This week: Susan Choi's unforgettable 'Trust Exercise,' and Maria Gainza's phenomenal 'Optic Nerve.'
Ballingrud (North American Lake Monsters) offers six skillfully created, deeply disturbing stories in this collection of the uncanny. In “The Butcher’s Table,” original to this volume, a 19th-century ship bears diabolist Martin Dunwood of the Candlelight Society and his bodyguard, Rufus Gully, on a journey to the borders of hell. The title is the name of the ship, and also refers to the sacrifices Dunwood and Gully’s fellow Satanists plan to offer upon arrival—if they can evade supernatural pursuit and survive infighting long enough to reach their destination. “The Diabolist,” a short, sharp, nasty story of metaphysics and monstrous relationships, is a standout. “The Visible Filth,” the basis for the forthcoming film Wounds, is a contemporary tale of a slowly creeping, inevitable surrender to horrors discovered via a forgotten cellphone in a New Orleans bar. “The Maw” is an even darker vision of a metropolitan area lost to unnatural denizens. Ballingrud occasionally includes horrific actions simply for their own sake, which may frustrate readers looking for deeper meanings, but his evocative and strangely beautiful descriptions of the grotesque and terrible are sure to linger long after they are read.
In this timely exploration, Bazelon, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, argues that “the unfettered power of prosecutors is the missing piece for explaining how the number of people incarcerated in the United States has quintupled since the 1980s.” Bazelon skillfully illustrates this idea by following the developments in two gripping cases with novelistic intensity. In the first, an old-school prosecutor’s win-at-any-cost philosophy and questionable ethical behavior results in the conviction of a young Tennessee woman charged with a brutal murder, which is unanimously overturned by an appellate court years later because of prosecutorial misconduct. The second features the opposite: under a policy intended to reduce incarceration rates developed by a progressive district attorney in Brooklyn, a young man facing a gun possession charge pursues diversion (a rehabilitation program) rather than a two-year minimum sentence. Bazelon adeptly explains the culture that drives traditional district attorneys and the philosophies of reform-minded district attorneys, then briefly delves into the difficulty of preventing prosecutorial misconduct, the inequities of a bail system that effectively criminalizes poverty, systemic racial disparities, the sociological arguments for diversion, and how severe mandatory sentences distort the criminal justice system. Then, with modest optimism, she presents a road map for the emerging reform movement. This is a powerful indictment of the traditional prosecution model.
In this superb collection of original and previously published pieces, Pulitzer winner Caro (The Passage of Power) offers a glimpse into the process behind his epic biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Writing with customary humor, grace, and vigor, Caro wryly acknowledges the question of “Why does it take so long” to produce each book. Caro provides both the short answer—intensive research—and a longer, illuminating explication of just what that entails. For example, he tracked down individual people displaced by Moses’s building projects; he followed the trail of money to uncover how Johnson attained influence in Congress while still a relative unknown; he moved to Johnson’s hometown in rural Texas and gained the trust and of its residents, who shared untold stories with him. Caro began his career in journalism and credits his Newsday editor for two crucial pieces of investigative advice: “Turn every page” and find a way to get the information one needs. The results may take longer, but, as readers of Caro’s work know, it is always worth the wait. For the impatient, however, this lively combination of memoir and non-fiction writing will help sate their appetite for new writing from Caro until the arrival of his final, still-in-progress Johnson biography.
Choi’s superb, powerful fifth novel, after 2013’s My Education, marries exquisite craft with topical urgency. Set in the early 1980s, the book’s first section depicts the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, an elite high school in an unnamed Southern city. Galvanized by the charged atmosphere created by the school’s magnetic theater teacher, Mr. Kingsley, 15-year-old classmates Sarah and David have an intense sexual relationship the summer between their freshman and sophomore years. Sarah, who has taken its secrecy for granted, is horrified when David makes their romance public that fall. She repudiates him, the two spend the year estranged, and she grows increasingly isolated until an English theater troupe makes an extended visit to the school. When she is pursued by one of the troupe’s actors at the same time her classmate Karen falls in love with its director, the two young women form a fraught, ambivalent bond. The novel’s second segment reintroduces the characters a dozen years later, shifting from Sarah’s perspective into to a new viewpoint that casts most of what readers thought they knew into doubt. After the tensions of the past culminate in an act at once shocking and inevitable, a brief coda set in 2013 adds a final bold twist. Choi’s themes—among them the long reverberations of adolescent experience, the complexities of consent and coercion, and the inherent unreliability of narratives—are timeless and resonant. Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.
