This week: Miriam Toews's outstanding novel, plus how change happens.
“How curious that a single shape has governed our stories for years,” ponders Alison (Nine Island), a novelist and University of Virginia creative writing teacher, in her boundlessly inventive look at narrative form. The shape in question is the “dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides.” Alison would have readers conceive of other dramatic shapes, which she finds by closely examining particular texts. She begins by urging the reader to “look at text close-up” and examine “the tiniest particles a reader encounters: letters, phonemes.” She then assesses how “different types or lengths of words, sentences, and speeds lets you design a narrative as variegated as a garden.” As full texts come under examination, Alison reveals recurring shapes that “coincide with fundamental patterns in nature,” rather than “the plotted arc,” including waves in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus; meandering paths, like rivers or snail trails, that allow the reader to “wander a bit, look about, pause,” in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and spirals, akin to both DNA and the Milky Way, in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. It would do a disservice to this work to pigeonhole it as “literary criticism”; the study is filled with clarity and wit, underlain with formidable erudition.
Bowden (Black Hawk Down) delivers a narrative nonfiction masterpiece in this account of fiercely dedicated police detectives working to close a cold case. In 1975, Sheila Lyon, 12, and her sister Katherine, 10, disappeared from a shopping mall in Maryland. Despite reported sightings and extortion attempts, the Lyon sisters’ fate remained a mystery for decades. The break came in 2013, when Montgomery County detective Chris Homrock chanced upon a witness statement that he’d somehow missed. Shortly after the disappearance, then-teenager Lloyd Welch told the police that he’d seen a man talking to two young girls, who then left the mall with him. At the time, Welch was dismissed as a liar, and his account was forgotten. The police found Welch serving time in Delaware for sexually abusing a minor years earlier. Though he was initially viewed as a possible source to incriminate the man who was viewed as the leading suspect in the abductions, Welch’s contradictory stories, told over the course of multiple interrogations, ended up making him a person of interest. Bowden makes extensive use of taped recordings of those conversations to bring the reader inside the interrogation room as the detectives inch closer to the truth. This is an intelligent page-turner likely to appeal even to readers who normally avoid true crime.
This gracefully written history of 20th-century gravity research from science writer Cowen shines a light on a key aspect of modern physics. As he explains, the current view of gravity began with a young Albert Einstein’s curiosity about what a beam of light might look like. Cowen describes how Einstein eventually published the theory of general relativity in 1916, predicting how gravity would bend light. Proving this required photographing a solar eclipse in 1919 and seeing whether, as the theory predicted, the stars whose rays pass close to the sun would seem to shift position. When astronomer Arthur Eddington announced the photos showed that the sun’s gravity did indeed bend light, Einstein became the world’s first “science superstar.” Cowen shows how successive generations of physicists have worked to understand gravity, exploring research that showed the universe was expanding (a conclusion Einstein initially resisted); observing this, and the rotation of galaxies, gave physicists their first clues about dark energy and dark matter. Other phenomena touched on include black holes, gravity waves, and even wormholes. Filled with vivid descriptions of cutting-edge work and the scientists behind it, Cowen’s book is fascinating, both a learning experience and a pleasure to read.
Dalton’s splashy, stellar debut makes the typical coming-of-age novel look bland by comparison. The novel tracks bright, confused young narrator Eli as he moves through the ages of 12 to 19 in the 1980s in a seedy suburb of Brisbane. Eli’s best friends are his older brother, August, an electively mute genius with premonitions of the future, and former felon Slim, his babysitter and a notorious, frequent escapee from a heavily guarded prison. Eli loves his parents, but they’re a mess: his mom and step-dad deal heroin, and his dad is a depressed, panic-stricken alcoholic. The novel follows Eli as he nearly gets caught up in dealing drugs himself, discovers a secret room with a mysterious red telephone in his house, breaks into prison to wish his incarcerated mom a merry Christmas, and avenges the wrongs done to his family—all while pursuing his dream of becoming a journalist. In less adept hands, these antics might descend into whimsy, but Dalton’s broadly observant eye, ability to temper pathos with humor, and thorough understanding of the mechanics of plot prevent the novel from breaking into sparkling pieces. The author shapes Eli into an appealingly credible hero capable of shaping a future for himself despite a background that doesn’t bode well for him. This is an outstanding debut.
