10 New, Must-Read Books

Looking for a new read? Check out one of these picks from the February 2013 issue

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"Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell

A teenager haunted by the wax effigy of a boy he betrayed performs a life-changing penance. In 19th-century Japan, a silk maker regrets the impulsive decision that led to her enslavement (or was she the victim of forces beyond her control?); now half woman, half worm, she attempts to spin a new fate. A couple wed for centuries probes the subtle relationship issues of the undead. The stories in Karen Russell’s wonderful collection embrace the monstrous, the mutant, the mysterious; they chart startling transformations (perhaps none more shocking than ordinary adolescence, which Russell captures uncannily). Set at the intersection of destiny and free will, nature and the supernatural, light and dark, the stories—even the frothiest—are sea deep, scary smart, richly inventive, highly illuminating and gorgeously written. –Judith Stone

 

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Avery Powell

"Farewell, Fred Voodoo" by Amy Wilentz

In the 1980s, when journalist Amy Wilentz first visited Haiti, Fred Voodoo was veteran reporters’ slang for the man or woman on the street, tapped for quick local-color interviews but otherwise unconsidered. Wilentz went deep; she learned Creole and established abiding relationships in a country that still enchants and confounds her. Farewell, Fred Voodoo (Simon & Schuster), an account of her return to Haiti after the earthquake of 2010, is savvy, acerbically affectionate and unsparingly probing, especially on the motivations of the hordes of helpers who descended on the island post-tragedy. The cast of characters—among them a dedicated young doctor, resourceful survivors and, yes, Sean Penn—are people you’re glad to know. Each vignette helps readers explore, in a nuanced way, our questions about this perpetually hard-hit place, starting with “What the hell?” particularly enlightening are Wilentz’s lucid recaps of Haiti’s history, revealing European and American complicity in the nation’s descent into misery. -Judith Stone

 

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Avery Powell

"Give Me Everything You Have" by James Lasdun

 

James Lasdun, a lauded British writer, encounters a young Iranian woman he calls Nasreen in a class he’s teaching in New York City. An innocuous association becomes, via e-mail, first a cordial mentorship, then a flirtation and finally an unrelenting hell. After he rebuffs the obsessed Nasreen, she grows aggressive, barraging him with anti-Semitic hate mail and waging an online smear campaign. While he never labels her mentally ill, his memoir Give Me Everything You Have (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) portrays a woman trapped in a tortured mind, and the book can seem disingenuous when he wonders at her motives. But Lasdun explores his own accountability with candor and clarity. “Was I an objective, impartial observer, a purely neutral participant in those early months of our exchange? I was not. Nobody ever is.” A much-needed cautionary tale on the nature of perceived intimacy in our inescapable cyber age. —Susanna Sonnenberg

 

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"Frances and Bernard" by Carlene Bauer

 

In her lively, intelligent new novel, Carlene Bauer creates two characters who are so present on the page, we seem to be eavesdropping on their conversation. This illusion is sharpened by the fact that Frances and Bernard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is written in epistolary form, so the relationship unfolds with the unnerving intimacy that personal letters can create. Loosely based on Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor—he’s a patrician, womanizing poet; she’s a cranky, small-town -novelist—the two share a profound interest in Catholicism, and their letters dance and sparkle with the passion of two minds delighting in each other. Frances seems to gather strength as she writes, while Bernard declines into neediness and mania (as Lowell did). The love that grows between them is complicated and unfulfilled, but the novel itself is not: It’s a small gem, reflecting the rare joy of finding someone who is, quixotically, counter-intuitively and completely, yours. —Elaina Richardson

 

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Amazon.com

"The Backyard Parables" by Margaret Roach

 

In The Backyard Parables (Grand Central), a delightfully discursive meander down an occasionally bumpy garden path, Margaret Roach passes on what she’s learned over the years about patience, humility and reverence for the natural world. Also, how to deal with woodchucks and overwinter agapanthus (yes, you can!), the easy way to kill weed seeds in compost, what those funny orange tentacles on your cedar have to do with your suddenly leafless roses and why, in spite of everything nature throws at you, you should “never stop wanting more plants.” -Amanda Lovell

