This week, evil teenagers, bad teeth, and a girl born with wings.
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, trans. from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf) - Although it’s identified as a novel, this searing narrative from Israeli writer Grossman is not cast in traditional form. A mixture of free-verse, prose, and stage directions, it’s a searching cri de coeur—an impassioned exploration of existential questions about life and death. The precision and sensory depth of Grossman’s language renders this unconventional work an unforgettable and magnificent document of suffering.
Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke (Harper) - An unknown horror hovers just out of reach in this gripping psychological thriller from Kasischke. One snowy Christmas morning in a Detroit suburb, Holly Judge and her 15-year-old daughter, Tatiana, prepare for the holiday while her husband, Eric Clare, drives to the airport to fetch his aging parents. The day reminds Holly of a Christmas 13 years earlier, when she and Eric traveled to Siberia to adopt Tatiana, who was then two years old. Holly is now convinced that Tatiana is not the child they first saw. "Something had followed them home from Russia," becomes Holly's mantra, as she blames Tatiana for her stalled writing career and general malaise. Is Tatiana evil or a typical sullen teenager?
Bad Teeth by Dustin Long (Little A/New Harvest) - Long’s second novel is a literary mash-up that is both a send-up of modern academic life and a heartfelt novel of loves lost and purposes vainly sought. Along the way, four lost souls briefly collide with painful breakups, a countercultural social movement called SOFA, and a series of revelatory dental calamities. Through four alliterative cities—Brooklyn; Bloomington, Ind.; Berkley, Calif.; and Bakersfield, Calif.—the characters are nominally united by a translator named Judas, whose quest to locate a mysterious Tibetan novelist provides the crux of the plot. This is a wondrous, funny, and philosophical novel.
Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems by J.D. McClatchy (Knopf) - “You who read this too will die./ None loved his life as much as I,” we read early in this big, sometimes stark, sometimes surprising new volume, the first U.S. selected and seventh volume of poems from the urbane, serious poet, editor, critic, and librettist. Certainly it confirms his place in a line of deft writers adroit with inherited forms, with complex sentences, with modern love (especially same-sex love): W.H. Auden and James Merrill, Ovid and Horace, Anthony Hecht, and Elizabeth Bishop receive homage direct and indirect.
Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood by James McMullan (Algonquin Young Readers) - The grandchild of missionaries and the son of extroverted socialites, illustrator McMullan was forced to leave China when WWII started and the Japanese occupied the country. His life became an oxymoron: always civilized, perpetually disrupted. From Vancouver to India, from public school to boarding school, McMullan writes of his struggles with bullying, uncertainty about his father’s fate back in China, but most of all with the knowledge that he could never live up to his father’s expectations.
The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson (Scribner) - The atomic age arrived with a bang in 1945, terrifying the world with the threat of nuclear holocaust while offering the possibility of a cheap source of energy. Yet neither scenario followed and the era petered out with the century’s end, as the digital age was ushered in. Nelson writes a wonderfully detailed, anecdote-filled account of atomic energy, from Wilhelm Roentgen’s 1895 discovery of radiation to the ongoing hangover of the Fukushima disaster. Roentgen’s fateful discovery opens this account and is followed in turn by four more geniuses—Pierre and Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—as well as the colleagues who helped them tease out details of a hitherto unknown but spectacular source of energy.
On Reading The Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw (Penguin) - John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel of Depression-era migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl retains much of its power thanks to a continued relevance, which Shillinglaw eloquently details. Published in connection with the 75th-anniversary edition of The Grapes of Wrath, Shillinglaw’s book will make readers already familiar with the book want to assess it afresh. Those who have never dipped into this American classic will find the author, a Steinbeck scholar, a scintillating guide. Shillinglaw explores the novel’s layers of meaning, richly mining cultural context, history, and social thought, as well as Steinbeck’s own background, work process, and politics. The captivating result resembles an extended college lecture series, appealingly combining personal reflections and a conversational tone with accessible scholarship.
The Land of Steady Habits by Ted Thompson (Little, Brown) - Late-life divorce is the subject of Thompson’s acutely written first novel. Approaching retirement age, Anders Hill is recently divorced from his wife, Helene. They have two adult children, who don’t seem especially fond of their father, especially the troubled younger one, Preston, who has yet to find himself. But as lost as Preston is, he is still in much better condition than Charlie, the substance-abusing, preppy son of Helene’s best friends who inexplicably turns to Anders for support, this at a time when Anders is having difficulty supporting himself, both financially and spiritually. Things become even more complicated when Anders finds out that Helene is living in his old house with a new lover, Donny, a mutual friend from their college days.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (Candlewick) - Walton debuts with an entrancing and sumptuously written multigenerational novel wrapped in the language of fable, magical realism, and local legend. Ostensibly about a 16-year-old born with wings, the novel is also a rich retelling of Ava Lavender's family history, including her stalwart grandmother Emilienne's journey from adolescence in rural France and 1920s Manhattan to a hardscrabble life as a widowed baker in Seattle; and Ava's mother Viviane's unrequited obsession with a childhood love and the rearing of her children. Halfway in, Ava's story moves front and center, as she longs to leave the safety of her home, sneaks out with her friend Cardigan, and begins to fall for Cardigan's brother, Rowe.