This week: Lisbeth Salander's latest case, plus new books from Celeste Ng and Nicole Krauss.
“Regarding loss, I’m afraid/ to keep it in the story,/ worried what I might bring back to life,” writes Akbar as he opens his much-anticipated debut collection. Though loss infuses the Divedapper founder and editor’s work, he animates myriad human struggles—addiction, estrangement from one’s body and language, faith and its absence—with empathy, intimacy, and expansive vision. These poems define life as an act of faith; “so much/ of being alive is breaking,” yet we choose to go on. Addressing God, he pleads: “Do you not know how scary// it can get here?” Discussing embodiment, Akbar writes that “everyone/ looks uglier naked or at least/ I do,” while elsewhere exalting the body and its complex wants as “a mosque borrowed from Heaven.” A breathtaking addition to the canon of addiction literature, Akbar’s poetry confronts the pain and joy in denying oneself for the sake of oneself. He suggests redemption without ignoring the violence that attends it: “it’s never too late to become/ a new thing, to rip the fur// from your face and dive/ dimplefirst into the strange.” Akbar’s poems offer readers, religious or not, a way to cultivate faith in times of deepest fear: “it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure.”
Anderson (Symphony for the City of the Dead) sets this biting and brilliant satire on a near-future Earth where an alien race called the vuvv has brought advanced technology and cures for disease—and ushered in the collapse of Earth’s economy. Adam Costello, a 15-year-old artist beset by gastrointestinal illness, and his family are among the many desperate for money and work. Reluctantly, Adam and his girlfriend, Chloe, broadcast an exaggerated 1950s-quaint, pay-per-view version of their romance to the vuvv, who are entranced by “classic” Earth culture—doo-wop music, still-life paintings, and the notion of true, everlasting love. With Adam’s relationship with Chloe imploding, his illness worsening, and his art gaining vuvv attention, he must decide whether to bend to the whims of the vuvv or stay true to his humanity. Adam narrates in gloomy, vignettelike chapters whose titles (“Autumn in a Field Near a Discharge Facility”) give the sense of each scene existing as a painting in itself. The vuvv, described as resembling “granite coffee tables: squat, wide, and rocky,” are only interested in the parts of Earth culture they choose to acknowledge, and ignore the sweeping damage they’ve inflicted. “I just love the human race,” one of the vuvv tells Adam, patronizingly. “You people are so much more spiritual than we are.” Anderson takes issues of colonialism, ethnocentrism, inequality, and poverty and explodes them on a global, even galactic, scale. A remarkable exploration of economic and power structures in which virtually all of humanity winds up the losers. Ages 14–up.
Switzerland provides the setting for Benn’s suspenseful 12th whodunit featuring U.S. Army investigator Billy Boyle (after 2016’s Blue Madonna). Billy and his colleague and friend Piotr “Kaz” Kazimierz, a lieutenant in the Polish Army in exile, are supposed to be flown from England into occupied France and dropped near the Swiss border, but the mission goes awry after their plane is shot down by the Germans, killing the pilot. Billy and Kaz manage to make it into Switzerland, with the assistance of a member of the Sinti ethnic group bent on revenge against the Nazis. Once they reach Geneva, their contact, Maureen Conaty, explains that they are to help with Operation Safehaven, an OSS effort to identify hidden German funds so that the U.S. treasury can “negotiate with neutral governments to keep the money out of the hands of the Nazis and use it to rebuild Europe after the war.” The pair is soon investigating a murder, and Benn does his usual excellent job of incorporating historical background into a fast-paced plot, which barely slows down on the way to the satisfactory resolution.
In this landmark anthology, a question is posed to 10 Iraqi writers, living both in Iraq and abroad: what will your country look like after 100 years? The answers to this question are vast and varied. In “Kuszib,” Hassan Abdulrazzak imagines a cruel future in which the farming of humans by aliens is rendered in gruesome, visceral detail. In “The Corporal,” Ali Bader tells the tale of one soldier’s quest for redemption in the face of religious and political turmoil. Editor Blasim’s “The Gardens of Babylon” imagines a digital paradise overtaking the Middle East, where people’s lives are compartmentalized into video game stories and insects are the new drug of choice. Inventive and surprising, these tales, many of which are translated, blend the surreal with the commonplace, pushing the boundaries of speculative fiction. Readers will savor each story as it probes the deeper questions of existence and the possibilities and perils of the future. This is a must-read for all science fiction enthusiasts.
