This week, the best dystopian story in some time, a dinner that goes horribly wrong, and what it's like to be stalked. Plus: the latest from Karen Russell.
Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America by Peter Andreas (Oxford Univ.) - In this captivating new history, Andreas documents smuggling in America from the colonial “golden age of illicit trade” through the Industrial Revolution and on into the current “war on drugs.” A valuable and entertaining read for historians and policymakers.
The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England by John Cooper (Pegasus) - Cooper’s biography of Elizabethan spymaster Francis Walsingham is as thrilling and suspenseful as any modern spy novel. This engaging narrative makes it clear how much England’s transformation into a nation-state during the 16th century had to do with Walsingham’s intelligence operations.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, illus. by Julian Crouch (Candlewick) - Just when it seems that there’s nothing new under the dystopian sun, Gardner (The Red Necklace) produces an original and unforgettable novel about a boy in a totalitarian society who risks everything in the name of friendship. Standish Treadwell narrates fast-paced chapters, illustrated with flipbook-style images of rats, flies, and maggots: creatures that represent the oppressive forces at work in the Motherland. Read our Q&A with Gardner.
The Dinner by Herman Koch, trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random/Hogarth) - This chilling novel starts out as a witty look at contemporary manners in the style of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage before turning into a take-no-prisoners psychological thriller. Read our Q&A with Koch.
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - When novelist and poet Lasdun began receiving deranged anti-Semitic electronic correspondence from a former student, he entered a “realm of stricken enchantment in which technology and... the primitive mind... converge[d] with the paranoias peculiar to our own age.” In this insightful, discursive memoir, Lasdun’s tale of being stalked and his mentally violent encounters with “Nasreen” are only part of the story.
Portrait Inside My Head: Essays by Phillip Lopate (Free Press) - Cultural critic Lopate traipses breezily through family life and literary, cultural, social, and political matters. Topics range from the adventures of parenting, his enduring love of baseball, and changing one’s mind about a movie to a thoughtful mediation on the conflict between city planner Robert Moses and city champion Jane Jacobs along with meditations on James Agee, Thomas Bernhard, and Allen Ginsberg.
This Is Running for Your Life: Essays by Michelle Orange (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - In this whip-smart, achingly funny collection, film critic Orange trains her lens on aging, self-image, and the ascendancy of the marketing demographic, among other puzzles of the Facebook generation. Other topics include the evolution of the “dream girl,” the romance of the tragedy-driven artist, and the unsettling birth of “neurocinema,” a market research technique based on MRI scans. Read our Q&A with Orange.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (Knopf) - There are only eight stories in Russell’s new collection, but as readers of Swamplandia! know, Russell doesn’t work small. She’s a world builder, and the stranger the better. Russell’s great gift—along with her antic imagination—who else would give us a barn full of ex-presidents reincarnated as horses?—is her ability to create whole landscapes and lifetimes of strangeness within the confines of a short story.
We Live in Water by Jess Walter (Harper) - Darkly funny, sneakily sad, these stories, mainly set in Spokane, Wash., are very, very good. Walter (Beautiful Ruins) writes—beautifully—about hard luck divorced dads, addicts, con artists, working men trying to keep things together, and a few zombies who’ve made the Seattle of the future look a lot like the Spokane of the present.
Pivot Point by Kasie West (HarperTeen) - Addie Coleman has an ability anyone would relish. She’s a Searcher who, when faced with a difficult choice, can foresee both outcomes before deciding which she’d rather live out. Since Addie’s parents have just announced they are divorcing and her father will be leaving their secret paranormal Compound, Addie must do her most important Search yet.
7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook (Fantagraphics) - Wojnarowicz’s impressionistic memoir is the story of his hustling on the streets of New York in the early 1970s and then, 20 years later, being stricken with AIDS in the face of a society reacting with a mixture of horror and indifference. The author’s prose is poetic, arriving with a light touch while delivering a heavy, dark, and understandably angry message. Take an in-depth look at the book.
Birds of the Air by David Yezzi (Carnegie-Mellon) - Sad and serious, attentive to meter and balance yet no slave to form, the dramatic monologues, rough laments, strict rhymes and accomplished syllabics in this third volume from Yezzi go far beyond expectations: it should impress not just those who follow “formal” poetry generally, but almost anyone who has an abiding love for the poetry of Robert Frost.