Arlene McKanic

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The folks in How It Went, whom Wendell Berry writes about so beautifully, may remind readers of hobbits. They are neither small nor hairy footed, but they are kind and hardworking, and their Shire, the land around Port William, Kentucky, is part of them and they are part of the land. They have names like Jayber Crow, Fatty Moneyworth and Art and Mart Rowanberry. There’s even a couple of ne’er-do-wells called Dingus and Les, but they’re more out of a Paul Henning sitcom than J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium.

Berry’s book is divided into 13 lovingly written chapters. Some are short stories that have previously appeared in such publications as The Sewanee Review, while others are more like vignettes. Together, they create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine. 

The protagonist and sometimes narrator is Andy Catlett. Though we learn that he’s looking back on a long life, the book begins on the day World War II ends, when he has just turned 11. Over the course of the book, we see him as a teenager, then an old man, then a boy again and then a young man. 

Berry’s prose—in How It Went and just about everything else he’s written over his long career—is imbued with compassion. People have their dark sides. Men drink too much or harbor long resentments. Some people, like Andy’s grandma, may be unhappy, but discord is never dwelled upon. Even the loss of Andy’s hand in a harvesting machine is handled with Berry’s customary sensitivity: Another writer might’ve cast this incident as gruesome, but Berry focuses less on the accident than on how it affects Andy’s family and his self-image, which is bound up in his ability to work.

For the folks in Port William, work is everything, whether it’s making hay, handling a team of mules or building a barbed wire fence. Work is not only noble and necessary but also beautiful. Berry shares Tolkien’s disdain for industries that despoil the earth. In a hilarious scene, somebody dares to drive a motorized tractor through Andy’s grandfather’s property, and the old man nearly attacks it with his cane.

A book full of such gentleness, wisdom and humility seems preposterous in this day and age. It’s also something of a miracle. We are lucky, in such times, to still have a writer like Wendell Berry.

Taken together, the 13 chapters in Wendell Berry’s How It Went create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine.
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Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe (Middle England, The Rotters’ Club) isn’t so much a work of fiction as a fictionalization of some true events. The book covers the period when Billy Wilder, one of the greatest screenwriters and directors in old Hollywood, helmed one of his final films, Fedora (1978), about a Greta Garbo-esque former movie star. (One thing about reading not-quite-novels is that they inevitably send you down rabbit holes on Wikipedia and IMDb.) The book is narrated by a Greco British woman named Calista Frangopoulou, who serves as an assistant during the shoot and, later, earns renown as a film-score composer herself. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, so perhaps we can assume she’s fictitious. 

When the book opens, middle-aged Calista is living with her husband and one of their twin daughters in London. Her daughter is going through a bit of a crisis, and this jogs Calista’s memory of a time when she was about her daughter’s age. In the late 1970s, Calista was carefree, so much so that she and her friend swanned into a swanky Hollywood restaurant to have dinner with the eminent director while wearing cutoff jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops. Calista even yawns in the middle of the meal, which Wilder finds charming and inspiring.

But Coe’s book isn’t so concerned with capturing a side of Hollywood or the process of moviemaking as it is with summing up a life and a fading era. The studio system under which Wilder and his peers have flourished is dying, and though he will live many more years after making Fedora, his glory days are over. But bitterness isn’t part of Wilder’s makeup, which is especially remarkable when you know that he barely escaped the Nazis, who slaughtered the rest of his family. Coe emphasizes the director’s kindness, humility and graciousness, such as in one of Calista’s most vivid memories, when Wilder allows himself to be persuaded by their driver to pause at a humble farm on their way to a film set; once there, they happily sample some of the farmer’s brie. 

Wilder may be famously hard on his actors, but he’s also hard on himself. Through middle-aged Calista’s perspective, we hear about him wanting to show up the “kids with beards,” like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, but when Spielberg directs Schindler’s List, a film Wilder wanted to make himself (this is true!), the older man acknowledges it as a masterpiece. 

