This week: Dan Chaon's terrifying masterpiece, plus an espionage novel set during the October Revolution of 1917.
Uniting a retelling of the Orpheus myth, an indictment of totalitarian inhumanity, and a Kafkaesque meditation on identity within the spare language of fable, Atogun’s memorable debut novel testifies to the power of both oppression and art. Its protagonist, a musician known only as Taduno, runs afoul of the ruthless Nigerian government for stirring up the populace with his protest songs. Losing his famous voice as a result of their brutality, he goes into exile. Three months later, he receives a letter from his girlfriend, Lela, warning him that their homeland is changing dangerously. Deciding to reunite with her, Taduno returns to Lagos only to discover that no one recognizes him, all of the documents that prove his identity have mysteriously disappeared, and Lela has been abducted by the government in its attempt to gain leverage over him. Taduno realizes that the only way to regain his identity is to regain his voice. But his musical rebirth has an impossible cost: will he save Lela by singing for the government, or remain true to his people and his soul? Readers familiar with Nigerian political history or the country’s late musician-activist Fela Kuti will find echoes of both in the novel. But Atogan’s allegory, at once bleak and hopeful, needs no external glosses to speak clearly and powerfully.
From the very beginning of this lapidary memoir, Buck (The Only Place to Be) is immersed in illusion. Her father, Jules Buck, was a cinematographer for John Huston before founding Keep Films with Peter O’Toole. Joan inherited her father’s eye for props, but while he used them to create feeling, she read feeling into them. Her elegant descriptions are glued together with a mortar of famous names (Jeanne Moreau, Lauren Bacall, Anjelica Huston). None of her youthful flirtations (Tom Wolfe) and more-than-flirtations (Donald Sutherland) lasted: “I couldn’t read humans as easily as I could read the meaning of their clothes.” In 1994, she became editor of French Vogue and spiraled into a psychedelic head trip of beautiful objects set against her gathering anxiety and her father’s mental illness. She was let go in 2001 after a stint in rehab, not for chemical dependency but for what she sees as an addiction to the “glossy view of life.” She relapsed with a puff piece for American Vogue on Bashar al-Assad’s wife. For the most part, she shies away from self-analysis: her divorce from John Heilpern, a onetime contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is dismissed with a terse “I’d tried to have a normal life, and failed.” Yet overall, Buck includes a brilliant amount of detail in this memoir.
Tracing her family’s journey to the United States and their sometimes-uneasy adaptation to American life, Bui’s magnificent memoir is not unique in its overall shape, but its details are: a bit of blood sausage in a time of famine, a chilly apartment, a father’s sandals contrasted with his son’s professional shoes. The story opens with the birth of Bui’s son in New York City, and then goes back to Vietnam to trace the many births and stillbirths of her parents, and their eventual boat journey to the U.S. In excavating her family’s trauma through these brief, luminous glimpses, Bui transmutes the base metal of war and struggle into gold. She does not spare her loved ones criticism or linger needlessly on their flaws. Likewise she refuses to flatten the twists and turns of their histories into neat, linear narratives. She embraces the whole of it: the misery of the Vietnam War, the alien land of America, and the liminal space she occupies, as the child with so much on her shoulders. In this mélange of comedy and tragedy, family love and brokenness, she finds beauty.
Butler (Beneath the Bonfire) returns to rural Wisconsin in this big-hearted epic full of sturdy characters that wear their hearts—and pride—on their sleeves. Told in four parts spanning from 1962 to 2022 and set against the woodsy backdrop of a Boy Scout summer camp, Camp Chippewa, the narrative follows three generations struggling to find their place in a world bent on dealing them a bad hand. In the first section, 13-year-old social outcast Nelson finds little comfort as the camp’s bullied bugler while dealing with conflicted feelings about his abusive father. A tentative friendship formed with cocky older Jonathan saves Nelson’s hide more than once while also demonstrating the limits of just how much Jonathan can give. Part two narrows in on 49-year-old Jonathan’s 16-year-old son, Trevor, falling in love with Rachel, as well as his front-row seat to Jonathan’s marriage-busting affair on the way to Camp Chippewa. The slow-burn heartbreak continues in the two final sections. Once-widowed and twice-divorced Rachel makes an ill-fated decision to accompany her and Trevor’s son, Thomas, on his last summer as a Boy Scout. In a fiery conclusion, Nelson and Jonathan reunite after more than 20 years—wealthy and reclusive Jonathan is now a grandfather, and Nelson is about to retire as Camp Chippewa Scoutmaster. Butler demonstrates enormous command over the material and sympathy for his flawed characters. This beautiful novel might be his best yet.
