This week: Kevin Young's history of American hoaxers and liars, plus Andy Weir's latest novel.
Bowen, a physicist and writer, immerses readers deep in Antarctic ice as he offers a mesmerizing look at a development in cutting-edge astrophysics with which few people are familiar: the South Pole’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory, the “weirdest” telescope in the world. Instead of gathering data from starlight, IceCube searches for neutrinos—electrically neutral, nearly massless particles that have fascinated and frustrated physicists since they were first proposed by Wolfgang Pauli in the 1930s. As Bowen explains, astrophysicists are interested in neutrinos because they come from places that regular telescopes never see: stellar interiors, supernovae, and the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. Bowen describes how IceCube hunts neutrinos with sensitive detectors sunk more than a mile deep in Antarctic ice. The detectors look “down” through the Earth, using it as a shield to block cosmic rays and in turn make evidence of neutrinos easier to identify in the ice. Bowen relates the story of IceCube with wry humor and enthusiasm, bringing to life the researchers, their rivalries, and their challenges, as well as the science. Infusing groundbreaking inquiry with the spirit of those who carry it out, Bowen delivers a tale that’s part educational, part inspirational, and all adventure.
Heartache begets mysticism and mythmaking in this spellbinding collection of narrative verse from Brimhall (Our Lady of the Ruins) about miracles, curses, and the stories people tell to come to terms with their experiences. Brimhall’s amalgamation of poetry and theater tells a family’s mysterious past through a motley and impassioned cast of narrators—including a chorus of wandering girls all named Maria—possessed of contradictory feelings and stories about God, each other, and the truth of their history. Amid the chorus, one Maria assures that “Miracles arrive/ whether they are welcome or not,” while another counters that they “stop or they never happened/ at all.” Inspired by pastoral and scriptural styles, Brimhall utilizes baroque metaphors to emphasize the primal hunger that drives desire and destruction: “I’ll pull stingers from your chest if you’ll clean the blood/ from under my nails. If romance is a ballad, we are its authors/ and its victims and finished in four minutes.” Brimhall’s Amazonian landscape teems with flora and fauna, yet feels forlorn; she graciously enlivens the heady atmosphere with her wit: “Jesus makes it to the stage but forgets his lines,” she writes. Brimhall sums up her work in the title poem: “If only the past would have me now that I have/ its answers—its griefs and inheritances.”
New Zealander Cliff makes a stunning American debut with a story about obsession gone horribly wrong. At the beginning of the 20th century, wood carver Colton Kemp, who lives in the small town of Marumaru and carves mannequins for store windows, has just become the widower father of twins after his wife died during childbirth. Kemp is inspired by Eugen Sandow, the real-life German father of modern bodybuilding, to raise his children to become mannequins to thwart his rival, known as “the Carpenter.” Raised in isolation and trained in the Sandow method of diet, exercise, and muscle control, the twins, Avis and Eugen, learn to hold poses for hours, preparing for their store-window debut. The novel unfolds in four parts, covering a span of time from 1859 to 1974. First, readers see how Kemp is galvanized both by his wife’s death and the incredible feats of strength and control he observes in a Sandow performance. In the second part, Avis’s diary reveals the painstaking routine she and her brother endure, and the odd perspective about life and relationships developed in their sequestered environment. In the third, readers are regaled with incredible adventures at sea as the Carpenter, who has lost his voice, gives Avis a written account of how a young carver in Scotland ended up in a small New Zealand town. In the final part, Eugen, now in his 70s, fills in the blanks, revealing the cataclysmic events that followed their appearance in the store window. This is a spellbinding and original tale, rife with perilous journeys, fascinating historical detail, and memorable characters.
This collection of aphorisms, anecdotes, and retellings marks the final work completed by famed Uruguayan writer Galeano (Soccer in Sun and Shadow) before his death in 2015. In a manner similar to 2009’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, entries come in thematic groupings exploring modes of oppression and imagination across time, place, and circumstance. Entries are rarely more than a page and often much shorter, yet each is meticulously sculpted, conveying an incident, act, or idea in danger of being forgotten, and doing so with the lively and inimitable voice of a passionate rebel and storyteller. Discussing native histories, environmental issues, feminism, political revolutions, race relations, and his beloved soccer, among other areas of concentration, Galeano travels effortlessly across a wide-ranging panoply of near-forgotten people whose deeds more often than not give the lie to more official accounts. With a keen sense for ironic reversals and equal measures of sly humor, empathy, anguish, and hope, this compendium of bite-size stories of resistance (elegantly translated by longtime collaborator Fried) is a worthy addition to the celebrated oeuvre of a writer who remains a towering figure both as an artist and a voice of conscience across Latin America and the world.
