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L’Origine

Lilianne Milgrom. Little French Girl, $17 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-73486-700-8

Artist Milgrom debuts with a richly imagined blend of autofiction and art history that revolves around a copyist named Lilianne Milgrom’s engagement with a shocking Courbet painting. During a brief residency at the Musée d’Orsay in 2011, Lilianne gains permission to copy 19th-century French painter Gustave Courbet’s scandalous L’Origine du monde, a diminutive nude portrait featuring the female subject’s genitals. Lilianne proceeds to unravel the picture’s story from its commission by Khalil Bey, a wealthy Turk in Paris, when Courbet was at the height of his fame in 1865, to the painting’s belated public display at the end of the 20th century. Milgrom evokes the powerful reactions that attracted its owners and the lengths they undertook to conceal the work as well as Courbet’s tragic death after being convicted on false charges of desecrating national artifacts because of his association with the Paris Commune. In 1913, Hungarian Jewish art collector Ferenc Hatvany acquires the painting, and subsequently recovers it from Nazi confiscation. The final private owner, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, uses it as a therapeutic talking point with his patients. The outrages, desire, and desperation the painting provokes make for delicious, emotionally powerful reading, while the historical details appear unobtrusively. Readers will be delighted by this delectable tale. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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What Storm, What Thunder

Myriam J. A. Chancy. Tin House, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-9511-4276-6

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti provides the backdrop for the extraordinary latest from Chancy (The Loneliness of Angels). “The earth had buckled and, in that movement, all that was not in its place fell upon the earth’s children, upon the blameless as well as the guilty, without discrimination,” remembers survivor Ma Lou, a market woman. Multilayered, lyrical, and told by 10 people affected by the disaster, all connected by blood or friendship, Chancy’s dazzling take considers a myriad of topics including sexual violence, racism, a dysfunctional government, and capitalism. There’s Ma Lou’s estranged, wealthy water executive son, Richard, who returns to Haiti on a business trip from Paris just before the earthquake, and drowns while having an anti-capitalist epiphany; Richard’s daughter, Anne, an architect working in Rwanda who returns to help after the quake; Taffia, 15, who lives for much of the year in a displaced persons camp, where she is raped and gets pregnant; and Didier, her brother, an undocumented cab driver in Boston who is often stiffed and sometimes beaten by his fares due to his skin color. Didier hears about the tragedy on NPR and wishes he could know if his family are safe while feeling guilty for pursuing his own life. There are many endings, with shifting fortunes and stories involving vodou, and it all coheres with a poignant mission involving Ma Lou and Anne four years after the earthquake. Each of the voices entrances, thanks to Chancy’s beautiful prose and rich themes. This is not to be missed. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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MacArthur Park

Judith Freeman. Pantheon, $28.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-59331-595-8

Freeman returns to characters from her first novel, The Chinchilla Farm (1991), for a story of two women whose lives range well beyond the origins of their small Utah town. In 1984, Verna Fields’s husband leaves her, prompting her to travel to Los Angeles and move in temporarily with her old friend Jolene Carver, now a renowned feminist performance artist who left their town and their faith after being disillusioned by her parents’ infidelity. Shortly after Verna’s arrival, Jolene divorces her husband, Vincent, and ends up in Europe, where her artistic reputation continues to blossom. Three years later, Verna marries Vincent, an eccentric, self-absorbed musician and composer who introduces her to the arts, and she eventually publishes a collection of short stories and a book about Raymond Chandler. After a 30-year absence, Jolene, diminished in health, reappears in L.A. and asks Verna to drive her to their hometown for one last visit. During their trip, jealousies, secrets and passions are revealed, underscoring their opposing views on life: Verna prefers a cocoon of complacency with married life, while Jolene feels the radical feminist views she adopted in the 1970s still apply. Despite some tedious pedantic dialogue, Freeman manages to convey the bonds and challenges of the women’s friendship. The author’s fans will appreciate this layered story. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Life Sciences

Joy Sorman, trans. from the French by Lara Vergnaud. Restless, $18 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-63-206295-6

