Michael Magras

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Ask a mathematician about the distinction between zero and nothing, and prepare for a clear answer: Zero, they’ll say, is a numerical value. Nothing, to put it simply, is a concept that represents an absence or something of no importance. At some point, everyone encounters people or power structures that make them feel like nothing. But what if “nothing” were a tangible entity that could be weaponized against perceived enemies? That’s the wickedly clever conceit Percival Everett plays with in Dr. No.

The novel’s title, a deliberate reference to Ian Fleming’s 1958 James Bond novel that became a 1962 film, tips off readers that a goof on the secret agent story awaits them. As fans of Everett’s previous work know, hijinks are always in the service of serious themes, usually related to race in America. In this case, they involve two men: a “slightly racially ambiguous” billionaire who yearns to be a Bond villain and a Black professor whose specialty, quite literally, is nothing.

The professor calls himself Wala Kitu, the Tagalog and Swahili terms, respectively, for nothing. He teaches mathematics at Brown University and has spent his career “contemplating and searching for nothing. . . . I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it,” because “to experience the power of nothing would be to understand everything; to harness the power of nothing would be to negate all that is.” 

Someone with nefarious intentions might want to harness that power, too. One such criminal is John Milton Bradley Sill, who gives Wala $3 million to help him enact a plan: Break into the vault at Fort Knox and steal a shoebox that contains a special kind of nothing, then purloin a similarly destructive kind of nothing from the Naval Observatory. Sill intends to use these tools against those who “have never given anything to us,” meaning Black people. “It’s time,” Sill says, “we gave nothing back.”

That’s the sort of twisted logic that readers find throughout Dr. No, along with clever references and character names, including Wala’s one-legged bulldog, Trigo (short for trigonometry), and his colleague Eigen Vector, a straight-laced sort who’s excited about helping a supervillain, because, as she says, she wants to do “bang, bang, stabby, stabby, spy stuff.” 

The result is a memorable work that has fun with spy-novel tropes while also addressing the treatment of Black people in America. Dr. No takes a while to get going, but there’s plenty of classic Everett sophistication to delight his fans. “Nothing matters,” Wala says. In more ways than one, this brilliant novel demonstrates how true that can be.

What if “nothing” were a tangible entity that could be used against perceived enemies? That’s the wickedly clever conceit Percival Everett plays with in his novel Dr. No.
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Sooner or later, every thoughtful person who cares about making a difference is likely to wonder whether younger generations will view them as a dinosaur, stuck in the past, tethered to an outdated worldview. While they’re being thoughtful, they could also spare a moment to consider the plight of other species, or to investigate the effect of their behavior on others. Lydia Millet has addressed these questions before, and she does so again in her novel Dinosaurs.

Gil is a 45-year-old bachelor whose soft-spoken manner belies a life of extremes. He’s filthy rich, but the reason for his inherited wealth, as the novel slowly reveals, is not one that anybody would desire. A sense of noblesse oblige leads Gil, who has never had to work, to accept a series of volunteer jobs, such as helping out at a center for refugee families.

It’s the late 2010s, and Gil is tired of his Manhattan life, where he “had nowhere to be and no one who needed him.” He moves to Phoenix, which he does by walking there over five months. Next door to his Arizona property is a house whose side is made entirely of glass, affording him a clear view of the neighbors: financier Ted, psychotherapist Ardis and their two children, Tom and Clem.

Millet blends the stories of Gil’s friendship with the family next door, particularly with younger child Tom, with tales of acquaintances from Gil’s past. Among them are Van Alsten, a gleefully foulmouthed friend from New York days whose formerly carefree life has changed in profound ways; Lane, a scheming ex-girlfriend who dumped Gil for a cyclist; and a man connected to Gil’s inheritance who unexpectedly emerges after decades of no contact.

Other present-day events further complicate Gil’s life, from the relationships he forms through his volunteer work at a women’s shelter he’s funding, to the mystery of who is killing birds late at night outside his home.

A couple of later scenes go on too long, but even if, like Millet’s other works, this novel is like a delicious meal that doesn’t quite fill you up, it’s still a feast worth tucking into. Millet makes critical points about American aggression, destructive attitudes toward wildlife and the American concept of freedom, “that sacred cow that was always invoked as an excuse for bad behavior.” Dinosaurs is a bracing if subtle reminder that, in the absence of changes to old-fashioned ways, some people are just one good volcanic eruption from going the way of the dinosaur.

