This week: new books from Meg Wolitzer, Tracy K. Smith, Leslie Jamison, and more.
Because We Are Bad: OCD and a Girl Lost in Thought
London-based model and journalist Bailey offers an authentic and stunning account of her struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder in this beautifully-rendered memoir. Readers may initially wonder why the narrator often refers to herself as “we,” but will soon realize that the dueling voice inside Bailey’s head is an imaginary “friend” who reinforces intrusive thoughts, feeding into the author’s feelings of unworthiness. Bailey has a supportive family; though her parents divorce, they are committed to helping their daughter, who is diagnosed with OCD as a teen. Bailey does well in school (especially after receiving extra time for tests), but her interior dialogue is rife with worry and self-blame; it takes hours to fall asleep at night due to her analysis of intricate lists of perceived mistakes she’s made each day, along with her various routines (for example, tiptoeing into her sister’s room to see if she’s still breathing). Under the care of a psychiatrist, Bailey improves, but while attending college in Dublin she backslides and attempts suicide. Bailey is a vulnerable, vibrant, and courageous narrator.
Paris by the Book
In the sublime third novel from Callanan (The Cloud Atlas), a Wisconsin woman travels to Paris in search of her missing husband. Leah Eady’s author husband, Robert, frequently disappears for a few days to write, and Leah is understanding, but lately, she feels like a single mother to their two daughters, Ellie and Daphne. When Robert fails to return one day, Leah doesn’t panic, but after she discovers that Robert purchased a ticket to Paris, she decides to take her girls there, hoping he’ll be there waiting for them. Once there, it’s not long before they’re living above—and eventually running— a failing bookstore called the Late Edition for the eccentric Madame Brouillard. Leah’s wryly funny narration jumps between her early days as an aspiring filmmaker with the troubled Robert and her time in Paris, where she imagines seeing Robert everywhere and eventually makes a shocking discovery. Callanan has crafted a beautifully-drawn portrait of a woman interrupted set among the exquisite magic of Paris, where life frequently imitates art and the ghosts of the past linger just out of sight. The mystery of Robert’s fate keeps the pages turning, but the real story lies in Leah’s rediscovery of herself. Book lovers and Paris aficionados will be enthralled.
The Wolf: Under the Northern Sky, Book 1
Carew’s gripping and ambitious epic fantasy debut introduces a world closely mapped to Viking-era Europe, with intriguingly differences. Roper Kynortas becomes the leader of the Black Kingdom, the home of the nature-loving, pragmatic race of giants known as the Anakim, after seeing his father killed in their first military defeat in thousands of years. Young, inexperienced, and grieving, Roper has to find a way to secure his nation against the invading human Sutherners while solidifying and consolidating his power against the threat posed by heroic Uvoren, the ambitious leader of the Anakim sacred guard. His human antagonist, Bellamus, an upstart commoner who specializes in knowledge of the Anakim, is delightfully clever. The book is twisty in its political maneuverings, gritty in its battle descriptions, and rich with a sense of heroism and glory that fans of Saxon-derived poetic tradition will appreciate. The depth of Anakim culture is thoroughly developed, including shadow organizations run by women that may threaten the heavily militarized male-focused power structure. The finale of this installment perfectly sets the stage for a larger story, and readers will excitedly anticipate the rest of the series.
America Is Not the Heart
Castillo’s debut, a contemporary saga of an extended Filipino family, is a wonderful, nonpareil novel. It opens with Paz, a long-suffering nurse from Vigan who, having immigrated to Milpitas, Calif., shoulders much of the responsibility for her entire family. Her husband, Pol, a member of the De Vera family in the Philippines and once a successful surgeon, had to flee due to political turmoil and take a job as a security guard in the U.S. When their niece Hero arrives, they take her in, and she leads the rest of the story. Hero is burdened with a disturbing political past that she silently carries with her as she spends her days driving Paz and Pol’s daughter, Roni, to school and to the faith healers that Paz finds to treat Roni’s eczema. Both Hero and Pol struggle to define themselves. While Hero cautiously tries out new friends and lovers of all ilks—most notably a makeup artist named Rosalyn—Pol’s crisis of identity will send him on a journey with Roni that threatens the tenuous American roots Paz has worked so hard to put down for the family. Castillo uses multiple languages—Tagalog, Pangasinan, Ilocano—and the strangest of tenses, hopping around in time and among her characters’ heads; that taking all of these risks pays off is a remarkable feat. The result is a brilliant and intensely moving immigrant tale.
