We know who the killer is (or do we?) in the new thriller by Japanese author Nakamura (The Thief), so the question at hand—it would seem—is why. But even that doesn't really sum it up, as this dark and twisty thriller dives to nightmarish depths to explore the ugliest parts of the human mind.
Photographer Yudai Kiharazaka has been sentenced to death for the murders of two women who were incinerated in two fires. After becoming fascinated by one of Kiharazaka's photographs—of black butterflies obscuring a possibly female figure—the story's narrator sets out to write a book about the murders. The story unfolds through letters from Kiharazaka to the narrator and to his sister, and through the narrator's eyes.
When reading Last Winter, We Parted, it feels like I'm exploring the minds of characters in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Werner Herzog's documentary Into the Abyss. It's a creepy feeling. An excerpt from one of Kiharazaka's letters:
I would look away from the butterfly. For that instant, the butterfly was no longer mine. Or when I photographed it from the right side, I couldn't capture its left side. That's why you think it would make sense to film it, right? Wrong. What I wanted was a single moment. I Wanted a single moment of that butterfly. Yet for the butterfly, that moment was one of countless moments. And there was no way that I could capture all of them.
I spent entire days clicking the shutter at that butterfly. I must have fallen in love with it. I don't know. I put it in a cage and kept it, but I was in despair over the fact that I could never completely possess the butterfly. Well, actually, it was probably despair about the way that the world itself works. Why, when a "subject" is right in front of us, are we only capable of recognizing, of grasping, that one small part we see? That butterfly was the reason I was hospitalized the first time. I don't remember, but apparently I wouldn't stop taking photos—not even to eat—and when I collapsed, my sister was the one who took care of me. Then I went to the hospital. I was given a psychological diagnosis. Anxiety neurosis, I think it was. In the medical field, I guess they like to be able to put a name to it when people deviate from the norm.
I wonder if I've made myself clear about the fact that I have no interest in butterfly specimens. I don't understand why those guys like to collect and mount them. I mean, they kill their butterflies, thereby preventing any further possibility of their motion. Which means they will never possess the butterflies in their beautiful flight . . . Do you know what I mean?
What are you reading?
There might not be a lot of action in David Bell's new novel, but there's plenty of moodiness and tension-filled looks to slowly build a mystery. And I sure do love a slow burner, expecially when a book fills the air with on-point characterization.
The questions begin after Jason Danvers' sister Hayden, a former addict, appears at his doorstep with an apology and her teenage daughter in tow. Hayden is super cryptic about some "things" she has to take care of, so it's no surprise that she leaves her daughter with Jason and his wife and doesn't come back. All of this is curious timing, considering that Jason was recently questioned by police about his missing friend, Logan, who disappeared 17 years ago. The truth has to come out sometime . . .
Jason drove with no destination in mind. He considered going home but decided that Nora was right and what Sierra needed more than anything was distraction. She didn't speak as they drove away from the Owl and back toward downtown. She stopped commenting on passing sights. She didn't say anything. She pulled her feet up onto the seat and stared out the window, her fingernail in her mouth again.
"Do you want to see the house your mom and I grew up in?" Jason asked.
"Always," Sierra said.
"You've always wanted to see it?"
"Why did she say 'always'?" Her voice was hollow. She kept her head turned away from Jason. "It would be one thing if she just wrote and told me that she loved me. She does that kind of stuff all the time. But why did she say she'd always love me? Isn't that what you say to someone when you think you're never going to see them again?"
What are you reading?
Is it me, or is 2014 the year of the essay? I've raved in previous posts over The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist; On Immunity is another essay that moved me, entertained me and made me think. Biss, who teaches at Northwestern, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to support her work on her third book, a combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you've ever read before.
Blending personal experience with social history and myth, Biss takes on the thorny topic of immunization—moving from the story of Achilles, whose dip in the water was perhaps the first documented attempt of a parent to innoculate their child against harm, to modern-day anti-vacciners in a meditation on the concept of immunization and what it means on a personal level as well as a societal one.
Though this is a short book, it's not something to be read quickly. Biss' thoughful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.
When my son asks me about his belly button, I describe the near-mythological umbilical cord that once connected us. I point to my belly button and tell him that all of us were once contained within another body on which our lives depended. Even a three-year-old, who is still wholly dependent on me but already accustomed to thinking of himself as independent, finds this perplexing. Speaking from a moment just before the Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day—our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent.
