HARM | Brian W. Aldiss | Del Rey | Having read loads of Brian Aldiss’s sci-fi stuff in the 70s, I thought for sure he must be dead by now. But at 80, with more than 75 books under his belt, he’s not only alive and kicking–he’s kicking hard. His latest is a feverish novel examining paranoia in a terrorism-obsessed world creeping toward totalitarianism. British citizen Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali has written what he considers a comic novel a la P.G. Wodehouse. But in one passage of his book a couple innocuously jokes about blowing up the British prime minister. That and Paul’s Pakistani heritage are enough to get him hauled off by the Hostile Activities Research Ministry. Sequestered in a Guantanamo-like prison, he’s relentlessly questioned and tortured. A companion story develops, perhaps through Paul’s nightmares or a split in his personality, about a futuristic world called Stygia, populated by humans–including Paul’s alter ego, Fremant–who traveled there over light-years and were “reconstituted” upon arrival. These people retain their identities but no memories, and therefore no animosities. It doesn’t take long for the new humans to start being inhuman again, killing the insectlike natives and building tribal alliances. Aldiss’s tale is harrowing–for better or worse, the reader feels almost a part of Paul’s delirium. | Jerome Ludwig
BECAUSE THE RAIN | Daniel Buckman | St. Martin’s | Previous titles by local novelist Daniel Buckman–Water in Darkness, The Names of Rivers, and Morning Dark–all dealt with damaged vets and their difficulties readapting to “normal” life. His latest has a similar theme. Mike Spence is 35, married 12 years, a former paratrooper (like Buckman). After writing a novel that doesn’t get much attention (like Buckman’s first), Mike gives up his dream of being a novelist to become a Chicago cop. His wife, Susan, is resentful because she had an abortion when Mike thought a child would get in the way of his writing. After she’s brutally murdered, Mike escapes by running–day after day through dark, rain-splattered streets, straight up like a good soldier. An older vet, Donald Goetzler, finds his refuge spending time with Annie, a young Vietnamese call girl. Mirroring Susan’s anger at her wasted sacrifice, Goetzler is embittered by society’s lack of appreciation for veterans–and his personal vendettas have tragic consequences. Three mournful lives intersect when Annie becomes attracted to the stoic runner she sees passing her apartment window every day.With Because the Rain Buckman’s work rises to a new level. The writing is accomplished, confident, and at times just downright beautiful. That doesn’t mean a lot of people will read this literary post-Vietnam novel, and that’s a shame. | Jerome Ludwig
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION | Michael Chabon | HarperCollins | Yiddish and the hard-boiled language of noir collide in this absorbing new novel from Michael Chabon. Extrapolating on a proposal the FDR administration actually brought to Congress, he transforms Sitka, Alaska, into an autonomous but temporary homeland for displaced Jews after Israel falls to the Arabs in 1948. On the eve of the region’s reversion to American control, alcoholic detective Meyer Landsman begins investigating a murder committed in the fleabag hotel he calls home. Work on the case opens a door onto the gumshoe’s troubled past as well the history of Sitka, which is plagued by an underground group of Orthodox “black hats” whose sinister dealings aren’t restricted to organized crime.