Look Alive Out There: Essays
Crosley (The Clasp), in her third collection of personal essays, continues her tradition of hilarious insight into the human condition, whether the human involved is scaling a 20,000-foot volcano in Ecuador or inadvertently flirting with a drugstore cashier. Several essays are concerned with the tensions that arise in urban life. In “Outside Voices,” the author tries to quiet a teenage neighbor’s nightly carousing without become crotchety and square in the process (“I bit the bullet and called 311, a placebo service for cranks on the brink”). “Wolf” involves a literal identity crisis as Crosley contends with a man holding her internet domain name hostage. “Cinema of the Confined” finds the author battling an extended bout of vertigo and drawing astute comparisons between travel writing and writing about illness. But as the dizziness is revealed to be a symptom of a rare and largely untreatable condition, the connection becomes fraught: “This was not some exotic destination that I would one day leave and report back on. This was my home now.” Crosley is exceedingly clever and has a witticism for all occasions, but it is her willingness to confront some of life’s darker corners with honesty and vulnerability that elevates this collection.
In a Small Kingdom
It is long ago, in a place “along an ancient road.” The beloved old king has died, and the young prince is chosen to assume the throne. Though the prince is young and shy—and not much older than some in this book’s target audience—he is thoughtful and gentle. “All agreed that the kingdom would be in good hands,” writes dePaola. But the legendary imperial robe has gone missing, and everyone in the kingdom believes this “remarkable garment” gives the king magical powers to protect them. An evil plot is afoot—can it be thwarted? Debut illustrator Salati, a former Sendak fellow, works with the assurance of a seasoned pro; his illustrations, rendered in delicately textured pencil and earth-toned digital color, combine an old-fashioned sense of setting and character with a contemporary approach to casting (the kingdom is matter-of-factly multicultural, and the king’s chief counselor is a woman). With its themes of ingenuity, generosity, and the enduring power of community, the story is a lovely and pointedly relevant tribute to those who truly confer legitimacy on any leader: the people. Ages 4–8.
The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind
Bolstered by a background in neurobiology and human psychology, Gazzaniga (Tales from Both Sides of the Brain), director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at UC Santa Barbara, adopts a philosophical approach in this insightful book—a “fresh attempt to wrestle with” the question of consciousness and the relationship between brain and mind. Gazzaniga posits that “consciousness is an instinct” and that the brain is a relatively independent, adaptable, and flexible system of local modules organized in a layered architecture, cohering through more integrative modules at a higher level. By discussing an array of substantial brain injuries throughout the book, he demonstrates that modules have the ability to mediate their specific functions as well as participate in the emergent property of subjective experience. Gazzaniga details how the understanding of human consciousness progressed; he examines the ideas of such philosophers as Aristotle, Descartes, David Hume, and William James, and shows where the centuries-long struggle to find the seat of consciousness has floundered. He also refreshingly grounds the work in real experimental data, revealing himself to be an intelligent mental explorer and master syncretist. Gazzaniga’s accessible, well-organized arguments are bound to provoke deep metathoughts, and readers should find his treatise delightful.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
The crawl back up to sobriety is as engrossing as the downward spiral in this unsparing and luminous autobiographical study of alcoholism. Novelist and essayist Jamison (The Empathy Exams) recounts her booze-sodden 20s, which she spent bouncing between Yale and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop—a time when she resorted to drinking because it blocked out her insecurities about herself and her relationships. Jamison’s recovery, with backsliding, is a grim affair as she fights a constant craving for alcohol. She joins Alcoholics Anonymous in her mid-20s, and while she finds the prosaic honesty and camaraderie at her AA meetings to be revelatory, she still dreads sobriety as “a string of empty evenings, a life lit by the sallow fluorescence of church-basement bromides rather than the glow of dive-bar neon signs.” Intertwined with her narrative are shrewd profiles of alcoholic writers—including John Berryman, Raymond Carver, The Lost Weekend writer Charles Jackson, and Jean Rhys—that probe the fraught link between drinking (and not drinking) and literary creativity. The dark humor, evocative prose, and clear-eyed, heartfelt insights Jamison deploys here only underscore her reputation as a writer of fearsome talent.
