This week: an absorbing account of the case of Willie James Grimes, plus Paul Yoon's beautiful story collection.
Bang (The Last Two Seconds) draws inspiration from the Bauhaus movement in this book-length sequence of prose poems. The Bauhaus School was a locus of early 20th-century high modernism, particularly its stark geometric architectural designs. Bang’s beguiling poems, presented in well-ordered boxes, consider the relationship between the spaces people inhabit and narratives of self, nation, and identity. These carefully constructed and curated rooms display shifting cultural definitions of beauty, efficiency, and order. Bang calls readers’ attention to the inherently unstable nature of both “a well-defined building” and the mythologies that justify its glass and metal. What’s more, she reminds readers that these ostensibly private spaces function as stages for transforming shared beliefs about the external world. “They said without saying that what we were building must be destroyed,” she writes, evoking the danger and necessity that this kind of metaphysical transfiguration entails. Bang describes the work of the builder as simultaneously aesthetic and philosophical, artistic and ethical. “It was the façade no self could be without,” she asserts, illuminating how identity develops in response to environment—and its implicit politics. Bang’s impeccable collection reads as a “circular mirror of the social order,” reflecting the historicity of our current moment with wit, subtlety, and grace.
Throughout his long and celebrated career, Bidart has conducted a single-minded exploration of the sources and meanings of emotional intensity, the passions, fears, and cravings that drive people to do what we do, often against our own interests. We reach for what cuts us, spend our desire on what we can never have, destroy what we desperately need. Meanwhile, some of us—Bidart’s favorite heroic and tragic figures, such as Mozart, Maria Callas, Édith Piaf, and Marilyn Monroe—create art, because, as Bidart says in his Pulitzer-nominated chapbook Music Like Dirt, “we are creatures who need to make.” The creation of art, in Bidart’s view, is the only means we have of transcending our circumstances, even temporarily. Relentless and ever willing to face his demons, no matter how terrifying, in the interest of making great art, Bidart is one of the very few major living poets who never wavers, never repeats himself (though he has always orbited the same concerns), and extends his questing and questioning through each new work. This collected poems is an almost overwhelming bounty, a permanent book.
The 1947 World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers was notable even if all the people involved weren’t at the time, writes Cook (Titanic Thompson), who profiles six people in this entertaining, well-researched history. It was the first televised World Series, making the games viewable to millions of baseball fans, leading sports writers at the time to refer to the month of the series as “electric October.” Yankee Bill Bevens, pitching in his fourth and final big-league season, was one out away from a no-hitter in game four before a little-used pinch hitter named Cookie Lavagetto came up to bat. Brooklyn’s speedy Al Gionfriddo showed up Joe DiMaggio with a spectacular game-saving catch. One of the Yankees’ best players was second baseman George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss, a man known for his steadiness and nerves. Managers Burt Shotton and Bucky Harris led their clubs to the World Series even though they hadn’t been their team owners’ first choices. In profiling the lives of these six overlooked men, Cook reveals the complicated reality of baseball’s golden era. For example, many players returned to day jobs when their baseball careers were over. Bevens went back to his family farm and took jobs driving trucks and selling home appliances at Sears after his career ended. Stirnweiss became a banker and died a decade after the series in a New Jersey train crash.
Set in 1992, Handler’s fun, clever ninth Stewart Hoag mystery (after 1997’s The Man Who Loved Women to Death) marks a welcome return for the endearing ghostwriter sleuth. His New York literary agent, Alberta Pryce, guarantees Stewart a $100,000 payday for ghosting the story of what a mysterious one-hit literary wonder has been doing for the past 22 years. Richard Aintree penned Not Far from Here, a “coming-of-age masterpiece” considered on a par with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; but after his wife, a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, took her own life, Richard vanished from the face of the earth. Alberta reveals that one of Richard’s daughters, Monette, has received a letter ostensibly from her father, addressed to her by a nickname that only he and her sister knew. The possibility that Richard might resurface sends Stewart to Monette’s L.A. home, where he eventually becomes involved in a murder investigation. Handler brilliantly combines wry humor with solid detection. Whodunit fans will hope for a shorter interval before book 10.