Beautifully written and filled with compassion, humor and an abundance of knowledge about old Hollywood, Mr. Wilder and Me sheds light on lives that aren’t perfect but still well lived.

In Mr. Wilder and Me, bitterness isn't part of Billy Wilder's makeup, as Jonathan Coe emphasizes the director's kindness and humility.
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Denny Tran is dead. No one seems to know how or why, even though he died in a popular and crowded restaurant where he and his pals had gone to celebrate the end of the high school year. Improbable though it may sound, everyone seems to have been in the restroom or have been averting their eyes at that moment. But Denny’s sister, Ky, the protagonist of Tracey Lien’s suspenseful debut novel, All That’s Left Unsaid, is determined to get answers.

Ky is a journalist living in Melbourne, Australia, and to find out what happened to her sweet-natured, brilliant, beloved younger brother, she’ll have to return to her hardscrabble hometown and interrogate people from her own community. The Vietnamese émigrés of Cabramatta—a suburb of Sydney—spend their lives sacrificing and compromising, trying to stay out of trouble and sometimes falling short. This includes Ky and Denny’s checked-out father and loud, infuriating yet surprisingly lovable mother.

Coming back to her parents’ home, Ky must resist lapsing into the role of obedient daughter—the child who never causes trouble or makes anyone uncomfortable, who nearly wrecks herself trying to meet familial expectations. If Ky wants to expose the truth of her brother’s gruesome death, she’s going to have to make some people uncomfortable.

Fortunately, Ky has a superpower, even as she struggles to acknowledge it. Part of her conscience—the voice that can cut through the nonsense and get at some cold, hard truths—comes from her former friend Minnie. For years, docile, striving Ky and hard, cynical Minnie were inseparable, until adolescence struck and wedged them apart. Ky still holds onto a part of Minnie, and this connection bolsters Ky as she demands answers at the local police department. It gives her the nerve to interview her former high school teacher, the restaurant’s wedding singer, Denny’s best friend and other people who were present on that terrible, fatal night.

All That’s Left Unsaid might remind some readers of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, another novel about a journalist daughter returning to her fractious hometown to investigate a murder and having to engage with both a difficult family and former neighbors who are reluctant to talk. Like Camille Preaker, Ky discovers something shocking in the end. Yet Lien’s novel, by turns gripping and heartbreaking, makes room for forgiveness and understanding. Ky knows all about her people, and to know all is to forgive all.

All That's Left Unsaid might remind some readers of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, with a journalist daughter returning to her fractious hometown to investigate a murder.
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The Chinese Cultural Revolution, devised by the appalling Chairman Mao Tse-tung, was catastrophic for most of the people caught up in it. Children were separated from their families and sent to work farms to get a taste of proletarian life. Educators were targeted as agents of capitalism or the bourgeoisie. Dissidents were incarcerated in forced labor camps, and many people were arrested, denounced and disappeared for displaying even a hint of disagreement with government policy. The really bad news, as is seen in Belinda Huijuan Tang’s splendid A Map for the Missing, is that for some, the Cultural Revolution never quite ended.

In January 1993, Tang Yitian receives a call from his mother in China, which is startling in itself because she must travel to even find a phone. Yitian’s father is missing, she says. No one knows where he is or why he was taken—if indeed he was taken at all. Heeding the call of duty, Yitian, who has lived in the United States for nearly 10 years, flies home to investigate. 

The operative word for Yitian is duty, not so much love. He and his father never got along, and the older man always disparaged Yitian’s desire for a better education and an easier life than the hardscrabble one his family endured in their little village. Tang gives a beautiful sense of Yitian’s fear, sorrow and unspoken resentment—toward both his father, for his bullying nature and the favoritism he showed toward Yitian’s late older brother, and his mother, for her seemingly endless subservience.