Downing (the John Russell series) has never been better than in this moving and elegiac thriller framed as a diary written by a German calling himself Josef Hofmann. In April 1938, Hofmann returns to his native country on behalf of the Communist International organization. The leaders of the Communist Party want to know whether “there are still enough Communists in Germany brave or foolhardy enough to constitute a significant fifth column inside Hitler’s Reich.” Hofmann, a member of the Comintern’s International Liaison Section, is ridden with guilt over a lengthy list “of those I failed to help because I was too busy helping everyman.” In the town of Hamm, a former stronghold of the country’s Communist Party, Hofmann seeks to locate any survivors among 19 party members who worked there when the Nazis seized power and gauge their current loyalties while keeping his own hidden. Meanwhile, he becomes emotionally involved with the family in whose boarding house he’s staying, an entanglement that may compromise his assignment. Le Carré fans will be pleased.
Freudenberger (The Newlyweds) explores the convergence of scientific rationality and spirituality in this stunning portrayal of grief. Helen is an MIT physics professor of some renown—known as much for her accessible science writing as for the theoretical model that bears her name. A single mother by choice, Helen, now in her mid-40s, is shaken to learn of the death of her best friend, Charlie Boyce, a successful screenwriter whom she met when they were undergraduates at Harvard. As Helen grapples with her own regrets about having fallen out of touch with Charlie, she and her seven-year-old son, Jack, become increasingly close with Charlie’s husband and five-year-old daughter, Simmi. The children are desperate for a supernatural connection to the deceased; Helen is skeptical—except for the fact that she continues receiving eerily knowing text messages from Charlie’s cell phone. Like her narrator, Freudenberger resists the impulse to use science solely as metaphor; indeed, readers will learn a great deal about the LIGO project and its Nobel Prize–winning work with cosmic gravitational waves. The integration of ideas from physics sparks in the reader new ways of thinking about the nature of time and existence as well as, on a less cosmic scale, about human relationships. Helen’s journey through grief and understanding illustrates how one person can represent many things to different people at different times, and her story is about grief not only at the loss of her friend but also at the demise of countless possible futures. This is a beautiful and moving novel.
Hernandez explores the tensions between idealized young love and comfy mature reality in this powerful follow-up to The Love Bunglers. The saga of punk lesbian lovers Maggie and Hopey has been unfolding for more than 30 years in the Love and Rockets series, and this masterful episode gives new perspective on their relationship. In the present day, the now middle-aged Maggie and Hopey are in committed relationships to others, but a road trip to their hometown for a band reunion turns predictably dramatic. Old characters and feelings emerge, not always wanted nor appropriate. As the gang relives their youth for one night, flashbacks show that what they remember as a fun-filled hangout was a drug-fueled crash pad run by a slovenly pedophile, and the “good old days” were often confusing and lonely. What could be an ordinary tale is elevated by Hernandez’s incomparable art, which subtly reveals the progression of time on his characters, from Maggie’s evolving punk fashions to postmenopausal Hopey’s glasses, rendering them achingly real to readers who’ve grown up alongside them. While longtime fans will discover extra levels of joy and regret in this installment, even those who pick this up as their introduction to the series will be moved by its tale of growing older without necessarily growing up.
