This week: Ben Fountain's new essay collection, plus Kate Atkinson's spy thriller.
A National Book Award finalist for Dark at the Crossing, former Marine Ackerman tells the heartbreaking story of a relationship caught up in the aftermath of war. Eden and Mary are happily married with a child on the way when Eden is deployed for his second tour in Iraq. After an accident leaves Eden’s best friend dead and Eden barely alive, he returns home on a stretcher covered in severe burns and is unable to return to the life he’d led before. Mary, meanwhile, cares for their infant daughter and must wrestle with the hard decision of whether to take Eden off of life support. She is full of resentment and guilt, unable to forgive herself for letting him leave for war. Eden’s best friend narrates—caught in limbo between this world and the next—and hovers over their lives, connecting to both in unexpected ways. He offers a bird’s-eye view of the pain and suffering of both Mary and Eden as they struggle separately to make peace with Eden’s imminent death. This is a deeply touching exploration of resentment, longing, and loss among those who volunteer to fight and the loved ones left behind.
Told with arresting honesty and strength, this graphic novel conjures a grim vision of growing up in late-1990s South Korea. Rebelling against her abusive father and teachers who routinely beat her, 16-year-old Pearl smokes, slacks off at school, and runs with the bad-girls crowd. Yet her situation is well-adjusted compared to her fellow delinquents, especially her best friend, Jeong-Ae, who survives in chaotic poverty and is already dabbling in sex work. Pearl and Jeong-Ae run away together, try to get work in a hostess bar, and share a seedy motel room. When they’re finally forced to give up, only Pearl has a home, however unhappy, left to go back to. Reflecting as a comfortable, mostly happy adult, she can barely believe she escaped her hometown: “Even now I feel relieved when I realize I don’t have to get a beating,” Pearl marvels. Yet for all its bleak moments, the book has a tender warmth. Ancco evokes the confused excitement of adolescence: realizing adults can’t be relied on, standing up for yourself, trusting in friendship. In sharp, kinetic charcoal lines that seem in constant danger of toppling off the page, she renders a hostile world of monotone classrooms shadowy alleys, Oppa lovers, and the defiant girls who stand out from the crowd. Stunning in its stark look at child abuse, and empathy for its characters, Ancco’s artfully told story grabs the reader’s attention and never lets go.
Atkinson’s suspenseful novel (following A God in Ruins) is enlivened by its heroine’s witty, sardonic voice as she is transformed from an innocent, unsophisticated young woman into a spy for Britain’s MI5 during WWII. Initially recruited to transcribe secretly recorded conversations between British fascist sympathizers who think they are conspiring with the Gestapo, Juliet Armstrong is one day given an infiltration assignment (and a gun), during which she discovers an important document—and just like that, she becomes an undercover agent. Her growing realization of the serious nature of what at first seems like an “espionage lark” is made more intriguing by her attraction to her enigmatic boss. Juliet finds herself running a safe house for a Russian defector until the war’s end, after which she lives in an unspecified location abroad for decades. It’s in the 1970s that agents return and insist that she get back in the game as a double agent, and she realizes there’s no exit. If Atkinson initially challenges credibility because Juliet slides too quickly from being a naive 18-year-old into a clever escape artist and cool conspirator, her transition into idealistic patriot and then ultimately jaded pawn in the espionage world is altogether believable. The novel’s central irony is that the desperation for victory in a noble cause later becomes tainted with ruthless political chicanery. The book ends on an uncertain note for Juliet, a poignant denouement for this transportive, wholly realized historical novel.
A chimney sweep disappears from a London rooftop, leaving six-year-old Nan Sparrow alone, save for a hat and a lump of mysteriously ever-warm charcoal—her char. To survive, Nan joins a gang of “climbing boys” owned by the abusive Wilkie Crudd. By age 11, she is the finest sweep of them all, but following a brutal chimney fire, she discovers that her char has become a golem, which she names Charlie, and that he has saved her life. As the two hide from Crudd, Nan grows to love Charlie and his particular brand of magic, and she learns that golems are, by nature, ephemeral: if Charlie can flame up, he can almost certainly flame out. A cast of fully fleshed (and sooted) characters contribute texture and community, and Auxier (The Night Gardener) mixes moments of triumph and pure delight (new snow, rooftop vistas) with dark, Dickensian themes (child labor, sickness, poverty). Told in two allusive sections—“Innocence” and “Experience,” after Blake’s volume—that pivot between Nan’s past and present, this dazzling, warmhearted novel contemplates selflessness and saving, deep love and what makes a monster. Ages 8–12.
