Thane Tierney

What is it with the devil and violinists? Seems like his thirst for their souls is never slaked. In the 1700s, he made a deal with Paganini; in the 1970s, he went down to Georgia; and now the unlikely California city of El Monte offers up the latest additions to his infernal collection.

In Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, violin teacher Shizuka Satomi finds herself on the horns of a dilemma: As the clock ticks down, she needs to deliver one more soul to the Bad Guy Down Below or else prepare to take the hot seat for all eternity. She’s already turned over six violin students, each of whom traded their immortal essence for earthly success beyond their wildest ambitions. 

Number seven, though, is a problem. Katrina Nguyen, a transgender teen runaway with a broken instrument and a broken psyche, isn’t motivated by the typical incentives (recording contract, concert tour, international renown) that made Shizuka’s previous students such easy marks.

Katrina isn’t the only refugee with a troubled past on Shizuka’s date card. Local donut shop owner—and starship captain—Lan Tran is on the intergalactic lam from a civilization-destroying phenomenon known as Endplague. After a meet cute, Shizuka and Lan embark on a friendship in which confidences are shared and mutual assistance is provided.

In a sense, virtually all of the book’s protagonists are literary examples of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which damaged pottery is repaired with gold, becoming stronger because of its imperfections. In addition to the novel’s all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny. When Lan’s son is harassed by a hot-rodding local, the interstellar traveler derides the Earthling as “another primitive . . . who thought going 0 to 0.00000089469 times the speed of light in 6.6 seconds was something to brag about.” In another scene, when Lan marvels at a seemingly unending parade of breadsticks at an Olive Garden, Shizuka rejoins, somewhat incredulously, “But you traveled across the galaxy. The galaxy.”

Without straining the metaphor too much, Aoki gets every element of mise-en-scène note-perfect, and her prose is as exacting and precise as the techniques Shizuka is trying to impart to her young charge. Readers can feel the steam emanating from the kitchens of Aoki’s San Gabriel Valley noodle joints, hear the scrape of a freshly rosined bow across recalcitrant strings and experience the acute anguish of having one foot anchored in one world while the other is desperately trying to move forward. 

It almost makes you wonder if Aoki made a deal with—naaaah. She knows better.

In addition to the novel’s all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny.

Jaime Cortez is a celebrated Chicano graphic novelist, visual artist, writer, teacher, performer and LGBTQ rights activist. His collection of short stories, Gordo, reveals that he also possesses the eye of a photographer. Like Diane Arbus or Weegee, Cortez depicts warts-and-all moments of vulnerability precisely, sometimes even harshly, and without sentiment. Unlike Arbus and Weegee, his camera is the printed word, rather than a Nikon or Speed Graphic.

The protagonist of many of these short stories is a young lad nicknamed Gordo who feels confused by the world as he grows into his oversize frame during the 1970s. He lives in the ag-industrial maw of central California, where a person’s horizons are frequently circumscribed by the limited choices available (working in the fields or trundling off to one of the mega food processors that stipple the landscape), particularly if that person’s first (or only) language is Spanish. 

Like many of John Steinbeck’s characters in The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, the people who inhabit the pages of Gordo are often poor in economic terms but lead richly complex lives. There’s Raymundo, who as a boy is bullied for growing his hair long, and as an adult unexpectedly finds himself in a position to assist a former classmate. Nelson Pardo is an Salvadoran ex-army colonel who hates his janitorial gig at the Jolly Giant vegetable plant. And an accident with a chainsaw reveals Alex’s gender to Gordo, who is shocked by the realization that everybody else already knew.

Cortez is native to this locale, and it shows. He succinctly portrays a largely overlooked California landscape that’s as far removed from the worlds of Silicon Valley and Hollywood as it is from the 14 moons of Neptune. What ultimately draws the reader in, though, is the book’s emotional honesty. Gordo is no smarty-pants, wise-beyond-his-years kid; even as he grows up, he’s often puzzled by life’s abundant mysteries. The characters in and around his life exhibit kindness and cruelty in fluid motion. Cortez artfully frames these characters’ daily struggles and captures them in the freeze-frame flash of a master at work.

 

Note: Edited for clarity on 9/20/2021.

As in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the characters in Gordo are often poor in economic terms but lead richly complex lives.

Leïla Slimani’s latest novel, In the Country of Others: War, War, War, is the first volume of a multigenerational trilogy recounting—in the truthful way that only fiction can—the history of the author’s grandmother, who emigrated from France to Morocco in the wake of World War II.

It was supposed to be a big adventure. Mathilde, in the company of Amine, a man “so handsome that she was afraid someone would steal him away,” escapes the confines of her Alsatian village into what she imagines will be a life ripped from the pages of a Karen Blixen novel. Alas, Morocco in 1947 is far from this romantic fantasy, so Mathilde does what millions of expats have done before and since: She makes up her new life as she goes along, and she curates (read, “lies about”) her experiences for her family back home.

The novel’s subtitle, “War, War, War,” telegraphs the backdrop against which this drama plays out. Amine fights against the arid land he tries to farm, against the elements, against poverty. Mathilde fights against society’s expectations of her, both as a woman and as an immigrant. Morocco fights against its colonial history and uncertain future. Both Morocco and Mathilde struggle to gain some degree of autonomy over the course of the novel. Parallels with Paul Scott’s famed Raj Quartet are evident, as the personal and political journeys are inextricably intertwined.