After moving to Turkey in 2007, American journalist Hansen, who writes for the New York Times Magazine, came to the startling realization that America seen from abroad is a wholly different entity from the America she knew. Hansen explores her own loss of innocence, as her belief in American grandiosity, exceptionalism, and humanitarianism is deeply shaken by the destruction wrought by the U.S. in the Middle East. The first chapters describe Hansen’s encounters with Turkish nationalism and her painful acquaintance with a new view of her country’s history. Subsequent chapters explore the ways American interventions have spread wars, propped up dictators, destroyed landscapes in the name of modernization, and spurred the rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle and Near East. Lucid, reflective, probing, and poetic, Hansen’s book is also a searing critique of the ugly depths of American ignorance, made more dangerous because the declining U.S. imperial system coincides with decay at home. The book is a revelatory indictment of American policy both domestic and foreign, made gripping by Hansen’s confident—if overreaching—distillation of complicated historical processes and her detailed, evocative descriptions of places, people, and experiences most American audiences can’t imagine.
Justice is unconscionably delayed in this absorbing true-crime saga. Rachlin’s debut recounts the case of Willie James Grimes, a North Carolina man sentenced to life in prison for rape in 1988. Despite having a competent lawyer and a strong alibi, Grimes was convicted on forensic analysis of a hair found at the crime scene and on the victim’s seemingly ironclad—as far as the jury knew—identification. Without procedural errors to appeal and with the physical evidence apparently lost after the trial, the attempts to prove Grimes’s innocence hit a judicial brick wall, resulting in a decades-long stay for Grimes in North Carolina’s prison system. Rachlin weaves Grimes’s Kafkaesque ordeal—Grimes’s chance at parole hinged on his confessing guilt—together with the efforts of lawyer Christine Mumma and other reformers to establish North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, an innovative state agency that investigates potential wrongful convictions. Rachlin combines a gripping legal drama with a penetrating exposé of the shoddy investigative and trial standards nationwide, as evidenced by hundreds of postconviction exonerations. Finally, as Grimes moves beyond anger and despair over his plight, Rachlin’s narrative offers a moving evocation of faith under duress.
Set in Sexton’s native New Orleans, this emotionally wrenching, character-rich debut spans three generations in a city deeply impacted by segregation, economic inequality, and racial tensions. It begins with a 1940s romance between Evelyn, the eldest daughter in a relatively well-off Creole family, and Renard, the son of a janitor, whose dreams are bigger than his station in life can hold. Their daughter, Jackie, becomes a mother in the Reagan-era 1980s, struggling through the economic downturn that derails her husband’s promising career and starts him on a tumultuous path of addiction and empty promises. Their grandson, T.C., lives through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, watching it transform his city—and himself—into something unfamiliar. Yet when his ambitions falter, he braces himself with the need to be present in his newborn son’s life in the way his father never was. Sexton’s narrative navigates complex topics with an adroit sensitivity that lends sympathy to each character’s realistic, if occasionally self-destructive, motivations. Being able to capture 70 years of New Orleans history and the emotional changes in one family in such a short book is a testament to Sexton’s powers of descriptive restraint. In this fine debut, each generation comes with new possibilities and deferred dreams blossoming with the hope that this time, finally, those dreams may come to fruition.
