Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Robert Caro, Sarah Blake, Isabella Hammad, Maria Gainza, and more—that are publishing this week.
Working by Robert A. Caro
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about Working: “In this superb collection of original and previously published pieces, Pulitzer winner Caro (The Passage of Power) offers a glimpse into the process behind his epic biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Writing with customary humor, grace, and vigor, Caro wryly acknowledges the question of ‘Why does it take so long’ to produce each book. Caro provides both the short answer—intensive research—and a longer, illuminating explication of just what that entails. For example, he tracked down individual people displaced by Moses’s building projects; he followed the trail of money to uncover how Johnson attained influence in Congress while still a relative unknown; he moved to Johnson’s hometown in rural Texas and gained the trust of its residents, who shared untold stories with him. Caro began his career in journalism and credits his Newsday editor for two crucial pieces of investigative advice: ‘Turn every page’ and find a way to get the information one needs. The results may take longer, but, as readers of Caro’s work know, it is always worth the wait. For the impatient, however, this lively combination of memoir and non-fiction writing will help sate their appetite for new writing from Caro until the arrival of his final, still-in-progress Johnson biography.”
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead)
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about Optic Nerve: “Gainza’s phenomenal first work to be translated into English is a nimble yet momentous novel about the connection between one woman’s personal life and the art she observes. The book is composed of episodes in the life of María, who lives in Buenos Aires, often beginning with an anecdote about someone she knows before brilliantly finding an associative link to a work of art, then delving into the backstory of the artwork and the artist before coming full circle to how it all makes sense in María’s life. In one chapter, María’s observation of the sea prompts her to consider Gustave Courbet’s seascapes (‘his water was fossil-like: a slab of malachite rent hard across the middle’), before connecting the thread to her enigmatic cousin. In another chapter, María’s fear of flying keeps her from attending a prestigious art convention and leads her to mull over Henri Rousseau’s ability to venture beyond his limitations to shape avant-garde art. Tsuguharu Foujita’s artistic decline is juxtaposed against María’s longtime friend Alexia’s unrealized artistic potential. There are many pleasures in Gainza’s novel: its clever and dynamic structure, its many aperçus (‘happiness interests only those who experience it; nobody can be moved by the happiness of others’), and some of the very best writing about art around. With playfulness and startling psychological acuity, Gainza explores the spaces between others, art, and the self, and how what one sees and knows form the ineffable hodgepodge of the human soul. The result is a transcendent work.”
Naamah by Sarah Blake
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about Naamah: “Blake reimagines the story of Noah’s Ark from the perspective of Noah’s wife, Naamah, in her inventive but erratic debut. As Blake envisions her, Naamah is a practical woman. During the Ark’s construction, it is Naamah who remembers to stow buckets for washing and waste. Aboard ship, she serves as midwife to a ewe giving birth to two lambs, then later feeds the weaker, dying lamb to a restless tiger. After her son Shem is clawed by a polar bear, Naamah stitches up the cuts. Privately, Naamah is less matter-of-fact or down-to-earth. She mourns her lover, a widow lost in the Deluge, meets an Angel of the Lord and becomes the Angel’s lover, and chats with a vulture that is really the mythic Metatron. Guided by a time-traveling descendant, she visits the 21st century, where she watches children playing with a Noah’s Ark toy set. The author creates a for-adults-only multidimensional portrait of Noah’s wife by combining biblical narrative with modern prose, fantasy with realism, spirituality with erotica. Despite its mysticism and metaphorical aspects that may perplex some readers, this is a remarkable feat of imagination.”
