The Barnes & Noble Review Tue, 21 Feb 2017 14:38:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 History of Wolves Mon, 20 Feb 2017 22:49:22 +0000

Not since the heyday of the Victorian novel, it seems, have sensitive young women been as sorely tested as in recent popular fiction. There is fourteen year-old Evie Boyd, for example, drifting into a Manson-like cult in Emma Cline’s The Girls, Abigail Cress and her classmates skirting disaster in Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, and now Madeline Furston, the teenage narrator in Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, wandering onto a stage that is set for tragedy. “Before Paul, I’d known just one person who’d gone from living to dead,” Madeline notes at the outset, recalling the four year-old child she was hired to mind when she was fourteen. We feel the first needle-prick of dread. Then the narrative returns to the beginning and to the doldrums of youth.

“My name was Madeline, but at school I was called Linda, or Commie, or Freak.” Linda – as she remains throughout the novel – is not only the child of post-hippie commune parents but also a child of nature, as much a part of the woods and lakes as any heroine in the nineteenth-century novels of Mary Webb. But this is northern Minnesota not misty England. “The twenty acres of land on the east side of Still Lake,” Linda declares, “This is what I knew…I knew the red and white pine on the hilltop, the quaking aspen and birch closer to shore.” Her walk home from the nearest road is “…twenty minutes through snow and sumac before the dogs heard me and started braying against their chains.” To the cabin with one window, “…rags in the casings. A mold-stained tarp flapped over our front door.” At school, Linda mostly observes — caustically (“the Karens, the cheerleaders”) and longingly (beautiful Lily Grierson from the reservation) — until her attention is held by a family moving into the house across the lake. Mother, father, little boy. “It was the worst part of winter, a waste of white in every direction, no place for little kids or city people,” Linda knows, “Beneath a foot of ice, beneath my boots, the walleye drifted…barely beating their hearts.”

When the father returns to his city job, Patra, the childlike mother, hires Linda as a babysitter for Paul and the novel takes shape around his small body and vivid personality. “He had four-going-on-five-year-old plans: visit Mars, get shoes with ties,” Linda observes, begrudgingly won over. In the same breath, however, she reveals that, “At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer probably was: right away.” It is the first of many intimations. And what lies ahead is indeed awful though hardly surprising; a frontispiece quote from Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church, tells us what to expect. Yet Fridlund keeps us in suspense not by widening the drama to create a serpentine whodunit but by tightening the narrative, restricting our vision to what Linda observes with her keen, clear eye. “The mucousy thickness” of lake water in summer; “The frayed vinyl booths” in the local diner; Paul’s father, Leo, “tucking a piece of graying hair behind his ear, like a girl;” Linda pushing Paul on a playground swing: “This what you want?” I asked. “I guess,” he said…Back and forth he went: I stood behind, watched his hood flap. Some sorrow shoved around in my chest, like a stick in wet sand, and so time passed.”

Fridlund’s economical sentences have a lulling, seductive rhythm that she breaks at critical moments, employing a single image, like a trapdoor, to drop us into the void. When Linda, for example, spies Patra putting Paul to bed: “I watched her uncoil his legs from his pants and put him in a diaper. His soft belly puckered beneath the plastic waistband.   I’d never seen him in a diaper before. I don’t know why that got to me, but up came a curl of saliva in my throat – something I didn’t expect, a liquid claw.” And later, on a trip to Duluth, when she happens on Leo and Patra in the middle of the night: “She looked so small on her knees on the floor….I might have interrupted them, if I hadn’t seen him push her head away, gently, the way you push an overly affectionate dog.”

Leo is a memorably pathetic tyrant just as Linda’s “inattentively industrious” mother is a wonderfully drawn New Age narcissist. But a frail child dominates this novel and his inevitable disappearance loosens both its suspense and its emotional hold. Linda’s adult life, though sharply drawn in alternating vignettes, seems oddly formless, which may be the point – she is adrift in the world – and her character loses coherence when she leaves Still Lake. Palpable to the final scene, however, is the “low rumble of fear” that Fridlund mercilessly sustains.


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Feminism’s Turning Point Thu, 16 Feb 2017 15:00:52 +0000

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published on February 19, 1963. Shots had been fired earlier, and fusillades followed, but Friedan’s book “pulled the trigger on history” (Alvin Toffler), scoring a direct and explosive hit on the belief that women should “desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity”:

For the first time in their history, women are becoming aware of an identity crisis in their own lives, a crisis which began many generations ago, has grown worse with each succeeding generation, and will not end until they, or their daughters, turn an unknown corner and make of themselves and their lives the new image that so many women now so desperately need. In a sense that goes beyond any one woman’s life, I think this is the crisis of women growing up — a turning point from an immaturity that has been called femininity to full human identity.

In her 2006 memoir, Life So Far, Friedan describes how the feminist movement grew quickly through the mid-sixties, especially after the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW) began to mobilize. If Friedan is right in thinking that “the women’s movement was and is the second chapter of the American Revolution,” its Boston Tea Party moment was in February 1967, when NOW took action against the sexist laws surrounding help-wanted ads — allowing airlines, for example, to use gender, age, and physique requirements in their ads to convey a “Coffee, Tea or Me?” image for stewardesses. “Looking back on it now,” recalls Friedan, “I marvel at our nerve”:

There were so few of us, but we organized simultaneous demonstrations at EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] offices all over the country and tipped off the television networks. In view of the cameras, we dumped newspapers all tied up in red ribbon tape at the feet of the government agents. I went with my bag of papers to see the head of the EEOC in New York and demanded that a hearing be held on the help-wanted ads and that the law be enforced on behalf of women. He thought we were cute and was utterly condescending, reacting to women speaking out as if he were hearing a dog talk.

In her Introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, Anna Quindlen notes that the book is still a worthwhile resource for “the incomplete rebuilding of the social landscape it helped to level.” Over the past half century, the leveling and the rebuilding have continued on multiple fronts, and with mixed results. In Teach a Woman to Fish, the prominent women’s advocate Ritu Sharma — she co-founded the influential Women Thrive Worldwide organization — presents numerous case studies demonstrating how gender equality has and has not improved in countries initially resistant to it. “Nothing fits me as well as a Victoria’s Secret bra,” begins the chapter “Two Cups of D,” Sharma’s investigation of employment conditions in several Sri Lankan lingerie factories which make those bras. Sharma describes how the factories have introduced principles and practices that have fundamentally improved and empowered the lives of female employees. But Sharma offers overwhelming evidence that much more needs to be done, and that the Western consumer must help do it:

There are thousands of people in corporations across America that spend every day worrying about what you think: of their products, of their ads, of their packaging, and on and on . . . So let’s whisper something new in corporate ears. If enough of us shoppers asked about how corporations treat women, take care of the environment, and protect human rights, I guarantee you that they will respond — and fast.

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Lincoln in the Bardo Mon, 13 Feb 2017 17:20:03 +0000

In his new book Lincoln in the Bardo—his first novel—the tricksy, unsettling, masterly short story writer George Saunders has taken a family tragedy—the death of an American President’s child—and set it at the center of a national tragedy: the Civil War. Around this dark double-hub he affixes a flutter of other characters from the period, more than a hundred of them, who (in a typically ingenious Saunders invention) are no longer living, but do not know it. Stubbornly clinging to “memories, complaints, desires,” and “raw life-force” they refuse to advance to whatever post-mortal realm may exist to receive more biddable natures. Homer or Dante might have called such unquiet souls “shades;” and in Tibetan Buddhism, the notional realm they inhabit, between this world and the next, is known as the “bardo,” hence the title.

For the purposes of Saunders’s novel, though, the “bardo” is the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, where the arrival of the President’s embalmed son stirs the resident shades to commotion. His presence in their midst animates them, motivates them, and sets them awhirl. Vibrant and multi-voiced, they fling shards of color like the leaves of a pinwheel in a gale. Rarely has a novel about the dead felt so thrillingly, achingly, alive.

The President in question, of course, is Abraham Lincoln; and the boy entombed at Oak Hill was his favorite child, Willie, the third of his four sons. Today, father and son occupy such a hallowed and familiar position in American history that it can be difficult to think of them as ever having been flesh and blood. If you visit the comfortable but unshowy house in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln and his wife and sons lived until 1861 (when they moved to the White House), you feel yourself in a gallery of sepia-tone portraits, not a place where a human family jostled, worked and played—even as you climb the creaking staircase they climbed, and peer into the playroom on the second floor, where the boys’ antique toys spill across the carpet. Saunders takes the portraits off the walls and sets them walking.

His novel begins in the brutal month of February of 1862; eleven months after the Lincolns moved to Washington D.C., ten months after the outbreak of the Civil War. As thousands of soldiers lay slain or maimed in the battle of Fort Donelsen, their bodies “heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top of two on top of three,” little Willie Lincoln was dying, probably from typhus, in his White House bedroom. On February 20, he succumbed to his disease, aged eleven. Lincoln needed all his strength and focus to hold the country together, but the shock of his son’s death unmoored him. “I never saw a man so bowed down with grief,” wrote one observer. Newspapers of the day reported that the President’s agony was so overwhelming that he returned to the crypt where the child was entombed, brought out his son’s body, and held it in his arms, unable to bear his loss. Meanwhile, the author writes, summoning the voice of an old-time chronicler, “The nation held its breath, hopeful the President could competently reassume the wheel of the ship of state.”

Saunders (who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago) first heard of Lincoln’s cemetery visitation during the Clinton administration, on a visit to Washington. In an interview printed in the novel’s end pages, he recalls, “As soon as I heard that, this image sprung to mind: a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà.” This vision, in which a grieving Lincoln took the role of the Virgin Mary in Michelangelo’s statue, gestated in Saunders for nearly a quarter century, he explains: “I just wanted to get on paper something that would evoke the feeling of pathos and beauty I’d get every time I imagined that night in 1862.”

To do so, he has devised a richly hybrid work that defies easy categorization. Chapters of whirligigging dialogue between the cemetery denizens are interleaved with chapters holding excerpts from news accounts, biographies, memoirs, and diaries of the era (many actual, many invented), which ballast the fantasy with the gravitas of real occurrence. One example: while Willie was burning with fever from the sickness that would kill him, the President and Mrs. Lincoln threw a sumptuous (late) New Year’s fête in the White House, attended by hundreds of foreign and national dignitaries. As guests danced and made merry under chandeliers garlanded with flowers, stuffing themselves on pheasant, venison, and oysters, and plucking sweetmeats from elaborate dioramas made of sugar , the boy suffered in his bedroom. His parents slipped away continually to stand vigil at his bedside. Partisan scandalmongers denounced the party, before and after, as decadent and frivolous– “a piggish and excessive display, in a time of war, ” as one fictional commenter puts it; and after the child’s death, mean-spirited detractors accused the Lincolns of “heartlessness” for entertaining while their child was ill, tacitly blaming them for his demise. But those close to the family were “awe-struck” by the violence of Lincoln’s heartbreak. “Great sobs choked his utterance,” a seamstress remembered. “He buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame was convulsed with emotion.”

In Saunders’ fervid, electric imagination, Lincoln’s grief-stricken visit to Willie in the crypt causes profound agitation —and jealousy—among the unruly bardo dwellers, who have received no such calls themselves. Hamming and pouting, bickering and boasting like actors on the stage (their words appear in the book like the script of a play, each speaker listed after his line) they attempt to assess the import of this invasion of their liminal precincts. One of the main players, an ungainly middle-aged printer named Hans Vollman (whose head was squashed by a falling beam when he was on the brink of consummating his marriage), muses, “No one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.” Another, Vollman’s friend Roger Bevins III— a closeted teenager who longs to be “revived” so he can “wander the earth, imbibing, smelling, sampling, loving whomever I please” wonders: “How had it felt, being held like that?” More pressingly, Bevins wants to know, had the visitor “offered any hope for the alteration of the boy’s fundamental circumstance?” —that circumstance being death, a state the self-deluding shades shy away from mentioning by name. If so, Bevins asks, “might said hope extend to us as well?” Willie is bewildered by the excitement he provokes in the spectral entourage. “So many were still waiting,” he marvels, “A shifting mass of gray and black….People in the moonlight outside pushing and shouting, standing on tip-toe to see….Me.” And above all, looming over the turbulent shadows, is the living form of the boy’s father, who cannot keep away, either.