In this mammoth and profusely researched work, Slezkine (The Jewish Century), professor of history at UC Berkeley, recounts the Russian revolution through the activities and inhabitants of the House of Government, Europe’s largest residential building. Built in 1931 in a central Moscow swamp, the house was home to hundreds of Communist Party officials, their dependents, and maintenance workers. The community lasted just over a decade; Stalin purged many residents in the 1930s and the rest were evacuated in 1941 as the Nazis advanced. Slezkine finds the story of the House of Government worth telling because it was “where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die.” This is a family saga of the “Old Bolsheviks,” the men and women who midwifed the revolution and guided its early steps before falling victim to Stalin’s paranoid excesses. Slezkine illuminates myriad aspects of these lives, including fashion choices and intellectual schisms. He also analyzes Bolshevism’s failure so soon after its apparent triumph, inviting controversy by describing the Bolsheviks as “millenarian sectarians preparing for the apocalypse.” Slezkine asserts that the cosmopolitanism and humanism of postrevolutionary culture undermined the single-mindedness necessary to maintain their ideology. It’s a work begging to be debated; Slezkine aggregates mountains of detail for an enthralling account of the rise and fall of the revolutionary generation.
Sadie, the inimitable hero of Special Delivery, has returned. Her arrow-straight sense of justice sends her in search of a birthday goldfish that Little Amy Scott has thrown into the sea, plastic bag and all. Sadie’s friend Sherman and the hilarious gang of monkeys from Special Delivery sprint to keep up as Sadie borrows a boat, plots a route, and sets off; her supreme confidence delivers them to precisely the right spot in the ocean, and Ellsworth (“Every fish deserves a proper name,” Sadie declares) is rescued in the nick of time. The monkeys’ mayhem is beautifully choreographed, Sherman is promoted to a full-fledged character, and Sadie’s obliviousness to nautical danger provides a keen sense of fun. (A fine Cordell split screen shows Sadie pouring Sherman a civilized cup of tea as a sperm whale threatens to upend the craft from below.) Stead never takes Sadie’s campaign for virtue too seriously, yet her shining sense of justice lingers long after the silliness subsides. Ages 3–6.
Unamuno’s metafictional tale of the unfortunate Augusto Pérez, a philosophical tragicomedy originally published in 1914, predates much other fiction of its kind. Augusto is a wealthy, lonely man still adjusting to his life after his beloved mother’s recent death. He becomes obsessed with Eugenia, a beautiful woman he sees in passing, and now feels like his life finally has a purpose. He makes his intentions known to her through a letter and learns that she is already involved with another man, Mauricio. Meanwhile, Augusto finds and adopts a stray dog who becomes his confidant, Eugenia’s aunt and uncle scheme to facilitate the match between her and Augusto, and Eugenia and Mauricio begin to hatch a scheme of their own to use Augusto for their gain. Augusto’s personal crisis escalates to the point where he eventually confronts Unamuno himself, resulting in a brand-new existential dilemma both hilarious and engrossing. This nimbly constructed metanarrative features buoyant prose and surprising tenderness, leading the reader to unexpected places.
The second collection from Yoon (Once the Shore) is composed of six quiet, precisely told short stories bound by the longing for meaning and connection embodied by its mostly migrant protagonists, each of whom has suffered either direct or indirect trauma from wars fought by previous generations. These stories span multiple continents and time periods to arrive at human truths about how greatly our lives are affected and influenced by our shared histories. In “A Willow and the Moon,” a man returns after serving in World War II to an abandoned sanatorium in the Hudson Valley where his mother had volunteered when he was a child, ultimately seeking answers to the mysteries of his family’s past. In “Still a Fire,” a young man named Mikel, living in the shantytowns of northern France in the destruction left behind after World War II, suffers a terrible tragedy and is cared for by a morphine-addicted nurse on her own search for meaning after having served with the Red Cross during the war years. And in the title story, a bleakly futuristic vision of East Asia, a young woman returns home to China from Korea, working in a sweatshop producing cameras while also reckoning with her own traumatic past and the devastation it wreaks in the present. These characters are often foreign in some way to the places in which they find themselves, and Yoon expertly interrogates the meaning of nationhood and the universality of the migrant experience. Most often the stories are structured as montages of inner experience; moments of connection are the sparks that ignite these otherwise meditative, reflective narratives. The result is a spectacular display of intelligence and feeling.