Michael Magras

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Forgiveness, memory, loss and the vicissitudes of love are among the recurring themes of A Year of Last Things, Michael Ondaatje’s exceptional new collection of poetry. More than a decade has passed since Ondaatje, who shared the 1992 Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient, published a book of poems. The return is welcome, as he demonstrates yet again that he is a master of the genre.

Most of the poems that appear here are in free verse, with a few others written wholly or in part as prose poems. Each piece displays not only Ondaatje’s gift for the lyrical phrase but also his peripatetic nature, as the collection travels across various countries, most notably Italy, England and his native Sri Lanka. The book is divided into several sections, with the first centering on forgiveness and memory. It’s difficult to single out highlights when every poem is so accomplished, but particularly moving is “5 A.M.,” a tender piece on the restorative beauty of memories and the way they return unexpectedly, “like a gift / from forgetfulness, / as a desire can wake you.”

Later sections include ruminations on unfulfilled lives, such as “The Then,” in which Ondaatje writes of being struck by the urge “to erase this life, and desire what I might have known / in photographs of you before we met.” There is also a group of erudite love poems, including the witty “Leg Glance,” in which he employs a cricket metaphor referring to “not bothering to move / from the path of the dangerous ball,” to parallel one’s behavior in the midst of a love affair.

Set in museums and piazzas across several continents, with references to painters, novelists, playwrights, jazz musicians and even W.G. Sebald’s technique of incorporating photographs into the text, A Year of Last Things brilliantly explores its themes.


Set in museums and piazzas across several continents, Michael Ondaatje’s poetry collection A Year of Last Things brilliantly explores its themes, reminding us that he is a master of the genre.
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Téa Obreht’s satisfyingly unsettling new novel, The Morningside, takes place in the near future, in an East Coast city that resembles New York. Eleven-year-old Silvia and her mother have traveled to Island City after their home was destroyed by flooding. They move into a 100-year-old building called the Morningside, that, like Island City, has seen better days. Silvia and other refuge-seekers have been brought in by the federal Repopulation Program to help revitalize the place.

The building superintendent is Silvia’s Aunt Ena, a woman who is “short, loud, and incredibly ill-practiced at speaking to eleven-year-old nieces.” A marvelous character, Ena has an unfortunate tendency to share details about the farm the family once lived on, details that Silvia’s mother would prefer to keep secret. She also fills Silvia in on Bezi Duras, the mysterious resident of the 33rd floor penthouse. Silvia begins to suspect that Bezi is not just an eccentric painter with an elaborate orchard but also a Vila, a vindictive mountain spirit. Her suspicions grow when light bulbs spontaneously burst and water pipes begin “spurting sulfurously” after a curious Silvia tries to break into Bezi’s apartment.

That’s just the start of the strange dealings. With finely calibrated assurance, Obreht develops a sense of unease that is compounded by an underground radio transmission known as the Drowned City Dispatch, large animals rumored to be “men during the day and dogs at night,” a friend who lures Silvia into nighttime escapades, and the possibility that a killer may be in their midst.

The ending is too neat, but The Morningside soars in its depiction of an alternative world frighteningly similar to our own. Whether or not they ever face forcible displacement in their life, everyone at some point must confront their past. Obreht addresses this truism with startling freshness in this entertaining work.

Téa Obreht’s latest novel, The Morningside, soars in its depiction of an alternative world frighteningly similar to our own.
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“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. Tommy Orange demonstrates the veracity of that line in Wandering Stars, his follow-up to There There, the 2018 debut novel for which he was a Pulitzer finalist. Few literary debuts are as chillingly of-the-moment as There There, which spanned a huge cast of Native American characters and culminated in a tragedy at an Oakland powwow. Orange further explores the lives of some of those characters in this assured continuation.

Orange pulls off a neat sleight of hand in Wandering Stars: He limits the scope by focusing on only a few characters, yet he also expands his narrative by rewinding to the 19th and early 20th centuries to tell the story of ancestors of the Red Feather family.

The book begins with the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, when the U.S. Army attacked Cheyenne and Arapaho people in present-day Colorado. As Orange puts it, “seven hundred drunken men came at dawn with cannons,” and killed hundreds of Native Americans—a prolongation of “America’s longest war.”