As in his Pulitzer-winning smash The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon’s real focus here is on his characters, most of whom are struggling to secure their own identity and place in the world. He traces their development through their obsessions with chess, conflicts with the native Tlingit, and revelations in the increasingly complex murder case. As the hand-over date draws nearer, the Jewish population becomes increasingly anxious–and Landman increasingly indifferent–about the future. Although Chabon’s “end times” conspiracy at the book’s denouement seems far-fetched, it serves a purpose: Landsman is so determined to throw himself into the void it takes something that big to snap him out of it. | Peter Margasak
THE GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN SHOES | Colin Channer | Akashic | Set in the early 1940s against the backdrop of a far-off war, Colin Channer’s new novella, The Girl With the Golden Shoes, plays out over the course of a day and a night. In the opening scene, a U.S. Navy diver on maneuvers emerges from the sea and meets Estrella, a teenager who lives in a fishing village on the fictional Caribbean island of San Carlos. He speaks to her in her own language–Sancoche, a creole dialect that Channer, a best-selling writer in his native Jamaica, has also invented and approximates in English throughout the book in both dialogue and indirect discourse. When village elders blame a disturbance in fish migration patterns on the encounter and banish the girl, her wanderlust is given free rein. Best described as trust embodied, Estrella is helped and manipulated by a host of characters along her route to Seville, the island’s biggest town, where she hopes to buy a pair of nice shoes and thus find a job. It’s a parable of elemental humanity–the lust, pointed thievery, and small acts of compassion that make us who we are. | Todd Dills
THE ZEN OF FISH | Trevor Corson | HarperCollins | In his new book, journalist Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, traces the development of sushi from its humble origins in a method of preserving old fish to a trend so in vogue that some American restaurants have built their own in-house tanks (an unfortunate practice, Corson says: fish can be too fresh). It’s a compelling cultural history; unfortunately, it’s woven into a subpar narrative about a group of students at the California Sushi Academy, a down-at-the-heels school run by a once lionized, now forgotten chef. These people are so vapid–and the Dick-and-Jane prose style doesn’t do them any favors–that it’s never clear why we’re supposed to care. Corson speaks Japanese, a skill I wish he’d put to better use, perhaps reporting from Japan instead of telling us what chefs talk about behind the sushi bar (tits, apparently). Still, there’s a dinner party’s worth of wonderful facts here. For instance: supposedly, Sigmund Freud’s first med school assignment was to figure out where eels hide their testicles. According to Corson, he failed. | Nicholas Day
THE PESTHOUSE | Jim Crace | Doubleday | Savagery reigns in post-apocalyptic America, where small communities have formed in the poisoned land around the ruins of cities. Those left behind must be on guard against the ever-present threat of marauders and the plaguelike “flux.” Against this bleak landscape, award-winning novelist Jim Crace (Quarantine, Being Dead) gracefully unfolds a romance between two strangers abandoned to fate.
Franklin is among the throngs staggering from the blasted hinterlands toward the east coast, where there are supposedly boats that will take them to a distant, better land–perhaps Europe. Injured and ditched by his brother, he seeks shelter at the “pesthouse,” where the sickly Margaret has been consigned by her parents. Together the pair journey east, traversing the blasted countryside and navigating the countless dangers (mostly other people) that stand in their way.
Because of its setting and plot, The Pesthouse has been unfavorably compared to Cormac McCarthy’s devastating The Road. It may be more apt to compare Crace to J.G. Ballard, another British writer with a cockeyed surrealist’s view of an America well past its prime and looking across the ocean for salvation. | Chris Barsanti
BUDA’S WAGON: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CAR BOMB | Mike Davis | Verso | The car bomb may seem like a product of the post-Cold War era but it dates back to 1920, when Italian anarchist Mario Buda (an associate of Sacco and Vanzetti) detonated a horse-drawn wagon full of dynamite and scrap metal in front of J.P. Morgan’s Wall Street office, killing 40. Urban historian Mike Davis traces the evolution of the weapon since and examines its impact on world cities in an era of “asymmetric warfare,” where First World nations have overwhelming technological superiority but few defenses against such methods.
The litany of carnage is astonishing, the infernal machines deployed by everyone from anti-British Zionists and the Viet Cong to psychotic French reactionaries in Algeria and neo-Nazis protesting South Africa’s post-apartheid elections. By the time you get to the bloody rampages of the IRA, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda, you’re numb. Davis, who’s best known for his apocalyptic view of Los Angeles in the urban studies masterpiece City of Quartz, argues that the car bomb–with its “incessant blasting away at the moral and physical shell of the city”–is the direct cause of such Orwellian defenses as London’s “ring of steel.” The security measures put in place to counter terrorist acts become in a sense a form of quiet terrorism.
