This week: a powerful thriller for fans of Ruth Rendell, and a stellar Angela Carter biography.
With these uncompromising stories, the pseudonymous Bandi gives a rare glimpse of life in the “truly fathomless darkness” of North Korea. A Pyongyang housewife is accused of attempting to communicate with spies for closing her drapes in “City of Specters.” In “So Near, Yet So Far,” a man finds his village unreachable when he illegally journeys to see his dying mother. Lacking proper documentation, he is forced into a truck, like a pig “being sent to the slaughterhouse.” A similar arc is traced throughout Bandi’s collection, but the most cutting story is “Pandemonium.” A frustrated Mrs. Oh escapes a provincial train station that has been locked down for 32 hours because Kim Il-Sung is traveling in the area. On the way to a nearby relative’s house, she stumbles upon the “Great Leader” himself, a man whose “pale golden clothes seemed to shed a soft veil of mist.” Just as he is graciously giving her a ride, her granddaughter suffers a broken leg back at the station when she’s “buried in a tide of humanity.”
The spirit of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, one of many American eugenics facilities constructed in the early 20th century, looms over Brown’s harrowing debut, winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. Brown lives with cerebral palsy and grew up near the facility, biographical facts that imbue her poems with an unmatched intimacy. She epitomizes the feelings of the colony’s victims with unadorned, concise language. “Imagine you are/ an animal in your/ own throat,” Brown writes. She also considers the perspective of the institution’s employees, conveying both their ignorance and fear: “do the children of God really lose// their eyes in the backs of their heads,/ and swallow their own tongues in church?” Her use of repetition recreates the hypnotic feeling of routine, giving weight to the lines that break the repetition and simulate fleeting moments of lucidity, certainty, and memory. But it’s her rich imagery that stands out most: “That one has a cave for a face/ blank, unlit, and fallen in./ Back wherever she began/ somebody clapped his hands/ and the fire went out./ But, somehow, she continued to burn.” Brown’s humbling and heartbreaking poems restore dignity to lives sacrificed in the name of perfection.
Few biographies are as consistently spot-on as this one of Angela Carter (1940-1992). Debut author Gordon, a lecturer in English at King’s College London who was officially authorized by Carter’s estate, uses a wealth of primary sources to trace the life and career of a daring, quirky, and preeminent writer of the late 20th century. As he shows, Carter, whose acclaimed works include the magic realist novel The Magic Toyshop and the retold-fairy-tale collection The Bloody Chamber, represents a distinct type in English history: a person from a modest class background whose innovative art was made possible by the country’s post-WWII socialist democratic consensus. After a brief career as a journalist, Carter not only attended university for free, but was paid a stipend. Gordon’s construction of Carter as a generous feminist who never lost the common touch comes alive on the page, and, beyond that, Gordon offers enough historic background to vividly evoke a mid- and late-20th-century world. This bio never flags, never condescends, and never loses its pace. It’s a page-turner highly recommended to anyone looking for an entertaining and intelligent read.
Gorham revisits her rebellious teen years in a remote Swiss boarding school with a deft authorial hand, blending the internal reflections of a bildungsroman novelist, the technical writing of a mountain geologist, and the outsider observations of a travelogue writer. She traffics in well-worn psychological terrain: dreams, her quest for a suitable mother figure, and most prominently, the elusive longing, or Sehnsucht, that permeates the whole book. But her experience is as fresh as new snow in Switzerland, especially if one didn’t come of age there. Photos, drawings, and letters from her school days combine with innovative food-centered musings to create a multimedia touch. Half a century removed from her experiences at school, she is as unflinching with herself and those who helped shape her as she is in describing the foreboding, brutal beauty of the Alps. Even as she wrestles with ambivalence for a place that sends mixed messages about community and control, her affection for the nation and school that were her temporary home is obvious. Gorham takes great care not to rush her story, foreshadowing a transformative accident at the school with subtlety and persistence while going on repeated Wanderungen.
A moment’s inattention upends multiple lives in Gundar-Goshen’s powerful thriller, the Israeli author’s first novel to be published in the U.S. When Dr. Eitan Green uncovered corruption at the hospital he worked at in Tel Aviv, he was forced to take a less desirable position in Beersheba in the Negev desert. Now, after a too-long shift at Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital, an exhausted Eitan glances at the Moon in his rearview window during his drive home. While his eyes are off the road, he strikes an Eritrean man, who suffers a skull fracture. Unable to do anything to save the man’s life, the guilt-ridden Eitan flees. His nightmare worsens when the victim’s wife appears at his home, bearing the wallet he dropped at the scene of the hit-and-run. He agrees to give her fellow Eritreans medical treatment at night in exchange for her keeping silent about his role in her husband’s death. The arrangement forces Eitan to lie to his police detective wife, who has been looking into the fatality. The psychological complications match the plot ones and will please Ruth Rendell fans.
