This week: a utopian society gone wrong, plus the brilliant short stories of Fleur Jaeggy.
“I write not about war, but about human beings in war,” explains Nobel-laureate Alexievich (Secondhand Time) in this lyrical, elegant volume. “I write not the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.” Originally published in 1985 and newly translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the work was inspired by Alexievich’s postwar childhood memories of the women in her home village and their stories of WWII. Alexievich traveled through the Soviet Union for years interviewing hundreds of other women, collecting a haunting cacophony of almost-forgotten voices. For these women, who joined the Red Army as snipers, medical personnel, riflemen, foot soldiers, etc., war wasn’t about generals and military equipment. “Women’s stories are different and about different things,” Alexievich reveals. “There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.” Alexievich groups the interviews into chapters according to women’s perceptions about their service: “I Don’t Want to Remember...,” “They Awarded Us Little Medals...,” “They Needed Soldiers... but We Also Wanted to Be Beautiful....” Though political contexts have changed, Alexievich’s first book remains as soulful as ever.
In this hard-hitting novel, Gratz (Projekt 1065) skillfully intertwines the stories of three protagonists seeking asylum with their respective families. Twelve-year-old Josef is fleeing Nazi Germany on a ship headed for Cuba in 1939; in 1994, 11-year-old Isabel leaves Cuba for the United States aboard a boat; and 12-year-old Mahmoud leaves Syria in 2015 after a bomb destroys his family’s apartment building. Though set in different political landscapes, the harrowing narratives share a sense of urgency, danger, and sacrifice, and the brief chapters keep each story fresh in readers’ minds. Each character confronts exceptional challenges: Josef must behave as the adult when his father returns shattered from a concentration camp, and Mahmoud realizes that the invisibility he cultivated in Aleppo is less of an asset in Greece (“They only see us when we do something they don’t want us to do”). Filled with both tragic loss and ample evidence of resilience, these memorable and tightly plotted stories contextualize and give voice to current refugee crises, underscoring that these journeys are born out of a desperate need for security and safety. Ages 9–12.
The stories in Jaeggy’s (Sweet Days of Discipline) collection are masterpieces of fury and restraint. Most are only a few pages, and the short, declarative sentences burrow into the deepest corners of the characters’ psyches, only to suddenly subvert expectations. In the title story, a brother feels his life is dominated by his sister’s influence: “When I talk my sister pays too much attention. She watches me. Maybe she is writing my story, as long as I am not dead yet like my parents. I’ve always wondered whether one of them might have died because of her.” In “Agnes,” a man reflects on his past relationship with a woman who has left him: “At that time I was still using words. Small gifts. Flowers. I courted her. She threw away the flowers. Laughed at the words. Had no use for the gifts.” The man offers the woman’s new husband “the wedding dress, the ring. And something I can’t say.” This trademark combination of directness and elusiveness is also apparent in “F.K.,” in which a woman searches for her friend who has deserted a psychiatric clinic. The woman meets her friend’s guardian, a “woman of the law” who “took care of her,” which dredges up the narrator’s guilt and fears about the worst outcome of the situation. These chilling, beguiling stories dig up reflections on solitude, regret, and sometimes even on love. It is thrilling to live in Jaeggy’s worlds, which are so intense they threaten to boil over, yet pull back just enough to keep their secrets.
Melamed’s haunting and powerful debut blazes a fresh path in the tradition of classic dystopian works. In her searing portrayal of a utopian society gone wrong, four girls share their stories of life on a sheltered island where they are ostensibly safe from the war- and disease-torn wastelands that their ancestors had escaped generations earlier. The darker truths behind their heavily patriarchal society—in which girls must submit first to their fathers, then to their husbands—emerge over the course of a year marked by a devastating plague and a quietly assembled rebellion. Led by 17-year-old Janey Solomon, who is holding her body’s development at bay to retain any lingering shreds of adolescent freedom, the island’s daughters begin to ask forbidden questions: Why do so many women mysteriously bleed out in childbirth after defying the island’s traditions? Is there habitable land beyond their shores? Can any of them choose to stray from their assigned fate? It’s a chilling tale of an insular culture grounded in “the art of closing off the world to those who seek it.” Melamed’s prose is taut and precise. Her nuanced characters and honest examination of the crueler sides of human nature establish her as a formidable author in the vein of Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood.