I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us: An Oral History of the Attacks Against the Students of Ayotzinapa
Journalist Gibler (To Die in Mexico) delivers a meticulous and affecting recreation of the events of Sept. 26, 2014, in Iguala, Mexico, when police attacked five buses carrying students from the Ayotzinapa Teachers’ College and a youth soccer team. Six people died, 40 were wounded, and 43 students were loaded into police trucks and never seen again. This powerful oral history includes a chorus of voices: mainly the eyewitness accounts of the students but also the accounts of a teacher, soccer officials, reporters at the scene, parents of “the disappeared,” and others. It begins with the students discussing the teachers’ college—why they chose it (for many, because it’s free) and its values of social action—and proceeds with an account of the eight-hour attack and the aftermath in the school’s basketball court, where the families gathered between search expeditions. Gibler, in his afterward, highlights how the scale of the tragedy galvanized Mexico, a country where the drug war “enabled these forced disappearances,” and eventually led to an independent investigation by a panel of international experts, the findings of which contradict the government’s story. It’s a heartbreaking reconstruction of a horrific event, made all the more profound by the persistent demand from the parents of the disappeared, their classmates, and citizens across country for the safe return of the students.
Mayhew (Red Ink) imagines a present-day Britain under Nazi rule in the story of Jessika, a perfect daughter of both the Reich and her Reich minister father, who ends up becoming someone the state will not tolerate. Jessika moves around in time as she narrates: she’s 17, about to graduate and go off to skate camp when the book starts; she’s seven when she meets new neighbor Clementine, who becomes her best friend. Clementine has always been different, outspoken, and unconvinced of the regime’s claims, which worries Jessika. She knows her parents and the Reich are right, but she loves Clementine, both as a friend and as something more, which is a problem since homosexuality is illegal in her homeland. Mayhew manages two feats, both crucial: she creates a believable modern-day Nazi society built on rules, silence, and surveillance, and a compelling depiction of a girl caught between what she has always been taught and what she is coming to suspect is true. As Jessika discovers, the truth is both dangerous and liberating. Ages 14–up.
Przybylo, associate professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University School of Medicine, weaves an enjoyable narrative out of personal anecdotes from the wealth of experience he has gained over more than 30 years in a field that’s “ubiquitous but largely invisible.” He displays an ever-fresh wonder at and faith in “the gas” that makes invasive medical procedures possible, as well as a determined drive for perfection: “I am striving for pinpoint skill,” he writes. Przybylo meticulously cares for patients and their families, who often don’t meet “Dr. Jay” until they’re on their way to the operating room. He recounts an array of stories, including that of an impish four-year-old whose preoperation snack nearly caused disaster and a lifesaving operation he performed on a baby gorilla. After observing a young patient’s hospital agony during a life-altering trip to China, Przybylo says he defined his goal: “to wipe away all pain.” Przybylo exalts in his triumphs and learns from his mistakes, taking none of it for granted. He ponders how future generations may judge his field: “Will they view my career as barbaric, as I view the barber-surgeons of the nineteenth century?” Przybylo offers a rare and thoughtful look behind the scenes of this crucial yet arcane specialization.
The original narrative voice of 16-year-old Martin drives adult author Reyl’s insightful and multilayered first book for teens, which brims with nostalgia, romance, complex supporting characters, and fascinating introspection. While on location in France at his mother’s latest film project, Martin, a handsome American student with autism who “could almost pass for nothing more than quirky,” experiences life through his “affinity” with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Martin simply calls it Search), which “has filled me up like an empty glass for years.” As Martin experiments with attending a general education summer school, he struggles to distinguish between events in Search and in his own life, as well as between “moths”—people drawn to him because of his mother’s celebrity—and real friends. Martin’s childhood memories, such as his parents’ early distress at his diagnosis (“We thought he was so cute, and he’s actually Rain Man”), blend seamlessly into the narrative, while Martin’s reflections on “the neurodiversity movement,” and efforts to “cure” autism raise thought-provoking ethical questions. Ages 12–up.
Acclaimed poet, playwright, and novelist Shange, best known for her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf, takes readers on a kaleidoscopic journey through black womanhood in her first selected volume. Translated into Spanish by Alejandro Álvarez Nieves, the collection spans the course of her prolific 40-year career in both languages. The poems showcase vibrant narratives of black women who are neither solely saints nor sinners. For Shange, it is important to capture the inner lives of black women without judgment and provide a voice for those who have been oppressed by self-imposed silence. In the opening poem, she envisions a new type of deity: “we need a god who bleeds now/ whose wounds are not/ some small male vengeance/ some pitiful concession to humility.” Shange often deals with the consequences of failed dreams, as in the poem “Five”: “livin dreams’ll make ya crazy/ livin dreams’ll lead ya to the/ end/ s of yrself.” Shange’s ability to breathe life into myriad characters and voices is on display throughout the collection. And, despite the instances of disappointment, violence, and struggle, the poems all highlight hope, joy, and optimism. This is an exemplary representation of Shange’s body of poetic work.
