This week, literature's most important obscenity trial, a haunted jail, and what it means to be a woman writer.
The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex Bellos (S&S) - Channeling the spirit of Martin Gardner, the Guardian's math blogger Bellos reveals—and revels in—the pleasures of mathematics, which he has dubbed "the most playful of all intellectual disciplines." Numbers are so basic to our lives that we've even given them personalities, Bellos says. Even numbers seem female, odd numbers male, and across cultures we're fascinated by numbers that end in 1—just think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Levi's 501 jeans, or Kentucky Fried Chicken's 11 herbs and spices. Bello, a natural storyteller, moves smoothly from simple topics to those more complex. The tale of the ill-fated elliptical pool table leads to the shared secret of theater spotlights and the shape of planetary orbits. From there, we explore exponential growth and compound interest, the magic of imaginary numbers, and self-reproducing fractals. Bellos deftly shows readers why math is so important, and why it can be so much fun.
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham (Penguin Press) - In this exultant literary history and nonfiction debut, Harvard lecturer Birmingham recounts the remarkable publication saga of Ulysses, often considered the greatest novel of the 20th century. Even before its publication in 1922, Ulysses outraged government censors on both sides of the Atlantic, with its obscenities, masturbation, and adulterous sex. Even the bowdlerized excerpts published in the Little Review resulted in an obscenity trial for the journal’s editors. But a band of literary radicals and free speech activists—Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, Samuel Roth, Bennett Cerf, and Morris Ernst, among others—who were determined to see the book published in America, helped initiate the landmark 1933 obscenity case that set a precedent for First Amendment rights and cultural freedom.
Saints of New York by R.J. Ellory (Overlook) - NYPD homicide detective Frank Parrish, the hero of this meaty, beautifully written crime novel from British author Ellory (City of Lies), has screwed up every aspect of his life. In a recent attempt to play hostage negotiator, Parrish was unable to stop a 24-year-old thug from cutting his girlfriend’s throat, and then his own. Parrish has a bitter ex-wife, a married son he seldom sees, and a nursing student daughter with whom he frequently argues. He drinks too much, can’t follow police procedures, and resents his work-mandated psychotherapist. But he still knows how to penetrate a mystery. When someone puts a bullet in the head of petty thief Danny Lange and the strangled body of his 16-year-old sister, Rebecca, is later found in Danny’s apartment, Parrish gets on the case.
Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock (Viking) - Sixteen-year-old Starbird has grown up on a farm commune, living among the Free Family, a peaceful, free-loving community whose absentee founder, a man named EARTH, “translates” messages from the Cosmic Imagination for his devoted flock. Each member receives a “Calling,” and although Starbird doesn’t initially think much of hers—waiting tables at the Free Family Cafe in Seattle—after a perceived romantic betrayal, she leaves behind everything she’s known for the Outside World. Many unfamiliar experiences await her, including attending public high school, handling money, and finding romance with an “Outsider,” even as complicated questions arise about EARTH and the Free Family, challenging its future and testing Starbird’s faith.
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman (Grand Central) - Nonfiction writer Gilman parlays her craft into an outstanding fiction debut, which follows an abrasive, unscrupulous protagonist from the 1910s to the early 1980s. In 1913, within months of arriving in New York City from her native Russia, young Malka Bialystoker is injured by a horse belonging to street vendor Salvatore Dinello. Deserted by her unstable mother and shiftless father, Malka is taken in by the Dinello clan out of a sense of guilt. Coping with a now-deformed right leg, she sheds her Jewish heritage in favor of her adoptive family’s Italian ethnic identity, complete with a new name: Lillian Maria Dinello. The Dinellos never fully accept her, however, and after she has reached early adulthood, they pointedly exclude her from their fledgling ice cream business. In retaliation she, along with her new husband, Albert Dunkle, begins a rival company.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff (Philomel) - Half-Korean 10-year-old Albie is being forced to switch from his private New York City school to P.S. 183. His new school gives him more specialized attention, but it also means dodging a name-calling bully and making friends other than his buddy Erlan, whose family is starring in a reality TV show. Because of Albie’s academic struggles (especially in spelling and math), his mother hires Calista, a college art student, to tutor and spend time with him. Albie isn’t happy about these and other developments, and his matter-of-fact observations are often both humorous and poignant.
The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove (Viking) - In the alternate Earth of Grove’s thrilling, time-bending debut, first in the Mapmakers series, the world was sliced up, seemingly at random, by the Great Disruption of 1799 and reassembled with numerous present, prehistoric, and future “Ages” all connected. In New Occident, roughly the eastern third of the former United States, it’s now 1891, but to the north exists the Prehistoric Snows, and northern Africa is ruled by the ancient Pharaohs. Thirteen-year-old Sophia Tims is pulled into a web of intrigue when Shadrack, her famous “cartologer” uncle (half mapmaker and half magician), is kidnapped by religious zealots looking for the legendary “carta mayor, a hidden map that traces the memories of the whole world from the beginning of time to the present.”