The six superlative and entertaining stories of Eisenberg’s fifth collection (after 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes) mostly follow the wayward lives of upper-class Americans whose tragic vanities exaggerate the common human qualities that undermine all types of people. The title story follows a painter who has lost her way and finds it again in the tropical home of a volatile and exploitative wealthy couple. The amazing “Taj Mahal” introduces a cast of aging golden-era film stars who have gathered to debunk, complain about, and revel in the scathing memoir written by the grown son of the director who was once the center of their circle. The debasements and excesses of the Trump era are a frequent inspiration if not a subject—“Merge,” which bears an ironic epigraph from the current president (“I know words. I have the best words.”), is a novella-length mystery about the ne’er-do-well son of a captain of industry, who is guided in an epistolary quest by his weirdo lover. Eisenberg is funny, grim, biting, and wise, but always with a light touch and always in the service of worlds that extend far beyond the page. A virtuoso at rendering the flickering gestures by which people simultaneously hide and reveal themselves, Eisenberg is an undisputed master of the short story.
The craziness of the 2016 presidential campaign fed on deep currents in American history, according to these caustic essays. Novelist Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, recaps election highlights in several chapters of vivid reportage, including colorful profiles of the candidates in Iowa—a Hillary Clinton he sees as both competent and corrupt; an excessively religious, cynical Ted Cruz; a Bernie Sanders who comes across as a hectoring grandpa presiding over a hipster rave of a rally—and a panorama of the bullying politics and batty conspiracy theorizing at the Republican National Convention. Other essays explore the psychic allure of a Kentucky gun show; the history of racialized American policing from slave patrols to the Ferguson riots; the legacy of the New Deal and the decades-long Republican fight to undo it. Fountain’s vivid prose shows the novelist’s knack for revealing character through gesture and physicality—candidate Trump’s overbearing speechifying, he writes, woos audiences with a “confiding stream-of-consciousness slurry like the boss’s arm draped over your shoulder, trusting you above all others”—and offers a shrewd analysis of how Trump’s supporters felt liberated by his assaults on political correctness. Whip-smart and searching in its indictment of cant and falsity, this is perhaps the best portrait yet of an astounding election.
In 1944, 17-year-old Japanese-American Haruko, from Colorado, and German-American Margot, from Iowa, are imprisoned with their families in a Department of Justice–run internment camp for “enemy aliens” suspected by the U.S. government of being spies. (The camp differs from WWII War Relocation Authority–run camps to which West Coast Japanese residents were relocated en masse, an author’s note explains.) Although the two groups in the Texas camp rarely mix, the young women are immediately drawn to each other. Both are experiencing family problems: Haruko worries about her brother, who is serving in the U.S. Army’s Japanese division, and wonders what her father had to do with her family’s relocation; Margot’s father finds himself courted by Nazi idealists as their situation worsens, and her pregnant mother fears yet another miscarriage. Camp life, with its daily indignities and occasional tragedies, grows tense, and the two girls find their friendship intensifying. Hesse (The Girl in the Blue Coat) draws Margot and Haruko realistically and sympathetically, bolstered by research into WWII internment camps, in a moving book that successfully describes an unjust aspect of U.S. history. Ages 12–up.
Authors Kashner (Sinatraland) and Schoenberger (Furious Love) examine the tangled lives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her younger sister Lee B. Radziwill in this fascinating biography. The story of the two famous sisters begins with their idyllic childhood at the Bouvier summer home in East Hampton, N.Y. At times, they are close conspirators (as seen on a sojourn in France when they were young), and at others jealous, competitive, and nearly estranged (Kennedy Onassis left not even “a trinket” to Radziwill in her will). The authors recreate the turbulent years when the elder sister was First Lady, bringing readers back to the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of JFK (and, later, Sen. Robert Kennedy). While Jackie struggled to rebuild her life, eventually marrying Aristotle Onassis and later becoming an editor at Doubleday, Radziwill fell for offbeat photographer Peter Beard, divorced her second husband, opened an interior design business, and married (and divorced) a film director. Readers drawn to the Kennedy mystique will savor this intricate chronicle rife with romance, tragedy, and surprising details, such as that Jackie may have helped choose JFK’s paramours. The authors provide an intimate view of two sisters, both famous in their own rights.