A philosophical principle runs throughout Saunders’ novel that keeps the engine of his story spinning. That principle is that even the most private tragedy plays an integral part in the natural order. The shades in the bardo have stalled that natural order by dwelling with fixed intensity on their “primary reason for staying” in the world they had physically departed. But when Willie’s “primary reason for staying” — i.e., his father — walks into Oak Hill, Vollman and Bevins and some of their disembodied cohort are stricken by something like conscience. They don’t want the child to get stuck in their macabre stasis. Lincoln’s grief, like a turning gear, catches in its cogs the individual passions and grievances of the querulous shades, carrying them forward along with him. They are moved to empathy by his magnanimity. Peace cannot be restored in the bardo — or in the White House, or the nation, it would appear — until the finality of the boy’s death can be admitted by the President, by the boy himself, and by the shades as well. Saunders enlists his imaginary dead to rescue the living, and thereby, themselves. Attempting to speed this catharsis, Vollman and Bevins share space in Lincoln’s head. “One must try to remember that all were suffering,” Vollman thinks, channeling Lincoln’s thoughts. “His current state of sorrow was not uniquely his.” Lincoln (as Vollman) also believes Willie would want him to keep prosecuting the Civil War. “Our Willie would not wish us hobbled in that attempt by a vain and useless grief,he thinks.

A little more than three years after these nighttime adventures, in May of 1865, the Union won the Civil War, and Willie’s presumed wish was achieved. In March of that year, in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln had adjured the nation to “strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Having bound up his own wounds first, he knew the sacrifice this entailed. But the following month, before he could finish the work he envisioned, on the eve of peace, Lincoln was assassinated. And yet, as Lincoln in the Bardo hauntingly, movingly suggests, his death did not mean his influence had vanished; to know the full record of any life is to know that it never ends.

If you visit Springfield, Illinois today, not the Lincoln house, but the Oak Ridge Cemetery there, you will find the President’s family reunited in Lincoln’s Tomb, except for the oldest son, Robert, who survived his parents and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A larger-than-life bronze head of Lincoln stands at the entrance; children are told to rub the nose for luck. The nose gleams from the pressure of so many hands, stretching to touch history’s patina in the living day. As superstitiously as the gaggle in the bardo, the visitors hope, through this symbolic contact, to carry away a micron-dusting of the man who could not save his son, or himself, but saved the nation; and who remains as awe-inspiring in death as in life.


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The Coen Brothers Should Adapt These Five Books Fri, 10 Feb 2017 21:48:27 +0000 Last summer in a Lululemon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I noticed Joel Coen and his wife, the actress Frances McDormand, standing next to me, considering a pair of shorts. I’d seen them in the neighborhood over the years, but this was arguably my closest encounter and my best opportunity to slip Coen — director, writer, producer (with younger brother Ethan) of some of my favorite films — my latest thriller, Lucidity, which I felt was Coen-esque without trying to be. The only problem was I didn’t have a copy. The book was slated to be published in February 2017 by The Overlook Press, the folks behind True Grit, an earlier Coen brothers project.

Before I knew it McDormand said something about wanting “board” shorts, and the two left the store before I could find a way to embarrass myself.

In an ode to that missed opportunity, I’ve come up with a truncated list of books — aside from my own (Knife Music and The Big Exit included) — that I think would make good Coen brothers movies.


Virtual Light
By William Gibson

The Coen brothers have yet to do sci-fi, but Gibson’s Virtual Light might be a good place to start because, yeah, it’s sci-fi, but at its core it’s a violent, noir detective story, and we all know about the Coen brothers and hardboiled detective stories. (Blood Simple and Fargo found inspiration in James M. Cain, Miller’s Crossing was influenced by Hammett’s Glass Key, and The Big Lebowski is infused with a bit of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.) Gibson’s cyberpunk novels are laced with humor, and the less cyberpunk-y Virtual Light has a Coen-esque plot that’s straightforward, centering on the theft of a pair of sunglasses that are a lot more high-tech than they seem (read: a much better version of Google Glass). The novel’s set in 2005, but the movie would likely be set in 2025 or 2030.


The Chill
By Ross Macdonald

Ross MacDonald was one of the hardboiled masters, and it seems inevitable that the Coen brothers will adapt one of his novels. They’ve been linked to Black Money, one of his bestselling books featuring famed private detective Lew Archer. I’m partial to The Chill, one of Macdonald’s best-plotted books, which shares a similarity with Lucidity: It deals with two murders twenty years apart. Paul Newman played Archer in the 1966 film Harper (he was called Lew Harper in the film) and 1975’s The Drowning Pool. The novelist William Goldman, a fan of Macdonald’s who’d later win Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, wrote the screenplay for Harper and received a 1967 Edgar Award for it.


The Ask
By Sam Lipsyte

Lipsyte’s dark humor would translate well into the Coen brothers’ realm. Milo Burke, the bumbling, downward-spiraling hero of The Ask, is a failed artist who’s fired from his “good shitty” job as a development officer for a second-tier university (which has shades of A Serious Man). His redemption lies in the hands of Purdy Stuart, an eccentric, wealthy former classmate who made his money as an Internet entrepreneur and now attends ideas conferences in Vail, Colorado. I never met an eccentric Internet entrepreneur I didn’t like, and Lucidity has Hal Shelby, who thinks enough money can solve any cold case.

It Can’t Happen Here
By Sinclair Lewis

With Donald Trump occupying the Oval Office, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 dystopian novel, which predicts the rise of fascism in the U.S., has suddenly received a lot of attention (along with George Orwell’s 1984) and a big bump in sales. The novel is a mix of seriousness and satire, and while it may not seem like a total natural for the Coen brothers to tackle, the period and character types seem right up their alley They certainly have a thing for 1930’s Art Deco, and O Brother Where Art Thou? was set in the Deep South in the ’30s.

A Confederacy of Dunces
By John Kennedy Toole

They’ve been trying to make a movie out of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Confederacy of Dunces for years. At one time, John Goodman, a Coen brothers mainstay, was slated to play the role of Ignatius J. Reilly, the obese, delusional, cantankerous slob — and modern-day Don Quixote — who wreaks havoc in the New Orleans French Quarter. But that didn’t happen. Philip Seymour Hoffman was also linked to the role. And Will Ferrell. Steven Soderbergh, who came close to directing a screen adaption, thought Dunces was cursed. “I’m not prone to superstition,” he said a few years back, “but that project has got bad mojo on it.”


DAVID CARNOY is an executive editor at CNET and the author of the acclaimed thrillers The Big Exit and Knife Music, both available from The Overlook Press. His new thriller, Lucidity, will be available February 7, 2017.

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A Separation Wed, 08 Feb 2017 14:10:52 +0000

She hatched from an egg. A swan had dazzled the young queen of Sparta, so the myth tells us, seducing her with his glossy feathers and robust wingspan, the muscled arch of his neck, thunder-lord of Olympus in animal guise. Later that night, presumably in a blush of guilt, Leda offered herself to her husband, eventually laying two eggs from which four siblings emerged: two mortal, two sired by Zeus. The mortal daughter, Clytemnestra, lacked the transcendent beauty of Helen, her god-spawned sister; and one can imagine the resentment that built up over the years, like layers of sludge and grit, a soul’s moraine. But from this potent brew of marital betrayal and familial discord Aeschylus spun his masterful trilogy, the Oresteia, with Clytemnestra as the fierce, treacherous wife who spurs the drama into motion, so unsparing in her rage toward her husband that she murdered him as soon as he sailed home across the wine-dark sea from the Trojan War, a ten-year absence in which she had ruled their city of Argos, on the Peloponnesian coast, reveling in her power, flaunting a lover before her outraged daughter and son.

Missing husband, vengeful wife. The figure of Clytemnestra haunts A Separation, Katie Kitamura’s exquisitely wrought if occasionally static new novel, which recounts a translator’s search for her estranged husband in a resort village on the same Peloponnesian peninsula. The novel opens as Rachel receives a phone call in her London flat from Isabella, her mother-in-law, inquiring about Christopher, a writer, who has gone off to Greece to research a book. Christopher had insisted that Rachel not tell anyone about their separation, even though she’s already kindled a romance with an acquaintance and intends to ask Christopher for a divorce. Isabella can’t reach her son, has no idea of his whereabouts: would Rachel track him down?

In Kitamura’s telling Christopher is an attractive, insouciant playboy with a wandering eye, the cause of the split. Against her better judgment Rachel flies to Greece, settling into the same plush hotel where Christopher had been staying until just before her arrival, when he mysteriously vanished without checking out, lost among the craggy beaches, fields charred from recent wildfires. She finds sanctuary here, striking up odd friendships with the hotel staff — Kitamura skillfully draws the cast and setting, creating a Hitchcockian mood among the bright colors and bleached sunlight of the Mediterranean — as Rachel muses on her failed relationship, on why men feel entitled to stray, even if they remain at home under their wives’ steely stare: “Now, they no longer went away — there was not, at least for most of them, a sea to roam or a desert to cross, there was nothing but the floors of an office tower, the morning commute, a familiar and monotonous landscape . . . it was only on the shores of infidelity that they achieved a little privacy, a little inner life.”

This may sound like forgiveness, or at least a stab at understanding, but Kitamura’s too shrewd for a pat resolution, probing further as Rachel’s investigation yields a cold trail. Most of A Separation consists of her furious debates with herself. A couple of vivid set pieces — a trip to a dilapidated Byzantine church; an interview with an elderly woman who’s a professional mourner, paid by a bereaved family to wail publicly — are offset by endless ruminations on marriage: what it means to wives, what it cannot mean to husbands. Beneath Rachel’s attempts to pin down Christopher boils anger at herself.

In this Kitamura is not alone but takes her place among a set of women authors who explore ambivalence about marriage through their female characters. There’s a classical feel to these explorations, a need to revisit — to reinvent — the old stories. Lauren Groff’s much-acclaimed 2015 novel, Fates and Furies, portrays a lengthy marriage from two opposed perspectives: the husband believes it to be strong and true while the wife keeps her awful secrets tucked away. (Groff’s title evokes the Erinyes, the Furies who torment Orestes after he slays Clytemnestra to avenge his father’s murder.) The British novelist Rachel Cusk has dramatized similar themes in Outline and the just-published Transit, her surfaces cool and elegant and deliberate, differing from Kitamura’s quicksilver sentences. In her nonfiction book Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, Cusk details a visit to the Peloponnese and the graves of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, the queen’s struggles with a patriarchal system that considers her lesser: “In Agamemnon’s absence Clytemnestra has had to play his role: she has learned she is capable of governing his palace, of ruling Argos, of commanding his underlings . . . She is seeking a new form, a new configuration of male and female. She is seeking equality. Children will not be born from equality, nor will empires be built or frontiers expanded . . . Clytemnestra wants no more begetting. She wants the peace of equality but to get it she will have to use violence.”

Ultimately, the violence Rachel wreaks on Christopher is internal, through the act of remembering the emotional harm they inflicted on each other. After the mystery of her husband’s disappearance is untangled, one of the most poignant moments of the story comes in Rachel’s final encounter with her in-laws. Kitamura depicts Christopher’s parents beautifully — they add a dash of color, a kinetic energy, at the precise moment the narrative begins to sag from the weight of its brooding. Burned-out in a burned-out landscape, Rachel manages to see something that has up to this point eluded her, leaving the reader with a grace note: “It was not surprising that I would now look at Christopher’s parents and see their marriage anew . . . One of the problems with happiness — and I’d been very happy, when Christopher and I were first engaged — is that it makes you both smug and unimaginative. I now looked at Isabella and Mark’s marriage and saw that I understood nothing, about it or about marriage in general, they knew things that Christopher and I had not had, or had not taken, the time to find out.” She comes away renewed, ready to forge a life with her new partner in London. Christopher, meanwhile, leaves the story without having spoken for himself: we only see him in unflattering flashbacks. Kitamura spares Rachel the fate that awaited Clytemnestra; but in this way she has her revenge, just as did that legendary queen of Argos, whose quest to create an authentic self led her to commit the most heinous act of all, a story as old as the Greeks.

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Disunion: Visions of Our Fragmented Future Tue, 07 Feb 2017 02:00:14 +0000

In the pages of science fiction, the United States of America has been threatened with decay, dissolution, and destruction almost since the moment of its founding. The agent of the country’s extinction might be a conventional military invasion — by humans or aliens — or nuclear war or plagues or climactic changes. Sometimes the country goes down alone, sometimes the catastrophe is global in nature. Sometimes the surface appearance of things is falsely maintained, but the moral essence of the nation proves to have been subverted.

