This week: Proust's letters to his neighbor, plus a brilliant and claustrophobic novel from Lizzie Borden's perspective.
Agatha Christie meets George Orwell in journalist Avdic’s unsettling first novel, set in Sweden in 2037. A coup has led to a state of martial law and the country’s transformation into a protectorate under the aegis of an international entity known as the Union of Friendship. Anna Francis, a bureaucrat, is estranged from her family and tempted by an unusual job offer from a high official called the Chairman. The Chairman explains that the secret RAN Project is short-handed and that a psychological exercise has been devised to identify a suitable new member of the team: prospective candidates are to be transported to a remote island, along with Anna, who will pretend to have been murdered, so that she can covertly observe their reactions to the unexpected trauma. Things don’t go as planned, and Anna soon has a real murder to deal with. Avdic not only constructs a fascinating and original plot but makes her imagined reality chillingly plausible.
Binet, author of the Prix Goncourt–winning HHhH, ups the metafictional ante with The Seventh Function of Language, which draws a detective story out of the true details surrounding the death of French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes was the father of semiotics, “a science that studies the life of signs within society,” and this novel is alive with the potential signifiers lurking behind language. And so the fact that Barthes had just had lunch with François Mitterrand—the man who would become the president of France—on Feb. 25, 1985, before being fatally struck by a van becomes grounds for a grand conspiracy. Our hardboiled hero is superintendent Jacques Bayard, who is bewildered by the luminaries of the left that make up his suspects—including Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler—even as their antic discourse regarding everything from James Bond to LSD (which Foucault tries during a disastrous bondage club visit) make the novel a charming roman à clef like no other. Bayard eventually learns that Barthes may have been killed for possessing a manuscript that reveals the fabled seventh function of language (linguist Roman Jakobson outlined only six), but the mystery—which parodies The Da Vinci Code—is really just an excuse for this loving inquiry into 20th-century intellectual history that seamlessly folds historical moments, such as Louis Althusser’s murder of his wife and the prison death of Antonio Gramsci, into a brilliant illustration of the possibilities left to the modern novel.
Geary enters the literary arena with a bang: this debut about an unconventional love affair between a teenage boy and an older woman is unassuming but gorgeously rendered. Set in 1980s working-class Dublin and told in the second-person point of view, the quiet, sensitive story follows Sonny as he slogs from school to his part-time job at the butcher shop to home, where he’s the youngest of many brothers and his exhausted mother is cooking yet another meal while criticizing Sonny’s gambling father under her breath. Besides sneaking out to smoke cigarettes at a cluster of rocks called the Cat’s Den with his only acquaintance, a sexually promiscuous dropout named Sharon, Sonny spends most of his nonworking hours worrying about his mom, trying to placate his dad, stealing bike parts, getting drunk, and wandering along the canal at night—until he meets Vera, an educated, posh British woman who lives alone in the house he and his laborer father are repairing. From the moment he lays eyes on her, Sonny is smitten, and the affair that develops slowly over the course of the book is both deeply nuanced and utterly convincing. Geary has an ear for snappy dialogue, and the economic strains on Sonny’s family are keenly felt throughout the book. Above all, it’s the combination of Sonny’s unwitting innocence and Vera’s inescapable sadness that makes their connection—and the novel—brilliant and heartbreaking.
In this intense thriller, a young woman delves into the world of conspiracy theorists to help her father, who’s been remanded to a mental institution following a breakdown. Seventeen-year-old Katie Wallace is shocked when her father claims that she isn’t his daughter but is living proof of a government cover-up involving the 9/11 attacks. Though Katie doesn’t believe her father, her only hope of freeing him rests in finding some element of plausibility in his delusions. As her research brings her into contact with the truther movement and she uncovers shadowy clues and conflicting information, Katie wonders if she has stumbled across the sort of secrets people kill to hide. In exploring the complicated web of half-truths and audacious claims made by those who believe 9/11 was an inside job, Girard (Project Cain) takes readers down a disturbing, provocative path; both sides start to make sense as information is revealed and theories are debated. It’s a fast-paced nail-biter with a resourceful heroine, packed with surprises that force readers to question every revelation and take nothing at face value. Ages 12–up.
Howard, creator of the Junior Scientist Power Hour webcomic, ventures into children’s books with a highly entertaining (and equally informative) comic; first in the Earth Before Us series, it investigates the emergence and evolution of dinosaurs. After flunking a quiz on dinosaurs, Ronnie has the chance to retake it, and she gets unexpected help from her neighbor, anthropologist Miss Lernin, who whisks her away to the Mesozoic era via a TARDIS-like recycling bin. What follows is an information-dense but fast-moving exploration of how scientists have come to understand life in that period (dinosaurs, as well as mammals, insects, and sea life), clearly and amusingly explained through the duo’s dialogue. Smartly, Howard’s full-color cartoons (seen in b&w by PW) keep the visual details minimal, since much is still unknown about these creatures. Howard’s goal is to inform, but she doesn’t skimp on jokes (“Don’t you dare alter the course of history!” shouts Miss Lerner as Ronnie prepares to flatten the evolutionary predecessor of wasps and fire ants). A glossary and animal family tree conclude a tour of prehistoric animal life that’s impressive both for its scope and execution. Ages 8–12.
