This week: new books from Hari Kunzru, Elif Batuman, and more.
When Bat’s veterinarian mother brings home an infant skunk to foster for a month, Bat—a third grader on the autism spectrum—hopes to prove that he’s responsible enough to keep the skunk, Thor, as a pet. Written in third person, this engaging and insightful story makes readers intimately aware of what Bat is thinking and how he perceives the events and people in his life. With empathy and humor, Arnold (Far from Fair) delves into Bat’s relationships with his divorced parents, older sister, teachers, and classmates. In one tender scene, Bat braids his sister’s hair: “Getting along with people was hard for Bat. Figuring out what they meant when they said something, or when they made certain faces at him... People were complicated. But braiding was easy.” Bat’s supportive family and school encourage his strategies for navigating a confusing world, and Santoso’s b&w spot illustrations quietly speak to his isolation, as well as the way he takes to Thor. A budding friendship and open-ended questions about Thor’s future will spark anticipation for the next book in this planned series. Ages 6–10.
The mysterious relationship between language and the world” is just one of the questions troubling Selin Karadag, the 18-year-old protagonist of Batuman’s (The Possessed) wonderful first novel, a bildungsroman Selin narrates with fluent wit and inexorable intelligence. Beginning her first year at Harvard in the fall of 1995, Selin is determined to “be a courageous person, uncowed by other people’s dumb opinions”; she already thinks of herself as a writer, although “this conviction was completely independent of having ever written anything.” In a Russian class, the Turkish-American Selin is befriended by the worldlier Svetlana, whose Serbian family has endowed her with capital and complexes, and the older Hungarian math major Ivan, who becomes Selin’s correspondent in an exciting new medium: email. Their late-night exchanges inspire Selin more than anything else in her life, but they frustrate her, too: Ivan’s intentions toward her are vague, perhaps even to himself. Traveling to Paris with Svetlana in the summer of 1996, Selin plans to continue on to Hungary, where she will teach English in a village school, and then to Turkey, where her extended family resides. Thus Batuman updates the grand tour travelogue just as she does the epistolary novel and the novel of ideas, in prose as deceptively light as it is ambitious. One character wonders whether it’s possible “to be sincere without sounding pretentious,” and this long-awaited and engrossing novel delivers a resounding yes.
Callie da Costa is 16 when her older sister, Tess, whom many believe channels God’s divine will, dies from an untreated heart defect. After a missing six-year-old, Ana Langone, reappears at one of Tess’s shrines and other reports of Tess’s miracles pour in, Callie’s mother is set on having Tess named a saint. Determined to stop the petition for sainthood and debunk the miracle of Ana’s safe return, Callie teams up with Danny, an old friend who has a complicated relationship with both sisters. Callie’s first-person chapters alternate with excerpts from Tess’s journals, weaving Tess’s final thoughts and experiences with those of Callie in the months after Tess’s death. Through these two perspectives—alleged saint and grieving sister—debut author Bayerl unspools a gripping story of loss and grace. The search for Ana’s abductor and the eventual revelations surrounding her kidnapping form a poignant parallel to Tess and Callie’s relationship, deftly underlining the ways in which grief can warp reality and encourage self-destruction. Richly and evocatively written, Bayerl’s story is ideal for fans of Jandy Nelson and Melina Marchetta. Ages 12–up.
In this comprehensive and thoroughly researched narrative, Davis, professor of history and sustainability at the University of Florida, positions the Gulf of Mexico as an integral part of American ecology, culture, and—with future good stewardship—economic success. He sprinkles geological and marine history throughout the chronicle of the coast’s demographic changes from indigenous inhabitants to European colonizers, Louisiana Cajuns, Texas roughnecks, and Florida’s tourists. Davis unflinchingly addresses the decades of oil spills, overfishing, and poor environmental practices that reduced resources. He also describes the decline of coastal marshes, which protect against hurricanes, and the erosion stemming from ill-conceived Army Corps of Engineer projects. Hurricanes Camille and Katrina and the catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill poignantly receive their due. Davis also discusses inspired conservation efforts to combat the fashion industry’s feather fascination and subsequent decimation of snowy egrets. The density of the fact-packed chapters calls for a deliberate reading pace so as not to overlook any of Davis’s thought-provoking commentary and keen descriptions. Rather than advocate an impractical hands-off approach to dealing with the Gulf’s myriad issues, Davis makes the convincing argument that wiser, far-sighted practices—including those aimed at combating climate change—could help the Gulf region to remain a bastion of resources for the foreseeable future.