Levenseller makes an impressive debut with this funny, fast-paced, and romance-dashed nautical fantasy, set in an alternate world of pirates, sirens, and myriad islands. Alosa, the 17-year-old daughter of an infamous pirate king, embarks on a dangerous undercover mission, allowing herself to be captured by a rival crew in order to retrieve part of a legendary treasure map. Alosa believes she has the situation under control thanks to years of training and experience, as well as certain special abilities, but she finds her match in the Night Farer’s first mate, Riden, who seems wise to her tricks. The resulting game of wits results in a burgeoning attraction, as Alosa tries to carry out her mission without giving away her secrets (“If I’m to keep up appearances, I’ll have to escape the ship. Then get caught on purpose. Oh, the ridiculous things one has to do when one is a pirate,” she laments). Resourceful and confident, Alosa swaggers through the pages with style and panache, and her supporting cast is just as delightful. This one’s not to be missed. Ages 13–up.
Malek’s (A Country Called Amreeka) multigenerational memoir is a brilliant combination of geopolitics and family history. In an accessible way to general readers, she chronicles the complex and devastating history of Syria, from the Ottoman Empire’s rule and the shift to French colonization to the country’s independence and the rise of the Assad regime. Malek begins with her great grandfather’s success as a businessman in the early stages of Syria’s independence in the 1940s and continues through Bashar Al-Assad’s authoritarian regime and Malek’s migration from her family’s reclaimed home in Damascus, eloquently exploring grief, resilience, and loss. She is a deft reporter and storyteller. She offers first-hand accounts and her astute political analysis as she traverses countries including Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, France, and Syria. At the core of this book are the chilling effects the regime of the Assad family—beginning with Hafez (Bashar’s father)—have on the Syrian people: sectarian rifts, disappeared citizens, extreme censorship, a bloated refugee crisis, and countless deaths in a nonstop war with humanitarian aid cut off. Malek courageously tells the stories of unforgettable family members and friends, including underground humanitarian aid workers who continue despite the risk of torture and execution.
Passarello (Let Me Clear My Throat) traces stories of famous animals and how they reshape our thinking about humanity in this stunning collection of 17 brief essays. Some read as traditional essays, such as her mediations on the need for new language in an age of mass extinction, the way that artist Albrecht Dürer’s wildly inaccurate rhinoceros prints influenced popular imagination in 16th century Europe, and the author’s personal encounter with a deformed goat who was billed as “Lancelot, the Living Unicorn” by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1985. Others are more genre-blending: Passarello inhabits the mind of Charles Darwin’s pet tortoise and imagines Koko the signing gorilla retelling the infamous “Aristocrats” joke in her limited vocabulary. Passarello’s keen wit is on display throughout as she raises questions about the uniqueness of humans. Perhaps the most stunning work is her bricolage timeline of murderous elephants in America, which aligns their crimes and executions with the rise of electricity and capital punishment. The entire collection satisfies through a feast of surprising juxtapositions and gorgeous prose.
Journalist Rochman takes a calm, thorough, and nonsensationalist look at core bioethical questions surrounding an array of reproductive health issues as well as the ethical spaces where what can be done and what should be done come into conflict. She clearly and accessibly describes cutting-edge technologies for the general reader without succumbing to faddish, uncritical enthusiasm. Rochman solicits the perspectives of doctors, researchers, legal experts, and families in order to focus on humanist factors, such as how doctors should counsel, how having nonactionable information still affects parental prerogatives, and whether people have a right to an “open future” in light of increasing access to genetic testing. She digs into the toughest topics, including whether using screening results to vet potential quality-of-life factors approaches a new eugenics, if people with such differences as genetic deafness should be able to select for a child with that trait, if gene therapies that turn off genes for Down syndrome should be used on children, and whether parents have a right to test their children and access their data concerning diseases that do not manifest until adulthood. Rochman’s thoughtful take highlights important issues for parenting in an increasingly high-information world.
This paradigm-changing book cogently encourages fresh ways of thinking about the workplace and the world. Slaughter (Unfinished Business) promotes the use of social networks for solving any challenging problem, whether it’s spreading new ideas (as done by TEDx) or addressing global problems at a local level (as done by the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy). She groups “the hardest problems” and their corresponding networks into three broad categories: resilience, execution, and scale. This schema is the heart of the book, which outlines considerations for successful networks: how people should be connected to each other, what kind of people should be connected, and how information should be shared. Different types of situations, she explains, may require more diverse or more homogeneous groups. Similarly, sometimes well-networked networkers shouldn’t all be on the same team, and sometimes they should. Sometimes the network needs to be decentralized; sometimes a team leader is just the ticket. Slaughter takes a more polemical tone in the third part, in which she advocates for “open society, open government, and an open international system.” Readers will likely end up taking this book to work with them when especially challenging problems arise.
