This week: new books from Bill Bryson, Elizabeth Strout, and more.
Alharthi’s ambitious, intense novel—her first to be translated into English and winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize—examines the radical changes in Oman over the past century from the perspectives of the members of several interconnected families. With exhilarating results, Alharthi throws the reader into the midst of a tangled family drama in which unrequited love, murder, suicide, and adultery seem the rule rather than the exception. She moves between the stream-of-consciousness musings and memories of businessman Abdallah as he flies to Frankfurt and vignettes from the lives of those in his family, the slaves who raised him under the rule of his abusive father, and the members of the large family he married into. These include, among many others, a wife who apparently loves her sewing machine more than him, her two conflicted sisters, a father-in-law conducting a torrid love affair with a Bedouin woman, and an unhappy physician daughter. The scenes establish the remarkable contrasts among the generations, whose members are united primarily by a fierce search for romantic love. The older generation has grown up with strict rules and traditions, the younger generation eats at McDonald’s and wears Armani jeans, and the members of the middle generation, particularly the women, are caught between expectations and aspirations. The novel rewards readers willing to assemble the pieces of Alharthi’s puzzle into a whole, and is all the more satisfying for the complexity of its tale.
This page-turning memoir about an especially fraught mother-daughter relationship from novelist Brodeur (Man Camp) reads like heady beach fiction. At age 14, Brodeur became enmeshed in her mother Malabar’s affair with Ben—a married lifelong friend of Brodeur’s stepfather Charles—covering for them even after Charles’s death. At 21, Brodeur cheated on a boyfriend with Ben’s son Jack: “like our parents before us, we spoke in a language rich in innuendo.” She later became engaged to Jack, who knew nothing of their parents’ affair, and kept quiet about it until Ben confessed to his family and ended the relationship with Malabar. Brodeur and Jack’s wedding became “Malabar’s battleground. She would be radiant... and show Ben what he was missing”; to that end, Malabar brought out a family heirloom promised to Brodeur on her wedding day—a necklace of allegedly priceless gems—and wore it herself. Wealth and social prominence abound against a summertime Cape Cod backdrop: Malabar was a Boston Globe food columnist, Charles founded the Plimoth Plantation living history museum, and Ben was a proud Mayflower descendant. Nine months after Ben’s wife’s died, Ben and Malabar married, and Malabar quickly cut off Brodeur, whose own marriage was crumbling: “Now that Malabar finally had Ben... she no longer needed me.” This layered narrative of deceit, denial, and disillusionment is a surefire bestseller.
Bryson (The Road to Little Dribbling), known for his travel narratives and, more recently, popular scientific works, turns his humorous and curious eye to the human body. Through anecdotes about scientific history and startling facts that seem too extraordinary to be true—the DNA in one person, if stretched out, would measure billions of miles and reach beyond Pluto—Bryson draws the reader into his subject. Tracing the beginnings of the modern understanding of the human body, Bryson introduces his audience to such foundational figures as Henry Gray, whose book Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical (better known as Gray’s Anatomy) has taught generations of medical students since its first publication in 1858, and Wilbur Olin Atwater, a chemist whose 1898 The Chemical Composition of American Food Materials “remained the last word on diet and nutrition for a generation.” Bryson also describes the often bewildering mystery of diseases, the science of pain, and the advances made in medical treatment, all with care and concern. Bryson’s tone is both informative and inviting, encouraging the reader, throughout this exemplary work, to share the sense of wonder he expresses at how the body is constituted and what it is capable of.
Based on a true case, Cha’s ambitious tale of race, identity, and murder delivers on the promise of her Juniper Song mysteries (Dead Soon Enough, etc.). Racial tensions in Los Angeles are at a boiling point following the police shooting of a black teenager, and 27-year-old Grace Park, who lives with her Korean immigrant parents, shares the sense of outrage felt by many. Her sheltered world is suddenly shattered when her mother, Yvonne, is shot in front of the family pharmacy in a drive-by shooting. Dark family secrets begin to emerge about Yvonne’s involvement in the notorious 1991 shooting of Ava Matthews, an unarmed young black woman, by a Korean shopkeeper. Grace is torn by conflicting emotions of concern for her mother and shame at the implications of her mother’s crime. Meanwhile, Ava’s brother, Shawn Matthews, has tried to put the past behind him. When news of Yvonne’s attempted murder reaches him, it brings up emotions Shawn has long fought to keep down. The tension rises as the authorities circle in on his family as possible suspects in Yvonne’s shooting. This timely, morally complex story could well be Cha’s breakout novel.
