I recently watched the first season of Justified, and the pilot episode ends with U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens asking his ex-wife if he's an angry man. She turns to Raylan and says that he's the angriest man she has ever known. I kept thinking about this line throughout The Woman Upstairs, which opens with 42-year-old third-grade teacher Nora Eldridge asking, "How angry am I? You don't want to know." As it turns out, hell hath no fury like a schoolteacher. Nora is ready for a change, and she's determined to take what she wants. But it's what she wants that’s questionable.
Nora develops an infatuation with a bullied student, Reza, and his mother Sirena, an aspiring artist. What begins as friendship turns into an obsession. "Don't all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury." Nora is very much in touch with her fury and out of touch with everything else. She's disgusted by everything around her, yet constantly making excuses for herself. The lack of self-awareness becomes the magnet that pulls the reader along as Nora attempts to insert herself in Reza and Sirena's life.
Ursula Todd has many pasts and many futures. Every time she dies, Ursula starts back at the beginning of her life, able to proceed differently the next time (think Groundhog Day meets The Butterfly Effect). Atkinson doesn't spend much time dwelling on the whys of the cosmic trappings of her novel and neither does Ursula, who is barely aware that this is happening to her, except through a sense of chilling déjà vu that causes her to avoid repeating the same tragedies. Accept the metaphysics as a given, because Atkinson isn’t interested in explaining them. Instead, she wants to explore the bigger questions surrounding Ursula's many lives: How does one life affect others? What is the value of a life when you have many of them?
These themes are explored on different scales, and Life After Life leaps back and forth in time, and between alternate histories. It can be a little disorienting at first, but Atkinson gives us just enough to go on that the narrative threads can be followed. We see how Ursula's actions affect her own life and the lives of her friends and family. Toward the end of Life After Life, Kate Atkinson writes, "Sometimes it was harder to change the past than the future."
Wave opens immediately as the tsunami hits on Boxing Day in 2004. Sonali Deraniyagala is with her family, vacationing in Yala, a park on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. From their hotel room, Deraniyagala can see the wave approaching, and, from a distant, it seems like nothing. “It didn’t seem that remarkable. Or alarming,” she writes. “It was only the white curl of a big wave.”
Moments later, after a failed escape in the back of a jeep, Deraniyagala loses everything — her parents, her husband, her two sons — in the sudden and brutal force of the tsunami. It is with the same unforgiving ferocity that Wave becomes a brave and shattering memoir of survival.
A friend recently told me that I didn't recommend enough novels in this column, which I thought was a little crazy, because the majority of my suggestions skew heavily toward fiction. "No," he said, "I want to read a NOVEL." I told him saying "novel" more loudly didn't really clarify his point.
But after thinking about it, I believe what he was looking for was a novel in the classic sense — something lengthy and ambitious, something that attempts to be A Great Work of American Fiction. So to anyone who feels the same way, I wholeheartedly recommend Stuart Nadler's sweeping, decade-spanning debut novel, Wise Men. It's the sort of patiently paced story you can settle into, steeped in rich characters and historical context.
My favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel is Timequake, in which a cosmic ripple forces everyone on Earth to relive the past decade of their lives but are unable to change any of their actions. It's part Vonnegut autobiography, part exploration of determinism: People re-experience their greatest mistakes and the death of loved ones. The Reenactments puts memoirist Nick Flynn in a similar position.
Flynn has penned two books, one about his alcoholic father (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) and one about his mother's suicide (The Ticking Is the Bomb), which in 2012 were combined into a single film adaptation called Being Flynn. The Reenactments collects Nick Flynn's experience penning the script and working on set. This isn't a Hollywood behind-the-scenes sort of affair as much as it is a tale of Flynn coming to terms with seeing the hardest moments of his life staged and filmed. Flynn plays with a lot of ideas here: conflicts of self, consciousness, and memory are evoked through his interactions with the film's director, Paul Weitz, and the actors in the film. There's a great scene where Robert De Niro, who plays Flynn's father, meets Flynn's real-life alcoholic father in Boston, as well as some sticky interactions with Paul Dano, who plays Flynn himself. (Dano is equally poetic: In an e-mail to Flynn, he asks "Where are your scars?")
For our final Books of the Month feature of 2012, we'll be spotlighting some notable releases we may have missed this year.
Threats, by Amelia Gray
Threats bears a lot of similarities to Gillian Flynn’s surprise blockbuster thriller Gone Girl (which I’d also recommended — and am about to spoil, slightly). Both are about husbands trying to understand how their wives died. The central question in Gone Girl is whether she’s really dead; in Threats, though, it's about how sane one can stay when coping with grief. After his wife Franny dies, David begins to find bizarre notes hidden around his home. For example:
YOUR FATE IS SEALED WITH GLUE I HAVE BOILED IN A VAT. I SLOPPED IT ON AN ENVELOPE AND MAILED IT TO YOUR MOTHER’S WOMB.
Threats is a gritty psychological mess where hallucinations bleed into reality. The stream-of-consciousness prose can be inaccessible and dense in places, but Threats is a novel meant more to be experienced than fully understood. It’s less of a page-turner than Gone Girl, but for the patient reader, Gray’s debut novel is full of literary trickery, grotesque images, and an unsettling sense of humor and horror.
