This week, 2014 gets a strong start with Chang-Rae Lee, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Gary Shteyngart. Plus: a book on a life spent reading.
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani (Penguin) - Lambent prose lifts this offbeat crime novel from PEN/Hemingway Award–winner Abani, who effortlessly captures the essence of Sin City: “Here in Vegas the glamour beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” Two years after “dead homeless men had begun appearing in dumps of ten,” the body dumps resume. Las Vegas PD’s Detective Salazar gets a promising, if bizarre lead, when a park ranger discovers conjoined twins, who call themselves Fire and Water, near the scene of the abandoned corpses
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond (Candlewick) - A boy named Billy Dean—born at the very moment terrorists blew up his town, starting World War III—narrates this mesmerizing post-apocalyptic tale from Carnegie- and Printz-winner Almond. Written in a difficult Geordie dialect, further complicated by Billy's phonetic spellings, the novel speaks feelingly to the love between parent and child, as well as the harm parents can do.
The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking) - As in Speak, Anderson provides a riveting study of a psychologically scarred teenager, peeling back layers of internal defenses to reveal a girl’s deepest wounds. Her heroine, 17-year-old Hayley, is no stranger to loss. Her mother died when she was small, and she was later abandoned by her father’s alcoholic girlfriend. Now the only family Hayley has left is her father, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, whose horrific flashbacks have brought chaos into their lives. After traveling the country in a “dented eighteen-wheeler,” the two of them have settled down in her father’s hometown. Hayley feels like an outsider at a high school populated by “zombies,” and, at home, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that her father is getting better.
Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll, trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Graywolf) - Finsland, a region of southern Norway, falls prey to a serial arsonist in Heivoll’s first English-language novel, which reads like a top-tier crime story. The narrative alternates between accounts of the crimes and the autobiographical entries of a young man named Gaute Heivoll, born around the time of the first fires and coming of age in their shadow. The arson story is based on a real Norwegian crime spree, further obscuring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction within the novel.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead) - Lee's (The Surrendered) latest novel is set in a dystopic future world in which the cities of Detroit and Baltimore are now facilities, called B-Mor and D-Troy by their residents, all of whom are of Asian descent. These city dwellers spend their lives in happy serfdom, working day jobs to produce goods (mostly food) for the richer Charter communities. But when Fan, an unassuming 16-year-old with a talent for diving, abandons B-Mor in search of her vanished boyfriend, Reg, the fabric of orderly B-Mor begins to fray.
Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - In this elegantly meandering narrative, critic and editor Lesser, founder of the Threepenny Review, takes us through her expansive reading life. This is not so much a memoir of reading as it is about the craft of literature—the merits of both grandeur and intimacy, the double-edged sword of novelty, the ways character and plot are inextricably linked. Lesser’s pleasure comes through in erudite, beautiful passages on the authors (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henry James, Henning Mankell, and many others) and books she loves, as well as plays, poems, and essays.
Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies (Doubleday) - Depicted as the deathbed autobiography of Arabella Godwin, aka Belle Cora, the story begins with Arabella’s childhood in 1830s Manhattan. When her parents die, her grandparents send her and her younger brother, Lewis, to an aunt’s farm in New York, where she meets her cousin Agnes, who becomes her lifelong enemy. As they grow up, they vie for the attention of Jeptha Talbot, and Arabella succeeds in securing an engagement to him, but Agnes’s lies force the two apart before they are married. Heartbroken, Belle braves one terrible hardship after another, finally ending up in New York.
Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart (Random) - One afternoon in 1996, a book titled St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars becomes Shteyngart's madeleine, carrying him back in time and memory to his childhood in St. Petersburg and launching him on a career of writing about the past in his novels. In his typical laugh-aloud approach, the acclaimed novelist carries us with him on his journey, from his birth in Leningrad and his decision to become a writer at age five to his immigration to America and his family's settling in New York City in 1979.
We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s by D.F. Swaab, trans. from the Dutch by Jane Hedley-Prole (Spiegel & Grau) - How the brain works is one of modern science’s great questions, and Dutch neurobiologist Swaab, in sharing his 45 years of collected wisdom, reveals the organ as a living being in and of itself. It’s a fascinating survey and though Swaab embraces the impossibility of arriving at scientific conclusions, he never lacks for carefully selected information. Broadly speaking, the book is organized chronologically, examining the brain from birth into adolescence, through adulthood and, finally, to death.
Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark (Knopf) - Theoretical physicist Tegmark takes readers on an illuminating trip through cutting edge cosmology to one of the strangest ideas in a field overflowing with them: that our universe isn’t just described by math, it may actually be made out of it. Tegmark’s writing is lucid, enthusiastic, and outright entertaining, a thoroughly accessible discussion leavened with anecdotes and the pure joy of a scientist at work.