This unforgettable memoir takes readers on a grueling and very personal journey into cancer treatment. Harrison’s prose and distinct illustrations recount her journey from being a healthy woman with a promising future into the world of palliative care after she was diagnosed with incurable cancer at age 37. She shares her disappointments, medical appointments, best and worst days, and interactions with those around her, recounting what it feels like to go for an MRI at 3:45 a.m. With brutally honest writing, she describes the challenge of balancing pain management with being fully immersed in her life, and the problem with hope: “I have to find a way to balance the hope I need to get up every day with the pragmatism I need to deal with bad news.” Going far beyond her cancer patient status, her reflections poignantly take readers into her life: introducing them to her family, venturing back in time to when she fell in love with her now-husband, and reminiscing about some of the powerful women and men whom she has loved and lost. Harrison’s short, sharp essays are raw, brilliant, thought-provoking, and very disquieting.
Himes’s confident, carefully crafted debut novel begins in 1933 Moscow with poet Osip Mandelstam and satirist Mikhail Bulgakov sharing a quiet moment at a restaurant. Later that night, Mandelstam is arrested because of his unpublished poem about Stalin. The Writers’ Union selects Bulgakov to draft a letter pleading for the poet’s release. Bulgakov witnesses the determined efforts of Mandelstam’s wife to save her husband and his work. He also becomes better acquainted with Mandelstam’s mistress, Margarita, who eventually becomes Bulgakov’s mistress and inspiration for his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. While the Mandelstams are sent into exile, Margarita is condemned to a prison camp. Bulgakov follows her to Siberia, as does the government agent who loves her. The story blends political and literary history with fiction, alternating among moments of gritty realism, deep emotion, irony, and insight. Himes evokes a world of geniuses and hacks, dangerous men and endangered men, muses and martyrs. She adeptly details brutality and betrayal as well as creativity and the uncertainties of censorship: one moment the not-so-secret police trash Bulgakov’s apartment, the next Stalin insists a commissar give Bulgakov his jacket. This novel offers two profiles in courage: a satirist struggling under a dictator who has no use for satire, and the woman Himes imagines inspired the iconic novel about the survival of love and literature under bureaucratic tyranny.
Three astronauts and those who know them best explore the limits of truth and love in Howrey’s (Blind Sight) genre-bending novel. Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Yoshihiro Tanaka are the perfect crew for the first mission to Mars: elite explorers and engineers, they’re more at home in microgravity than with their families. But even years of training can’t fully prepare them for Eidolon, a highly-engineered 17-month-long simulation. Beyond the physical and emotional stress for the crew members, their prolonged isolation will also test their families. The story’s multiple points of view don’t confuse the intensely introspective narrative; instead they create perspective and distance—three planetary bodies and their satellites observing themselves, and each other. The voices are distinct, each member reviewing and acting on his or her own emotional telemetry with equal parts brilliance and blunder, and the stakes are high, with any heartbeat capable of tipping the scales against the crew’s survival. But the longer the mission runs, the longer the three are kept in isolation, the more they question the stories they choose to tell their handlers, their families, each other, and themselves—and the more they question the stories they are being told. With these believably fragile and idealistic characters at the helm, Howrey’s insightful novel will take readers to a place where they too can “lift their heads and wonder.”
