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The Woman Who Killed the Fish

Clarice Lispector. New Directions, $15 (64p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2960-9

Readers will delight in this short collection of luminous, laugh-out-loud stories from the late Brazilian cult writer Lispector (The Chandelier). Each centers on the natural world, though in wildly different ways. In the title story, a meticulous woman apologizes and attempts to exculpate herself in the death of two pet fish by taking readers on a tour of the many animals she has dearly loved and cared for. In the fabulist “Almost True,” the narrator, a dog named Ulisses, relates “a nicely barked story” to his owner, Clarice, about chickens under the thrall of a magical fig tree. “The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit” features caveats directed at the adults reading these stories aloud. Though the author wrote these stories for her son when he was a child, and they often contain magic and lack in explanations, their small delights nonetheless rank high among Lispector’s impressive body of work. In between the lines of these spellbinding worlds, she offers indelible glimpses of the way people live and dream. Even amid the silliest of scenarios are glimmers of the beauty of the everyday: “That’s how life went on. Gently, gently.” This is one to savor. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Cat Brushing

Jane Campbell. Grove, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8021-6002-7

Campbell debuts at 80 with an accomplished collection centering the emotional and psychological lives of the elderly, delivering astute observations and sharp critiques, and restoring agency to characters who are routinely robbed of it. Foregrounding sexuality, “Susan and Miffy” depicts an 86-year-old woman as she develops an attraction to her younger caretaker. (“The lust of an old man is disgusting but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that,” goes the opening line.) In the title story, the narrator contemplates the dispossession “of rights, of respect, of desire” while fearing her son is going to take away her beloved cat. Some of the stories take on a sci-fi tinge, as in “Schopenhauer and I,” wherein a character is given a robot to ward off loneliness and help her with daily tasks—and surveil her every move. While the plots are sometimes too heavily reliant on coincidence, as in “Lacrimae Rerum,” when a woman happens upon her long-ago ex-boyfriend’s funeral, and occasionally employ choppy dialogue (“I am leaving you. Our relationship is over. I am in love with Hils. I thought you knew. Everyone else knows”), Campbell succeeds in portraying the characters’ complex inner lives. Ripe with sensuality, this is full of vivid portraits. Agent: Eleanor Birne, PEW Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Tomorrow in Shanghai

May-lee Chai. Blair, $17.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-949467-86-4

Chai (Useful Phrases for Immigrants) showcases in her insightful collection protagonists attempting to figure out their roles in their families and careers. In the gritty and poignant title story, a young Shanghai doctor uneasily travels to the Chinese countryside to extract organs after a prisoner’s execution—“not an ideal job,” he admits, but he’s deep in debt. The doctor gives the condemned man a sedative to avoid a second shot from the firing squad, but refrains from watching the execution, and instead reflects on his lost youth and turns up his nose at the uncouth rural guards. In “Life on Mars,” set in the late 1990s, teenager Guo Yu describes his new life in Denver in alien terms after relocating from China (“It was both exactly like and nothing like the America of the movies he’d seen,” Yu narrates, struck by the “jade-colored” cornfields). Yu toils at a restaurant job over the summer, though a tutoring gig for the cook’s son offers a glimmer of hope. “Hong’s Mother” follows a white woman married to a Chinese man who neglects to defend the couple’s children from racism in their small Midwestern town. At 19, their daughter, Hong, is dismayed her mother is going to visit her in France while she’s studying abroad, but goes to extreme lengths to ensure her mother has a good trip, feeling yet again she doesn’t measure up. Throughout, Chai commits brilliantly to the characters’ competing drives for self-determination and approval, and conveys them with perfect subtlety. This slim but wide-ranging work is a great achievement. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Skulls

David Hutchison. Flying Sheet, $10.41 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-83802-802-2