Defense attorney Dow, the founder of the Texas Innocence Project, makes an impressive fiction debut. Wealthy Tieresse Kerryman courts Rafael Zhettah, a chef from a humble background, after she has a meal at his Houston restaurant, and the pair soon marry. Their fairy tale romance comes to an end two years later when Tieresse is bludgeoned to death with a candlestick in their home and Zhettah is arrested for her murder. Zhettah was sleeping with one of the waitresses at his restaurant at the time, but his alibi isn’t enough to persuade a jury of his innocence. On death row, Zhettah struggles to maintain his sanity, even as a team of dedicated appellate lawyers battle to avert his execution. Eventually, Dow reveals the truth about the circumstances behind the teasing opening prologue, in which Zhettah offers cake to two fellow prisoners, whom he addresses as “Your Honors,” on the one-year anniversary of their captivity. The plot is a page-turner, and the addition of Dow’s knowledge of the legal machinery of death and his nuanced characterization of his lead elevate this above similarly themed legal thrillers.
Gainza’s phenomenal first work to be translated into English is a nimble yet momentous novel about the connection between one woman’s personal life and the art she observes. The book is composed of episodes in the life of María, who lives in Buenos Aires, often beginning with an anecdote about someone she knows before brilliantly finding an associative link to a work of art, then delving into the backstory of the artwork and the artist before coming full circle to how it all makes sense in Maria’s life. In one chapter, María’s observation of the sea prompts her to consider Gustave Courbet’s seascapes (“his water was fossil-like: a slab of malachite rent hard across the middle”), before connecting the thread to her enigmatic cousin. In another chapter, María’s fear of flying keeps her from attending a prestigious art convention and leads her to mull over Henri Rousseau’s ability to venture beyond his limitations to shape avant-garde art. Tsuguharu Foujita’s artistic decline is juxtaposed against María’s longtime friend Alexia’s unrealized artistic potential. There are many pleasures in Gainza’s novel: its clever and dynamic structure, its many aperçus (“happiness interests only those who experience it; nobody can be moved by the happiness of others”), and some of the very best writing about art around. With playfulness and startling psychological acuity, Gainza explores the spaces between others, art, and the self, and how what one sees and knows form the ineffable hodgepodge of the human soul. The result is a transcendent work.
In her exceptional debut, Hammad taps into the satisfying slow-burn style of classic literature with a storyline that captures both the heart and the mind. In 1914, 19-year-old Midhat Kamal leaves his hometown of Nablus in Palestine and heads to Marseilles to study medicine, where he stays with university professor Dr. Frederic Molineu and his daughter, Jeannette. Jeannette has just completed her own schooling in philosophy, and though her interactions with Midhat are initially based on distant friendliness, romantic notions begin to stir inside them both. Midhat nevertheless relocates to Paris after one year, changes his academic major to history, and evolves into an image like “the figure of the Parisian Oriental as he appeared on certain cigarette packets in corner stores.” After he returns home to Nablus, Midhat’s life is directed by his wealthy father, who plans for his eldest son to marry a local woman and work in the family business. Midhat remains separated from Jeannette, his first love, as national and geopolitical machinations continue to grind, and by 1936, Midhat has witnessed a number of historical regional changes, including British rule and the Arab fight for independence. Richly textured prose drives the novel’s spellbinding themes of the ebb and flow of cultural connections and people who struggle with love, familial responsibilities, and personal identity. This is an immensely rewarding novel that readers will sink into and savor.
Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror
Lane (The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction) provides the definitive look at the federal government’s efforts to counter the threat posed by the KKK during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency in this well-written and carefully researched account. When Grant entered the White House in 1869, hopes were raised that the Republican party platform of “equal rights, regardless of race or caste, for every man in every state” would extend to the South. But that agenda was violently opposed by the Klan, leading to the assassination of George Ashburn, a member of Georgia’s convention responsible for drafting a new constitution. Federal authorities dispatched Hiram Whitley, a veteran investigator, to Columbus, Ga., to crack the case, and he obtained evidence against 12 men, including a member of the U.S. Army. That achievement led to Whitley’s continuing to campaign against the Klan as the head of the Secret Service. Parallels between what Lane calls the first war on terror and the current one—both featured “military commissions, selective suspensions of habeas corpus, isolated interrogation centers, and torture against terrorists”—make clear why this lesser-known chapter in American law enforcement merits attention. American history buffs won’t want to miss this one.
Children’s literature historian Marcus (Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books) presents an eloquent, sumptuously illustrated account of the life and work of versatile, prolific British illustrator Helen Oxenbury. Taking leave of Oxenbury after interviewing her in 1989, Marcus recalls, “It struck me that the artist I had just met was very much the person I had already encountered in the pages of her books.” Reproductions of art from those books appear with photos and Marcus’s astute commentary to shape a portrait that seamlessly fuses Oxenbury’s personal and professional sensibilities. The narrative reveals the working mother (she has three children with late author and illustrator John Burningham) “stealing time for work at the kitchen table” and breaking publishing ground with board books featuring realistic illustrations of babies, created for then-fledgling publisher Sebastian Walker. Marcus accessibly chronicles the evolution of Oxenbury’s art and creative output against the backdrop of the burgeoning children’s publishing industry worldwide. Further enhancing the book are warm testimonies from Oxenbury collaborators Trish Cooke, Mem Fox, Phyllis Root, Michael Rosen, and Martin Waddell. Deftly capturing Oxenbury’s grace, artistic brilliance, and humor, this handsome volume offers an affectionate and substantive tribute.
Chef and former Top Chef contestant Onwuachi wonderfully chronicles the amazing arc of his life, beginning with his challenging Bronx childhood in the 1990s with his African-American mother and his absentee Nigerian father. As a teen he began dealing drugs, and was later sent to Nigeria to live with his grandfather in order to “get out of my mother’s hair.” He returned to live with his mother, who had moved to Baton Rouge. There, he learned to cook at a local barbecue restaurant and took a job as a cook on an oil-spill response ship in the Gulf of Mexico; he eventually moved back to New York City, where Tom Colicchio hired him at Craft. In 2016, he opened his restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C., which for him represented “years of busting my ass, of constant forward movement, of grasping opportunities manufactured to be beyond my grasp.” For his customers, he writes, “I had found a way to convert, through food, not just the warmth and love of my upbringing but also the struggles I’d faced.” Onwuachi includes Pan-African recipes throughout, inspired by the flavors of the African continent, the Caribbean, and the U.S., such as egusi stew and chicken and waffles. In the vein of Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef, this is a solid and inspiring memoir.
Osipov makes his English-language debut with this masterful and sublime collection, largely set in rural Russian villages. In “Moscow-Petrozavodsk” a young doctor is taking the 14-hour trip from Moscow to Petrozavodsk for a medical conference. When Tolya, a fellow traveler, goes into alcohol withdrawal, the doctor, trying to be helpful, alerts the train crew that Tolya needs medical treatment. Instead, he unwittingly causes Tolya to be thrown off the train and beaten by police at the next stop. Indignant, the doctor pays a visit to Colonel Schatz, a local arbitrator of law and order, who promptly turns the doctor’s simple narrative of justice and injustice upside down. In “On the Banks of the Spree,” Betty is flying to Berlin from her home in Moscow to meet a half-sister for the first time, whose existence is one of several secrets her father, a retired KGB spy, has recently revealed. The title story, the stand-out of the collection, begins as a simple, pastoral tale as Ksenia Nikolayevna Knysh, head of the region’s legislative assembly, plans to build a new chapel in memory of her deceased daughter. At first, the story seems a simple sketch of a mid-level bureaucrat, but when an ethnic Tajik seasonal worker is accused of murder, themes of religious tension and gender injustice break the surface. This collection showcases Osipov’s talent in creating subtle, sophisticated character portraits that carry a good dose of suspense.
