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Improvement

Joan Silber. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61902-960-6

In her far-ranging latest, Silber (Fools) delivers a whirlwind narrative reminiscent of her compact story collections in novel form, with mixed results. Told in three parts and jumping back and forth from the 1970s to 2012, the multipronged story drops in on the lives of loosely connected individuals, all trying (and mostly failing) to improve their lot in some way. Reyna, a white single mother living in Harlem, is torn between staying loyal to her African-American boyfriend Boyd (after his three-month sentence at Rikers Island for selling weed) and getting more deeply involved in the interstate cigarette smuggling scheme Boyd hatched with his cousin and pals. When she pulls out of a smuggling run at the last minute, her decision sets off a chain reaction with dire consequences for one of Boyd’s friends, his love interest left stranded in another state, and a truck driver. Add to that the backstory of Reyna’s great-aunt Kiki’s marriage to a Turkish rug seller turned farmer, the tangential stories of three German antiquities smugglers who stop by Kiki’s farm for a night and leave a lasting impression, and a jump forward 30 years to find one of the German smugglers in the hospital dying of heart disease. With so many characters, it’s a lot of ground to cover in little space, and some of the subplots lack the depth needed to make this a fully cohesive ensemble novel. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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This Book Is Not for You

Daniel A. Hoyt. Dzanc (PGW, dist.), $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-945814-34-1

The snarky, experimental first novel by Hoyt (author of the story collection Then We Saw the Flames) consists of one “Chapter One” after another narrated by an abrasive young man who calls himself Neptune. After leaving the University of Kansas, he falls in with a group of anarchists and, on a whim, takes off with their supply of dynamite to thwart their plan to blow up a building. On the run, he arrives at the apartment of his favorite professor, only to find that her head has been bashed in, and she now appears to him as a silent ghost, accompanying him wherever he goes. The narrator, quite conscious that he is a voice in a book, frequently addresses the reader directly and belligerently. “You hate me already, I can tell,” reads one chapter in its entirety; “You still there?” reads another. While the series of first chapters might suggest a time loop, in fact the novel moves along linearly, with a few flashbacks. Frequent references to The Catcher in the Rye and Huck Finn suggest that Hoyt is aiming for a contemporary version of those tales, with an extra helping of profanity and violence. Though Neptune’s story might not be for all readers, some may be carried away by the momentum of his sharp voice. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Displaced

Stephen Abarbanell, trans. from the German by Lucy Renner Jones. Harper, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-248447-5

German author Abarbanell’s ambitious if flawed first novel, a tale of intrigue, centers on post-WWII Palestine. In 1946, Lilya Tova Wasserfall, a member of an elite unit of the Palmach, the underground army devoted to establishing an independent Jewish state, receives an unusual assignment from her commander regarding the brother of an old friend of his. Elias Lind, a famous author who fought for his native Germany during WWI and later emigrated to Palestine, believes that his brother, Raphael, a Berlin academic, survived the war, but two British Mandate representatives recently informed him that the Nazis murdered Raphael. Lilya is directed to travel to Germany, where, posing as a member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, she searches for Raphael at one of the large displaced persons camps in Germany set up by the U.S. Army. She is also to look for information that can be used against the British occupiers and further the Zionist cause. Abarbanell does a good job dramatizing the history of the period, but the situations and characters will strike many readers as too familiar. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Madonna in a Fur Coat

Sabahattin Ali, trans. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe. Other Press, $15.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-59051-880-9

Appearances are not what they seem in Ali’s rich novel, first published in Turkey in 1943 and only now appearing in the U.S. A 25-year-old narrator introduces readers to his fellow Turkish clerical worker, Raif Efendi, a somewhat sickly milquetoast whose rich inner life is hinted at in an evocative sketch he draws of their co-worker. After seeing the artwork, the narrator and Efendi—who supports a household of unappreciative relatives on a meager translator’s salary—become close. A deeper story unfolds when Efendi allows the narrator to read a private notebook that documents his strange and wonderful relationship with Maria Puder, a mysterious artist he met in Berlin in 1923. Ali explores Maria and Efendi’s complex relationship through Maria’s thoughts on the metaphorical and physical boundaries of love, the expectations placed on men and women, the roles they take up or discard, and the choices people make when they are looking for a meaningful relationship. The narrator comes to understand that the outward appearance of Efendi’s life as numb and unsatisfying belies its unimaginable depths of feeling and vulnerability. This fascinating story veers in surprising and revealing directions. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Blackbird

Michael Fiegel. Skyhorse (Perseus, dist.), $24.99 (312p) ISBN 978-1-5107-2355-9

Fiegel combines engaging sociopathy with a bit of the anarchist bent seen in the television show Mr. Robot in his electrifying debut. “I believe in neither free will nor predetermination. I believe in condiments.” Meet Christian, an eight-year-old girl kidnapped by assassin Edison North in a fast-food restaurant. Though he’s a killer for hire, he has standards, and he raises Xtian (as he rechristens her) as his apprentice—forbidding her, for instance, from playing role-playing games online because the players curse too much. North’s teaching provides Xtian with brutal lessons in survival and how to kill with cunning, but other people in North’s amorphous organization don’t appreciate his bringing her into their business. Mentor and apprentice narrate Fiegel’s black comedy, which turns deadlier and less comedic as Xtian grows from child to partner to caretaker in the decade between her kidnapping in 2008 and 2018, when the denouement occurs. Readers will want to stick around and see how the characters respond to peril and betrayal. Despite a slack ending, Fiegel’s debut is satisfying and original. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Mother of All Pigs