One of the survivors was Jude Star, a mute man sent by train as a prisoner of war to a fortress in St. Augustine, Florida. The man the army chose to run the prison was Richard Henry Pratt. Years later, Pratt founded the Carlisle School, to which Native American parents were forced to send their children to be “taught that everything about being Indian was wrong.” Jude’s son, Charles Star, is enrolled there. By the early 1900s, Charles develops an addiction to laudanum and tries to interview an aging Pratt to learn about his father.

The novel then shifts to 2018, when Orvil Red Feather, a survivor of the tragedy in There There, is trying to overcome his injuries and emotional trauma. Like Charles, he turns to drugs, in his case with the help of his friend Sean, whose father sets up a basement lab and starts his own pharmacopeia. He also tries to piece together the story of his Cheyenne family history, although Opal, the great-aunt with whom he and his younger brothers live, isn’t forthcoming about their heritage.

The style of the first part of the book is different from the second, more modern half. If the result feels like two separate books, there’s still much to recommend Wandering Stars, from Orange’s sensitive depiction of Orvil’s path to recovery to the chronicling of important, overlooked moments in the brutal history of America’s treatment of its Indigenous people. As Opal laments, Native Americans have been “consistently dehumanized and misrepresented in the media and in educational institutions.” Wandering Stars is an impassioned censure of that marginalization.

Read Tommy Orange’s essay on the writing of Wandering Stars.

Tommy Orange’s Wandering Stars sensitively depicts Orvil Red Feather’s path to recovery after the tragedy in There, There, as well as chronicling important, overlooked moments in the history of America’s brutal treatment of its Indigenous people.
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The concept of reparations has been a component of conflict resolutions since the days of ancient Carthage. In America today, the issue most often comes up in reference to offering restitution to Black citizens for the ills of slavery. That topic, and the backlash from those against monetary redress, is the animating force in Acts of Forgiveness, Maura Cheeks’ debut novel.

When Senator Elizabeth Johnson ran for president, a pillar of her campaign was her championing of the Forgiveness Act, which would provide $175,000 to every Black citizen over 18 who could prove they had an enslaved ancestor. Now, as America’s first female president, she announces her intention to carry out that promise. This is hopeful news for Black Philadelphia native Willie Revel, the 33-year-old single mother of a gifted daughter. Willie once dreamed of becoming a journalist. But after her father, who owns a construction company, had a heart attack, Willie abandoned her dreams and returned to Philly to take over the business.

Cheeks does a nice job of dramatizing Willie’s conflict and is equally adept at demonstrating not only the need for financial restitution but also its specific importance to Willie’s family. Willie could use the money for the family business, which struggles to stay afloat. One lifeline her father insists upon is a contract with Soteria, a company that hired their firm to build a recycling complex. Willie is revolted by working with Soteria because the owner, like a lot of conservatives, vehemently opposes the Forgiveness Act.

That’s just one of many issues Willie contends with as she researches her family history to prove their eligibility for reparations. Others include her lack of career fulfillment and her daughter’s difficulties at school and attempts to write a play—an ambition that resembles the one Willie had to give up.

Cheeks doesn’t fully demonstrate the skill of distinguishing necessary information from superfluous detail, but Acts of Forgiveness movingly highlights a litany of injustices, from casual racism to the pressure on women to sacrifice their ambitions. Willie’s mother tells her that “sometimes you have to go where you’re not wanted in order to change people’s minds.” This novel highlights the soundness of that advice, as well as the perils of being brave enough to follow it.

Maura Cheeks’ debut novel follows the impact of a reparations bill on Black Philly native Willie Revel, as she struggles to keep her family’s construction business afloat.
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Grief is a devastating stimulus. The manifestations of mental anguish form the subject of Bird Life, Anna Smaill’s elliptical, poetic follow-up to her Booker Prize-longlisted 2015 debut The Chimes.

The story centers on two very different women, Dinah and Yasuko. Dinah, a New Zealander, is in Tokyo on a work visa to teach English to engineering and science undergraduates. She’s mourning her twin brother, Michael, a promising classical pianist who died under circumstances Smaill leaves vague until late in the book. Shortly after her arrival, Dinah begins seeing Michael everywhere, first in reflections of darkened car windows, then in the apartment she lives in.

Yasuko, an older woman with a college-aged son, Jun, is one of Dinah’s colleagues at the university. Yasuko “came into her powers” at 13 when a cat spoke to her. Soon, trees spoke to her, too, and she could even hear people’s thoughts. Over the years, her abilities abandoned her, but they return when Jun moves out—“I need some space,” he explains in a message—and she hopes to use them to bring him back.