What are you reading this week?
Dating is hard. So are statistics. But Christian Rudder, the co-founder of the dating site OkCupid, presents the facts on both in entertaining, accessible style in Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking. Rudder uses the data you thought was private—browsing history, how long you stare at your ex’s Facebook photos, your dating profile and messages—and paints a (sometimes horrifying) portrait of human behavior. Thankfully, it’s all reported anonymously, but that’s not to say you won’t recognize yourself in the statistics. Private browsing? Pshaw. The Internet holds all, and it doesn’t forget.
People tend to run wild on those match questions, marking all kind of stuff as "mandatory," in essence putting a checklist to the world: I’m looking for a dog-loving, agnostic, nonsmoking liberal who’s never had kids—and who’s good in bed, of course. But very humble questions like Do you like scary movies? And Have you ever traveled alone to another country? have amazing predictive power. If you’re ever stumped on what to ask someone on a first date, try those. In about three-quarters of the long-term couples OkCupid has ever brought together, both people have answered them the same way, either both “yes” or both “no.” People tend to overemphasize the big, splashy things: faith, politics, certainly looks, but they don’t matter nearly as much as everyone thinks. Sometimes, they don’t matter at all.
What have you been reading lately?
Best-selling British author Amanda Prowse, who often draws comparisons to the beloved Jodi Picoult, is making her U.S. debut this fall. After her self-published debut, Poppy Day, took off in 2011, Prowse was picked up by Head of Zeus and has become a household name across the pond.
What Have I Done? is the second novel in Prowse's No Greater Love series, and it hits American shelves for the first time next week. The story follows Kathryn Booker, the wife of the beloved headmaster of Mountbriers Academy, a posh private school. To the average onlooker, Kathryn lives a life of domestic bliss: She lives in a charming cottage with a perfectly manicured garden; she has a doting husband and two precocious children. But Kathryn knows it's all a lie, and every day she endures abuse from her astonishingly cruel husband, until one day, she decides to break free.
Kathryn Booker watched the life slip from him, convinced she saw the black spirit snake out of his body and disappear immediately through the floor, spiraling down and down. She sat back in her chair and breathed deeply. She had expected euphoria or at the very least relief. What she couldn't have predicted was the numbness that now enveloped her. Picturing her children sleeping next door, she closed her eyes and wished for them a deep and peaceful rest, knowing it would be the last they would enjoy for some time. As ever, consideration of what was best for her son and daughter was only a thought away.
The room felt quite empty beside the blood-soaked body lying centrally on the bed. The atmosphere was peaceful, the temperature just right.
Kathryn registered the smallest flicker of disappointment; she had expected to feel more . . .
"Emergency, which service do you require?"
"Oh, hello, yes, I'm not too sure which service I require."
"You are not sure?"
"I think I probably need the police or ambulance, maybe both. Sorry. As I said, I'm not too sure . . ."
"Can I ask you what it is in connection with, madam?"
"Oh, right, yes, of course. I have just murdered my husband."
What are you reading?
It's not uncommon for a mystery or thriller author to have a pretty cool backstory. I'm thinking former CIA agent Jason Matthews (author of Red Sparrow), former MI6 agent Matthew Dunn (whose upcoming thriller Dark Spies will be reviewed in the October issue of BookPage) and Stella Rimington, the first female chief of MI5—and that's just off the top of my head. So Patrick Hoffman's history as a former private investigator isn't all that exciting—that is, until I cracked his debut and discovered this guy's eye for detail.
Hoffman transforms San Francisco into a noir playground for all sorts of shady characters—the kind that can only come from the mind of a writer who really gets people, their secrets and the lengths to which they'll go when they have no good choices.
The White Van opens on Emily Rosario. One moment she's drinking whiskey with a Russian businessman, and the next she's drugged up, in and out of sleep, and being prepped to perform a bank robbery. Cop Leo Elias finds himself in pursuit of the stolen cash, but not with entirely honorable motives. Read on for an excerpt, a flash from Emily's unnerving drugged-up perspective:
It had been six days in the hotel now. Six days filled with sleep. When she wasn't sleeping, when she floated back up into the world, Emily was greeted by the Russian, the woman, or both.
"You need to start doing a little more work," said the woman at one point. "We're paying you!"
"What?" was all Emily could manage to say.
