This week: Jules Feiffer's latest noir comic, plus how a mysterious European showman saved thousands of American babies
Brazil’s Bracher arrives in English with this brilliant, enigmatic rumination of a novel. Gustavo, a recently retired professor, prepares to sell his family home and move away from São Paulo. The process triggers a flood of reminiscences about his parents; his career; his wife, Eliana; and his involvement with the resistance to the military regime that seized Brazil in the 1960s. Gustavo relates how his arrest and torture by the authorities precipitated the killing of Eliana’s brother, Armando, even as he insists, “I didn’t talk.” Nevertheless, Gustavo reflects that the experience turned him into a “sad and troublesome monster.” He shunned responsibility and instead attempted to redeem himself as a father and an educator, even as “Armando was always there, submerged in my thoughts.” Bracher writes that “interrogation, doubt, and listening are ways of doing,” and her novel is more concerned with investigating the sublimation of guilt than it is in answering the question of whether or not Gustavo betrayed Armando. Her refusal to allow Gustavo “to stop and put all these old things in order” transforms what could have been a conventional story about coming to terms with the past into a potent portrait of an agitated mind. Bracher is a force to be reckoned with and has crafted a haunting, powerful novel.
Chariandy's powerful and incendiary second novel (following Soucouyant) probes the ramifications of police violence on marginalized communities and delivers a nuanced portrait of a family struggling to stay afloat as circumstances stack against them. Set during the summer of 1991 in the Park, a suburban Toronto housing complex, the narrative tracks the coming of age of two mixed-heritage brothers as they cling to and ultimately test the patience of their hardworking Trinidadian single mother, "one of those black mothers unwilling to either seek or accept help from others." During the boys' teen years, sensitive Michael fumbles through his first real relationship with Aisha, a girl from the block and "the sort of girl the world considers 'an example' or 'the exception,' " while his streetwise and volatile older brother, Francis, becomes obsessed with the city's burgeoning hip-hop scene. Unfortunately, Francis's passion for music doesn't quell his problem with authority, and a run-in with the police at a local hangout turns violent, with devastating consequences. Told from Michael's perspective, the novel presents a grim reality—gang shootings, entrenched racism and fear, lack of opportunity, and loss. But instead of relying on stale stereotypes, Chariandy imbues his resilient characters and their stories with strength, dignity, and hope. This is an impressive novel written by an author in total command of his story.
Feiffer concludes the remarkable trilogy that began with Kill My Mother and Cousin Joseph, inspired by the tropes of film noir and the historical reality of anticommunist witch hunts, in this feverish crime story. In 1950s Hollywood, everyone is talking about the legendary “Ghost Script,” a screenplay rumored to be floating around L.A. that supposedly reveals a real-world conspiracy behind the Hollywood blacklist. Some blacklisted screenwriters decide to turn the legend into reality, adding another maddening level to the confusion between truth and fiction that runs through the plot. Soon an expansive cast of characters is chasing the script, eager to either expose the red baiters or cover them up. Poor gumshoe Archie Goldman, nominally the protagonist, gets hired by interested parties on both sides but is barely able to keep up with the twists and turns. Feiffer has been drawing comics since before the era in which the book is set (one character mentions growing up reading The Spirit, which Feiffer worked on in the 1940s) and he shows off his mastery of the form with grace. The plot loops so often that it’s easy to lose threads, but the atmosphere of paranoia, censorship, and enforced patriotism thrums. Unsurprisingly for Feiffer, the strongest sections are the portraits of individual characters, squirming and dancing out their preoccupations. In this capstone to a graceful three-volume performance, Feiffer has an utterly unique take on crime fiction and crime comics, drawing with an energy that practically hurls the characters off the page.
Retired small-screen actress Poppy Harmon, the heroine of Hollis’s hilarious series launch set in California’s Coachella Valley, finds herself broke after the death of her conniving husband, who lost his job and all their money gambling without her knowledge. Regular work is not Poppy’s strength, so she takes inspiration from her old TV show, Jack Colt, PI, and fakes the requirements for her PI license. With Iris and Violet, two fellow residents of the Palm Leaf Retirement Village, she forms the Desert Flowers Detective Agency. After the ladies fail to attract clients, crafty Poppy enlists her daughter’s handsome wannabe-actor boyfriend as the agency’s face. Finally, aging actress Shirley Fox hires them to find her stolen jewels, the search for which leads to the uncovering of scandalous secrets and Poppy’s entanglement in a murder case. Pop culture references throughout add to the fun, and Hollis (Death of a Cookbook Author) wraps up the mystery with a truly surprising twist. Cozy fans will eagerly await the sequel.
The plot of Kumar’s droll and exhilarating second novel (following Nobody Does the Right Thing) may feel familiar at first, but this coming-of-age-in-the-city story is bolstered by the author’s captivating prose, which keeps it consistently surprising and hilarious. Indian immigrant Kailash arrives in New York in 1990 wide-eyed but also wry, self-aware, and intellectually thirsty. Kailash lives uptown and attends college, and soon has his first sexual experience, with the socially conscious Jennifer, a coworker at the bookstore where he works, who brings him hummus and takes him ice skating. After he and Jennifer break up, he begins to date the mischievous Nina, followed by a series of other young women; the novel’s seven parts are titled after Kailash’s romantic partners, his formal education intertwined with his personal education. Nina takes Kailash to Montana, where his memories of lovemaking are tangled with snippets of Victor Hugo, Wittgenstein, and the history of British colonialism in India. After several peregrinations, explorations, and women, Kailash lands back in Manhattan with a similarly academically curious woman named Cai Yan, who is also from India. Ultimately, his journey is more intellectual than physical, and the book includes a plethora of lively literary and cultural references in footnotes, sidebars, and illustrations. This novel is an inventive delight, perfectly pitched to omnivorous readers.
