This week: new books from Elizabeth Bear, Helen Oyeyemi, and more.
Anyone who enjoys space opera, exploration of characters, and political speculation will love this outstanding novel, Bear’s welcome return to hard SF after several years of writing well-received steampunk (Karen Memory) and epic fantasy (the Eternal Sky trilogy). As an engineer on a scrappy space salvage tug, narrator Haimey Dz has a comfortable, relatively low-stress existence, chumming with pilot Connla Kuruscz and AI shipmind Singer. Then, while aboard a booby-trapped derelict ship, she is infected with a not-quite-parasitic alien device that gives her insights into the universe’s structure. This makes her valuable not only to the apparently benevolent interstellar government, the Synarche, but also to the vicious association of space pirates, represented by charismatic and utterly untrustworthy Zanya Farweather. While fleeing Zanya, Haimey and her crew discover a gigantic, ancient alien space ship hidden at the bottom of a black hole at the center of the galaxy, and at that point, things start getting complicated. This exciting story set in a richly detailed milieu is successful on many levels, digging into the nature of truth and reality, self-definition vs. predestination, and the calibration of moral compasses. Amid a space opera resurgence, Bear’s novel sets the bar high.
Berry (The Passion of Dolssa) brings to life wartime horrors and passions with commentary from Olympian gods in this love story filled with vivid historical detail. To show her husband, Hephaestus, the real meaning of love and its connection to war and art, Aphrodite (with the help of Apollo, Hades, and Ares) tells the emotion-packed WWI saga of two besotted couples drawn together by music and war: British pianist Hazel and soldier James; African-American jazz musician Aubrey and Colette, a Belgian war orphan with a remarkable singing voice. After James reports to duty, Hazel follows, taking a wartime volunteer position in France. There, she meets Colette, who is still reeling from her wartime losses, and introduces her to Aubrey, who quickly steals Colette’s heart. James and Aubrey witness horrors on and off the battlefield, and Hazel and Colette cling to each other during the best of times, such as when Hazel has the opportunity for a brief reunion with James, and the worst, as when Aubrey goes missing. Berry’s evocative novel starts slow but gains steam as the stories flesh out. Along the way, it suggests that while war and its devastation cycles through history, the forces of art and love remain steady, eternal, and life-sustaining. Ages 12–up.
In Butler’s breathtaking yet devastating novel (following The Hearts of Men), a family is ripped apart and nearly destroyed when one of its own gets involved with a radical church. Set in a gorgeously rendered rural Wisconsin, the story unfolds over the course of a year, as 65-year-old Lyle and his wife, Peg, grow increasingly uneasy as they watch their once estranged adopted daughter, Shiloh, fall under the influence of—and eventually get engaged to—Steven, a charlatan disguised as a devout pastor and founder of the cultlike Coulee Lands Covenant. Their worry intensifies when Steven convinces Shiloh that Isaac, her six-year-old son from a previous relationship, is a faith healer and he uses Isaac’s “gift” to attract new parishioners and solicit donations for the church. At first, Lyle—who has grappled with the existence of God ever since his infant son died—tries to accept the situation so as not to alienate his daughter again. But when Isaac is diagnosed with diabetes, and the boys’ parents choose prayer instead of giving him access to medical treatment, even after he slips into a coma, Lyle intervenes. Butler weaves questions surrounding faith, regret, and whether it’s possible to love unconditionally into every page of this potent book. Secondary plots, including Lyle’s friend Hoot’s slow decline from cancer, Shiloh’s adoption story, and Peg and Lyle’s early courtship, are brief but equally resonant. This is storytelling at its finest.
“On Monday, my house disappeared,” begins this quietly devastating graphic memoir. In 2017, Fies (Mom’s Cancer) and his wife, Karen, lost their home to the Sonoma County wildfires. Fies posted sketches about their experience online as it happened, then expanded the hastily drawn strips (included at the end of the book) into this measured, well-researched account. Despite the pain he and his wife endure sifting through the ashes, Fies goes light on sentimentality, instead focusing on the realities of surviving the crisis and rebuilding literally from the ground up. Moving beyond his own experience, Fies shares the “fire stories” of other Sonomans, illustrating “the comfort and horror of realizing you’re not alone.” It’s the small details that give the telling weight: the black puddles of liquefied trash cans; the remains of Christmas decorations; how Fies has to tell his car insurer that he no longer has a license plate because the car melted; the search and rescue teams checking bedsprings for human bones. The clean, simple art, tinted in bright spot colors, gives the material breathing room and makes the characters relatable. Without pleading or preaching, this affecting record guides readers through the experience of enormous loss, then out through the other side.