The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson (HMH) – Hodgson conjures up scenes of Dickensian squalor and marries them to a crackerjack plot, in her impressive first novel, set in 1727. Tom Hawkins, the 25-year-old wastrel son of an English minister, has the misfortune to land in London’s hellish debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea Gaol. With his life and sanity at stake, Hawkins seizes a possibility for a reprieve. Shortly before his entry to the Marshalsea, the hanging death of another prisoner, Capt. John Roberts, was ruled a suicide. Roberts’s widow believes otherwise, and with reports of the captain’s ghost haunting the jail, the authorities hope that Hawkins will conduct an independent investigation that they can use to calm the inmates.
The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett (FSG) - Form follows, explores, and transforms function in this novel, originally written as an iPhone/iPad app and now being published, and holding its own, on the printed page. Short narratives—field reports, log entries, anecdotal memoirs—offer a jigsaw-puzzle oral history starting in the present (2011) and advancing into the future (2044), documenting the evolution of a disaster, as an increasing number of children fail to develop language, not due to physical or mental impairment, but due to indifference. Whether this indifference is the result of drugs, the environment, mindless innovation, or biological mutation (no one can be sure), for “silents,” language has no meaning. Readers are left with plenty to think about.
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager) - In a backwater Scandinavian community lucky enough to have survived the catastrophic transformations in Earth’s climate in the near future, Noria Kaitio dreams of becoming a tea master like her father and his forefathers before him. This dream is threatened when change comes to the village in the form of Commander Taro, a ruthless New Qian functionary who quickly discovers that the Kaitio’s unassuming tea house hides secrets worth killing for. Confronted with histories suppressed by the autocratic world government, and burdened with the guardianship of a hidden spring in a drought-plagued world, Noria considers bold action, but can she act before Taro’s noose closes around her neck?
Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury) - Author of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home offers a slim, nuanced autobiography that addresses Orwell’s timeless question of “Why I Write” from a woman’s perspective. Levy begins with a trip to Majorca on which she mysteriously packs one of her old notebooks, labeled “POLAND 1988”, not knowing why she has brought it with her. The incident prompts Levy to recall how she used Polish menus from the notebook in her acclaimed novel, “in which the cabin crew on LOT airlines had morphed into nurses from Odessa.” The memoir’s project becomes evident in Levy’s precise methods of showing how unrelated incidents from her life and experience become fodder, through the subconscious mind’s unknowable alchemy, for her fiction. The precise, visceral scenes soon give way to a more philosophical tone as Levy sets about to deconstruct and analyze what it means to be a woman writer, quoting such luminaries as Adrienne Rich and Marguerite Duras.
The Dog Who Could Fly: The Incredible True Story of a WWII Airman and the Four-Legged Hero Who Flew at His Side by Damien Lewis (Atria) - In this heartwarming and well-paced man-and-his-dog story, Lewis takes readers on a roller-coaster ride with as many ups and downs as a bombing mission. During WWII, Czech airman Robert Bozdech and his canine companion Antis strove to contribute to the war effort, first from France, then Great Britain. Together, the two set out on wartime adventures full of severe injuries, harrowing narrow escapes, and death-defying bravery, testing the limits of the bond between man and beast.
I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum (Touchstone) - In Maum’s debut novel, it’s 2002, and as English artist Richard Haddon’s reputation swells following his first solo exhibition in his adopted home of Paris, his marriage slowly crumbles. His wife, Anne, learns of his infidelity with his American mistress, Lisa; meanwhile, Lisa continues to send him unsolicited letters. Richard travels to London to deliver one of his paintings—The Blue Bear, a sentimental piece created while Anne was pregnant with their only child—but fears that the buyer might be Lisa. What follows is an honest, staggeringly realized journey: Richard and Anne struggle to define their marriage, while he attempts to capitalize on his newfound artistic success, proposing an installation piece critiquing the conflict in Iraq. Equally funny and touching, the novel strikes deep.
Adam by Ariel Schrag (Mariner) - The eponymous hero of Schrag’s frisky debut is an awkward, horny 17-year-old who, after a humiliating romantic failure, decides to spend the summer of 2006 in New York City with his older sister, Casey, who hasn’t come out yet as a lesbian to their parents. Eager to score with older women and shed his loser status, Adam moves into his sister’s Bushwick apartment, where she lives with her roommate June, who’s besotted with her, and a mysterious trust-fund baby, Ethan. Adam’s summer of love gets complicated, however, when he discovers that gender is not a simple matter in Casey’s circles. Then he meets Gillian, the beautiful redheaded girl of his dreams. Problem #1 is that she is a lesbian, problem #2 is that she thinks he’s a transgendered man.
Eyrie by Tim Winton (FSG) - Tom Keely, the 40-something central figure in Winton’s powerful ninth novel, is in the throes of a midlife crisis: once a well-known environmental activist, now he’s a “middle-class casualty,” sacked from his job and self-destructing, while the world crumbles around him . The setting is Freemantle, a port city near Perth, Australia (“Freo” in Aussie slang), Keely’s hometown. Freo, and Australia as a whole, are case studies in how greed and corruption at the government level, and crime and drug dealing at the community level, can tear the fabric of the a town. Keely finds a measure of salvation in Gemma Buck, a childhood friend now stocking shelves in a supermarket and taking care of her grandson Kai. The preternaturally innocent six-year-old boy brings Keely back from the brink, and the trio form an unlikely (but laudable) family.