Denmark Vesey’s Garden
As historians Kytle (Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era) and Roberts (Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women) show in this examination of the historical memory of slavery in Charleston, S.C., the chronological length and socioeconomic depth of Charleston’s commitment to slavery make it what one abolitionist called “the citadel and capital of American slavery.” After slavery’s end, freed people and their former owners battled over the parameters of emancipation; the former staged lavish annual pageants in celebration of liberation; the latter limited the freedoms of their ex-slaves through extremely repressive law codes, while insisting that their “Lost Cause” had been white liberty, not black slavery. From Charleston’s transition in the 1920s into a mecca for tourism through the Jim Crow era and beyond, white preservationists simultaneously whitewashed the history of slavery and turned African-American culture into a quaint symbol of the “Old South.” The 21st century has seen efforts in Charleston to more visibly and honestly acknowledge the local history of slavery—in, for example, plantation tours and plaques—but the massacre of worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015 and the resurgence of open white supremacy connected to Trumpism lead the authors to question how much progress has really been made. Kytle and Roberts’s combination of encyclopedic knowledge of Charleston’s history and empathy with its inhabitants’ past and present struggles make them ideal guides to this troubled history.
Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane
This impressive collection represents a monumental achievement from one of Australia’s most important writers. Murnane is often categorized as a “writer’s writer” for his tendency to unspool long descriptions and focus his narratives on fiction writers strikingly similar to himself. Almost all of the stories in this book are set in a suburb of Melbourne and in some way involve the impact of memory, horse racing, or Catholicism. Of the 21 stories collected here, “Emerald Blue” is the longest. In it, “the chief character” of the story is a man who can only fall in love with the image of a woman in his mind, despite his many attempts to shun bachelorhood. In “The Boy’s Name Was David,” Murnane writes of a part-time writing professor who looks back on all the students’ stories he has ever read and imagines his competitive students as horses in one long race. Virtually all of Murnane’s stories also illustrate some aspect of his beliefs about the nature and value of fiction itself. Murnane is an accomplished master, and this collection is a vital resource for writing that probes the mind with ceaseless inquiry.
Animals Eat Each Other
Nash’s brilliant and visceral debut novel follows a young woman’s increasingly complicated relationship with a young couple. The 19-year-old narrator, unnamed at first, has just finished high school and is working at a RadioShack in Colorado Springs. She has no plans for the future and lives with her largely absent mother, from whom she steals painkillers. One day at work, she meets Matt and Frankie, and the three bond over tattoos and metal music. From there, the relationship progresses quickly: Frankie names the narrator Lilith, and Matt and Lilith begin having sex while Frankie watches. Lilith simultaneously feels a sense of belonging and a sense of disembodiment: “I started to be it, started to be Lilith, whoever she was. Something about me slipped away, a letting go.... I could only see him and Frankie, myself an object to bring them pleasure. Benign neglect, how peonies thrive.” But the same recklessness that draws the three together eventually forges cracks in their shared relationship; Frankie is controlling, and Lilith’s forceful desire fuels the fire: “I wanted to know what it would be like to carry a bad habit all the way through.” Nash writes with psychological precision, capturing Lilith’s volatile shifts between directionless frustration, self-destructiveness, ambivalence, and vulnerable need. This is a complex, impressive exploration of obsession and desire that gives new meaning to the famous quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.”
