This week: Tatyana Tolstaya's exceptional new story collection, plus American dreams in Chinatown.
Bus driver Bert Brown feels like he’s having a heart attack at work, but the fluttering in his chest turns out to be a tiny angel lodged in his pocket. When a stunned Bert brings the creature home to his wife, Betty, she knows just what to do: fix him dinner, make him a little bed, and give him a fitting name. It doesn’t take long for the angel, whom they name Angelino, to become a beloved member of the couple’s family, as well as a popular student at the school where Betty works. But two villains are watching the angel’s every move, waiting for the opportunity to kidnap him. Almond (Harry Miller’s Run) once again works his magic to draw readers into a world of wonderful possibilities and dreadful obstacles, captured in Smith’s whimsical pencil drawings. He makes it clear that heroes, villains, and angels alike are products of their environments, and that a little nurturing (or angel companionship) is the best way to improve a person’s attitude and behavior. Almond’s dry wit will bring smiles, and his underlying message about good and evil may shake up some preconceived notions. Ages 8–12.
Quantum physics is “stubbornly mute on the question” of what is real, writes science writer Becker in this fresh debut. Most physicists in the early 20th century believed quantum physics revealed nothing about the everyday world; it was seen as the “shut up and calculate method.” It’s the dissenters to that view who take center stage here: scientist David Bohm challenged the status quo with his pilot-wave theory in the 1950s; Hugh Everett followed his curiosity to the sci-fi–like “many-worlds” interpretation; and John Stewart Bell’s “scathing critic’s pen” led to his eponymous theorem, later called the “most profound discovery of science.” Catchy chapter openers (“It was the Summer of Love in New York City, and John Clauser was cooped up in a room at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies”) and vivid biographical portraits enliven even dense theoretical explanations with wit and bite. Readers trace decades of experiments, alternative philosophies, and surprising drama in the physics boys’ club to three intriguing possibilities: “Either nature is nonlocal in some way, or we live in branching multiple worlds despite appearances to the contrary”—or quantum physics is incomplete. With his crisp voice, Becker lucidly relates the complicated history of quantum foundations.
At the start of this dazzling culinary mystery from Dovalpage (The Astral Plane), laid-back, spiritually shambolic 36-year-old San Diego, Calif., reporter Matt Sullivan arrives in Cuba just before the 2003 Black Spring crackdown on dissidents, not to investigate human rights violations but to marry (he hopes) 24-year-old food blogger Yarmila Portal, whom he mostly knows through online interactions. But Yarmi doesn’t meet him at the airport, and in dizzying succession, Matt discovers her body in a running shower in her Havana apartment, lands in police custody, and learns from Lt. Marlene Martinez that Yarmi had a young lover, Pato Macho. In a typically rich scene, both laugh-aloud funny and bone-chilling, Matt is grilled about his email suggesting Yarmi write a report for the CIA (i.e., the Culinary Institute of America). Matt instantly understands the confusion of acronyms, but will his interlocutor believe that the almighty spy agency allows a mere cooking school to share its initials? Matt’s travails are interspersed with Yarmi’s recipe-filled blog posts, bringing her to life after death, and the procedural narrative spirals to a smoky finish involving lucid dreaming, Santeria, gender fluidity, and the ultimate magic realism of politics. Those expecting a traditional food cozy will be happily surprised.
Science writer Frank (My Beautiful Genome) takes a deep dive into the work of a controversial “pioneer by accident,” psychiatrist Robert G. Heath, whose use of electrode stimulation to the brain’s “pleasure center” to treat schizophrenia and depression in the 1950s and ’60s horrified and fascinated academia, the CIA, and the U.S. Senate. This wide-ranging, thoughtful exploration of Heath’s complicated legacy combs through documents, film footage, and interviews with Heath’s colleagues, his son, and a patient. It begins with the treatment of patient B-19, a gay man who was supposed to be cured with electrodes and a prostitute; when Heath died in 1999, his work was largely judged by that perverse episode: “It seems as if he had a vision of something of which he could not clearly see the contours—quite simply because science had not yet reached far enough and the tools were still primitive.” Though Heath’s work has been discredited, he began an approach that’s getting a new look from psychiatry and industry, making one psychosurgeon’s assessment particularly poignant: “You are a hero until you are not.” Frank has written an excellent, balanced portrait of an inventive psychiatrist with a complicated legacy.