This engrossing true-crime saga follows a twisting labyrinth of confused and suspect motivations. In 2006 Blum’s cousin Alex Blum, a straight-arrow 19-year-old in an elite Army Ranger battalion, was the getaway driver in an armed robbery of a Tacoma bank involving four accomplices, one of whom was a higher-ranking Ranger named Luke Elliott Sommer. Alex’s arrest shocked his family, as did his unlikely excuse: he thought the robbery was a special-ops training exercise he had to participate in. Trying to make sense of this, Blum embarked on a years-long quest to suss out the factors that shaped Alex’s actions: his adulation of the military; the sadistic Ranger training regimen that turned recruits into obedient killers (in 2010 Alex went on Dr. Phil as a poster boy for psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s theory of “coercive social influence” in military culture); and the malign authority of Sommer, a charismatic but troubled man whose schemes embodied Ranger machismo and who gets a fascinating profile from the author. In a triumph of subtle reportage, Blum sleuths through the mind games enshrouding the heist while painting sympathetic but clear-eyed portraits of its perpetrators; the result is an unsettling dissection of the moral corruptions, small and great, that bedevil the culture of military honor.
In this fascinating exploration, Greenblatt (The Swerve), a Harvard humanities professor and Pulitzer-winning author, probes the “beauty, power, and influence” that the Adam and Eve story has held through millennia. Utilizing recent archaeological discoveries, Greenblatt compares the Genesis account, first written as a “counternarrative to the Babylonian creation story” by Hebrews returning to Jerusalem from exile, to both the ancient Gilgamesh legend and long-forgotten alternative narratives recently discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, such as “The Life of Adam and Eve.” Greenblatt undertakes an in-depth analysis of key historical figures whose obsession wielded enormous impact on religion and culture: Augustine’s insistence on the story’s literal truth led to the concept of original sin; Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Fall of Man captured “the sheer unconstrained beauty of... our first parents”; John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost realized them as “flesh-and-blood people.” Greenblatt then explores how the European discovery of New World natives, Voltaire’s insistence on the story’s allegorical nature, and, finally, Darwin’s evolutionary theory led to today’s widespread acceptance of the story as myth. In a beautiful closing chapter, Greenblatt studies Ugandan chimpanzees for “traces of the Bible story... [in] the actual origins of our species.” This is an erudite yet accessible page-turner.
Krauss’s elegant, provocative, and mesmerizing novel is her best yet. Rich in profound insights and emotional resonance, it follows two characters on their paths to self-realization. In present-day Israel, two visiting Americans—one a young wife, mother, and novelist, the other an elderly philanthropist—experience transcendence. In alternating chapters, Krauss (The History of Love) first presents Jules Epstein, a high-powered retired Manhattan lawyer whose relentless energy has dimmed with his recent divorce, the death of his parents, and an inchoate desire to divest himself of the chattels of his existence. A change of POV introduces a narrator—a Brooklyn resident named Nicole who has a failing marriage, two young children, and writer’s block. Both Jules and Nicole are vulnerable to despair and loss of faith, and trust in conventional beliefs. Although they never meet, similar existential crises bring them to Tel Aviv, where each is guided by a mysterious Israeli and experiences glimpses of a surreal world where they feel their true identities lie. A charismatic rabbi, Menachem Klausner, claims that Jules is a descendant of King David. Meanwhile, Nicole is lured into meeting Eliezer Friedman, a retired literature professor and perhaps an ex-Mossad agent who attempts to convince Nicole of a preposterous but increasingly alluring idea: that Franz Kafka didn’t die in Prague but secretly was smuggled into Israel. He wants Nicole to write about the hidden life of this famous literary figure. Nicole’s conversations with Friedman and Epstein’s with Klausner about God and the creation of the world are bracingly intellectual and metaphysical. Vivid, intelligent, and often humorous, this novel is a fascinating tour de force.
