The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Jon Mooallem, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Maggie Shipstead.
New York Times Magazine writer Mooallem (This Is Chance!) “whip[s] through our colossal, mystifying, stupidly beautiful world” in this rich collection of essays. “A House at the End of the World” profiles B.J. Miller, the executive director of a Zen Hospice in California who pioneered the notion that death is a “human experience instead of primarily a medical one,” and “This Story About Charlie Kaufman Has Changed” offers a portrait of the elusive auteur Kaufman, filled with Mooallem’s first drafts that received “discouraging feedback.” A number of the essays deal with clashes between humans and nature: in “We Have Fire Everywhere,” a show-stopping piece about the Paradise, Calif., wildfire, the heat—and trapped motorists’ terror—are brought to vivid life, as is a sense that “something was different now. Fire was winning, finding ways to overpower our fight response.” And “Why These Instead of Others,” the harrowing story of two friends’ Alaskan kayaking trip that goes awry, turns into a portrait of human resilience and helplessness. Mooallem has a real knack for evoking places, people, and emotions, and the individuals he writes about put a human face on larger issues such as climate change and conservation. This is well worth the price of admission.
Pulitzer-winning novelist Lahiri (Whereabouts) explores her relationship with literature, translation, and the English and Italian languages in this exhilarating collection. In “Why Italian?” Lahiri reflects on her desire to learn the language, concluding it is like breeding a “new variety” of plant through grafting: “A foreigner who arrives from abroad, who learns a new language, who works to contribute to a new society, who integrates herself: this person embodies the word graft.” “In Praise of Echo” sees Lahiri describe translation as a “radical, painful, and miraculous transformation” that evokes the translator’s ability to “look into a mirror and see someone rather than herself.” “Where I Find Myself” offers fascinating commentary on Lahiri’s experience translating her own work—self-translation, she writes, is “like one of those radioactive dyes that enable doctors to look through our skin to locate damage... and other states of imperfection.” “Calvino Abroad” is a consideration of the Italian novelist’s relationship to language, and includes some of his own thoughts on translation (he wrote in one essay that it “requires a sort of miracle”). Lucid and provocative, this is full of rewarding surprises.
The 10 stories in this daring, wide-ranging debut collection from Shipstead (after the novel Great Circle) resonate as they leap across time and space. “The Cowboy Tango,” set at a Montana dude ranch, cruises through several decades as the complicated relationship between the ranch’s owner and a woman who works for him remains uncomfortably static, then changes radically upon the arrival of the owner’s nephew. “Lambs,” on one level a casual piece about the interactions of those at an artist’s colony in Ireland, is haunted by an eerie foreshadowing as each character is introduced with parenthetical summaries of their birth and death dates, which makes its ending both surprising and believable. The masterwork is the deeply unsettling “La Moretta.” Interspersed with segments from an enigmatic inquisition, it documents a honeymoon excursion gone horribly wrong. Here and throughout, Shipstead demonstrates a remarkable ability to interlace the events of ordinary life with a mythological sense of preordained destruction. Both formally inventive and emotionally complex, this pays off with dividends.
In this triumphant debut, Liu, star of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, traces how he followed his “immigrant dream” all the way to the big screen. His “cross-generational tale” begins in 1990s Harbin, China, where young Liu lived happily with his grandparents in a “ramshackle apartment.” Things changed drastically when, at age four, Liu was reunited in Toronto with his parents, who’d moved overseas in search of a better life. He bluntly reveals how cultural divides, compounded by the “weight” of his parents’ expectations, created a rift in the family, one that was often defined by violence. “I stopped feeling like my parents’ happily ever after, and more like their burden,” writes Liu. After excelling in school, though, dogged determination and a love of “tricking” (a mix of martial arts, gymnastics, and break dancing) led Liu to acting. Fans will relish the candid look at his winding road to success—from playing an “Asian extra” in 2013’s Pacific Rim, to unglamorous gigs found via Craigslist, to making history as Marvel’s first Asian superhero. The book’s beating heart, however, lies in the affecting story of his family’s path to healing: “My parents are beaming with pride at the son who has disobeyed practically every single order they had ever given.” This real-life hero’s journey is a knockout.