Bestseller George’s stunning 20th Thomas Lynley novel (after 2015’s A Banquet of Consequences) finds the detective inspector running things at New Scotland Yard in London while his partner, Det. Sgt. Barbara Havers, and his boss, Det. Chief Supt. Isabelle Ardery, investigate allegations of police malfeasance in Ludlow, England. Six weeks earlier, community support officer Gary Ruddock arrested Ian Druitt on suspicion of child molestation. Ruddock then brought Druitt to the unmanned Ludlow police station, where Druitt hanged himself. The Independent Police Complaints Commission cleared Ruddock of criminal wrongdoing, but Druitt’s influential father wants a second opinion or he’ll sue. To Ardery, the review is a formality; Havers, however, believes that Druitt was murdered and asks to reopen the case. When Ardery refuses, Havers consults Lynley, who can’t resist getting involved. George tackles a number of emotionally charged social issues with sensitivity and grace. Exquisitely rendered characters and a powerful sense of place enhance the meticulously crafted mystery, which satisfies as a standalone while furthering the series arc.
Drawing on years of interviews, research, and travel, Gessen (The Future Is History) and photographer Friedman reflect on complex Russian attitudes to the legacy of the gulag in this vital collection of essays and photographs. Established in 1930, the gulag was a vast, brutal network of prison camps kept secret from the general population, in which millions of Soviet citizens were imprisoned or killed. Touching on the various populations of the camps, from the victims of Stalin’s terror to later anti-Soviet dissidents, Gessen’s brief essays focus on contemporary physical markers of the gulag—the symbolic manifestations of how people choose to remember, or not remember, what happened. Many of the people she writes about are those who are invested in maintaining the known sites of camps: for example, Veniamin Iofe and Irina Flige, two members of the human rights organization Memorial, who discovered a mass grave in Sandormokh and worked with government agencies and other activists to eventually erect a series of monuments. Friedman’s moody, panoramic black-and-white photos of the memorial sites convey a narrative that’s fragmented, blurry, and ultimately incomplete, perfectly underscoring Gessen’s text. The combination is a powerful meditation on contemporary Russia as seen through its relationship to the past.
A battle for freedom segues into a struggle for survival in this clear-eyed, humane look at modern immigration. Journalist Hilgers, who lived in Shanghai for six years, spotlights the journey of Zhuang Liehong, who made powerful enemies in the Chinese village of Wukan when he organized protests against corrupt officials. Fearing arrest and dazzled by visions of American freedom and abundance, he and his wife Little Yan left their infant son in 2014 and fled on a tourist visa, ending up in the Chinese immigrant neighborhood of Flushing in New York City. Zhuang and Yan eventually get asylum and working documents, and their scramble for overpriced, overcrowded rooms and low-wage employment (in nail salons, restaurants, and the like) mirrors the experiences of many in New York. Instead of trying to make this an immigration horror story, Hilgers foregrounds the way the husband and wife adjust to their new home: Yan, pragmatically focused on mundane jobs and financial security, grows increasingly exasperated with the dreamer Zhuang’s fizzled business plans and his sense that political activism marks him for greater things. Hilgers’s narrative intercuts between the dramatic rebellion in Wukan and a vibrant portrait of Flushing’s Chinese diaspora built around fine-grained character studies drawn with equal parts empathy and humor. The result is a quintessentially American story of exile and renewal.
Kauffman’s perceptive, funny, and endearing novel (after Another Place You’ve Never Been) is set against the backdrop of a funeral in snowy Lackawanna, a depressed suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. The seemingly light (but deceptively profound) story follows a once–close-knit group of six friends as they navigate the stresses of adulthood while grappling with long-held secrets from the past. Called “The Gunners”—after the name on the mailbox of the abandoned house they hung out in as kids—30-year-old Mikey, Lynn, Alice, Sam, and Jimmy reunite for the first time since high school to pay their respects to their sixth member, Sally, who committed suicide. As with any coming-to-terms-with-past-decisions-and-getting-older exercise, the friends reminisce about old times and share their triumphant successes and embarrassing failures. Despite the well-trod premise, Kauffman’s prose never veers into campy territory. The admissions of her characters provide deep insight into their individual personalities, and also into human vulnerability more broadly. These include Mikey’s fear surrounding his waning eyesight and conflicted sadness about his strained relationship with his father; Sam’s intense shame about a defining moment he had with Sally long ago; and Alice’s outlandish behavior that masks an entrenched inner turmoil. Reminiscent of The Big Chill and St. Elmo’s Fire, this remarkable novel is just as satisfying and provides readers with an entire cast of characters who will feel like old friends upon finishing.