Lagercrantz’s excellent second contribution to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series finds Lisbeth Salander serving a two-month sentence in Flodberga, the only maximum security women’s prison in Sweden, for unlawful use of property and reckless endangerment stemming from a murder case chronicled in 2015’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Lisbeth doesn’t mind her incarceration, since it allows her to work on her attempt to combine quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity, but she’s annoyed that her section of the prison has been taken over by gang leader Benito Andersson, who’s torturing a beautiful young Bangladeshi prisoner, Faria Kazi, a convicted murderer. Lisbeth is also troubled by a visit from her old guardian, Holger Palmgren, who informs her that he has some startling information: Lisbeth might have been part of a study dealing with twins when she was a patient at St. Stefan’s psychiatric clinic for children. Determined to learn more about this study, Lisbeth asks her friend Mikael Blomkvist, editor of Millennium magazine, for help. After her release, Lisbeth investigates the case of the Bangladeshi prisoner, and Blomkvist delves into Lisbeth’s childhood. Eventually, these twisting plot lines tie together in this complicated, fascinating mystery. As a bonus, readers learn the meaning of the dragon tattoo on Lisbeth’s back.
Emika Chen, an 18-year-old hacker turned bounty hunter, ekes out a life in New York City by tracking down criminals who are turning illegal profits in the virtual world of Warcross, an immersive game accessed by a “brain–computer interface.” Facing eviction, Emi recklessly hacks into the game to steal a valuable power-up. When a glitch exposes her identity to millions of viewers—and Hideo Tanaka, the game’s 21-year-old billionaire inventor—Emi is summoned to the Henka Games headquarters in Tokyo. There, Hideo recruits her to find an elusive hacker called Zero, and she enters the high-profile games as a wild-card player. With a keen eye for detail, Lu (the Young Elites series) vividly imagines a future society where gaming is woven into daily life, and easily allows readers to sink into Emi’s reality. Readers will enthusiastically follow clever, independent, and empathetic Emi, who is driven both by the memory of her father and a strong sense of morality. Think The Hunger Games meets World of Warcraft, with exactly the sort of massive appeal that crossover suggests. Ages 12–up.
Following her award-winning graphic novel memoir Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life, Lust adapts The Karnau Tapes, Beyer’s dense, dark novel set during the collapse of the Third Reich. She is more than up to the task, transmuting the material with visual imagination and insight. The narrative switches between two small cogs in the relentless machinery of the Reich: Hermann Karnau, a sound engineer who progresses from arranging the speakers at Nazi rallies to conducting bizarre aural experiments on concentration camp prisoners, and Helga, the eldest daughter of Joseph Goebbels, who, along with her siblings, is destined to be murdered by her parents in Hitler’s bunker. Lust’s loose, deceptively simple art, tinted in washes of faded color, creates a mood of deepening claustrophobia as the complicit Karnau and the innocent Helga descend toward the same fate. It’s a rare adaptation that, rather than simply transcribing the source material, transcends it.
This novel from Ng (Everything I Never Told You) is both an intricate and captivating portrait of an eerily perfect suburban town with its dark undertones not-quite-hidden from view and a powerful and suspenseful novel about motherhood. When the eccentric and itinerant artist Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move into a rental house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, one summer, neither they nor their more conventional, affluent landlords, the Richardsons, have any reason to anticipate how dangerously enmeshed the two families will become. Before long, Pearl, enthralled by her first shot at a “normal” life, is spending every day with three of the four Richardson children, Lexie, Moody, and Trip, finding a best friend, a suitor, and a lover in turn. Meanwhile, Isabelle, the youngest Richardson teenager, starts heading over to see Mia, offering to work as her assistant but really looking for an escape. As both Mrs. Richardson and Mia Warren overstep their boundaries, Ng explores the complexities of adoption, surrogacy, abortion, privacy, and class, questioning all the while who earns, who claims, and who loses the right to be called a mother. This is an impressive accomplishment.