Hutchison (the YA novel Storm Hags) draws on early police forensics in his tightly plotted adult debut. In 1875, pragmatic Afro-British woman Liz Moliette leaves the London orphanage that raised her to attend medical school in Edinburgh, despite the school not allowing women to graduate. She befriends Amulya Patel, the only other female student, and the affable, secretly gay Campbell Preeble. Despite the efforts of male students and professors to thwart them, Liz excels and moves toward her dream of working in forensics by becoming assistant to police surgeon Florian Blyth. When decapitated bodies begin appearing, the police call on Blyth, who has been living as a man in order to practice. After Liz and Amulya help exonerate journalist Hector Findlay, who has been carrying on a relationship with Campbell, police suspect a phrenologist is collecting the skulls of unusual specimens. They continue their investigation, not realizing that Liz is in grave danger because the culprit’s collection has a spot “for the perfect mixed-race female.” Moments of danger and the police’s slow progress provide satisfying tension. This will gratify fans of historic police procedurals with a queer bent. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Moth

Melody Razak. Harper, $26.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-314006-6

Razak debuts with a brilliant tale of a Delhi family’s ordeal during the turmoil of India’s partition in 1947. With India’s independence from Britain looming and violence between Hindus and Muslims increasing, 14-year-old Alma’s modern, high-caste parents, Bappu and Ma, reluctantly agree that a husband will help protect her. An engagement is announced, but when the groom’s family discovers that Alma’s grandmother tampered with Alma’s horoscope, the wedding is called off. Alma is embarrassed and wants to visit her father’s twin in Bombay. Train travel is dangerous, but headstrong Alma insists—leaving the day after British rule ends and India is divided into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India—and goes missing from her train. Meanwhile, her shattered parents contend with a violent rebellion and food shortages in Delhi and try to safeguard their Muslim servant. Razak does not shy away from vile characters—rapists and gropers among them—but the most chilling players emerge at the end, as Alma’s fate is revealed. The settings are evocative, and the unhurried pace allows the narrative to take in a wide sweep of history beyond partition, including Gandhi’s assassination; however, it’s Alma’s family and their servants who power this tale with their rituals and resiliency. It’s an exceptional, beautifully written story. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Susanna Lea Assoc. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Mount Chicago

Adam Levin. Doubleday, $30 (592p) ISBN 978-0-385-54824-3

In Levin’s exhausting metafictional latest, a sinkhole opens under Chicago and swallows up big swaths of the city. Comedian and novelist Solly Gladman stays home with hemorrhoids while his family takes a trip to the museum, then disappear in the sinkhole, leaving Gladman to drown in whiskey, Xanax, and regret. Gladman’s “foil,” Apter Schutz, who made big profits off a hilarious scheme involving desk calendars meant to parody white nationalists, idolizes Gladman. After Apter is recruited to work for the mayor, who wants to create “Mount Chicago,” a memorial that will be a “less depressing Auschwitz,” the mayor tasks Apter with putting together “Day Zero,” a music festival to aid the city’s recovery. Apter finally gets the chance of an encounter with Gladman when he is tasked with finding and convincing him to perform. Unfortunately, Levin undercuts the otherwise satisfying sociopolitical comedy with frustrating interjections about his struggles to write this novel and sell his previous one, his wife’s uncertainty about whether Apter or Gladman is supposed to be Levin, and many other asides that read like missives to creative writing students or nod to the difficulties of this latest project. As the frustrated reader will find, acknowledging a problem is not equivalent to solving it. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Afterlives

Abdulrazak Gurnah. Riverhead, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-54188-3

In Nobel laureate Gurnah’s riveting latest (after Gravel Heart), the lives of three East Africans play out in an unnamed coastal town during the period of German colonial rule in Africa in the early 20th century. As a child, Ilyas is kidnapped by a soldier from the German colonial army. Years later, he locates and briefly reunites with his sister, Afiya, only to enlist with the schutztruppe, a band of African mercenaries, and subject her once more to the cruel treatment of the family who raised her after their parents were killed. Elsewhere, Hamza, a fellow townsman with an enigmatic past, joins the Germans as a mercenary and is subsequently immersed in a bloody territorial war among the European colonial powers. Years later, he meets and falls for Afiya, and their attempts to locate Ilyas, who went missing during the war, close out the novel. Gurnah’s spare, unvarnished prose shines a harsh but honest light on the brutality of Africa’s colonial past and the violence inflicted by Europeans, which amounts to “absurd and nonchalant heroics,” and through his rich main characters, the impact of colonialism and other key global events truly hits home. This profound account of empire and the everyman is not to be missed. Agent: Peter Straus, RCW. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Hop