Wade in the Water
History is in a hurry,” writes Smith in her first collection since the Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars, and these lyrical meditations on class, environmental threat, and America’s bloody heritage prove that the current U.S. poet laureate is plenty capable of keeping up with that “ship forever setting sail.” Readers familiar with Smith’s work will feel at home in “this dark where the earth floats.” Some poems inhabit a more boldly theological space than does previous work, yet Smith’s sense of the numinous stays appealingly grounded, as when she describes the “everlasting self” as “Gathered, shed, spread, then/ Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love/ From a lifetime ago, and mud/ A dog has tracked across the floor.” Whether presenting a sardonic erasure of the Declaration of Independence or dramatizing the correspondence between black Civil War soldiers and their wives, Smith nimbly balances lyricism and direct speech. In “Annunciation,” she boldly states, “I’ve turned old. I ache most/ To be confronted by the real,/ the pitiless, the bleak.” But a wry playfulness leavens her weightier concerns, and she leaves a small window open on her private self: “Flying home, I snuck a wedge of brie, and wept/ Through a movie starring Angelina Jolie.” Smith remains a master whose technical skill enhances her emotional facilities, one ever able to leave readers “feeling pierced suddenly/ By pillars of heavy light.”
The arresting opening of Australian author Viskic’s terrific debut finds PI Caleb Zelic holding the bloody body of Senior Constable Gary Marsden, a close friend who has been brutally tortured and slaughtered in his Melbourne home. Caleb drove over a short time before after receiving a text message from Gary saying that someone named Scott was after him. Since there’s no sign of forced entry, Caleb wonders why Gary would have admitted his killer. The circumstances of the murder lead the police to suspect that Gary was involved in something dirty. They also suspect Caleb, because Gary was working on an insurance case for Caleb’s PI firm. After Caleb is attacked, he seeks refuge with his ex-wife, Kat, in their hometown of Resurrection Bay. The hearing-impaired Caleb must rely on his keen ability to read faces as he tries to figure out whom, if anyone, he can trust. The truth behind the violence is both stunning and fairly clued, and Caleb is a sufficiently complex lead to easily sustain a series. James Ellroy and Paul Cleave fans will relish this hard-edged crime novel.
Killing King: Racial Terrorists, James Earl Ray, and the Plot to Assassinate Martin Luther King Jr.
Researchers Wexler (America’s Secret Jihad) and Hancock (Shadow Warfare) bolster their contention that the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was the product of a conspiracy, in agreement with the 1979 findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The authors conclude there were at least nine such attempts over a decade, and the “solution to King’s murder is simple[;] the same kind of racists who had been trying to kill King for years had finally succeeded.” Their evidence comes in part from extensive interviews with Donald Nissen, an ex-con who, in 1967, reported to the FBI that he had been approached by a fellow prisoner at Leavenworth Prison about sharing a bounty of $100,000 for helping to kill King. The authors also link King’s murder to the 1964 murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; they believe both were orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan. While it may be overly optimistic to hope, as the authors do, for a reopening of the case by federal authorities 50 years after the assassination, they credibly argue that the many unanswered questions remaining would warrant such a step. This book provides an eye-opening, well-researched new perspective on King’s murder.
The Female Persuasion
Wolitzer's ambitious and satisfying novel (following The Interestings) charts a Massachusetts girl's coming-of-age and asks pressing questions about what it means to be an empowered modern woman. When "selectively and furiously shy" freshman Greer Kadetsky first encounters 63-year-old feminist icon Faith Frank's impassioned rhetoric during a guest lecture at her college, she is bowled over by Frank's knowledge and intimidating stature. A few years after graduation, Greer lands a coveted job at Frank's Loci Foundation, a new speakers' forum dedicated to sharing women's stories, and couldn't be more excited about what her future might hold. But life throws a few curveballs. Her high school sweetheart, now a hotshot consultant, endures an unfathomable tragedy and moves back into his childhood home, disrupting the couple's plans to move in together. And, while her job at the foundation started out exhilarating and full of big ideas, the once-wide-eyed Greer has gained a more realistic perspective a few years in—including a nuanced understanding of a more human Frank. As in her previous novels, Wolitzer writes with an easy, engrossing style, and her eye for detail seamlessly connects all the dots in the book's four major story lines. This insightful and resonant novel explores what it is to both embrace womanhood and suffer because of it.