French writer Sorman portrays a girl’s transition to womanhood as an ancestral curse in her English-language debut, an arresting allegory described by author Catherine Lacey in an introduction as a “feminist Metamorphosis.” Ninon Moise grows up in 1990s Paris with a hunger for horrific stories of her family’s mysterious genetic disorder, which has saddled each of the women in her family with a variety of ailments, beginning in 1518 with “patient zero” Marie Lacaze, the family’s “hero and monster.” Ninon knows it’s only a matter of time until the curse strikes her, too. Then, at 17, Ninon starts to feel a burning sensation on her skin and a tremendous amount of pain whenever something touches her arms. She sees a series of dermatologists, psychiatrists, and shamans in hope of finding a cure, all to no avail. Her determination to jump “out of the line of cursed, mad, degenerate women” makes her an engaging character as well as a powerful cipher of resistance to the stories she’s grown up with. After Esther gives her a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis to help her cope, Ninon decides she’s “afraid of getting used to the cockroach state, to horror as a standard of existence.” Readers will feel empowered by this tale of taking control of one’s body. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Antarctica of Love

Sara Stridsberg, trans. from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-3742-7269-2

Stridsberg (Valerie) opens this ruminative, heartrending novel with the murder of its narrator, 24-year-old Kristina. A sex worker addicted to heroin who “never wanted to be saved,” she tells her story from the solitary nothingness of the afterlife, doling out how she came to be with the man who rapes, strangles, and dismembers her. Kristina watches her mother, Raksha, grieve her death and reconcile briefly with her father, Ivan. She recounts how her four-year-old brother’s drowning, when she was 11, devastated the family, and she remembers her marriage to Shane, which offered a promise of fulfillment but was ultimately sunk by their shared addiction to heroin. Their son, Valle, was put in foster care by the state, leading Kristina to surrender their daughter, Solveig, to social services at birth. Kristina repeatedly returns to her murder, adding overwhelmingly grievous details. Passages about her struggle to stay clean while pregnant with Solveig and about Valle’s struggle to adapt to the foster system, however, are sublime (“I think Solveig was trying to hide away from us in there, and I can understand why, we had nothing to offer her on the other side”). Despite the bleak story, readers will be moved by the dead narrator’s white-knuckled grip on life. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Postmistress of Paris

Meg Waite Clayton. Harper, $27.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-294698-0

Clayton (The Last Train to London) expertly renders the story of a courageous American woman’s role in the French Resistance during WWII. In 1938, Naneé Gold lives in the company of Parisian writers and artists. When the Germans invade France, Naneé flees Paris with T, the wife of her “French brother,” Danny Bénédite, whom she had lived with while studying at the Sorbonne, and the Bénédites’ young son, Peterkin. Determined to help thwart the Nazi occupation, Naneé begins working with Varian Fry, who provides aid to refugees while secretly helping artists escape, and she later embarks on a mission to free photographer and artist Edouard Moss from an internment camp. As the war rages on, Naneé takes up residence at a villa in Marseilles with Danny, T, and Peterkin following Danny’s French military service. Naneé helps Edouard search for his daughter Luki, whom he sent to Paris before his internment. As Naneé and Edouard become lovers, the intensity of their romance is heightened by the ever-present dangers from the Germans. Clayton’s lyrical, thought-provoking prose breathes life into her characters. This sterling portrait of a complex woman stands head and shoulders above most contemporary WWII fiction. Agent: Marly Rusoff, Marly Rusoff & Assoc. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Lincoln Highway

Amor Towles. Viking, $30 (576p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2235-9

Towles’s magnificent comic road novel (after A Gentleman in Moscow) follows the rowdy escapades of four boys in the 1950s and doubles as an old-fashioned narrative about farms, families, and accidental friendships. In June 1954, 18-year-old Emmett Watson returns to his childhood farm in Morgen, Neb., from a juvenile detention camp. Emmett has been released early from his sentencing for fighting because his father has died and his homestead has been foreclosed. His precocious eight-year-old brother, Billy, greets him, anxious to light out for San Francisco in hopes of finding their mother, who abandoned them. Plans immediately go awry when two escaped inmates from Emmett’s camp, Duchess and Woolly, appear in the Watsons’ barn. Woolly says his grandfather has stashed $150,000 in the family’s Adirondack Mountains cabin, which he offers to split evenly between the three older boys. But Duchess and Woolly take off with Emmett’s Studebaker, leaving the brothers in pursuit as boxcar boys. On the long and winding railway journey, the brothers encounter characters like the scabrous Pastor John and an endearing WWII vet named Ulysses, and Billy’s constant companion, a book titled Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventures, and Other Intrepid Travelers, provides parallel story lines of epic events and heroic adventures. Woolly has a mind for stories, too, comparing his monotonous time in detention to that of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo and hoping eventually to experience a “one-of-a-kind kind of day.” Towles is a supreme storyteller, and this one-of-a-kind kind of novel isn’t to be missed. (Oct.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the name of the Ulysses character.