In her exceptional debut novel, Kidd explores the dark corners of the human mind in small-town 1970s Ireland, creating a haunting story that moves between the supernatural and the mundane. A murder mystery on the surface, the story digs past the traditional whodunit structure to paint a rich portrait of village life. Mahony, a charming young man who can communicate with the dead, returns to Mulderrig, Ireland, his birthplace, in search of the truth about his mother’s mysterious disappearance. As he dredges up the town’s best-kept secrets, the line between past and present blurs, ghosts of the departed shadowing the footsteps of those still living. Mahony’s quest is, at its core, a journey of self-discovery, yet his presence, much like his mother’s, creates a ripple that churns into a tempest, ultimately threatening the stability of the town as a whole. The lavishly populated cast of characters boasts unique quirks, hidden motivations, and a dangerous instinct for self-preservation. In Mulderrig, Mahony learns, all is not as it seems; the departed prove to be the least of his worries. While the plot hurtles along at a rapid pace, leading inexorably to the heart-pounding final conflict, Kidd injects ample doses of macabre humor and lyrical description in this memorable story from a strange, bold new voice.
The excellent new novel from Kunzru (Gods Without Men) opens as a coming-of-age yarn and ends as a ghost story, but its real subject is a vital piece of American history: the persistence of cultural appropriation in popular music. Twenty-something white roommates Carter and Seth are audiophiles, record collectors, and budding producers living in New York. They’re obsessed with black music, whether it’s reggae, jazz, funk, or hip-hop. When Seth records an old chess player in the park, Carter remixes it into a counterfeit blues song and markets the record as the work of an obscure black singer named Charlie Shaw. Almost immediately, they are approached by a mysterious collector who insists that Shaw is real—and after Carter is savagely beaten and left in a coma, Seth begins to discover just how real. With Carter’s sister, Leonie, for whom Seth nurses an unrequited crush, Seth undertakes a perilous journey from New York to Mississippi to unravel a mystery that weaves together the blues, obsessive collectors, and the American South. What he finds is murder and the unquiet ghost of Shaw. White Tears is a fast-paced, hallucinatory book written in extraordinary prose, but it’s also perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South. In his most accessible book to date, Kunzru takes on the vinyl-digging gentrification culture with a historical conscience.
Linder (New York Post and Morning Edition) delivers a moving and deft account of her journey to unearth a diagnosis of the mysterious family gene that caused her father’s and six other relatives’ untimely deaths. In this fascinating journey, she seamlessly moves from instructing on complicated genomic science to revealing the relatable follies of her 20s, never shedding wit or humor. She eloquently tells the story of her father’s protracted battle with a mystery illness that led to his painful and courageous search for medical answers. Once Linder starts to develop similar symptoms she continues his quest. She consults medical experts and genomic specialists who revel in the wonders, intricacies, and unsolved mysteries of genetic science. She is able to write deftly about medicine with the same casualness and verve she devotes to stories of aimless romance and the ennui of her mid-20s. With compassion and a keen eye, she digs into her family history, medical history, and contemporary genetic science. Lessons on DNA and the significance of X chromosomes in passing genes are woven into Linder’s intimate look at her ongoing struggle to stay alive. She expertly balances the serious and often tragic with an indefatigable charm and warmth. This book is a wonderful blend of reflections on coming of age, medicine, and what it means to live against all odds.
The unnamed boys of the title of Daniel Magariel’s spare and piercing debut novel are the 12-year-old narrator, his older brother, and their father. The trio are headed from Kansas to New Mexico to begin a new life after a brutal divorce and custody battle referred to by the father as “the war.” The narrator, complicit in lying about his mother’s negligence so his father could gain custody, at first treats his new life like the adventure he was promised that it would be. But when his father’s violent tendencies and severe drug addiction become increasingly apparent, the narrator finally begins to make sense of the divorce and the true source of the family’s demise. The urgent present action of the novel—in which the brothers adapt to their new life while tiptoeing around their erratic and largely absent father—is combined with flashbacks portraying life before the family’s collapse, ultimately creating a stunning and tragic portrait of both the joys and limitations of love.