Detailing the history of baseball’s 10 most common pitches, Kepner chronicles the national pastime’s evolution from its 19th-century beginnings, when pitchers could throw “nearly 700” innings in a season, to today’s modern game that focuses on spin rates and sees most Tommy John elbow ligament surgeries performed on teenagers. Kepner focuses on pitching because “pitches are the DNA of baseball” and “the pitcher controls everything.” As the national baseball writer for the New York Times, he’s had the opportunity to talk about the slider with his childhood idol Steve Carlton, the fastball with Nolan Ryan, and the changeup with Pedro Martinez—all to uncover the mindset of players he says are “part boxer and part magician.” Using interviews and extensive research, Kepner not only discovers the origins and evolutions of these and other pitches, like the curveball (discovered in 1867, “when [W.A.] Cummings was the amateur ace of the Brooklyn Stars”), knuckleball, and spitball, but he also shines a microscope on how pitches captured championships or ended lives, as with the fastball that killed Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920. Kepner puts a new spin on baseball’s history that will have even the most avid fans entertained as they learn something new in each chapter.
Rising smoothly above the acres of anthologies of 19th- and early-20th-century weird and supernatural fiction, author Morton and anthologist Klinger combine brilliant stories by obscure writers (such as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s unflinching “Since I Died”) with obscure stories by famous writers (such as Henry James’s “The Real Right Thing,” in which a dead author may not wish anyone to write his biography) to create an outstanding work that serves equally as scholarship and entertainment. The stories chosen form a multifaceted depiction of the ghost story over time, with special attention paid to elements such as political ghosts, explicitly Spiritualist pieces, and, in one fascinating case, two writers tackling identical subject matter a generation apart: Olivia Howard Dunbar’s “The Shell of Sense” is decidedly, and brilliantly, in dialogue with Phelps’s story. There are frightening pieces, funny pieces, heart-wrenching pieces, and outright propaganda, and the few stories that have been frequently anthologized elsewhere justify their presence through their contributions to the book’s thematic discussion. This is a work of art, a pleasure to read, and a serious and welcome contribution to the study of the ghost story in English.
In de Muriel’s excellent fourth Victorian mystery featuring the Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly (after 2018’s A Mask of Shadows), the commission’s two members, Scottish Insp. Ian Frey and his superior, Adolphus McGray, look into a particularly creepy case. In 1873, servant Millie Fletcher gives up her baby, Benjamin, the product of an assault by Maximilian Koloman, the brother of her employer, Konrad. In 1889, Maximilian signs a document on his deathbed recognizing Benjamin as his heir and asking Konrad to reunite the boy with Millie. Shortly afterward, Millie receives a note threatening her son’s life. In return for Frey and McGray’s help in protecting Benjamin, Millie offers to cure McGray’s mentally ill sister. In search of answers, the pair travel to remote Loch Maree, the Koloman family home, which supposedly contains a healing well and which is also home to legends of Druidic rituals involving bathing in blood. There they soon have a murder to solve. De Muriel keeps the twists coming in the series’ best entry to date.
New Yorker copy editor Norris (Between You and Me), known for her Comma Queen videos on grammar and style, once again takes readers on an entertaining, erudite, and altogether delightful journey fueled by the love of language. Here, she chronicles her passion for all things Greek, both classical and modern. Denied a chance to study Latin in fifth grade, Norris took that latent enthusiasm for the ancients and applied it to Greek as an adult, even convincing her New Yorker supervisors to subsidize her classical Greek classes as an aid to her copyediting duties. In addition to recounting her scholastic adventures, the book recounts her successive travels through Greece, which she explored with ever-increasing linguistic skill. Norris’s lively travel log skillfully meshes autobiographical anecdotes, self-reflection, and explorations of mythology—on her first trip, she gets up early during an overnight ferry ride, hoping “to catch Homer’s famed rhododáctylos, the rosy fingers of dawn.” At the center of it all is her passion for Greek, a language often “held to be impenetrable,” yet which gives her “an erotic thrill, as if every verb and noun had some visceral connection to what it stands for.” For those who have long followed the Comma Queen, her latest outing will not disappoint.