Dinosaurs is a bracing if subtle reminder that, in the absence of changes to old-fashioned ways, some people are just one good volcanic eruption from going the way of the dinosaur.
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Some people never learn, or so history would suggest. One doesn’t have to look hard to find repeated patterns that can cause lingering trauma, from interpersonal cruelties to larger events such as wars and other human-made disasters. This is just the sort of material that Ian McEwan—that eloquent virtuoso at mining life’s barbarities—likes to exploit for narrative effect, and he does so yet again in Lessons, a scathing novel about the ways brutality, intentional or otherwise, can shape a life.

The life at the center of this exceptional work is that of Roland Baines. At the start of the novel, it’s the late 1950s, when Roland is n 11. His parents, a tough-love father who was an infantryman in Scotland and a mother who betrayed her first husband, have sent him 2,000 miles away from their home in North Africa to attend boarding school in England.

Among Roland’s formative experiences are the overtures, musical as well as physical, of a piano teacher in her 20s. “This was insomniac memory, not a dream,” Roland says of his adult recollections of those days, among them the time she pinched his bare thigh after he made a mistake while performing a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, leaving a “secret oval mark.”

Young Roland’s relationship with his teacher progresses in unsettling ways, but an equally disfiguring scar appears later. His wife, Alissa, whom he met in 1977 after enrolling in her German language class, abandons him and their 7-month-old son because, as she puts it (with shades of Doris Lessing), motherhood “would’ve sunk me” and kept her from becoming “the greatest novelist of her generation.”

McEwan’s novel moves back and forth in time to record the salient events of Roland’s life: adapting to single parenthood, eking out a living as a lounge pianist, learning of his and Alissa’s families’ pasts and more. As McEwan recounts seven decades of Roland’s life, the author places his character’s personal events in a global context and focuses on such international milestones as the Cuban missile crisis, the disaster at Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lessons is designed to unsettle, which is nothing new for McEwan. Although some readers may disagree, the novel posits that knaves and heroes come in all guises, and that everyone is capable of lies, predation and selfishness. The book has moments of warmth that are surprising in a work from McEwan, but there’s plenty of his classic cruelty, too, perpetrated by men and women alike. Lessons may not be optimistic, but as Roland notes, “Only the backward look, the well-researched history could tell peaks and troughs from portals.” Which is another way of saying that, with enough hindsight and sentience, there’s a chance that mistakes can be corrected and lessons learned.

Although some readers may disagree, Ian McEwan's scathing, unsettling novel posits that knaves and heroes come in all guises, and that everyone is capable of lies, predation and selfishness.
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Definitions differ, but many people eventually discover the value in approaching life’s challenges with at least a modicum of grace. Grace and its manifestations are at the heart of The Poet’s House, Jean Thompson’s charming novel about a young California woman with a learning disability who figures out her place in life with the help of an unexpected mentor: the acclaimed poet whose garden she tends.

Carla is in her early 20s and working for a landscaping company in Northern California. She didn’t finish college, in part because, as she puts it, “I have one of those brains that doesn’t process words on a page very well.” Her world consists mainly of her job, where she works for a guy who, in one of Thompson’s many beautiful pinpoint details, “was always convinced that his sweaty charms impressed the lady clients.” Carla also maintains relationships with her boyfriend, Aaron, who works in the IT department of a bank, and her mother, who wants Carla to consider a medical career.

Carla has never given any thought to poetry and assumes all poets “wore berets and drank too much.” But then she starts tending the garden of Viridian, a 70-something poet’s poet with only one published book to her name and a considerable air of mystery. Part of the mystery derives from her relationship years earlier with Mathias, “the most famous, brilliant poet of his era.” Many people believe that Mathias destroyed a new cycle of poems before his death by suicide at age 35, but Viridian has a copy of them. The only problem: She won’t tell anyone where the poems are, even though their publication would give her the financial windfall she desperately needs.

Part of the fun of The Poet’s House is in its small details and memorable descriptions, such as when Thompson writes that Viridian’s attire is “equal parts yoga practice and Star Wars costuming.” But the biggest pleasures are Carla’s evolution, the many well-drawn characters and subtle pokes at the competitiveness of the literary world. The novel occasionally takes too long to develop its themes on its way to a tidy conclusion, but this doesn’t distract from its ample joys, not least of which is Carla’s recognition that she is like the finest poems: complex and wondrous, with hidden mysteries and graces that aren’t immediately apparent.

The hero of Jean Thompson’s novel is like the finest poems: complex and wondrous, with hidden mysteries and graces that aren’t immediately apparent.
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Every writer has to start somewhere. Maggie Shipstead’s bestselling 2021 novel, Great Circle, earned a place on the Booker Prize shortlist, but the road to such success is often long. In Shipstead’s case, as she explains in the acknowledgments of You Have a Friend in 10A, her path began with stories written while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University. 