The 12th collection from poet, essayist, and translator Hejinian (The Book of a Thousand Eyes) offers a “short Russian novel” modeled after Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. A nearly 4,000-line epic composed of 271 separate 14-line poems across eight books, Wesleyan’s reissue of Oxota (The Figures, 1991) includes Hejinian’s corrections, reinsertions, and revisions, providing a new opportunity for readers to experience what Marjorie Perloff called one of “the most ambitious long poems of the nineties” and “one of the very best.” The text itself reflects Hejinian’s stays and correspondence with poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko in Leningrad at the end of the Cold War. Travel, recollected conversation, and scenes of domesticity punctuate a through line of nuclear anxiety: “My language is an X turning with the hands of two clocks on a face over the eye,” she writes. The result is a multifaceted portrait series in verse, one acutely aware of its historical moment, and the distinctions and connections between peoples “occupied with production, but these are our times of mute people.” Oxota shows us a poet whose person and politics waver between two worlds, one informing the other.
Novelist Jackson (The Residue Years) gives an unvarnished look at urban life in this memoir about growing up black and poor in 1990s Portland, Ore. As the subtitle references, this is more than Jackson’s story, and as he traces his great-grandparents’ “exodus” from Alabama to Portland and the subsequent lives of his relatives—and their struggles with addiction, prostitution, and incarceration—he captures the cyclical nature of poverty and neglect. Jackson doesn’t shy from describing his own life of crime, drugs, violence, and womanizing in vivid and unflinching detail, like when he gets paged to a drug deal only to find his mother waiting to buy from him. The prose is a stunning mix of second-person observations of various unnamed males in his family (“post a dubious decision to drop out of college your sophomore year you find yourself ‘Sir-Yes-Sir’ing’ at a naval base”) and historical and religious references that he incorporates to tell his story. Interwoven with sections called “Survivor Files,” which recount moments when the lives of those family members changed (such as when one relative found out that his daughter from a one-night stand had been adopted by the mother’s new husband, and he realized he would never get to know her because he never would try), Jackson plays out his life’s “revision”—getting out of jail, pursuing an education—against a backdrop of self- and social critique. Thanks to Jackson’s fresh voice, this powerful autobiography shines an important light on the generational problems of America’s oft-forgotten urban communities.
Kaminsky’s second collection (after 2004’s Dancing in Odessa) is bookended by two poems—“We Lived Happily during the War” and “In a Time of Peace”—ostensibly set in the present and addressing a kind of public blindness to faraway events. What lies between them is a two-part drama composed of short, plainspoken lyrics that envision the military occupation of the fictional town of Vasenka. After the murder of a deaf boy in the public square, the townspeople unite under a strategy of resistance in the form of feigned deafness at any and all of the soldiers’ requests. Part one follows the boy’s cousin, pregnant puppeteer Sonya, and her husband, Alfonso, as they navigate the dangers of deafness and pregnancy under an increasingly belligerent force. Part two follows the owner of the puppet theater as she does the same, as well as Alfonso and Sonya’s infant as she grows into a child. What results is a riveting and emotional story line with parallels to the author’s life, which relies on plain spoken diction, repetition, and small moments of romantic desire to anchor its larger political themes. Moments of brilliance shine through (“Body, they blame you for all things and they/ seek in the body what does not live in the body”), though some readers may feel that the story would be better suited to the stage.
Journalist Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) examines the epidemic of violent crime in Chicago through the events of the summer of 2013, narrating the stories of victims and their families, social workers, and perpetrators. A high school student and former gang member’s one-night spree of violence threatens to run his entire future off-course. A mother finds the strength to forgive her son’s killer, arguing on his behalf in court. A teen haunted by a friend’s death at a birthday party watches helplessly as another friend is gunned down. A man spends a “day of atonement” each year on the anniversary of the day he took a life, visiting with victims of violent crime. A witness to a teenager’s death comes forward to tell the victim’s mother that police officers shot her son and planted a gun at the scene. Kotlowitz has a ruminative, almost poetic sensibility, describing for example how “the acronym RIP... is everywhere... tattooed on people’s bodies... scrawled on the sides of buildings. Embossed on T-shirts and jackets. It’s as if these communities are piecing together the equivalent of a war memorial.” The violence is made palpable but never romanticized. Kotlowitz’s approach is empathetic in this a bold, unflinching depiction of an ever-lengthening crisis.
