This Week’s Hot Reads: August 26, 2013

From a debut novel where besieged journalists take asylum to a biography of the missionary who made California.

08.26.13 5:25 PM ET

The House of Journalists
By Tim Finch

A debut novel about oppressed journalists who live together in London

‘The House of Journalists’ by Tim Finch. 304 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.

There’s no lack of repressive regimes that will persecute, muffle, torture and kill journalists who shine a light where malignant leaders would prefer darkness. What if such journalists could seek asylum in a centralized placed? Not a country, but a house in London, where the exigencies of living together creates its own brand of tension? That’s the terrifically engaging conceit from Finch, a debut novelist who once served as political journalist for the BBC and now works for the Institute for Public Policy Research. He knows the true stories of writers in exile, and in this Kafkaesque tale he imagines the effects of bringing 30 such people together to share their harrowing stories and to attempt to peacefully co-exist—and to perhaps live less honorably as a collective than they did on their own. The narrative shifts throughout as we learn the backstories of respective house guests, including the disfigured Mr. Stan, the editor of a newspaper on a small island in the Indian Ocean, whose shining physical feature, his hands, were mashed into “bloody mush stumps” because “he became a fearless critic of the repressive regime”; Mustapha, who had to leave his family behind in his abandoned home country; and AA, who shies away from telling his backstory and draws the suspicion of Julian, the founder of the house who’s growing increasingly paranoid. What’s to become of these exiles? Finch’s novel is a timely exploration of what happens to scribes who run afoul of the powers that be.

—Cameron Martin

At the Bottom of Everything
By Ben Dolnick

A terrible secret shatters a friendship and spurs spiritual longing

‘At the Bottom of Everything: A Novel’ by Ben Dolnick. 256 pp. Pantheon. $25.

An unlikely friendship develops between the uptight, brilliant Thomas and the easygoing Adam, who says of his friend, “People liked him but there was something impersonal about their feelings; he was, especially as middle school went on, like the school’s prize oak tree.” Kids respect Thomas, but he is socially awkward. Adam takes a perverse pride in befriending the wicked smart kid (“I liked being the kid who’d cracked Thomas Pell”), which isn’t the only time that Dolnick, the author of You Know Who You Are and Zoology, conjures the memory of familiar movies and books like Lucas and A Separate Peace. Adam has no use for his mother and step father  (“My family was like the cardboard Apollo astronauts outside Blockbuster—you could sweep them aside, fold them into the Dumpster, without thinking about it”), which sounds like something a sociopath might say. Adam finds a home away from home with Thomas and his doting, sophisticated parents, Richard and Sally, who says to Adam, “pretty soon we’re going to get so we’re just going to fill out adoption papers for you.” The dissolution of the friendship between the two boys seems inevitable, but instead of using a predictable trope Dolnick obliterates their bond in a late-night joy ride that ends with a 22-year-old girl’s death. Given his willingness to pitch his parents in the Dumpster outside the local video store, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Adam is relatively unfazed by the tragedy. Thomas, on the other hand, becomes unhinged and eventually heads to India and disappears. His parents implore Adam to go there and find his former friend, a spiritual journey that makes the second half of the novel feel rather forced.


My Brother My Sister
By Molly Haskell

A feminist film critic grapples with her brother’s sex change operation

‘My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation’ by Molly Haskell. 224 pp. Viking. $27.

People of a certain age have all had to deal with their share of traumatic, transformative life events, such as the death of loved ones, the dissolution of a marriage, and unemployment. In the grand scheme of things, these are rather normative transformations; certainly in comparison with your 60-year-old brother, who is married with children, telling you he wants to get a sex change operation and live as a woman. This is outside the norm yet equally ground-shaking, as Haskell, the well-known feminist literary film critic, explains in recounting the decision of her brother, Chevey (pronounced “Chivvy”) to have gender reassignment surgery and became known as “Ellen.” The consequences are far-reaching—some of them predictable (his wife is ashamed and aghast) to surprising (his first wife supports the decision and can’t understand why others cannot). Haskell, who considers herself open-minded, can’t easily accept her brother’s choice. “I see it as a changing of identities, like someone on the lam, or going into the witness protection program. He sees it, quite the reverse, as someone who’s been living as a fake, who’s already done time in the witness protection program and can finally come clean, walk out the door, and face the light of day as his, or rather her, true self.” That’s what her brother wants—to be at one with himself (or herself, that is). Those close to him can either change their thinking or get left behind.


Remember How I Told You I Loved You?
By Gillian Linden

Seven interconnected, angst-filled short stories in this sparkling debut collection

‘Remember How I Told You I Loved You? Stories’ by Gillian Linden. 122 pp. Little A. $15.

For anyone who’s survived into their early 30s, there’s a recognizable angst pervading this debut collection of seven interconnected stories from Linden. Her examinations of fear and anxiety—about present and past relationships, jobs, the future—are engagingly subtle, the title of the collection representative of what’s suggested in these stories, yet seldom spelled out. Karen, the primary focus of most of these tales, is saddled with self-doubt and seems to fall into relationships more out of boredom and convenience than genuine interest. “At the end of winter she is in a relationship with a guy who wears a suede fedora. When they first meet, she isn’t drawn to him. The hat seems like a costume—his personality must be thin. As they spend time together, her perspective shifts.” When she’s older, a friend sets her up with a guy who is handsome but not much for conversation. “What would it be like to date him, a man of few words?” They seem to have very little in common, and she’s quickly lying to him about mundane matters; for example, she tells him she likes to ride bikes, though she hasn’t ridden one since she was eight. The friend who set them up assures her, “Everyone lies at first. Everyone does.” Is this true? I don’t know, but it’s the sort of comment that Linden’s memorable characters consistently make—observations that make you question yourself and the people who’ve populated your life.


Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father
By Steven W. Hackel

The man who made the Golden State.

‘Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father’ by Steven W. Hackel. 352 pages. Hill and Wang. $27.

Junípero Serra died less than a decade into the existence of the United States as a nation, entirely ignorant of his eventual legacy as one of the pivotal—and controversial—figures in the history of the then far-away country. When the borders of the United States expanded west, however, they incorporated the land that Serra’s missionary expeditions had settled, for the first time, a hundred years before: California. In his new biography of the Spanish-born Franciscan monk, Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father, author Steven W. Hackel examines Serra’s contradictory legacy. The monk who was beatified by the Catholic Church and set in bronze at the Capitol Building has, in recent years, been recast as an agent of unwelcome colonialism. By exploring the political and religious climate of the eighteenth century, Hackel offers a more complex view of the divisive Junípero Serra. His large-scale Apostolic work laid the foundation for modern California—particularly his introduction of Western agricultural techniques to the region—and was practiced with the humility and piety typical of the Franciscan order. However, for the converted, Catholicism was a double-edged sword. Junípero Serra and his fellow missionaries brought to the Native Californians as much disease and death as they did salvation.

—Thomas Flynn