In the wake of her mother’s suicide, 15-year-old Leigh travels from the U.S. to Taiwan, where she hopes to come to terms with the tragedy while getting to know the maternal grandparents she has never met. Convinced that her mother has been reincarnated as a great red bird and eager to understand what happened, Leigh looks for symbols and meaning in the world around her; a stack of incense sticks grants her visions that allow insight into her mother’s past and family history. At the same time, flashbacks illuminate Leigh’s complicated relationship with her best friend Axel, whom she kissed the day her mother died. Pan’s emotionally charged debut is a compelling exploration of grief and the insidiousness of depression. Her narrator, an artist by nature, sees the world through a colorful, complicated lens, and the novel is steeped in its Taiwanese setting. The subtlety and ambiguity of the supernatural elements place this story in the realm of magical realism, full of ghosts and complex feelings and sending an undeniable message about the power of hope and inner strength. Ages 12–up.
In Rachman’s artful third page-turner (after The Rise & Fall of Great Powers), the son of a world-renowned painter struggles to escape the dark shadow cast by his father. Born in Rome to a mistress turned bride, Pinch Bavinsky only sees his domineering father, Bear, during the elder’s summer visits to Europe. After a trip by teenage Pinch to 1960s New York ends with Bear crushing his artistic ambitions, the son abandons his dreams of painting to embark on a failed career in academia before becoming a foreign language instructor in London. The most trusted of Bear’s 17 children, Pinch appoints himself overseer of his aging father’s work, and much of the novel’s well-staged tension emerges from Pinch’s choice in the early aughts to paint a reproduction of one of Bear’s paintings and sell it, passing it off as one of his father’s. Spanning the 1950s to the present, the novel does traffic a bit in familiar notions of the art world and difficult artists, but its subversion of these tropes makes for a satisfying examination of authorship and authenticity, and a fine fictionalization of how crafting an identity independent of one’s parents can be a lifelong, worthwhile project.
These uniformly masterful stories from Tolstaya (The Slynx) reject any attempt at easy categorization, resulting in a profound, surprising, and rich experience. Some stories, like the title work, which details a narrator named Tatyana’s unhappy experience teaching creative writing to American college students in 1992 and owning a home in New Jersey with endless problems, seem straightforwardly autobiographical. Other stories, such as “The Invisible Maiden,” about memories of a dacha, or “A Young Lady in Bloom,” which recalls a stint delivering telegrams as a student, echo the lyricism of the Russian masters and glow with “the swanlike whiteness of the past.” Others are more essayistic: “The Square” meditates on the frightening painting of the artist Kazimir Malevich; “Official Nationality” modestly distills the Russian character to three bullet points: “boldness, longanimity, and ‘Let’s hope.’ ” Some, such as “The Window,” are surreal allegories in the manner of Gogol. While the works blend fantasy and fact, often within the same story, what unites them all is Tolstaya’s singular and assured voice, capable of beautiful specificity—noticing “the calm blue flower of propane” on a stove—and of surveying history from above and proclaiming, matter-of-factly, that “autocracy is basically self-explanatory.”
In a South American village, a donkey named Francis makes shoes for discerning clients. Francis is overjoyed to receive a commission from Miss Manatee, his favorite calypso singer, but before he can start work, he discovers that his friend and tiger grass supplier, Nigel, has gone missing. Venturing into the forest to sort out Nigel’s situation (he has been stealing tiger grass from its grower, Harriet the jaguar) is a big test for Francis, who has never been outside his village. His success helps him think outside the box when he discovers that aquatic manatees don’t wear shoes. Instead, he and his friends make Miss Manatee a handsome wheeled cart. With their cheerful expressions and rubbery limbs, Varon’s creatures behave with gentle civility throughout, as when Harriet and her predator friends stand at the very back of Buster’s Calypso Café during Miss Manatee’s performance, so as not to intimidate the other patrons. Varon (Odd Duck) introduces a rain forest setting most likely new to readers (Guyana, an afterword explains) in a story that brims with creativity and affection. Ages 6–10.
Wideman, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fatheralong, boldly subverts notions of what a short story can be in this wonderful collection. In “Williamsburg Bridge” a man plans his suicide from the bridge while considering the lives and deaths of others below him, as well as what has brought him to this point. “Writing Teacher” explores the obligations and feelings of a black professor toward his white fiction writing student after she submits a story about the plights of a young black woman. “JB & FD” imagines a conversation over many years between John Brown and Frederick Douglass; “Nat Turner Confesses” brings the young Nat to life as a boy determined to change his fate. In “Yellow Sea,” a man watches the films Precious and The Yellow Sea and analyzes the characters and their brutal struggles on screen and brings them into his own world, offering advice and empathy. Each story feels new, challenging, and exhilarating, beguilingly combining American history with personal history.