 

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Avery Powell

"News from Heaven" by Jennifer Haigh

 

The beauty of News from Heaven (Harper), Jennifer Haigh’s new collection of linked stories, has everything to do with the Pennsylvania coal town she calls Bakerton, a seedbed of ambition and heartbreak. From the pretty, young Polish-American housekeeper whose desires flatline on Manhattan’s West Side to the widowed ex-schoolteacher who learns at last that marriage has a steep learning curve, these delicately drawn characters are bound to the place they recognize, willingly or not, as home. -Cathleen Medwick

 

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Avery Powell

"The First Muslim" by Lesley Hazleton

 

As a metaphor, the desert is endlessly fertile; throughout history, its radical emptiness has given sustenance to thirsty souls. In The First Muslim (Riverhead), Lesley Hazleton vividly paints the solitary landscape, external and internal, that allowed Muhammad—an orphan born into Meccan nobility and raised by Bedouin sheepherders—to make room in his heart for holiness. Like her subject, Hazleton brilliantly navigates “the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion intersect,” revealing the deep humanity of faith. -Cathleen Medwick

 

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Avery Powell

"I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies" by Jeanine Basinger

 

On screen, being married is “the hangover, the ‘after’ of the happily-ever-after,” film historian Jeanine Basinger writes in this vibrant take on wedlock. So filmmakers often seduce their audiences with exotic adventure (send Garbo to China to have an affair!) while reassuring them that domestic life is the ultimate prize. Women can identify when Jean Arthur accidentally, comically ties the knot twice in Too Many Husbands, because infidelity is a safe fantasy. And they are comforted by alliances far worse than their own. As Basinger wryly points out, “When you marry a murderer, your marriage is in trouble.” -Caryn James

 

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Avery Powell

"Fresh Off the Boat" by Eddie Huang

 

When Eddie Huang was in third grade, a classmate called him a chink. Eddie changed, that day, from a kid who “liked to read books and didn’t bother with drama” to someone who made a promise to himself: “I would be the trouble in my life. I wouldn’t wait for people to pick on me or back me into a corner.” This spirited, in-your-face memoir traces Huang’s trajectory from his early years as “a Chinese-American kid raised by hip-hop and basketball with screaming, yelling, abusive parents” through years of violence, incarceration, a romance with Taiwanese street food (even the noodles could be “transcendent”) and law school (you’re reading that right), all the way to the Food Network and finally to his celebrated New York City restaurant, Baohaus, where he honors his culinary heritage. “If that makes me a rotten banana, well, tell it like it is.” Nothing rotten here—just an electrifying ride. -Dan Shapiro

 

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Avery Powell

"Autobiography of Us" by Aria Beth Sloss

 

Every female friendship has a script of its own. The one playing out in this debut novel is a gripping hybrid—Beaches crossed with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Rebecca, the narrator, is a bookish teen when she meets rich, beautiful, flamboyant Alex: “It was as though life were a Christmas tree and I’d discovered the hidden switch, the whole thing lighting up in a blaze of color.” Alex is a would-be actress; Rebecca, dissecting a frog in biology class, discovers her desire to be a doctor. “I had that exquisite sense of focus that came from being lost in one of my books,” she says. “I unwrapped the wet skein of the intestines and pulled them taut against my palm . . .” But this is 1958, and the prefeminist culture clips these young women’s wings as efficiently as Rebecca sliced out her frog’s heart—though not nearly so delicately. Pressured into giving up their dreams, the two careen into marriage and motherhood, still friends but separated by a continent. When reunited, they are too thwarted and angry to band together; like George and Martha, each confronts the other with her failures, snipping away whatever illusions may remain. And yet their connection holds, providing, in the end, a moment of grace. -Judith Coyne

 

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Next: Q&A with Katherine Bouton

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Avery Powell
First published in the February 2013 issue

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