Much of the novel focuses on the friendship that develops between Dinah and Yasuko as they help one another deal with their respective traumas. Particularly memorable are scenes in which Yasuko reconnects with her powers, such as when carp break the surface of a pond and quote the I Ching to her, or when birds land in Yasuko’s cupped hands to offer helpful advice.

Some scenes contain extraneous dialogue and go on too long, but Bird Life is nevertheless an evocative and sensitive depiction of mental distress and the importance of perseverance. Yasuko’s father, a crystallographer, keeps a photo of the first X-ray image of DNA on his pin board because it reminds him “that there is more in the world than I can easily understand” and “that I always need to keep looking.” That’s the key message of this subtle book: Though it might be difficult to detect them during times of hardship, glimmers of hope are always visible if one knows where to look.

Bird Life is an evocative and sensitive depiction of mental distress that argues that, though it might be difficult to detect them during times of hardship, glimmers of hope are always visible if one knows where to look.
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Most people eventually think about the concept of permanence—how one could live on after inevitable death. Some are drawn to photography for what has been, at least until recently, incontrovertible proof of what once existed. But attempts to secure a permanent place in history are often complicated by changes in technology, the prejudices of others, or, in the case of art, the purloining of treasured works. Conflicts like these animate Teju Cole’s dazzling novel of ideas Tremor, his first novel since 2011’s Open City.

Fans of Cole’s work know he is a photographer as well as a writer. His moving, introspective 2017 book of images, Blind Spot, features photos from his worldwide travels. Cole draws from those experiences in Tremor, in which Tunde, the protagonist who, like Cole, is a Harvard professor raised in Nigeria, perpetually examines the tensions of life as a Black man in a white-dominated country where he is never seen as belonging anywhere.

Tremor is split into eight exploratory chapters in which Cole addresses injustices both personal and global. During a talk Tunde gives at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which forms the fifth chapter of the book, he describes the circumstances under which many of their paintings and plaques came into their possession, from the Nazis’ cultural genocide to Britain’s 18-day massacre in Benin in 1897 that led to the expropriation of 4,000 artworks. He ends with “a plea to take restitution seriously, a plea to reimagine the future of the museum.”

In a brilliant extended sequence in the sixth chapter, Cole includes the first-person perspectives of numerous people Tunde interviews during a trip to Nigeria to depict the complexities and struggles of life in that country. Other sections address colonialism and the reluctance of many in the United States to “change their essential faith in American superiority.” Hanging over these discussions is the specter of impending death. A Harvard colleague is diagnosed with colon cancer, and Tunde fears, even in his 40s, signs of his own inevitable decline.

A lesser writer would have turned this into a depressing jeremiad, but Cole makes it a thrilling and important work. During Tunde’s Nigeria visit, one interviewee says, “We have to know how to forget the past in order to make progress into the future.” As Tunde does in his talk, Tremor issues a plea to reimagine the future for the betterment of humanity.

In this dazzling novel of ideas, Teju Cole addresses injustices both personal and global, and issues a plea to reimagine the future for the betterment of humanity.
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While a child’s disappearance can shock a community into coming together, it’s also the kind of event that can reveal fissures among residents, heighten conflicts within families and prompt reevaluations of relationships. Fiona McFarlane explores these possibilities and more in her leisurely novel The Sun Walks Down.

In 1883, the potential tragedy of a 6-year-old boy’s disappearance strikes the town of Fairly in “the arid middle of South Australia.” This Outback region is known for dust storms, hilly ranges that were “laid down, long ago and slowly, in layers of rock,” and a sun so red and fierce that the boy in question fears “the gods must be angry.” The boy is Denny Wallace. His mother, Mary, deaf since age 22, sends him out with a sack to gather bark and twigs while his five sisters attend a wedding and his father, Mathew, plants parsnips. But Denny gets lost in a dust storm and doesn’t return home.

The bulk of McFarlane’s novel focuses on the efforts of the townspeople to help the Wallaces look for their son and the stories of the family members left behind as the search continues. This includes Minna Baumann and Mounted Constable Robert Manning, whose wedding was attended by Denny’s sisters; 15-year-old Cissy Wallace, Denny’s oldest sister, who doesn’t understand why the other women won’t join the search party and who secretly falls in love with Robert; Bess and Karl Rapp, Swedish artists fascinated by the reds in “this disastrous South Australian sky”; and Mr. Daniels, a courtly vicar prone to fainting spells.