The Last American by J. A. Mitchell from 1889 finds the country a barbaric wilderness shambles, subject to a condescending visit from representatives of the civilized Middle East. The protagonist of M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901) emerges as, literally, the last man on the planet after a noxious celestial gas attack, and happily burns down the world’s great cities for sociopathic fun, including San Francisco. Some of these narratives played up racist fears: Philip Francis Nowlan brought the country low with Asian “Han” invaders in 1928’s Armageddon 2419 A.D., the basis for the Buck Rogers franchise, and Robert Heinlein followed suit with an Asiatic menace in 1949 with Sixth Column. A new plague does the trick of dismantling the country in George Stewart’s pastoral Earth Abides (1949). Omnipotent alien Overlords upset all existing geopolitical realities in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). In Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, from 1955, after a devastating war the USA’s amended Constitution prohibits any large-scale settlements, leaving the country a rural backwater. Edgar Pangborn’s Davy (1964) conjures up a scenario similar to aspects of both Stewart’s and Brackett’s. And of course, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) looked back to imagine a country divided between the Axis conquerors. Germany and Japan.

While there have been numerous stellar books after Davy that utilize these same bugbears to undo the USA, one particular kind of national collapse rose to prominence in speculative fiction in the mid-1960s: the internal fragmentation or disunion or balkanization of the country, due solely or mainly to systemic or regional or contentious cultural forces. No foreign soldiers, no microbes, no bombs, no bug-eyed-monsters need to be involved. The dissolution of the Union happens strictly due to internal contradictions, forces and factors that compel a splintering or segregation, whether mutually agreed upon by all parties, or unilaterally enforced by some. (And, surprisingly, sometimes the new situation is an improvement.)

This scenario, of course, bears increasing relevance in our culturally and politically divided moment and beyond, and one might predict a growing number of such tales.

The relative scarcity of such speculative splinterings prior to the 1960s seems to derive from a number of factors. Up until about WWII, the powerful impact of the Civil War and its aftermath, still a living memory, made such a new disunion almost unthinkable. Having lived through the horrible, bloody War of the States, the populace seemed determined to honor the sacrifice, almost to the point of being unable to conceive of a likely recurrence along similar or different lines. The WWII era, of course, fostered national cohesion, which held through the 1950s, even as movements to address racial injustice were gearing up.

But starting with the JFK assassination and all the other well-known turbulence and divisive antipathies of the decade, the notion that the old agreements that had cemented the country together might not hold any longer began to seem more probable.

One early outlier of such a notion is certainly Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, from 1935 – a work that’s been cited almost into cliché over the past twelve months. But Lewis’s notion of a strictly political battle, between a nascent dictatorship and rival parties, even if it evolves into a grassroots resistance movement, did not quite capture the feeling that the average citizen had had enough of the federation. In Lewis’s story, the urge to dissolve the country did not bubble up from below but represented the standard political coup from above, an ancient Machiavellian maneuver as old as Caesar, Brutus, and ancient Rome. Heinlein, of course, was there not long after with If This Goes On (1940), a tale of an American theocracy and a resistance working to bring it down. A forerunner of this riff occurs in Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), and an extension of the motif might be found in such coup d’état novels and films as Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove.

There were also earlier precursors: Scholar and anthologist Mike Ashley, in his collection The Feminine Future, unearthed “A Divided Republic” by Lillie Devereux Blake (1887), a story that posits a division of the country into separate male and female enclaves. Damon Knight’s Masters of Evolution (1959) develops an urban-versus-rural split into rival polities, with the ruralists being dubbed “muckfeet.”

But the sense that the center cannot hold truly became manifest only during the 1960s, and the certainty that the nation would cohere despite all the differences of its components has never been fully restored.

Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) adumbrated the sense that there were unseen factors at work in the USA and around the globe that might cause new divisions in old structures; that there existed factions with unconventional allegiances to causes other than national federation. In the real world, the retreat by disgruntled hippies into country communes that functioned almost as independent feudal fiefdoms seemed to spell out allied splits. But it fell to a genre writer to crystallize the motif of fragmentation in instantly recognizable form.

In his heyday, Ron Goulart was the funniest, wryest man in science fiction. Robert Sheckley or William Tenn might have held that crown in the 1950s, but they had slowed down by the time Goulart hit his peak. With his first story published in 1952 (giving this still-active writer a sixty-five-year career to date), Goulart took a while to perfect his style. But by the time of After Things Fell Apart, he had his shtick down. It was a combination of vaudeville slapstick with screwball comedy, updated with Firesign Theatre surreal irreverence, Mort Sahl wit, and the Yippies’ spirit of anarchy. Although published in 1970, his second novel, surely written in the ’60s, represents the crescendo of that era, and we can assert in persnickety fashion that 1970 was technically the final year of that decade.

After Things Fell Apart opens without preamble in the offices of the government of the San Francisco Enclave. We quickly learn that the USA is long gone, the country a fading memory to a few elderly survivors, but just ancient history to most. Goulart never explicitly details the downfall of the nation, save for a few hints such as a Chinese invasion of the mainland. It’s simply the blithely accepted status quo for all the future citizens of these tiny feuding kingdoms. This normalizing of the condition makes it even more believable.

Our hero is a government investigator named Jim Haley. He is tasked with tracking down a group of assassins headed by the mysterious Lady Day and named Mankiller, Inc., who are slaughtering male power figures. In best Ross Macdonald tradition, Haley’s relentless bloodhound excursions take him across a patchwork of polities and bring him face to face with a bevy of eccentric monomaniacs, from the recreationists of Olden Towne to the historians of the Nixon Institute and the hedonists savoring the resorts run by the Amateur Mafia; from the anti-feminist New Punch and Judy Theater to the psychobabble spa center of Vienna West and the G-Man Motel run by the ex-head of the FBI. Along the way, Haley becomes enamored of a repentant ex-Mankiller named Penny Deacon. Her abduction by her former comrades adds urgency to Haley’s quest. Eventually the mass execution that the Mankillers intend to stage at the Monterey Mechanical Jazz Festival — “Her brother plays an aluminum marimba, and they got two garbage trucks and a street-sweeping robot working with them” — is stymied, and the terrorist group busted up.

The pacing is antic, a nonstop Marx Brothers riot. The dialogue is arch, deadpan, full of non-sequiturs and rife with smart allusiveness.

[Penny]: “You grin like the Shropshire cat.”

[Haley]: “You’re thinking of the Cheshire lad.”

But the core effect of the book — the depiction of an absolute abandonment of civic mutuality — is conveyed in the endless self-centeredness on display, and the ethnic and racial slurs that the characters throw at each other. Empathy and compassion and a spirit of compromise have shrunk to zero. This familiar phenomenon from our own year of 2016, plus the continuing relevance of all the hot-button topics, make this book read as if it had been written just last month.

The fact that Goulart could present his scenario of a patchwork North America in a humorous fashion speaks of the basically still optimistic and sunny tenor of the Age of Aquarius. But as has been frequently observed, the post-Altamont decline of the Hippie Dream into the oil crisis stagflation of the 1970s brought darker visions to the fore. One novel that straddled the transition, dealing with the secession of Texas from the union, was 1974’s The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop. And the black humor in Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song (1979), which finds the USA divided into a heartland of “Undergodders” and coastal liberal elites, still speaks to our present. And the topic was plainly on the mind of editors Edward Bryant and Jo Ann Harper, who gave us the anthology 2076: The American Tricentennial (1977).

Additionally, a new impetus to fragmentation had arisen, surprisingly enough, in the form of the ecology movement, later to be rechristened environmentalism. If Mother Nature’s boundaries were the only valid ones, then mankind should organize itself along bioregional lines. Thus Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) had Northern California, Oregon and Washington hiving off from the USA to form that titular state. Spiritually allied novels of subsequent decades such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1990) would continue to play with these ideas.

But there were other, more malevolent forces at work tearing the country apart. Racism, pollution, foreign wars, income inequality, crime, new plagues, liberalism versus conservatism. Sounds like a snapshot of 2016, doesn’t it? But it’s all in the pages of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972), an appallingly prescient and still hard-hitting novel. Starting with Stand on Zanzibar in 1968 and continuing with The Jagged Orbit (1969),  The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider (1975), Brunner completed a quartet that took the pulse of the planet and unerringly diagnosed its ills, offering scant mercies.

The tenor of The Sheep Look Up, in contrast to that of Stand on Zanzibar four years earlier — which, while far from a comedy, still held out some hope — is unrelentingly despondent and grim. Entropy rules all.

Using the mosaic “multimedia” approach he borrowed from John Dos Passos and honed in Stand on Zanzibar, Brunner splits his attention among numerous protagonists and a bricolage of documents and other artifacts.

A short time into the future, Phil Mason works for an insurance firm until his company begins to go under, due to the amount of claims being made for various disasters, natural and otherwise, and he is let go. He hooks up with an entrepreneurial maker of water filters — a necessity, along with face masks, in this vile contaminated world — but soon they encounter major setbacks, thanks to an unknown bacterium in the drinking water supplies. Austin Train is a professional gadfly, curmudgeon, deep thinker, and critic of society who has inspired rebellious followers called Trainites. He has to stay undercover for most of the book. Peg Mankiewicz is a reporter with allegiances to Train, in search of ways to make a difference with her journalism. The rich Bamberly family has earned part of its fortune through Nutripon, a disaster-aid emergency foodstuff. When contaminated batches kill Third World victims, the corporate image goes to hell. Scion Hugh Bamberley hits the road to atone. Pete Goddard, a black man, is a working-class cop who suffers a disabling injury during an act of heroism and is taken onboard the same filter company employing Phil Mason. These main characters, vividly limned, along with their families and scores of others, all seek some measure of security, love, and prosperity in a world where those same hardwired hominid drives have conspired to produce knock-on effects that will doom the whole planet.

The cultural details that Brunner provides — a clownish ineffectual president nicknamed Prexy; a mediagenic, publicity-seeking showboat, Petronella Page; a chain of organic markets named Puritan whose products are rip-offs — resonate down the decades. When we encounter such lines as this — “The frontier between France and Italy has been closed since midnight to stem the horde of starving refugees from the south” — the shock of recognition is palpable.

In the section titled “Statement of Emergency,” Prexy’s blustering, whiny address to the nation outlining the sorry cascades of crises and assigning blame everywhere but where it belongs is the tipping point to the end times. “[Philip] glanced up uneasily . . . helicopter gunships . . . against the insurrection in Cheyenne.” Were the landscape and morale of the populace not so devastated, one could almost read this as the prequel to Goulart’s future.

An important nonfiction work that began the 1980s’ dalliance with disunion and carried forward some of the impulses behind Callenbach’s Ectopia is The Nine Nations of North America (1981) by Joel Garreau, which made the case that cultural, economic, and environmental parameters dictated a rearrangement of all the old familiar districts of Canada and the USA into the new homogeneous zones. Robert Heinlein, cognizant of such themes for four decades at this point, turned North America into a set of balkanized enclaves in his late-period novel Friday (1982). And J. G. Ballard’s depiction of the collapsed USA in Hello America (1981) brought back some satirical zing to the subgenre.

But a strong candidate for the decade’s chief example of the USA ripping itself apart due to internal strains, one that harks back to the primal Sinclair Lewis mode, yet with a metaphysical overlay, is Radio Free Albemuth, by Philip K. Dick. (In its hybridization of politics and spirituality, it’s a curious kissing cousin to C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength from 1945.)

Although released in 1983, a year after Dick’s death, the novel was written circa 1976, and thus might be expected to exhibit more of a Nixon era vibe than a Reagan era affect. But despite its earlier origin, it still encapsulates the ongoing tensions between authoritarianism and independence of thought being played out under the Reagan presidency.

The first half of the novel is told from the first-person viewpoint of a hack SF writer named Philip K. Dick, who is watching his close friend Nicholas Brady undergo baffling communications from a Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Dick and Brady live in what was already, at the time of Dick’s composition in 1976, an alternate timeline. In this continuum, the USA is a dictatorship run by President Ferris F. Fremont — a mélange of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — who strives to protect the country from a fictional enemy dubbed Aramcheck. Beside the usual government agencies, Fremont employ the Friends of the American People as spies and vigilantes, and a young woman member of FAP seeks to entrap Phil.