Davis offers a chilling and sobering analysis of the steady advance of “the poor man’s air force” but is too honest to offer any false hope we’ll see an end to them soon. “Nihilism,” he grimly notes, “if systematic, works.” | Chris Barsanti
I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER | Larry Doyle | Ecco | “Think A Christmas Story meets American Pie,” you can almost hear the Hollywood suits saying of this debut novel. Ironically, I Love You, Beth Cooper had its origin in a “scriptment” by Larry Doyle that an LA talent agency rejected as uncastable. Now it’s been optioned by Chris Columbus and picked up by a studio; “Lindsay Lohan would be perfect for Beth Cooper,” Entertainment Weekly gushed. “The book’s obviously a mash-up of teen comedies,” Doyle has said, and sure enough, straight from central casting, we have the nerd, the bully, the wisecracking sidekick, the bimbo, the rich bitch.
The action starts when Denis Cooverman, debate club captain and class valedictorian, departs from the text of his commencement speech to declare his love for head cheerleader Beth Cooper, a bodacious babe with a Neanderthal army grunt of a boyfriend. In the long night that follows, Denis has his first tastes of champagne, joyriding, beer runs, and keggers, all culminating in a towel-snapping battle and some hot girl-on-girl action.
Doyle, who grew up in Buffalo Grove (where the novel is set), has written for the New Yorker and The Simpsons, and the latter shows here in the form of product parodies; characters drink Blood Orange Faygo and Salted Mountain Dew. Doyle’s publisher reportedly was initially unsure whether to market the book to adults or young adults. No matter: this is written for the screen. | Kate Schmidt
THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES | Nathan Englander | Knopf | Nathan Englander, acclaimed for his 1999 short-story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, spent eight years writing this debut novel, and I can only imagine how its subject must’ve haunted his dreams. It’s set in Argentina in the mid-70s, at the start of the seven-year Dirty War, as citizens grow desperate to avoid the suspicion of government terror squads. Kaddish Poznan, spurned by the “upstanding” Jewish community as the son of a whore, plies his trade in what he calls the “shame industry,” defacing the tombstones of Hayim-Moshe “One-Eye” Weiss, “Toothless” Mazursky, and the like at the behest of descendants anxious to erase any shady connections. His college-age son, Pato, is likewise anxious to disassociate himself from Kaddish, while his wife, the tart, resourceful Lillian, is trapped on the sidelines of their conflict.
Effacement is the theme, from the literal rubbing out of names on gravestones to the darkly comic scene in which Kaddish and Lillian undergo nose jobs. Finally Pato is disappeared, snatched by goons and spirited to a prison God knows where. We see nothing from his perspective in the last two-thirds of the novel, which follows Lillian and Kaddish’s futile attempts to locate him; their frustration at the hands of an impenetrable bureaucracy recalls Kafka’s The Castle. By the end Lillian’s still consumed with hope; all Kaddish seeks is a proper grave for his son. | Kate Schmidt
SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE | Austin Grossman | Pantheon | Even if you’re only slightly familiar with the ethos of superheroism, you’ll have a ball reading Austin Grossman’s debut novel. Evil genius Doctor Impossible, “the most audacious criminal mind on Earth (or at least in the top four),” has been foiled in his 12th “and counting” attempt to take over the world by the superhero team the Champions and their leader, the invincible CoreFire. Thanks to them, he’s sent to the special-containment wing of a maximum-security prison–but he escapes after the Champions have disbanded. Worse yet, CoreFire is nowhere to be found. The Champions regroup and recruit cyborg Fatale (via e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org) and Doctor Impossible’s former squeeze Lily, a translucent supervillain born in the 35th century.
Grossman has loads of fun upending superhero stereotypes: Fatale is insecure among her famous teammates and unhappy with her moniker (“For the millionth time, I wish I’d been Cybergirl”). Nearly invincible half-alien Damsel suffers from intestinal issues, and tiger-human hybrid Feral has back problems from walking upright. Most of the parts for Doctor Impossible’s latest doom machine come from Radio Shack, and at one point he gets busted by the Champions while sipping a latte at Starbucks. What is it exactly that makes him hell-bent on world domination? Even he wonders why the smartest man in the world always turns out evil. | Jerome Ludwig
THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST | Mohsin Hamid | Harcourt | Changez, a young Pakistani, spies a lone American at the Anarkali bazaar in Lahore. “Do not be frightened by my beard,” he tells him. “I am a lover of America.” Changez takes the foreigner–who throughout the novel remains unnamed, reticent, and (in our interpreter’s eyes) wary–under his wing and tells him his story.