For this exceptional and emotionally wrenching novel, Chaon (Await Your Reply) plants the seeds of new manias into the hard, unforgiving ground that will be familiar to his readers. In 1983, when psychologist Dustin Tillman was 13, his mother, father, aunt, and uncle were murdered. Dustin accused his adopted older brother, Rusty, a sadistic kid attracted to Satanism, of the crime, and Rusty was incarcerated. The murders shaped Dustin’s life as much as they did Rusty’s; his Ph.D. dissertation was on Satanic ritual abuse, and he practices hypnotherapy despite its detractors. Now in his early 40s, he’s an ineffectual father of two boys and an oblivious husband to a dying wife in suburban Ohio. Having convinced himself of his vision of the past and clinging only to “memories of happiness,” he’s unnerved to learn that Rusty has been exonerated and released. What he doesn’t know is that Rusty has reached out to Dustin’s youngest, Aaron, a teenage junky sliding into Cleveland’s dangerous underground, urging the boy to talk to Wave, Dustin’s estranged cousin, who may know the truth of the murders. The paths of several characters converge as one of Dustin’s patients convinces him to investigate a spate of drownings and Aaron’s best friend Rabbit is pulled from the river, dead. With impressive skill, across multiple narratives that twine, fracture, and reset, Chaon expertly realizes his singular vision of American dread.
The October Revolution of 1917 provides the backdrop for Downing’s outstanding third historical featuring British spy Jack McColl (after 2015’s One Man’s Flag). At his father’s funeral in Scotland, McColl reunites with his lover, American journalist Caitlin Hanley, with whom he has a complicated past: two years earlier, McColl arrested her younger brother, Colm, for his role in an Irish republican plot after first offering him a chance to escape. Despite this incident, Caitlin is eager to make the most of their time together before work separates them. McColl’s boss in the Secret Service dispatches him on a mission to determine how the Transcaspian Railway can be put out of action as part of British efforts to prevent Germany from taking over Central Asia. Meanwhile, Caitlin travels to Russia to report on the efforts of the Bolshevik regime to create a new society. In addition to balancing plot and character development perfectly, Downing gives readers unfamiliar with the issues of the time all they need to know.
Hamid’s (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia) trim yet poignant fourth novel addresses similar themes as his previous work and presents a unique perspective on the global refugee crisis. In an unidentified country, young Saeed and burqa-wearing Nadia flee their home after Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet and their city turns increasingly dangerous due to worsening violent clashes between the government and guerillas. The couple joins other migrants traveling to safer havens via carefully guarded doors. Through one door, they wind up in a crowded camp on the Greek Island of Mykonos. Through another, they secure a private room in an abandoned London mansion populated mostly by displaced Nigerians. A third door takes them to California’s Marin County. In each location, their relationship is by turns strengthened and tested by their struggle to find food, adequate shelter, and a sense of belonging among emigrant communities. Hamid’s storytelling is stripped down, and the book’s sweeping allegory is timely and resonant. Of particular importance is the contrast between the migrants’ tenuous daily reality and that of the privileged second- or third-generation native population who’d prefer their new alien neighbors to simply disappear.
In Hartnett’s winning debut, a memorable young narrator’s desire for rationality wrestles with her grief. Elvis’s mother once marked every milestone by baking a rabbit-shaped cake, but the year Elvis turns 10, without any fanfare, mom sleepwalks into the river and drowns. Having been told by her therapist that 18 months is the normal amount of time to grieve, Elvis, who makes sense of her world of Freedom, Ala., through research and observation, sets out to record her own grieving process. Complicating her recovery, however, is her older sister, Lizzie, who has also taken up sleepwalking, sleep eating, and even more dangerous behavior. Like many novels with child narrators, Hartnett’s quirky, Southern-tinged debut relies heavily on Elvis’s relative naïveté for dramatic irony. Matter-of-fact Elvis, however, is no mere victim. Her relationship with animals, in particular, rings true—she volunteers at the local zoo—and her story is affecting, exploring how a fragile but precocious girl strives to define herself after a tragedy.