In the Country of Others is an unabashedly feminist novel of outsiders. In an interview, Slimani asserted that “women all live in the land of others, for they live in the land of men,” and that her dual Franco-Moroccan heritage leaves her partially estranged from both cultures. But she has been warmly embraced by the French literati, having won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016 for The Perfect Nanny, as well as the Grand Prix de l'Héroïne Madame Figaro, awarded by Le Figaro for the best novel featuring a female protagonist, for In the Country of Others.

The first in a planned trilogy, In the Country of Others doesn’t wrap up its myriad messy conflicts, but it does conclude in an emotionally satisfying way while leaving the door open for its next two chapters.

Leïla Slimani’s latest novel is the first volume of a trilogy recounting—in the truthful way that only fiction can—the history of the author’s grandmother.

In the mid-1600s, two theories competed over the true nature of the heart. English physiologist William Harvey claimed it was a pump. French philosopher René Descartes believed it to be a furnace. While Harvey won the day in the world of anatomy, Bosnian author Semezdin Mehmedinović, in his semi-autobiographical novel, My Heart, finds room for both concepts.

As the book opens, Mehmedinović has suffered a near-fatal heart attack; in fact, his doctor warns him that if “I had to come to him again, I wouldn’t leave the hospital.” A prognosis like that tends to focus the mind, and so in the book’s second section, Mehmedinović composes a sprawling letter to his son, Harun.

Part diary, part travelogue, part philosophical observation and part confessional, this epistle to Harun spans decades and continents. It includes the mundane (father and son listen to Morcheeba and Moby during a desert road trip) and the astonishing, as when Mehmedinović describes a poet friend who turned a restaurant “into a concentration camp.”

Just as Mehmedinović’s physical heart has suffered damage, his emotional one has as well. He apologizes for not having spirited his son out of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war and acknowledges their mutual PTSD as refugees, which has rendered them solitary men. They’re family, of course, but still fundamentally alone.

In the final section, we see the heart-as-furnace stoked as Mehmedinović recounts life with his wife, Sanja, after she has a stroke. As was the case with his son, he wants to bear witness and pay homage to moments whose consequences may only come into view in retrospect. He helps to fill in her memory deficits, but he also acts as an agent of selective forgetting, to shield her from reliving emotional trauma when relearning that a friend or relative has died.

The poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen once observed that “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” As we can see from My Heart, this is also how the warmth gets out.

The poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen once observed that “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” As we can see from My Heart, this is also how the warmth gets out.

In the era of the belated (and semi-involuntary) retirement of the likes of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, The Rib King could hardly be more prescient, as it centers on a Black man who is the face of a food brand.

The novel’s first half takes place near the beginning of World War I, a time when the Civil War was no further removed from memory than the Vietnam War is from our minds today. And while the formerly well-to-do white Barclay family is inclined to behave less spitefully toward people of different races, they are by no means paragons of enlightenment. Much as in the Depression-era classic My Man Godfrey, it turns out that the key to solving the family’s financial ills may be held by the overlooked butler, in this case August Sitwell. He agrees to deliver a recipe for—and to be the public image of—a meat sauce that establishes him nationwide as the Rib King.

Fast forward a decade, and one of his former co-workers, Jennie Williams, has a product of her own to sell, which sweeps her unwillingly back into the Rib King’s orbit. In this half of the book, Ladee Hubbard’s talent really shines as Jennie navigates a maze of intrigue involving revenge, betrayal, economic exploitation, racial conflict and the often brutal exercise of power.

Hubbard’s depiction of a shadow economy bracketed by race is compelling and insightful, reminiscent of playwright August Wilson’s finest work. Woven into this narrative is a captivating depiction of Black feminist agency at a time not long after white women had gained the right to vote. It’s little wonder that Hubbard won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction in 2018.

Ultimately the reason to read The Rib King is not its timeliness or its insight into politics or Black culture, but because it accomplishes what the best fiction sets out to do: It drops you into a world you could not otherwise visit and makes you care deeply about what happens there.

In the era of the belated (and semi-involuntary) retirement of the likes of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, The Rib King could hardly be more prescient, as it centers on a Black man who is the face of a food brand.

Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “Everyone has three lives: a private life, a public life, and a secret life.” It’s the latter of these we see on full display in British author Sarah Moss’ slender yet weighty Summerwater.

One rainy, gloomy summer day in a Scottish holiday park, a dozen or so people are cooped up—or occasionally not—in their cabins, alone with each other, alone with their thoughts. Every other chapter extracts a stream-of-consciousness core sample from the rich vein of a character’s internal monologue.

Becky, a rather petulant teen, is not having a good time because the cabin’s size requires her to share a room with her slightly older brother, Alex, an arrangement neither of them finds satisfactory. David, a retired doctor, reminisces about days gone by, when the other cabin owners were more like a community and less absentee landlords. He also ruminates about whether he should have sold the place back when the park, not unlike himself, still had the prospect of better days ahead. Meanwhile, a young wife named Milly fantasizes about Don Draper, alternately castigating and absolving herself for not being more present with her husband. There are more such moments, of course, but these are illustrative of Moss’ main thesis: It’s not much of a happy holiday for any of the participants.

Perhaps the one thing upon which they can all agree is that the Ukrainian—or perhaps Romanian or Bulgarian—family in one of the neighboring cabins parties way too loudly, and there’s nothing like a gloomy, rain-drenched day to offer the opportunity to obsess. As we all learned from watching the movie Deliverance, nothing sets up a potential catastrophe better than the combination of outsiders and wilderness, and on this point Moss does not disappoint. Like Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy, it happens “gradually, and then suddenly.”

Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “Everyone has three lives: a private life, a public life, and a secret life.” It’s the latter of these we see on full display in British author Sarah Moss’ slender yet weighty Summerwater.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!