This week: a James Baldwin children's book, plus a contemporary and provocative take on 'Frankenstein.'
"Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Jimmy!” James Baldwin’s nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart, pestered him, “When are you going to write a book about me?” Baldwin took up the project with utter seriousness, and the result has the weight and significance of a novel. Originally published to little fanfare in 1976, the book went out of print soon afterward; Duke University Press is now reissuing it, following its discovery in the writer’s archives by a young scholar. Baldwin’s day-in-the-life account of his nephew’s New York City neighborhood revolves around four-year-old TJ, the youngest boy on the block; seven-year-old WT, watched over by TJ’s family (“WT father gone. His Mama work till past dark”); and their neighbor, eight-year-old Blinky. The three spend hours together playing ball, jumping rope, and making each other laugh. WT and Blinky look out for TJ, and TJ chafes under WT’s constant gaze (“WT always want to sound like he so grown-up”), but he loves him, too (“He a pain but he really beautiful”). Seen through TJ’s eyes and written in the black English Baldwin celebrated, the story views the life of his family and their neighborhood in a swirl of impressions, memories, and anxieties (“He always got this feeling that maybe something awful done happened to his Mama and Daddy”). Raw moments—the drug-induced stupor of WT’s older brother, the fraught marriage of the janitor, Mr. Man, and his wife, Miss Lee—alternate with scenes of deep warmth: TJ’s Daddy saying “I want you to be proud of your people” and the description of TJ’s Mama (“She love TJ and she tell him everything he need to know, like every time he ask her a question she give him a straight answer”). French artist Cazac’s scribbly-line spreads and vignettes, tinted with watercolor, seem charged with electricity. Through luminous prose and fine observation, readers come to care deeply about TJ and his friends, and they’ll wish their story didn’t end so soon. Ages 10–up.
Bennett’s stunning fantasy, the first in a series, is set in Tevanne, a city-state run by four merchant houses, funded by pillaging nearby lands and powered by scrivers who use sigils to make devices that defy reality. When talented thief Sancia Grado steals a sentient golden key named Clef, she’s pursued by paladin-like police captain Gregor Dandolo, scion of the Dandolo merchant house. Clef and Sancia are both shocked when they find they can communicate telepathically. This and Sancia’s other abilities—linked to a painful scar on her skull—hint at strange, terrible things in her past. When someone tries to kill Gregor to get Sancia, they discover that a very ambitious and powerful figure is building something that could “annihilate scriving on a mass scale,” a disastrous disruption of Tevanne’s society. With a little help from Gregor and Clef; Orso Ignacio, the eccentric Dandolo head of research; scriver Berenice Grimaldi; and other singularly skilled allies, Sancia sets out to pull off the most dangerous theft of her life. The endlessly inventive Bennett (the Divine Cities trilogy) brings humor and empathy to his portrayal of Sancia, a dark-skinned woman who bears substantial physical and psychological scars from being enslaved and experimented on, and who deeply resents her unwanted talents. Sancia and Clef’s friendship is poignant, and her journey of self-realization serves as a backbone for nearly nonstop, cleverly choreographed action sequences. This is a crackling, wonderfully weird blend of science fiction, fantasy, heist adventure, and a pointed commentary on what it means to be human in a culture obsessed with technology, money, and power.
According to history professor David Hazard, the sly narrator of Burgess’s masterly first novel, nothing ever happens in Little Compton, R.I., his hometown, but he’s soon proved wrong after he sets out from Boston on receiving a garbled phone message from his Grandma Maggie claiming that she found a body. David doubts there’s been a murder, but he fears that Maggie’s dementia is worsening. As he puts it, “in Maggie Hazard’s cockeyed world it could be high noon or three a.m., yesterday or 1957. Walking through the front door is like coming upon a play mid-scene.” When David arrives in Little Compton, he discovers Maggie’s best friend and next-door neighbor, Emma, is indeed lying dead on her kitchen floor. Was Emma murdered? Was Grandma remembering another incident? And who is wealthy Marcus Rhinegold, whose sudden appearance in town has started tongues wagging? In his search for answers, David stumbles on more family secrets than he could ever have imagined. Elegant prose, a veritable Chinese box of puzzles, and authentic, well-rounded characters make this a standout.
Carpenter follows her debut, 2013’s Eleven Days, with a beautifully written spy novel told in short segments, many of them narrated by a nameless CIA officer. Successful banker and stockbroker Noel spied for the CIA for 30 years. During this time, his wife, Lulu, abandoned the family, and Noel was left to raise their precocious child, Anna, alone. When Noel dies, Anna tries to piece together her father’s life in the face of accusations that he was really a spy for the Chinese. The nameless CIA agent, who was Noel’s protégé and is now missing, is wanted by the CIA for unofficially exfiltrating a Chinese double agent, who was recruited by Noel. Where most thrillers showcase familiar tips on spy craft and weaponry, Carpenter depicts the more esoteric and often byzantine facets of intelligence work. She skips the easy morality of guns, patriotic loyalty, and heroic action to slowly disclose the complexities of the secret world and how it relates to the human heart. Readers should not expect to come away satisfied with pat solutions, but rather to be seduced and enthralled with the far more challenging questions that arise and are sometimes, as in life, left unanswered.
