The books we love coming out this week include new titles by John Elizabeth Stintz, Natalie Hodge, and Andre Henry.
Climate change, time travel, startup culture, and volcanic eruptions intertwine in this sui generis outing from Stinzi (Vanishing Monuments). Told in a series of buzzing numbered fragments, the narrative whirls around a volcano rising in Central Park that looks like Mount Fuji. As the volcano grows, Stintzi builds out the wide-ranging narrative with jump cuts to a Nigerian folklore scholar in Tokyo; Makayla Brooks, a staffer at the emotion-managing startup Easy-Rupt; Dzhambul, a nomadic herder in Mongolia; a white trans sci-fi novelist in Manhattan; and eight-year-old Angel Barros Vargas in Mexico City, punctuating the breaks between each section with entries listing the victims of hate crimes and police shootings in 2016, such as the Orlando nightclub attack and the killing of Henry Green in Ohio, “shot dead by undercover police after being taunted to pull his gun.” Each protagonist meets an unexpected fate: Angel, transported to 1516, is possessed by a vengeful spirit during the Aztec Empire’s collapse. Stung by a bee, Dzhambul becomes a hive mind that first consumes entire cities and then the entire Asian continent. And Makayla, the Easy-Rupt staffer, inhabits other bodies in dreams as she turns to stone. Meanwhile a golem destroys polluted cities, buildings sprout legs, and people appear in two places at once. That Stintzi keeps all these plates spinning is a wonder; that they transform the chaotic present into a fiery, transcendent vision of the future is even more impressive. It’s a brilliant achievement.
Korean American violinist Hodges debuts with a literary mosaic of invention, inquiry, and wonder that interrogates classical music, quantum entanglement, the Tiger Mother stereotype, and the fluidity of time. The through line is her lifelong study of the violin and how her chronic performance anxiety (“nothing more or less than my fear of relinquishing control over the moment”) ended her dreams of becoming a concert solo violinist in her early 20s. To understand how she arrived at that point, she delves into the psychology of musicality, arguing “the desire to make music is as much a desire to assert the individual self as to connect with others.” She profiles Gabriela Montero, a classical music outlier whose improvisational talents have fascinated neuroscientists; pays tribute to her mother, a Korean immigrant who gave up music to become a lawyer after graduating from Harvard; condemns her father, a white New England blue blood who thought his children’s violin playing “smacked of ‘middle-class’ immigrant striving”; and looks to quantum physics to reshape her past ambitions into a “more expansive” love for music. In restrained yet lyrical prose, Hodges moves toward a kind of liberation through and from the “closed system of the canon” to offer a luminous meditation on the ways in which art, freedom, and identity intertwine. This impresses at every turn.
All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope—and Hard Pills to Swallow—About Fighting for Black Lives
In this rousing debut, singer-songwriter Henry mines his painful experiences talking with white people about anti-Black racism to chart a path forward for racial justice activists. Rebuking white people who are too firmly rooted in anti-Blackness to make “good neighbors to Black people or valuable partners in the pursuit of racial justice,” Henry tells the story of his political and spiritual transformation in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the heated discussions he had with white friends and fellow churchgoers about it. For example, the author recounts falling out with a white family that Henry had considered like kin after they refused to acknowledge anti-Black racism following the Ferguson uprising. Then there’s “white Jesus,” one of the friends Henry decided he couldn’t keep after his former theology schoolmate claimed “racism is not a priority to God,” leading Henry to rediscover his faith in Assata Shakur’s inclusive vision of activist religion. Full of fiery encouragement and prophetic hope, Henry argues that Black people have a right to be angry about anti-Blackness even if it means making white people uncomfortable. A timely declaration from an exciting voice, this is sure to inspire those in pursuit of radical change.
Georgetown University English professor Hochman (Savage Preservation) explores in this fascinating history how wiretapping by U.S. law enforcement agencies went from a “dirty business” to a “standard investigative tactic.” Meticulously combing through Supreme Court opinions, trial transcripts, and even pulp fiction, Hochman traces how political, corporate, and popular opinions of wiretapping evolved from the invention of the telegraph in the mid–19th century through the war on drugs in the 1990s, when Congress passed legislation requiring phone companies “to build technical surveillance capacities” into their networks and granting law enforcement access to call location data. Contending that today’s “regime of ubiquitous backdoor surveillance” wasn’t inevitable, Hochman notes a major shift in the late 1960s when civil rights protests and racial uprisings in the Watts neighborhood of L.A.; Newark, N.J.; and other U.S. cities sparked a conservative backlash that led to the implementation of “repressive law enforcement policies,” including wiretapping, aimed largely at communities of color. Hochman lucidly explains complex legal matters and fills the book with such intriguing yet little-known characters as Jim Vaus, an LAPD wiretapper turned Christian evangelist, who shot to fame with tales of his “bugging exploits” in the 1950s. This is an essential and immersive look at “what happens when we sideline privacy concerns in the interest of profit motives and police imperatives.”
