This week: Denis Johnson's short story collection, destined to be a classic, plus a history of the heart in 11 operations.
In an astute debut, Ahmed intertwines a multicultural teen’s story with a spare, dark depiction of a young terrorist’s act. High school senior Maya Aziz, a budding filmmaker, struggles with being the beloved and protected only child of Muslim immigrants from India while trying to live a “normal” American teenage life in Illinois and, more importantly, make her own decisions about her future. Stealthily defying her parents by applying to New York University and juggling appropriate and inappropriate love interests (all with the help of her maverick aunt), Maya finally gets up the courage to confront her parents when the terrorist’s actions unleash hatred on her and her family. Ahmed builds tension by preceding each chapter of Maya’s story with a terse paragraph leading to the imminent act of terror, then provides a startling twist; Maya’s final and uncharacteristic act of rebellion also comes as a surprise. The characters are fully dimensional and credible, lending depth to even lighter moments and interactions. Alternately entertaining and thoughtful, the novel is eminently readable, intelligent, and timely. Ages 14–up.
De la Peña’s prose poem speaks right to young children. “In the beginning there is light/ and two wide-eyed figures standing/ near the foot of your bed,/ and the sound of their voices is love,” he opens as an interracial couple looks down at a crib. The rest of de la Peña’s poem is accompanied by images of families and friends of many different ages and appearances who live in cities and in rural or warm places, such as the group of men seen throwing horseshoes under palm trees. The expressions worn by Long’s characters and the way their shoulders are stooped with care make them seem full of love, even when they’re playing instruments or fishing. It’s not always smooth sailing, and sometimes scary things happen (“One day you find your family/ nervously huddled around the TV”), but comfort is there. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s love,” says a grown-up offering a child an embrace. People often talk to children about love; in these pages, they can see and feel what it’s like. And there’s plenty for everybody. Ages 4–8.
Communications breakthroughs drive a centuries-long war between monolithic power and connected innovators in this sweeping conceptual history of the modern world. Historian Ferguson (The Ascent of Money) examines several turns in the ever-shifting relationship between entrenched hierarchies and upstart “networks”: the 15th-century invention of the printing press enabled Protestants to challenge the Catholic Church and Enlightenment intellectuals and revolutionaries to overthrow monarchies; the advent of railroads, telegraphs, and radio allowed some bureaucratic states to become totalitarian dictatorships in the 20th century; the rise of the internet undermined hierarchical corporate and government control while empowering network monopolies such as Facebook. Ferguson’s episodic narrative explores these themes through vivid profiles of influential networks, from the 18th-century Illuminati (far more feckless than their conspiratorial reputation suggests) to the Rothschild banking empire, Cambridge University’s Apostles circle (an incubator of avant-garde literature, gay sex, and espionage), and Wikileaks. Ferguson’s occasional use of mathematical network-theory charts and jargon (“In terms of betweenness centrality, the king came first”) doesn’t add much to his analysis; still, his typically bold rethinking of historical currents, painted on the broadest canvas, offers many stimulating insights on the tense interplay between order, oppression, freedom, and anarchy.
The second story collection from the late Johnson (Jesus' Son) is a masterpiece of deep humanity and astonishing prose. The title story chronicles a lifetime of moments, from the small to the ecstatic, of ad agent Bill Whitman, including a chance bathroom encounter, his marriage ("Have I loved my wife? We've gotten along. We've never felt like congratulating ourselves"), and his searching walks around his neighborhood at night ("I wonder if you're like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you"). "The Starlight on Idaho" is structured as a series of letters written by Mark Cassandra, an alcoholic in a recovery center, to all the significant people in his life—siblings, doctors, Satan—as he considers how he can correct his tendency toward self-destruction ("I have been asked over and over by medical people who probably know what they're talking about ‘Why aren't you dead?'"). In "Strangler Bob," a young man named Dink ends up in county lockup, where he meets a group of other wayward men, eats a hot rod magazine soaked in an unspecified hallucinogen, and mulls over what would happen if an ominous red button on the wall were to be pressed. "Triumph Over the Grave" is a winding story told by an aging writer about his deceased friends and acquaintances, including a novelist who sees the ghosts of his brother and sister-in-law on his Texas ranch. In "Doppelgänger, Poltergeist," a poetry professor's long friendship with one of his students draws him into the student's obsession with an Elvis conspiracy. This book is an instant classic. It's filled with Johnson's unparalleled ability to inject humor, profundity, and beauty—often all three—into the dark and the mundane alike. These characters have been pushed toward the edge; through their searches for meaning or clawing just to hold onto life, Johnson is able to articulate what it means to be alive, and to have hope.
