This week, a delightfully unlikable narrator, Emma Donoghue's latest, and the most dangerous man in America.
They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon) - The voice of this third book from Bibbins (The Dance of No Hard Feelings) is marked and numbed by the onslaught of American media and politics that saturate the Internet, television, radio, and smartphone: “the way things are going, children/ will have to upgrade to more amusing.” Much like advertisements or news stories vying for viewer’s attention, the book intentionally overwhelms, eschewing sections; the author instead differentiates the poems by repetition, creating a sort of echo chamber, similar to the way viral information cycles through social media platforms. In one of his six deliciously vicious “Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine” poems, he writes, “O heavenly/ flogger you should be watching me/ on cable right now.”
The Last Forever by Deb Caletti (S&S/Simon Pulse) - After a trying bout with cancer, Tess’s mother has died, but she’s left behind a one-of-a-kind pixiebell plant. “My mother vowed that the last pixiebell would never die on her watch, and now that I have it, it isn’t going to die on mine, either,” Tess vows. When her impulsive, pot-smoking, less-than-dependable father takes her on an extended road trip to the Grand Canyon, Tess brings the plant with her, but keeping it alive during their journey through the desert is a struggle. Unexpectedly, Tess’s father brings her to the home of his mother, an artist Tess barely remembers. Tess is in for some life-changing lessons about old family grudges and secrets held by new acquaintances, including a boy who makes it his mission to help Tess save the withering pixiebell, and wins her heart in the process.
Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland (Blue Rider) - Raymond Gunt, the narrator of Coupland’s latest, is an unemployed cameraman and a horrible human being. He goes begging to his ex-wife Fiona, owner of a West London casting agency. Fi offers him work on the American reality program Survival, and despite his suspicion that she’s just trying to embarrass him, Raymond accepts, after which he recruits local homeless man Neal to be his assistant/slave for the shoot. So begins Raymond’s vile, tirade-laced adventure to Kiribati, a remote island in the Pacific and the location of the shoot. Coupland skewers a pop world’s growing insensibilities, and his protagonist is a charming villain whom readers will likely root for, even as he’s insulting them.
The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana by Tony Dokoupil (Doubleday) - NBC News senior writer Dokoupil offers a gripping examination of his longtime marijuana-dealing father, as well as a researched look at the evolution of American narcotics laws. In the early 1970s, Dokoupil’s father, also named Tony, dropped out of graduate school to deal marijuana. The charismatic “Old Man” was quickly able to make the necessary connections and, with support from a woman he married, rose to a position of power on the East Coast drug circuit, eventually setting up base in Miami. According to Dokoupil, who grew up in 1980s Miami, his father’s constant need for excitement and hedonistic tendencies coupled with an ever-changing drug market led to his eventual downfall.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown) - Donoghue’s first literary crime novel is a departure from her bestselling Room, but it’s just as dark and just as gripping as the latter. Based on the circumstances surrounding the grizzly real-life murder of Jenny Bonnet, a law-flouting, pants-wearing frog catcher who lived in San Francisco in the mid-1870s, this investigation into who pulled the trigger is told in episodic flashbacks from the point of view of Blanche Beunon. Blanche is a raunchy, self-absorbed burlesque dancer and French émigré who befriended the alluring Bonnet and was with her on the night she was killed. Also woven into the plot is Blanche’s sordid relationship with Albert Deneve, an ex–tightrope walker, and his minion Ernest, who may have had a hand in the murder while swindling Blanche out of house, home, and one-year-old baby. Donoghue’s signature talent for setting tone and mood elevates the book from common cliffhanger to a true chef d’oeuvre.
John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster) - Still larger than life years after his death, John Wayne elevated the western to a new level and created a legendary screen persona defined by honesty, courage, and character. Drawing deeply on interviews with family and friends, acclaimed biographer Eyman colorfully chronicles Wayne’s life and work from his birth in Winterset, Iowa—where Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907—and his childhood and youth in Glendale, Calif., to his college days at USC, where he was a football standout until an injury sidelined him, and his slow rise to stardom, his marriages, and his enduring screen presence.