Snyder (Slavery in Indian Country), associate professor of history at Indiana University, opens the door on a fascinating, yet largely unknown episode in American history as she renders in fine detail the early 19th-century experimental interracial community in central Kentucky called Great Crossings, home to Choctaw Academy. The school, opened in the 1820s and shuttered in 1848, was molded by Richard Mentor Johnson, a former Indian fighter, prominent Kentucky politician, and vice president under Martin van Buren. Johnson and his enslaved African-American concubine, Julia Chinn, envisioned an “empire of liberty” that would link westward expansion with emancipation by sending freed slaves west to settle land there. Political motives blended with personal and religious ones. Chinn had been affected by the Second Great Awakening’s emphasis on progress, and both she and Johnson wanted a nurturing place to raise and educate their two daughters. The sections on Johnson and Chinn’s family life are particularly intriguing. Great Crossings became a truly multiracial community once the Choctaw Academy opened, attracting young Native American men determined to receive an academically rigorous education. There they interacted with white instructors and community leaders as well as enslaved African-Americans, resulting in both trouble and romance. This is a well-researched, engagingly written, and remarkable work of scholarship.
At home in a neighborhood riven with gang strife, Starr Carter, 16, is both the grocer’s daughter and an outsider, because she attends private school many miles away. But at Williamson Prep, where she’s among a handful of black students, she can’t be herself either: no slang, no anger, no attitude. That version of herself—“Williamson Starr”—“doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.” She’s already wrestling with what Du Bois called “double consciousness” when she accepts a ride home from Khalil, a childhood friend, who is then pulled over and shot dead by a white cop. Starr’s voice commands attention from page one, a conflicted but clear-eyed lens through which debut author Thomas examines Khalil’s killing, casual racism at Williamson, and Starr’s strained relationship with her white boyfriend. Though Thomas’s story is heartbreakingly topical, its greatest strength is in its authentic depiction of a teenage girl, her loving family, and her attempts to reconcile what she knows to be true about their lives with the way those lives are depicted—and completely undervalued—by society at large. Ages 14–up.
White (Small Porcelain Head) meditates on mental health in this spellbinding collection, a lamentation dedicated to four women she knew “who took their lives within a year.” Her primary investigations concern the liminality and ever-imperfect definitions of feeling, the duality of emotions, and language’s role as a medicine and a mirror. She draws inspiration from numerous women writers—including Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton—and borrows text from family members’ writings during the Holocaust. White describes the ability for another’s words to serve as an avatar for one’s emotions, calling reading a means “to love with someone else’s mind.” Furthermore, she generates her own definitions for the most ineffable experiences; love is “to be injured in the same way at the same time,” while depression is “a bouquet of knives where the head should be.” White searches for the purpose of depression—“maybe emptiness is a form of listening.// Maybe I am just listening”—and explores its cohabitation with desire: “At the bottom of suffering, like a lake, there is a ring and I am reaching down.” White’s courageous and provocative collection inspires hope by reminding readers that strength can be found in the most desolate places: “What is more beautiful than the hopeless singing?”
In this adrenaline-spiked adventure, teens race souped-up vehicles through a postapocalyptic wasteland in order to win the ultimate prize: a life of luxury aboard a utopian orbital habitat. For best friends Cassica (a daredevil driver) and Shiara (a mechanical genius), the Widowmaker, a three-day road rally known for its high body count, represents the only way to escape their tiny dying town of Coppermouth. When they are signed by an ambitious manager, they figure it’s time to go for the gold. But as the race gets underway and the lure of fame threatens to ruin their partnership, Cassica and Shiara are beset by danger and treachery on all sides as they traverse a wasteland filled with ancient war machines, roaming cannibals, and fellow drivers out to kill them. Wooding (Poison) starts strong and never lets up on the gas, delivering a terrifying, tense thrill ride filled with cinematic moments. With the dystopian setting, fiercely resourceful heroines, fast cars, and an explosive climax, Wooding’s story is perfect for fans of Mad Max: Fury Road, but it carves out its own identity along the way. Ages 12–up.
Spurred by an offer to save his teeth from receding gums, a quiet and introspective young man joins his estranged father on a drive across the Atacama Desert from Santiago to Iquique. Along the way, the 20-year-old unnamed narrator begins to reflect on his relationships with his parents. Preparing to cross the border into Peru to visit a dentist in Tacna, he struggles to contextualize the broken recollections of his youth: his parent’s separation when he was a child, a troubling moment with his mother, and the ambiguous details of his uncle Neno’s death. Returning to his childhood home, the narrator seeks information on the whereabouts of a missing cousin who might have answers. With this skillful translation by McDowell, the story sustains suspense by gradually revealing itself. The fractured narrative switches from page to page between past revelations and present observations, mirroring the restless mind of the protagonist as he searches for connections. Zúñiga cleverly uses this technique to represent a young person’s hunger for self-actualization. As the book progresses, “like someone putting together and taking apart a worn-out puzzle,” these shattered pieces of prose—sometimes only a single poignant sentence or evocative paragraph—join together to build a vivid mosaic. This arresting and deeply affecting read, despite its short length, packs a punch.