Hatch, a physician and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, rivetingly recounts his work in an Ebola treatment unit in Liberia at the height of the deadly West African outbreak in 2014–2015. He breathtakingly narrates his “battle of a lifetime” while retaining a steely-eyed focus on the human tragedy. From the first death Hatch witnesses to the first survival of a patient under his care, he chronicles what it meant to go from “watching the world’s leading story to being the world’s leading story.” Professionally, he appreciates the critical role of nurses and the importance of touch, faces his own failures, and evaluates the good and bad of media coverage. On a personal level, Hatch gives stunning witness to the devastating loss caused by Ebola, including that of a father who survived the virus who then cares for his dying son. “We all knew that the [unit] was a place of hellish misery,” yet “despite that knowledge, we were able to keep on with our jobs,” Hatch writes. “Our cheer and hope were among our only weapons in the darkness.” Hatch’s chronicle is a compassionate, clear-eyed, and courageous account of how compassionate medical care proves a formidable force against the ravages of Ebola.
The interconnected stories in this exquisitely crafted collection explore the lives of characters living in and around Mobile, Ala., in the years preceding the destruction wrought by a fictional hurricane. A master of the short story, Knight (The Typist) distills some of life’s most significant and transformative experiences into a deceptively small amount of space: a young man’s coming of age expressed through his first experience of heartbreak in “Water and Oil”; the entirety of a marriage portrayed in a series of small moments as a middle-aged couple plans a birthday party in “Jubilee”; or a grieving widower descending into old age under the eye of his worried daughters in “The King of Dauphin Island.” Characters are frequently brought into potentially violent conflict, such as when a burglar is caught by a teenage girl while robbing a house he thought was empty in “Smash and Grab,” or in “Grand Old Party,” when a humiliated husband brings a shotgun to the home of his wife’s lover. And “Landfall,” the novella that closes the collection, is a stunning and heartbreaking portrait of a family trying to stay together as the hurricane is finally upon them. Peppered throughout with regional history that to firmly places the reader in the collection’s southern setting, these often funny and heartfelt stories explore life in its messy fullness while also exuding a deep, wistful wisdom.
Was H.P. Lovecraft, the great American horror writer, gay? That’s the question at the start of this ingenious, provocative work of alternative history from La Farge (Luminous Airplanes). In the present day of this novel, New York freelance writer Charlie Willett, an avid Lovecraft fan, manages to locate a copy of the Erotonomicon (a play on Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon), which purports to be the erotic diary Lovecraft kept during his time in Florida--Lovecraft, who lived most of his life in Providence, R.I., did actually spend the summer of 1934 visiting a teenage fan, Robert Barlow, at the Barlow family home in central Florida. Barlow, who would later become a professor of Mexican ethnography, committed suicide in Mexico City in 1951 to escape blackmailers who were threatening to expose him as a homosexual. La Farge's whole novel is framed as the account of the efforts of Charlie’s devoted therapist wife to find her husband, who has disappeared after becoming a pariah for writing a book about Lovecraft as a closet homosexual, which gets some critical facts wrong.
Determined to discover why violence flourishes in high-altitude areas, war correspondent Matloff (Fragments of a Forgotten War) investigates the cultures and ongoing conflicts of mountain ranges around the globe. She travels more than 72,000 miles to compile her survey, braving the mile-high battlefields of the ongoing Colombian civil war and the deadly Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, witnessing the destitution of the indigenous populations of Nepal and Mexico, and talking her way out of trouble with Russian police in Chechnya. Interviews with American veterans who fought in the high altitudes of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush lead her to visit an Army mountain training center in Vermont’s (relatively small) Green Mountains; this excursion results in an even more intense journey to an Arctic NATO base in Norway. To cap off her journey, she focuses on Switzerland, a largely mountainous nation that outgrew its violent history to become a bastion of democracy and peace. This trip to some very different corners of the globe is recounted in clear, visceral language; vertigo sufferers may not enjoy some of the more harrowing moments, but Matloff’s investigation is a worthy read for foreign affairs and anthropology buffs alike, and her conclusion provides insight into current global affairs.
