Lowboy | Cheever: A Life | The Glister | Toby Alone | Don’t Cry | Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven | When Skateboards Will Be Free
Wray’s captivating third novel drifts between psychological realities while exploring the narrative poetics of schizophrenia. The story centers on Will Heller, a 16-year-old New Yorker who has stopped taking his antipsychotic medication and wandered away from the mental hospital into the subway tunnels believing that the world will end within a few hours and that only he can save it. It’s a novel that defies easy categorization, although in one sense it’s a mystery, as a detective, Lateef, is on the case, assisted by Will’s troubled mother, Violet. As Lateef tracks Will and gains some startling insight into Violet, Wray deploys brilliant hallucinatory visuals, including chilling descriptions of the subway system and an imaginary river flowing beneath Manhattan. In his previous works, Wray has shown that he’s not a stranger to dark themes, and with this tightly wound novel, he reaches new heights. (*Publisher’s Weekly)
Rebellious Yankee son of a father who fell victim to the Depression and a doo-gooder-turned-businesswoman mother, father to three competitive children he rode mercilessly but adored, chronicler par excellence of the 1950s American suburban scene while deploring all forms of conformity: John Cheever (1912–1982) was a mass of contradictions. In this overlong but always entertaining biography, composed with a novelist’s eye, Bailey, biographer of Richard Yates and editor of two volumes of Cheever’s work for Library of America (also due in March), was given access to unpublished portions of Cheever’s famous journals and to family members and friends. Bailey’s book is fine in descriptions of Cheever’s reactions to other writers, such as his adored Bellow and detested Salinger. Bailey is also sensitive in describing the prickly dynamic of Cheever’s domestic life, lived through a haze of alcoholism and under the shadow of extramarital heterosexual and homosexual relationships. This Ovid in Ossining, who published 121 stories in the New Yorker as well as several bestselling novels, has probably yet to find a definitive position in American letters among academicians. This thoroughly researched and heartfelt biography may help redress that situation. 24 pages of photos. (*Publisher’s Weekly)
In his bleakly beautiful seventh novel, Scottish author Burnside (The Devil’s Footprint) delivers a cautionary tale illustrating that greed and an indifference to suffering are the real horrors of modern life. In recent years, five teenage boys have disappeared from the coastal village of Innertown, where an abandoned chemical plant deep in the forest is slowly poisoning its rapidly declining population. The official line is that the missing boys are seeking a better life away from the town whose sole business is slow decay. A 15-year-old lad, who’s found solace in books and foreign films that he can barely understand, is determined to find out what happened to his friends and why the town’s lone cop spends so much time in those tarnished woods. Burnside expertly details an apocalyptic landscape where the expectation of failure is rampant. While the ending feels hurried, Burnside’s flawless prose explores how defeat is only a state of mind.
The impressive debut novel from French playwright de Fombelle deftly weaves mature political commentary, broad humor and some subtle satire into a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. The people of the Tree are two millimeters tall or less, but their society mimics ours. Industrialists keep digging holes, politicians play dirty games and scientists conduct research to discover the nature of the world in which they live. Toby Lolness, the son of a renowned scientist, is forced to become a fugitive when his father’s discoveries reveal the dangers presented by the continued development of the Tree. Toby’s story is revealed in flashbacks as he runs from the cronies of Joe Mitch, a builder who has rapidly become a political powerhouse. Mitch’s machinations have turned the Tree into a totalitarian society in which reading and writing are banned, and only Toby remains free to try to rescue his parents and bring down Mitch and his crew. It’s hard not to see some of the book’s antecedents—the Borrowers, the Littles, etc.—but de Fombelle has built a unique world with a fully developed social and political structure.
Ages 9–up. (*Publisher’s Weekly)
Mary Gaitskill has a reputation as the chronicler of bad relationships, but that label doesn’t do justice to the stories she tells. Her relationships turn bad, or turn good, or just turn (and turn and turn). In every exploitation there’s an attraction, or at least an accommodation; in every hostility there’s a yearning for, or at least a memory of, connection. You see the intensity of people–friends and family as well as lovers–drawn together, and the often equally intense emptiness when the magnet flips and repels. Gaitskill is one of our best short story writers (that’s a label that’s fully just) and the prickly, sad brilliance of her last book, Veronica, confirmed her as a master of the novel, too. Don’t Cry is just her third story collection in 20 years, after the modern classics Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, and it reminds you immediately of why you’ve been longing to read her again. Once more, there are former lovers and ex-friends and parents and children who have not quite made a hash of things, but there’s also a broadening in this collection, especially in the title story, which looks at the ties of family and friendship when they are stretched across the global distance of privilege and poverty. –Tom Nissley
While this latest memoir from Susan Jane Gilman (former Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress) appears to be a saucy account of international sexcapades, it quickly reveals its whip-smarts, sucking you into a story that brilliantly captures the “ecstatic terror” of gleefully leaping from your comfort zone–and finding yourself in freefall. It’s 1986, and newly minted ivy league grads Susy and her friend Claire have never left the U.S. when (inspired by a “Pancakes of Many Nations” promotion during a drunken night at IHOP) they hatch a plan to circle the world, starting in China, which has just opened to tourists. From the moment of arrival, they’re out of their depth, perpetually hungry, foolish, and paranoid from relentless observation. Claire, who carries the complete works of Nietzsche “like a Gideon Bible,” seems more capable than Susy until encounters with military police, hallucinatory fevers, and a frantic escape from a squalid hospital expose cracks in her psyche that utterly derail their plans. Rich with insight, dead-on dialogue, and canny characterization, Gilman’s personal tale nails that cataclysmic collision of idealism and reality that so often characterizes young adulthood. Be prepared to wolf down the final hundred pages in one sitting.