Gainza (Optic Nerve) returns with a ruminative account of the pursuit of a master forger who has gone off the grid in a dreamy Buenos Aires. The unnamed narrator, a young woman, works for art authenticator Enriqueta Macedo, who for decades has been fraudulently authenticating paintings forged by a woman named Renée, who specialized in passing off works of Mariette Lydis, one of the country’s greatest portraitists (“They resemble women about to turn into animals, or animals not since long made human,” the narrator says of Lydis’s subjects). Gainza paints an impressionistic group portrait of artist, authenticator, and forger: Lydis’s flight from Nazi-occupied Vienna to Argentina, recounted through an auction catalog (“Painting is worth more if there’s a story behind it”); Enriqueta’s initiation as a young woman into a group called the Melancholical Forgers, Inc.; and Renée’s reign during the “golden age of art forgery.” The narrator, who after Enriqueta’s death becomes an art critic, is intrigued by Renée as a biographical subject, and embarks on a quest to track down the long-since-disappeared counterfeiter. Digressions, aphorisms, and dead ends pile up along the way in a hypnotic search defined by “Sehnsucht... the German term denoting a melancholic desire for some intangible thing.” The characters’ incertitude and the narrative’s lack of resolution only intensify the mysterious communion Gainza evokes between like-minded souls. This captivating work is one to savor.
Designer and cartoonist Crane (The Clouds Above) lets tiny moments swell into a flood of emotion in his most accomplished and moving work yet. While his girlfriend runs errands, a man washes dishes, putters around the house, and follows loosely connected trains of thought: memories from their relationship, including a lover’s spat while driving; the plot of the trauma-filled psychological novel he’s reading; a conversation about the idea that bad things happen in threes; and ruminations on his tendency to imagine the worst in any situation. When his girlfriend runs late, all these thoughts coalesce into the fear of losing her and the realization of how much she means to him. At last he goes out in search of her, setting off a chain of events that come crashing together. From panel to panel, the narrative shifts between times, places, perspectives, fantasies, worries, and stories within stories within stories. But the more fragmented the plot becomes, the stronger the emotional thread binding the disparate elements grows, winding toward an unexpectedly transcendent climax. Crane’s rounded characters inhabit carefully drawn suburban settings, drenched in nighttime shadows and colored in soft shades of green. The juxtaposition of simply drawn images and geometric patterns recall the style of Seth but with a warmer, sentimental touch. This a gently stunning meditation on loss, absence, and connection.
Crime, drugs, and magic rule the streets of 1920s Seattle in this captivating noir fantasy from Deeds (Copper Road). Seattle’s Commissioner of Magi hires heroine Dolly White as a companion for his unruly daughter, Fiona, in hopes of taming her disgraceful behavior. Meanwhile, widowed Violet Solomon, who runs a waterfront speakeasy under the guise of a hat shop, does her best to keep her shape-shifter brother, Phillipe, out of harm’s way. Dolly and Violet’s lives unexpectedly intertwine as Violet seeks revenge against the Order of Saint Michael, the volunteer police force that murdered her husband and whose leader happens to be Fiona’s older brother, Francis. Dolly, meanwhile, suspects the Order is responsible for the city’s sudden uptick in violence against shape-shifters and sets out to investigate Francis’s shady business with a local drug ring, threatening to bring to light more chaos than the city is prepared for. Deeds presents all this intrigue in reverse chronological order, spinning out mysteries that will keep readers guessing till the end. The result is a well-crafted puzzle; readers’ only complaint will be that they want more.
Pandian (the Accidental Alchemist mysteries) is in top form in this thoroughly enjoyable series launch starring 26-year-old Tempest Raj, a Las Vegas, Nev., magician, who returns home to California after a stage accident—engineered, she’s sure, by her stunt double, Cassidy Sparrow—destroyed her career. Tempest’s family runs a business, Secret Staircase Construction, which specializes in constructing houses with secret passageways, sliding bookcases, and hidden entrances, and on the site of her father’s latest job she discovers Cassidy’s body inside a wall that’s been sealed for decades. Could Tempest have been the intended victim? As Tempest struggles to solve the puzzle of Cassidy’s death, she reconnects with her family—largely through her grandfather’s cooking and a host of lovingly described plant-based recipes that will make even a non-vegan’s mouth water. Pandian negotiates the fine line between the magician’s pledge not to reveal their secrets and the mystery writer’s equally important promise to play fair with the reader by keeping most of the magic tricks offstage. Never mind that the solution of the impossible murder isn’t more central to the story. Lovers of traditional mysteries with quirky characters will be well rewarded.