Irish gastroenterologist O’Mahony adopts an extraordinary view of end-of-life care in the 21st century, exploring the difficult conversation that many doctors have come to avoid in a world of consumer-friendly medicine. O’Mahony persuasively argues for telling dying patients “things they do not want to hear,” thereby becoming the “amicus mortis” who “tells you the bitter truth and stays with you to the inexorable end.” He writes from his own experiences with people dying in hospitals, as well as those of friends and family. O’Mahony also reflects on the accounts of writers and philosophers, including Phillipe Ariès, Ernest Becker, Christopher Hitchens, Ivan Illich, and Susan Sontag. He tracks the medical movement toward living wills and assisted suicide as “informed by a passion for personal autonomy: for control,” eloquently reasoning that “human agency has replaced the powers of nature, ‘majestic, cruel, and inexorable.’ ” Death is messy and always will be, he notes, and “eventually, inevitably, nature, or the syringe-driver, takes control.” The “over-medicalization” of modern dying is at the core of O’Mahony’s criticism; he maintains that doctors might better help their dying patients by giving up “the quest to conquer nature” and returning “to a core function of providing comfort and succor.” O’Mahony’s clear-eyed analysis is important, poignant, and immensely humane.
Harper Raine, 12, feels unsettled in her family’s new house in Washington, D.C.—especially in her four-year-old brother Michael’s oddly cold room. Michael’s new imaginary friend, Billy, seems harmless at first, but when Michael starts acting strange and lashing out violently, Harper begins to reconsider the rumors of the house being haunted. With the help of a newfound friend, Dayo, Harper explores the house’s troubled history and delves into her own past, questioning her missing memories about a school fire and an accident that left her with multiple broken bones. Occasional entries from Harper’s “Stupid D.C. Journal” provide insight into her feelings about the move, the creepy goings-on, and her resurfacing memories. Her estranged Korean grandmother, who lives nearby, grounds the supernatural aspects of the story in family and tradition, and the mysterious events that led to Harper’s accident and the family’s move are skillfully employed, offering an engaging reprieve from the eerie events in Harper’s house. Oh has crafted a truly chilling middle grade horror novel that will grab readers’ imaginations. Ages 8–12.
In this harrowing thriller from Phillips (Come in and Cover Me), set at a zoo in an unnamed city, one second Joan is pressing her four-year-old son, Lincoln, to pack his action figures so that they can get out by closing time, and the next gunshots ring out—turning their pleasurable afternoon routine into a parent's worst nightmare. Over the next three hours, Joan struggles to keep her tired, cranky preschooler quiet as she attempts to find a safe hiding place or escape route. She discovers that others are similarly trapped, and that there are apparently multiple shooters, who regard their prey—both human and animal—with no more compassion than if they were targeting Lincoln's plastic heroes and villains. In passages of unexpected beauty, Joan flashes back to earlier moments in her relationship with her son. In one poignant scene, a colobus monkey seemingly mourns its slain comrade ("standing so close that its long white fur mixes with the fur of the dead one, and Joan cannot tell where one stops and the other starts"). A searing exploration of motherhood at its most basic, this all-too-plausible horror story may haunt even readers with steely nerves and strong stomachs.
In a comic that’s essentially Lumberjanes for queer theater-tech types, with some of the cosmic weirdness of Steven Universe mixed in, Tynion (The Woods) and Sygh (Munchkin) take readers to St. Genesius, a private high school for boys with a highly unusual theater department. New student Jory reluctantly gives drama club a shot, but he quickly realizes that he’s more at home with the stage crew: cherubic Sasha, no-nonsense Aziz, crotchety light board operator Beckett, and burly builder Hunter, who blushes every time Jory is nearby. (The atmosphere at St. Genesius is so rife with sexual tension that characters nervously blush on virtually every page.) Romantic possibilities aside, there’s something seriously strange going on in the vast, ever-changing labyrinth of rooms and tunnels beneath the school, full of bizarre creatures, rope bridges leading to parts unknown, and (possibly) long-lost techies who vanished decades ago. Sygh captures the story’s interpersonal and supernatural dramas in lush, manga-inflected scenes. Brimming with feeling and featuring a diverse cast (including a trans character, Beckett), it’s an effervescently entertaining story of finding community (and maybe love) in unlikely, even impossible places. Ages 12–up.