The late Argentine writer Pizarnik (Extracting the Stone of Madness) kindles a wildfire of rapturous desire amid a twilight landscape of irrecoverable love in these poems that were unpublished during her brief life. In her waking dreamland, Pizarnik’s speaker imagines herself atomized into water, night, silence, and death itself—exiled from the corporeal world because she cannot unlearn “how to read what the dust scrawls.” Throughout, the speaker oscillates between her imprisonment by emotion and her desire to escape her senses for the sake of sanity. “Drunk and I made love all night, just like a sick dog,” Pizarnik writes. Her speaker is constantly drawn into a type of masochism, behaving as both predator and prey to herself (“my words are keys that lock me into a mirror, with you, but ever alone”), and confesses her acceptance of misery, “All night, I know that abandonment is me, that the only moaning voice is me.” Demonstrating a deep vulnerability and admirable ability to set limits for her own distress, Pizarnik speaks “of burying everyday fear to secure the fear of an instant” while withholding judgment from others, affirming “to each her own absence.” Pizarnik’s lyrical journal details an unceasing heartbreak—lustful, paralyzing, and contagious.
The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies
Raffel (In the Year of Long Division) sheds a welcome light on a medical outlier whose landmark treatment of premature babies was largely dismissed because of the carnival setting in which he showcased their care. Pulling together documents, photos, and interviews, including some with now-elderly preemies who were among Couney’s incubator babies, Raffel traces the extraordinary life of Michael Cohn, born in 1869 in Krotoszyn, Poland, as he reinvents himself in America as Dr. Martin Couney, proud showman of tiny incubator babies—some as small as two pounds—in specialized facilities he constructed at world’s fairs and summer amusement parks across the country. What the medical world ignored—save Chicago pediatrician and father of neonatology Julius Hess, who deeply admired Couney and was profoundly influenced by his work—was the meticulous attention those fragile babies were given: frequent feedings by round-the-clock wet-nurses or with a “spoon-to-the-nose” maneuver, and even oxygen. The exhibits, Raffel finds, were “the forerunners of the modern premature nursery” eventually popularized by Hess and other pediatricians. It’s estimated Couney saved between 6,500 and 7,000 preemies brought to him by their parents, an extraordinary accomplishment at a time when few doctors were even attempting it. With colorful descriptions of the carnival world and the medical marvels of early neonatalogy, Raffel makes a fascinating case for this unusual pioneer’s rightful place in medical history.
Shaw’s second novel featuring Dr. Greta Helsing, doctor to the London undead (after Strange Practice), is a playfully witty confection spun from the setting of The Phantom of the Opera, sardonic yet a touch sweet, in which the elegant vampires of Helsing’s social set come up against an undisciplined coven of sparkly, eyeliner-loving youngsters. Greta, accompanied by her sophisticated friend Edmund Ruthven, arrives in Paris to give a last-minute talk at a supernatural medical conference, but unexpectedly encounters cute but misplaced baby monsters in her hotel room and an unsettling velvet-clad gentleman at the opera. Meanwhile, a pair of psychopomps investigates an influx of partial ghosts to the area around the former Cimitière des Innocents that could be a symptom of the universe unraveling. Readers will find Shaw a pleasing tour guide through the salons and catacombs. She moves smoothly between the ongoing stories of her returning characters and the immediate plot, and between pop culture references and innovation, framing London’s supernatural residents as delightfully normative while still capably evoking the frisson of the uncanny when desired. This series is a fine example of how much (un)life remains in the historical urban fantasy genre.
Vale steps up her game for the excellent second Legends of All Wolves paranormal (after The Last Wolf), which plays with alpha male dominance fantasy, strikingly explores the core werewolf conflict between civilization and the wild, and offers food for thought about “the nature of strength,” all in the context of a tense, high-energy plot concerning pack culture and politics. Elijah Sorensson, increasingly distressed by his life as a high-status Manhattan lawyer supporting the interests of the Great North Pack, prepares to come home to the Adirondacks permanently. His plans are complicated by his unexpected romance with a human and by the continued scheming of independent shifters against the already diminished pack. Vale does a brilliant job of developing werewolf culture, filling in details about rituals, pregnancy, and child-rearing that are sometimes surprising but always plausible. She begins with stereotypes of power but guides the reader into a much deeper contemplation of masculinity and the character of leadership while inverting many billionaire romance tropes. Vale’s nuanced exploration of werewolf concepts elevates this work above others in the genre.
In this narrative history backed up with detailed scholarship, Walker, professor of African-American educational studies at Emory University, sheds light on the mostly unsung heroes—black teachers, principals, and other school personnel—in the battle for equal education in the South leading up to Brown v. Board of Education. Drawing on two years of interviews and the long-hidden archives of lifelong education activist Horace Tate, a former Georgia state senator who was a school teacher and principal in his younger years, the author recounts how Tate and others secretly fought the “separate but equal” ethos to get roomier buildings, school buses, and other educational necessities for African-American pupils. Their work had to be clandestine because, Walker writes, “even those trying to fly under the radar who attempted to challenge inequality could pay with their livelihoods, their health and sometimes their lives.” Walker gleans facts and colorful details from documents like letters and meeting minutes to illuminate how the personable Tate and his colleagues, “masterly tricksters,” deliberately obfuscated their activist roles behind their docile public faces as teachers and principals. This well-told and inspiring tale, with its rarely discussed angle on the school segregation fight, will draw in readers interested in meaningful work and activism, or just a well-told tale.