This week: a wonderful biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, plus the novel that inspired last year's hit movie 'Elle.'
In this early novel from Japan’s master surrealist, Abe (The Box Man) casts a young man’s journey home as an agonizing exploration of the depths of human suffering. Three years after the surrender of Japan in World War II, Kyuzo escapes from his hometown in Manchuria amidst the Chinese Civil War. He yearns for his ancestral homeland of Japan, a place he has only ever “imagined from his textbooks.” His train is derailed in the fighting, and he is led away from the wreckage on a treacherous march through the countryside by a man named Ko. They are soon lost in the “endless repetition of stones, ditches, withered grasses, and swelling hills” and only survive due to “a beastlike visceral impulse.” The bulk of the novel is taken up by this journey, its every trial chronicled with riveting ferocity by Abe. Kyuzo wonders, “Could anyone promise that human beings were less cruel than nature?” This novel is an excellent entry point into Abe’s writing, with much of his signature tone and style. He is a master of controlling the reader’s emotional investment while crafting an increasingly suffocating atmosphere of dread, resulting in a devastating reading experience.
Elizabethtown College historian Brown (Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography) writes a tight, finely observed character study of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), one of America’s most cherished authors. Though remembered as an epicurean and chronicler of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald was, in Brown’s view, a nostalgic moralist with a broad historical imagination. Like Frederick Jackson Turner, Sigmund Freud, and T. S. Eliot, he was an avid observer and critic of the modern age. Brown draws the figure of a sentimental romantic, perplexed by the collapse of pre-WWI taboos, who idealized a declining Anglo-Saxon elite to which he did not belong. Fitzgerald’s early success with This Side of Paradise made him a literary superstar. An erratic private life of high living in Europe and country houses followed, complicated by his mentally unstable wife, Zelda. Soon enough came the alcoholic crash and burn in Hollywood, an affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, and an early heart attack. Brown deftly explores the great uncertainties of social class in Fitzgerald’s day and the outsider feelings that clouded his life and psyche. Making sense of his time-bound views of African Americans and women proves more of a challenge. Carefully researched and a pleasure to read, Brown’s persuasive, original account will entice Fitzgerald fans and cultural historians alike.
Dinerstein (Swinging the Machine) traces the trajectory of the notion of American cool through the cultural milieu of the 1920s through the early 1960s, emphasizing its deep associations with jazz culture. “Keeping cool” originally served as a survival tactic against the many injustices of the Jim Crow era, and it found triumphant voices in the improvisations of jazz heroes like Lester Young and Billie Holiday who refused to cater to the expectations of white audiences. Dinerstein deftly reveals points of convergence between expressions of cool in jazz, film noir, and existentialist literature; each rejected societal constructs perceived as inexorably flawed or corrupt (such as capitalism or the law) and celebrated the “ethical rebel,” always a rugged loner. In the 1950s, this rebel ethic shifted focus, emphasizing instead rebellion against what was perceived as vacuous material culture and consumer society, a sentiment lucidly expressed in Kerouac’s On the Road. Stars like Frank Sinatra (who headlined events for Martin Luther King Jr. and refused to patronize white-only establishments) gave substance to the celluloid rebels of the noir-era, becoming real-life rebels against racial injustice. Impressively researched and broad in its reach, drawing from film, music, theater, philosophy, and literature, this book approaches the subject with scholarly authority while remaining eminently readable. Much more than just a history of cool, this book is a studied examination of the very real, often problematic social issues that popular culture responds to.
Djian’s slim, disturbing novel, already a controversial bestseller in France, is unsparing and fiercely intelligent. The book begins with narrator Michèle on her living room floor after being raped by an unknown attacker. Michèle, “nearing fifty, fiercely independent and unsentimental,” reacts to this assault in the same way that she meets most of the demands of her life: with incisive wit, brutal honesty, and an almost unnerving composure. In spite of the attack, she continues to manage a demanding career, financial responsibility for her son and her mother, and an affair with her best friend’s husband. However, Michèle’s assailant does not disappear. He breaks into her home while she is away; he taunts her with lewd and threatening messages. As Michèle tries to discover who her attacker is, readers come to learn of her family’s violent past and understand how this history shapes her present and how the present circumstances reshape her history. Djian’s bold novel, winner of the 2012 Prix Interallié and adapted into an award-winning film directed by Paul Verhoeven, is slight but packs a powerful punch.