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about Phantoms: “Kiefer’s sweeping novel (after One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place to Hide) examines the ways war shapes the lives of ordinary people. Upon returning to Placer County, Calif., after serving in Vietnam, John Frazier is at loose ends: 21 and gripped by recollections of violence and a drug habit he’s trying to kick, he’s unable to imagine his future. But when he runs into his long-lost aunt Evelyn Wilson, John is improbably sucked into the mystery of what happened to Ray Takahashi, Evelyn’s Japanese-American former neighbor, who disappeared soon after returning from WWII. With John in tow, Evelyn meets with Ray’s mother to reveal a secret she’s kept for 26 years—that, unbeknownst to Ray, Evelyn’s daughter, Helen, gave birth to his baby after he came back from the war. At Evelyn’s insistence, Helen gave up the infant to an orphanage partly due to the ‘disgrace’ of a mixed-race child. As John grapples with his own ghosts, he investigates Ray’s life: his idyllic childhood growing up with the Wilson children, his romance with Helen, the Takahashi family’s transfer to an internment camp and the prejudice they encountered. After Evelyn exposes her secret, the sinister forces underlying Ray’s disappearance begin rising closer to the surface. Kiefer’s story sheds light on the prejudice violence ignites and on the Japanese-American experience during a fraught period of American history, and makes for an engaging and memorable novel.”
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about The Parisian: “In her exceptional debut, Hammad taps into the satisfying slow-burn style of classic literature with a storyline that captures both the heart and the mind. In 1914, 19-year-old Midhat Kamal leaves his hometown of Nablus in Palestine and heads to Marseilles to study medicine, where he stays with university professor Dr. Frederic Molineu and his daughter, Jeannette. Jeannette has just completed her own schooling in philosophy, and though her interactions with Midhat are initially based on distant friendliness, romantic notions begin to stir inside them both. Midhat nevertheless relocates to Paris after one year, changes his academic major to history, and evolves into an image like “the figure of the Parisian Oriental as he appeared on certain cigarette packets in corner stores.” After he returns home to Nablus, Midhat’s life is directed by his wealthy father, who plans for his eldest son to marry a local woman and work in the family business. Midhat remains separated from Jeannette, his first love, as national and geopolitical machinations continue to grind, and by 1936, Midhat has witnessed a number of historical regional changes, including British rule and the Arab fight for independence. Richly textured prose drives the novel’s spellbinding themes of the ebb and flow of cultural connections and people who struggle with love, familial responsibilities, and personal identity. This is an immensely rewarding novel that readers will sink into and savor.”
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about Trust Exercise: “Choi’s superb, powerful fifth novel, after 2013’s My Education, marries exquisite craft with topical urgency. Set in the early 1980s, the book’s first section depicts the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, an elite high school in an unnamed Southern city. Galvanized by the charged atmosphere created by the school’s magnetic theater teacher, Mr. Kingsley, 15-year-old classmates Sarah and David have an intense sexual relationship the summer between their freshman and sophomore years. Sarah, who has taken its secrecy for granted, is horrified when David makes their romance public that fall. She repudiates him, the two spend the year estranged, and she grows increasingly isolated until an English theater troupe makes an extended visit to the school. When she is pursued by one of the troupe’s actors at the same time her classmate Karen falls in love with its director, the two young women form a fraught, ambivalent bond. The novel’s second segment reintroduces the characters a dozen years later, shifting from Sarah’s perspective into to a new viewpoint that casts most of what readers thought they knew into doubt. After the tensions of the past culminate in an act at once shocking and inevitable, a brief coda set in 2013 adds a final bold twist. Choi’s themes—among them the long reverberations of adolescent experience, the complexities of consent and coercion, and the inherent unreliability of narratives—are timeless and resonant. Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.”
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about The Ash Family: “In her excellent debut, Dektar probes life in a cult with a masterful hand, excavating the troubled mind of a young woman who joins what she thinks is a modern-day commune. Rather than boarding a plane for college, 19-year-old Berie leaves her home in Durham, N.C., and meets an alluring man named Bay at an Asheville, N.C., bus stop. He invites her into the Ash family fold, where he tells her she can stay “three days, or the rest of your life” on their co-op farm tucked away in the mountains. The Ash family follows a hypnotic and powerful leader called Dice, who engages in violent “actions” against developers who will harm the natural world. Dice dubs Berie “Harmony,” and she begins the hardworking life of living off the grid and rejecting everything outside the family as a “fake world.” Berie cuts off her mother and ex-boyfriend, believing that she has found a place where she belongs, but as much as she struggles for trust and acceptance—and craves intimacy with Bay—she makes mistakes and pays the price. She also learns that the family can be a threat to those who go astray. Dektar’s eloquent, often poetic prose draws readers into this disturbing, powerful novel.”