Diana Clarke. Harper, $28.99 (528p) ISBN 978-0-06-308909-9

Clarke (Thin Girls) tracks a poor New Zealander as she rises to stardom and becomes a symbol of the sex industry in this ambitious and addictive feminist tale. Growing up, Lady Lane (née Kate Burns) has to abide by one simple rule: whenever a “manfriend” of her mother, Merrill shows up at their house, she is to disappear. Still, Kate never judges Merrill because Kate, too, “underst[ands] the power of desire,” leading her to cofound the Sugar Club with her friend, in which they give paid kissing lessons to their classmates. This attempt at making money to help Merrill with expenses evolves and eventually prepares Kate for her gig as a stripper at a club and then for becoming a “bunny” at The Hop, a Moonlite BunnyRanch–inspired legal brothel in Nevada. Here, Kate (as Lady Lane) finds love, sisterhood, and fame as she starts to speak up about the decriminalization of sex work (“then maybe it would be made legal in the world, and then maybe there wouldn’t be so many girls working the streets and getting attacked and raped and murdered”). With a complicated mother-daughter relationship, unconditional friendships, disappointments, and a bold stance on the sex industry, Clarke’s novel consistently stirs the head and the heart. This is a great achievement. Agent: Susan Golomb, Writers House. (June)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Manmade Constellations

Misha Lazzara. Blackstone, $26.99 (220p) ISBN 979-8-200-69675-8

Lazzara’s notable debut focuses on a road trip undertaken by two 20-somethings from a small Minnesota town at the behest of a dying woman. Blanche Peterson places an ad seeking help with tracking down her estranged son, Jason, and bringing him back to Elysian, Minn., to say goodbye. Lo Gunderson answers, and Blanche offers Lo her car. John Blank, whom Lo meets when she needs a mechanic, accompanies her on the trip and hopes to visit the sister he hasn’t seen in years, while Lo considers visiting the mom she never knew. They become intimate, though Lo has plans to leave Elysian. Meanwhile, Jason leaves the farm he works for in Twin Falls, Idaho, after an argument with his now pregnant partner, and drives around the country, contemplating the alcoholic Blanche and the accident that killed his dad. The reader learns about Jason’s small-town connection to Lo and how his tumultuous family story serves as a foil to Lo’s loving childhood with her father, the town judge. Lazzara is skillful at making readers care for a sanctimonious character like Lo, a self-identified “freegan” who loathes consumption and lives off free items but whose preachiness only leads to interpersonal conflicts. Readers will enjoy this new voice. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Goodby People

Gavin Lambert. McNally Editions, $18 (224p) ISBN 978-1-946022-44-8

Lambert’s cynical novel, first published in 1971, is set in Hollywood—a place the late author (Inside Daisy Clover), a two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter, knew well. The unnamed narrator shrewdly observes three characters in Southern California. He first meets with Susan Ross, a former model who attempts suicide. Susan becomes further distraught after volunteering for a group that organizes legal and medical aid for impoverished Angelenos and having coffee thrown at her. The next section features Gary Carson, an attractive draft dodger, who beds—and stays with—the narrator, who gives him the “kind [of love] he never had before.” The third episode has the narrator connecting with Gary’s friend, Keelie, who keeps having visions of actor Lora Chase, who owns the house Keelie rents. Lambert (1924–2005) elevates his detached view of these characters with strong writing: Gary’s eyes have a “curious deadness about them,” and Keelie’s thoughts “seemed like a wind that was constantly changing.” He also includes terrifically descriptive scenes, whether of parties or an open-air concert. This welcome reissue ought to prompt readers to rediscover Lambert’s writing. Agent: Adam Reed, Joy Harris Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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