This Week’s Hot Reads: Sept. 17, 2013

From a National Book Award winner’s raw yet elegant memoir to an architect of the modern Internet who died during the 9/11 attacks.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

A string of tragic deaths leads the author to reexamine her roots.

Ward won the National Book Award in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones, set in her native rural Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. This time around, she turns her eye back on her own life in that region’s depressed economy and untamed landscape, and to the African-American community there struggling to transcend the conditions both historical and contemporary that hold them back. The memoir is framed by the early deaths of five men in her hometown over a four-year period, one of them her brother. Ward looks into her own past for answers, and chapters alternate between her childhood and early adulthood, when the string of tragedies occurred. Although she left for bigger things (college at Stanford, a publishing job in New York), Ward found herself continually succumbing to the pull of the place—“[T]his would be my life,” she writes, “yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me.” If there’s a disconnect between Ward’s refined prose and the rawness in her story, it only serves to emphasize her ambivalence toward both the life she has achieved and the one she strove to leave behind.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. Two brothers from Calcutta face divergent fates, one tragic and one beholden to that tragedy.

There’s a beautiful episode near the beginning of Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel that encapsulates the complicated relationship between the two Indian brothers at the heart of the story. Subhash, a nonconfrontational pleaser, and Udayan, a revolutionary in the making, grow up together in a comfortable house in Calcutta, next to a marshy lowland. Subhash remembers that on the day the courtyard of their home was paved, the boys were ordered to stay indoors. Subhash obeyed. Udayan ventured out, losing his balance on the planks above the wet cement and leaving indelible footprints as evidence of his transgression. “The imperfection became a mark of distinction about their home,” Lahiri writes. “Something visitors noticed, the first family anecdote that was told.” The footprints are evidence that Udayan’s rebellions leave more marks on the world than the respectable pursuits of Subhash. The brothers’ lives take divergent turns, but remain fatefully connected even after tragedy strikes the family. As has become her trademark, Lahiri approaches the story with a sophisticated lack of judgment. And her way of spanning decades and generations without cluttering the story allows us to see how one event can continue to shape lives long after its immediate shock has faded.

The Tutu by Léon Genonceaux. A notorious 19th century publisher wrote a racy novel of his own.

Genonceaux became notorious in 19th-century Paris for publishing scandalous works of literature that no one else would touch. He was the first to publish Rimbaud’s poems, and was once taken into custody for publishing immoral work. But he also wrote a novel of his own, which he published under a pseudonym in 1891. From there, the life of The Tutu becomes as fascinating as the novel itself. Almost the entire print run vanished immediately, dooming the novel to decades of obscurity. (Today, only five copies of the first edition remain.) The plot, although incidental to the wicked, delirious wit that gives the book its brilliance, involves a young Parisian man named Mauri who is prone to losing fortunes, cheating on his new wife, and bouts of megalomania—at a party, he leans against a wall, “musing upon human stupidity and the universal law of hypocrisy.” Yet Mauri is no genius, and his exploits around Paris are ridiculous, fanciful, and depraved; one lover is a two-headed woman, another sleeps with snakes and other animals in her bed. If the novel were better known, we’d insist that it influenced everyone from Henry Miller to P.G. Wodehouse to John Kennedy Toole. Since it isn’t, we have to settle for saying that it was simply far, far ahead of its time.

The Salinger Contractby Adam Langer.

Two writers find themselves in the unlikely role of protagonists in a heist thriller.

To most writers, the subject of money is like the words of a bully—they exhaust themselves pretending to not be affected by it. In his new novel, Adam Langer exploits this fact, creating a down-on-his-luck writer named Conner whose ambivalence toward money is put to the test when a mysterious millionaire offers him $2.5 million to write a book that no one but the millionaire will ever read. Conner can’t resist, and from there, the writing of that novel improbably becomes the core of a thriller, as life imitates art and art imitates life, and the players lose track of who is to blame. Along with suspense, The Salinger Contract serves up a plot that allows for plenty of consideration of the state of book publishing. “Maybe this was the future,” muses the narrator, another writer to whom Conner tells his story and who eventually becomes entangled in the plot. “Writers being paid to create books for only one reader who would measure his status on the basis of which author he had paid to write a book solely for him.” If only it were that simple.

No Better Time by Molly Knight Raskin. The story of a dot-com billionaire who died in the World Trade Center attacks after revolutionizing the Internet.

Danny Lewin was one of the architects of the Internet as we know it today. He invented a set of algorithms that helped speed up the transfer of information dramatically by “caching.” Those algorithms became the foundation for the company Akamai, which went public in 1999 and turned Lewin into a billionaire at age 30. On September 11, 2001 he boarded American Airlines Flight 11, seated just in front of one of the hijackers. He made a phone call from his seat to Akamai’s lawyer. “They spoke for about fifteen minutes, until Lewin abruptly ended the call in preparation for takeoff,” writes Raskin. When Lewin’s throat was slashed as the plane turned toward the World Trade Centers, he likely became the first 9/11 victim. This is Lewin’s fascinating biography, but it is also a history of the Internet, and those who took it from clunky dial-up service to the speed-of-light marvel. It is also the story of the September 11 attacks themselves, and how they ground the exuberance of the 1990s to a halt. Raskin has meticulously reconstructed the buoyancy of the ’90s dot-com boom, and her restraint in covering the attacks lends a sober poignancy to Lewin’s story.