Meanwhile, VALIS, or Radio Free Albemuth (Albemuth being the name of the star system where VALIS originates), is revealing much useful information to Nick, such as how to cure his son’s illness and that time really stopped at AD 70, resulting in “Black Iron Prison” status for a duped planet. At the midpoint of the text, the first-person voice switches seamlessly to Nick’s (thereby cementing the identity of Brady and PKD). The two men, along with a similarly touched woman named Sadassa Silvia, strive to utilize VALIS’s help to set things right.

Dick’s patented blend of paranoia, anti-authoritarianism, and droll self-deprecation, his roller-coastering between optimism and despair, and his continuous and continuously frustrated attempts to balance saintliness with the demands of the flesh, achieve a fine expression and balance here. And while he would rework much of this material into more sophisticated form in VALIS (which actually saw print earlier, in 1981), this rudimentary form better highlights the civic issues over the esoteric ones.

Readers will chuckle at the closing paragraphs, where a distant salvation arrives in the form of a rock group named Alexander Hamilton. But they will surely jump with surprise at this passage, testament to Dick’s sage-like tap into futurity:

[The] Soviet Union . . . still holds [Fremont] in great respect. That Fremont was in fact closely tied to Soviet intrigue in the United States, backed in fact by Soviet interests and his strategy framed by Soviet planners, is in dispute but is nonetheless a fact. The Soviets backed him, the right-wingers backed him, and finally just about everyone, in the absence of any other candidate, backed him. When he took office, it was on the wave of a huge mandate. Who else could they vote for? When you consider that in effect Fremont was running against no one else, that the Democratic Party had been infiltrated by his people, spied on, wiretapped, reduced to shambles, it makes more sense. Fremont had the backing of the U.S. intelligence community, as they liked to call themselves, and ex-agents played an effective role in decimating political opposition. In a one-party system there is always a landslide.

Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash (1992) kicked off the ’90s as a brilliant contender for exemplar of the fragmentation trope, with the entire planet being divvied up among billionaires and various NGO’s, including the Mafia, who run a superlative USA pizza delivery service. But John Barnes’s Kaleidoscope Century (1995) took national fragmentation — or was it a new unity? — several radical steps further.

Featuring an “intensively recomplicated” plot — to utilize the critical terminology that James Blish pioneered for the novels of A. E. van Vogt — involving immortality, time travel, space flight, and gender swapping, as well as extensive Realpolitik shenanigans and much warfare, and inheriting much of its allure from the compulsively readable SF thrillers of Keith Laumer, the book has at its core the revolutionary concept of “meme wars.” The Richard Dawkins−inspired term “meme” is generally taken as a simple idea that can leap from mind to mind through some kind of audiovisual inspiration. Barnes literalizes this: mind viruses propagate in warring tides through humanity’s wetware until finally one is dominant: Resuna.

There are no more borders . . . whatever runs the Earth is called Resuna . . . One identical personality for everyone, human or AI, on Earth, that will add up to One True . . .

“You’ve got it all right,” he said. “Every other meme you can at least destroy, locally, by killing a carrier, and every other meme requires a long time to download, you have to get tricked into talking to it for hours in realtime. But Resuna is so simple, it’ll spread like a bad cold in an airport. And the more it copies, the bigger and stronger One True gets.”

Probably three quarters of the world’s human population was now running One True or one of the other memes. They weren’t exactly not themselves but they weren’t exactly themselves either. Like after a religious conversion, kind of.

And so the USA dissolves into the totality of the world’s new homogeneity.

In terms of the Zeitgeist, Barnes was both intimately of his period and prophetic. The 1995 publication date of Kaleidoscope Century exactly coincides with Microsoft’s launch of the first practical browser, Internet Explorer, and the subsequent explosion of online activity that has come to dominate the lives of every twenty-first-century wired citizen. All the “echo chamber” and “fake news” and “trolling” and “social media” and “gaslighting” and “catfishing” that followed the advent of the Web are the separate component apps that constitute Resuna a-borning: humanity’s new operating system, installed whether you want it or not. The Meme Wars are being enacted daily in 2016 and often appear likely to dissolve the old Union.

By the time the USA arrived in the twenty-first century, the notion that our country’s political union was not written in stone or eternal became so normalized that such books began to look like a small neighborhood of SF. The graphic novel saga by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ (2005−12) posits a new civil war in the USA, with a number of states bailing out of the union, and Manhattan rendered a contentious interzone. We also got Harry Turtledove’s The Disunited States of America (2006) an alternate history tale in which the nation had never quite gelled, and Brian Francis Slattery’s Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America (2008). And the robot successors to humanity in Ariel Winter’s Barren Cove (2016) certainly do not maintain the old jurisdictions.

But perhaps once the old ways and borders are discarded, something better might emerge. Or at least, some new strategies for living together can be tried. That is the thesis of Ada Palmer’s Too like the Lightning, the first of four books in the Terra Ignota series. (Seven Surrenders appears in March 2017.)

There are a few SF novels that prize cognitive estrangement above all. Perhaps the most famous is the cult classic Murder in Millennium VI (1951) by Curme Gray. Other recent contenders are Counting Heads (2005) by David Marusek and The Quantum Thief (2010) by Hannu Rajaniemi. This style tosses the reader into the deep end of the futuristic pool and lets them sink or swim.

Too like the Lightning is in this vein, and ultimately quite successful. The book is narrated by one Mycroft Canner, a citizen of the year 2454, and its worst criminal. Normally, his telling would entail immersion in all the patois and ideations of the future. And we do get that. But Mycroft complicates matters by simultaneously using the assumed voice of an Enlightenment-era gentleman (due to the revived popularity of that historical period in his day and age) and by addressing his tale to hypothetical readers yet unborn. The latter tactic allows him logically to insert many explanations that contemporary readers can also utilize.

Mycroft’s world has discarded religion and gender among other sacred cows, and is divided into seven “Hives,” vast regions that each share certain cultural shibboleths. (One immediately thinks of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which featured similar clades.)

Our Thomas Carlyle, genius thief, co-opted the simile in 2130 when he named the Hive, our modern union, its members united, not by any accident of birth, but by shared culture, philosophy, and, most of all, by choice. Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than Carlyle, an inevitable change ever since 2073 when Mukta circled the globe in four-point-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.

So much for American exceptionalism. All part of the trash heap of history. The actual dissolution of the country is detailed later, during a commemorative event.

“What is a people?” the speech continues, the actor’s voice resonating through the dome. “It is a group of human beings united by a common bond, not of blood or geography, but of friendship and trust. What is a nation? It is a government formed by a people to protect that common bond with common laws, so its members may enjoy life, liberty, happiness, justice, and all those rights we love. Americans, America is no longer your nation. Your nation is the friends who live and work with you, in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, all of the Americas, and all the other corners of this Earth. Your nation is those who went to school with you, who cheered beside you at games, who grew up with you, traded intimacies with you over the internet, and still today break bread with you in your own house, on whatever continent it stands. Your nation is the organization which you chose to protect your family and property, in sickness and in health, as you traveled the globe to find your ideal home.

“I call on all Americans who do not support this war to renounce your citizenship and trust us — any one of us, you have your pick. Let us protect you and your families in this new, free world. I call on the citizens of all other countries of the world to respect our members, and accept the passports we will issue, just as you would the passports printed by a country which can boast a blotch of territory somewhere on the globe.”

Underlying the Alfred Bester−style pyrotechnics of its plot (a Kuttneresque wonder child named Bridger plays a large role), Too like the Lightning is intimately concerned with all the Enlightenment controversies that birthed the USA in 1776. How to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority; the obligations of the government to citizens, and vice versa; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That this future world, manifestly better than ours in many respects (although the indentured Servicer class that Mycroft belongs to raises many moral quandaries, along lines similar to those dealt with in Damon Knight’s famous story “The Country of the Kind”), should still be struggling with these issues is testament to the eternal striving to perfect the imperfectable stock of humanity — America’s dream of a “Shining City on the Hill.”

* * *

Perhaps the ultimate moral of all these novels from the past century or so inheres in the famous line uttered by Ben Franklin after the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when he was queried about what kind of country the conventioneers had just delivered. “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

To maintain the USA as an integral entity is a constant struggle, with no guarantees of success. Science fiction shows us some of the many ways to fail at the task.

NOTE: I would like to acknowledge and thank the members of the Fictionmags listserv for their invaluable and erudite suggestions of relevant titles.

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Transit Mon, 06 Feb 2017 01:00:51 +0000

Time invested in Rachel Cusk’s work is never ill spent. There is so much to luxuriate in. Her sentences are like artfully laid little paths in a beautiful bit of woods. In Transit, her recently published novel, she allows an astrologer’s email to lead the reader in. “She could sense — the email continued — that I had lost my way in life, that I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come; she felt a strong personal connection between us, and while she couldn’t explain the feeling, she knew too that some things defy explanation.”

Cusk is always playing at something, and here it seems to be the way an ordinary reader is invited to trust a novelist, usually in ways we are scarcely aware of in the moment. The world is big and confusing, and we find ourselves wanting guidance. Some people like to find it in churches; others like to find it in fiction. But Cusk is one of those novelists — and they abound right now, from Ben Lerner to Sheila Heti — who are looking to trouble that relationship. This isn’t a matter of that well-known tool of the novelist, the “unreliable narrator.” In both Outline, her last novel, and Transit, which is technically a sequel, Cusk is trying, subtly but unmistakably, to disrupt the comforts of the novel.

In Outline, Cusk let readers know not to expect a tightly woven exercise in storytelling. We gather that our unnamed narrator is living in the aftermath of a divorce. Aimless, she ends up in Athens and somehow becomes the sounding board for a number of stories from other people about the dissolution of their own relationships. Things do happen to our narrator, even things that an ordinary plot-junkie novelist would consider exciting: she goes out on a boat with a strange man, for example. But even as these things happen, she is disconnected from the expectations others might have if they heard her story. She tells us so explicitly:

It struck me that some people might think I was stupid, to go out alone on a boat with a man I didn’t know. But what other people thought was no longer of any help to me. Those thoughts only existed within certain structures, and I had definitively left those structures.

Transit proceeds along similar lines, with even less concern for plot than its predecessor: instead of hearing people’s confessions about their feuds with ex-wives and parents, the narrator hears a lot of stories from others about being lost. The narrator, too, is of course lost; she’s living in a new house with complaining neighbors underfoot, and builders are ripping it up for a remodel. She is, like everyone she meets, in transit from one psychological place to another — the connection between the novel and the subject of its title is just that literal. In a particularly meta moment, our narrator — who is a writer — goes to a literary festival. There she listens to two men give a lecture about the costs of autobiographical writing.

And the blabbing, the telling, was the messiest thing of all: getting control of the language was getting control of anger and shame and it was hard, hard to turn it around, to take the mess of experience and make something coherent out of it.

Does all this blabbing sound a bit tedious? I fear that it does; I fear that this sort of book has nothing to say to vast swaths of humanity. There are, of course, people who spend a lot of time reading book criticism. Those people recognize some elements of what Cusk is doing as something called “autofiction.” She has fellow travelers in that: Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Teju Cole, Tao Lin. You can overstate those writers’ commonalities, but some are discernible: Deliberately artless, often unapologetically boring, collapsing the distance between a narrator and an author, these books are said to seek to import more of what feels like “reality” into fiction. These writers want to push the limits of the novel’s possibility. Life is boring, the notion goes. Perhaps fiction should have some element of that aridity in it, too.

It’s not hard to see the intellectual allure of these ideas. But sometimes, as I read Transit, I had questions about whether or not any of this was really improving fiction in the way that the intellectual justification seems to imply. One does not get the impression, for example, that what Cusk is actually importing into the novel is unadulterated experience. What she is giving it is a lulling drift that almost no one ever feels in the ordinary course of a day, graceful passages that don’t really match up to what Joan Didion once called, in her own essay on the inconsistencies of storytelling, “the phantasmagoria of everyday experience.”

The offer made by that astrologer, after all, is not so different than the one a writer like Cusk offers her reader. Though mostly a vessel for other people’s stories in Outline and Transit, there is a certain elegance to the existence this narrator has. She does not seem to fear anything. She does not seem to want anything. And above all, she never seems uncertain about who she is or what she’s doing. Perhaps Cusk herself really feels that way. Perhaps she is a model of calm receptiveness. But in her own way she’s making the same fantastical promises that women with crystal balls make. Live through disaster, her books seem to say. Don’t worry, we’ll make it beautiful together.

