This week: the winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and more.
Carlino (Wish You Were Here) impresses and astonishes with this complicated, beautiful contemporary that shifts between past and present with devastating effect. Penny Piper and Gavin Berninger meet at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in a most unusual way: participating in a psych class experiment that has them kissing blindfolded. Little does either realize that kiss will be life-changing. Dance is Penny’s deepest passion, and she refuses to allow herself to fall in love with Gavin, even though she thinks the engineering student is drop-dead sexy. An accident ends Penny’s dancing dreams and leads to both Penny and Gavin making a series of terrible life decisions, and it seems that the two of them will never find their way back to each other, but after almost two decades, they get a second chance. Carlino’s sharp, incisive prose calls the traditional romance novel ending into question throughout. The expert characterizations and a constantly surprising plot are enthralling. Deep and complex, this heartbreaking and heartwarming tale will live in readers’ memories long after the final page is turned.
In this skillfully constructed secondary-world noir novel, having superpowers isn’t always so super, and everyone has something to hide. Eddie Enriquez is a former supervillain’s henchman turned upstanding PI with the power to see an item’s past. Kimberly Kline is Pinnacle City’s next big superhero, taking on the mantle of Solar Flare from her uncle. Kimberly and Eddie dig into the underbelly of the city together after a social justice activist lawyer is murdered by the genetically modified people he worked to protect. The conspiracy they uncover threatens to destroy the entire superhero/supervillain system. The dual-perspective narrative keeps the reader in suspense while exploring the two very different worlds that Eddie and Kimberly inhabit within the same city. Though the focus is on the enormity of the protagonists’ task, the authors go out of their way to make readers care about Pinnacle City’s ordinary residents as well. By allowing everyone to be a little morally grey, Carter and Titchenell spin a superhero story with staying power.
Language, artifice, and gender transition all come under scrutiny in this disarming and engrossing second collection from Charles (Safe Space). This 2017 National Poetry Series winner is composed in an idiosyncratic orthography (“a tran lik all metall is a series of sirfase in folde / wee call manie of thees foldes identitie”) and loosely centered in a “feemale depositrie room.” The collection undoes easy divisions between interior and exterior or science and nature, such as when the estrogen from a mare’s urine becomes central to an ecosystem of gender transition usually thought of only in medical terms. As Charles writes, “i cant aford not 2/ nede / a mare.” The poems’ unusual spelling, a bravura pattern somewhere between Old English and modern phonetic, can be disorienting at first. But careful phrasing and simple forms studded with slashes draw the reader into the variety of possibilities these spelling choices offer, creating a surprising, if challenging, intimacy. Even seemingly straightforward spelling variations offer rich associations, such as when “our” becomes simply “r” or when “invagination” becomes “invagynation.” Throughout, readers are subject to a careful recalibration of values, as Charles shows that a form is not important because it is static but rather because of the ways it changes, moves, and is perceived.
Former New York Times jazz critic Chinen charts a brilliant and wide-ranging new history of jazz. Tracing the evolution of the genre over the past 50 years, he demonstrates that no strict definition of jazz exists; it’s a volatile and generative music without fixed boundaries or rules. Chinen demonstrates the creative multiplicity of jazz by profiling diverse jazz artists and their contributions to and permutations of the art form. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, for example, on his most recent album, The Epic, “crashes through an Afrocentric range of styles: surging hard-bop, steroidal jazz-funk, viscous soul.” Chinen explains how pianist Vishay Iyer focuses on a body-based way of playing piano, contending that the rhythmic domains of music are the same that our bodies use—breathing, walking, talking; bandleader and saxophonist Wayne Shorter leads his quartet so that tempos and tonal centers are endlessly subject to flux; and saxophonist Steve Coleman incorporates non-Western musical influences, such as the music of Ghana, India, and Brazil, as well as hip-hop styles. Chinen also points to developing jazz ecologies around the world—in Benin, China, Iraq, South Korea—that illustrate the ways that the music continues to grow and develop. Chinen’s virtuoso jazz history will drive readers to listen to the music anew, or for the first time.
In Cotterill’s excellent 13th mystery, set sometime after 1980 in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos (after 2017’s The Rat Catcher’s Olympics), Dr. Siri Pauboun, the country’s national coroner, and his friend Chief Insp. Phosy Vongvichai, who’s a rare honest cop, have a grisly murder to solve. A night patrol has found a skeleton at the base of the Anusawari Victory Arch belonging to a woman who was apparently eaten by animals, possibly while she was still alive. The sensitive inquiry implicates a powerful official, placing Phosy’s career and life at risk. The crime may also be connected with illegal animal trafficking. A subplot involving Siri’s plans to produce a film based on War and Peace—and his navigating of the bureaucracy to get the project green-lit—provides comic relief from what would otherwise be a grim tale. Wry prose (“Life sped by in Vientiane like a Volkswagen van on blocks”) also lightens the mood. The eccentric Siri, who’s possessed by spirits (including those of a dog, his dead mother, and a transvestite fortune-teller), continues to stand out as a unique and endearing series sleuth.