At times, A Map for the Missing brings to mind George Orwell’s 1984, though unlike that novel’s dystopian England (called Airstrip One), the chilling and deeply sad China depicted here is real. Yitian’s search for his father makes Winston Smith’s life on Airstrip One seem like a holiday in a warm climate. Even Winston’s love interest, Julia, has a counterpart in Yitian’s story: a woman called Hanwen, whose hunger for education and betterment is as strong as Yitian’s. She hails from the big city of Shanghai, but she’s been sent to the provinces for her edification, and her desire to help Yitian is prompted as much by the trauma of this forced relocation as it is by her not-so-secret love for him.

Along with Yitian, Hanwen and Yitian’s parents, Tang brings additional secondary characters to life, such Yitian’s beloved, broken grandfather and the unhappy girls who labor on the farm with Hanwen. The novel’s many teachers, police officers, clerks, shopkeepers and other bureaucrats are individuals and never interchangeable.

It’s astonishing that A Map for the Missing is Tang’s debut novel. This 400-page book, whose protagonist navigates a purgatory of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends, is gripping from its first page to its last.

Belinda Huijuan Tang’s splendid debut novel follows a Chinese American son through a purgatory of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends, in the search for his missing father.
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Even in the dawning years of the 21st century, there are women and girls who would give up anything for a man. That man doesn’t have to be good. His needs and wants, no matter how fickle, would be prioritized over everything, including a woman’s happiness, safety and the well-being of her children, if she has any. This is the bruised and bruising world of Christine Kandic Torres’ debut novel, The Girls in Queens.

The story unfolds from 1996 to early 2007, beginning in an era in which egregious misogyny and slut shaming are rampant, and ending just after Tarana Burke launches the #MeToo movement. Of course, the protagonist, Brisma, and her best friend, Kelly, who live across the street from each other in Woodside, Queens, have no inkling of the changes to come. In 1996, the girls are 11 years old and lack political consciousness, though they know that puberty is making boys and even grown men notice them in ways they don’t particularly like. Neither girl is a wallflower, especially Kelly, who’s not above getting physical with a neighborhood ignoramus. But for the two friends, being harassed, belittled or ignored is just part of life. It’s like taking your life in your hands to cross Queens Boulevard, or rooting for the hapless Mets: Now and then, you have to cross the street, and cheering for the Yankees is never an option. So what can be done?

Handsome and suave Brian is one of Kelly and Brisma’s childhood friends. As they enter adolescence, he takes a liking to both girls, which causes them to fall out (but just as quickly fall back in; they’re sisters from different mothers). Then in 2006, Kelly and Brisma discover something about Brian that pushes their tolerance of male misbehavior to the limit. At first the women support him instinctively, until Brisma, a budding journalist, can’t any longer. This causes a rupture between her and Kelly that threatens to become permanent.

Kandic Torres’ way with her characters is superb. Kelly’s toughness hides an almost sickeningly intense fear and vulnerability, which few but Brisma see. Another neighbor, an Iraq War veteran that readers are initially wary of, becomes a voice of wisdom. Brisma’s mother, who first modeled female deference for her daughter, blesses Brisma’s ambitions to both write and leave their neighborhood behind. The Girls in Queens is a moving debut from a writer to watch.

Within the bruised and bruising world of Christine Kandic Torres’ The Girls in Queens, two girls find that being harassed, belittled or ignored is just part of life—until one of them can’t take it anymore.
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Post-World War II London was a grim place, despite the Brits’ nominal victory: The skies seemed forever gray, rationing made life difficult, and rubble from the London Blitz needed to be cleared away. Still, some things persevered, like the monarchy and even quirky little bookstores. One such bookshop is the setting for Natalie Jenner’s captivating second novel, Bloomsbury Girls.

Something else that survived the war was unrepentant male chauvinism. It’s in just about every move made by Herbert Dutton, general manager of the century-old Bloomsbury Books. It is the reason Evie Stone is working at Bloomsbury Books instead of at Cambridge University, despite being one of the first women to earn a degree from that institution. It’s why Grace Perkins, Herbert’s secretary, has to rush home to make tea for her lousy layabout of a husband, and it’s what’s driving Vivien Lowry, who works in the store’s fiction department, out of her mind with rage.