The Sun Walks Down should be read not for narrative action but rather for the minutely observed relationships among its characters, as Denny’s disappearance is less of a mystery than it is a plot device that allows McFarlane to explore her themes. She does this beautifully, such as when she depicts the relations between white people and Australia’s native Aboriginal people, the wayward behavior that can come from an excess of ambition, and the question of who does and does not constitute a British subject.

“Don’t you like people to be happy?” Denny’s sister Joy asks Cissy. “Happiness won’t find Denny,” Cissy replies. As McFarlane makes clear in this fine work, the quest for contentment can be as elusive as a 6-year-old lost in a dust storm. 

As Fiona McFarlane makes clear in this fine novel, the quest for contentment can be as elusive as a child lost in a dust storm.
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In Act 1 of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth questions his plan to commit regicide against King Duncan, saying, “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’other.” Vaulting ambition and the willful blindness that can accompany it form the tragedy of Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton’s third novel and the follow-up to her 2013 Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries.

The Birnam Wood of the title refers not to the Scottish town of the play but to an activist collective in New Zealand whose members harvest crops planted “without permission on public or unattended lands.” The group’s founder, Mira Bunting, has an idealistic goal: “radical, widespread, and lasting social change” that shows “how arbitrary and absurdly prejudicial the entire concept of land ownership” is. But there’s a problem: The collective has trouble breaking even.

A possible solution arrives in the form of a natural disaster, when earthquakes lead to a landslide, causing the closure of the Korowai Pass and cutting off the small fictional town of Thorndike. Not far from the site of the landslide is a farm owned by the soon-to-be-knighted Owen Darvish. Paradoxically, Owen’s pest control service has partnered with American tech corporation Autonomo on a conservation project to rescue endemic species from extinction. Mira’s plan: buy the farm for Birnam Wood.

In both of her novels, Catton has shown that she’s an expert at building tension from an intricate plot. One of the complicating factors in Birnam Wood is Autonomo co-founder Robert Lemoine, “a serial entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, and, apparently, a billionaire.” He wants to build a bunker on the farm and store precious cargo that would make him, “by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who had ever lived.” When he catches Mira on the property, he suggests they join forces, but in true Shakespearean fashion, Robert’s intent may not be what he claims.

Catton brilliantly weaves other characters and plot elements into the mix, among them Tony Gallo, a former collective member and would-be journalist who rails against capitalism, wants to write “a searing indictment of the super-rich” and is keen to expose Robert for who he is. Tony is too broadly drawn, and Catton sometimes over-explains the plot, but Birnam Wood is still a powerful portrait of the uncomfortable relationship between capitalism and idealism, and the compromises and trade-offs one might accept in pursuit of a goal. As some of Catton’s characters learn, vaulting ambition can be admirable, but if one o’erleaps and falls, the landing is anything but smooth.

Correction, March 7, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect that Birnam Wood is Catton’s third novel and The Luminaries is her second.

Vaulting ambition and the willful blindness that can accompany it form the tragedy of Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton’s third novel and the follow-up to her 2013 Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries.
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Some people feel like outsiders every day of their lives. One such person is Harley Sekyere, a 21-year-old gay Black man in England who comes from an unsupportive household, felt at sea at college and has no idea where to turn. That’s a situation plenty of people will relate to. And it’s the premise of Small Joys, Elvin James Mensah’s sympathetic debut novel.

It’s 2005, shortly after terrorists coordinated a series of subway and bus bombings that devastated London. Harley had grand plans to graduate from university with a degree in music journalism but dropped out. Bereft of any other constructive goals, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and depression, he makes a drastic decision: Back home in the town of Dartford, southeast of London, he wanders into the woods with a small X-ACTO knife.

He catches a break. Muddy, a straight white man “holding a pair of binoculars,” approaches Harley, sees that he’s bleeding and stops him from proceeding further. Fortuitously, Muddy is more than just a devoted bird-watcher who happened to walk by. He’s also about to become Harley’s roommate.

Mensah then introduces other characters who become part of Harley’s support network. They include Chelsea, a young white woman whose father owns the apartment building where Harley and Muddy live. She’s a friend of Harley’s and helps him reclaim his old job at the cinema where she works. Also in the mix are Finlay, Muddy’s best mate, whom Chelsea is dating; and Noria, a Black woman who’s dating Muddy and is obsessed with styling Harley’s hair.