Changez, like author Mohsin Hamid (Moth Smoke), was raised in Lahore and educated in the Ivy League, and his perspective is complex, neither Eastern nor Western. After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton in 2001, he snags a sweet job in finance and begins an awkward romance with Erica, a daughter of New York society. But despite his golden boy status, Changez can’t shake the unease of the outsider, constantly calculating others’ expectations and playing his foreignness up or down accordingly. Then comes 9/11 and Changez, deeply troubled by the U.S. reaction at home and abroad, slowly loses faith in his American dream.
Throughout this monologue Hamid drops hints that Changez’s intentions may not be as innocent as he pretends. He is unfailingly polite and careful to keep his guest comfortable, but it’s a polished performance; we’re meant to question what is behind it. It’s a tricky test of the reader’s capacity for empathy. Whether we’re willing to entertain this bearded Muslim despite our suspicions is part of the point. | Irma Nunez
NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU | Miranda July | Scribner | Miranda July got her start as a multimedia performance artist, but in recent years she’s established herself as both a director (her 2005 feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was one of the year’s most acclaimed films) and a writer. No One Belongs Here More Than You, her first collection of short stories (previously published in places like the Paris Review, the New Yorker, and Harper’s), presents a bunch of chatty neurotics whose need for love drives them into absurd and sexually perverse situations: a lonely woman gives swimming lessons on her carpet; a frustrated old man has a homosexual tryst with a coworker who doses him with E; another woman snuggles up to a neighbor who’s blacked out from a seizure. Much like Lorrie Moore, July injects curious and fantastical humor into the banal, daring us to believe. Her technique feels inventive in small doses, but when 16 of her stories are strung together like this, it starts to get a little too familiar. Ultimately, what’s most shocking about No One isn’t the parade of awkward people fucking one another in strange ways but the way their encounters reveal abject cruelty to be the driving force of human nature. | Jessica Hopper
NOTHING: SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN | Nica Lalli | Prometheus | Nica Lalli escaped from her first-grade classroom by pretending to have a stomachache. At home, she accidentally slammed a door on her finger, and all she could think was that God was punishing her. That notion didn’t come from her parents, happy unbelievers–“We’re nothing,” her father told her. But the surrounding culture–Chicago in the 1970s–insisted on religious identification, and she longed for an identity like her Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Unitarian grade-school friends had. Her new memoir strings together two dozen episodes from early childhood to early parenthood, chronicling her twisty path to comfortable atheism.
Lalli, now an art educator in New York City and a columnist for the weekly Brooklyn Paper, is a skilled storyteller, evoking her past sharply and honestly. In anecdotes she conveys the frustration of realizing that the evangelists who subverted a high-school ski trip were nuts but being unable to refute them, and of being tied as a young adult to uptight in-laws obsessed with converting her to fundamentalism. She doesn’t preach, but with stories this good who needs a sermon? | Harold Henderson
DIRT: THE EROSION OF CIVILIZATIONS | David R. Montgomery | University of California Press | Most people know that oil and water are in critically short supply, but University of Washington geologist David Montgomery would like to sound the alarm for another natural resource: dirt. Yes, dirt. In his new book, Montgomery makes an unexpectedly convincing argument that a shortage of fertile soil played a significant part in bringing down the Roman, Greek, and Mayan empires, and that societies such as ours have stubbornly repeated their mistakes. It’s strange to learn in the midst of today’s local-eating debate that even the ancient Greeks brought in food from more than 100 miles away (by the time of the Peloponnesian War, perhaps as much as three-quarters of it came from Egypt and Sicily). An advocate of no-till farming methods, Montgomery believes it’s still possible to reinvigorate our soil, though it will require radically altering our system of industrial agriculture. Dirt is a dense, interdisciplinary text, but anyone interested in farming or food will be captivated. | Nicholas Day
THE SESSION | Aaron Petrovich | Hotel St. George Press/Akashic | Aaron Petrovich’s The Session is an innovative and compelling “novella in dialogue,” told entirely in conversation, with no narrative or expository passages. Two detectives, each confoundingly named Smith, investigate the murder of a philosopher known as “the Mathematician”; their sleuthing takes place inside a mental institution to which the prime suspects have been committed. The older, staid and authoritative Smith and the younger, impetuous and sometimes delusional Smith–possibly the most ineffectual detectives ever–banter endlessly, their verbal slapstick, philosophical digressions, and excessive courtesies preventing them from ever getting to the point and echoing both Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon and Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.