Dey (Stunt) brings readers into the unique world of “the territory,” a secluded town in the upper reaches of North America founded by a charismatic cult leader. The 391 residents live in an infinitely extended 1985, listening to Billy Joel and watching Dallas reruns in complete seclusion from the outside world. After Pony Darlene Fontaine’s mother leaves her and her father (known as “The Heavy”), Pony re-examines the rituals and conditions of her exile, while navigating her own girlhood. Subsequent chapters shift the perspective to the Fontaines’ dog, and then Pony’s crush, the boy known as Supernatural, as they join in the search for the vanished Billie Jean Fontaine. But it’s not the plot, the characters, or even the premise that makes this novel so extraordinary—it’s the voice, which is so utterly unusual and authentic as to seem like it’s really coming from a world of total isolation, turning up glittering aphorisms such as “Complaint is a form of self-degradation. Hardship is a matter of perception.” And yet, Pony’s inner self is as complex and vivid as any teenage girl’s; at one point she thinks, “I am the softest thing going.” Dey strips away the trappings of modernity to show what humans truly are at base, while eschewing the usual cult narrative. The result is a whole-cloth, word-for-word triumph of imagination.
In this sharp and provocative novel from Haddad (Rochester Knockings), Cédric Erg is a journalist who’s made a name for himself by targeting Big Pharma and the oil industry, all the while hiding the fact that his father is Morice Allyn-Weberson, head of a giant pharmaceutical lab. Cédric’s built a life he’s happy with, until a freak accident on a ship leaves him paralyzed from the neck down. Cédric is made an offer to be the first person in history to undergo a full body transplant, as a brain-dead patient whose body was otherwise preserved has just arrived at the hospital. Trapped in the prison of his broken body, Cédric agrees to the transplant, and against all odds, it seems to succeed. Though Cédric is now hailed as a modern medical miracle, he can never go back to the life he once had; besides the strange body he now occupies, his true identity as Cédric Allyn-Weberson has been revealed. With nothing to tether him to the life he’d created, Cédric goes to Italy to learn more about the person whose body he now inhabits, in the hopes that understanding who his body was will help his brain figure out who Cédric will have to be. Haddad’s fabulously imagined, deeply intelligent, and vividly realized modern parable—complete with moments of true horror—sizzles as it grapples with the question of what makes a self, and if it’s ever possible to separate soul from flesh.
In this cockeyed Western, a pink, half-coyote, half-dog cowgirl named Coyote gallops across the prairie on her faithful horse, Red, “pursued by guys” but mostly luxuriating in the ride. She falls in with a tribe of seemingly friendly wolves in Native American garb, but as the guys persistently tail them, she can only delay a showdown with her pursuers for so long. Hanawalt (Hot Dog Taste Test) is best known for idiosyncratic gag cartoons and design work on the black humor animated series Bojack Horseman. This graphic novel showcases plenty of her trademark off-kilter wit as the characters engage in casual violence and anachronistic dialogue. (“I like your top,” a wolf says, checking out Coyote’s cowhide shift. “Did you make it from scratch?”) But there’s sincerity imbued in the book’s appreciation of nature, the frontier spirit, and, above all, horses; Coyote’s bond with Red is the central love story. Hanawalt draws simple anthropomorphic characters (the horses are rendered with more realism and care)—colored in vivid preschool watercolors—and sketches in maps and inventories of riding supplies. The hilarious, bloody journey unfolds with a childlike sense of adventure, bigger and brighter than life, shot through with a snarky adult sensibility.
The sights, sounds, and family activities of a Norwegian summer spark Knausgaard’s imagination in this expansive, engrossing meditation on everything, the final volume of a series loosely inspired by the seasons. Norwegian novelist Knausgaard (My Struggle) offers 54 short essays about deceptively mundane topics, from lawn sprinklers and cats to ice cream, bicycles, and “repetition,” each one opening out from naturalistic observation or scientific lore into grand metaphor. “Ice Cubes,” for instance, begins with the “rustling or clinking sound when the glass they are floating around in is moved,” and concludes that “motion and heat cannot be preserved, only reborn, only projected ever further, which gives life its hysterical and manic aspect.” Interspersed throughout are diary entries that recount domestic minutiae—the weather, landscapes, shopping, barbecuing, and the constant chauffeuring of kids—before expanding into ruminations on, among other things, Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, the difference in perspective between adults and children, and a narrative about a Norwegian woman falling in love with a German officer during WWII. Knausgaard’s writing is rambling, pensive, and neurotic—he’s ashamed of his narcissism, and of being ashamed of his narcissism—but also ruthlessly frank about himself and endlessly curious about the world. Always intriguing despite its seemingly banal subject, Knausgaard’s prose evokes universal themes from intimate specifics.
