Fall Books

This Week’s Hot Reads, September 24, 2012: David Denby, Alex Witchel & More

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. “Want to listen to the news from Spain?” he’d ask her, handing her a shell. As a little girl, she’d eagerly put the shell to her ear. “You thought that if you could only listen hard enough, you’d be able to decipher what you heard,” Wickerham writes, but decoding love’s lessons preoccupies all of Wickersham’s characters, from the daughter who falls into a devastating affair while caring for her dying mother, to the young girl who watches her favorite teachers’ marriage collapse in scandal. However, not all the loves of this collection are tragic, or even sexual. There is the tale of a late-life friendship between two older women, for example, and an unlikely bond forged between a widow and the wife of her husband’s biographer. Most tenderly, there is the invalid former dancer who grows increasingly reliant on the protection for her gay caretaker, as he discovers that he needs her, too. Complex and world-weary, Wickersham’s characters move through life with a quiet intensity. Love comes at unexpected times and places—if you only listen hard enough.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore By Robin Sloan An overnight clerk at a strange San Francisco bookshop tumbles into a digital adventure.

In a world of 24-hour convenience stores, 24-hour news channels, 24-hour customer service, and 24-hour gyms, is a 24-hour bookstore really such a strange proposition? When Clay, a laid-off San Francisco Web designer, is offered a job as a night clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, he’s so relieved to find employment that he immediately agrees to his new boss’s unusual rules. Clay must never be late, he must never leave early, he must take detailed notes about each customer, and he must never read any of the dusty volumes stacked in the store’s highest shelves—books loaned out to a small circle of eccentric patrons who arrive at the shop with “algorithmic regularity.” Clay’s not much of a reader (his favorite work is a fantasy trilogy he read in sixth grade called The Dragon-Song Chronicle), but it’s not long before his curiosity gets the best of him. What he finds sends him off on a modern-day Encyclopedia Brown–meets–Harry Potter adventure quest. With the help of a pretty Google engineer named Kat, Clay puts new media innovations to the task of uncovering the secrets of a 15th-century publisher with a cult following. Font licensing, data visualization, museum artifact catalogues, and book scanners feature prominently in a plot that barrels forward with adolescent earnestness and an abiding confidence in the interconnectivity of knowledge systems. What place does the printed word have in a digital future? Clay’s multimedia whirl offers an upbeat answer. In the end, what the novel lacks in literary heft it makes up for with humor, pluck, and a good-natured faith in the enduring cross-platform reach of friendship and diligent work. As one wizened figure in The Dragon-Song Chronicle puts it, “Magic is not the only power in this world.”

Familiar: A Novel By J. Robert Lennon A suburban mother and wife finds herself trapped in a parallel version of her own life.

“I need you to tell me our story,” Elisa says to her husband. She recently went on a brief trip—was it a visit to see her dead son’s grave or to attend a work conference? But when she returns home to upstate New York, she finds the components of her life inexplicably altered. Somewhere along the highway, her existence shifted. Her body feels heavier. Her home and yard look neater. Her husband is more attentive; their marriage seems closer. Most perplexingly, the son she buried as a teenager now is alive and well, designing video games in California, but not speaking to her. Trapped in this strange, parallel version of her life, there’s no graceful way for Elisa to mask that she has no idea who she is. Has she had a nervous breakdown? Or fallen victim to the mischief of a multiverse? Lennon has created a fascinating conundrum for his protagonist, but he doesn’t let the messy time-and-space quandaries of Elisa’s situation distract from the human drama. Most of the novel focuses on the endlessly awkward fallout from being lost in one’s own life. Elisa hides in her university office until she can piece together what she does for a living. She sneaks around her house and Googles her children to try to put together a narrative of her home life. She reintroduces herself to the man she was having an affair with in her other life just to see what will happen. She battles the shrink she and her husband see for couple’s therapy. “This is not my life,” she tells him. But then whose life is it? Familiar is a mind-bending book, a carefully drawn portrait of domestic life and existential dislocation too sharp and strange to be unbelievable.

Do the Movies Have a Future? By David Denby Pressures on the moviemaking industry worry a New Yorker film critic.

New Yorker film critic David Denby looks back on a decade worth of movie reviews and ahead to the future of the industry in this airtight, if frequently overserious, new compilation. Denby’s writing has depth of erudition and flashes of clear insight, but insuppressibly professorial instincts strain his work. The most eye-opening essay is one of the collection’s last, a meditation not on any particular movie but on the life and work of critic Pauline Kael, a figure whose name is evoked frequently in this volume. Here, it finally becomes clear why. It was Kael who first got Denby into the film-criticism biz, recommending the young “Paulette” for his first movie-reviewing job at The Atlantic Monthly. Two years later, she told him she’d realized she was wrong about his talents. “You should do something else,” she said. Denby, of course, did not take her advice, but he did end up taking over her job, becoming The New Yorker’s film critic several years after Kael retired from the position. In his reflections on her life and work, he praises the boldness and originality of her best writing, but also charts her descent into idiosyncrasy. “Advocacy, even prophecy—that’s what good critics, in inspired moments, have provided, rousing the public to the aesthetic, moral, and ideological value of a new group of filmmakers,” Denby writes. Kael, in his accounting, both succeeded and failed at this. Someday, a successor to Denby will perhaps deliver a similarly knowing assessment of his work.

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments. By Alex Witchel As her mother succumbs to dementia, a daughter uses family cooking recipes to cope with the loss.

As a girl growing up in Passiac, N.J., New York Times Magazine staff writer Alex Witchel fought with her distant and hard-to-please father, but idolized her mother. Her mother’s Ph.D. and full-time job made her an oddity among her suburban counterparts, but Witchel remembers her as no less attentive or loving for her professional responsibilities. She still found time to spend hours coloring with her daughter and, later, play checkers and chess, stop at the candy store between errands, and take her daughter shopping. In her teenage years, Witchel became her mother’s No. 1 assistant and ally; through the ups and downs of launching a career and the heartache of a broken engagement, it was her mother’s support that Witchel relied on in adulthood, too. So her mother’s rapid cognitive deterioration after a series of strokes came as a deep blow. At first, Witchel shuffled her mother from doctor to doctor, adjusting her medication and waiting for her to recover. Later, she realized her mother wasn’t going to get better. “As my mother began the tortuous process of disappearing in plain sight, I retreated to my kitchen,” she writes, “trying to reclaim her at the stove.” It’s not the first time recipes have been used to unite mother and daughter, connect with the past, or ease grief. Still, the formula works. Whenever the narrative seems about to collapse into self-pity, a chapter break punctuated with a recipe pulls it back. The recipes are simple family classics. With their invocations of old-time staples like Del Monte tomato sauce and Lawry’s seasoned salt, they’re humble reminders of the many small acts of care that hold a family together. On the page, they stand as incantations.