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Bezoar: And Other Unsettling Stories

Guadalupe Nettel, trans from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine. Seven Stories, $15.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-60980-958-4

Nettel’s latest (after The Body Where I Was Born) is full of shock value, but only occasionally gets under the skin. The stories span the globe and always find the darker corners of their geographies—from the side streets of Rome to dilapidated Mexican beach towns, mysterious Tokyo gardens to a psych ward in an unnamed European city. In “Petals,” a man sets out to find the woman whose scent he has fallen in love with; the search traces her across a neighborhood’s worth of public restroom stalls. In “Ptosis,” a young candidate for eyelid surgery becomes the obsessive object of a photographer, until her new look ruins all he admired. And in the title story, a diary chronicles the life of a supermodel recently admitted to a psychiatric institute for her addictions, and slowly reveals her underlying, all-consuming habit of tweezing her hair. While individually the stories are striking both for their bodily candor and their surprising, abrupt endings, the dissociated first-person voices of each character blend together too easily, no matter how individual each narrator and their respective plot may seem to be. Taken together, the stories begin to lose their sheen. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Brontë’s Mistress

Finola Austin. Atria, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-982137-23-6

Austin imagines in her languid debut the affair alleged to have occurred in the 1840s between tutor Branwell Brontë, brother of the famous English authors, and Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer. Lydia, the 43-year-old mistress of Thorp Green Hall in Yorkshire, is grieving the recent deaths of her mother and her youngest daughter, Georgiana, while her husband, Edmund, pays little attention to her. Branwell, 25, an alcoholic with artistic ambitions hired to teach the Robinsons’ only son, soon sparks Lydia’s lust. Lydia takes risks by showing up at Branwell’s lodgings after a fight with her husband, inviting him to take tea and read Shakespeare to her, and allowing him to cut a lock of her hair. As this relationship intensifies, Lydia also manages her three daughters’ marriage prospects. After Lydia and Branwell consummate their relationship, Lydia worries whether a fulfilling sex life is worth committing adultery with someone who doesn’t share her social station. When her husband becomes seriously ill, she reconsiders the affair. While Austin paints a vivid picture of upper-class life and sprinkles in tantalizing tidbits about the Brontë sisters, her characters are not as finely drawn as others in the wide field of Brontë apocrypha. Still, this brooding romance will suffice for voracious readers of Victorian fiction. Agent: Danielle Egan-Miller, Browne & Miller Literary Associates. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Wright Sister

Patty Dann. Harper Perennial, $16.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-299311-3

In this tepid story, Dann (Starfish) gives voice to Katharine Wright, younger sister to the famous airplane inventors, Orville and Wilbur. In November 1926, the 52-year-old begins a “marriage diary” after she sets up house in Missouri with widower Harry Haskell, a journalist for the Kansas City Star. Her biggest dilemma as a newlywed concerns Orv, her emotionally dependent brother, who refuses to accept her marriage and ignores her letters and phone calls. In her diary, she recounts how she was 14 when her mother died, and her overbearing minister father instructed her to take care of him and her older brothers. Later, she supported her brothers’ tinkering and encouraged their visions of a flying machine so much that rumors circulated that she contributed much more to their invention than they acknowledged. In 1926, Katharine refused to give a Star reporter an interview about this, yet she confides the truth in her diary. While Katharine’s feelings for Harry are palpably real, her other emotions—about what else she wants from her new situation in Kansas City and why she’s desperate to make peace with a disagreeable sibling—remain murky. The seeds of a lovely story are here, but Dann fails to nurture them. Agent: Malaga Baldi, Malaga Baldi Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Aria

Nazanine Hozar. Pantheon, $28.95 (448p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4904-0

