Some corners of the literary world were confused last week when news hit about the passing of Beatles producer George Martin, forcing Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin to make this statement: "While it is strangely moving to realize that so many people around the world care so deeply about my life and death, I have to go with Mark Twain and insist that the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. It was Sir George Martin, of Beatles fame, who has passed away. Not me."
If last year's The Marriage Plot was too brief a taste of semiotics for you, here's an interesting essay on Jacques Derrida, "the Samson to tear down the temple of structuralism," and his seminal 1966 American presentation on "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences."
A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I've read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were "both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else." In his novel, The People's Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz's boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book's action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled - worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He's British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent for many years.
● ● ●
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. ("Phew, it's a hot one," etc.) Find more August titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments! The Burning Girl by Claire Messud: Following The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s new novel tells the story of lifelong friends Julia and Cassie. Their paths diverge and the result is a story about adolescence that contrasts a childhood’s imaginary world against adult reality. Messud, who will always have my heart for her response to a question about an unlikeable female character, tackles big questions with complex and nuanced novels. It looks like this will deliver. (Claire) Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart is Lena Dunham’s first pick for her imprint at Random House, which is a delight since Zhang is a powerful fiction writer who offers an intimate look at girlhood. Karan Mahajan says that the book, which is narrated by daughters of Chinese immigrants, “blasts opens the so-called immigrant narrative.” And Miranda July reveals that Sour Heart will come to “shape the world—not just the literary world, but what we know about reality.” (Zoë) New People by Danzy Senna: The fifth book from Senna, whose previous work includes the best-selling novel Caucasia and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her parents’ marriage. Like her earlier work, New People explores complex issues of race and class, following two light-skinned black Americans who marry and attempt to have it all in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In her review for The New Republic, Morgan Jerkins writes “What this novel succeeds in is creating a dense psychological portrait of a black woman nearing the close of the 20th century: inquisitive, obsessive, imaginative, alive.” (Lydia) Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Described as “a modern-day Antigone,” Home Fire follows Isma Pasha, a British woman who comes to America in pursuit of her Ph.D., her beautiful younger sister, and their brother, who’s haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. Add in a rival London family, an increasingly tense political climate, an impossible romance, and remorse in Raqqa, and perhaps you can begin to see the Grecian similarities. The latest novel from Shamsie, whose Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Home Fire should prove moving and thought-provoking, even for those who never cared much for Antigone. (Kaulie) The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: The Ribkins are quite the talented family. Johnny Ribkins, now 72, can make a precise map of any space, whether he’s been there or not. Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale walls. His cousin belches fire. This black American family once used their powers to advance the civil rights movement, but when disillusionment set in, Johnny and his brother turned their talents to a string of audacious burglaries. Now Johnny’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from a mobster—or he’ll swim with the fishes, as they say. Praised by Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, Hubbard arrives on the scene with an auspicious bang. (Bill) Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This debut was described by The Guardian as a “clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society.” Set in the 1980s, the story centers around the familial—and family planning—struggles of a young woman trying to conceive. She does everything she can, including ascending the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, goat in tow, only to have her in-laws foist a second, and presumably more fertile, wife, upon her feckless husband. Published earlier this year in Britain, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. (Matt) The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek: Kobek had a surprise hit on his hands with 2016’s I Hate The Internet, his self-published satirical novel that lambasted the tech industry’s distortion of San Francisco. After that novel published to favorable reviews—including one from Dwight Garner in The New York Times—and strong sales, Kobek is returning with The Future Won’t Be Long.The forthcoming novel is a prequel to Internet that finds a younger version of Internet’s protagonist, Adeline, as a struggling young artist in New York. Written before Internet, Won’t Be Long tracks Adeline and her friend Baby as they navigate, in Kobek’s words, “the decaying remnants of Punk New York.” We can expect this novel to observe that decay with the same wit that characterized Internet. (Read our interview with him.) (Ismail) How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas: The first novel in English by the French novelist describes a bereaved family of precocious siblings who pass the time dissecting "prime-time television dramas in light of Aristotle’s Poetics." Bordas's novel comes with blurbs from George Saunders and Zadie Smith, who called the novel "charm itself!" (Lydia) The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang: A story of rebellion and danger, forbidden attraction, and a young woman’s solitary stand against the forces of slavery and violence, this historical novel is personal for debut author Daren Wang, whose parents bought the property in Town Line, NY—the only northern town to secede from the union—where the story takes place. Wang, 50, kept telling the unlikely story to writers coming through the Decatur Book Festival, of which he is executive director, hoping someone would bite—until finally he realized he had to write it himself. While he fictionalized the heroine’s story, apparently “the most improbably parts are true.” (Sonya) Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian: Iskandrian’s debut is a coming-of-age story that mines key relationships—mother-daughter, father-daughter, siblings, new romance, female friendship—all in the context of a particular experience of fracture and loss. Agnes is a college student who is both stunted and startlingly mature; her voice is sharp and winning and sad. Iskandrian is a 2014 O’Henry Prize Juror Favorite and was called a “writer to watch” by PW (starred review). Motherest also received a starred review from Kirkus, who pronounced it “A powerfully perceptive story written with love, realism, and humor and that feels fresh despite the familiar terrain.” (Sonya) The Grip of It by Jac Jemc: With her second novel, The Grip of It, Jemc delivers a riveting tale of haunted houses and deteriorating relationships that’s drawing comparisons to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Within The Grip of It a couple finds refuge in a new home, only to discover it’s haunted: their real estate agent is nowhere to be found as a decay sets into its structures and permeate the lives it touches. In this “stark and unsettling” tale, Amelia Gray says, “every page … is a shingle laid over the dark heart of a couple in quiet crisis.” (Anne) The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein: A non-fiction offering by the books editor of the New York Times on the Web, who argues that 1922 was a definitive year for literature. The book is a group biography of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, and D.H. Lawrence, all of whom published groundbreaking work that year. The book uses primary sources to provide a glimpse at the lives of these literary figures, including some spicy diary entries: "Again and again, [Goldstein] highlights the disconnect between their public praise of another's work and their private dismissal of it," a piece about the book on NPR reports. (Lydia) Eat Only When You're Hungry by Lindsay Hunter: A road trip novel about hunger, addiction, and fractured family set against the landscape of central Florida, from the author of Ugly Girls. Roxane Gay called it "utterly superb." (Lydia)