McGraw’s fourth collection proves she’s a master of the form. Across these 53 brief stories, it is astonishing what she is able to conjure up in the span of a few pages. In “Second Sight,” a married lesbian couple on the rocks has their relationship resuscitated after receiving unconventional help from one of the women’s mothers. Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra return to Ava’s home for a family gathering in “Ava Gardner Goes Home.” There are stories told entirely in dialogue (“Friendship”), in nonlinear order (“Pebble”), and as a prayer (“Prayer”). A few of the stories examine events from the viewpoints of different characters, such as “Comfort (1)” and “Comfort (2),” which tell the story of the killing of a young boy from both the unrepentant murderer and the grieving mother’s sides, or “Bucket (1)” and “Bucket (2),” in which an advice columnist receives a letter he thinks is from his wife before the second story reveals its true author. McGraw (The Good Life) is wise and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, with a seventh sense for the perfect turn of phrase (a mouth is “just on the brink of an expression,” a “dreamy girl... must have fallen into his hands like a plum”). This quintessential collection of stories serves as an homage to the form while showcasing McGraw’s stunning talent and deep empathy for the idiosyncrasies, small joys, and despairs of human nature.
In this groundbreaking work, Metzl, physician and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, demonstrates the “mortal trade-offs” white Americans make when they vote with the goal of restoring their racial privilege and end up endorsing “political positions that directly harm their own health and well-being.” Metzl methodically and adeptly marshals statistical evidence that policies promising to bolster white Americans’ status have instead made life “sicker, harder, and shorter” for all Americans. He finds that, in Missouri, under the lax gun laws white voters favored, white men became 2.38 times more likely than men of other races to die by firearm suicide. In Tennessee, opposition to the Affordable Care Act “cost every single white resident of the state 14.1 days of life”; many white Tennesseans, Metzl writes, “voiced a willingness to die, literally, rather than embrace a law that gave minority or immigrant persons more access to care.” A “Tea Party-fueled” gutting of school funding in Kansas greatly increased the number of people dropping out of high school, which “correlates with nine years of lost life expectancy.” This tightly constructed analysis of the unexpected consequences of American political behavior exemplifies excellence in argumentative writing, on a topic of cultural significance.
The discovery of a torso in a lake outside Stockholm drives Natt och Dag’s masterly first novel, set in 1793. The human remains prove to belong to a man whose limbs were severed one at a time over several months. Identifying the victim and his killer falls to Cecil Winge, an idealistic attorney who assists the police. Winge enlists the aid of Mickel Cardell, a veteran of a fruitless war with Russia in which he lost an arm. Now working as a watchman, Mickel retrieved the cadaver from the water. The pair have few clues to work with, but a piece of fabric with unusual markings wrapped around the body leads them to the Eumenides, an ostensibly charitable upper-class organization that meets in a building that houses a bordello. The book’s structure, which includes flashbacks and multiple perspectives, will remind many of Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, and Natt och Dag uses this structure to heighten suspense and deepen characterizations. The Swedish Academy of Crime Writers named this the best debut novel of 2017, and U.S. readers will be likewise impressed.
In this captivating and exhaustively researched biography, screenwriter and producer O’Meara chronicles the largely unknown story of artist and actress Milicent Patrick, designer of the monster in the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. O’Meara traces Patrick’s journey from precocious art student to her tenure as one of the first female animators at Disney and her discovery by Universal Studios’ head of makeup, Bud Westmore. After designing the creature for the hit film and being sent on a whirlwind press tour, Patrick became the target of Westmore’s jealousy, was fired, and subsequently was denied credit for her work. O’Meara also shares her own filmmaking experiences in modern-day Hollywood, including being accused of getting a job by sleeping with the boss and being sexually harassed by a voice actor, to highlight the continuing challenges for women in the film industry. These personal anecdotes may initially appear a distraction from Patrick’s story, but O’Meara’s enthusiasm for her subject soon overcomes all objections. This is a fascinating slice of Hollywood history with a feminist slant, correcting a sexist wrong from decades ago and restoring Patrick to her rightful place of esteem.
In Oyeyemi’s idiosyncratically brilliant latest (following Boy, Snow, Bird), she spins a tale about three generations of women and the gingerbread recipe that is their curse and their legacy. In an effort to understand her heritage, precocious British schoolgirl Perdita Lee recreates her family’s famed gingerbread recipe—but with additional ingredients that have near-fatal consequences. When she slips into a coma, her mother, Harriet, is forced to tell her the truth of their family. To do so, she must recount her upbringing in the mysterious country Druhástrana and the arduous journey that finally brought her and her mother, Margot, out of it. Harriet’s account is an astonishing tale of rigged lotteries, girls in wells, and the mystifying and meddling Gretel Kercheval, a childhood friend of Harriet’s who seems to have an awful lot to do with Harriet’s fate. Though Harriet and Margot do eventually manage to leave Druhástrana, they realize that it’s not quite as easy to master the outside world, especially not when there are more Kerchevals around to complicate things. Oyeyemi excels at making the truly astounding believable and turning even the most familiar tales into something strange and new. This fantastic and fantastical romp is a wonderful addition to her formidable canon.