Johnson kicks off a riveting mystery series set at the Ellingham Academy, a prestigious school built on a Vermont mountain by industrialist tycoon Albert Ellingham. His goal was to make learning a game—and free—for the exceptional students accepted to the school. But soon after it opened in 1936, Ellingham received a mysterious threat written in rhyme (and signed “Truly, Devious”), Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped, and a student was killed. In the present, 16-year-old Stevie Bell is obsessed with true crime (and often beset by panic attacks), and she feels a bit like a fraud at Ellingham. With Holmesian powers of observation, she hopes to solve the Ellingham case, but the school’s deadly past resurfaces when a student from her dorm is killed. Jumping between past and present, Johnson’s novel is deliciously atmospheric, with a sprawling cast of complex suspects/potential victims, surprising twists, and a dash of romance. As in her Shades of London books, Johnson remains a master at combining jittery tension with sharp, laugh-out-loud observations. Ages 14–up.
Moore (The Dark Room) sets this outstanding SF noir in a near-future San Francisco, where ocean current changes have made the rain nearly continuous, electric cars prowl the streets, and disposable LED postcard ads seduce the citizenry. When SFPD Det. Ross Carver and his partner, Cleve Jenner, answer a late-night summons to an expensive home, they find something odd: a man’s body “that looked like gray moss. Like a carpet of it spread across a rot-shrunken log.” Hazmat-suited FBI agents take over the crime scene and send the two to a portable decontamination unit. Ross awakens in his bed days later with his mysterious neighbor, the beautiful Mia Westcott, attending to him. He has no memory of that night, only the sense that something is wrong and a lingering metallic scent to guide him. Moore smoothly fills Carver’s quest for the truth with equal parts hidden menace and outright strangeness. This mystery feels like Blade Runner as if it were written by Charles De Lint or Neil Gaiman.
Morris, a British journalist and former TV producer, dissects 11 landmark heart operations in this extensive and well-constructed history of cardiac surgery. Throughout, he pays tribute to doctors with “talent and imagination, and a determination to do better for their patients.” Morris opens with an anecdote from a study that asked whether surgeons were psychopaths, finding them scoring high on “Machiavellian egocentricity.” “We’re all psychopaths,” one unnamed surgeon laughingly tells the author. But Morris finds much more than ego and showmanship as he surveys the field, encountering false starts, dead ends, interpersonal rivalries, and deception. Among the remarkable achievements Morris relates are the means to repair deadly congenital heart deformities; the invention of pacemakers, defibrillators, the heart-lung machine (which made open-heart surgery possible), and artificial-heart devices; the creation of heart bypass surgery, heart transplantation, and methods of stenting; and the development of radio-frequency ablation to cure arrhythmias. Covering more than a century of advancement, he notes that the breakthroughs were usually ones “nobody saw coming.” Morris’s expert guided tour of cardiac surgery and its quirky, brilliant innovators covers a dazzling and dizzying array of procedures and hints at tantalizing prospects for future surprises.
Zumas (The Listeners) imagines a palpable, powerful alternate reality in which the United States has passed the Personhood amendment, reversing Roe v. Wade and making abortion a crime. Four women whose futures changed overnight with the passage of the amendment struggle for equality in rural Oregon. Roberta Stephens has chosen to pursue a teaching career and faces an uphill battle to have a child in an oppressively gendered system while writing a biography of an obscure female polar explorer named Eivør Minervudottir. Roberta’s star pupil is high school student Mattie Quarles, who, finding herself pregnant, makes a run for the Canadian border. Susan Korsmo, the wife of one of Roberta’s colleagues, is quietly suffocating as an overburdened mother of two. Finally there is Gin Percival, a forest-dwelling “mender” providing illegal gynecological services until she is arrested for medical malpractice. As Gin’s court proceedings devolve into a modern-day witch trial, the fates of these women converge—with parallels to the life of Eivør—as they are pushed into a series of bold challenges to the masculine power structures that stifle them. Zumas manages a loose yet consistently engaging tone as she illustrates the extent to which the self-image of modern women is shaped by marriage, career, or motherhood. Dark humor further enhances the novel, making this a thoroughly affecting and memorable political parable.