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Sankofa

Chibundo Onuzu. Catapult, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-64622-083-0

A middle-aged, mixed-race woman struggles with several crises in Nigerian writer Onuzu’s spellbinding latest (after Welcome to Lagos). Anna Bain is a 46-year-old Londoner whose mother, Bronwen, has just died, whose husband has been unfaithful, and who has been leading a lackluster life as a housewife. Following her white mother’s funeral, she stumbles upon a diary written in the 1960s by her West African father, Francis Aggrey, hidden in a trunk. Francis left London before Anna’s birth, and Bronwen raised her. Anna learns that her father was an international student who had boarded with Bronwen’s family and became part of a group of West African students agitating for freedom from colonial rule. After leaving London, Aggrey became a guerrilla fighter, independence leader, and eventually the first president of Bamana following independence. Anna then finds Francis’s memoir (published under his new name, Kofi Adjei) in a university archive, meets with his biographer in Edinburgh, and eventually meets Kofi in Bamana, where she seeks to resolve her conflicts over her racial and cultural identity. Onuzu’s spare style elegantly cuts to the core of her themes (“I felt at peace, as if indeed two warring streams had finally merged,” Anna reflects). The balancing of Anna’s soul-searching with her thrilling discoveries makes for a satisfying endeavor. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Assoc. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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LaserWriter II

Tamara Shopsin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-3746-0257-4

Illustrator, cook, and memoirist Shopsin (Arbitrary Stupid Goal) mixes the stories of a scrappy Mac repair shop’s employees with a history of digital technology in her unconventional and captivating debut novel. Shopsin follows 19-year-old Claire as she begins a new job at TekServe in mid-1990s New York City. Here, Claire finds an eccentric but compassionate family of co-workers and a newfound passion for the intricacies of printer repair. She’s trained by Joel, a Berklee College of Music grad who begged for a job there after his music internship ended. Shopsin cleverly evokes the era with a mix of historical and fictionalized references, as Claire’s interest in punk music and social justice prompts her to volunteer for Food Not Bombs at Big Squat on Avenue B, a stand-in for C-Squat, where the members of a band named Hookworm 68 all live. Shopsin also delves into TekServe’s origins as a tape player manufacturer; the emergence and extinction of Apple’s laser printer; and includes snappy origin stories of figures such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, all punctuated by pixelated illustrations evoking the aesthetics of MacPaint (Claire recalls being “mesmerized by the marching ants of the marquee” when she used the program as a child). This singular project brilliantly captures the spirit of individuality, innovation, and change. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The One on Earth: Selected Works of Mark Baumer

Mark Baumer. Fence, $20 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-944380-18-2

A selection of writings from poet, writer, and climate activist Baumer (1983–2017), who chronicled his barefoot travels across the United States and self-published dozens of books before he was struck and killed by an SUV, are excerpted in this freewheeling, at times hallucinatory collection. Also featured are extracts from travel journals, poems, and various other ephemera, all showcasing Baumer’s unabashedly irreverent, corporeal, and hilarious prose. In “Yachts,” a penis abandons its body to travel South America and study. In “Jonathan Franzen’s leg fell off...,” the author loses a leg and eats it, while his publisher’s employees worry about their jobs. Baumer’s fiction is undeniably strange and energetic, but some of the most rewarding passages are found in his nonfiction work, including statements to the Brown University MFA program proclaiming his desire to be paid to play baseball; and in works that toe the genre line, such as a series titled “Cover Letters” featuring notes addressed to potential employers (“Job People,”) which evoke Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s and begin with a mocking formality that often devolves into wickedly astute eviscerations of the gig economy, consumerism, and the difficulty of making a living. Baumer’s verve, weirdness, and thoughtfulness add up to a strange but astute critique of modern life. (June)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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