Veteran short story author and Shirley Jackson Award cofounder Cox (coeditor of Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic) brings sly humor and a tone that’s nostalgic, quintessentially American, and unfailingly uncanny to this haunting and excellent first collection of 25 reprints and two new stories. In “The Amnesia Helmet,” an 11-year-old girl, inspired by Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, builds a device that more than exceeds her expectations. “The Deep End” is a horrifying tale of the unspeakable things lurking in a swimming pool’s drain. “Mary of the New Dispensation” is a mind-bending, exceedingly strange look at the Victorian-era spirit craze. Other stories, such as “Up Above the Dead Line,” “What They Did to My Father,” and the original title story, explore horrors that are sobering and more ordinary but no less affecting. Cox is a master of subtle, understated chills that lurk just behind the familiar, and each story conveys a solid sense of history and place. Readers who enjoy literary speculative fiction (with shades of Flannery O’Conner and, of course, Shirley Jackson) will find much to love: there’s not a disappointing tale in the bunch.
Despentes, a French author best known stateside for her feminist theory memoir King Kong Theory, delivers a forceful, visceral novel about femininity, violence, and personhood. It opens with Claudine, who is flashy, crude, and ambitious, and is willing to use her beauty and sexuality to achieve fame as a singer. Unfortunately, she has none of the talent to back it up. Enter her contemptuous twin, Pauline, who takes no interest in her appearance and looks like the sensual Claudine—but who has the voice Claudine needs. They have a fraught relationship, stemming from a childhood with abusive parents who introduced and then encouraged division between the two. Pauline’s boyfriend is in jail and her regular life is on hold, and so she has come to Paris. Soon after her arrival, Claudine commits suicide, and Pauline decides to lie about her identity, slipping into her sister’s life. What follows is a downward slide into the trap of femininity and beauty, which Pauline has rejected for as long as her sister has embraced it. As she falls further into her ruse, Pauline thinks, “I would have preferred not to know what I really am,” but perhaps who she becomes is less a reflection of her than it is of the male desires that have shaped her. Despentes’s novel is chilling and wonderful, coolly presenting the raw, jagged edge of womanhood.
Di Spigna argues that, although Joseph Warren (1741–1775) remains largely unknown, he was “one of the most important figures in the movement for independence,” a characterization amply supported by the evidence presented in this revealing and insightful biography. The doctor-turned-revolutionary wrote the Suffolk Resolves, “the pivotal documents that shaped the policies of the colonies on the eve of independence,” ran the rebels’ first spy ring, ordered Paul Revere’s midnight ride, and served as a military commander before George Washington. During the decade preceding his death, starting with the Stamp Act, “Warren was at the center of almost every major conflict” in the Boston area. He died at Bunker Hill in 1775 because he remained on the battlefield until his troops had all gone, and he was regarded as so dangerous by the British that his corpse was decapitated and mutilated. Di Spigna incorporates diligent research, enhanced by analysis of primary sources only he has tracked down (such as medical records Warren maintained for his practice), into a gripping narrative that doesn’t shy away from the darkness in his subject, including Warren’s family’s ownership of slaves. This book will give readers a fuller picture of American leadership before the active engagement of those now called the founding fathers.
Det. Constable Cat Kinsella, the heroine of British author Frear’s taut, psychologically twisted debut, always suspected that her father, Michael McBride, knew more than he let on about the disappearance of Maryanne Doyle, a teenager who went missing in 1998 when eight-year-old Kinsella and her family were on vacation in Mulderrin, Ireland. For one thing, Michael, a serial adulterer, was seen with Maryanne but later lied to the police about having had any contact with her. In 2016, Alice Lapaine, a part-time pub chef, is found murdered near the London pub frequented by Kinsella’s father. While working the case, Kinsella and her partner, Det. Sgt. Luigi Parnell, draw a frustrating blank around Alice’s life, and even her less-than-forthcoming husband, Thomas, is a weak suspect at best, until a routine DNA test reveals startling connections to the Doyle investigation. Kinsella knows she must tread carefully with this new information and decide how much, if any, of her own sordid family history she wants to make public. As the case takes its own twists and unexpected turns, just as fascinating are the mental gymnastics that Kinsella performs in an effort to keep her personal and professional lives from colliding. Readers will root for the spiky Kinsella, with her empathetic center, and hope to see more of her in future books.