With an introduction by poet and critic Mark Ford, this important volume gathers and contextualizes Crase’s innovative body of work. “Crase established himself as among the most resourceful, inventive, ambitious, and well-equipped of those attempting to renew and extend the Whitmanian covenant,” Ford explains, rightly calling attention to Crase’s recasting of transcendentalism and the capacious sensibility of these poems. “When your mind is on the move, it meets many familiar things/ It does and it doesn’t recognize for the first time,” the poet observes, as though describing the poems’ own movements through their artistic lineage. Crase renders the most familiar tropes wonderfully strange, these “revisions” of a received canon proving as subtle as they are provocative: “A century Begins,” he explains in “To the Light Fantastic,” “begins because it discovered/ The rights of man, or unearthed light.” Elsewhere, wordplay suggests an ecstatic mystery: “The mitigation remembers the mischief,/ And nothing’s repaired except to engender it/ Different. All things are wild/ In the service of objects.” This expertly framed volume marks a lasting contribution to American poetry.
Fox delivers a gripping memoir about the near decade she spent working for the CIA to help stop terrorism. The 2002 kidnapping and beheading by extremists of her writing mentor, journalist Daniel Pearl, compelled Fox to apply to the master’s program in conflict and terrorism at Georgetown University. Fox’s thesis work caught the attention of a CIA official in residence at the school, and she enthrallingly discusses joining the CIA at 22 and then being selected to be part of the CIA’s elite Clandestine Service, where her duties included mapping the connections between al Qaeda lieutenants. In her strange new world, every colleague has a bogus identity, and Fox’s description of her wedding day is surreal: “I walk down the aisle, past work friends whose real names I’ll never know,” she writes. Fox’s work to prevent terror attacks—some of which she conducted while pregnant—involved tracking arms deals and took her to places like Tunisia, where she connected with a Hungarian arms dealer she later recruited for the CIA, and to Pakistan, where she convinced militants not to go through with a planned bombing. Fox’s CIA life ended after the birth of her daughter, who inspired her to shed her “mask” and work publicly for peace as a community builder. Fox masterfully conveys the exhilaration and loneliness of life undercover, and her memoir reads like a great espionage novel.
In this excellent history, music critic Gioia (How to Listen to Jazz) dazzles with tales of how music grew out of violence, sex, and rebellion. Gioia opens with humans fashioning musical instruments from animal bones, such as a Neanderthal flute made with a bear’s femur, and writes, “When the instruments didn’t come from the dead animal, they evolved from the weapons used to kill it,” such as a hunter’s bow, which became the “earliest stringed instrument.” He then explores the roots of eroticism in music in Sumerian songs and myths, and the divide between the sacred and the vulgar in music. Gioia explains how the early Catholic church elevated the human voice as the only instrument above reproach, since other instruments, drums in particular, were tainted by their pagan associations. In the Middle Ages, passionate secular songs were being performed by roaming troubadours whose new way of singing expressed a deep sensitivity to the inner romantic life. Crisply written with surprising insights, Gioia’s history ranges from Beethoven’s outsider status, due to what was considered to be his mysterious and gloomy music, to the execution and murder ballads in 20th-century folk music, and ending with the rise of rock and roll and hip-hop. Gioia’s richly told narrative provides fresh insights into the history of music.