Iskandrian’s stellar first novel is set in the early ’90s, as college freshman Agnes, adjusting to life away from home, learns her mother has left her father. As a coping mechanism, she begins writing letters to the absent woman, though she has no idea where her mother is and cannot mail them. Each letter is a kind of journal entry that reveals her intimate moments: sexual encounters, drunken revelry, and lingering thoughts about her older brother, Simon, who committed suicide three years earlier. These letters continue after Agnes becomes pregnant by her Nirvana-obsessed ex and moves back home for the summer. Agnes and her father wade into the mystery of pregnancy together, complete with visits to the local clinic and meetings for single mothers, and their relationship wavers as Agnes’s due date approaches and they cope with the empty spaces left by Agnes’s mother and Simon. Iskandrian’s debut is sharp and honest, recounting Agnes’s journey in a crafty mix of first-person narration and epistolary forms, and Agnes’s voice charms with a subtle undercurrent of humor and sarcasm making this a delightful and satisfying reading experience. Iskandrian is a writer to watch.
Cookbook author (Fish) LeFavour’s debut memoir is a riveting exploration of a period in her early 20s when she habitually burned herself with cigarettes and developed a deeply intimate relationship with her psychiatrist. LeFavour’s youth was unconventional; her father became a well-known chef, money was not an issue, and the family traveled extensively before buying a home in Sun Valley, Idaho. When she was 13, LeFavour’s parents divorced (her mother, an alcoholic, ran off; her father relocated to California) and she and her sister were left to manage for years without adult supervision. Eventually she attended Vermont’s Middlebury College, and after graduating she began seeing a psychiatrist, here given the pseudonym Dr. Kohl. He helped her come to grips with bulimia, social disconnection, and a persistent urge for self-harm (her arms bore the scars of 100 self-inflicted wounds). The memoir, based in part on medical records relinquished at the final session with Dr. Kohl, chronicles LeFavour’s deepening relationship with him; he served as her confidante and a “quasi” father figure, and she eventually fell in love with him. They both maintained professional boundaries and she honored her agreement to commit herself to a psychiatric hospital when she couldn’t stop the burning. When the “lights” finally came on for this profoundly troubled young woman, she writes, she was able to release her shame and pain, and embrace a future of possibilities.
Atomic fallout fills this latest from poet and fiction writer Nagai (Dust of Eden: A Novel), a tenacious composition of personal narratives, researched details, and the author’s own photographs of Japan. The story moves chronologically through four cities affected by radiation: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Fukushima. Nagai’s descriptions capture something deeper than history books do. By meshing small moments—“organs float in jars with wooden number tags”—and the overarching history in which they occur, Nagai speaks to both the individual and to the unifying social trauma. “Destruction is abstract as long as there are no pictures, as long as there are no testimonies,” she writes, at once arguing for the work in hand and condemning so much hushed-up suffering. From the first atomic blast (or “don”) to the bodies and their unknown, lingering diseases (“his body keeps erupting from within”), she chronicles the sense of unraveling: “It’s safe to let your children play outside : it’s not safe to let your children play outside : no one has ever died from a meltdown : cancer rates will spike in Fukushima.” The book wobbles brilliantly on the border between the known and unknown.
Even literary greats, it turns out, are not immune to the vagaries of apartment living, as proved by this slim but enchanting volume of recently recovered letters. While living at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, Proust found his already-frayed nerves and delicate health strained to their breaking point by an office directly overhead belonging to an American dentist. Proust thus embarked on a charm offensive against his neighbors, writing primarily to the dentist's French wife, Marie, who lived with her husband elsewhere in the building. Though born of frustration, the correspondence also brought rewards, as Proust found himself in empathetic accord with this artistically inclined woman, seemingly constrained by her life as a dentist's wife. Proust and Marie also suffered from frequent illnesses, a topic over which they seem to have bonded. The letters start in approximately 1909 and continue until 1916. Though the overall picture is fractured by the fact that we do not have Marie's side of the story, Proust's letters brim with wit, grace, and reflection. Context is provided by an introduction by Proust biographer Jean-Yves Tadié and a translator's note by Davis, who previously translated Swann's Way.