This collection of 10 works of short fiction, all previously published, gives readers the inspiring experience of charting the maturation of one of America’s finest authors. Most impressive is the book’s range of perspectives, from the chilling “La Moretta,” in which a couple on their European honeymoon slowly realizes their marriage may have been a mistake, to “Souterrain,” a tale of a dying Parisian man and his housekeeper’s son, who believes the man to be his father.

In a few pieces, it’s clear that Shipstead was still discovering what her words could do, but the best are exceptional portraits of characters unaware of the effects of their actions. Highlights include “The Cowboy Tango,” in which a Montana man who runs a ranch for tourists becomes smitten with the teenage girl he hired as a wrangler and joins “in the silent chorus of the unloved” when she falls for his divorced nephew; and the story “Acknowledgments” (not to be confused with the author’s own acknowledgments), in which a pompous author uses hilariously Nabokovian sentences like “Let us skip that Rabelaisian era known as adolescence and hop jauntily to my twenty-fifth year.”

In one story, a character reflects that “even a life lived properly, lived better than she was living, could bring so much grief.” The finest stories in You Have a Friend in 10A show that perpetual grief may not necessarily lead to great lives, but it can produce scintillating fiction.

Maggie Shipstead's collection of 10 short stories, all previously published, gives readers the inspiring experience of charting the maturation of one of America's finest authors.
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“There is no wealth but life,” wrote John Ruskin near the end of his 1860 book, Unto This Last. The unnamed narrator of Andrew Holleran’s doleful fourth novel, The Kingdom of Sand, cites Ruskin midway through, by which time readers know the reason this quotation is on his mind. A gay man in his 60s, the narrator is living alone in conservative North Florida, surrounded by dying neighbors and contemplating the harsh reality of impermanence. 

A nonlinear, episodic novel focused on the transient nature of life could have been depressing, but Holleran’s thoughtful, poetic treatment makes this material deeply moving and an important contribution to the literature of mortality. It’s one of the most beautiful novels of the year.

Each of the book’s five chapters touches on aging and the adjustments a person must make as they get older. Among the characters are the narrator’s 84-year-old father, who sees no reason to avoid having “four fried eggs and a rasher of bacon every morning” while his wife lies paralyzed in a nursing home after a fall.

Now that the narrator is closer to the end of his life than to the beginning, he has found many ways to take his mind off the inevitable, from visiting a Gainesville boat ramp where men congregate for sex to watching gay porn on his laptop. A more meaningful connection is his friendship with Earl, 20 years the narrator’s senior. After decades of teaching accounting in South Florida, Earl moved north to a house big enough to hold his books and opera records. He and the narrator share a platonic friendship that revolves around meeting at Earl’s house to watch old movies, and as the years pass, the narrator becomes Earl’s caregiver.

The novel gains considerable power from its recognition that no attempt at immortality, whether through art or other means, guarantees success. Classical radio stations change their format to all-talk, azaleas and camellias eventually droop, and every life, no matter how privileged, comes to an end.

The Kingdom of Sand is not for readers interested in lighthearted fare, but it’s a stunning meditation on what happens, as the narrator says, “when old age gets its claws in you.” Around the same time he cites Ruskin, the narrator reads a book on dying that offers sobering advice: Live a good life, because you’re not going to have much control over your ending. This exquisite novel offers similar counsel: The final destination may be grim, but with luck and a good set of directions, one can at least enjoy the ride.

A nonlinear novel focused on the transient nature of life could have been depressing, but Andrew Holleran's thoughtful, poetic treatment makes The Kingdom of Sand one of the most beautiful novels of the year.
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Endurance isn’t always a desirable quality. When the goal is admirable—creating art that will survive for generations, or persevering to achieve a noble dream—fortitude is a strength worth demonstrating. But if the goal is deplorable, such as when reinforcing the continuance of racist behavior, the determination to triumph merits no such respect.

Many forms of endurance are at the center of Horse, Geraldine Brooks’ return to themes she explored so well in previous works, such as her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, March, which chronicles many of the injustices that occurred during America’s Civil War. Loosely based on a true story, Horse involves a discarded painting and a dusty skeleton, both of which concern a foal widely considered “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history.”

Brooks shifts her narrative among three related stories in as many centuries. In 2019, Theo, a Nigerian American graduate student at Georgetown University whose thesis is on 19th-century American equestrian art, makes a felicitous discovery, albeit from an unfriendly source. A racist widow who lives across the street from his apartment allows him to pick through the unwanted items she has put out on the sidewalk. His choice: an oil painting of a bright bay colt with four white feet.