Malu Halasa. Unnamed (PGW, dist.), $16 trade paper (259p) ISBN 978-1-944700-34-8

Halasa’s debut novel focuses on a Jordanian family marked by an inability to discuss problems. Caught between their minority Christian heritage and the successive waves of Muslim refugees, the Sabas family struggles to stay afloat as the Syrian civil war rages nearby. Traditional matriarch Fadhma mourns that most of her 13 children have emigrated to the United States and that her stepson Hussein drinks. Her adult daughter, Samira seems resigned to her old maid role, but takes on dangerous missions for a Syrian women’s political organization. Hussein’s foray into pig farming, aided by his mercenary and profiteering uncle, ensures a level of wealth for the family but raises the hackles of the local Muslim population. Into this heady mix of social pressures, two new arrivals threaten the delicate stability of the family: Fadhma’s granddaughter Muna comes to Jordan from America seeking to understand the life her father fled, and, almost simultaneously, a former army subordinate of Hussein’s appears and roils his suppressed memories. The swirl of secrets, diverging story lines, flashbacks, and even interior monologues from a pig sometimes confuses. Still, Halasa’s sharp critiques and deadpan humor make for a captivating exploration of the intricacies of the modern Middle East. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Strangers in Budapest

Jessica Keener. Algonquin, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-61620-497-6

The second novel from Keener (Night Swim) follows a young American couple as they learn to survive in 1990s Budapest, a city wildly different from their hometown of Stow, Mass. Annie and Will Gordon move to Budapest with their young son Leo so that Will can pursue a business opportunity building communications networks in rural Hungary. Shortly after they arrive, the Gordons’ neighbors back in Massachusetts ask them for a favor: to check on Edward Weiss, an elderly American friend of theirs who is living in Budapest. Annie visits Edward, and she eventually discovers that he has been devastated by the loss of his daughter Deborah and believes that her husband was responsible for her death. Annie agrees to help Edward find his former son-in-law, but the dangers of the city soon threaten her family’s safety. Keener immerses the reader in Budapest’s postcommunist period in all its tumultuous glory. As the Gordons get in over their heads in their new city, the author combines strong characters and a riveting plot to craft a memorable novel. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years

Ricardo Piglia, trans. from the Spanish by Robert Croll. Restless, $19.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-63206-162-1

This volume is the momentous first installment of the Argentine novelist’s 327 diaries, written as the autobiography of his alter-ego, Emilio Renzi. The source material chronicles Piglia’s attempts, as he was coming of age in the ’60s, to answer the question, “How does one become a writer?” Renzi first encounters literature at 16, when he reads Sartre to impress a girl. From then on, love and writing are forever intertwined: his story wins a prize at the same time he’s embarking on an affair, and, later, a woman in Buenos Aires prompts him to abandon his studies at university and move in with her so he can focus on writing exclusively. After they break up, he wonders, “What was the point of the three long years I spent with her? Loving her. Finishing a book.” Of the difficult times every young writer suffers, he writes, “These dark days will seem luminous when distance allows me to observe them as though they were landscapes.” As he draws closer to publishing his debut, the incidentals of this personal history fade in favor of literary insights. Borges is labeled “a marvelous literature-making machine” and Marquez criticized for being too “professionally” Latin American. In this fictionalized autobiography, Piglia’s ability to succinctly criticize and contextualize major writers from Kafka to Flannery O’Connor is astounding, and the scattering of those insights throughout this diary are a joy to read. This book is essential reading for writers. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Ice House

Laura Lee Smith. Grove, $25 (448p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2708-2

A spirited cast makes up the foundation of Smith’s delicately spun story of family, loyalty, and the difficult choices people must make when forgiving someone. Johnny and Pauline MacKinnon spend their days trying to keep their Florida ice factory afloat as they skirt around the topic of Corran, Johnny’s estranged son from a previous marriage. Corran is believed to have stolen his stepmother’s ring to buy heroin, but is now trying to stay sober and raise his infant daughter in Scotland. Johnny is skeptical of the latest turn in Corran’s behavior, but, after he is diagnosed with a potentially malignant brain tumor, he has to decide how to make use of the weeks leading up to his surgery. Johnny sets off for Scotland to find Corran, leaving Pauline behind to deal with the ice factory’s legal and financial troubles. In a tiny cottage perched near a chilly loch, Corran battles his inner demons, unwilling to acknowledge his father’s belated reconciliation attempts until fresh tragedy forces them together. Peppering the story with affecting interludes that trace the evolution of Johnny and Corran’s relationship, Smith (Heart of Palm) majestically captures the urgency of reconnecting with a loved one when time seems to be quickly slipping away. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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