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The Women Who Mapped Heaven Wed, 01 Feb 2017 16:50:42 +0000

Although there was no statistical excess of high-profile deaths in 2016, the year felt like a relentless march to the other side. One loss that affected me personally was the Christmas passing of astrophysicist Vera Rubin, the mother of cosmology. In the 1960s she became the first woman to use then-state-of-the-art Palomar Observatory, and her studies of galaxy rotations “clinched the case for dark matter,” wrote Princeton physicist Jeremiah Ostriker. Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard, argued that Rubin should have won the Nobel.

Women in physics remained rare into the 1990s, when I started at MIT. Standing in an industrial corridor in front of the display of faculty head shots, I hunted for women. Finger trailing the glass, I searched, twice for accuracy. That day I counted eighty-three physics faculty; four were women. Today, it’s twelve of a hundred. That rate of improvement promises parity in 138 years.

The situation is better in astrophysics, though; out of twenty-two MIT faculty, almost a third (seven) are female. Perhaps the women to thank for this foothold are the Harvard Observatory “computers” — a term given to women who processed scientific and mathematical data before the dawn of computing machines in the late 1950s — who, a century ago, catalogued the stars and nebulae recorded on glass photographic plates. Dava Sobel honors these women in The Glass Universe.

Sobel’s story begins in 1882 and follows the careers of several women through the early decades of the twentieth century. The book overlaps George Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars (2005), about the discovery by Henrietta Leavitt that first allowed astronomers to measure galactic and intergalactic distances. Sobel also writes about Williamina Fleming, formerly the maid of the observatory’s director, Edward Pickering, who earned the first official title at Harvard accorded to a woman, curator of astronomical photographs. Antonia Maury developed the first detailed stellar classification, and Annie Jump Cannon streamlined it to create the standard used today. Cecilia Payne applied atomic physics, learned from Niels Bohr himself at Cambridge, to determine stellar compositions. Together, the observatory’s women studied hundreds of thousands of stars.

Sobel’s book is slow to launch — similar to her earlier Galileo’s Daughter, the female protagonists don’t come to the fore until the end of part one — but once the women do emerge, in their own words, the story comes alive. Early in her long and visible career, Cannon writes, “Friends have come to me from the great world and my heart, my life are now the study of astronomy.” In an 1899 diary entry, Fleming complains of pay disparity and describes her frustrated attempts to secure a raise: “Does [Pickering] ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose that a woman has no claim to such comforts.” Through these first-person glimpses, the Harvard computers come to feel like friends.

My favorite diary line is Fleming’s; she ends the entry mentioned above with “And this is considered an enlightened age!” It seems an absurd sentiment, but there is evidence that we still underestimate the discrimination in which we’re steeped. The late-1990s  “Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT” found: “Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was ‘solved’ in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result.” I used to be one of those young women, admiring the older generation like Vera Rubin without admitting that harassment and discrimination were a present-day malaise. It appears from Fleming’s words that this misperception of equality has been around a very long time.

The Glass Universe makes a strong case that Pickering was an advocate for the Harvard computers. He twice nominated Fleming for the Bruce Medal for lifetime achievement and pestered the observatory’s Visiting Committee into allowing her to join. In publications, he gave the women full credit. The computers generally seemed happy with him; he was known for “the casual cheerfulness with which he heartened the underpaid female employees, often saying, ‘I think I could do this, so I’m sure you can.’ ”

Both Pickering and his successor, Harlow Shapley, had to contend with Harvard’s fiercely biased administration. Although Cecilia Payne instructed graduate students and supervised their research, she was denied the title of professor, and when Shapley approached President Lowell about it, “the president swore that Miss Payne should never ascend to a Harvard professorship while he was alive.” Payne finally did become Harvard’s first female professor in 1956, thirteen years after Lowell’s death.

Conspicuously, every person named in The Glass Universe is white, except one. After Harvard’s Southern Hemisphere observatory closed for the First World War, its Peruvian caretaker, Juan Muñiz, “single-handedly managed . . . the taking of more than one thousand new pictures of the sky.” I read over, several times, this scant trace of brown-skinned participation in early twentieth-century astronomy. Opportunities for white women were slim then, but the probability that a person of color could find scientific work was effectively zero. (Even today, MIT’s student body is 6 percent black — half their representation in the U.S. population.) Women of color were nowhere to be found in science.

In 1941, that began to change. The same year that Harvard’s Annie Jump Cannon died, President Roosevelt signed executive orders desegregating the defense industry and creating fair employment oversight, thus privileging America’s aeronautical advancement — and winning the war — over its prejudices against blacks and women. Two years later, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in segregated Hampton, Virginia, hired its first “Negro” computers.

Margot Lee Shetterly’s inspired Hidden Figures follows these black women mathematicians from the 1940s heyday of aeronautics, through the Cold War space race and creation of NASA, to the first lunar landing in 1969. Dorothy Vaughan joined Langley’s segregated “West Computing” pool in 1943, rising to manager before becoming one of Langley’s first programmers. After petitioning the Hampton courts for access to engineering night classes at an all-white high school, Mary Jackson became the first black woman at NASA, and one of the first in the country, to earn an engineering degree. Katherine Goble Johnson computed the trajectories for the first manned space flight, then, at John Glenn’s request, performed the IBM computers’ calculations by hand; she went on to calculate orbits for the mission to the moon.

Based on thirty-one personal interviews and over a hundred books and articles, Hidden Figures renders a rich and complex portrait of its protagonists’ lives and the society in which they lived. Shetterly’s writing flows from the micro to the macro effortlessly, so that each woman’s narrative is infused with national and global context, including the vicious racism that pressed, daily, on their lives. Here’s her description of the 1963 Department of Labor brochure highlighting black contributions to the space program: “The resonances and dissonances of the [brochure’s] images were sharpest there at Langley, ten miles from the point where African feet first stepped ashore in English North America in 1619, less than that from the sprawling oak tree where Negroes of the Virginia Peninsula convened for the first southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. In a place with deep and binding tethers to the past, Katherine Johnson, a black woman, was midwifing the future.”

Shetterly has great instincts about when to ratchet up the language — Mary Jackson’s court appearance is “a grit-your-teeth, close-your-eyes, take-a-deep-breath kind of indignity” — and when to cool it down. In simple reportage, she tells us, that “Prince Edward [County] schools would remain closed from 1959 to 1964” to avoid desegregation. These language modulations allow us to inhabit the protagonists’ world and feel the fury and the heartbreak of its racism.

The scope of Shetterly’s book is both remarkable and purposeful; she opines, “By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.” Unfortunately, director Theodore Melfie’s movie adaptation of Hidden Figures distorts this picture. While the film is inspiring and the acting terrific, Johnson is portrayed as a “genius among the geniuses,” in the words of her boss. Shetterly, on the other hand, describes how well Johnson fit in at Langley because of her intelligence, not how much she stood out.

Believing that we fit in is not trivial. I sat in MIT physics classes of fifty-plus people with no other female faces; there was never one at the front of the room. Requesting credit for an exam problem in complex analysis that I had answered (correctly) using a graphing method demonstrated in class, the TA refused, counseling that I should not be “so much in awe of the professor.” It had never occurred to me to be in awe of the professor. To be the only fill-in-the-blank (woman, black, disabled) in the room is to be constantly mis-seen, to have to continually re-realize that the way you perceive yourself is not the way others perceive you. To fit in, to be seen as just another talented scientist, is revolutionary. So it is unfortunate that while the film makes us love the Langley women, it does not “change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule.”

Shetterly realizes her goal “for [the Langley computers] to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserve . . . And not because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.” Sobel’s book, similarly, places the Harvard astronomers at the center of the history of science. Both groups of women keep their eyes on the skies, not immune to the discrimination facing them but working for something that rises above the prejudices of their times. Looking up, with wonder and analytical sharpness and magnificent intelligence. Not as undifferentiated heroes but as people: extraordinary ordinary women.

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The 26th Annual Discover Awards: The Finalists Wed, 01 Feb 2017 15:33:28 +0000

We’re thrilled to share the 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover Awards finalists, selected by a panel of distinguished judges from among the 2016 Discover Great New Writers selections.  The winners of first-, second- and third-place prizes in both fiction and nonfiction will be announced at the Discover Awards ceremony on March 1, 2017.  The top winners in each category — fiction and nonfiction — will receive a $30,000 prize and a full year of promotion from Barnes & Noble. Second-place finalists will receive $15,000 each, and third-place finalists $7,500 each.

The 2016 Discover Awards Shortlist for Fiction:

Homegoing  (Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House) – Yaa Gyasi’s indelible novel follows two branches of a family—one in America and the other in Africa–over 300 years.

Read an Excerpt





The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint/PGW) – A young woman finds herself at the center of a murder mystery and surrounded by an unreliable cast of characters on a remote archipelago in Abby Geni’s sublime debut novel.

Read an Excerpt





Shelter (Picador/Macmillan) – How much do we really owe our families and what do we owe ourselves? These are the questions at the heart of Jung Yun’s provocative debut.

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The 2016 Discover Awards Shortlist for Nonfiction:

Blood at the Root (WW Norton) – Patrick Phillips brings to life an ugly and harrowing episode of American history in this meticulously researched and powerfully written history of his hometown, and the violence that kept the community all white, well into the 1990s.

Read an Excerpt




Evicted (Crown Publishing Group/Penguin Random House) – Matthew Desmond’s reportage puts human faces on a modern American crisis by presenting a mix of Americans telling their own stories about poverty and eviction.

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Lab Girl (Alfred A.Knopf/Penguin Random House) — As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them. Hope Jahren’s spirited memoir sprouts the vibrant story of a life studying trees, flowers, seeds and soil.

Read an Excerpt





The 2016 Discover Award Judges for Fiction:

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Discover Great New Writers selection A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. His third novel is forthcoming from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. Wiley is writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Fiction and Nonfiction Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.

Benjamin Percy is the author of three novels, two story collections, and a craft book, including The Dead Lands, Red Moon (a Discover Great New Writers selection), and Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. His fourth novel, The Dark Net, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017. His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Esquire, GQ, Time, Men’s Journal, Outside, The Wall Street Journal and The Paris Review. He also writes the Green Arrow and Teen Titans series at DC Comics.

Emma Straub is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, and the Discover pick Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and the short story collection Other People We Married. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Vogue, New York Magazine, Tin House, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and The Paris Review Daily, and she is a contributing writer to Rookie.

The 2016 Discover Award Judges for Nonfiction:

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of fifteen books. Her 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders was the first bestselling book by a transgender American. Her new novel, Long Black Veil is forthcoming from Penguin Random House in 2017. She is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University; serves as the national co-chair of the Board of Directors of GLAAD; and is a Contributing Opinion Writer for Op/Ed page of The New York Times.

Sloane Crosley is the author of The New York Times bestselling essay collections, I Was Told There’d Be Cake (also a finalist for The Thurber Prize for American Humor) and How Did You Get This Number, as well as the bestselling novel, The Clasp. Her work has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Playboy, Elle, W, The New York Times Book Review, New York Magazine, and on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”  She was the inaugural columnist for The New York Times Op-Ed “Townies” series, and is currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Interview Magazine.

Brando Skyhorse is the author of a novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, which was a Discover Great New Writers selection,and received both the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters Take This Man: A Memoir was named by Kirkus Reviews as one the Best Nonfiction Books of the year. He is currently co-editing an anthology on passing, forthcoming from Beacon Press. Skyhorse has taught at New York University, George Washington University, and Wesleyan University. He joined the Bennington College faculty in 2016.

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Homesick for Another World Mon, 30 Jan 2017 14:44:24 +0000


A character in one of Otessa Moshfegh’s stories says of a Polish barmaid he drinks away Christmas with, “There was nowhere to hide in the eyes of this woman.” The same could be said of Moshfegh herself. In her terrific debut short story collection, her dark vision misses nothing. What Moshfegh sees is often ugly. Her characters are alcoholics, drug users, compulsive skin pickers. They are self-deluded about their lives and their chances at love, capable of casual cruelty and callous judgments.

Yet Moshfegh treats this motley crew with compassion and dignity. She has made no secret in interviews that she has struggled herself with being a misfit. She was born in Massachusetts. Her mother was from Croatia, her father from Iran, and her experience as both an insider and an outsider in America deeply informs her work.

