This week: Amparo Dávila's creepy story collection, plus the lies women tell about sex—and the truths they reveal.
In this unapologetic and perceptive book, sex and pornography journalist Alptraum explores the intimate deceptions that women are accused of, including faking orgasms or their virginity; whether they use birth control; and lying about sexual experience, willingness, and assault. She reasons that—when faced with pressure to “play nice,” endure unwanted sexual attention, be somehow innocent and experienced at the same time, and live with the prevailing cultural narrative that “women are passive recipients of sexual attention and men... set the agenda”—women lie for their survival. With nods to gay and trans experience, she gleefully pokes holes in assumptions, double standards, and unreasonable expectations that affect women, among them the myth of the hymen, the fakery of “natural beauty,” and claims that women want to “baby-trap” unsuspecting men (in reality, men are more likely to practice “reproductive coercion”). Most damaging, Alptraum concludes, are the belief in a standard, one-size-fits-all template for sexual experience and the treatment of female bodies as objects. She illuminates fresh connections (for example, between a pervasive but little-discussed belief that bisexuals secretly prefer men and the significance attached to traditionally defined virginity), structures her arguments elegantly, and uses graceful chapter conclusions to lead the reader smoothly to the next topic. Forthright, provocative, and studded with irony, Alptraum’s incisive discussion calls for more flexibility, openness, conversation, and variety around sexual narratives and, most crucially, believing women.
Bolender’s debut secondary-world fantasy comes to life thanks to a no-frills, working-class point of view that immerses readers in the world of the Sweepers. Monsters are threatening to take over the city of Amicae. The government has convinced residents that the monsters can’t get in, but Clae and Laura know that isn’t true. They are Sweepers, the only people in the city qualified to fight the monsters and make sure they can’t return—and narrator Laura has only been an apprentice for three months. The duo takes on mobsters, corrupt businessmen, and a deliberately skewed cultural narrative, culminating in a fight to protect their city from its own refusal to accept reality. Amicae’s strict caste system is expertly woven into the fast-paced plot that will keep readers turning pages until the very end. This debut builds a fascinating setting that readers will want to keep coming back to.
These 12 stories from Dávila are the first of the Mexican author’s to be translated into English and show her terrifying knack for letting horror seep into the commonplace and the domestic. In “Moses and Gaspar,” a man takes in his recently deceased brother’s pets and finds his life disintegrating; the story is all the more haunting because the reader never knows exactly what creatures the two pets are. In the title story, a woman’s distracted husband brings a mysterious man to their house, and the woman becomes unsettled by his lurking presence. In one of the best stories, “Musique Concrète,” a man’s longtime friend, Marcela, discovers that her husband is cheating on her. At night, Marcela is threateningly visited by the other woman, who resembles a toad. Filled with nightmarish imagery (“Sometimes I saw hundreds of small eyes fastened to the dripping windowpanes”) and creeping dread, Dávila’s stories plunge into the nature of fear, proving its force no matter if its origin is physical or psychological, real or imagined: “Even if [she] is exaggerating, these things do exist and they have destroyed her, they exist like these flames dancing in the fireplace.”
Each story in this poignant debut plays on how music is interwoven with the deeply felt emotions of its young characters, each of whom are poised at tipping points in their lives. The book centers around George and Miriam, who met at a Beatles concert in 1964 and carried on an intense, intermittent, decades-long relationship. Dean’s innovative page layouts and competing narrative perspectives between George and Miriam unfolds the complexity of their relationship and their desperate yearning for a singular, simpler time. George and Miriam are immersed in the popular music of their adolescence, while other era’s characters wrap their identities around the aesthetics of the past. Moving between the U.S. and U.K., stories follow the likes of 1980s teen Alvin, obsessed with Chuck Berry because of his music as well as for what he represents historically and politically. Seventies teen Lisa’s love of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album propels her through an acid trip at prom, with the colors mixing candy-colored psychedelia and more lurid dance-floor lights. Dean provides each teen with a precise voice while charging each narrative with a different visual approach and alternating rich colors and black-and-white. This stunning debut pulls off the rare feat of drawing about music with authenticity and charm.
The latest novel from Roy (Sleeping on Jupiter) is a lush and lyrical fusion of history and storytelling. Set in the late 1930s and early 1940s in the fictional Indian small town of Muntazir—amid India’s fight for independence from Britain and the breakout of WWII—legendary singer Begum Akhtar, dancer and critic Beryl de Zoete, and German painter Walter Spies all figure prominently in the tale of nine-year-old Myshkin, who’s abandoned by his free-spirited mother, Gayatri, and then largely ignored by his college professor and political activist father, Nek. When Myshkin, in his 60s after a career as a horticulturist, gets a package of letters his mother wrote during her self-imposed exile in Bali, it sets off his narration of Gayatri’s rebellious youth, her oppressive marriage to the strident and rules-bound Nek, her decision to leave “that monsoon day in 1937” with Spies and de Zoete—and Myshkin’s lifelong struggle to understand his mother’s radical choice. Myshkin believes Akhtar, whom his mother tends to when the star falls into one of her “spells of grief and suspicion,” may have inspired his mother’s own decision to run away and find “a different life.” “My mother knew when she left that she had poured petrol and set a match to every bridge between herself and her family,” Myshkin recalls. “After such desertion, what forgiveness?” This mesmerizing exploration of the darker consequences of freedom, love, and loyalty is an astonishing display of Roy’s literary prowess.
Kathleen McElwain, the narrator of St. Vincent’s outstanding first novel, became a widow at 22 when her husband died in a car crash. Now 27, she works in a store “tucked away in the forgotten forests of Pennsylvania, high in the northernmost tendrils of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” There, she makes coffee and hamburgers for the occasional hunter or hiker, but most of the time she’s engrossed in a book, relishing the solitude of not seeing another person for days. Late one snowy afternoon, she’s surprised when a stranger shows up, not dressed for winter and seemingly without any transportation. Daniil—he doesn’t give a last name—says he’s a student from Uzbekistan. Kathleen becomes inexplicably drawn to Daniil, whose stories make her wonder about finally leaving the area. Eventually, he admits to her he’s wanted for a serious crime in his home country. Kathleen’s emotions are on high alert when she discovers an odd connection to Daniil’s past and the secrets of her marriage. Against the background of the “war on terror,” St. Vincent sensitively explores her believable characters’ motives in this tightly plotted tale.
Cosmologist Sutter, creator of the podcast “Ask a Spaceman!” and contributing editor for Space.com, relates complex ideas with humor and clarity in his enthusiastic look at “all the gory physics on scales small and great” across the universe. Each topic receives a delightfully irreverent—but thoroughly accessible—treatment, from Ptolemy’s early “eye-rollingly wrong” Earth-centered model of the universe, through Tycho Brahe’s work in “his own private fortress of science,” in Danish Uraniborg, to the “frightfully messy” universe of papal “frenemy” Galileo, “the astronomer’s astronomer and the curmudgeon’s curmudgeon.” Sutter shows readers how improved observations and progressive advances in physics and astrophysics have afforded humankind a glimpse of the earliest moments after the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago. From antimatter and black holes to dark matter, dark energy, and the Cosmic Web—the amazing weave of voids and strings of galaxies shaped by gravity and time that make up the universe—this excellent resource celebrates the wonders of space. Sutter’s brisk, often humorous writing and gift for clear explanations make this the perfect choice for readers looking to understand the universe on scales both human and cosmic.