"Look," said the woman, pointing at the table. Emily loked and saw a Styrofoam container filled with food. "You're making a fucking mess," said the woman.
"That's not mine," said Emily.
"Come," said the woman. Emily stepped toward the table. The woman, her face made ugly with anger, stuck her fingers into the brown gravy, held them up for Emily to see, and then smeared the gravy across the table. "Clean it," she said, holding a bathroom towel out for her.
Emily stepped forward and cleaned the gravy with the towel. The woman lifted the container and dumped the remaining food onto the table. "Clean it," she said.
Emily began wiping at it with the towel, but the woman, her eyebrows raised, interrupted her by pointing at a trash can. Emily, feeling a strange disassociation with her own body, brought the trash can to the table, put the Sytrofoam container into it, and then, with the towel, pushed in the mess of gravy and food off the table and into the trash. She then wiped up the remaining mess.
"See, good, not too hard, right?" said the woman. "A little work never killed anyone."
They fed her candy as a reward. They gave her Starbursts. The three of them, Emily and the woman and the Russian, would sit at the table and eat candy, piling wrappers in the center. They made her drink soup and eat slices of bread. The sore under Emily's mouth had healed. She was being taken care of. She slept.
The woman would stand over Emily's bed and—in a voice that was meant to sound comforting—sing Sinatra songs. She would sing It had to be you, her accent pronounced and her voice flat. It had to be you.
What are you reading?
How many writers manage to publish a novel and an essay collection over the course of one summer? Roxane Gay's debut, An Untamed State, was published in May, but before she became a novelist she was known for her penetrating essays and cultural criticism. Bad Feminist contains both of these, alongside deeply personal writing—including a depiction of her assault at the age of 12—and more lighthearted pieces about Scrabble tournaments and reality TV.
The collection takes its title from the final two essays, which explore how prescriptive the definition of "feminist" can sometimes be, and how Gay at times feels she comes up short.
Alas, poor feminism. So much responsibility keeps getting piled on the shoulders of a movement whose primary purpose is to achieve equality, in all realms, between men and women. I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because they suggest there's no way for women to ever get it right. These articles make it seem like, as Butler suggests, there is in fact, a right way to be a woman and a wrong way to be a woman. The standard for the right way to be a woman and/or a feminist appears to be ever changing and unachievable.
Gay's insightful exploration of this topic makes readers worry less about their occasional shortcomings and more comfortable with being human.
What are you reading this week?
Pablo Picasso is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. He is also remembered as a notorious, and often cruel, lover of women. Anne Girard's Madame Picasso explores the relationship between Picasso and his beloved muse, Eva Gouel (also known as Marcelle Humbert, a name she adopted in an attempt to sound more Parisian).
After defying her provincial parents' wishes and moving to Paris, Eva Gouel is delighted when she lands a job as a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge. A naive but genuine lover of art, she is also thrilled—and baffled—when the controversial and alluring artist Pablo Picasso takes an interest in her. As her affair with Picasso evolves and she is ushered into the decadent world of elite Belle Époque Paris, Eva struggles with insecurities and self-doubt. Little is known of Gouel, the women many consider to be Picasso's truest love, but Girard revives their tumultuous relationship, as well as its tragic demise, with skill.
Eva had fallen asleep on the windowsill, but the giggles and whispers out in the corridor woke her suddenly. When she opened her eyes, she could see that the sky had cleared. It was such a lovely cerulean blue day.
"It's him, I tell you! I've seen him before! Look down below there, in the lane!"
"He's so handsome, and famous! What the devil would he want with Marcelle?"
The voices carried through the paper-thin walls between the small rooms. Eva glanced down then and saw Picasso standing outside the door of the dormitory, wearing a proper dark suit, hat and read silk necktie. He was holding a bouquet of flowers: daises, daffodils, lilies of the valley and white roses, tied with a bright yellow ribbon. The ribbon was the color of her mother's silk kimono. She was too stunned, at first, to think. Even after everything, it seemed slightly unbelievable that he might be here for her.
Eva skittered onto her feet and glanced at the mirror on the wall beside her bed. She pinched both cheeks, which were already flushed from the sudden shock of seeing him. Then she slipped on her shoes, and pulled open the door with such force that it sprang back and crashed against the wall. The giggles and whispers stopped as Eva tumbled out into the hall and past the catty girls gathered there.
What are you reading?
Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?