Homesick for Another World collects the stories that Moshfegh has published over the past several years, most frequently in The Paris Review. Her first book, McGlue, was an experimental novella about a drunken sailor accused of murder, published by the small press Fence Books. She followed that in 2015 with her novel Eileen, which was hailed by some as the next Gone Girl.

Eileen never approached the gonzo popularity of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller — though it received plenty of recognition and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Set in New England in 1964, its antiheroine, a bulimic twenty-four-year-old who lives with her alcoholic father and works in a boys’ prison, is far too neurotic and self-loathing. Moshfegh has said that Eileen was her attempt to write a commercial novel that would sell. As wonderfully idiosyncratic as the book is, it does have a conventional story arc and even features a femme fatale of sorts.

Moshfegh’s short stories are weirder, their narrative arcs more erratic, their characters more rebarbative. She’s drawn comparisons to Flannery O’Connor, in part because of her obsession with odd, unsettling characters but also because she sets in motion events that are surprising, even bizarre, yet somehow feel inevitable. But Moshfegh’s darkly comic voice — and her willingness to plumb the biological and even scatological in search of what makes us human — set her work apart. Moshfegh’s stories feel like dark rooms in which someone has briefly turned on a light.

All of her characters are looking for love in one guise or another. “Bettering Herself,” the story that won The Paris Review‘s prestigious Plimpton Prize, features a wine-soaked teacher at a Catholic school who’s harassing her ex-husband. In “A Dark and Winding Road,” a lawyer spends a weekend away from his pregnant wife, with whom he is fighting, and capitalizes on a case of mistaken identity when a visitor shows up at his door to form a brief connection. In “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” a young man who’s left home to seek his fortune as a Hollywood actor finds in his landlady a mother figure whose absolute belief in him belies his talent.

Moshfegh’s stock-in-trade are bizarre, marginal characters — those people it might be easier if we just ignored — and yet she’s equally capable of illuminating the poignancy of the kind of people who might fade into the background at a party. In “The Beach Boy,” John, a dermatologist, finds himself suddenly widowed when his wife, Marcia, suffers an apparent aneurysm. At her funeral, he discovers, as we all do, that grief is not his métier:

Several friends told stories, boasting about how much Marcia had meant to them, how deeply she’d touched their lives. Marcia would have liked that, John thought — all these people discussing her, pointing out her best qualities, remembering her finest moments. She’d have eaten it up. But what did these people really know about her. What could one know about a person? John had known her best of all, had been able to predict her every move, the arc of her sighs, her laughs, the twists of her shadow as it crossed a room . . . Nobody would understand, John thought, how well he knew the sound of Marcia’s coffee spoon hitting the saucer, how the sheets rustled around her when she turned over in bed. But were those things significant enough, he wondered, to boast about?

After the funeral, John discovers evidence that Marcia may not have been the person he’d always thought she was. His search for answers casts the conventional life they built together in a wholly different light.

The thing that’s so thrilling about this story is its suggestion — the same one posed by the twisted young woman wearing the mousy outfits in Eileen — that the most vital parts of our lives are invisible to others, and sometimes even to ourselves. Ignoring our blind spots may make life easier. But easier isn’t the point — not in Moshfegh’s universe, and not in ours.

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The Pluto Platter and the Power of Play Thu, 26 Jan 2017 21:22:30 +0000

The Frisbee turns sixty this week, the world-popular toy first produced by the Wham-O novelty toy company on January 23, 1957 (though briefly called the “Pluto Platter”). Begun in a garage, Wham-O followed its Frisbee success with the Hula Hoop (1958), the Slip ‘N Slide (1961), and the Super Ball (1965). Not every Wham-O product of the era was a winner — among the bombs was a nuclear fallout shelter cover for the patio, marketed to Cold War worry: “40 Million May Die — How About You?” — but Wham-O made a fortune by marketing its simple, durable toys to Baby Boom Nation, every kid in the suburbs anxious to join the latest “as seen on TV” fad.

Both the Frisbee and the Hula Hoop are in the National Toy Hall of Fame; joining them there is LEGO, which on January 28, 1958 patented its signature stud-hole design. In 2000 LEGO was voted “Toy of the Century” by several organizations, but in the early years of the next century the family-owned Danish company faced a survival crisis, created partly by the kids turning to electronics, partly by company missteps. In Brick by Brick, David Robertson and Bill Breen describe how, after registering the biggest loss in its history in 2003, LEGO not only avoided disaster but became, according to Brand magazine in 2015, “Most Powerful Brand in the World.” Instead of riding out the mania for digital gadgetry, LEGO tapped into it as a “serial innovator” — programmable bricks, role-adaptive board games, etc. — and, in a four-year spurt during a global recession, quadrupled its sales, outpacing even Apple. Robertson and Breen report that there are currently almost one million YouTube clips showcasing LEGO brick-art and over-the-top creations.

Many authorities in education and child development have lamented the death of simpler, truer forms of play killed off by organized sports, overcomplicated toys, and overanxious parents. In Play Anything, Ian Bogost extends the play principle far beyond the playground and childhood, arguing that, like games, every situation and relationship has built-in structural limitations and offers an opportunity for play:

What if we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris — as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not? Walks and meadows, aunts and grandfathers, zoning board of appeals meetings and business trips. Everything. Our lives would be better, bigger, more meaningful, and less selfish. That’s what it means to play. To take something — anything — on its own terms, to treat it as if its existence were reasonable. The power of games lies not in their capacity to deliver rewards or enjoyment, but in the structured constraint of their design, which opens abundant possible spaces for play.

Among the “toys of the imagination” inducted into the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York are the ball, the stick, and the cardboard box. In Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson builds upon the argument, presented in Johan Huizinga’s groundbreaking Homo Ludens (1938), “that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” Johnson’s discussion goes beyond the myriad pleasures and productive offshoots of play to our “surprise instinct” — the “evolved neural mechanisms that promote learning when they have experiences that confound their expectations.” Johnson says that the surprise instinct is hardwired into us, and we are passing it on to our post-humans:

The early checkers and backgammon applications [in computer programming] relied on this principle to bootstrap themselves into a high level of play. The software would begin with a rough model of what successful strategy looked like, making predictions about the consequences of each of its moves. Over time, it learned by paying careful attention to the difference between its predictions and the actual outcome. Based on those constructive errors, the software would then alter its model for the next game; after thousands of iterations, the software learned a high-level strategy without any expert player advising it directly. In a way the AI researchers had programmed an appetite for surprise into the software.

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Best Friends Forever Thu, 26 Jan 2017 18:36:54 +0000

Pink princess parties notwithstanding, scratch a girl, and what you will find is a preoccupation not with tutus but with friends—specifically, a best friend. In the popular imagination, this is a figure somewhere between confidante and guardian—a defender, or, at least, partner, in the roiling pool of scorn and censure that is one’s peer group. In private life, best friends can be more like a boss and employee—and when you are in your tutu, it is your best friend who is most likely to point out that your pointe shoes are wrong. If the most well-known stories about boys becoming men pit their subjects in a lonely struggle against an uncaring world, the most significant stories of girls becoming women grapple with the complexity of making the same journey in the company of those with whom they have shared nearly everything they can.

My first Book of Best Friends (BBFs) was Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl, a pink-jacketed, deckled-edged tome I took out weekly from our school’s library. (According to its checkout card, I was easily the first one to have done so in a decade.) As one of those readers who finds Beth boring and is slightly relieved when she dies, I much preferred it to Little Women, in which my only interest was the awkward, but stubbornly honest Jo as the foil to her sister, snub-nosed Amy, who was preoccupied only with curls and status.

Jo and Amy are alive and well in An Old-Fashioned Girl, although they come to us in the figures of wholesome Polly and wealthy, if well-meaning, Fanny. The two are “country mouse and city mouse,” first passing a visit in the city mouse’s manse, then growing into adulthood together. Fanny is deeply fond of Polly, though this does not stop her from telling Polly upfront to please not do things like declare how splendid Fanny’s toilet-table is “in front of the other girls,” and wishing she wore earrings. “I’ll take care of you, and fix you up, so you won’t look odd,” Fan tells Polly. “Am I odd?” Polly asks, hoping, in this context, it doesn’t mean anything bad.

Increasingly, it seems it does. Polly, rather overwhelmed by Fan’s entire toilette, peer group, and, often, behavior, privately resolves and notes and decides all over the place to behave as Fanny wishes—to a point. In fact, she also blushes for her friend, but it’s when Fanny answers “Larmartine” for “Lafayette” when asked what famous Frenchman fought in the American Revolution. (A mistake no Hamilton-schooled kid would make today.)

Spoiler alert: these warring philosophies – knowing your history vs. frizzling your hair — finally come to a head. If you know your Alcott, you will know who is humbled, and probably how. (It’s Fanny!) When her family’s fortune is lost, Fanny must turn to Polly to see how to live humbly and simply—which is to say, happily—and becomes a better person learning how to “turn her dresses” and actually socialize with girls who work for a living.

It’s the March girls learning how pleasant it is to give Christmas breakfast away all over again, with a key difference. In this novel, the adult Polly, alone in the city, making her living as a music teacher, is in fact very tested by her small means and lack of family. When a neighbor in much the same straits tries to commit suicide and Polly rejects an appropriate, open-handed suitor, even the reader has begun to think that practicality should win out.

When I picked up Zadie Smith’s gloriously panoramic novel Swing Time, I was surprised and thrilled to find Fanny and Polly in modern, though narratively fractal, form. The novel’s unnamed narrator, self-conscious and internal, comes pre-humbled. One of the first corrections her new, adored friend Tracy levels on her is that her parents are “the wrong way round”—which is to say, a black mother and a white father, not a black father and a white mother, like Tracey has. Unlike Fanny, Swing Time’s protagonist is ashamed of all the things that mark her as superior from her new friend in the council flats: namely her father (attentive, and present), and her mother, a feminist with her nose in a book and utilitarian outfits that presage a different, better future. But the power differential, it turns out, is not so simple: “Her bedroom was a revelation,” the narrator tells us. “It overturned everything I thought I had understood about our shared situation. Her bed was in the shape of a pink Barbie sports car, her curtains were frilled, all her cabinets were white and shiny, and in the middle of the room it looked like someone simply emptied Santa’s sleigh on to the carpet.”

While they share 80’s joys like lollipop flutes and pop music, like Polly, the narrator hides her more wholesome tastes—jazz standards, and old films of musicals like the title’s Swing Time, or Ali Baba Goes to Town or Showboat. And just as Polly’s “country mouse” pursuits open her up to a wider world than Fan’s bubble, so does this hobby serve as the narrator’s unconscious education in race.

Through film she absorbs a dizzying set of rules and masks—Mr. Bojangles aping his own stereotype; white actors appearing in blackface, or, make-up free, are cast as mulattoes who are “passing”; American black dancers brought on to play “real” Africans, in grass skirts, with spears, themselves playacting refugees from the kingdom of Dahomey—in fact, a true and powerful African kingdom (with an Amazon army!) finally extinguished by the French in the 19th century.

The narrator is only able to lure Tracey back into watching the films with her when she finds one such dancer in Ali Baba, Jeni LeGon, who just happens to be the spitting image of Tracey herself—and whose remarkable, idiosyncratic dance moves Tracey borrows to audition, and get into, a premier dance school. This, for both girls, changes everything. Without Tracey, “I found out what I was without my friend: a body without a distinct outline,” she tells us. “I was more engaged with what I imagine of Tracey’s schooling than with the reality of my own.”

In life, Tracey is the narrator’s own Jeni LeGon—the dancer whom, by her pure superiority, transcends the absurd hierarchies and masks of the play. The narrator herself is defeated utterly by the task. A revelatory moment unfolds in Gambia (actually in Africa!), where she travels as an assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star who is opening a girls’ school in a village. She finally jumps into a circle of dancers and lets herself go —only to be told by the villagers that, like her boss, she is one of those white people who can really dance like a black person.

Swing Time is a large stage with even more complex series of rules, but these never feel haphazard: Smith has created a piece of work large enough to discuss race and growing up as a woman as it occurs on a global scale—which is to say, locally. Whether she’s a teen goth powdering her face or a child doing a sultry version of Aimee’s dance with Tracey, the narrator repeatedly finds herself in the position of some kind of minstrel, and only her passport and wardrobe signify which.