Instead of enjoying her senior year of high school in Ohio, Caroline Kelly unexpectedly moves to Cairo, “where the government is not super-stable and the fear of terrorism is real,” so her mother can fulfill a dream of opening an eye clinic in “Garbage City,” home to Cairo’s most impoverished inhabitants. A practicing Catholic, Caroline is eager to learn about Islam and Egyptian culture, but she struggles to adjust to the crowded urban environment, the mosque’s predawn calls to prayer, the fact that she needs a driver to take her around the city, and frequent sexual harassment. A growing friendship with her driver’s teenage children, Adam and Aya, helps her acclimate, and things look up when she discovers that her crush on Adam is mutual. With humor, sensitivity, and empathy, Doller (The Devil You Know) conveys the complexities of an interfaith, intercultural romance: the blatant disapproval from Adam’s family and friends, her parents’ worry (“The kind thing to do would be to leave him alone”), and Adam’s own doubts. It’s a tender story that’s both realistic and hopeful. Ages 12–up.
Readers don’t need to be fashionistas to appreciate the dilemmas of Charlene “Charlie” Dean and John Thomas-Smith as they prepare for a garment design competition, hoping to win a scholarship to a prestigious fine arts high school. Charlie knows just about everything there is to know about fashion design; immersing herself in it is a welcome escape from life with a drug-addicted father and his string of sketchy girlfriends. John, a classmate, couldn’t care less about the clothes, but is desperate to get into the school, and the contest is his last chance. As the rivals furiously brainstorm ideas, search for models, betray friends, and misplace their priorities in a race to win, they undergo significant changes that profoundly alter their outlooks. Charlie and John’s voices ring clear in a series of fashion diary entries (a requirement of the contest), reflecting their personalities, attitudes, and inner conflicts. Filled with hilarious and tragic moments alike, Juby’s (The Truth Commission) vibrant novel thoroughly explores the hearts, souls, and minds of two very different teens. Ages 12–up.
In this haunting hybrid of memoir and true crime account, Marzano-Lesnevich describes how a law school internship set her on a collision course with Ricky Langley, a pedophile and murderer, forcing her to contend with past trauma and preexisting prejudice. Langley was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of six-year-old Jeremy Guillory, a sentence that was overturned after a surprising request for leniency by the victim’s mother. In an impeccably researched account, Marzano-Lesnevich explores Langley’s childhood, his repeated efforts to get help, suicide attempts, and a prior prison sentence, during which he told a therapist, “‘Don’t let me out of here.’” The author draws parallels to her own history of sexual abuse and the family members who failed to confront her abuser, and she recounts her later battles with an eating disorder and PTSD. Marzano-Lesnevich excels at painting an atmospheric portrait: a staircase becomes an ominous symbol, and a house’s peeling paint looks like “a skin worn by a creature who lurked underneath.” The dual narratives are infinitely layered, as Marzano-Lesnevich allows for each person’s motivations and burdens to unspool through the pages. Her writing is remarkably evocative and taut with suspense, with a level of nuance that sets this effort apart from other true crime accounts.
The Jamaican novelist and poet Miller (The Last Warner Woman) presents a rueful portrait of the enduring struggle between those who reject an impoverished life on his native island and the forces that hold them in check, what the rastafari call Babylon. The year is 1982, and a teacher cuts the dreadlocks off a child named Kaia because he looks “like some dirty little African.” Ma Taffy, Kaia’s aunt, comforts him with the story of Bedward, an Augustown preacher and forerunner of the rastafari. Sixty years earlier, Bedward’s miraculous attempt “‘to rise up into de skies like Elijah’” was halted by the “Babylon boys” pulling him down “with a long hooker stick.” Like Bedward, Kaia’s mother believes she might escape: the principal of the school has been tutoring her, and after the local college accepts her application, “a certain lightness of being” takes her over, “as if she could close her eyes right now and begin to rise.” After seeing Kaia’s bald head, though, she is instead forced into a confrontation with Babylon. In the end, there is no avoiding “the stone” Ma Taffy describes the poor people of Augustown being born with, “the one that always stop we from rising.” The flashback is telling of Miller’s talent for infusing his lyrical descriptions of the island’s present with the weight of its history.