Poet and critic Lehman (Poems in the Manner of...), who was treated for bladder cancer in 2014, brilliantly captures the despair, uncertainty, and anger he felt in these 100 short reflections on life, death, and writing. Likening his ordeal to the plot of a novel, he declares, “the road connecting memory and desire is not linear... one lesson of any brush with death is that time is finite.” He muses on why he writes: “I write to assert my will to live. To prove I exist.” Throughout, he reflects on literature and pop culture figures to tell his story: arriving at the hospital for treatment wearing his fedora, Lehman recalls the movie Some Came Running and Dean Martin’s hat, “which he wears even in bed, even in a hospital bed.” After reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lehman ponders the concept of evil: “the real question is not whether you believe in god as such but whether you believe there is such a thing as evil.” In his final reflection, being in excellent health—though, like many cancer patients, he acknowledges that this might just be a reprieve—he advises that “even on bad days, there are pleasant hours,” and “it is amazing how much pain the body can withstand.” Lehman’s exquisite essays illustrate the ways that beauty can flow out of pain.
Set in 1905, Meyer’s memorable fourth Sherlock Holmes novel, his first since 1993’s The Canary Trainer, convincingly mimics Conan Doyle’s writing style and characterizations. After the murder of British operative Manya Lippman, Holmes’s brother, Mycroft, the dead woman’s employer, asks for help in tracing the origins of the papers found on her corpse. Lippman apparently paid with her life for somehow obtaining a French version of the anti-Semitic tract known as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which describe a Jewish plot for world domination. Mycroft is concerned about a possible connection between the documents, the annual meetings of Jews committed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, and the untimely death of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, who apparently suffered a heart attack right before he could be interviewed by one of Mycroft’s agents. Holmes and Watson’s pursuit of the truth takes them to France and Russia, where their ethics face a severe test. Meyer cleverly plays with his audience’s expectations, noting at the outset that the case was one of Holmes’s rare failures. Sherlockians will hope for a shorter wait for his next pastiche.
Lee and Annie have been close friends since the bloody revolution nine years earlier that freed Callipolis from the reign of the despotic dragonborn aristocracy. Only Annie, whose entire serf family died at Lee’s father’s hands, suspects that orphaned Lee is the scion of one of the slaughtered dragonborn lineages. Now, both teens are top competitors for the position of Firstrider, leader of a new fleet of dragon riders, and their privileged position allows them to see shortcomings in the new meritocracy seeking to elevate the downtrodden and redistribute power in their new society. But loyalties are tested as Lee’s relatives lead the long-fled survivors of the dragonborn to threaten the fledgling nation. Drawing inspiration from The Aeneid and Plato’s Republic, debut author Munda generates a plot that moves quickly, tempering fate-driven elements of classical tragedy with hope. The nuanced cast, particularly Lee and Annie, engage in complex relationships, and scenes of dragon-mounted combat are simultaneously exciting and grounded in idiosyncratic details of process and mechanics. Munda seamlessly moves between breathless action and an unflinching examination of horrors inflicted in pursuit of noble ideals, and the difficulty of escaping cycles of power and violence. Ages 12–up.
In the year 2172, a civil war rages in Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra fights for independence in battles using advanced tech and giant mechs. War Girl Onyii, a Biafran rebel and former child soldier with a bionic arm, has made a safe place away from the war with her comrades and younger sister, Ify, a brilliant hacker who has created an Accent, a tiny technological wonder that “reveal[s] the series of lines and nodes of net connectivity that bind everything—and everyone—together.” When their camp is attacked, Onyii is left alive and drawn back into the fight; Ify, captured, is taken to the glittering glass city of Abuja. Four years later, Ify is a trusted confidant to her now powerful kidnapper but questions the treatment of young Biafran prisoners, while Onyii has become a killing machine known as the Demon of Biafra. Their divergent paths, forged in violence, shape them indelibly, ensuring they will never be the same. Onyebuchi’s action-packed, high-stakes tale of loyalty, sisterhood, and the transformative power of love and hope brims with imaginative future tech and asks important questions about the human cost of war, mechanization, and artificial intelligence. Set amid the horrors of war in a world ravaged by climate change and nuclear disaster, this heart-wrenching and complex page-turner, drawn from the 1960s Nigerian civil war, will leave readers stunned and awaiting the second installment. Ages 12–up.