Timed to coincide with the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the “Ninety-Five Theses,” Roper’s biography is a demonstration of her skill not only as a historian but also as a storyteller. She begins with an overview of Luther’s life and work, then explains her own personal involvement with Protestant theology and the study of religious history. It is important to note that her aim is to write a holistic biography, not just to recount the highlights of a combative life or explain why the theses were controversial. The book is arranged chronologically, and Roper starts with Luther’s family, using a variety of sources, including portraits, to discuss his background. Roper keeps her story tightly focused, never wandering too far from Luther and his intellectual work over the course of his life. A definite strength of the volume is Roper’s ability to explain complex intellectual events clearly; for instance, her discussion of the Diet of Worms and Luther’s later anti-Semitic writings are well-organized and impartial. Roper is willing to allow her subject to stand in full complexity without seeking to simplify away difficulties of character and action. This volume will be of great appeal to scholars, but it is also extremely readable and will find a welcome audience among history enthusiasts.
If you ever wondered what life is like for the down and out, the remarkable Sojourner lays it out in precise and unsparing prose in her latest collection of short stories. The author grabs you with an irresistible first line in each tale that leads into a singular world in the Southwest where desperate individuals grapple with getting by day to day. “Great Blue,” about life behind the scenes in a restaurant, showcases a transformative love story gone terribly wrong when addiction rears its ugly head. “Fat Jacks” delves into the life of a divorced father who barely makes ends meet with a night-shift job and lives for visits with his son. In “Kashmir,” a teenager coping with her father’s death finds an unlikely kindred spirit in a patient in the nursing home where she works to help her mother pay the bills. The title story exposes the deadly effects a newcomer has on a motley group of characters who’ve found a safe haven in a group of cabins in northern Arizona run by a former alcoholic who strictly enforces abstinence. Throughout, Sojourner’s ability to bring extraordinary characters to life and bring depth and heart to ordinary circumstances makes this collection memorable.
For those who love language, this debut from Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, will be a delectable feast. Stamper, who also produces the dictionary’s “Ask the Editor” video series, has drawn up a witty, sly, occasionally profane behind-the-scenes tour aimed at deposing the notion of “real and proper English” and replacing it with a genuine appreciation for the glories and frustrations of finding just the right word. Stamper claims to approach her subject irreverently, and she certainly does make fun of both language and those who peddle it for a living. But her teasing is belied by a real devotion to its spirit, if not to the letter of all the stuffy so-called laws. Liberally employing a host of wonderful words—foofaraw, potamologist—she declaims elegantly on the beauty and necessity of dialect, how to evaluate emerging words, and many other topics. Stamper is at her best when entertaining the reader with amusing etymologies, celebrating the contentiousness of grammar, and quoting annoying emails from an opinionated public. If she bogs down occasionally in the swamps of industry jargon, it’s easy to forgive her. As one of her colleagues notes, “Words are stubborn little fuckers.” However, Stamper corrals them to her purpose with such aplomb that readers might just feel like applauding.
Hans Christian Andersen Award–winner Wenxuan’s moving story of a friendship between two lonely Chinese children, orphaned Sunflower and mute Bronze, bears all the elements of a classic: an inviting and solidly constructed setting, a close-knit family, and a kindhearted community (there’s even a pet buffalo). Traversing five years, the book is beautifully translated into lyrical prose that brings to life the riverside village of Damadai (“The glints of sunlight on the water rippled into a golden glow that rose and fell with the river”) and its inhabitants, especially Bronze’s impoverished family, who adopt Sunflower—a stranger from the city—after her father’s drowning. The two children grow inseparable, becoming each other’s protectors as the family and community persevere through the small and large dramas of life in rural China. While the story seems timeless, a closing note explains that it takes place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and describes the cadre schools that brought people like Sunflower and her father from the city to the remote countryside. Ages 9–12.