Rebecca Shapiro

It’s a common comparison: Your odds of being struck by lightning are far better than those of winning the grand jackpot in the lottery. But they’re still quite low, at around one in one million for someone living in the U.S. in any given year (the odds increase over a lifetime). Man Alive!, an intriguing novel by Mary Kay Zuravleff, tells the tale of one man who beats these odds with dramatic consequences.

Dr. Owen Lerner is a successful psychiatrist with a workaholic-like focus on his practice, specializing in children with neurodevelopment disorders such as autism. Summer weeks spent at a Delaware beach house with his family are one of the few times he allows himself to unwind. It’s on the last evening of one such vacation, when he and his wife and three children are on their way to dinner, that the odds of a lightning strike instantly becomes 100% for Owen. As he places a quarter in the parking meter, all the proper elements align . . . and he is literally knocked off his feet.

The Lerner family’s post-lightning-strike implosion makes up the meat of this tale. And meat actually plays a large role, as Owen, in his recovery, becomes obsessed with the art of barbecue—likely as a reaction to the odor of his own burning flesh following the hit. It isn’t just barbecue that consumes him; the euphoria he experiences immediately after being struck leads to a “chasing the dragon” type journey as Owen strives not only to explain those feelings but to bring them back. Suddenly he is as “neuroatypical” as the patients he’s devoted his life to, and this irony is not lost on him.

Owen’s family watches his transformation with both fascination and fear. Wife Toni’s resentment at having to become an instant caretaker to her physically and mentally altered husband is realistically portrayed, although her angst-ridden passages can become tiresome. His college-age twin sons, Ricky and Will, have their own traumatized reactions: Will in particular experiences a downslide that sometimes strains credulity. Teenage daughter Brooke displays a mix of guilt, revulsion and adolescent self-centeredness that is on the mark, but a subplot focused on her unhealthy high-school romance seems extraneous.

Yes, the Lerner family members can be annoying; but who among us can’t relate to irritating relatives? It’s likely that readers will want to complete the journey with a family that, despite their extraordinary circumstances, may remind them very much of their own.

It’s a common comparison: Your odds of being struck by lightning are far better than those of winning the grand jackpot in the lottery. But they’re still quite low, at around one in one million for someone living in the U.S. in any given year (the odds increase over a lifetime). Man Alive!, an intriguing […]

There have been countless novels over the years about the rampant wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States during the 19th and early 20th century. So many, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to imagine a story on the subject that feels unique. Anna Solomon’s fascinating debut, about a mail-order bride sent to join her Orthodox husband in rural South Dakota, is a rare, stunning exception.

Minna Losk is a 16-year-old orphan living in 1880s Odessa when she answers an ad from a Russian-American man looking for a wife. She, like so many others, dreams of an urban, cosmopolitan life and of opportunities unheard of for a Jew in Cossack-ridden Russia. But when Minna arrives, she is whisked off not to New York or Chicago but “Sodokota,” a barren, desolate territory far from civilization. Minna’s betrothed, too, is not what she expects, but rather, a rigidly religious man more than twice her age, with two teenaged sons in tow. With literally nowhere else to turn, Minna must learn to make this fledgling family work under the most trying circumstances.

The Little Bride is a riveting portrait of a community not often documented in history.  Shunned both by their mother country and by the American Jews who had already assimilated into secular life, the first wave of Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the mid-19th century were often forcibly sent to the Great Plains—a narrative now largely eclipsed by the massive wave of immigration that followed shortly after. But this is far more than just a different twist on the same story. Solomon’s prose is bold and often gritty, and she creates complicated, surprising characters that completely defy expectations, displaying the depths of the author’s careful research and rich imagination. 

Rebecca Shapiro writes from Brooklyn.

There have been countless novels over the years about the rampant wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States during the 19th and early 20th century. So many, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to imagine a story on the subject that feels unique. Anna Solomon’s fascinating debut, about a mail-order bride […]

Literary wisdom has it that it is often easiest to write what you know, but with his debut novel, investment banker Amor Towles couldn’t have strayed farther from his own life. Raised in suburban Boston in the 1970s, he somehow manages to conjure an impeccably detailed, poetically rendered portrayal of the complicated rise of a professional woman in 1930s New York.

On New Year’s Eve, 1937, Katey Kontent and Eve Ross leave their boardinghouse for a night in a Greenwich Village jazz club with nothing but $3 and boundless dreams between them. Brooklyn-bred Katey hails from poor, Russian immigrant stock, trying to rise through the ranks as a secretary in a Wall Street law firm. Stubborn Eve, who comes from Wisconsin money, got her publishing job thanks to family connections, but otherwise is determined to make it on her own. Katey and Eve are best friends, sharing everything from dresses to their boardinghouse bedroom, and they think that nothing could come between them—until the charming, debonair Tinker Grey walks into the bar, and Eve calls dibs.

The novel is governed by the chance encounters and seemingly small moments that end up making a difference in people’s lives—an interesting theme, but one that ultimately undermines the absolutely tremendous tension that Towles builds between Katey, Eve and Tinker. The triangle is shattered early on by an unexpected incident, which is perhaps true to life, but losing such nuanced momentum feels like a shame. Still, Towles’ prose is enormously promising, and Rules of Civility is a worthwhile read just for the pleasure of watching the New York landscape come alive under his pen, from the decadent 21 Club and the grand apartments of the Beresford to the stodgy Chelsea boardinghouses and lively Russian bars on the Lower East Side. 