When, as an adult, Tracey finally betrays the narrator, it is on a global scale, though the questions the crisis raises are those the girls confronted as early as grade school. What makes a “real” family? What is it to be black and white? What makes you a “whore”? Two girls brought together because they are the same color of mahogany, Smith writes, as if cut from the same piece of cloth, regard each other dubiously over the years: Who are you pretending to be now?

I could also not help but see Tracey in Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, who would understand the moment in which Becky tosses the patronizing gift of a dictionary right back out of the carriage upon leaving her boarding school. Like Tracey, Becky is a nimble and elusive figure–one part charm, two parts destruction–no more able to stop shining onstage than she can to flop in real life. The origins of her mix are volatile–but what shines out is a fierce, inborn dose of eff-you. Tracey and Becky have both invented august families for themselves to disguise their lowly origins—in Sharp’s case, a venerable, distant French family, and in Tracey’s, a father who is a back-up dancer to Michael Jackson. They both possess talents that allow them to rise easily above their means—in Tracey, dance, and in Becky, voice, perfect French—and both possess the same brand of inherent, killing charm. They both must make their own way in the world, and are each impatient with their best friend’s credulous innocence, while jealous of the circumstances that make it possible.

Like the movies of Swing Time, Vanity Fair reveals a hierarchy of blacks, one that analyzes white and black women purely in cost-benefit terms. In the first few paragraphs, we meet “Sambo,” a black servant; and, more significantly, Miss Swartz, a mulatto heiress who pays double to attend the boarding school where the wealthy Amelia Sedley is a favorite and Becky a scholarship student who teaches French for her board. It is the height of colonialism, in India and the West Indies, and Miss Swartz is but one iteration of the mythical “black wife” that wealthy parents feel their far-flung sons might marry, bringing home a set of “mahogany” grandchildren. Against this threat, even penniless Becky seems a safer bet, though, in the marriage game that makes up the first part of the novel, one father argues the virtues of the eight or ten thousand pounds a year Miss Swartz would bring. “Gad, if Miss S. will have me, I’m her man,” the patriarch says. “I ain’t particular about a shade or two of tawny.”

Thackeray, like Smith, is kind to his antiheroine, and does a great deal to explain the circumstances that make Becky’s numerous betrayals—and masquerades—understandable to the reader.; the foremost being that with no mother to arrange marriages for her and no money to bring to a match, she is entirely on her own. Not easy, in a world where a healthy dowry and a dimpled modesty are almost moral achievements, and even a note between an unmarried man and woman is almost sacrilege. How can Becky help but use the nearest conduit to a partner—her best friend—whether that means her brother, or even her husband? (One of whom, to be fair to the best friend, she probably murders.)

The advantage Amelia possesses in this matter—orders above being simply liked at school—is, to Becky, a kind of systemic betrayal. Tracey feels the same about the kind father of Swing Time’s narrator, who protects his daughter rather than preying on her and neglecting her, as Tracey’s father likely does. Accordingly, both do their best to destroy the families they can’t inhabit. By the end of the novel, both Tracey and Becky, in their own ways, have partly succeeded. Both have also alienated themselves. Their scant security has cost them their friends (though Smith offers a hint of future reconciliation), but given their early challenges, one suspects each would accept that bargain.

The girls of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn would love to stand allied against the world; the world has other plans for them. As in the other novels, they begin by flowing together, going inside, as the narrator eventually writes, each others’ skins. August, the narrator, new in Bushwick, watches Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi do double-dutch, “My mouth slightly open, intrigued by the effortless flow of them so that the other could continue moving…I pressed my face against the hot glass, palms flat against the window, wanting to be on the inside of Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi’s continuum.” She is familiar with their bodies before they even meet, watching them from her desk in school: “Before I knew their names, I knew the tiny bones at the back of the necks, the tender curve of the hairline,” August tells us.

But life, as it will, teases them apart. There are Sylvia’s parents, from the Virgin Islands, who don’t want her to be like a “dusty, black American”; there is the Angela’s mother, a heroin addict who, like many in the neighborhood, dies of an overdose; there is Gigi’s rape; there is August’s absent mother, who August refuses to admit is dead. There are their changing bodies, which make them prey, their poverty, which makes them vulnerable, and their skin, the unspoken burden they share: “We had blades inside our kneesocks and were growing our nails long…but Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades. Any strung-out soldier or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this.”

By the end of the novel, Gigi has saved seats for her friends to watch her as she stars in a play, and the seats remain empty. (Almost an identical scene takes place in Swing Time—the girl watching the clock, and simply not going.) They have gone from sharing the same skin to longer even seeing one another, and, like Polly’s friend, Gigi chooses the ultimate act of withdrawal.

It is no coincidence that, in every one of these novels, the author follows the friendship from childhood to adulthood, because best friends, unlike childhoods, are a lifelong affair. They easily transcend schools, parents, partners, continents—whether one is talking to the friend or not. Why? This early merging creates a mirror self, one whose choices, however simple, are a comment or betrayal of one’s own.

It’s also no surprise that the novels share so many conventions: being on stage, stealing each other’s boyfriends, shows of great poverty and great wealth, colonization and immigration, betrayals reverberating across communities and whole countries. (Yes, even in An Old-Fashioned Girl!) This is not because girls are more likely to suffer swings of wealth, or star in plays, or steal each other’s partners. It is not even, general opinion notwithstanding, that girls are somehow harder on one another than boys.

No—it is that these fictional versions of fortune’s wheel show how, for girls, small choices reverberate so wildly in one’s life, how easily they are taken over, how swiftly they must switch tactics, or adjust. One girl gets pregnant; another doesn’t. One man gets slightly too drunk to propose—an entire life changes. One play is successful, another fails. This is an illustration not of how harshly girls judge each other but of how harshly the world judges girls—and finds them wanting.

And, when the world is so ruthless in its judgment, is it any surprise girls render it with such relish on one another? When you must acquire power from a wealthy boss or a wealthy father or a wealthy husband, competition is fierce, not for the men, but for the autonomy. “Children are,” one character tells Swing Time’s narrator, “a kind of wealth,” but in the space of these four novels, which take place centuries apart, it’s hard to see how. Those with their own money rarely have children; those with children have no money, or no money of their own. What emerges instead are how valuable the things we can’t control remain: beauty, race, parenthood, the class into which we are born—and, quite important, whom we love.

In Another Brooklyn, August describes how the friends confound the men who won’t let them alone. “The four of us together,” she says, “weren’t something they understood. They understood girls alone, folding their arms across their chests, praying for invisibility.” How well the women we knew as girls do alone is decidedly mixed. Those who have lived too long in the shadow of a friend—like Vanity Fair’s Amelia Sedley, or the unnamed narrator of Swing Time, have rude awakenings. Those who have made their own islands of calm remain on those islands. Those at the mercy of Alcott have, of course, a happy ending.

The adult August darts off a train before her stop to avoid speaking further to the friend who took her boyfriend, then had his child. But the meeting opens up the rich vein of memory, to the time the girls were together, were a bulwark against the world. Knowing that this continuum changes, but never actually disappears, is a funny – but real — comfort in a world where most everything does both. Understanding that might just be the essence of growing up.

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The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation Wed, 25 Jan 2017 14:38:46 +0000

Visitors to this site might be particularly amenable to a set of claims by Randall Fuller in The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation. “Books can change a life,” he declares. “Books can also change the world.” His delightful, elegant intellectual history charts the course of one earthshaking book, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, as it exploded onto American shores in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. The publication of Origin was “nearly as seminal” as that cataclysmic event, Fuller ventures, even if initially it resonated for reasons that are not well remembered today.

While the author’s claim for the impact of books refers to the ideas contained therein, he also examines the outsize influence of one well-worn copy of Origin, which Darwin himself sent to Asa Gray at Harvard; Gray was America’s preeminent botanist and became the English naturalist’s greatest Stateside champion. From there Fuller traces the book’s momentous path among early America’s tight-knit intellectual elite. Gray loaned his copy to Charles Loring Brace, the social reformer who founded the Children’s Aid Society. Brace, who eventually claimed to have read the 400-page Origin thirteen times, brought it to a dinner party in Concord, Massachusetts. There, he introduced the book to his host, Franklin Sanborn — a radical abolitionist who had helped fund John Brown’s failed raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, which was intended to arm slaves for revolt — and to Sanborn’s other guests, Transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May) and Henry David Thoreau. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a lecture tour of the western states, heard of Origin from Thoreau and wrote to his wife complaining that he had not been able to obtain a copy “in these dark lands.”) The heavily annotated copy is now housed at Harvard.

Because these intellectuals were prolific letter writers and faithful diarists, Fuller, an English professor at the University of Tulsa and author of From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, is able to describe the immediate effects of Darwin’s ideas on these early, important readers. We often think of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the process by which species change over time in order to adapt to their environments, as the opening salvo in the clash between science and religion. (The conflict between evolution and creationism was dramatized by the 1925 Scopes trial and continues to have stubborn relevance today.) Before Darwin, science and religion had coexisted peaceably, because most scientists saw themselves simply as charged with understanding the creations of God.

But, as Fuller demonstrates, Darwin’s first readers drew something else from his work: they “eagerly embraced the Origin of Species because they believed the book advanced the cause of abolition,” Fuller writes. “By hinting that all humans were biologically related, Darwin’s work seemed to refute once and for all the idea that African American slaves were a separate, inferior species.” That notion had been advanced by the scholarly field of ethnology, which was deeply involved in debates over slavery. “Most American ethnologists believed that blacks had been separately created in Africa and endowed with lesser intellectual capacities than whites,” Fuller notes. The abolitionist press praised Darwin for undermining that argument. It’s fascinating, though, to read about the tightrope Frederick Douglass was compelled to walk when engaging with the new theory. The African-American writer and orator “embraced Darwin’s vision of common inheritance,” Fuller writes, but because racist narratives depicted black people as primates, he “consistently evaded that portion of evolutionary theory that linked human beings to nonhuman species.”

Darwin himself hadn’t gone quite that far: he confined his claims to plants and animals, cannily avoiding the application of his findings to humans. “The tone of Darwin’s book — so reserved, so reasonable — cloaked insights that were explosive and deeply unsettling,” Fuller observes. It took time for some of those insights to sink in, but once they did, Fuller’s protagonists wrestled with them in different ways. Brace, who had devoted his life to helping the poor and the weak, didn’t want to accept that God had created a system in which only the fittest survived. But when Darwin wrote that natural selection worked for “the preservation and adding up all that is good,” Brace inferred, in Fuller’s words, that “human society was gradually headed toward perfection.” After the Civil War, many saw that conclusion as having special application to America, a society characterized by intense competition and rapid change and one that viewed itself as a progressive force in history.

Alcott ultimately believed, in Fuller’s words, that “Darwin’s ideas stripped life of its grandeur. They made a mockery of one’s deepest certainties that the world had been wisely designed.” Even Gray, Darwin’s staunch defender and the one who introduced his theory to a wide American audience through a series of reviews in the Atlantic Monthly, was later beset by doubts. In struggling to reconcile Darwinism with his religious beliefs, he suggested that “natural selection . . . might be God’s chosen method of creation,” an idea eventually accepted by liberal clergy who found Darwin’s science irrefutable. Thoreau, on the other hand, deeply moved by Origin, was convinced of “something almost as wondrous” in place of intelligent design: according to Fuller, he saw “a universe authored not by some abstract Almighty — but by itself. The world, Thoreau suggests, is its own autobiography.”

Can a book still change the world? Right now a tweet would seem to have a better shot. But questions that are still asked today, and more urgently by some in recent months — whether history is a narrative of progress, whether the arc of the universe bends toward justice — have their beginnings in the heady times evoked in Fuller’s exhilarating book. He has made them immensely instructive and enjoyable to ponder.

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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness Mon, 23 Jan 2017 17:02:55 +0000

Last year’s publication of Sy Montgomery’s effulgently received The Soul of an Octopus offered readers a window onto the life of the odd-looking mollusk with profound intelligence. Now, with Peter Godfrey-Smith’s innovative consideration of how the cephalopod developed its capacities, we are handed a mirror. Other Minds gives octopus on a plate new meaning: something near cannibalism.

Not that we are closely related in evolutionary terms. Godfrey-Smith has to diagram the tree a long way back to find the common ancestor of humans and octopuses. When he finally goes 600 million years, there it is — something like a flat worm. Among all living sea creatures, a shorter branch connects us to . . . the sponge. Getting prettier with every passing mega-annum! Current research reveals an even more heartening possibility, that it is instead the comb jelly to which we should wave in recognition of kinship.