On account of a leg injury, botanical expert Merrick Tremayne, the hero of this witty, entrancing novel set in the 19th century from Pulley (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street), initially declines to travel from England to Peru for the East India Company. Because Merrick insists that a heavy statue overlooking his father’s grave has mysteriously moved, Merrick’s half-brother, Charles, worries that he’s afflicted with the mental illness that landed their mother in an asylum. To avoid either of the unpleasant choices that Charles offers out of fear for Merrick’s sanity (taking work at a parsonage where he’d no longer see the statue, or being confined with their mother), Merrick joins the treacherous expedition, whose ostensible purpose is to retrieve cuttings from the rare trees that are the only source for quinine, needed to alleviate a malaria epidemic in India that has adversely affected the company’s business. On arrival in Peru, Merrick encounters more oddities, including animated statues that give benedictions and a border made of salt and bone that is fatal to cross, which cause him to feel that he has entered “an imaginary place where the river was a dragon and somewhere in the forest was something stranger than elves.” His quest to both stay alive and to obtain the precious cinchona plants leads to more marvels—and to tragedy. Pulley makes the fantastic feel plausible and burnishes her reputation as a gifted storyteller.
Schmidt’s unforgettable debut brings a legendary American crime to eerie new life. Four narrators recount events surrounding the 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden: Lizzie Borden; her older sister, Emma; and the family’s maid, Bridget Sullivan, are within the Massachusetts home in which the deaths occurred. The fourth, a young man known only as Benjamin, is a stranger to everyone in the family but the sisters’ maternal uncle, who is visiting at the time of the tragedy. Though their interpretations of events differ, all describe roiling tensions. The manipulative, nearly feral Lizzie is forever scarred by her mother’s early death, while Emma longs for an artistic life uncomplicated by her sister’s outsized presence. Their relationship with their father and stepmother is fractured: Andrew Borden is a miserly, abusive man who thinks nothing of beheading the pet pigeons Lizzie loves, and his second wife, Abby, has never gained her stepdaughters’ trust. On August 4, family conflicts erupt in a chain of events that is as intricate as it is violent. Equally compelling as a whodunit, “whydunit,” and historical novel, the book honors known facts yet fearlessly claims its own striking vision. Even before the murders, the Bordens’ cruel, claustrophobic lives are not easy to visit, but from them Schmidt has crafted a profoundly vivid and convincing fictional world.
Australian writer Taylor, who found herself out of treatment options for melanoma-related brain cancer, reflects on the end of her life in this unflinchingly honest memoir. Taylor, who died in 2016, shares her emotions of anger, sadness and worry, especially for her loved ones, as well as her acceptance of the inevitable. She looks back on her childhood and family and recalls the fractured relationships of her parents and siblings, the joy of motherhood, and the unlikely and fantastic life of a writer. Taylor, who wrote the book in just a few weeks, considered the emptiness a nonreligious person such as her might face, and came to terms with it, providing a blueprint for those struggling with the same questions. This slender volume brings a fresh point of view to end-of-life care, the concept of having a sense of control over the unknown, and the role of chance in life. This deep meditation is beautifully written and destined to be an important piece of the conversation surrounding death. Taylor’s last testament to life is a welcome departing gift from a thoughtful and inspired author.
Professor of History at the University of Missouri Wigger (American Saint) starts this captivating exploration of the rise, stumble, and fall of the PTL evangelical empire founded in 1973 by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—one of the first major televangelist operations in the United States—with a brief review of the Pentecostal evangelical religion in America and the early biographies of both Bakkers before plunging into the development of the PTL business empire. The scandal-ridden downfall of the Bakkers was front-page news in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but the story starts in the early ’60s with the just-married Bakkers setting off to travel by car as evangelical preachers. The Bakkers started on television with a children’s show on a network headlined by Pat Robertson, the Bakkers’ expansion to owning studios and stations came quickly. Jim Bakker’s spin on what is broadly known as “the prosperity gospel,” a particularly American evangelical take on the relationship between God and money, was what led both to the couple’s spectacular success and, eventually, ruin. Wigger does an outstanding job of untangling and following the various threads of the PTL, only briefly allowing himself a moment of ahistorical judgment when discussing the 45-year prison term eventually passed on Jim Bakker. Anyone interested in the theological underpinnings of certain contemporary strains of right-wing American politics, as well as those more particularly interested in the Bakkers or televangelism, should find this book rewarding.
When Sam was 11—just a bratty younger brother, as far as his sister, Beth, was concerned—he was abducted. Now, three years later, he’s been found. Beth shares narrating duties with Sam’s old neighbor Josh, which makes for a rounded view of both the disappearance and life afterward. Now 17, Beth is used to a mother who’s only half there, and she’s made new friends who never knew Sam. Josh, now a high school freshman, still has a secret, but he’s no longer the loser he felt like back when Sam was taken. Wilson (What They Always Tell Us) effectively shows how complex it can be to adjust to change, even when it’s positive. Beth is suddenly interesting to people she doesn’t know, her long-absent father reappears, her mother goes into maternal overdrive, and no one knows what to say to Sam. Josh doesn’t either, but he wants to be Sam’s friend, even though his other friends don’t understand why. Though the book starts slowly, once the characters are established, it offers a moving and believable depiction of a damaged survivor and what his return means to those around him. Ages 14–up.