This week: Gina Apostol's masterpiece, plus Jonathan Franzen's newest.
Apostol (Gun Dealer’s Daughter) fearlessly probes the long shadow of forgotten American imperialism in the Philippines in her ingenious novel of competing filmmakers. Chiara Brasi, daughter of the director of The Unintended, a Vietnam War movie shot in the Philippines, comes to Manila to make her own film. She hires Magsalin, a translator, to take her to the Philippine island of Samar (near where Magsalin was born) and the town of Balangiga, site of a brutal American massacre of revolutionaries in 1901 during the Philippine-American War. Chiara and Magsalin craft two very different scripts for the film. One script focuses on Cassandra Chase, a well-connected photographer who travels to the Philippines to produce stereographs of the American military’s actions. She faces extreme hostility from the soldiers, including the inexperienced and devoutly Catholic Capt. Thomas Connell. The second script more elusively follows Caz, a Filipino school teacher, who mourns the death of an eccentric film director she had an affair with in the 1970s. This is a complex and aptly vertiginous novel that deconstructs how humans tell stories and decide which versions of events are remembered; names repeat between scripts, and directors suddenly interrupt what feels like historical narration. Apostol’s layers of narrative, pop culture references, and blurring of history and fiction make for a profound and unforgettable journey into the past and present of the Philippines.
Braithwaite’s blazing debut is as sharp as the knife that twists in the chest of Femi, the now-dead boyfriend of Ayoola, whose boyfriends, curiously, seem to keep winding up dead in her presence. Femi makes dead boyfriend number three—each were killed in self-defense, according to Ayoola—and, per usual, Ayoola’s older sister, Korede, is called upon to help dispose of the body. The only confidante Korede has is a coma patient at the Lagos hospital where she works, which is the only place she can go to escape Ayoola. It is also where she can see the man she loves, a handsome and thoughtful doctor named Tade. Of course, this means that when the capricious Ayoola decides to start visiting her sister at work, she takes notice of him, and him of her. This is the last straw for Korede, who realizes she is both the only person who understands how dangerous her sister is and the only person who can intervene before her beloved Tade gets hurt, or worse. Interwoven with Korede, Ayoola, and Tade’s love triangle is the story of Korede and Ayoola’s upbringing, which is shadowed by the memory of their father, a cruel man who met a tragic and accidental death—or did he? As Korede notes when she considers her own culpability in her sister’s temperament: “His blood is my blood and my blood is hers.” The reveal at the end isn’t so much a “gotcha” moment as the dawning of an inevitable, creeping feeling that Braithwaite expertly crafts over the course of the novel. This is both bitingly funny and brilliantly executed, with not a single word out of place.
The Dyachenkos’ 2007 novel takes the trope of young people selected for a school for magic and transforms it into an unnerving, deeply philosophical coming-of-age tale. A mysterious man asks 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina to perform a series of bizarre, potentially humiliating tasks that lead to her admission to the enigmatic Institute of Special Technologies. There, students are confronted with unreadable texts and demanding professors, and their obedience is enforced by threats of harm to their families. Sasha excels at the mind-bending, body-transforming “special technologies”; her prodigious talent links her to the hidden mechanics of time, space, and reality itself. But there are no comforting elements of wish-fulfillment in this school story. Her ordeals are frequently harrowing, and all too often she seems nearly powerless in the face of forces that are manipulating and shaping her into something beyond mere humanity. She is nevertheless a sympathetic heroine, and readers will gladly follow her fascinating, disturbing story to its transcendent conclusion. Hersey’s translation is plain and straightforward, a wise choice that enhances the deep strangeness of this trippy, vivid novel.
Joe Talbert, last seen in Edgar-finalist Eskens’s debut, 2014’s The Life We Bury, is now a Minneapolis-based Associated Press reporter. In this brilliant sequel full of deeply developed characters, Talbert feels compelled to investigate after he runs across a story detailing the murder of Joe “Toke” Talbert, a person he never met but could have been his father, in the small southern Minnesota town of Buckley. A junk car collector rumored to be involved in more than a few felonious crimes, Toke could have been killed by any number of locals. Talbert’s search for answers becomes complicated when he discovers that Toke’s wife recently committed suicide and his late father stood in line to inherit millions. Eskens keeps readers guessing until the last pages in this darkly lyrical and brutally intimate story of one man’s journey of self-discovery.
A compulsive need to find order, and a love of birding, represent two of the central threads of this stimulating collection of previously published essays from novelist Franzen (Purity). In the opening essay, “The Essay in Dark Times,” Franzen self-identifies as “what people in the world of birding call a lister,” which makes him “morally inferior to birders who bird exclusively for the joy of it.” Throughout the essays that follow, Franzen muses about writing, Edith Wharton, climate change, Antarctica, the photographs of Sarah Stolfa, and birds, always birds. Some of his opinions have already stoked controversy: In “A Rooting Interest,” he comments on Wharton’s privileged position amid New York City’s social elite, and observes she had “one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.” In “Save What You Love,” he takes the Audubon Society to task for naming climate change as the greatest threat to birds, when “no individual bird death can be definitively attributed” to it, while statistics indicate that picture windows and outdoor cats kill three billion birds annually. Whether observing the eerie beauty of Antarctica (“far from having melted,” he reports) or dispensing “Ten Rules for the Novelist,” Franzen makes for an entertaining, sometimes prickly, but always quotable companion.