Hozar’s towering bildungsroman debut, already an international bestseller, spans three decades, capturing the maturation of the novel’s protagonist, Aria, amid the Iranian Revolution. Abandoned by her mother in Tehran as a baby in 1953, Aria spends her early years raised by a military driver, Behrouz, and his abusive wife, Zahra, who often locks the girl outside and denies her food. After Aria contracts trachoma at age six, Behrouz arranges to send her to live with Zahra’s former employer, the wealthy Fereshteh, who takes in the girl as her own daughter, enrolls her in school, and forces her to visit the home of the less-fortunate Shirazi family to teach the household’s children to read. Years pass, and Aria, along with childhood friends Hamlet and Mitra, completes high school and enrolls in university, where she crosses paths with disciples of Ayatollah Khomeini, who they claim will create a better Iran. As Tehran grows more violent, Aria realizes Hamlet is in love with her, and she must navigate his affections while they both become entangled in the growing uprising against the Shah. Hozar expertly weaves people in and out of Aria’s life and crafts a living, breathing environment for her heroine to inhabit, and brings things to a charged climax. This will be hard for readers to shake. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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With or Without You

Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61620-779-3

Leavitt’s illuminating exploration of a 40-something couple’s failed relationship (after Cruel Beautiful World) revolves around three people. Stella is a nurse with dwindling hopes for starting a family after dating washed-up rocker Simon for 20 years. Their lives are upturned when Stella accidentally takes a mix of medication and alcohol that puts her in a coma. While Stella is comatose, Simon and Stella’s friend and colleague, Libby, a brusque and intimidating doctor, initially butt heads but find common ground, and by the time Stella revives after a few months, they’ve secretly developed a romantic relationship. Stella comes out of the coma feeling tentative about taking up where her life left off professionally and personally, even without knowing how the two closest people in her life betrayed her. She finds solace in a newfound talent for drawing, gaining a measure of fame and financial independence from her portraits. While a tacked-on, fairy tale ending fails to convince, Leavitt shows how the characters’ family relationships and childhood experiences inform their actions and needs (Simon’s disapproving father; the death of Libby’s brother in their childhood), and demonstrates how they are all transformed after Stella wakes up from her coma. This is a highly readable exploration of the fluid nature of relationships and redemptive power of self-reflection. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Unwitting Street

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, trans. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. New York Review Books, $16.95 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-68137-488-8

This collection by Polish-Russian-Soviet writer Krzhizhanovsky (1887–1950, The Return of Munchausen) mixes playful and morose tones in stories of the kooky and the condemned. At his most frolicsome, Krzhizhanovsky endows all things with consciousness, from a pair of pants in the amusing “Comrade Punt” to books and letters in “Paper Loses Patience,” in which all the world’s paper goes on strike, demanding that only the truth be printed. But many of these stories are darker, obliquely or directly addressing the changes wrought by the Russian Revolution, including the fates of people considered “superfluous” under the new regime. The newly retired bank cashier in the bittersweet “The Window” turns his apartment window into a replica of his old station at the bank, but the drunk, solitary letter writer in “Unwitting Street” is more fatalistic: “logic demands that I be got rid of.” Even at his gloomiest, Krzhizhanovsky is clever and satirical in his descriptions, writing that “the standard of living has gone up to such an extent, it’s almost at our throats.” Indeed, Krzhizhanovsky is at his best when finding levity in grave revelations; compared to his lively past work in translation, this shows a more somber side. The writer posthumously enjoys quite a few recent converts, and some will appreciate this darker turn. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery

Rosalie Knecht. Tin House, $15.95 trade paper (266p) ISBN 978-1-947-79379-8

Knecht’s excellent sequel to Who Is Vera Kelley? picks up with ex-CIA agent Vera in 1967 New York City, as she tries to solve a mystery in an era when only men are expected to do the job. Vera’s poetry professor girlfriend, Jane, announces she’s had enough of not feeling wanted, and leaves. Then Vera loses her editing job at a TV station after her boss finds out she’d been dating a woman. She decides to fall back on her old skills and becomes a private detective. When the Ibarra family asks Vera to find their nephew’s child, Félix, who was sent to New York from the Dominican Republic amid political unrest, Vera takes on the case. Meanwhile, Vera balances the emotional consequences of her breakup with a new love interest: the bartender at her favorite, oft-raided, bar. When Vera realizes the Ibarras aren’t who they say they are, her mission becomes a different one: find Félix and his real parents, reunite them, and throw the fake Ibarras off the scent. This leads her to the Dominican Republic, where the police mistake her for a spy. Knecht brilliantly captures Vera’s emotions, and shines with keen observations of the varied settings. This winning literary page-turner gives a strong sense of a smart, queer, and complex person navigating an unfriendly world. (June)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Against the Loveless World