Former Brooklyn poet laureate Nurkse (A Night in Brooklyn) transports readers to the “imaginary past known as The Last Days” in his 11th collection, rendering his own haunting version of the story of Tristan and Iseult. The collection follows the narrative of the medieval legend by threading together a mosaic of monologues, most of which belong to Tristan, who talks of his battle wound (“it hurt always, like another soul”) and catalogues strange encounters while hunting. Tristan observes Iseult with wonder and doom: “we were not made for each other,/ but to be the other’s obstacle,/ cherished and loathed like the self.” Nurkse’s Iseult is stoic; her actions prove her to be self-sustaining and magical. Tristan confesses, “I thought we would negotiate/ in the wild, she would be less a Queen./ But no. Each day she wears her robe and crown/ more imperiously, though they are pollen and dew.” Minor players benefit from Nurkse’s crisp attention to detail and knack for contextualization. A character named the chronicler, for example, “chooses fresh pumice and abrades the vellum—/ caul of a stillborn calf—and starts to doodle/ in the soft margin.” Nurkse makes this familiar story something alien, new, and fascinating; like the potion that Tristan and Iseult share, it’s easy to fall under his spell.
Perkins (Bamboo People) delivers an unforgettable novel that spans decades and continents as it moves among three generations of Indian women, some new immigrants to the U.S., all struggling to bridge cultures. She begins in 1965 with sisters Sonia and Tara Das as they move from Ghana to London and then New York City, eager for new opportunities but very aware of the cultural expectations of their Bengali parents. The stories of Sonia’s romantic and political rebellion (she’s a devoted liberal and later marries a black man, sparking a rift with her mother) and Tara’s acting aspirations segue into those of Chantal and Anna, their daughters, as the novel jumps ahead to 1998. It’s a profound and moving story of personal growth—perhaps most dramatically in the case of Sonia and Tara’s mother, Ranee, whose dourness and preoccupation with tradition give way to a broader embrace of American culture as she takes to the role of grandmother. Perkins’s vibrantly written exploration of a family in transition is saturated with romance, humor, and meaningful reflections on patriotism, blended cultures, and carving one’s own path. Ages 12–up.
The latest from Szabó (The Door) is a gorgeous elegy for the joy and the life once shared among three neighboring families—the Elekes, the Temes, and the Helds—in prewar Budapest, following the residents through the German invasion in 1944, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and the miserable quiet of the 1960s. At the heart of the story is Iren, the Elekes’ older daughter, who in 1944 is a beautiful and hardworking school teacher poised to begin the happy life she feels entitled to lead. But on the day that she and Balint, son of the Temes family next door, announce their engagement, the Helds—who are Jewish—are taken away. Their teenager daughter, Henriette, has remained with Iren’s and Balint’s families for protection and yet, before the night is over, her presence will be discovered, with catastrophic consequences that will haunt everyone for the rest of their lives. Readers will be impressed by the brilliant texture and forthrightness of Szabó’s prose, along with the particular urgency she infuses into the humiliations and irrational longings that comprise her characters’ lives, even or especially during the shock of war. All the while, Iren maintains her work ethic, as if by grading papers she can hold fast to some larger sense of order, even though the chaos of the world has murdered her neighbors, ruined her future, and destroyed her country. This is a brilliant and unforgettable novel.
In an elegant, contemplative, and somber graphic memoir, Walden (The End of Summer) immerses readers in an adolescence dominated by competitive figure skating. The story stretches over several years, during which time Walden vacillates between embracing the routine of early morning practices and the rush of competition, and a near-constant feeling of otherness, due in large part to her attraction to girls, which she hides from her family and peers. “It wasn’t the thrill or freedom I felt that I remember,” she notes after making a romantic connection with a friend. “It was the fear.” Chapters open with illustrations of spins and jumps, the movements delicately mapped, paired with commentary that, at times, gives insight into Walden’s personal life; of the frustrating axel, she writes, “As I would turn to go into it I would wish and hope with everything I had that this time it would work.” A palette of deep purple, splashed with yellow, underscores the loneliness that permeates Walden’s story, and her careful attention to facial expressions and body language makes readers intimately aware of what she is feeling. A haunting and resonant coming-of-age story. Ages 14–up.