Three stories elegantly intertwine in this clever and stylish tale of murder and family lies from Williams, Willig, and White (All the Ways We Said Goodbye). In 2019, Andie Figuero arrives at Sprague Hall, a crumbling Newport, R.I., summer home, to host an episode of Makeover Mansions, a TV reality show. An architectural historian, Andie has seen her job dwindle from dispensing information about authentic restoration techniques to doing kitchen makeovers “while keeping up a rambling stream of salacious details about the families.” She must also contend with the demands of elderly heiress Lucky Sprague, who lives in the hall. Meanwhile, in 1899, Ellen Daniels teaches music to sweet and simple 17-year-old Maybelle Sprague, whose stepbrother is determined to marry her off to an Italian prince, and, in 1957, a young Lucky shows a penchant for choosing unsuitable men. The superbly paced plot reveals more than one violent death as it races along from period to period. As Joanie, Lucky’s daughter, says, “We must banish all secrets, and all ghosts of the past from these walls. It is the most important part of any renovation.” This crackerjack novel offers three mysteries for the price of one.
Rex, the head of atmospheric research at the Alfred Wegener Institute, vividly captures 2019’s MOSAiC polar expedition in this show-stopping account. In September of that year, the icebreaker Polarstern set sail from Tromsø, Norway, to spend a year monitoring and measuring conditions in the Arctic Ocean; the mission involved hundreds of scientists, technicians, and crew members. Rex, the director of the project, recounts it in diary format, describing the logistics of finding a suitable ice floe thick enough to support the weight of their equipment, polar bear encounters, and ever-shifting conditions. Research successes large and small come along the way, as when one team had an “amazing” ice coring day, and Rex has a knack for vivid and startling imagery. (On the myriad ice formations, “One looks like a huge mushroom, another like the teeth of a mighty Arctic monster frozen in the ice.”) His conclusion that immediate action is needed to preserve the Arctic ice won’t be a surprise, but his point that any changes to that effect will need to be relevant and have broad support is well made. This is required reading for anyone interested in seeing science in action.
Familial ties and the scars of war are exquisitely examined in this luminous debut from journalist Reang. The author, who emigrated from Cambodia to Corvallis, Ore., as an infant with her family during the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, recalls her’s father difficulty adapting to life in the U.S., a struggle that drove him to violence and a nervous breakdown. For Reang, it delivered a sobering truth that “those of us who come from war can never fully escape it.” This sentiment echoes throughout her lyrical narrative, as she traces how, after coming out in her 20s, her unwavering relationship with her “Ma” took a similar hit: “I was the single flaw in the beautiful fiction of a family Ma spun for the Khmer community.” Things came to a head, years later, when Reang’s mother refused to attend her wedding. Despite this, Reang resolved “to build a bridge of story that brings us back together” by investigating her mother’s “snarled and suppressed” history alongside her own life path—from navigating the fraught realities of displacement as a child to training reporters in Phnom Penh as a journalist. In wringing compassion from her complicated legacy, Reang offers a nuanced mediation on love, identity, and belonging. This story of survival radiates with resilience and hope.
In turns devastating and hilarious, Clark’s exceptional debut collection cuts right to the emotional core of its characters and their conflicts in stories that examine Asian identity, familial relationships, climate anxiety, and gender with an astonishing sense of nuance and clarity. In “Lie-in,” an injured ballerina uses her time off to learn Cantonese while her husband dances in an international production of Don Quixote with a new beautiful female lead. In “A Woman in Love,” a recently divorced woman plots to steal her pet dog from her ex-husband, reflecting on the question of “when does a dog become your dog?” A woman and her partner undergo brain surgery to change their body temperatures in “Amygdala” to contend with the Earth’s rising temperatures. In “Private Eating,” a Chinese woman lies about being a vegetarian to an anesthesiologist whom she has recently started dating (he’s judgmental of meat eaters, but otherwise seems like a catch). In the title story, the ghost of a woman who recently died from cancer befriends Neil Armstrong, haunts her loved ones, and reckons with the cruel joke of death. With a striking style, Clark consistently hits her mark, sticking each landing with breathtaking poignancy. This will not disappoint.