Espionage, betrayal, scandal — only Ian McEwan could put these things in a novel and make them kind of slow. But Sweet Tooth, the author’s 14th book, is a pensive, literary spy novel. I should clarify: It features spies talking about literature during the Cold War.
“Sweet Tooth” is the code name for an MI5 outfit with the goal of funding artists all over the world whose political opinions fall in line with those of the British government. Serena Frome is a spunky recent Cambridge grad whose presence at the agency can best be described as “disruptive” when she falls for Sweet Tooth–endowed author Tom Healey. She’s in love with Tom’s fiction, and since her identity is undercover, Tom is unknowingly in love with Serena’s fiction as well.
After 30 years of marriage, Richard Middlestein leaves his wife Edie, a lawyer whose lifelong love of food has slowly but surely pushed her weight above 350 pounds. This is the setup for The Middlesteins, an honest, hilarious portrait of a fractured Jewish family in the Midwest. Throughout September, I'd recommended the book to friends as a funnier, shorter Jonathan Franzen novel. I said this to three or four people before someone pointed out that the cover has a blurb by Franzen on it. (It does not say "a funnier, shorter version of my work.")
In college, I had a creative writing professor who claimed Junot Díaz had read 100 short-story collections before he penned a single word of his first book of stories, Drown. That professor (or maybe it was a friend of hers) later met Díaz and asked him if that was true. It turned out to be false. He had actually read 400 books of short stories.
Junot Díaz became a literary icon when he authored the universally revered The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This might be a crude parallel, but much in the way Louis C.K. is a comic’s comic, Díaz is a fiction writer’s writer. He’s gifted, well read, and eschews pressures to be commercially successful. A great way to not sell so many books: follow up a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel with a collection of linked short stories about, of all things, a boy falling in love. (From an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Díaz says, “I know for a fact that — it’s just the way our biases work now in the industry of literature, but certainly a short story collection does not receive the same kind of attention as a novel.”)
For Pepper, what should be a 72-hour stay at the New Hyde Hospital's psych ward turns into a prolonged, drug-induced incarceration. But as a troublemaker with a cynical edge, the mental institution gives Pepper the chance to confront his personal demons. And also a real demon. New Hyde, it turns out, is haunted by the devil.
The premise is silly, but The Devil in Silver is a smart, savvy piece of literary horror. It's ambitious without being self-serious, and it's also appropriately spooky when it wants to be. Victor LaValle became a critical darling with his last novel, Big Machine, which dealt with themes of race and class. The Devil in Silver follows suit, its characters the victims of a cruel and unsympathetic system.
Cheryl Strayed will be best known for her memoir Wild, released earlier this year and, last month, featured as the first pick of Oprah's relaunched book club. But this month, Strayed has an equally terrific book out, Tiny Beautiful Things, which collects the best pieces from her anonymous advice column, "Dear Sugar."
"Dear Sugar" was originally written by Steve Almond on the daring (and sometimes curmudgeonly) literary site The Rumpus, but it wasn't until Strayed took the reins that "Dear Sugar" found its dedicated Internet following. In the introduction of Tiny Beautiful Things, Almond identifies Strayed's gift for "radical empathy," the way she relates the strangest, darkest stories from her life to understand and console her pained readers.
The Age of Miracles is about the end of the world, both in a macro and micro sense. The Earth's rotation begins to slow, stretching the length of days and nights and warping the planet's gravity. But the potential of astronomical apocalypse mostly sets the stage for a personal one. For 11-year-old Julia, the familiarity of her world is dissolving with the sudden arrival of adolescence, the complications of middle school friendships, and the decaying of her parents' marriage. These things are exacerbated by the novel's science fiction, but the conflicts remain grounded in a very human reality.
Billy Lynn takes place over the course of one football game, featuring a halftime show to honor Bravo Squad, whose bravery in Iraq was captured on tape by an embedded Fox News team. But while the members of Bravo are constantly being hailed as heroes, it’s clear that they are merely puppets. President Bush has sent the squadron on a two-week “Victory Tour” as a morale and PR booster for the war, and the quiet secret that no one outside of the unit seems to realize is that they’re going back to Iraq immediately afterward. People want to shake their hands, pat them on the back, but no one is really interested in the soldiers themselves.
Right now, the most popular non-Hunger Games book series in the country is Fifty Shades of Grey, a trilogy of explicit erotic novels that features lots of dominance and submission. The series started humbly self-published and was recently acquired for seven figures by Random House, which thinks it has the potential to become the next The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And if sales sustain themselves, they could be right.
The Vanishers is a clever, metaphysical detective story about a young psychic named Julia who is haunted by the death of her mother. But The Vanishers is anything but hard-boiled — it's a funny, affecting novel about girls being really passive-aggressive to one another.
If you think about it, using psychic powers on someone is the most aggressive form of passive-aggression imaginable. Julia is the victim of a “psychic attack” from her envious mentor, Madame Ackermann, which keeps her ill and cripples her astral powers, forcing her to re-live her mother's suicide over and over. (Naturally, these attacks take the form of e-mail.) To get revenge, Julia teams up with Ackermann's rival scholar in the world of occult academia, while tracking down a missing avant-garde film director who may have some connection to Julia's dead mother.