Serre’s first work to be translated into English is a hypnotic tale of three governesses and the sensuous education they provide. Roaming the country estate of a staid married couple, Monsieur and Madame Austeur, Inès, Laura, and Eléonore are not exactly Jane Eyre types. Prone to Dionysian frenzies, they lounge naked in the sun or bound about like deer. Should any passerby fall “into the trap of their vast, lunar privacy,” they pounce upon, seduce, and devour him (“in a ladylike manner”) to sate their ungovernable desires. This could be the setup for a neo-pagan farce about the battle between Eros and civilization, but as Serre delves into the three women’s existence, the novel taps into deeper, quieter waters: the Keatsian twinning of joy and melancholy. “It was life itself advancing,” Monsieur Austeur thinks upon witnessing the governess’s mysterious arrival, while sensing that each of these hedonistic women harbors an unknowable secret and ineradicable sadness. He provides a sense of order to counterbalance their chaos, and indeed, the same could be said about the work’s steely prose. On the neighboring estate, an old, solitary man watches the voluptuous displays through a telescope, his omnipresent gaze at once leering, reverent and affirming. Serre’s wistful ode to pleasure is as enchanting as its three nymph-like protagonists.
In Small’s haunting coming-of-age tale, 13-year-old Russell Pruitt grows like a determined weed in the wake of masculinity so toxic it has literally killed a menagerie of pets in the small California town where he lives with his troubled father. The mystery of the mangled animals is one of several dark threads in Small’s fictional follow-up to his critically acclaimed memoir, Stitches. In a hero’s-journey narrative punctuated by episodic adventures, Russell searches for a sense of “home,” as Small again juxtaposes the horrors of an unhappy childhood with the bleak underbelly of 1950s and ’60s America illustrated with his signature fine pen lines and grey wash. Even the grill of his father’s Buick growls menacingly. The men and boys in Russell’s life are absent, monstrous, victimized, or all of the above; Russel’s entrapment takes physical form when he’s stuck in an abandoned drainage tunnel in the arroyo. His Chinese-immigrant landlords show him kindness, but being young, angry, and white, Russell doesn’t see it, at least not at first. The story traffics in archetypes—the mean kid who frames the weirdo; the festering cruelty beneath the idyllic small-town facade—but never tips over into trite. With strikingly few words, Small tells Russell’s story in close-ups of bullies’ sneers and bird’s-eye views of parking lots. Cats, dogs, lions, and other animals haunt Russell’s waking life and his dreams, perhaps because he, too, fights tooth and claw to survive. In depicting the toll of the harsh environment surrounding these lost boys, Small unearths an (almost) impossible tenderness.
Colombian novelist Vásquez (Reputations) is author, narrator, and protagonist of this clever, complex novel about political crimes, cover-ups, conspiracies, and conspiracy theories. In 2005, Vásquez meets conspiracy enthusiast Carlos Carballo at a respected Bogotá surgeon’s home. Carballo voices suspicions regarding 9/11, Princess Di, and Vásquez’s uncle. During their next encounter, Carballo reveals obsessions with assassinations, Orson Welles, and writing a novel. When the surgeon asks Vásquez to befriend Carballo in order to find out if Carballo has stolen assassination artifacts from the surgeon’s collection, Vásquez makes a guest appearance on Carballo’s talk radio program, then agrees to write the novel Carballo envisions, which will expose links between Colombian conservatives and two assassinations: presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1948) and General Rafael Uribe Uribe (1914). As he explores suppressed evidence, vanished witnesses, and distorted reports, Vásquez is left with more questions than answers. The novel, bolstered by humor and irony, includes photos, literary references, and intimate family moments, but the most memorable passages depict the assassinations and their aftermath. Vásquez’s captivating, disquieting account of a writer’s journey through the shadowy terrain of his country’s past dynamically illustrates how violence damages survivors, lies erode society, and fiction can convey truths history omits.
With this elegantly twisted retelling of the birth of a monster, White (Beanstalker and Other Hilarious Scarytales) resurrects the Gothic tale of survival found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which turns 200 this year. Rescued from an abusive caregiver at age five, Elizabeth Lavenza is brought to the Frankenstein family’s villa to act as companion to young Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant child prone to rage. Elizabeth becomes everything to Victor—his champion and protector, his friend and confidante—and hones her manipulative talents. But when the errant genius leaves the family to study and doesn’t write for almost two years, leaving Elizabeth open to possible dismissal from the Frankenstein home, she enlists the aid of her friend Justine to track him down. What she discovers in a strange Bavarian town is another link in a chain of horror that only grows after he’s found. Skillful worldbuilding and foreshadowing steadily build suspense to a breathtaking climax. Fans of psychological horror will luxuriate in the familiar feel of the timeless story and thrill at its unexpected twists. Ages 12–up.