Literary wisdom has it that it is often easiest to write what you know, but with his debut novel, investment banker Amor Towles couldn’t have strayed farther from his own life. Raised in suburban Boston in the 1970s, he somehow manages to conjure an impeccably detailed, poetically rendered portrayal of the complicated rise of a […]

Korean-American author Samuel Park grew up listening to his mother’s stories about her life in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, when the country teetered on the brink of modernity while remaining steeped in centuries of tradition. He sets his intriguing novel in this tumultuous period, introducing a fascinating character whose life is forever changed by one very important decision.

The year is 1960, and in Daegu, Soo-Ja Choi dreams of becoming South Korea’s first woman diplomat. Though she is accepted into the program, her wealthy and overprotective father refuses to let her go, wanting her to marry and start a family instead. Reluctantly, Soo-Ja agrees to marry Min, a suitor who has been relentlessly pursuing her. But two days before the wedding, a handsome acquaintance named Yul asks her to run away with him instead. Fearing that she will disappoint her family, Soo-Ja rejects his offer, but realizes after just one night in her new husband’s home what a grave mistake she has made. Divorce is unthinkable in the still male-dominated society, especially after Soo-Ja gives birth to a daughter who means everything to her, but not a day passes that she doesn’t think of Yul and wonder what might have been if she had married him instead. 

Traversing the South Korean landscape, from the rural fishing village of Pusan to the bustling capital of Seoul, This Burns My Heart is truly a slice of history, capturing a country very much in transition. But more importantly, it is a love story so simple and universal that, in many ways, it could be set anywhere. With complex, sympathetic characters and vibrant, lyrical prose, Park reminds readers about loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, family and, above all, the enduring power of first love.

Read an interview with Samuel Park about This Burns My Heart.

Korean-American author Samuel Park grew up listening to his mother’s stories about her life in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, when the country teetered on the brink of modernity while remaining steeped in centuries of tradition. He sets his intriguing novel in this tumultuous period, introducing a fascinating character whose life […]

Author J. Courtney Sullivan made a name for herself in 2009 with a smart, incredibly resonant debut, Commencement, about four unlikely friends during their college years at Smith and the turbulent 20-something years that followed. With her sophomore effort, Sullivan turns from friendships to family, writing with the same warmth and nuance as in Commencement, but pushing her characters further, creating an even more complex and satisfying whole in Maine.

Maine revolves around the Kelleher family, a large Boston Irish-Catholic clan that has been vacationing for nearly 60 years at the same beachfront cottage, which fell into their laps in a bit of uncharacteristic luck. Weather-worn but packed with years of sun-soaked memories, the cottage was once a uniting force for the Kellehers, but in recent years, it seems to have been little more than a nuisance, and the family matriarch is preparing to make a rash decision about its future.

As she did in her first novel, Sullivan oscillates between narrators with a remarkable ease in Maine, capturing the summer from the perspectives of Alice Kelleher; her estranged daughter Kathleen, a recovering alcoholic with a holistic California farm; her revered daughter-in-law Ann Marie, who copes with her fledgling children and disappointing marriage through an obsessive dollhouse habit; and granddaughter Maggie, at a painful crossroads in her own life.

In Sullivan’s hands, the four considerably flawed but deeply sympathetic narrators come to life in a meaningful and believable way. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is Sullivan’s ability to again conjure a place so completely through description and careful attention to detail. Damp, salt-laden air and strong cocktails practically emanate from the pages of this pleasing story, which cements Sullivan’s status as a talented young writer to watch.

Author J. Courtney Sullivan made a name for herself in 2009 with a smart, incredibly resonant debut, Commencement, about four unlikely friends during their college years at Smith and the turbulent 20-something years that followed. With her sophomore effort, Sullivan turns from friendships to family, writing with the same warmth and nuance as in Commencement, but pushing her characters further, creating an even more complex and satisfying whole in Maine.

Countless children of the 1960s rebelled against their straitlaced parents by turning to rock music, sexual freedom and, perhaps most importantly, drugs. But would such an uninhibited cohort curb the rebellion in their own children, a generation later? In her vibrant debut, a sweeping coming-of-age novel set against the pulsing New York City punk scene of the late 1980s, Eleanor Henderson asks this and much more, bringing to life both a set of achingly real characters and the unique time in which they lived in Ten Thousand Saints.

For Jude Keffy-Horn, adopted at birth by Vermont hippies who later divorced, boredom and drugs are the mainstays of his small-town life. But things take a drastic turn on his 16th birthday, when his best friend, Teddy, dies of an accidental overdose. In desperation, his mother sends Jude to live with his pot-dealing father in the East Village, taking a gamble that it might straighten him out. Oddly, the plot works, as Jude eschews his father’s alternative lifestyle for one of his own—the hardcore, straight-edge punk scene. As Jude weans himself off the vices of his childhood (not just drugs, but also alcohol and even meat), he builds an unconventional but tight-knit family around two friends—Teddy’s older brother, Johnny, a tattoo artist in a hardcore band, and Eliza, a scared prep-school dropout likely carrying Teddy’s baby.

Henderson’s debut is ambitious, and though she has clearly researched extensively, the prose sometimes struggles under the weight of so much detail. But the novel shines when she focus on the characters, whom she writes about with care and affection, digging below rough exteriors to find the source of their anger, frustration, boredom and indifference. From this gritty, often under-the-radar subculture, Henderson culls warmth and humanity, and proves herself at the same time a deft and promising storyteller.

Countless children of the 1960s rebelled against their straitlaced parents by turning to rock music, sexual freedom and, perhaps most importantly, drugs. But would such an uninhibited cohort curb the rebellion in their own children, a generation later? In her vibrant debut, a sweeping coming-of-age novel set against the pulsing New York City punk scene of the late 1980s, Eleanor Henderson asks this and much more.

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