Coincidentally enough—and indeed, some readers may find that the events in Horse rely too heavily on coincidence—a young white Australian woman named Jess, who runs the Smithsonian Museum’s vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab, discovers the articulated skeleton of the horse depicted in Theo’s painting. Theo and Jess eventually meet, although it’s a mortifying moment for her: Jess intimates that Theo is stealing her bike, when in fact he’s unlocking his identical model. Together they investigate the history of the horse.

That history is detailed in sections set in Kentucky and Louisiana in the 1850s and ’60s. Paramount among characters from the past are Jarret, an enslaved Black man who becomes the groom for the horse; Thomas J. Scott, a white Pennsylvania man who has come to Kentucky to paint animals; and Richard Ten Broeck, a wealthy white man whose interest in the horse is more mercenary than sportsmanlike.

The book’s third sections, set in 1950s New York, involve Martha Jackson, a real-life art dealer and equestrian lover who gains possession of the famous painting. Her sections add little, but Horse is brilliant when Brooks focuses on the 19th century and dramatizes American prejudice and discrimination before, during and after the Civil War. Jarret is a particularly memorable character, especially in his scenes with the horse and the painter, as is the slippery Ten Broeck, whose motivations are brilliantly set up and whose actions will resonate with chilling familiarity.

Brooks’ novel is an audacious work that reinforces, with sobering immediacy, the sad fact that racism has a remarkable capacity to endure.

Geraldine Brooks returns to themes she explored so well in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, March.


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In the Māori language, an auē is an anguished wail, a cry from the heart. Among the frustrations likeliest to cause such a lament are domestic violence and racism. New Zealand writer Becky Manawatu explores both of these painful forms of dominion in her impressive debut novel.

Manawatu gave herself a big challenge with Auē: Not only does her novel explore two fraught forms of subjection, but she also splits her narrative into three distinct perspectives. Two of them are Māori brothers, 17-year-old Taukiri and 8-year-old Ārama. Their father has died, and their mother has disappeared, so Taukiri drives Ārama to their Aunty Kat and Uncle Stu’s farm in Kaikōura, a coastal town on New Zealand’s South Island. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Taukiri assures his brother, yet he’s convinced Ārama will be better off without him.

As Manawatu skillfully shows, that’s not necessarily true. Ārama finds support from his Aunty Kat and neighbors Beth and Tom Aiken, but Uncle Stu is a brute, the type of ruffian to give his wife a black eye over his latest grievance, and who snatches a letter written by Taukiri and burns it before Ārama can read it.

Ārama is so distressed by his dislocation that he covers his body in bandages to calm himself. It would be of greater help for Taukiri to return, but in his brother’s absence, Ārama is comforted by memories they’ve shared and his ownership of a bone carving he and Taukiri fashioned from the carcass of a dead baby whale.

The book’s third storyline follows Jade and Toko, who, years earlier, meet at a beach party after Jade’s cousin Sav helps her to escape an abusive boyfriend. Jade, too, contends with domestic problems; her mother, Felicity, is loving but has “a craving for drugs.”

The tension in Auē sometimes flags, and some key details are withheld too long, but overall Manawatu does a nice job of gradually revealing secrets and the intricacies of the characters’ myriad tragedies. Auē exposes the racism some New Zealanders feel toward Māoris, but it’s ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.

Becky Manawatu's debut novel is ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.
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The history of world literature is filled with second novels that pale in comparison to their author’s stellar freshman achievement. How many debuts have had the spectacular success of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain? More than 500,000 copies sold and the 2020 Booker Prize is not a bad way to start a literary career.

Readers will be happy to learn that Stuart’s follow-up, Young Mungo, is even stronger than his first book. This tale of two gay Glasgow teenagers caught amid various forms of prejudice in the early 1990s is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence that finds humanity in even the most fraught circumstances.

You know you’re in for a tough upbringing when your alcoholic mother names you after a patron saint known for having “started a fire from nothing, or . . . something,” as 15-year-old Mungo explains. But Mungo has bigger problems than his name, which Stuart describes in heartbreaking detail. Mungo’s alcoholic mother, 34-year-old Mo-Maw, often disappears on wild drinking sprees. When under the influence, she’s a harsher version of herself, transforming into a “heartless, shambling scarecrow” that Mungo, his brother Hamish and sister Jodie have nicknamed “Tattie-bogle.”

Hamish is a gang leader who leads fights against working-class Catholic youths, and he forces Mungo to join the Protestant cause and take to the streets with him. “I need to sort you out,” Hamish tells him. But Mungo doesn’t need sorting out. He needs more time with James Jamieson, a Catholic boy with whom he has fallen in love and who tends to birds in his beloved dovecote.