In this outstanding standalone, set in late-1950s Glasgow, from Edgar-finalist Mina (Blood, Salt, Water), William Watt stands accused of butchering his wife, daughter, and sister-in-law, but he vehemently proclaims his innocence. Only ace attorney Laurence Dowdall saves him from prison, but public sentiment is against him, forcing Watt to take on the mantle of amateur crime-solver. This is how he meets Peter Manuel, career criminal, convicted burglar, suspected rapist. The two form a strange alliance after Manuel promises to show Watt where the murder weapon is hidden—but for a price. With knifelike precision, Mina flicks between the bizarre 12 hours Watt and Manuel spend together getting drunk in Glasgow bars, and Manuel’s later trial, where’s he’s on the dock not only for the murder of the Watt family but also the slaughter of another trio, asleep in their beds. The question of guilt or innocence is irrelevant, and the gray of the in-between reigns supreme. And while Mina’s usual tough female protagonists are absent, the presence of women presses as near as the crush of bodies eager to attend Manuel’s trial.
This remarkable book does much more than offer a gripping reconstruction of the 1737 trial of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, who had been the personal banker and advisor of the duke of a small German state and was executed, after the duke’s death, for serious crimes against the state. Such a reconstruction would already have been a significant achievement, as the rigorous attention to detail and nuance bring the case vividly to life. But Mintzker, a history professor at Princeton, also explains the challenges presented to a historian in ascertaining the truth about the trial, and the rationale behind his way of dealing with the evidentiary record. He articulates, cogently and with a refreshing lack of academic terminology, “a general methodology to help deal with common historical dilemmas in which the contradictions in the sources seem frustratingly irreconcilable.” He combines direct quotes from the available sources, critical analysis, and efforts to “get beyond what the sources describe” by examining the context of their creation. The sections analyzing the trial from the perspectives of four men—including a judge-inquisitor—allow Mintzker to illustrate the merits, and logic, of his approach. This fascinating intellectual journey deserves a wide audience outside the academic scope of the book.
Philbrick draws on an episode recounted in his 2013 adult work, Bunker Hill, focusing on 13-year-old Benjamin Russell during the 1775 battle. In one-to-two page chapters, interspersed with Minor’s luxuriant gouache and watercolor illustrations, Philbrick skillfully summarizes the events leading up to that encounter—including the Boston Tea Party and ensuing British occupation of Boston—and effectively contrasts printer Isaiah Thomas’s patriotic fervor with Ben’s boyish preoccupations. Ben and his schoolmates excitedly follow British soldiers to Lexington and Concord but find themselves trapped outside Boston after the British seal off access to the city. For more than two months, separated from his family, Ben delivered food for General Israel Putnam’s wing of the nascent provincial army. Philbrick recreates the tension of the hard-fought Battle of Bunker Hill, as seen through Ben’s eyes, and provides a satisfying reunion with his family. The concluding chapters of this succinct, dramatic narrative tell of Ben’s work as an apprentice to Isaiah in Worcester, where he discovered his future profession as a newspaper publisher. Ages 7–9.
Questions of faith and absolution fuel this evocative collection of meticulously crafted stories, all set in the contemporary American Southwest. In the title story, an inmate working on a cattle ranch struggles to resolve the spiritual limitations of his imprisonment with the geographical vastness that surrounds him. Two altar boys try to medicate their way through the godless adult playground of Reno in “Last Rites,” while a bodybuilding veteran tracks down a younger sister pawned by his father for drugs in “Espanola.” The collection only grows more impressive as it progresses, shrinking its scope while expanding the possibilities of its language. In the brief, excellent “Deborah,” for instance, a self-destructive widower rescues dogs from abuse, while “Two Kinds of Temples” juxtaposes a brief affair at a natural spring retreat with the life of a hotel worker. “Full of Days” stands as the collection’s high point, following one man’s quest to erect an antiabortion billboard along a Las Vegas freeway. Waters (Sunland) offers a diversity of thought and feeling worthy of his complex setting.