This week, from stories of New Delhi’s day-laborers to a woman who chose to leave a career as an international gun runner. By Mythili Rao.
Several Ways to Die in Mexico City By Kurt HollanderLife and death in a Mexican mega-city. “Tell me how you die and I’ll tell you who you are,” an old Mexican saying goes. It’s a phrase writer and journalist Kurt Hollander introduces early in this fascinating account of Mexico City—a book not so much about death as about the many forms of microbial, particulate and sub-particulate life that make up a mega-city. Hollander, who grew up in New York, moved to Mexico as a young man and was quickly seduced by the capital.
This week, books that encapsulate the enthusiasm of youth and the battered truth of age, from Danielewski to Daniel Mendelsohn.
Too Good to Be True By Benjamin Anastas A novelist in financial ruin digs himself out with the help of the love of his son.Benjamin Anastas was living a young writer’s dream. A graduate of the fabled Iowa Writer’s Workshop, his 1998 novel, An Underachiever’s Diary, had been well received by the right people, and he had begun to make for himself the creative existence that he had always hoped for. But Too Good to Be True wouldn’t be a good memoir without a catastrophic downfall.
From John Banville’s translucent tale of a scandalous teenage love affair to Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, newly translated into English. By Jimmy So.
Ancient Light By John Banville A scandalous affair between a 15- and a 35-year-old is rendered as a gorgeous piece of literature in the hands of the Man Booker Prize-winning master. To fully appreciate Ancient Light, you have to be familiar with Banville’s Eclipse and Shroud, which feature Alex Cleave, the man at the center of the (so far) trilogy, which hopefully will turn into a continent, something like In Search of Lost Time. Banville is the heir to Proust, via Nabokov, and not because there is a lot of sex in Ancient Light.
From a mind-bending novel about being trapped in a parallel life to New Yorker film critic David Denby’s collection of essays. By Mythili Rao.
The News From Spain By Joan Wickersham Seven heart-rending love stories only peripherally about Spain.The title of Joan Wickersham’s new collection of short stories is something of a joke. Spain, and news from it, figures only peripherally in these affecting vignettes, though the first page of each delicate tale begins with the same, somber heading—“The News From Spain,” of course. In the first story, about a couple in a faltering marriage attending the wedding of another precariously matched pair, “the news from Spain” is a gentle joke—it’s how the main character’s father would describe the sound from an empty whelk shell on the beach.
From the power of electricity in the human body to the national memory of war. By Nicholas Mancusi.
The Spark Of Life By Frances Ashcroft A scientist illustrates the power system of life.You know you’re in for an interesting read when a book opens with a cautionary note warning you not to electrocute yourself (or any animals) if you happen to re-create the experiments within. Oxford professor Frances Ashcroft colorfully illustrates the fact that some of life’s most metaphysical concerns, such as fear, death, and thought itself, can boil down to the action of ion channels, which facilitate the movement of electricity through our bodies and brains.
From a history of Hollywood stardom by the Boston Globe’s film critic, to a colossal history of World War II in the form of a novel. By Jimmy So.
Gods Like Us By Ty BurrWriting about performance and stardom well is the most difficult thing in film criticism—hats off to the Boston Globe film critic for a necessary history.Film criticism has traditionally centered on the director. The artistic vision comes from the auteur, and at his or her disposal are things like mise-en-scène, montage, screenplay, and actors. A movie star’s talent is one element used to create a work of art, like paint in a Monet or words and sentences in a Flaubert.
From Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Díaz’s new collection of short stories to an inside view of life among Alaskan oil-rig workers, air-traffic controllers, and truck drivers. By Mythili Rao.
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist releases a new collection of short stories.“I’m not a bad guy,” the first story in Díaz’s collection begins. Is it an apology or an introduction? Yes, he is “a sucio, an asshole.” But no one loves women more than he does, their “big stupid lips,” “horse neck,” “sad moonface” features, “curried pussy,” and all. Infidelities end at least a third of the relationships in this book—this is a songbook of eulogies to love affairs that never stood a chance in the first place.
From NPR contributor Davy Rothbart’s new essay collection to a study of how Henry James wrote his masterpiece ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’ By Nicholas Mancusi.
My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays By Davy Rothbart A young essayist is often a victim of his own open heart.Rothbart possesses two attributes that would be enviable for any essayist to have: a near-complete lack of cunning and an incurable sensitivity. The former sends him rushing headlong into mistakes that a more circumspect (and boring) person would see coming from a mile away, and the latter converts this ineptitude into artistic experience. In his new book of essays, the NPR contributor covers episodes from his romantically fraught life that range from the light (a frat-house liaison centered around a game of beer bong) to the life-and-death (the discovery of a body floating in the backyard pool of a romantic conquest).