Rapoport, a 20-year veteran sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, delivers what is sure to be the definitive biography of Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie Banks (1931–2015), a man known by fans as “Mr. Cub.” Through more than 100 interviews with Banks’s family, friends, and teammates, Rapoport traces a complicated life that was masked by a “constant public display of good cheer” during Banks’s career, summed up in his signature line: “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game, let’s play two.” Rapoport expertly describes the skills that made Banks a Hall of Famer in 1977, particularly how Banks “transformed the nature of power hitting” through a combination of upper body strength and a light bat, a practice that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle copied. Rapoport reveals how throughout his life Banks masked his “tortured soul”—in his childhood of poverty in Dallas; while playing in the Negro Leagues in Kansas City; during the move to the Cubs in 1953, where he had to deal with the city’s segregation; and playing under hypercritical manager Leo Durocher during his final years. This marvelous look at the life of a beloved athlete should be essential reading for baseball fans, and Cubs lovers especially.
Starling’s riveting near-future debut depicts an intense psychological battle of wills between two damaged, deeply flawed women who forge an unbreakable connection in the dark. Gyre Price, an amateur caver from an impoverished mining world, is desperate to earn enough money to discover the fate of her mother, who abandoned their family when Gyre was young—and she isn’t above falsifying her qualifications to get the high-paying job she needs. Aware of Gyre’s deception, Em, Gyre’s controlling, manipulative handler, guides her on a harrowing journey into the depths of a rarely explored cave system on some unexplained, ill-fated errand. To survive the darkness and the threats concealed therein, Gyre must confront monsters from her own imagination as well as those from Em’s bloody past, and defeat them both. Both women can be messy, cruel, and selfish, and Starling disregards conventional notions of such women seeking or needing absolution. This claustrophobic, horror-leaning tour de force is highly recommended for fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and Andy Weir’s The Martian.
In this dense and technical, but illuminating, work influenced by behavioral science and political philosophy, legal scholar and policy theorist Sunstein (Nudge) further develops his ideas on how changes in attitude and behavior ought to happen. As in his previous works, Sunstein argues that, rather than relying upon blunt policy instruments such as bans and mandates, “choice architects” can often effectively accomplish their desired outcomes using less coercive mechanisms (“nudges”). He first explores how and why social norms regulate behavior, particularly how people who challenge social norms provoke shifts in attitudes and behavior after others discover that a previously constraining norm has lost its force. He considers the ethical ramifications of the “libertarian paternalist” approach toward policy, which seeks to promote individual and collective welfare while preserving choice, ultimately declaring that “choice architecture” is unavoidable: life itself nudges people. In the final, most accessible section, Sunstein engages a selection of more specific problems, including the potential flaws in relying upon mental shortcuts in moral decision-making. This is a work that demands—but rewards—the reader’s full attention. Readers who lack a background in behavioral economics or philosophy may find themselves questioning some of these disciplines’ assumptions about human nature, but Sunstein’s cautious and judicious discussion of these topics is worth consideration.
After more than 300 women in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna were attacked between 2005 and 2009, eight of the settlement’s women, from the Loewen and Friesen families, gather secretly to discuss their plan of action in this powerful novel by Toews (All My Puny Sorrows). They believed that the nightly attacks were by ghosts and demons until a man was caught and named other perpetrators; then the women realized that the victims were drugged and raped by men from their community. The Friesens want to stay and fight the men, and the Loewens want to leave Molotschna altogether; the rest of the women in the colony decide to do nothing and skip the clandestine meetings. Schoolteacher August Epp—who takes the minutes of the meetings for the women, since they are illiterate, and is trusted by them because he’s been ostracized by the community’s men—tracks every conversation leading to the women’s final decision. Through Epp, Toews has found a way to add lightness and humor to the deeply upsetting and terrifying narrative while weaving in Epp’s own distressing backstory. Epp’s observations (such as those about how the women physically react or respond when someone shares a divisive suggestion) are astute, and through him readers are able to see how carefully and intentionally the women think through their life-changing decision—critically discussing their roles in society, their love for their families and religion, and their hopes and desires for the future. This is an inspiring and unforgettable novel.