Kurdi’s intimate and tragic account of her family’s escape from civil war–torn Syria illuminates the human element of the refugee crisis. Kurdi had immigrated to Canada long before the war; after the war was underway, her siblings’ families fled the country. Her sister-in-law and nephews drowned while attempting to cross from Istanbul to Kos, Greece, and her nephew Alan became an emblem of the refugee crisis when a photograph of him lying dead on a Turkish beach went viral. Kurdi begins with recollections of her “jasmine-scented” Damascus childhood before movingly describing her life in Canada, the crushing fear and anxiety she felt as her five siblings and their families attempted the dangerous border-crossing into Turkey, and her frustration with the inaction of the Canadian government and the UN to help the refugees. “The refugees were victims of terrorism and global geopolitics,” she writes, “yet they were increasingly viewed with the same suspicion and hostility as the terrorists they had barely managed to escape.” But she also highlights moments of kindness and love in Canada, Germany, Syria, and elsewhere. This is a moving tale of displacement, tragedy, and family.
With enormous insight, British writer Lucas (My Box-Shaped Heart) shares the thoughts of high schooler Grace and brings readers into the experiences of a teen with Asperger’s. Grace is fine when she’s at the stables with her beloved horse, Mabel; it’s when she’s in public that she starts having trouble. While Grace’s best friend, Anna, and younger sister, Leah, seem to know instinctively what to say and how to act in every situation, Grace is always making blunders: “Sometimes I feel like everyone else was handed a copy of the rules and mine got lost,” she says. Nonetheless, her crush, Gabe, has become interested in her, and being around him is a lot less awkward than Grace expects. Things are looking up, but there are still people who make her miserable, particularly her long-time nemesis, Holly, and her mother’s obnoxious friend Eve. Grace’s keen sense of humor and honesty are irresistible, and the book exudes positivity and warmth, with a whole crew of individuals—Grace’s family, Anna, ever-patient Gabe, and stable-owner Polly—respectfully walking alongside Grace. Ages 13–18.
Marcus’s refined and uncompromising third story collection (following Leaving the Sea), dissects the American experience through language that is always precise, unexpected, and alive. In the tone-setting first story, “Cold Little Bird,” a 10-year-old boy’s sudden aversion to affection threatens to dismantle his parents’ marriage. Two married architects attempt to build a potentially unbuildable memorial for a terrorist attack in the excellent “Blueprints for St. Louis,” while a mother leaves her own family to care for the husband and sons of her recently deceased sister in “The Boys.” The somewhat straightforward plots of these stories cede center stage to the brutal strangeness and ominous mood of Marcus’s language, which is best expressed in the collection’s centerpiece, “A Suicide of Trees,” a nightmarish tale of a middle-aged man searching for his missing father. Throughout, each story features moments of considered, lacerating prose (“A husband, these days, is a bag of need with a dank wet hole in its bottom. The sheer opposite of a go bag.”) threaded together by sentences that, like a marionette’s strings, bring the world to full, expansive life. This is a bracing, forceful collection.
Lindsey Rakes, the troubled woman at the center of bestseller Parker’s terrific sequel to 2017’s The Room of White Fire, was once part of a team of U.S.-based drone operators attacking terrorists 7,500 miles away. The psychological toll of the work eventually sent her into a tailspin of drinking and gambling that cost her her family, but she’s now recovering. When Lindsey receives a death threat in the mail from someone who calls himself Caliphornia, she shares it with series lead Roland Ford, a San Diego, Calif., PI. Ford enlists the help of FBI agent Joan Taucher, who worries that the threat comes from “homegrown violent extremists.” The stakes rapidly rise after one of Lindsey’s former colleagues in Bakersfield is beheaded. The hunt for Caliphornia is suspenseful, the backstory behind the threats is disturbingly horrible, and the denouement is scary and satisfying. Parker deepens the narrative with musings on Ford’s life, the horrors and ambiguities of the war on terror, and the fine line between justice and vengeance.
Biographer (Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, etc.) and former Sunday Times literary editor Tomalin turns to her own life in this captivating and thorough memoir. Tomalin sets out to describe her “experience of the world,” beginning with what it was like to grow up in mid-20th-century England. Born in London in 1933, Tomalin had a sheltered childhood and was enthralled with books by Beatrix Potter. She was the daughter of composer Muriel Herbert and biographer Emile Delavenay, who once confided in Tomalin that he hated his wife at the time of Tomalin’s conception (they eventually divorced). This inauspicious beginning, however, thwarts neither her happiness nor her success, and Tomalin grows into a bright and charming young woman. In 1955 she married a well-known journalist, Nicholas Tomalin, who became the father of their five children (including a boy who died in infancy, a daughter who committed suicide, and a son born with spina bifida). In 1973 her husband was killed on assignment in Israel, and Tomalin buried “the ashes in the village graveyard, next to the grave of our baby son Daniel.” In London in the 1970s, Tomalin thrived amid a whirlwind of famous authors (among them, the young Martin Amis, with whom she has an affair). In her 50s, she concentrated on writing biographies, and she describes this period as the “happiest time” of her career. Tomalin’s memoir is a gracious, inspiring look at her family, colleagues, and friends.