The center of all of this is Harley, of whom Mensah writes with great affection. He offers unforgettable details, such as when he notes that Harley is so self-conscious that he sometimes stores food in his cheeks “to create the illusion [he] was eating quicker than [he] actually was.” Harley’s lack of assurance, he says, comes from “anxiety and queerness and failure.” It also comes from his homophobic father, a religious man hoping to convert his son; his relationship with an abusive older man; and his burgeoning feelings for Muddy.

Small Joys is simpler and more predictable than the books to which it is already being compared, among them works by Brandon Taylor and Bryan Washington. The raw emotions in Mensah’s book, however, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.

The raw emotions in Small Joys will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Elvin James Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.
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Few delights bring as much comfort as good food, so imagine how cheering a good cup of coffee and a fresh donut would have been to soldiers on the front lines in World War II. But also imagine how women recruited to serve food to soldiers might view the value of their contribution when they see the life-and-death sacrifices those men had to make. That’s one of the animating conflicts in the heartfelt novel Good Night, Irene from Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea.

In October 1943, 25-year-old Irene Woodward leaves New York City to become a “recreation worker” for the American Red Cross. She is escaping her planned marriage to the son of a political family, an arrangement she’d accepted only because her family wanted the connections. Marriage, however, was not for Irene, especially not to a political scion who left bruises on her arm.

Irene volunteers at one of the Red Cross’ Clubmobiles, serving those cups of coffee and donuts. Among the pejoratively named “Donut Dollies”—one of many examples of unabashed sexism the women face—she meets Dorothy Dunford, who has fled Indianapolis for comparable reasons.

Urrea briskly dramatizes the women’s boot camp and eventual passage to Liverpool, England, the first of many stops where they serve refreshments to flirting soldiers. Such respites, however, are tragically brief, which Irene and Dorothy learn when bullets strike the roof of their train. That’s just the first of many direct encounters with the reality of war, and things get considerably grislier as the novel takes its protagonists through major conflicts from the D-Day invasion to the Battle of the Bulge. 

Interspersed among scenes of combat are personal stories involving Irene, Dorothy and the service people they encounter, including an American pilot nicknamed Handyman, with whom Irene falls in love. Although such romantic moments are lackluster, the combat sequences are a thrill to read. Urrea writes memorable descriptions of war that strike the reader with devastating immediacy, such as when soldiers flirt with Irene one moment and die bleeding in the street seconds later. Good Night, Irene is strongest when Urrea shows the toll that war exacts from everyone involved. “It can’t be about killing,” Dorothy says to Irene. “It has to be about living. Saving even one life.” As Urrea reminds us, few things bring as much reassurance as people in wartime who understand the true meaning of valor.

As Luis Alberto Urrea reminds us, few things bring as much reassurance as people in wartime who understand the true meaning of valor.
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T.C. Boyle has never been afraid to torment his characters or draw from real life, and he does both in Blue Skies, putting his cast through just about every climate-related calamity to make the contours of the crisis so prominent that no one could miss them.

He begins this bicoastal adventure—the action toggles between Florida and California—with, of all things, jewelry. But it’s “living jewelry,” a Burmese python purchased by influencer Cat to wear around her neck. Boyle, the unparalleled stylist, describes Cat’s thought process in gorgeous prose: She thinks snakes are beautiful, “as if somebody had dipped a brush in acrylics and traced the lines that radiated in a widening V from their mouths to draw reticulate patterns across their backs and down their sides.”

Plenty of descriptions as unforgettable as that one follow as Boyle introduces multiple characters and complications, from the self-inflicted to the unforeseen. Cat’s ambition is to gain online followers and show off her Florida beachfront home. She lives there with her Tesla-driving fiancé, Todd, whose job involves drinking and partying to promote a rum brand. To Cat’s chagrin, it also involves a lot of time away from home.

Across the country in California are other members of Cat’s family. Her brother, Cooper, is an entomologist, disparaged as “Bug Boy” by classmates when he was growing up but who now conducts field research to study ticks and other arachnids. Their mother, Ottilie, is so deeply impacted by Cooper’s warnings about harming the planet that she begins cooking with crickets, making everything from cricket cobbler to cricket-infused cookies and brownies.

The disappearance of Cat’s snake is only the mildest of calamities to befall this group. Ever the maximalist, Boyle inflicts one disaster after another to show the perils of climate change. If anything, there’s too much incident. Fewer would have made his point more effective.

But wealth is better than poverty, and Boyle doles out ample riches. The pace never lets up, and he blends many other timely themes into his narrative, from aversion to parenthood to the ruthlessness of the media. Blue Skies may not be top-flight Boyle, but it’s Boyle at his most urgent. “What good was beachfront property if there was no beach?” Ottilie asks. As Boyle warns us, take the planet for granted, and don’t be surprised if, like a snake, its luxuries slither away.