Jackson, of Queen Mary University of London, comes as close to a definitive biography of Charles de Gaulle, one of the 20th century’s most protean figures, as may be possible. De Gaulle was seen as rebel and savior, patriot and internationalist, ideologue and pragmatist, colonialist and emancipator; a half-century after his death, historians have reached no consensus. Jackson’s de Gaulle is a man with an idea of France—but not always the same idea. He was sometimes moved by circumstance, as when he committed to resistance against the occupying Germans in 1940. At other times, he was influenced by relationships, such as his fraught wartime connections with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He backed himself into political corners, most spectacularly when forced into retirement in the early 1950s, but then made a triumphant comeback in 1958, when rebellion in Algeria and constitutional crisis in the metropole swept him into office as first president of the Fifth Republic (France’s current dual-executive republican system of governance). The political unrest of May 1968, which Jackson brilliantly describes, was the first stage in de Gaulle’s final exit. Jackson’s wide-ranging scholarship will dazzle academics, and his smooth synergy of narrative and analysis will engage general readers—who should not be daunted by the work’s more than 800 pages. This comprehensive book repays time and effort.
“I will/ never get over making everything/ such a big deal,” declares Limón (Bright Dead Things) in her gorgeous, thought-provoking fifth collection, in which small moments convey “the strange idea of continuous living.” Materialist rather than metaphysical, these poems are deeply concerned with interconnectedness: “my/ body is not just my body.” Flora and fauna suffuse these poems, and the green-ness is almost overwhelming, but Limón duly confronts life’s difficulties. “It’s taken/ a while for me to admit, I’m in a raging battle/ with my body,” she writes, facing bouts of vertigo and struggling to conceive a child: “perhaps the only thing I can make// is love and art.” She also tackles such social ills as misogyny, racism, and war. In “A New National Anthem,” she writes, “the truth is, every song of this country/ has an unsung third stanza, something brutal/ snaking underneath.” Limón’s typically tight narrative lyrics feature simple, striking images, (“Women gathered in paisley scarves with rusty iced tea”), and her unsettling dream poems avoid becoming exercises in surrealism. Four “letter-poems” to poet Natalie Diaz also demonstrate versatility, shifting into looser meditations that sprawl across the page. “I live my life half afraid, and half shouting/ at the trains when they thunder by,” Limón claims, but this fearless collection shows a poet that can appreciate life’s surprises.
In November 2015, McBee (Man Alive) became the first transgender man to fight a boxing match in Madison Square Garden, and this powerful book chronicles his training and his attempts at understanding why violence is accepted as an aspect of American masculinity. The book unfolds as a series of connected essays that explore masculinity in America, each spun from McBee’s experience training at boxing gyms around Manhattan in the five months leading up to the match. There are glimpses into the early stages of his transition, and a motif about being afraid of men all his life—including as a man, a fear he puts to rest by learning to box. McBee also writes about his current life as a man (“I was still adjusting to... the ease with which my ideas were often executed, the ways my expertise was assumed before I’d proven it”) and his own definition of manhood that allows men to be vulnerable, tender, and unafraid of failure, help, shame, or pain. McBee’s lyrical, achingly honest exploration of loss and maturation offers a hopeful antidote to more toxic forms of masculinity.
Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, this novel from Tokarczuk (House of Day, House of Night) is an indisputable masterpiece of "controlled psychosis," as one of the characters phrases it. Written in a cacophony of voices, the book's themes accumulate not from plot, but rather associations and resonances. It begins in Croatia, where a tourist, Kunicki, is lazily smoking cigarettes beside his car in an island olive grove, waiting for his wife and son to return from a short walk. Except they don't, and Kunicki must frantically search for his lost family in a sun-drenched paradise, 10 kilometers in diameter. The novel then, after some number of pages and disjointed narratives, joins the peculiar anatomist Dr. Blau's journey to the seaside village home of a recently deceased rival. This prompts the retelling of the sad, true tale of Angelo Soliman, born in Nigeria, who had lived as a dignified and respected Viennese courtier, only to be mummified and displayed by Francis I as a racial specimen "wearing only a grass band." This rumination on anatomy brings into the text the anatomist Philip Verheyen, born in 1648 in Flanders, who keeps his amputated leg, preserved in alcohol, on the headboard of his bed. The novel continues in this vein—dipping in and out of submerged stories, truths, and flights of fantasy stitched together by associations. Punctuated by maps and figures, the discursive novel is reminiscent of the work of Sebald. The threads ultimately converge in a remarkable way, making this an extraordinary accomplishment.