The 26-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths, illus. by Terry Denton (Feiwel and Friends) - Twice the treehouse, twice the fun? You bet. Griffiths and Denton follow the uproarious The 13-Story Treehouse with another cartoon-laden carnival of slapstick and self-referential humor—this time, with pirates. It isn’t just best buddies Andy and Terry’s treehouse that’s grown: this book is about 100 pages longer than its predecessor, extra space that lets Griffiths and Denton devote six pages to the 78 flavors of ice cream at the treehouse’s ice-cream parlor, more than 20 pages to a pirate-themed nursery rhyme, and dozens more to the stories-within-the-story that Andy, Terry, their friend Jill, and the dread pirate Captain Woodenhead recount.
The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf) - Novelist Jamison’s (The Gin Closet) first collection of essays, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, is a heady and unsparing examination of pain and how it allows us to understand others, and ourselves. Whether she’s playacting symptoms for medical students as a medical actor, learning about the controversial Morgellons disease (delusional parasitosis), or following ultramarathoners through the rugged Tennessee mountains, Jamison is ever-probing and always sensitive. Reporting is never the point; instead, her observations of people, reality TV, music, film, and literature serve as a starting point for unconventional metaphysical inquiries into poverty tourism, prison time, random acts of violence, abortion, HBO’s Girls, bad romance, and stereotypes of the damaged woman artist.
The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth) - The latest from author and journalist Osborne (The Forgiven) is a searing portrait of addiction and despair set in the glittering world of Macau’s casinos. “Lord Doyle,” as he’s known to the other gamblers, is an English lawyer who has embezzled from a client and fled to Asia. Doyle spends his days and nights playing baccarat, which he calls “a game of ecstasy and doom.” At the tables he drinks fine wine, handles his cards wearing kid gloves, and slowly but surely loses. Doyle’s descriptions of the tables, the players, and the game’s siren allure are by turns touching, acid, and depressing. A fellow gamer has eyes that reveal “worlds of private pain.” A particularly garish casino inspires Doyle to muse, “There is something in kitsch that reminds you there is more to being alive than being alive.” But Doyle’s jaundiced eye barely masks his monstrous compulsion; indeed, the novel’s energetic portrait of the highs and lows of a gambler’s fortunes are as good as anything in the literature of addiction.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur by Mark Perry (Basic) - Relying on personal accounts, letters, diaries, and interviews, Perry provocatively reinterprets the volatile relationship between F.D.R. and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Calls for “a man on a prancing steed” were widespread during the tumultuous Depression; the obvious candidate was then army chief of staff MacArthur. Angling to claim the White House, F.D.R. desired to “tame” this man of considerable abilities and make him “useful to us.” For 15 years he succeeded, making optimal use of “the most dangerous man in America” by channeling MacArthur’s ego and talents instead of opposing him outright.
West of the Moon by Margi Preus (Abrams/Amulet) - Inspired by a few lines from her immigrant great-great grandmother's diary, Newbery Honor author Preus (Heart of a Samurai) spins the sometimes harrowing tale of Astri, a 13-year-old Norwegian girl sold into hard labor by her greedy aunt. With a dead mother, a father in America, an imperiled younger sister, and the foreboding goat-keeper who has bought her, Astri is like a girl out of a fairy tale, and the native folktales that Preus weaves through the narrative serve as guides, lessons, and inspiration for her.
Sekret by Lindsay Smith (Roaring Brook) - In this smart and fresh supernatural take on the spy novel, it’s 1963, and the Soviet Union and United States are deep into the Cold War, with spycraft a necessary trade on both sides. Yulia Andreevna Chernina, 17, has the unfortunate luck of getting scooped up by the psychic branch of the KGB for her ability to “read” the past when she touches an object. She is quickly swept into a world of Soviet spies, imprisoned in a house with other similarly gifted young men and women, all conscripted to unearth top-secret information from the Americans.
The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker (Wave) - This self-described “woefully feminine” collection from Zucker (Museum of Accidents) is marked by a frayed, neurotic humanism and composed with thrilling deftness and control. Split into two “books,” the opening section is called “Fables,” and is composed of prose poems identified by minimalist headers and written in the third person. The language here edges toward pure prose, making the works disarmingly accessible and unflinching in their narrations of the struggles of married life and the rhythms of misunderstanding: “Her scrunched wet face made him feel helpless and feeling helpless made him angry and his anger made him mean.” Zucker’s small, sharp scenes sing with a magnetic tension and disappointment.