, drives his car into a lamppost in a black neighborhood. Underhill was released without charge by the white officers who showed up at the scene, but Lily Ellsworth, the black woman who was his passenger, is found dead later on, abandoned in an alley like a piece of trash. Underhill’s status as a former cop and the low value placed on black lives make the probe into Lily’s death a perilous one, for both Boggs and a white officer who’s uneasy with his department’s violent racism. This page-turner reads like the best of James Ellroy.
Patchett (State of Wonder) draws from personal experience for a funny, sad, and ultimately heart-wrenching family portrait: a collage of parents, children, stepchildren, siblings, and stepsiblings. In 1960s California, lawyer Bert Cousins divorces Teresa, leaving her to raise their four children alone; Beverly Keating divorces Fix, an L.A. cop; and Bert and Beverly marry and relocate to Virginia with Beverly and Fix’s two children. Visiting arrangements result in an angry, resentful younger generation—rebellious Cal, frustrated Holly, practical Jeannette, littlest Albie, bossy Caroline, kind-hearted Franny—spending part of summer vacations together. Left unsupervised, Cal takes charge, imitating grown-ups by drinking and carrying a gun, until a fatal accident puts an end to shared vacations. Patchett follows the surviving children into adulthood, focusing on Franny, who confides to novelist Leo Posen stories of her childhood, including the secret behind the accident.
Phelan (Bluffton) delivers a spectacular 20th-century update of “Snow White,” transplanting the story to Jazz Age and Depression-era New York City, where themes of jealousy, beauty, and power find a comfortable home. Years after tuberculosis has claimed the life of Samantha “Snow” White’s mother, her father, “the King of Wall Street,” finds a regal match in the “Queen of the Follies,” whose Louise Brooks bob is as sharp as her glare. She soon dispatches her husband, only to learn that Snow stands to inherit his wealth; one of many exquisite touches is Phelan’s use of a stock ticker as the magic mirror, rattling away like Poe’s tell-tale heart as Snow’s stepmother’s ambitions shift into madness. Moody gray and sepia panels carry the story forward, punctuated by splashes of lurid red—for an animal heart, procured at a butcher’s shop, or an apple tainted with a syringe. Snow’s affectionate relationship with “the Seven,” a group of street children, is among this adaptation’s most potent elements. The boys are hesitant to tell Snow their names, but readers will want tissues on hand when they finally do.
Telgemeier’s stirring graphic novel opens on moving day, as Cat’s family travels from Southern California to Bahía de la Luna, a foggy village up the coast; Cat’s younger sister, Maya, has cystic fibrosis and needs the sea air. While Cat is the worrier in the family, chronically ill Maya is an irrepressible optimist, her zest captured in the lyrics of her favorite song: “Let it out, let it out.... Can’t hold it in, gotta shout.” The village is obsessed with ghosts; their neighbor gives ghost tours, and there’s an annual Día de los Muertos celebration. What’s more, the ghosts are real. Telgemeier’s floaty, sea green, protoplasmic beings are just as appealing as her human characters. They worry, grieve, and make jokes, and it’s in learning to interact with them that Cat and Maya start to face the possibility that Maya might die. The complex relationship between the sisters is richly drawn—each feels almost unbearable compassion for the other’s weakness. “José,” Maya tells a child ghost, “if I die, Cat will be all alone. She’s terrible at making friends.” In her treatment of illness and death, Telgemeier (Sisters) nudges readers toward the edge of their comfort zone, but she never leaves them alone there. The story is consistently engaging, the plot is tightly built, and—as always—Telgemeier excels at capturing facial expressions, as when Maya’s oxygen tube shocks Cat’s new friends, or when Cat’s cool façade melts into ecstasy as she tastes her neighbors’ Mexican cooking. Death means sadness and loss, Cat and Maya learn, but it doesn’t mean the end of love.
Touching on virtual families, climate change, implanted memories, and more, Weinstein’s debut collection of digital-age sci-fi stories is scary, recognizable, heartbreaking, witty, and absolutely human. In “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” Jim has to shut down a malfunctioning Yang—a humanoid who has been a “Big Brother” to Jim’s adopted daughter for three years. In “The Cartographers,” Adam designs and sells manufactured memories, until he gets so hooked on testing his software that he can no longer tell which memories are his own. “Heartland” shows a Midwest where topsoil is a precious commodity, and when a father loses his job “installing gardens,” he resorts to exploiting the cuteness of his children to make ends meet. In the virtual-driven world of the title story, a couple lose their digital children to a reboot when they download a virus in the “Dark City.” The disturbing and darkly funny “Rocket Night” features parents who gather annually to decide which least-liked child in the elementary school will be launched on a rocket to space. Complete with footnotes from fictional future publications and technology that is just one leap away, this is mind-bending stuff. Weinstein’s collection is full of spot-on prose, wicked humor, and heart.