Other than a psychiatrist who joins the proceedings in a short middle passage, there’s no one to interrupt their rapid-fire patter. It’s often difficult to keep straight who’s speaking, which is disconcerting until you realize that it really doesn’t matter, as despite their basic character differences they share a common worldview. The Session is a sly meditation on truth and identity; Petrovich’s exclusive use of dialogue allows him to partly conceal some unsettling undercurrents and scatter subtle clues as to the real story lurking just beneath the surface, rewarding those willing to give the book a close read. | Peter Anderson
AFTERMATH, INC. | Gil Reavill | Gotham | Gil Reavill covers “true crime and disaster” for the lad rag Maxim, which should tell you almost everything you need to know about his latest book: a solid magazine story stretched thin and imbued with the brittle machismo of a frosh on his third Bud Light. Aftermath, Inc. (the subject of a Reader feature in 2000) is a company headquartered in suburban Plainfield that specializes in cleaning up crime scenes after the cops and forensic teams are done. It’s one of those jobs that makes you slap your forehead–oh yeah, somebody’s gotta do that. But Reavill doesn’t get much more out of it: all we learn, more or less, is that these are highly skilled janitors in hazmat suits. They’re careful about HIV and hepatitis C and pride themselves on scooping up piles of maggots with aplomb. That’s it: a bunch of stout guys with a few stories to tell. Reavill instead humors himself with a personal study on life and death, full of witless pop-culture references, half-baked assertions (“meth addicts indulge in orgies in front of their children”), and pure purple prose (“I was being date-raped by death”), the hallmarks of a writer too immature to see a story that isn’t about himself. | Patrick Daily
AMERICAN VISA | Juan de Recacoechea | Akashic | Juan de Recacoechea intended American Visa, a 1994 best seller in his native Bolivia, as an antidote to the magical realism pervasive in Latin American fiction. His tale of a down-on-his-luck everyman is certainly gritty, but it’s enlivened with enough comedy to keep it from feeling hopeless.
Mario Alvarez has taken up with the denizens of a cheap hotel in La Paz while trying to get a visa to come to America. With fudged documents, he chickens out at the U.S. consulate and turns instead to the black market. All Alvarez knows about crime he’s learned from his favorite American authors–Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes–and over the subsequent weeks of drinking and scheming his thoughts become more desperate and ridiculously hard-boiled (“The look on Isabel’s face shot a chill down my spine like a centipede doused with morphine”).
As in all proper noir the city itself becomes a character, and La Paz is an effective femme fatale, luring the down-and-out with beauty and wealth. But in the end, Alvarez finds, it’s better to focus on the simple things, “those mornings that make you forget that life is hard and then you just die.” | Patrick Daily
PORK & SONS | Stephane Reynaud | Phaidon | Known for its lavishly designed art books, the UK publisher Phaidon branches into pig porn with this gorgeous tome from Stephane Reynaud, chef-owner of the suburban Paris restaurant Ville 9 Trois. Reynaud is a man with a deep, childlike love of pork, and his depiction of swine culture in the tiny village where he grew up focuses on the gruff but oh-so-francais butchers, farmers, slaughterers, and cooks who gather at midwinter pig killings to smoke, drink wine, make sausage, and eat. The 150 photographed recipes are from the snout-to-tail school, sometimes making use of cuts so seemingly unattainable they only become more desirable. The long list of sources in the back includes six places in Chicago, but when I’m ready to make marcassin pate will Paulina Market be able to provide me with the boneless arm shoulder of a wild boar less than six months old? The book includes plenty of whimsical line drawings of anthropomorphic pigs, meant to soften the unavoidable brutality of butchery: these animals know they’re delicious and they’ll happily submit to the blade to prove it. | Mike Sula
KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL: AN AMERICAN WOMAN GOES BEHIND THE VEIL | Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson | Random House | Along with kite flying, grape growing, the depiction of animate objects, and the wearing of white shoes, the Taliban in Afghanistan banned hair salons, claiming they were fronts for brothels and made women look like prostitutes. Hairdressers buried their mirrors or went underground. When the Taliban lost power but not total influence, salons stayed hidden–as hidden as women in their dark burkas, still scarce in public spaces.