Fortunately, the bookstore owner is a genuinely kind man despite his lofty status as an earl, and the head of the store’s science and naturalism department, Ash Ramaswamy, has a gentle demeanor as well. However, Ash is from India, so his mildness might be a defense mechanism against English racism, which is just as bad as English sexism. Ash and Evie strike up a sweet relationship, but in this world, men make the decisions, and women, as Evie says, “abide ’em.”

Until they don’t.

Jenner boldly mixes real history with her fictional creations, and readers who enjoy the “nonfiction novel” genre will find pleasure in parsing facts from embellishments. In particular, Evie’s great passion for cataloging books leads her to the rediscovery of one of the rarest books in the world, a science fiction novel titled The Mummy! This real-life prescient work was published in 1827 by 17-year-old Jane Webb, who went on to write more anodyne books on gardening. The Mummy! might be the way out for the downtrodden women of Bloomsbury Books. It might even be a vehicle for revenge.

Jenner, the bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, draws readers into her tale with a genial, matter-of-fact style that’s exactly what’s expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore. Each chapter begins with one of Herbert’s many ridiculous rules, most of which are broken over the course of the book. But Bloomsbury Girls’ surface coziness puts the tumult of its characters in relief, giving the novel unexpected depth and complexity.

Natalie Jenner's captivating Bloomsbury Girls has a genial, matter-of-fact style that's exactly what's expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore.
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The story in Chris Bohjalian’s The Lioness is straightforward: Beloved movie star Katie Barstow hosts an all-expenses-paid photo safari to Kenya with her new husband, David Hill; her brother, Billy Stepanov; Billy’s pregnant wife, Margie; and their friends, including the actors Terrance Dutton and Carmen Tedesco, and Carmen’s husband, Felix Demeter. Shortly after they arrive, the group and their guides are kidnapped. As they soon winkle out, their captors are Russian with noms de guerre taken from American astronauts.

It’s important to know that this all goes down in 1964, a year of not only the Cold War but also the Simba rebellion in the eastern Congo, the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence and various other conflicts around the African continent. It is a terrible time to fly to East Africa to take pictures of wildlife.

Each chapter is narrated by a different person, framed by the narration of a now-elderly member of the group who’s looking back on these events from 2022. While most of the captives show a surprising amount of mettle when faced with a group of criminals who will shoot them as easily as they would a game animal, some readers may wonder whether Katie and her guests are acting as if they are in a movie in which everything depends on outsmarting the latest Bond villain. They seem to have learned survival strategies from somewhere, and why not Hollywood?

Some of the captives discover that escape comes with its own problems, including the scorching sun and a lack of food, water and first aid out on the savanna. There are also dangerous animals, some of which target humans as an easy meal. With a matter-of-fact tone, Bohjalian details death by leopard, hyena and, in one truly satisfying scene, puff adder. When the captives have a moment to catch their breaths, they wonder why they were nabbed in the first place. Of course the kidnappers wanted high-profile targets who’d bring them a nice bit of ransom money—but there’s also a darker reason connected to the Cold War.

Bohjalian traveled to the Serengeti to research this novel in 2020, but his fast-paced tale allows little time for contemplating sunsets through the branches of baobab trees. Instead, The Lioness succeeds in showing how otherwise pampered folks react when faced with the unthinkable.

Chris Bohjalian’s fast-paced tale of a safari gone wrong shows how pampered folks react when faced with the unthinkable.
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Have you ever read a book that was so off-the-wall bizarre that you thought, I can’t read this anymore, it’s too ridiculous, but it was also so compelling that you had to keep reading just to see what happens? John Elizabeth Stintzi’s harrowing novel My Volcano is one of those books.

The story, if it can be called that, begins in 2016, when a volcano sprouts from New York’s Central Park reservoir. This is weird, but it’s not unheard of.