While images of athletic and Hollywood celebrity decorated the rooms of his classmates, the walls of Said Sayrafiezadeh’s youth were adorned with fierce glares from heavily-bearded revolutionaries. As the son of an Iranian father and Jewish-American mother–two souls united by a commitment to an impending socialist revolution–young Said spent his childhood working to make the comrades proud. He hawked the movement’s rag, embraced a moniker of “the little revolutionary,” and even embarked on a confusing trip to Cuba to spark his political awareness. Despite the seriousness of his cause, When Skateboards Will Be Free describes a politically-charged childhood with an innocence that forces smiles in unexpected places and reveals the heartache of a home soaked in idealism. The arrival of a socialist state not only promised to bring skateboards in bubblegum-bright colors to the masses; it also pledged to repair the rifts within Sayrafiezadeh’s own home. – Dave Callanan
Best Book for Your Basketball Jones
Thirty years ago, college basketball was not the sport we know today. Few games were televised nationally and the NCAA tournament had just expanded from thirty-two to forty teams. Into this world came two exceptional players: Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. Though they played each other only once, in the 1979 NCAA finals, that meeting launched an epic rivalry, transformed the NCAA tournament into the multibillion-dollar event it is today, and laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the NBA.
In When March Went Mad, Seth Davis recounts the dramatic story of the season leading up to that game, as Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores overcame long odds and great doubts that their unheralded teams could compete at the highest level. Davis also tells the stories of their remarkable coaches, Jud Heathcote and Bill Hodges—who were new to their schools but who set their own paths to build great teams—and he shows how tensions over race and class heightened the drama of the competition. When Magic and Bird squared off in Salt Lake City on March 26, 1979, the world took notice—to this day it remains the most watched basketball game in the history of television—and the sport we now know was born.
Best Unexpected Epiphany Ever
When it comes to memoirs, a self-deprecating tone often fares very well (think David Sedaris, Haven Kimmel or Augusten Burroughs). Guillette’s tepid offering could have used less ego and more edge. Soon after piquing her agent Jack’s interest in a book about people’s most embarrassing moments, Guillette discovers that her own personal gaffes are more glorious than those of her subjects. (She did, after all, once spill marinara sauce on celebrated essayist Phillip Lopate’s tie). In the midst of these revelations, she falls hard for Jack, despite a good friend’s warning that it’s not likely to end well. The relationship indeed fizzles and Guillette wallows in angst, wondering what will happen to her career and her life. (All is not lost, alas; the men at the local pub still find her beautiful). Guillette interweaves her own travails with shame-inducing episodes imparted by others, ranging from incontinence in a moving vehicle to a noodle coming out the nose. The end result is neither funny nor tragic, but some prosaic place in between. (From Booklist)
Best Guided Tour of Hell
Littell opens his Second World War novel, told through the recollections of a German officer named Max Aue, with a breakdown of how many Germans, Soviets, and Jews died, minute by minute, in the conflict. As Aue travels to Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and Hungary to report on morale and efficiency, long sections of bureaucratic analysis alternate with moments of mind-numbing sadism. Aue, a caricature of moral failure (he fantasizes at length about sodomizing his twin sister), encounters a cast of unintentionally comic characters, such as an obese and flatulent proponent of the Final Solution, who surrounds himself with Teutonic beauties. The Holocaust is recast as an extended bout of office politics, with German officials quarrelling over who is responsible for prisoners� hygiene. As the novel draws to a violent close, its story seems nearly as senseless as the horrors it depicts. (From The New Yorker)
Best Book to Convince Your Kids That Snorkeling is Fun
Yaccarino is best known for his whimsical animal characters, including some, such as Oswald the octopus, who now star in their own television series. Here he switches focus to a real-world, human hero: famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. The brief, evenly paced text, which includes a few direct quotes, describes Cousteau’s lifelong fascination with the sea, filmmaking, and invention, beginning with depictions of the scientist as a young boy, tinkering with cameras and swimming in the ocean to recover from chronic illness. Rendered in gouache and airbrush, the playful illustrations evoke popular mid-twentieth-century patterns and shades—a fitting reference to Cousteau’s professional heyday. A few scenes seem to emphasize design over realistic depictions: undersea vessels, in particular, are indistinct shapes, and Cousteau himself often appears as a stylized figure. The fanciful, textured images give a sense of the sea’s infinite swirl of life, though, and they are further grounded by the solid, straightforward words. Pair this energetic, inspiring biography with Jennifer Berne’s Manfish (2008), another picture-book view of Cousteau’s life and work. Grades K-3. –Gillian Engberg
Top Three Paperbacks of March
Courtesy of AMAZON.COM