The Book of Dreams by Nina George
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about The Book of Dreams: “George’s captivating novel (after The Little Paris Bookshop) centers on magical bonds between coma patients and their loved ones. Forty-five-year-old ex-war correspondent Henri Skinner is estranged from his 13-year-old son, and after a traffic accident leaves Henri in an induced coma, Sam starts to form something of a relationship with his father. Sam is gifted, intelligent, and synesthetic, blending the sounds of music and voices into shapes and colors, and although he can sometimes sense his father, he usually feels only darkness. He shares his sorrow with Eddie Tomlin, whom Henri had left over two years earlier but inexplicably named as his representative in his living will. Eddie, for her part, can’t help loving the complex man who’s ‘always both running away from himself and searching for his true identity.’ One other person in the hospital captures Sam’s heart: 12-year-old Madelyn, a girl who’s also in a coma after an accident that killed her family. Meanwhile, Henri and Madelyn are submerged in real and surreal memories of their earlier lives—and their looming deaths—within their comatose minds. This exploration of unfinished relationships has a haunting, evocative quality, and is a perfect, conversation-starting selection for book groups.”
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted: “Hillman (The Boy in the Green Suit) offers an uplifting exploration of how people rise above tragedy to find joy. It’s 1968 in an Australian backwater town, and Tom Hope’s wife, Trudy, has disappeared, only to return a year later, pregnant with another man’s child. Tom grows to love the boy, Peter, but then Trudy abandons both when Peter is almost three, returning two years later to take her son from Tom and, shortly thereafter, send him divorce papers. After Hannah Babel—who survived Auschwitz but lost her entire family, including her husband and young son, to the concentration camps—comes to town, she hires Tom to fix up the bookstore she’s set on running, and the two of them—he, a calm workman, she an older, feisty intellectual—each with their separate anguish, find common ground and marry. Then Peter, still a child, reappears in Tom’s life, forcing Hannah to question whether she could allow herself to love another child, and Tom to potentially have to choose between his marriage and his love for the boy he considers a son. Hillman’s novel is an impressive, riveting tale of how two disparate and well-drawn people recover from soul-wrenching grief and allow themselves to truly love again.”
Also on shelves: If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood.
The winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award have been announced in New York City. The award is voted on by critics and considers all books in English (including in translation), no matter the country of origin. The winners in the various categories and some supplementary links:
Nonfiction: Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Staff Pick, excerpt [pdf])
Criticism: Marina Warner, Stranger Magic
Previously: The finalists
Award season is in full swing, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have just been announced on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”. After two years in a row of the fiction finalists numbering four women versus one male author, the gender count is reversed this time. The list also includes some very well-known names (Junot Díaz, fresh off his Genius Grant, is a previous Pulitzer winner; Dave Eggers is a former Pulitzer finalist; and Louse Erdrich is a former NBCC Award winner). This is something of a departure from the more obscure focus of recent years.
In nonfiction, Anthony Shadid got a posthumous nod after he dies while reporting from Syria.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The Millions review, Díaz’s Year in Reading, a Top Ten book)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (excerpt [pdf], a former Top Ten book)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (excerpt)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (The Millions interview, excerpt)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (excerpt)
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (excerpt)
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4 by Robert Caro (The Millions review, excerpt)
The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez
Our own Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel The Lola Quartet is out today. New Yorkers can see her (and some other Millions staffers) read on Sunday. Also out are Robert Caro’s latest installment of his LBJ biography, Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, and Steve Coll’s oil industry exposé Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.