After all, a volcano really did pop up in a Mexican cornfield in 1943. But the volcano in My Volcano brings not fountains of ash but instead much stranger complications. For one thing, it appears to be Mount Fuji, even though researchers confirm that the original Mount Fuji is where it should be and hasn’t tunneled through the Earth to reappear in midtown Manhattan.

Against the backdrop of this volcano’s appearance, the novel’s narrative scope is tremendously broad: A girl in Russia wakes up in the body of a huge insect, but unlike with poor Gregor Samsa, nobody seems to notice this but her. A golem made of rocks from the Libyan desert wreaks destruction on entities that pollute and despoil the environment. A nomadic herder leading his flock through Mongolia transforms into a spiky plant, and everything he passes also turns into the same spiky plant until there are millions of them. A woman dreams that she inhabits the bodies of other people, including the boyfriend of the insect-girl. And five centuries ago, a boy possessed by an angry spirit fails to save the Mexican people from the Spanish conquistadors.

My Volcano is perhaps most likely to remind readers of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, in which everything becomes a mashup of everything else’s DNA. Why is all this happening? Each of the book’s sections begins with a description of a real human atrocity, from homicides and drug overdoses to shootings by police officers. Maybe the Earth has decided it’s not going to wait for climate change to put an end to human malfeasance. On the other hand, maybe it’s not so much about bringing about the end of humanity as encouraging us to clean up our act.

We are less than a dust mote in the universe, and no one will miss us when we’re gone, Stintzi’s deranged Mobius-strip of a book suggests. Should we still be saved? Can we?

John Elizabeth Stintzi’s deranged Mobius-strip of a book is perhaps most likely to remind readers of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.
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​​While reading YA author Jennifer E. Smith’s first novel for adult readers, The Unsinkable Greta James, I wondered how a story like this one, about a vivacious, career-minded woman who is iffy about settling down, would have worked out 70 years ago. Of course, the woman would meet a nice chap on an ocean liner, as Greta does in this novel. An epilogue would see her married to the good man, happily pregnant in a sunny kitchen while the souvenirs of her old career, whether as a singer or an athlete or what have you, collected dust in the attic.

Of course, that’s not what happens in The Unsinkable Greta James.

Greta is a rock ’n’ roll musician who is famous enough to be recognized but not so famous that a room goes silent when she walks into it. Ben, a Jack London fanatic, is the love interest whom Greta meets on the cruise ship (and who doesn’t know who she is at first). But for Greta, the “man in her life” isn’t Ben, but her father, Conrad. Greta agreed to join Conrad and his friends on the Alaskan cruise after the sudden death of her mother, Helen, who planned the trip.

Greta and Conrad’s relationship has always been uncomfortable. While he acknowledges her talent, he’s nervous about the precariousness of a career in entertainment. She thinks he’s never been on her side and favors her brother, who has a wife, kids and a steady job with health insurance. They’re completely different and too much alike, and Helen’s death poleaxed both of them. (Another reason Greta is on this ship is to forget an onstage episode when her grief became too overwhelming. She’s not quite unsinkable.)

Smith’s style is as smooth as an Alaskan cruise is supposed to be—though like Greta, the ship does rock and roll now and then. Smith’s characters are good and nice. She does allow for some eccentricity, as in Helen’s friend Todd, an obsessive bird watcher who longs to see some avian rarity on an ice floe. But Smith reserves nearly all the novel’s real complexity for Conrad, a man who can’t seem to overcome a certain midcentury rigidity. Greta is wary of him, and because she’s wary of him, so are we, and this is the real meat of the novel. Can these two stubborn people lay down their arms at long last and connect? That’s the question of The Unsinkable Greta James.

Can two stubborn people lay down their arms at long last and connect? That’s the question of Jennifer E. Smith’s first novel for adult readers.
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The title of Nina de Gramont’s second novel for adults, The Christie Affair, has a double meaning. The first is Agatha Christie’s notorious disappearance in 1926, and the second is the affair her husband, Archie, is carrying on with Nan O’Dea (the real mistress’s name was Nancy Neele), the suspiciously omniscient narrator. But in the end, the story isn’t really about either of these affairs; it’s about motherhood.