Scenes between Mungo and James are the most beautiful in the book. They stand in contrast to the moments that are among the most brutal: To toughen up Mungo, Mo-Maw sends him on a fishing trip with two thugs of questionable repute. That trip, like so much else in the book, doesn’t go the way Mungo, or his mother, ever anticipated.

Some plot elements in Young Mungo may disturb, but all are sensitively rendered, and the simplicity of Stuart’s writing makes them all the more powerful. One of the myths of St. Mungo is that he once brought a dead robin back to life. No such restoration occurs in young Mungo’s hardscrabble life, but as Stuart shows, hope often lies where you least expect it.

Douglas Stuart’s follow-up to Shuggie Bain is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence.
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Sooner or later, every country experiences moments of upheaval. Some moments, however, are more consequential than others, such as the 2017 coup that ended the regime of Robert Mugabe as the president of Zimbabwe after four decades in power.

That ouster is the inspiration for Glory, NoViolet Bulawayo’s follow-up to her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, a finalist for the Booker Prize. Bulawayo has found a clever if familiar way to tell the story of a fictional African country and the fall of its leader: Clearly inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the population consists entirely of animals.

Known as the Father of the Nation, Old Horse is the leader of Jidada. He held a leadership role in the War of Liberation during the 1970s and has been in power for the past 40 years, his reign “longer than the nine life spans of a hundred cats.” In one of many witty touches, Bulawayo writes that Old Horse’s authority is so great that the sun twerks at his command and blazes with the intensity he desires.

Also in power, in her own way, is Old Horse’s wife, a donkey known as Dr. Sweet Mother, who denounces the “depravity” of the Sisters of the Disappeared, a group that demands the return of regime dissenters who have mysteriously vanished.

The novel’s action takes off from there, with a pack of dogs known as Defenders determined to protect the current regime; a vice president, also a horse, who schemes to take over; an Opposition convinced that the overthrow of the government will lead to better days; and a goat named Destiny, long exiled from Jidada, who returns after a decade’s absence to reunite with her mother and tell the story of her country’s struggles.

Glory is an allegory for the modern age, with references to contemporary world politics, chapters written as a series of tweets, and animals checking social media for updates on fast-changing developments. Animal Farm is the obvious parallel, but some readers will also note the influence of works by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, especially in Bulawayo’s extravagant storytelling and critique of colonialism.

Late in the novel, Destiny notes “the willingness of citizens to get used to that which should have otherwise been the source of outrage.” As this wise, albeit occasionally repetitive, book makes clear, that’s a cautionary message all countries should heed.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s Animal Farm-inspired novel is an allegory for the modern age, with animals checking social media for updates on fast-changing developments.
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When one looks back upon a life, one remembers it as a series of noncontiguous fragments, with each discrete moment forming a picture of a person. Italian writer Sandro Veronesi knows this instinctively. In The Hummingbird, he presents just such a puzzle to create a unique portrait of an enigma of a man.

In a narrative that moves through seven decades, from 1959 to 2030, Veronesi chronicles the life of Marco Carrera, an ophthalmologist in the Italian village of Bolgheri. His mother nicknamed him “the hummingbird” because, until age 14, he was worryingly shorter than his peers. But Marco resembles a hummingbird not just in his childhood stature but also, as one character puts it, “because all [his] energy is spent keeping still.”

Nevertheless, much happens to this supposedly fixed entity. The book starts in 1999, when a therapist who has been treating Marco’s wife, Marina, risks his career to tell Marco, “I have reason to believe you may be in grave danger.”

In chapters that incorporate text messages, emails, phone conversations, love letters and even poetry, Veronesi describes the events that shape Marco’s life, including his and his wife’s infidelities; his five-decade correspondence with a woman he loved since he was 20; the death of Marco’s sister and his estrangement from his brother; the difficulties facing his daughter, Adele, who met with a child psychologist when she was little because she felt she had a restrictive thread attached to her back; and Marco’s later guardianship of Adele’s daughter, Miraijin.

The Hummingbird is a moving, black-humored work about family and the tragedies born of time and poor decisions. Veronesi has created complicated characters that don’t always behave nobly, are products of their time and are, from a literary standpoint, the richer for it. As the omniscient narrator observes, “There are those who—not moving at all—still manage to cover great distances.” That’s the message of this wise book: A hummingbird may seem stationary, but in its way, it can cover a lot of ground.

The complicated characters in Sandro Veronesi’s novel don’t always behave nobly and are, from a literary standpoint, the richer for it.

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