PW Picks: Books of the Week, February 4, 2019

Boeck (Imperial Boundaries), former professor of Russian and Soviet history at DePaul University, paints a nuanced portrait in this literary biography of a Nobel Prize–winning Russian novelist and accused (but exonerated) plagiarist. A “prize protégé” of Josef Stalin, a target of rival novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and called by Salman Rushdie a “patsy of the regime,” Sholokhov was a controversial figure of the Soviet era. Boeck vividly relates how Sholokhov, whose fate “hinged on satisfying a dictator’s literary cravings,” reached success during a time when other Soviet authors were being censored and imprisoned (and accusing Sholokhov of plagiarism); he survived secret police plots to frame him and defended friends wrongly charged as anti-Communists, while writing articles, speeches, plays, and the epic And Quiet Flows the Don. Boeck also depicts Sholokhov’s slow and painful fall from grace after Stalin’s death in 1953, when “every certainty he had known for two decades had suddenly been thrown into question” and copies of a regime-approved “improved” version of Quiet Don appeared on Soviet bookshelves. Boeck’s portrayal of his subject’s international ill-fame, habit of hiding his emotions, clashes with Stalin’s successor Khrushchev, and drinking bouts make this a deeply engaging take on an important literary figure.

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline

Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. Crown, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-984823-21-2

The world faces not an overpopulation crisis but a birth dearth that will reshape civilization, according to this arresting and contrarian look at the planet’s demographic future. Bricker, CEO of the research firm Ipsos Public Affairs, and journalist Ibbitson, authors of The Big Shift, critique the United Nations model that predicts world population will grow from 7.6 billion today to 11.2 billion by 2100; they instead cite demographers who foresee global population peaking at 9 billion by 2060, then shrinking to 7 billion (and falling) by 2100. They point to two main causes of the coming cull: urbanization, which makes children’s labor less valuable, and above all feminism, which encourages women to pursue education and careers instead of early childbearing. The authors interview people from Brussels to Nairobi who are planning on having just one or two kids, below the replacement rate. The authors see pros (less resource depletion) and cons (stagnating economies, fewer workers to support pensioners, extinction of small cultures, loneliness) in the population bust and predict the collapse of an aging China and the resurgence of the U.S. if it embraces immigrants. Lucid, trenchant, and very readable, the authors’ arguments upend consensus ideas about everything from the environment to immigration; the result is a stimulating challenge to conventional wisdom.

Europe: A Natural History

Tim Flannery, with Luigi Boitani. Atlantic Monthly, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2916-1

Paleontologist Flannery (Atmosphere of Hope) pulls back the curtain on Europe’s past environments, while also giving a glimpse of its possible future, in this marvelous work. Flannery begins 100 million years ago, when dinosaurs still walked the Earth and Europe was a “tropical archipelago.” In this and each following section, Flannery introduces readers to the species that coexisted during a particular epoch, ranging from the very small to the very large and always including examples of the very strange, such as the “hell pigs” of the Oligocene period, between 33 million and 23 million years ago, or the Deinogalerix, the largest hedgehog to ever live, during the Miocene, between 23 million and five million years ago. Flannery also tracks the ebb and flow of less exotic species, such as relatives of bears, elephants, giraffes, and humans, and, throughout, shares a plethora of surprising facts, such as that “falcons and robins are more closely related to each other than are falcons and hawks.” In the final chapters, Flannery discusses the prospects for “rewilding” Europe—perhaps by importing once-native species, including lions and elephants. Beyond this book’s obvious appeal to conservation-minded Europeans, it should attract any reader interested in the past and future of the natural world.

El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America

Carrie Gibson. Atlantic Monthly, $30 (576p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2702-0

Historian Gibson (Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day) provides a sweeping and accessible survey of the Hispanic history of the U.S. that illuminates the integral impact of the Spanish and their descendants on the U.S.’s social and cultural development. In contrast to the widespread downplaying of this history in favor of Anglo-American perspectives, Gibson recognizes the country as “part of a larger Latin American community.” Gibson uses this inventive and appealing lens to guide readers chronologically from the initial European incursions into the Western hemisphere to the present day. Focusing primarily on Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, the main topics covered are Spanish colonization (often violent) and evangelizing (which was “bound up with the colonization project for Spain and Portugal from the beginning”), the creation of Latin American republics, U.S. territorial expansion, immigration, challenges faced by Latin Americans in the U.S. (including housing discrimination, immigration raids, and prejudiced treatment in the military), and how Hispanic racial, ethnic, and cultural identities are interpreted in the Americas). Though it doesn’t present new research, this unusual and insightful work provides a welcome and thought-provoking angle on the country’s history, and should be widely appreciated.

Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk

Amy S. Greenberg. Knopf, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-35413-4

Greenberg (A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico), a professor of history and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University, delivers a stellar biography of Sarah Polk, an influential yet not well-known 19th-century American woman. She argues that Polk, as first lady from 1845 to 1849, was powerful, popular, and publicly political. Liberal women supported the emerging women’s rights movement, but the more conservative Polk acquired power by manipulating female deference—remaining outwardly subordinate to men—to advance her own power. Born on the Tennessee frontier in 1803, the wealthy, well-educated, religious Sarah Childress married James K. Polk, a fledgling politician, in 1824 and dedicated her life to promoting his career and the Democratic Party platform. She excelled at Washington’s “parlor politics,” hosting dinners and parties to foster James’s prospects in Congress. Sarah managed the correspondence for his 1839 Tennessee gubernatorial campaign and his 1844 presidential run. As first lady, she supported westward expansion and the 1846 war with Mexico. Widowed, she ran the family’s plantation, remaining an unrepentant slaveowner through the Civil War. Sarah Polk comes alive in these pages, with Greenberg expertly illuminating the intersections of the public and private, providing readers a refreshing new way to look at 19th-century American political and social history. This is a highly recommended work.

What We Did

Christobel Kent. FSG/Crichton, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-28875-4

One day, 20 years after violin teacher Anthony Carmichael sexually assaulted Bridget Webster, the heroine of this stunning psychological thriller from Kent (The Day She Disappeared), Carmichael walks into the boutique that Bridget owns in Rose Hill, England. They recognize each other. With Carmichael, who’s now teaching at the local university, where Bridget’s husband, Matt, runs the computer office, is a girl of 14 or 15, the pedophile’s latest “protégé.” Confronted by the man who nearly destroyed her life, Bridget isn’t sure what to do. Leave town? Go to the police? Or just do nothing. Meanwhile, London journalist Gillian Lawson, who has had her eye on Carmichael for years and suspects that Bridget was one of his first victims, travels to Rose Hill to interview her and seek out Carmichael. Bridget’s increasingly paranoid behavior worries Matt, who’s acquainted with Carmichael but unaware of his link to Bridget. The stakes rise when Carmichael goes missing. Incisive character studies, seamless plotting, and a breathtaking final reveal make this a standout.

A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers

Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. One World, $17 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-525-50880-9

LaValle (The Changeling) and Adams (The Living Dead) present an outstanding collection written by 25 heavy hitters of speculative fiction, offering dazzling and often chilling glimpses of an uncertain future in which America teeters on the brink. In “Calendar Girls” by Justina Ireland, a young black girl arrested for selling illegal contraceptives must provide abortion transport to the daughter of the senator who criminalized contraception. In “Our Aim Is Not to Die” by A. Merc Rustad, an autistic, nonbinary person struggles to survive an oppressive, technofascist society where each quality that marks them as atypical puts them at risk for being “remade” into the “white, male, straight” ideal. In “Riverbed” by Omar El Akkad, a survivor of American Muslim internment returns to the site of her imprisonment to retrieve her slain brother’s possessions and confront America’s Islamophobic ghosts. Each story builds a plausible extrapolation of the current world, and each character is well drawn. This bold collection is full of hope, strength, and courage, and will be welcomed by readers looking for emotional sustenance and validation of their experiences in a challenging time.

The Ruin of Kings: A Chorus of Dragons, Book 1

Jenn Lyons. Tor, $24.99 (560p) ISBN 978-1-250-17548-9

Kihrin, a street thief turned prince, unearths his complicated family history and faces devious magic-wielding foes in this intricate epic fantasy series launch by Lyons (the War in Heaven series). Set in a world of gods and magic, the frame story alternates between the perspectives of Kihrin and his jailer, a mimic named Talon, as they tell different parts of Kihrin’s tragic adventures. Kihrin’s enemies covet his protective Stone of Shackles, and in his journey to great power he crosses dragons, demons, and gods who seek to either aid or imprison him. Double crosses and hidden motivations pepper several plots for godly power. Though the hero’s journey structure and classical fantasy elements are familiar, the complex mysteries and revelations feel novel and offer plenty of room for rereading and analysis. There’s more mystery than action in this tightly plotted tome, and its lore and memorable characters will leave epic fantasy fans eager for the second volume.