Exuberant, spiky-haired Deborah Rodriguez, a hairdresser from Holland, Michigan, arrived in war-battered Kabul in 2002, having joined a humanitarian mission out of altruism as well as a desire to escape her abusive preacher husband. In her lively memoir she makes it sound like a heckuva fun place. She joins a spontaneous water fight, colors a rooster’s claws to avenge his loud crowing, and enters a marriage (her third)–arranged as a joke but ending in love. And she helps found a beauty school for Afghani women, giving them the opportunity for personal and economic independence. The best parts of Rodriguez’s account are her intimate descriptions of women’s lives, from the single-sex “dirty dancing, Kabul style” at engagement parties to her students’ and friends’ tragedies: sexual and physical abuse, poverty, arranged marriages gone bad, privations from the war. Her writing is clear and mostly fluid, marred only by unnecessary shifts in time and occasional forced similes. | S.L. Wisenberg
THE CHILDREN OF HURIN | J.R.R. Tolkien | Houghton Mifflin | Villains in fantasy novels often seem pro forma, all sinister cackling and black outerwear. Genre master J.R.R. Tolkien, though, always got evil right. In The Children of Hurin–a posthumous text sewn together by his son Christopher from unpublished manuscripts–there is, of course, a standard-issue fell sorcerer. But Tolkien knew that mysterious is more menacing: Morgoth appears in person only briefly to cast a curse on the protagonist, Tœrin.
That curse itself is the real villain–and it’s almost indistinguishable from simple human weakness. Tœrin is brave, honorable, and generous, but at the same time short-sighted, selfish, and, especially, proud. His failings make him, as Glaurung the Dragon says, “treacherous to foes, faithless to friends, a curse unto his kin.” Even his love–for friends, mother, wife, and sister– leads him to violence and despair.
For Catholics like Tolkien, of course, sin is both external doom and an internal flaw: Tœrin and his sister are destroyed because Glaurung deceives them, but also because they choose to listen to him. Evil is a real cosmic force, but its power comes from the corruption in the human heart. In “The Lord of the Rings” that corruption yields to courage, to faith, and to love. The Children of Hurin is a bleaker story, but not a worse one. | Noah Berlatsky
THE BEAR BRYANT FUNERAL TRAIN | Brad Vice | River City Publishing | The first edition of Brad Vice’s award-winning 2004 short story collection, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, was pulped by the University of Georgia Press after a librarian in Vice’s hometown of Tuscaloosa mistook allusion in one of its stories for plagiarism of a chapter in Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama. Since then Vice has received both attack and praise, overheated on both ends–and now he’s finally been vindicated.
For this new edition he restored the book’s original structure, heavy on epigraphs that clue readers in to the stories’ methods. “Tuscaloosa Knights” mimics the “Tuscaloosa Nights” chapter in Carmer’s nonfiction work. By turns chilling and hilarious, the story, and most of the collection, effectively blends the styles of southern masters like Faulkner and Hannah with an angular postmodernism more closely associated with Donald Barthelme or Thomas Pynchon in an unlikely mix that somehow works. The book might best be understood as a dispassionate ode to the author’s hometown, with former Crimson Tide coach Bryant, an iconic figure in a houndstooth hat, making regular appearances. The title story, set in a near-future south, on a corporate battleground manipulated by a CAD engineer at the end of a long career, shows off Vice’s skills in an acrobatic display of conceptual and narrative ingenuity. | Todd Dills