Raza, a Columbia University professor of medicine and practicing oncologist, offers a passionate account of how humans grapple with the scourge of cancer. She masterfully explains how her research science work intersects with her job treating dying patients on a daily basis: “Nowhere is the science of medicine replaced by the art of caring as in the final days of a terminal illness.” She also explains why using animal models to search for new cancer treatments is unlikely to work, as cancer is so variable and dependent on the specific environment in which it grows. Meanwhile, most new cancer drugs, if they work at all, add months to life and are accompanied by severe costs, both financial and physiological. Her message is as simple as it is paradigm-shifting: rather than trying to kill every last cancer cell, medicine needs to focus on finding the first occurring cancer cells. Progress is being made on this front, she shows, but only a small percentage of available research dollars are being spent on it. Showing that compassion is just as important for cancer patients as the drugs administered to them, Raza’s deeply personal work brings understanding and empathy to the fore in a way that a purely scientific explication never could.
This taut thriller/mystery from Roux, best known for YA horror (House of Furies, etc.), pits a girl on the run from her past against a parasitic monster named Mother. In a spacefaring future, Rosalyn Devar is a xenobiologist who takes a job as a salvager—janitor of dead space crews—to get away from her father, his business, and the man who hurt her. When caught drinking on the job, she’s given one more chance: clean up the Brigantine, a research ship whose crew is dead. But they aren’t. Aboard the Brigantine, she meets Edison Aries, the captain, and his undead crew. They are infected with a mysterious fungus, Foxfire, that has taken root in their minds, convincing them that it is their mother and that Rosalyn needs to join them. Stranded aboard the Brigantine, Rosalyn and Edison try to outwit the other crew members and Mother, while looking for a way to stop Foxfire from spreading and wondering whether her father’s business is behind Foxfire and other horrors. Scenes of violence are gory but not gratuitous, and Roux will leave readers wondering whether the real source of evil is in human minds and hearts. This entertaining, deeply disturbing, and clever story hits all the right notes for those who like a little horror with their SF.
Sainz Borgo’s excellent debut is a harrowing account of one woman grieving the recent death of her mother while attempting to survive the political unrest in Caracas, Venezuela. Adelaida buries her namesake after having drained their savings buying medicine on the black market. Ana, Adelaida’s closest friend, fears the worst has befallen her missing brother, Santiago, after the Sons of the Revolution arrest him. When Adelaida’s apartment is taken over by thugs, she discovers her neighbor Aurora dead in the apartment next door. During an attempt to dispose of her body, she encounters Santiago, who appears to have joined the group that kidnapped him. Though she doesn’t fully trust him, they take shelter in Aurora’s apartment, where Adelaida finds troves of meticulously kept documents that will help her impersonate Aurora and escape Venezuela. The novel alternates scenes of present-day chaos with Adelaida’s memories of her loving mother, and Sainz Borgo infuses both sections with heartbreaking details that stay with the reader: the squeal of a pet turtle as it’s boiled to death, heirloom plates smashed with malice. She does a fantastic job of showcasing Adelaida’s personal despair within the greater agony of the country. Readers will appreciate how Sainz Borgo puts a human face on the tragedy of Venezuela’s upheaval.
As direct, funny, sad, and human as its heroine, Strout’s welcome follow-up to Olive Kitteridge portrays the cantankerous retired math teacher in old age. The novel, set in small-town coastal Crosby, Maine, unfolds like its predecessor through 13 linked stories. “Arrested” begins just after the first novel ends, with 74-year-old widower Jack Kennison wooing 73-year-old Olive. “Motherless Child” follows the family visit when Olive tells her son she plans to marry Jack. In “Labor,” Olive awkwardly admires gifts at a baby shower, then efficiently delivers another guest’s baby. Olive also offers characteristic brusque empathy to a grateful cancer patient in “Light,” and, in “Heart,” to her own two home nurses—one a Trump supporter, one the daughter of a Somali refugee. “Helped” brings pathos to the narrative, “The End of the Civil War Days” humor, “The Poet” self-recognition. Jim Burgess of Strout’s The Burgess Boys comes to Crosby to visit brother Bob (“Exiles”). Olive, in her 80s, living in assisted care, develops a touching friendship with fellow resident Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle (“Friend”). Strout’s stories form a cohesive novel, both sequel and culmination, that captures, with humor, compassion, and embarrassing detail, aging, loss, loneliness, and love. Strout again demonstrates her gift for zeroing in on ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people to highlight their extraordinary resilience.