Bowlaway

Elizabeth McCracken. Ecco, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-286285-3

McCracken’s stellar novel (after Thunderstruck) opens at the turn of the 20th century with Bertha Truitt being discovered unconscious in a cemetery in little Salford, Mass., seemingly having fallen from the sky. Bertha is middle-aged, plump, and enjoys the absence of a corset, but in spite of her unprepossessing appearance, she initiates a love affair with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revives her at the cemetery. The two marry and have a daughter, Minna. Townspeople, meanwhile, find Bertha charismatic; they begin to dream about her and to credit her with magical powers. With fierce determination, she establishes a bowling alley that uses newfangled candlepins, a game that she (falsely) claims to have invented. Bertha’s loving family completes her happiness before a freak accident (McCracken is a pro at inventing such surprises) derails her plans. Almost everyone—Joe Wear and Virgil, LuEtta and Jeptha, Nahum and Margaret—with whom Bertha has come in contact mystically finds himself or herself in love; often the catalyst is the bowling alley, where they meet. Loss is as prevalent as love, however, and the whims of fate cast a melancholy tinge on characters’ lives. The bowling alley itself is almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determine prosperity or its opposite. McCracken writes with a natural lyricism that sports vivid imagery and delightful turns of phrase. Her distinct humor enlivens the many plot twists that propel the narrative, making for a novel readers will sink into and savor.

The Silent Patient

Alex Michaelides. Celadon, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-30169-7

Psychotherapist Theo Faber, the emotionally fragile narrator of Michaelides’s superb first novel, finagles his way to a job at the Grove, a “secure forensic unit” in North London, where artist Alicia Berenson has been housed for six years since she was convicted of murdering her prominent fashion photographer husband, Gabriel. The evidence against Alicia was clear—Gabriel was tied to a chair and shot several times in the face with a gun that had only her fingerprints. Since the day of her arrest, Alicia has never said a word. Before the murder, Alicia painted a provocative self-portrait entitled Alcestis, based on a Greek myth that seemed to echo her life. Her current therapists reluctantly agree to let Theo treat the heavily drugged Alicia to get her to speak. The boundary between doctor and patient blurs as Theo, who admits he became a therapist “because I was fucked-up,” seeks to cure his own emotional problems in the course of treating Alicia. This edgy, intricately plotted psychological thriller establishes Michaelides as a major player in the field.

Magical Negro

Morgan Parker. Tin House, $15.95 (104p) ISBN 978-1-947793-18-7

As witnessed in this third collection, blackness cannot be confined to a simple definition. Parker writes of the black experience not as an antidote or opposite to whiteness, but a culture and community where irreplicable nuances are created in spite of, not because of, pain and trauma. Blackness cannot be bought or sold; it’s an inheritance. For example, in “Magical Negro #607: Gladys Knight on the 200th Episode of The Jeffersons,” Parker writes, “When I’m rich I will still be Black./ You can’t take the girl out of the ghetto/ until she earns it, or grows up into it.” Similarly, in “The History of Black People,” Parker frames the legacy of black people as “an investigation” and “a tragicomic horror film” and “joy stinging pink lips.” Parker uses personal narratives to deconstruct societal stereotypes of black womanhood. In “When a Man I Love Jerks Off in My Bed next to Me and Falls Asleep,” she observes, “When I walk into the world and know/ I am a black girl, I understand/ I am a costume. I know the rules./ I like the pain because it makes me.”

I Am God

Giacomo Sartori, trans. from the Italian by Frederika Randall. Restless, $16.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-63206-214-7

The narrator of Sartori’s hilarious, insightful novel, his first to be published in English, is none other than God, a proper monotheistic deity stirred in a very human way by one of his own creations. In language he claims is inadequate for a lonely god, he begins to keep a diary, tracking a tall, purple-pigtailed geneticist named Daphne. He observes with increasing pique her hapless life as she goes about artificially inseminating cattle, saving endangered horny toads, and engaging in unsatisfactory sex. Her friendship with an energetic zoologist and her randy paleoclimatologist boyfriend is especially irksome to him. (“Some things that happen are so predictable that even a drunken tree sloth could see them coming.”) He mocks these humans and their inebriation, their paltry appreciation of his creation like “asking a protozoan to describe an elephant: he could tell you about an infinitesimal portion of one hair on the scrotum.” And yet God becomes so smitten with Daphne that—after attempting to distract himself by watching a couple of galaxies collide—he succumbs to intervening in the most diabolical manner. On page after laugh-out-loud page, this articulate God—and author—cover just about every cynical and lofty concept concerning one’s own existence that humans ever pondered. This is an immensely satisfying feat of imagination.

The Age of Light

Whitney Scharer. Little, Brown, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-316-52408-7

Scharer’s stellar debut chronicles the tumultuous working and romantic relationships of photographer Man Ray and model-turned-photographer Lee Miller in early 1930s Paris. As as an older woman living on a farm in East Sussex, Lee contemplates an assignment to write about her time with Man. Scharer intersperses her memories of that era with the grim but satisfying later years of being a WWII photographer. The years during and after the fall of Hitler led to her most important work, but also to a drinking problem. These scenes are juxtaposed against her hope-and-love-filled initial years in Paris, where she meets the older Man at a party and later convinces him to take her on as an apprentice. Man nurtures her talent as a photographer but also proves himself possessive and controlling, both as a lover and as a mentor. It becomes clear that he and his circle of famous artists ultimately don’t take women’s work seriously, prompting Lee to betray him. When Man guts her by submitting her photography under his name for a prize, she exacts revenge via another project he wanted to take from her and brings matters to a head. Scharer’s brilliant portrayal of the complicated couple features a page-turning story and thrillingly depicts the artistic process.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones

Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-544-79085-8

Schmidt (Orbiting Jupiter) fuses pathos and humor in this adroitly layered novel that opens as Carter answers the doorbell to find a dapper British “gentleman’s gentleman,” a former employee of the boy’s grandfather, whose will bequeathed his service to Carter’s family. And they do need some sorting out: the sixth grader’s father has been deployed to Germany, and his emotionally fraught mother is struggling to parent her four children alone in New York State. Endearingly devoted to his younger sisters, Carter is reeling from his beloved brother’s sudden death, his alienation from his uncommunicative father (hauntingly underscored in flashbacks to an angst-riddled camping trip), and the sickening realization that his father isn’t coming home. The butler’s strict adherence to decorum and the Queen’s English triggers amusing repartee with slang-loving Carter; he also recognizes and assuages the boy’s pain by introducing him—and his schoolmates—to cricket, which gives them all a sense of purpose and pride. Opening each chapter with a definition of a cricket term, Schmidt weaves the sport’s jargon into the narrative, further enriching the verbal badinage and reinforcing the affecting bond between a hurting boy and a compassionate man. Ages 10–12.

Off Season

James Sturm. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 (216p) ISBN 978-1-77046-331-8

The romantic underpinnings of this bleakly drawn and emotionally raw graphic novel from Sturm (The Golem’s Mighty Swing) are buried under Yankee stoicism and the sniping crossfire and precisely drawn quotidian scenes of loss in a failing marriage. But these loosely linked chapters on the travails of a grumpy contractor feeling pressed on all sides—cheating boss; angry, nearly divorced wife; tantrum-tossing children—all host a kernel of longing. The dialogue is clipped and astute, threaded neatly into delicately steely art by Sturm, whose naturalism is so pronounced that it takes only a few pages to forget that he has drawn all the characters as dogs (albeit wearing clothes, driving cars, and walking on two legs). In between the contractor’s bursts of frustrated rage (“I need to get back to work—I don’t have a trust fund”), nods to the dark tides of frustrated masculinity that swept through the 2016 election, and snarky sarcasm (“Bernie sticker on his Mercedes-Benz. A real man of the people”), Sturm slips in short, bright glimpses of grander possibilities. This finely wrought, politically agitated graphic fiction recalls Raymond Carver, and speaks almost too painfully to the personal strife in today’s political climate.

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays

Esmé Weijun Wang. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-55597-827-3

In this penetrating and revelatory exploration, novelist Wang (The Border of Paradise) shows how having a bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder has permeated her life. Stating that “my brain has been one of my most valuable assets since childhood,” she writes with blunt honesty about striving to be seen as “high functioning,” aware that “the brilliant facade of a good face and a good outfit” drastically affects how she is perceived. She explains her decision not to have children, while recalling time spent working at a camp for bipolar children, and muses about viewing her condition as a manifestation of “supernatural ability” rather than a hindrance. Wang invariably describes her symptoms and experiences with remarkable candor and clarity, as when she narrates a soul-crushing stay in a Louisiana mental hospital and the alarming onset of a delusion in which “the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead.” She also tackles societal biases and misconceptions about mental health issues, criticizing involuntary commitment laws as cruel. Throughout these essays, Wang trains a dispassionate eye onto her personal narrative, creating a clinical remove that allows for the neurotypical reader’s greater comprehension of a thorny and oft-misunderstood topic.

The Glovemaker

Ann Weisgarber. Skyhorse, $24.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5107-3783-9

Weisgarber’s marvelous third novel (after The Promise) is set in the rugged canyon country of southern Utah during the winter of 1887–1888 as a Mormon woman struggles to hold her faith in the face of religious persecution and her fear of the law. Deborah’s husband is overdue to return from a trip, having left her alone in the remote hamlet of Junction, Utah Territory, a collection of eight Mormon families living their faith as each sees fit. One winter night, a stranger arrives at Deborah’s cabin asking for help, speaking in a code that she knows means he’s a polygamist running from the law. He is pursued by a U.S. marshal, and, despite her fear, Deborah hides him, then passes him on to her brother-in-law, Nels, to guide to safety. A tense encounter between the marshal, Nels, and the stranger results in an act of violence and reveals that there’s more to the marshal’s pursuit of the stranger than meets the eye. The moment of violence rocks and divides the small Mormon community; when two more strangers arrive, Deborah and Nels must protect their faith and their community without further violence, while dealing with tender feelings for each other. This is a rich, powerful, and wholly immersive tale grounded in Utah and Mormon history.

[“source=publishersweekly”]