A long list of authors has imagined what really went on when Christie left her husband and young daughter for 11 days in December 1926. In de Gramont’s telling, Christie’s leaving is prompted almost as much by her despair over her mother’s death as it is by her fury at her husband’s cheating. As for Nan, her life was blighted after being banished to a hellish Irish convent for “fallen” women when she became pregnant at 19. Nan’s baby daughter was taken from her, and her goal ever since has been to find her child, or get revenge, or both.

Tying Nan’s anguish with Christie’s disappearance is part of the book’s allure, but even a reader superficially familiar with the famous author’s biography can see that de Gramont’s novel is heavily fictionalized. Christie never discussed what she’d been up to those 11 days, not even with her own daughter, and this creates a lacuna for a novelist to fill up with some outlandish stuff. Indeed, at one point the story becomes a Christie-esque murder mystery: Who has poisoned that jolly newlywed couple in the hotel where Nan has chosen to hide out, and why?

Few of the characters are particularly likable in The Christie Affair, but all are fascinating. Archie is one of those entitled, upper-crust British military men who prides himself on not understanding the minds of women, children or even small dogs. Trauma has made Nan duplicitous. Christie, in her own way, is as arrogant as her husband. When she discovers that basically all of England is searching for her, she decides to extend her holiday a few more days and work on a new book. She figures her own 7-year-old daughter won’t mind, since she has a nanny.

Despite these liberties and embellishments, de Gramont doesn’t let her story stray too far from the basic facts, so the ending’s a bit of a letdown for Nan. Still, The Christie Affair is an enjoyable entrant to the canon of “Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance” novels.

Nina de Gramont’s The Christie Affair is an enjoyable entrant to the list of “Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance” novels.
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Have you ever seen a simulation of what might happen if a rogue planet wandered into our solar system? The animation shows how the planet would be as disruptive as a cue ball, knocking heavenly bodies hither and thither. It might even push them out of their comfortable orbits. That’s essentially what happens to a group of women in Nikki May’s first novel, Wahala.

The rogue planet is a woman named Isobel, and the orderly, cozy solar system she fumbles into is comprised of three British Nigerian besties. Boo is a frustrated wife and mother with a part-time job that doesn’t satisfy her. Her French husband adores her and their bratty, bossy daughter but is one of those “fun dads” who leaves all the heavy lifting to his wife. Ronke is a dentist who has lousy taste in men and lacks her friends’ impeccable sense of style. And Simi’s husband is eager to have a baby, but she isn’t.

These well-heeled ladies, concerned as they are with clothes and shoes, weaves and gel manicures, brunches and lunches at chichi restaurants and, of course, men, are meant to be a London version of the “Sex and the City” quartet. Maybe, the reader might think, these women need to have their lives shaken up a bit. Maybe a bit of wahala, that word often used by Nigerians to describe chaos or trouble, isn’t such a bad thing.

As it turns out, the wild stuff on “Sex and the City” doesn’t come close to what happens to Boo, Ronke and Simi. That’s because Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha didn’t have to deal with an Isobel. You’ve certainly heard of people like Isobel, and if you’ve run into one and lived to tell the tale, consider yourself lucky. She’s the person who wants to be everyone’s best friend, who showers you with expensive gifts if she’s rich enough to afford them, who beguiles you into confiding your disappointments, your uncertainties, your fears, your secrets.

For all its wittiness, fast-paced writing and recipes for Nigerian chicken stew and Aunty K’s moin moin, Wahala is a much darker read than you might expect. Many people get hurt—badly. It’s a story that reminds us of the ties that bind, and sometimes gag.

This tale of three besties whose orderly lives are disrupted by a planetary force of a woman named Isobel reminds us of the ties that bind—and sometimes gag.

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