New York Times columnist Gubar (Reading and Writing Cancer) references literary works to present a probing discussion of aging in this bittersweet memoir. At 70 and in remission from ovarian cancer, Gubar and her 87-year-old husband, Don Gray (both retired English professors at Indiana University), grappled with the prospect of moving from their home of 21 years to a more manageable condo. Gray was recovering from a torn tendon caused by a fall as Gubar set out to gather and ponder literary works addressing late-life love. Her intriguing text moves organically between two overriding topics: the first being domestic and concerning practical issues that arise as the devoted couple faces health issues (a nicked bowel during ovarian cancer surgery left Gubar with an ostomy bag), as well as concerns about their four adult children, grandchildren, and aging friends. The second is how “autumnal romance” is portrayed in works by Samuel Beckett, Marilynn Robinson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others. Though Gubar presents a sampling of thorny examples (for instance, Updike’s “late-life lechery” in his third “Rabbit” novel), she also unearths many that offer views of aging love as deep and inspiring. Gubar’s wise, honest, and frequently humorous work (“the Latin word for old woman is anus,” she notes) reveals that even amid the inevitable struggles of old age, personal and conjugal reinvention is not only quite possible, but also quite possibly lovely—both in literature, and in life.
Kei’s intense and impressive debut is the story of two women who bond in their adopted country of Australia, discovering the power of language, friendship, and family. Anchoring the narrative is the heartbreaking struggle of Nigerian refugee Salimah, who is abandoned in a small town by her husband and, unable to speak English, enrolls in a language class and finds a job as a meat packager at a supermarket. In alternating chapters, Japanese-born Echidna, who also attends the English class, writes letters to a favorite teacher, unveiling her disappointment as a writer, new mom, and wife of an often absent husband. The women help one another through their darkest moment: the loss of a child. “When I came here, I learned to do things I couldn’t do before... Even though I’m alone, I’m happy,” Salimah reveals in a presentation that Echidna has helped her with. And Salimah is the mentor for Echidna who, after her baby’s death, takes a job alongside Salimah. “I’ve had enough, of university, of study, maybe even of my family,” she laments. “The only thing that I can hang onto in this country now is money.” Kei adroitly intertwines these remarkable characters’ dreams and determination, making for an immigrant tale that readers won’t forget.
The latest collection from McPhee (Draft No. 4), a New Yorker staff writer, provides a bountiful cornucopia of insightful essays that display the wide range of his interests and tastes. The title essay begins as a characteristically detailed and observant account of fishing for chain pickerel in a New Hampshire lake before becoming a poignant reminiscence of communicating with his stroke-debilitated father via their shared fondness for fishing. In the other selections grouped under the heading “The Sporting Scene,” McPhee riffs on his interest in professional golf, college lacrosse, and even bear sighting at his home in New Jersey. The bulk of the book is composed of “An Album Quilt,” a patchwork miscellany of excerpts from never-before-collected, and in some cases unpublished, pieces—each of which could have become a full essay or book on its own—that hopscotches from a visit to the gold-stacked vaults of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to an aromatic traipse across the floor of a Hershey chocolate factory. McPhee delights in cracking open subjects, both ordinary and esoteric, and making them accessible to the layperson in works that testify to his virtuosity as one of the greatest living American essayists.
Handsome Johnny: The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli; Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin
Server (Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care”) traces the astounding life of gentleman gangster Johnny Rosselli in this exhilarating, exhaustively researched account, revealing how the dapper Al Capone protégé befriended mobsters and glamorous movie stars, and seduced beautiful showgirls while smoothly corrupting Hollywood unions and local politicians for more than 50 years. Rosselli rose from the poverty of a Boston ghetto to the top echelons of the underworld, directing extortion of golden age Hollywood unions and studio chiefs, supervising the criminal heyday of Las Vegas, and participating in a Fidel Castro assassination plot, as well as producing two critically acclaimed film noirs. Server employs evocative phrasing (“Politics, showbiz, sex, crime, come together that season like dirty water clogging a drain, and Johnny wielding the plunger”) to luridly examine the shady underbelly of movies, moguls, and politics from the 1930s through the ’60s, all through the prism of the charming Rosselli. Filled with crackerjack writing and Damon Runyonesque characters, this entertaining page-turner is a rich look at one of organized crime’s most intriguing characters.
Tanzer’s charming, confident follow-up to Creatures of Will and Temper continues the conceit of drawing on famous literary source texts for character and plot material; here, The Great Gatsby crashes into the works of H.P. Lovecraft, with, of course, chaotic results. On Long Island in the 1920s, Ellie West does bootlegging by boat to help pay for her brother’s education. One night, she inadvertently gets into an altercation with another sailor that ends in her acquiring some odd new bottles of moonshine; those bottles end up at a party thrown by Delphine “Fin” Coulthead and her rich husband and friends. Fin is out of her element in the endless parties of the Roaring ’20s, a situation only made worse by the nightmarish paranormal effects of the tainted liquor. Fin and Ellie make an appealing team as they work to figure out what’s wrong and stop it, and the depiction of Long Island is a fine example of nuanced, lovely landscape writing. The portrayal of groups of normal people falling into mob violence and hatred of the other groups is genuinely unnerving, and Tanzer resists simplistic moral takes. Some elements of the plot are a touch predictable, but the overall effect is delightful.