Puri, medical director of palliative medicine at Keck Hospital at the University of Southern California, gives a compassionate account of her role helping patients and their families make end-of-life decisions. When Puri was a child in L.A., her anesthesiologist mother and engineer father, both Indian immigrants, taught their children about the transient nature of life, the inevitability of change, and the journey of the soul. Puri took these lessons to heart, recognizing the complementary paths of science and spirituality, and as a physician drew upon the strength, support, and wisdom of her family’s beliefs and values—honoring life and accepting death—to help her patients make “eleventh-hour” choices. The decisions that must be made—for instance, whether to administer CPR or take a relative off a ventilator—are heart-wrenching. Yet there are also moments of grace and humor (she cries with a grieving daughter; plays along with an ailing man who jokes that his swollen belly is a pregnancy). In talking with families and patients, Puri comes to realize the vital importance of discussing difficult topics before a crisis arises, and making decisions based upon what best serves the patient’s dignity and quality of life. Communication, she concludes, is the basis of the doctor-patient relationship, perhaps especially so in the final days of life. This is a powerful memoir, which Puri narrates with honesty, poise, and empathy.
In this postapocalyptic comedy, a family of refugees from an Earth devastated by nuclear war is selected to represent humankind on an alien planet that is reluctant to take them in. The plan was to settle on Planet Choom, already home to several species living in harmony, but in the 20 years it took to travel there, Choom’s dominant race, the insectoid Zhuri, changed their minds, wanting nothing to do with humanity’s violence and emotional ways. As what’s left of humanity orbits the planet, it’s up to Lan Mifune and their family, as the chosen ambassadors, to live among the aliens and somehow persuade them to accept the desperate earthlings. The intentionally vaguely described narrator, Lan, must befriend their unusual classmates while showing that humans can live in peace—and their fondness for comedy proves instrumental in forging a connection with Choom’s denizens. The various alien species feel plausible without straining the imagination, and related physiological and communicational misunderstandings offer amusement galore. Rodkey explores heady concepts such as immigration, tolerance, culture shock, and relative humor in this slapstick-laden allegory, and the story’s lighthearted tone offers an age-appropriate handling of the somber issues and dire circumstances fueling its premise. Ages 8–12.
Scibona’s spirited second novel (after 2008 National Book Award Finalist The End) begins in 2010 as a man abandons a child at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel airport. The story then flashes back to the late 1960s as underage Iowan Vollie Frade volunteers for the Marines. While serving in Vietnam, he meets mystery man Percy Lorch, who recruits him for an unnamed government spook operation. Vollie’s assignment is to move to Queens to verify whether a man named Egon Hausmann is dead. But after six months, fed up with his covert masters’ veil of secrecy, Vollie escapes from Queens and heads for New Mexico, where he disappears into a free love commune. There he finds a wife, the free-spirited Louisa, and young son, Elroy Heflin, a child of the commune. But Vollie ends up abandoning his makeshift family after a stint as a barbed wire inspector. Elroy goes on to see action during several tours of duty in Afghanistan while fathering and abandoning a child of his own. The story ultimately comes back to Vollie, who finds that he can’t escape the bad decisions of his past. Like the late Robert Stone, Scibona exhibits a command of language and demonstrates a knack for dramatizing the tidal pull of history on individual destiny. The novel accrues real power as its vividly imagined characters try to make sense of an often senseless world. This is a bold, rewarding novel.
In this devastating, superb memoir, Woodfox reflects on his decades inside the Louisiana prison system. He recounts that, as a “badass” black youth in 1960s New Orleans bouncing in and out of jail, he encountered the Black Panther Party and “a light went on in a room inside me that I hadn’t known existed.” His subsequent efforts to organize protests against the dehumanizing treatment of prisoners in the notorious Angola state penitentiary got him framed for the murder of a white correctional officer in 1972. Woodfox spent the next four decades in solitary confinement, struggling to stay sane by educating himself; helping others; and cultivating deep friendships with two other wrongfully convicted Panthers, Herman Wallace and Robert King. In 2016, he made a no-contest plea and was freed. The book is a stunning indictment of a judicial system “not concerned with innocence or justice,” and a crushing account of the inhumanity of solitary confinement. This breathtaking, brutal, and intelligent book will move and inspire readers.