The latest work of narrative nonfiction from Thorpe (Soldier Girls) brings readers face to face with the global refugee crisis through the story of a Denver English-acquisition class composed of teenage refugees from all over the world. Set against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the book follows the 21 students over the course of the school year—for many, their first months in America—as they adapt to their new lives and grow comfortable in the classroom. Their heartening stories of learning English are interspersed with comical mistranslations of American customs (the concept of a haunted house fails to track with some students who can’t get past why anyone would want to make his or her house look terrifying) as well as the harsh reality of what it means to be a migrant and the difficulties of acquiring a language. Thorpe provides a layered portrait of the students and explains the daunting refugee crisis in America and elsewhere. Many of the students have harrowing stories, such those of Jakleen and Mariam, two Iraqi sisters who moved to Syria after their father disappeared, only to be forced to relocate again to Turkey and then the United States. In their new lives, the sisters form friendships with other students across language barriers, date other students, play soccer matches, and act in a play about Cesar Chavez. Along the way, Thorpe tackles the systemic issues resettlement programs face, as well as the Western world’s role in creating the crisis. Thorpe puts an agonizingly human face on a vast global problem.
Jazz Bashara, the heroine of this superior near-future thriller from bestseller Weir (The Martian), grew up in Artemis, the moon’s only city, where she dreams of becoming rich. For now, she works as a porter, supplementing her legal income by smuggling contraband. She hopes that her situation can improve drastically after she’s offered an impossible-to-refuse payday by wealthy entrepreneur Trond Landvik, who has used her in the past to get cigars from Earth. Trond asks Jazz to come up with a way to sabotage a competitor so that he can take over the moon’s aluminum industry. She develops an elaborate and clever plan that showcases her resourcefulness and intelligence, even as she continues to have misgivings about her client’s true agenda, suspicions borne out by subsequent complications. The sophisticated worldbuilding incorporates politics and economics, as well as scientifically plausible ways for a small city to function on the lunar surface. The independent, wisecracking lead could easily sustain a series. Weir leavens the hard SF with a healthy dose of humor.
Poet and author Young (The Grey Album) chronicles a distinctly American brand of deception in this history of hoaxers, fabricators, liars, and imposters. Young traces the tradition of journalistic duplicity from an 1835 newspaper story reporting winged men on the moon to the fabrications by the New Republic’s Stephen Glass in the late 1990s. He explores forgeries and falsifications in literature, including the exaggerated claims of James Frey in his memoir A Million Little Pieces and the wholesale creation of false identities, providing the example of J.T. LeRoy, allegedly a child prostitute turned novelist but later revealed to be the literary persona of writer Laura Albert. While many of these hoaxes will be familiar to those with a decent grasp of American history and current events, there are plenty of obscure examples as well, such as the 1941 emergence of the nine-year-old poet-prodigy Fern Gravel, charmingly declared “the lost Sappho of Iowa” by the New York Times, who was later revealed to be the brainchild of author James Norman Hall. Young explores the many instances where the hoax intersects with race and racism, notably P.T. Barnum’s exploitation of the supposed centenarian Joice Heth, a black nursemaid of George Washington, and the more recent instance of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman pretending to be black, who led her local chapter of the NAACP. Using these examples, Young astutely declares the hoax a frequent metaphor for a “deep-seated cultural wish” that confirms prejudicial ideas and stereotypes. While the book suffers a bit from its glut of examples, Young’s remarks on race and his comparison of Trump and Barnum, both of whom gained power from spectacle, in the book’s coda are well worth sifting through the drier material.
Davy David lives in the shadows of Brownvale, a down-on-its-luck town ruled by the ominous Parson Fall. Davy surreptitiously scratches dirt angels in the wee hours, until an unfortunate encounter with the reverend forces him to skip town. Coincidentally, town recluse (and supposed witch) Miss Flint also wants to escape Brownvale, and she hires Davy as her driver (never mind that he is only 13 and can’t drive). What follows is a grand adventure full of surprises and inexplicable mysteries, culminating in a bittersweet ending that will stay with readers. Miss Flint and Davy are exact opposites—she is cantankerous and wily, he is guileless and kind—and Young (the Dustlands trilogy) gradually builds a tender, believable friendship between them. Their road trip mishaps are amusing (several instances of grand theft auto are involved), and the mysteries that surface will have readers riveted. Gorgeous writing combines with a hauntingly bleak near-future setting, a whiff of holiday magic, and a transcendent story arc to make this novel feel like the classic it deserves to become. Ages 8–12.