All right, I’m being silly. But this sort of foolishness goes directly to the point of Other Minds: a relentlessly anthropocentric approach to animal intelligence is, well, dumb. Or at least its tunnel vision causes us to miss a fuller view of our standing in the astonishing richness of the rest of creation. As a case study in the practice of objectivity, Godfrey-Smith’s look at the current state of knowledge about the “alien” animal that is the octopus, for one, gives rise to critical questions about how we perceive the nature of perception itself. His book itself takes the form of a highly evolved yet reverse-engineered work, reuniting disciplines that over time became separate. Here, philosophy harks back to its origins as poetry; Godfrey-Smith, who teaches philosophy of science, is a clear-eyed and elegant writer. In turn this quality reflects, as always, an elegance of thought. Poetic, too, is the use of compression on his subject. In around 200 pages (minus notes) the author runs through a stunning array of material — a discussion of the phylogenetic tree; a recap of single-celled life, its sensory capability marking “the birth of social behavior”; how and why the mind evolved (short answer: “in response to other minds”); the purpose of consciousness; the use of inner language in making sense of experience — in order to accomplish the necessarily complex appreciation of a complex being.

The reason the octopus is the ideal focus of an inquiry into consciousness is, Godfrey-Smith posits, the extraordinary differences that separate it from us. We have many studies of our primate relatives, of other animal minds like our own, of those whose cooperative social systems are comparable. But the octopus is a different sort of smart. Very, very different. While most of our neurons are in our brains, the octopus’s are in its arms. It can “see” with its skin. And so on. The fact that the two of us branched from the flat worm so long ago means that nature performed the same miracle twice: it produced the wonderment that is the human organism and the equally amazing octopus, with its “body of pure possibility,” in a separate act. It invented smart from the get-go more than once.

And gave us the possibility for philosophy-by-octopus thereby.

So what is the self? This is one of philosophy’s ancient questions. Ask anyone who meditates — or tries, accompanied by a persistent sense of failure: apparently, the self is a rapidly mounting shopping list, whether for groceries, home-improvement items, or help on personal issues. We are nothing but what we think, and what we think can only appear in linguistic form, right? It’s hard to imagine being without words; we’re a “flow of inner speech.” Indeed, without it we’re hard put to imagine any other life as brightly colored as ours. (Which is probably why we talk to our cats.) Just a small cavil, then, to bring up Godfrey-Smith’s matter-of-fact statement, “As most animals are very unlikely to have higher-order thought . . . ” On what grounds is the claim made? In a book that carefully marshals evidence from every corner of scientific endeavor, not to mention one whose aim is to demonstrate the essential fallacy of received wisdom, this is a puzzle. In fact, we know nothing of the sort, and as a supposition it seems dubious on the basis of the ongoing trend in studies of animal cognition. My heart says it can’t be true. The logic with which I have been equipped through no effort of my own — as eloquently described in the book that briefly contradicts its own wisdom — says so too.

Yet my logic, internal as it is, may well fail me. Godfrey-Smith keeps pulling the reader back to the labyrinths of experience, the “feedback loops” that over vast time caused a flat worm to grow into different complex organisms, depending on the ways their environments worked on the ways they sought to work on their environments. One thing’s for sure: consciousness is neither simple to comprehend nor simple to explain.

As Godfrey-Smith puts it in eminently graspable terms, life feels like something to the individual (“waking up, watching the sky, eating — those things all have a feel to them”). That is the foundation of sentience. How, why, and when that occurred for any given species is in the record — in this glorious profusion of biological fact. The philosopher asks us to consider that what is true for us is not to be taken on faith, nor to be assumed true only for us. The strength of Other Minds is its insistence on empirical evidence — and therefore its preparedness to question even it. The most entertaining sections of the book contain the author’s firsthand observations in a place dubbed Octopolis, off the coast of Australia. As a scuba diver, Godfrey-Smith first encountered octopuses and giant cuttlefish (on whom he also writes with lyrical passion) a decade ago; since then his record of their behaviors has enlarged our knowledge of cephalopods. The passages in which he describes one curious mind in the quiet underwater presence of another are mesmerizing.

Most moving of all is Other Minds‘ recognition of the commonality of our uncommon evolutions, the elemental shared origin of us all. “The mind evolved in the sea. Water made it possible . . . When animals did crawl onto dry land, they took the sea with them.” Human bodies, over half salty water, contain the mother of life, the one in which the octopus still swims.

The best use of philosophy may be to make more philosophy out of it. The best use of the sea, Godfrey-Smith shows, is to look to it for inspiration for the story that embraces all. Even, and especially, the octopus who watches us watching him, from the deeps where meaning began.


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A Season of Discovery Thu, 19 Jan 2017 06:14:36 +0000 Discover Spring Covers Crop

Get in on the ground floor of great reading in 2017 with this selection of fiction and nonfiction from new voices:  these 22 works of fiction and nonfiction are the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selections for Spring 2017.
Kayla Ray Whitaker The Animators: A Novel

You probably didn’t know that the next irresistible novel to come your way was going to be a story about a pair of female alternative cartoonists — one straight, one gay — who struggle to turn their life stories into material for edgy, adult animated films. But Kayla Rae Whitaker’s left-field story of friendship and creation, love and art, sickness and health is the unpredictable debut of the season.


Katherine Arden The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel

This is magic, In Katherine Arden’s adaptation of a Russian fairy tale, a young woman who has inherited supernatural gifts from her grandmother must defend her woodland village from hostile forces — an intolerant priest and a power-hungry Prince among them — and natural threats alike. Cast in prose as enchanted as its world, this will delight readers of Neil Gaiman and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.


Thi Bui The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

Author Thi Bui maps her family’s emigration from Vietnam, through and beyond the years of war that brought them by arduous boat journey to America. But it’s in the closely-observed details of their collective life in the decades that follow that make this graphic memoir such a luminous and affecting work.
Natalie C. Anderson City of Saints & Thieves
Natalie C. Anderson sets her revenge-driven thriller on the streets of a Kenyan city, the story of a young thief named Tina — whose mother has been murdered in the home of a wealthy man — has drawn comparisons to Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. An introduction to one of the most compelling and original characters you’re likely to encounter in contemporary fiction.


Caite Dolan-Leach Dead Letters

This is a twisty puzzle of a story — news of the death of her twin sister Zoe brings Ava back from Paris to confront family dysfunction, addiction and a strange game in the form of alphabetical clues, left for Ava and drawing her inexorably toward a confrontation with betrayals and secrets in her own past. Caite Dolan-Leach grabs early, and holds tight.
Michael Farris Smith Desperation Road

Welcome to Faulkner country, where the past is a force with a gravitational pull of its own. But Michael Farris Smith’s tale of two acts of violence and their tangled aftermath has a yearning voice all of its own, and a deep compassion for his characters.

Leah Carroll Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder

At the age of four, Leah Carroll lost her mother, who was murdered by drug dealers — and by the age of eighteen, her father was dead as well. In Down City, she follows a nearly-cold trail back into shadowed lives and early deaths of her own parents with a combination of heartbreaking memoir and gripping reportage.
Vivek Shanbhag Ghachar Ghochar

What happens when a household is suddenly, and against the odds, given access to wealth and comfort? In Vivek Shanbhag’s sensitively drawn group portrait of a Bangalore family who meet a change in fortune, the result is deeply problematic. A tightly packed and subtly constructed slice of 21st-century Indian society uneasily facing its discontents.
John Freeman Gill The Gargoyle Hunters

Manhattan in the down-at-heels 1970s is not just the setting for this inventive story of a teenager recruited by his father to help “liberate” valuable ornaments — like rare gargoyles — from properties soon to be destroyed. It’s also a character, as John Freeman Gill’s delightful, bittersweet story brings a lost metropolis of faded grandeur and raffish charm to brief, wondrous life.


Emily Fridlund History of Wolves

In Emily Fridlund’s debut novel a teenager raised by an unconventional family in the Minnesota woods finds herself entangled, tragically, with a family of new arrivals to their small town. This wintry, gothic chiller will appeal to readers of The Girls


Melissa Fleming A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea

The impact of Syria’s civil war and the plight of thousands of refugees takes shape in Melissa Fleming’s recounting of the story of Syrian teen Doaa Al Zamel, who fled with her family first to Egypt, and then via a perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe, which culminated in a shipwreck that took the life of Al Zamel’s husband. Al Zamel’s own heroism during the wreck brought her international attention, and Fleming does moving justice to her amazing story, and helps illuminate countless untold ones.


Emily Ruskovich Idaho: A Novel

Storytelling is an act of memory, of reconstruction, and in her novel Idaho, Emily Ruskovich makes that fact manifest. Ann knows that her husband Wade lost his youngest child to murder — and that his first wife, Jenny, is still serving a prison sentence for the deed. But Wade’s memory is failing, and piecing together the truth of what happened leads Ann — and this boldly drawn novel — into unexpected territory.


Kristen Radtke Imagine Wanting Only This
In this absolutely unique work of graphic memoir, a loss of a beloved uncle moves author Kristen Radtke to collect ruins: deserted towns, decrepit cathedrals, abandoned islands in the Philippines. She deftly uses her travels and the scenes she encounters to weave a story of mortality, fragility, and surprising human resilience in the face of death.


Jason Rekulak The Impossible Fortress

Turn up the Phil Collins and head back to the 1980s for a story of geek love, a teenage computer programmer with a Vanna White obsession, and an elaborate caper. Jason Rekulak offers up a tale with all of the heart and laughter of a John Cusak classic revisited on VHS.


Bill Hayes Insomniac City

A luminous and revealing memoir of author Bill Hayes’s discovery of a new life in New York City after decades in San Francisco — and an unexpected and bittersweet relationship with famed writer and neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, in the final years of his life. Not only a rich portrait of Sacks as a man whose delicately balanced existence was upended by love, but a sparking meditation on change and renewal.


Julie Buntin Marlena: A Novel

Life in her small Michigan town seems oppressive to Cat until she meets live-wire Marlena, whose charismatic intensity and goth glamour quickly inspire devotion. But as addiction to risk — sometimes in chemical form — puts her friend on the path to destruction, Cat’s own life is irrevocably altered in this winning, emotionally charged debut from Julie Buntin.


Lindsey Lee Johnson The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

That would be high school, of course — specifically one located in a wealthy San Francisco suburb, lush with redwoods and laced with all of the social pitfalls that can ensnare an unwary teen. Or, for that matter, the young teacher at the center of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s electric story.


Stephanie Powell Watts No One Is Coming to Save Us
You want audacity? Stephanie Powell Watts remaps F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby onto a tale set in the African-American community of Pineville, North Carolina, where a man named J.J. Ferguson has come back in search of his first love, Ava. This is no Jazz Age retread, however, as Watts sets the story of love, ambition, resentments and unforeseen consequences to music all her own.


Rebecca Schuman Schadenfreude: A Love Story

A collection of German words — including the “harm-joy” of the title — serve as touchstones for Rebecca Schuman’s witty and sensitive look at the country’s culture through her own lifelong obsession, travels, and attempts to find communion with a Teutonic world she can only imperfectly translate.
Patty Yumi Cottrell Sorry to Disrupt the Peace

When Helen Moran learns of the suicide of her adoptive brother, she returns to her Minnesota hometown in the hopes of unraveling the mystery of his self-destruction. But what she finds, in Patty Yumi Cottrell’s deeply affecting, eagle-eyed novel, is the cloud of illusions around her own past.


Shannon Leone Fowler Traveling with Ghosts: A Memoir

A journey through grief, touched off by the author’s tragic loss of her husband to a highly venomous jellyfish sting. Trained herself as a marine biologist, Shannon Leone Fowler finds herself traveling to war-torn Eastern Europe in pursuit of healing. The result is a memoir that finds wonder and startling revelations through the process of mourning.
Tom McAllister The Young Widower’s Handbook: A Novel

Tom McAllister puts his cards on the table with the title — Hunter Cady has lost his wife to a sudden and unforeseeable illness, and at 29, has no idea how his life will go forward. On an impulsive road trip with Kait’s ashes, Hunter confronts his own failure to finish growing up through a series of encounters that show the author’s master of both comedy and affecting pathos.
Our archive of previous Discover Great New Writers selections is here, and the archive of Discover Award winners here. Discover’s archive on the B&N Review is here.

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