Ever the maximalist, T.C. Boyle inflicts one disaster after another to show the perils of climate change in his novel Blue Skies.
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A surefire way to get bibliophiles to root for your book is to give them a bookish protagonist like Bob Comet, the 71-year-old main character of The Librarianist, Patrick deWitt’s fifth novel. Bob prefers to communicate with the world “mainly by reading about it. . . . The truth was that people made him tired.” He couldn’t have picked a better career, dedicating 45 years of his life to working as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.

And like a good book, every life is full of stories, some joyous, some sad. The conjurer’s trick deWitt performs here is to lull readers into believing they’re about to follow one particular story, then to make it disappear in favor of something deeper and more nuanced.

The novel’s beginning is straightforward enough. It’s 2005, and Bob lives in the brightly colored house he inherited from his mother. Forty years earlier, his wife ran away with his best friend. Bob has lived by himself ever since.

One morning, Bob goes to a convenience store to buy coffee and sees an elderly woman staring at the energy drinks. The clerk tells him she’s been standing there for 45 minutes. Bob discovers a laminated card around her neck that identifies her as a resident of a senior center. After Bob returns her to the center, the woman who runs the place gives Bob a tour, and he volunteers to read to the residents once a week. Readers could be forgiven for thinking that what follows will be a linear narrative about Bob’s experiences socializing with the facility’s colorful residents, but after a clever plot twist, deWitt takes the reader back in time, first to Bob’s early years as an aspiring librarian and his courtship and marriage, then even further back to 1945, when 11-year-old Bob ran away from home and met two elderly women who recruited him to join their traveling theater troupe. 

Reverse chronology is an old technique. Harold Pinter did it in his brilliant play Betrayal, as have many other writers. DeWitt’s transitions aren’t always smooth, but book lovers will adore this large cast of eccentrics anyway. DeWitt’s light touch, memorably demonstrated in his previous novel, French Exit, is on display here as well. The Librarianist is another charmer from an author who knows how to delight.

The Librarianist is another charmer from the author of The Sisters Brothers, who knows how to delight.
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Most lives contain their fair share of contradictions, but nowhere is this more striking than among people who work in politics or the oil industry, where compromises and rationalizations are standard practice. And few conflicts in contemporary literature are as stark as those competing for dominance within Bunny Glenn, the protagonist of Mobility, Lydia Kiesling’s smart, complex follow-up to her 2018 debut, The Golden State

To see contradictions play out to their fullest, one needs to view a life over many years. Kiesling does a generous service to Bunny by dramatizing her event-filled life over more than five decades, from the late days of the Clinton administration to a cautionary epilogue set in 2051. 

In 1998, Bunny—her real name is Elizabeth—is a well-traveled 15-year-old living in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where her father, Ted, is a diplomat in the foreign service. This could be an exciting experience for a teenager, but Bunny’s an old hand after her father’s previous postings in Yerevan, Armenia, and Athens, Greece. She’s more interested in reading Cosmopolitan, drinking vodka and performing “ministrations to her face and teeth that would increase her odds of driving a man, any man, a particular man, wild.”

Bunny gradually figures out her place in a complex world, from her relationship to her Texas family, including mother Maryellen, who gave up her flight attendant career; to her interactions with classmates at her prestigious boarding school; to finally her own career, which begins in 2009 with a temp job at an engineering firm and progresses to more substantial positions at a consultancy dedicated to investing in clean forms of energy—decisions that have professional as well as personal ramifications. 

At times, Kiesling is more interested in verisimilitude than narrative momentum, with long passages on the politics of the day. But readers in the market for a present-day mix of droll political insight reminiscent of the British sitcom “Yes Minister” or Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels will warm to the book’s style. And Kiesling does a nice job of highlighting rationalizations that sometimes define American life, such as for people who work for oil companies despite their conflicted feelings because they need the health insurance, or environmentalists who vacation by flying in airplanes that burn leaded fuel. Mobility is a forward-thinking book about old-fashioned themes of money, politics and family. And that’s no contradiction.

To see contradictions play out to their fullest, one needs to view a life over many years. Lydia Kiesling does a generous service to her fictional protagonist by dramatizing her event-filled life over more than five decades, from the late days of the Clinton administration to a cautionary epilogue set in 2051.

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