Social historian Rubenhold (The Covent Garden Ladies) more than justifies another book about the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders by focusing on the killer’s five victims: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. This unique approach not only restores humanity to the dead and counters glorification of the Ripper but also enables Rubenhold to offer some original insights into the crimes. In her careful parsing of the available accounts of the inquests from newspaper reports, she convincingly argues that three of the victims were not prostitutes, and thereby undermines numerous theories premised on the killer’s targeting members of that profession. Rubenhold reconstructs their sad lives, which, for some, included struggles with alcoholism and domestic abuse. She believes that the women found dead on the streets of London’s East End may have been sleeping rough, and that all were slaughtered while asleep, a theory that explains the absence of outcries or defensive wounds. The lack of grisly forensic details highlighted in other books on the subject will be a relief to many readers. This moving work is a must for Ripperologists.
Set in 1549 England, Sansom’s outstanding seventh novel featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake (after 2015’s Lamentation) finds Shardlake working for Thomas Parry, the comptroller in charge of the household finances for the future Elizabeth I. Parry summons Shardlake to undertake a highly sensitive investigation. A woman has shown up at Lady Elizabeth’s Norfolk residence, claiming to be Edith Boleyn, the widow of John, a distant relative of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. Edith said she had just been dispossessed of her property, but Parry, who grew increasingly suspicious of her bona fides, turned her away. Eleven days later, a shepherd found the woman’s naked corpse in a stream, her head bashed in. The shepherd was employed by a landowner engaged in a bitter territory dispute with the very much alive John Boleyn. John’s muddy shoes matched footprints near the grim discovery, and a hammer with traces of blood and hair was found in his stables. Elizabeth herself requests that Shardlake look into the crime. Shardlake’s search for the truth behind the murder coincides with the massive peasant uprising known as Kett’s Rebellion. Non-mystery readers interested in Tudor England will be equally enthralled.
In her fifth collection, Shaughnessy (So Much Synth), who is married to PW’s director of special editorial projects, imagines a dystopian future in which octopuses reign, while humans receive their just deserts for centuries of environmental devastation. This new ruling class is dubbed the COO (Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords), and enforces strict rations (“farm-fresh slowpoke foam” and “Soapish fish braised in its own frothing broth”). Shaughnessy’s conceptual work is clever as always, but even more extraordinary is her talent for crafting musical, expressive lines that triumph in their complexity and grace: “Once a wild tentacled screaming creature every inch a kissed lip of a beloved place/ a true and relentless mind, all heart if heart is a dumb hope of reusable pump.” In the politically charged poem “Are Women People,” the COO sifts through cultural and legal detritus to determine who was and was not given status of personhood: “Children are, at the very least, future people, but anything could happen. They could be female, and a good half of them do end up as such.” Suffused with a melancholic nostalgia for what once was and what might have been, the poet turns to her inability to protect her childrens’ innocence, saying of her daughter “I hope she can learn to like lizard blood and shoelace chewing gum, because that’s what’s coming.” With an unparalleled ear for language, Shaughnessy excels at making the tragic transcendent.
Those who spend too much time looking at their screens will find Skilton’s fun contemporary just as addictive. It’s been more than 20 years since Holly Danner appeared on a wildly popular children’s television show. Future success as an actress, writer, and even nanny eluded Holly; meanwhile, she’s seen all her costars grow into award-winning megastars who only reconnect with her when they need a safe place to escape the paparazzi. Deeply insulted that she hasn’t been invited to a televised reunion show in New York, she goes off the deep end monitoring her costars online and winds up in an internet addiction therapy clinic, hoping to regain some perspective. There she meets handsome Thom Parker, a fellow patient who urges her to abandon her plan to crash the reunion show and, instead, find her own life. After graduating from the clinic, Thom and Holly open up to each other about their lives as Thom reluctantly helps Holly get to New York on a hijinks-filled road trip. The premise is comedic, but the underlying message about social media and stardom is serious and powerful. In addition to cheering on Holly and Thom’s romance, readers will feel abundant sympathy for Holly and hope she finds her own success.