Susan Abulhawa. Atria, $27 (376p) ISBN 978-1-982137-03-8

Abulhawa (The Blue Between Sky and Water) charts a Palestinian woman’s gradual turn to sex work followed by violent resistance against Israeli settlers in this tragic and engrossing work. Middle-aged Nahr, the narrator, is in solitary confinement at an Israeli prison, where she recounts her life story. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian exiles in 1967 and named Yaqoot after her father’s mistress, Nahr grows up with her mother, brother Jehad, and overbearing paternal grandmother. In 1985, she marries the gruff Mhammad, who abandons her two years later. Shortly after, Nahr meets a woman at a friend’s wedding, who manipulates her into prostitution, which Nahr continues doing to help finance Jehad’s education. When anti-Palestinian sentiment ramps up following the expulsion of the invading Iraqis in 1991, Jehad is arrested and tortured for collaboration, and the family flees to Jordan. The 1995 Oslo Accords allow Nahr to travel to Palestine and secure a divorce from Mhammad, and there she witnesses the injustices levied against Palestinians and joins in escalating acts of resistance until the eruption of the Second Intifada leads to serious danger. Abulhawa demonstrates the effect of trauma and helplessness on Nahr and others, leading them to violence. The detailed explorations of a woman’s pain and desperate measures make this lush story stand out. Agent: Anjali Singh, Ayesha Pande Literary). (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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What Happens at Night

Peter Cameron. Catapult, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-948226-96-7

In this dreamlike, resonant fable, Cameron (Coral Glynn) depicts a pair of lost souls who travel to the edge of the world. Two unnamed New Yorkers in a frosty marriage disembark from a train in Borgarfjaroasysla, a fictional, far-northern European city, and check into the elegant Grand Imperial Hotel. The childless couple has come to the wintry land to adopt a baby boy from an orphanage, and they’re baffled, frustrated, and occasionally comforted by the city’s inhabitants as they endure delays with the adoption. There’s a mannered quality to the pervasive strangeness (a receptionist maintains an “impassive, unseeing attitude”; long dark days end before they begin), and the occasionally solemn dialogue doesn’t help (“I know what I’ve become. How I am. What I am”), but generally Cameron doles out the right amount of eeriness and eccentricity. Livia Pinheiro-Rima, a bighearted lounge singer and pathological liar who looks after the adrift couple, is particularly memorable. Less convincing is the portrait of a local healer, Brother Emmanuel, whose mystic aura inspires the wife with hopes of recovery from her cancer. A torpor hangs over the events and protagonists, who respond passively to the bizarre world around them. While the idiosyncratic setting can sometimes serve as a foil for the couple, their response makes Cameron’s admirable tale emotionally affecting. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Queen of Tuesday

Darin Strauss. Random House, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9276-2

Strauss’s ambitious metafictional latest (after the NBCC Award-winning memoir Half a Life) blends autobiography and family history in an investigation of celebrity, memory, and the legacy of ambition. The queen of the title is Lucille Ball, who, in 1949, is a shrewd businesswoman whose funny faces subvert her beauty and add to her character, and whose domestic life is simulated in I Love Lucy, but the book’s beating heart is Isidore Strauss, a Jewish builder, and, as the reader will eventually realize, the author’s grandfather. Isidore meets Ball at a Coney Island event hosted by Fred Trump, and Strauss uses this detail to spin a story of a secret affair that explains why Isidore’s marriage falls apart. The book is so clearly a labor of love that would be almost churlish to point out how labored it can feel, as when the narrator muses for two pages about Desi Arnaz’s use and abuse of power, or when Isidore wallows in guilt for just one kiss. Strauss is at his best when harnessing Lucy’s vital comedic and sexual force, but it’s not sustained across the entire narrative. Still, the questions of how family legends both obscure and reveal the truth will keep readers turning the pages. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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