Pachico’s history-bound debut novel is a carefully yet fiercely composed collage of voices that bears witness to the executions, forced disappearances, and other atrocities that took place in Colombia from 1993 to 2013 during the country’s violent civil war. The book provides a searing glimpse into the conflict through 11 interconnected short stories—each focusing on a different aspect of the struggle. The novel’s riveting first installment, “Lucky,” takes place in 2003 and sets an ominous tone. In it, a young girl is holed up inside her family’s mansion while they’re away for the weekend. What she doesn’t know—but begins to suspect as she hears a knock at the door—is that they’re never coming back. In “Lemon Pie,” one of the strongest vignettes in the book, an American former middle school teacher has been held captive by the FARC for “five years, eight months, two weeks, and five days.” When not locked in a shed, he passes the time via sessions of “Parasite Squishing” and by delivering lectures from memory on Hamlet and The Scarlet Letter to his class of twigs, leaves, and trees in the Amazonian jungle. The most unique story is “Junkie Rabbit,” a twisted glimpse into a rabbit warren filled with bunnies subsisting on the last remnants of coca plants from a ransacked estate. Having lived in Colombia until she turned 18, Pachico has a firsthand connection to the country’s charms and troubles that shines through on every gripping page.
Reiss (The Showman and the Slave), professor of English at Emory University, takes a historical and literary look at sleep, particularly as it is practiced—or not—in the modern West. Reiss accessibly addresses an astounding breadth of material, though he touches only occasionally on the science of sleep—this is neither an in-depth neurological discussion nor a guide to fixing sleep difficulties. From the very beginning, Reiss argues against popular conceptions of what is considered “normal” sleep: “sleeping in one straight shot through the night... with, at most, two consenting adults sharing a bed.” As he also notes, “virtually nothing about our standard model of sleep existed as we know it two centuries ago.” Electric lighting and factory work removed people from sleep that was more attuned to seasonal and regional variations in daylight and warmth. Middle-class ideals of multiroomed houses pushed away previous patterns of communal sleeping and sleeping with children in the same room or bed. In the 21st century, the blue light emitted by ubiquitous digital screens decreases melatonin output, reducing the ability to sleep, and the reliance on 24-hour call centers to cater to Westerners’ IT and shopping needs disturbs the sleep patterns of workers elsewhere. This is a captivating examination and Reiss gives readers much to ponder long into the night.
Featuring two-headed turtles, golden langurs glaring into the camera, and eye-catching grasshoppers, this lively collection of color photos of creatures large and small will enthrall even the most casual viewer. Photos of seemingly unrelated species are frequently juxtaposed: pairing the echidna and the platypus, or the Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine and the zebra, creates a striking effect that also shows the connectivity of nature. The portraits are shot with black-and-white backgrounds so that even images of familiar animals demand attention. Included among the gazelles, panthers, and slugs are descriptions and snapshots of the photographing process. The selection is part of a project led by conservationist and National Geographic photographer Sartore, who has devoted 25 years to capturing the images of every species held in captivity in order to preserve their images and encourage activism. Sartore more than succeeds in his goal to provide people with an opportunity to become aware of these animals, many endangered, before they disappear.
Carver Briggs already feels responsible when his three best friends are killed in a car accident after he sent a “Where are you guys?” text message to the driver. Now it seems as though the whole town wants him to be prosecuted, and he’s having debilitating panic attacks. When one friend’s grandmother suggests they pay tribute to the deceased by spending a “goodbye day” swapping stories and doing what he loved, Carver finds a cathartic way to atone for his perceived sins. From the opening line, Zentner (The Serpent King) expertly channels Carver’s distinctive voice as a 17-year-old writer turned “funeral expert” who argues with himself about girls and retains glimmers of easy wit despite the weight of his grief and guilt. Flashbacks and daydreams capture the jovial spirit of the four members of the so-called Sauce Crew, glimpses of sophomore shenanigans interspersed with poignant admissions only best friends would share. Racial tensions, spoiled reputations, and broken homes all play roles in an often raw meditation on grief and the futility of entertaining what-ifs when faced with awful, irreversible events. Ages 14–up.