From a definitive biography of the Brontës, a devastating novel about Europe’s relationship with African immigrants, to Granta’s exploration of physical and mental ailments. By Jimmy So.
The Brontës by Juliet Barker A revised and updated edition of the monumental, definitive biography of the tragic family comprising the three Brontë sisters. This revised and updated edition of the definitive 1994 biography of the literary family sports a “new” discovery: Charlotte Brontë’s letter about her wedding dress is “particularly delightful,” as Barker writes in her preface. “White I had to buy and did buy to my own amazement—but I took care to get it in cheap material … If I must make a fool of myself—it shall be on an economical plan,” the Jane Eyre author wrote.
From a second-person memoir by Paul Auster, a PBS documentarian’s obsession with Mormonism, to a Harvard freshman’s comical attempts to make friends. By Mythili Rao.
Winter Journal By Paul Auster An acclaimed writer looks back on his memories of two marriages, two children, and 21 permanent addresses.Second-person narration has a way of being both accusatory and evasive; in Paul Auster’s elegant new memoir, it’s arresting, too, underscoring the strangeness of watching oneself age. Painstakingly cataloging two marriages, two children, and 21 permanent addresses, Auster carries the reader from his youngest memories as a boy who loved baseball and his dog through thwarted high-school passions, college protests, marriage, parenthood, divorce, love and loss.
From a modern epistolary adventure to a portrait of gentrifying Tribeca. By Nicholas Mancusi.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria SempleAn epistolary novel that manages to blend literary pursuits with gleeful comedy.The idea of an epistolary novel may bring to mind images of dusty, fate-lamenting lovers clutching quills and tear-stained parchment, but in her new book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple uses e-mail chains, IM chat logs, and FBI records to tell the thoroughly modern story of Bernadette Fox, one-time architectural prodigy who escaped the wilds of Los Angeles into the more treacherous territory of the cut-throat parental politics in the Seattle private school scene.
From a precise and matter-of-fact collection of essays by the wildly imaginative novelist Nicholson Baker to a spare and ruthlessly controlled novel about an unnamed colonial country that’s about to blow. By Jimmy So.
The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson BakerBaker’s essays suspend you every few sentences or so, as you savor the silence that he creates and enjoy the weightlessness you feel leaping from one thought to another.Chesterton, Hazlitt, William James, and Samuel Johnson are listed as some of Baker’s heroes of the personal essay. He is far less didactic. I wonder if the author of Vox, The Fermata, and House of Holes—one of the very few contemporary writers able to pull off wildly imaginative and unpedestrian novels—is the heir to Hemingway when he’s writing nonfiction.
From a high-school cheerleading crime novel to Padgett Powell’s reimagining of 'Waiting for Godot' in the South. By Mythili Rao.
Dare Me by Megan AbbotA crime novelist tackles high-school cheerleading in an ode to the dark side of girlhood friendship and all its twisted loyalties. Teenage friendship—the electric, combustible kind—is the focus of crime novelist Megan Abbott’s latest book, Dare Me, a heady tale of high-school drama with grown-up stakes. For 16-year-old Addy Hanlon, there are really only two things that matter in the world: Cheerleading and her best friend, Beth.
From a complex debut novel about an extended Sri Lankan family that immigrated to England to a real-life portrait of an infamous psych ward in Brooklyn.
HomesickBy Roshi FernandoA complex debut novel that presents the challenges that an extended Sri Lankan family faces in southeast London, from the '70s to the present day.In a country whose cultural consumers are more or less recent immigrants, we are certainly familiar with stories of the immigration experience. But it can be easy for us to forget that the tale of America isn’t the only one worth telling. In her debut novel, Fernando weaves the intricate narrative of an extended Sri Lankan family struggling in southeast London, from the ’70s to the present day.
From the strange history of the science of genetics to a novel that explores the artistry of Asian Americans to the fractures of Pakistan.
The Violinist’s Thumb By Sam KeanThis history of the discovery of our genetic code is above all a story in humility—Mendel found that nothing was simple in life, and appearances are always deceptive.The pioneers of genetics rarely need to trumpet the power of their science. The rest of us mortals look to our DNA for answers—sometimes easy answers. Why am I not a better basketball player than Michael Jordan? Because I wasn’t born tall enough.
Every week, we present brief but in-depth reviews of five fiction and non-fiction books.
What can F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel tell us about present-day China? Matt Lombardi teaches the American classic in the city of Chengdu.