It is almost impossible to choose the most memorable thing about James Hannaham’s powerful and daring second novel, Delicious Foods (a title suggestive of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). It might be that one of its narrators is crack cocaine, or that one of its main characters loses his hands. It might be the evocative African-American slang and dialect. Or it might be the way the novel can be read as an extended metaphor for the situation of blacks in America.
To describe Jill Ciment’s latest novel as the story of a supermold that colonizes a Brooklyn neighborhood and threatens to infest the entire city doesn’t even come close to doing it justice—though it’s factually accurate. Dressed in the guise of a thriller, Act of God is really a keenly intelligent story about the tangled bonds of sisterly love and the power of repentance and forgiveness.
Each new book by Booker Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) is, on the surface at least, vastly different from those that have come before. The Buried Giant—his first novel in almost 10 years—is no exception. This fable-like narrative, set in England just after the mythic reign of Arthur, chronicles the adventures of an elderly couple as they journey across a wild and rugged landscape. Old and forgetful, but still endearingly in love, Axl and Beatrice have been cast to the margins of their settlement, not even allowed candles for fear that they may do themselves harm. So, they decide to set out for their son’s village, which they believe they can reach with a few days’ travel. But the landscape abounds with human hostility and ignorance, as well as the shadowy possibility of ogres and other mythical beasts.
It’s a favorite trick among literary novelists: use a classic work of literature as a launching pad for an investigation into favored themes. Jean Rhys did it with Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel of sorts to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. J.M. Coetzee has done it twice, first in Foe, in which he reimagined Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of a woman, and then, more daringly, in The Childhood of Jesus. Now essayist and playwright Caryl Phillips takes the work of a different Brontë—Emily—as the inspiration for his latest novel, The Lost Child.
Halfway through Rachel Basch’s third novel, The Listener, the reader gets the feeling that the title is ironic. Malcolm Dowd is a psychotherapist at the college in his town. His job is to listen; no doubt his skill at listening has saved the sanity or even the lives of the sad people who unburden themselves in his office. But when it comes to his own loved ones, Malcolm Dowd is about as deaf as a stump.
Reif Larsen waits 200 pages before betraying his literary lineage by using the phrase “gravity’s rainbow.” For in his sprawling, pyrotechnic second novel, I Am Radar, one is never far from Pynchon’s masterpiece, that once-groundbreaking combination of adolescent hilarity and theoretical physics. The authors share a soaring erudition and ambition—evidenced by the length and ostentation of their books. But where Pynchon’s main theme might be a paranoiac fear of annihilation and conspiracy, Larsen’s seems to be an affirmation of the pathetic randomness of life. It’s telling that his previous book, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, was made into a film by the director of Amélie, and his new release resembles the joyful, madcap creations of Wes Anderson.
It’s a glad thing when a reader encounters a character so compelling that you want to punch him in the nose. Such abhorrence—it’s not really hatred—can be as pleasurable in its own way as love. Such is the aggravation caused by Jonas Karlsson’s weird, insufferably arrogant, not quite neuro-normal protagonist in the crisp, novella-length book The Room.
For those who argue that global capitalism is in the midst of a second Gilded Age, Canadian novelist Stephen Marche’s second novel (after Raymond and Hannah) offers an intriguing genre-crossing allegory for the rapacity and relentlessness of that economic philosophy.
David Treuer’s fourth novel, Prudence, is set in northern Minnesota, near the Leech Lake Reservation where he grew up. It opens in August 1942, as Frankie Washburn is returning to the Pines, the resort owned by his parents, for a brief visit before joining the war as a bombardier. The reunion is fraught with negative memories from the past, especially the distance between Frankie and his father, Jonathan. Frankie’s sexual orientation, although never mentioned, is planted like a wall between them. Frankie’s mother is oblivious, her main concern in life being the upkeep of the Pines itself.
In 20 novels published over a remarkable 50-year period, Anne Tyler has staked her claim as our premier chronicler of the ordinary, imperfect American family. Set in Baltimore, like most of her work, A Spool of Blue Thread concerns just such a family. Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children are, from the outside, just like anyone else. Red is a second-generation building contractor, Abby a social worker, and the clan has long occupied a rambling house that Red’s father once built for another man. Like all families, they have had their ups and downs, their squabbles, resentments and misunderstandings, but nothing has irreparably damaged the household fabric.