Fiction dominates what we’ve been enjoying recently, but, as ever, there’s an interesting mix from the mysterious to the philosophical.
The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings
On the night of February 6, 1978, a catastrophic nor’easter struck the city of New York. On that night, in a penthouse in the Upper West Side’s stately Apelles, a crowd gathered for a wild party. And on that night, Mr. Albert Haynes Caldwell – a partner emeritus at Swank, Brady & Plescher; Harvard class of ’26; father of three; widower; atheist; and fiscal conservative – hatched a plan to fake a medical emergency and toss himself into the Hudson River, where he would drown.
In the eye of this storm: Hazel Saltwater, age six. The strange events of that night irrevocably altered many lives, but none more than hers. The Blizzard Party is Hazel’s reconstruction of that night, an exploration of love, language, conspiracy, auditory time travel, and life after death.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means “slave girl,” she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.
Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions: Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing OxyContin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis.
Empire of Pain is a masterpiece of narrative reporting and writing, exhaustively documented and ferociously compelling.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Committed follows the man of two minds as he arrives in Paris in the early 1980s with his blood brother Bon. The pair try to overcome their pasts and ensure their futures by engaging in capitalism in one of its purest forms: drug dealing. Traumatized by his reeducation at the hands of his former best friend, Man, and struggling to assimilate into French culture, the Sympathizer finds Paris both seductive and disturbing. As he falls in with a group of left-wing intellectuals whom he meets at dinner parties given by his French Vietnamese “aunt,” he finds stimulation for his mind but also customers for his narcotic merchandise. But the new life he is making has perils he has not foreseen, whether the self-torture of addiction, the authoritarianism of a state locked in a colonial mindset, or the seeming paradox of how to reunite his two closest friends whose worldviews put them in absolute opposition.
The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner
In nineteen razor-sharp essays, The Hard Crowd spans literary journalism, memoir, cultural criticism, and writing about art and literature, including pieces on Jeff Koons, Denis Johnson, and Marguerite Duras. Kushner takes us on a journey through a Palestinian refugee camp, an illegal motorcycle race down the Baja Peninsula, 1970s wildcat strikes in Fiat factories, her love of classic cars, and her young life in the music scene of her hometown, San Francisco. The closing, eponymous essay is her manifesto on nostalgia, doom, and writing.
These pieces, new and old, are electric, phosphorescently vivid, and wry, and they provide an opportunity to witness the evolution and range of one of our most dazzling and fearless writers.
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova
Following the death of her aunt, the narrator of In Memory of Memory is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.
Dipping into various forms—essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue, and historical documents—Maria Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities, offering an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.
The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard
For fifteen years August Sitwell has worked for the Barclays, a well-to-do white family who plucked him from an orphan asylum and gave him a job. The groundskeeper is part of the household’s all-black staff, along with “Miss Mamie,” the talented cook, pretty new maid Jennie Williams, and three young kitchen apprentices—the latest orphan boys Mr. Barclay has taken in to “civilize” boys like August.
But the Barclays fortunes have fallen, and their money is almost gone. When a prospective business associate proposes selling Miss Mamie’s delicious rib sauce to local markets under the brand name “The Rib King”—using a caricature of a wildly grinning August on the label—Mr. Barclay, desperate for cash, agrees. Yet neither Miss Mamie nor August will see a dime. Humiliated, August grows increasingly distraught, his anger building to a rage that explodes in shocking tragedy.
Marshlands by André Gide
André Gide is the inventor of modern metafiction and of autofiction, and his short novel Marshlands shows him handling both forms with a deft and delightful touch. The protagonist of Marshlands is a writer who is writing a book called Marshlands, which is about a reclusive character who lives all alone in a stone tower. The narrator, by contrast, is anything but a recluse: He is an indefatigable social butterfly, flitting about the Paris literary world and always talking about, what else, the wonderful book he is writing, Marshlands. He tells his friends about the book, and they tell him what they think, which is not exactly flattering, and of course those responses become part of the book in the reader’s hand. Marshlands is both a poised satire of literary pretension and a superb literary invention, and Damion Searls’s new translation of this early masterwork by one of the key figures of twentieth-century literature brings out all the sparkle of the original.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan
In a world of perennial fire and growing extinctions, Anna’s aged mother is dying–if her three children would just allow it. Condemned by their pity to living, subjected to increasingly desperate medical interventions, she instead turns her focus to her hospital window, through which she escapes into visions of horror and delight. When Anna’s finger vanishes and a few months later her knee disappears, Anna too feels the pull of the window. She begins to see that all around her others are similarly vanishing, yet no one else notices. All Anna can do is keep her mother alive. But the window keeps opening wider, taking Anna and the reader ever deeper into an eerily beautiful story of grief and possibility, of loss and love and orange-bellied parrots.
Hailed on publication in Australia as Flanagan’s greatest novel yet, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is a rising ember storm illuminating what remains to us when the inferno beckons: one part elegy, one part dream, one part hope.
The Vietri Project by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye
Working at a bookstore in Berkeley in the years after college, Gabriele becomes intrigued by the orders of signor Vietri, a customer from Rome whose numerous purchases grow increasingly mystical and esoteric. Restless and uncertain of her future, Gabriele quits her job and, landing in Rome, decides to look up Vietri. Unable to locate him, she begins a quest to unearth the well-concealed facts of his life.
Following a trail of obituaries and military records, a memoir of life in a village forgotten by modernity, and the court records of a communist murder trial, Gabriele meets an eclectic assortment of the city’s inhabitants, from the widow of an Italian prisoner of war to members of a generation set adrift by the financial crisis. Through these voices and histories, Gabriele will discover what it means to be a person in the world; a member of a family and a citizen of a country—and how reconciling these stories may be the key to understanding her own.