STARRED REVIEW

June 2021

14 unexpected book club picks

Is your book club in a rut? Liven things up with one of these eminently discussable titles that aren’t your typical reading group picks.
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It’s hard to know where an artist’s persona ends and her art begins, and this has never been truer than in the case of the mysteriously disappeared Kim Lord, the central figure in Maria Hummel’s spellbinding new novel, Still Lives. It’s also somewhat true of Hummel herself: The award-winning poet (her collection House and Fire won the APR/Honickman Prize in 2013 for best first book) worked at the perpetually cash-strapped Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and her novel’s protagonist, Maggie Richter, finds herself in a similar job at a similarly underfunded museum.

When Lord goes missing on the biggest night of her life—an A-list museum opening featuring her photographs, in which she portrays famous murder victims—speculation runs wild. Is it a publicity stunt? Or are more serious forces at foot? When Maggie’s ex-boyfriend (now Lord’s lover) falls under suspicion, Maggie’s journalistic instincts kick in, taking her places the cops can’t go and unwittingly putting her life in peril.

No doubt comparisons to Raymond Chandler’s best work will rain down upon Still Lives, dotted as it is with trenchant observations of LA and the human condition. Like Chandler, Hummel is capable of limning out a ripping yarn replete with high fashion, high finance and high society. These are the mean streets through which our heroine travels, though slightly removed from the glitter and the nastiness. And not unlike another master of the mystery, Erle Stanley Gardner, Hummel includes an intellectually satisfying Perry Mason moment that also provides an interesting twist.

It would be damning with faint praise to call Still Lives a contender for best beach read of the year—like calling Pablo Picasso a really good painter—but Still Lives is both that and so much more.

Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and is a member in good standing at several American and international museums.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Comparisons to Raymond Chandler’s best work will rain down upon Still Lives, dotted as it is with trenchant observations of LA and the human condition.

The Russian émigré is not uncommon in modern fiction. Generally, said immigrant comes to the states and cultural misunderstandings abound—plus feelings of displacement, pathos, yada yada—until a reckoning in which America and the émigré come to terms with each other and are both better for it. But what do you get when more than two decades after arrival in America, the young immigrant has to go back? You get Keith Gessen’s sad, funny and altogether winning novel, A Terrible Country.

Thirty-three-year-old Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His life is small, his New York City sublet is smaller, and he was just dumped by his girlfriend at a Starbucks. So when Andrei’s shady older brother, an aspiring kleptocrat living in Moscow, asks Andrei to return to the land of his birth and take care of their ailing grandmother, he agrees.

But Andrei, who left Russia when he was 8, is surprised to find himself in Putin’s Russia, where espressos are outrageously priced, the KGB has merely changed initials, and everyone is grasping for riches with both hands.

So Andrei cares for his grandmother, plays pickup hockey games and teaches online courses while waiting to go back to the U.S. It’s a lonely, hermetic existence—his lone attempt to experience the Moscow nightlife ends with a pistol whipping—until he meets Yulia, who is attractive, mysterious and a communist. Drawn into Yulia’s world of clandestine meetings and anti-government protests, Andrei grows closer to both her and Russia, and decides he will stay in the country. But taking on Putin’s government becomes all too real, and Andrei discovers the hard way that his choices affect not just his life but also those of his new friends.

Gessen is the author of the novel All the Sad Young Literary Men and an editor of popular literary magazine n+1. Like his protagonist, he moved to the United States from Russia as a child. His first novel in 10 years is a compassionate, soulful read that avoids dourness by being surprisingly funny. A Terrible Country shows us that while you certainly can go home again, it often turns out to be a lousy idea.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

What do you get when more than two decades after arrival in America, the young immigrant has to go back? You get Keith Gessen’s sad, funny and altogether winning novel, A Terrible Country.

It seems that more and more books, films and TV shows feature relationships between mothers and children who despise each other and seek each other’s slow death. In Zoje Stage’s debut novel, you can’t blame put-upon Suzette Jensen for wanting to be free from her monstrous daughter, Hanna. Indeed, by page five you’re praying for the little horror to eat it in the worst way possible.

What’s less clear is why Hanna hates her mother so much. What could Suzette have possibly done to Hanna, 7 years old when our tale opens, to fill her with such psychotic rage? On top of this, Hanna’s dad, Alex, is so love-blinded that he refuses to see how utterly atrocious Hanna is.

Soon enough, it becomes clear there is no answer, for Stage’s real subject is the conundrum of evil itself. There’s simply no reason for loving, gentle, organic veggie-eating, granola-crunching progressive parents who live in an eco-friendly house to produce something like Hanna. For these two benighted bobos to wonder where they went wrong as parents is as ridiculous as Cesar Millan wondering why he can’t bring the werewolves in Tolkien’s Silmarillion to heel. It’s sad and frustrating to watch the Jensens rush from pillar to post, trying to get other good-hearted folk to help their daughter, when it’s clear there is no hope.

Yet what else can they do with this child whose one and only goal is to kill her mother? What can the reader do? Hanna’s chapters conjure a sickened incredulousness in the reader. Hanna is not so much a character as an abyss; her mind is so warped and inhuman that you even fear for her big, cuddly Swedish bear of a dad. Because of this, her parents’ ultimate solution can be only temporary, as are all “victories” over evil. Don’t be surprised if there’s a sequel to Baby Teeth before long.

It seems that more and more books, films and TV shows feature relationships between mothers and children who despise each other and seek each other’s slow death. In Zoje Stage’s debut novel, you can’t blame put-upon Suzette Jensen for wanting to be free from her monstrous daughter, Hanna. Indeed, by page five you’re praying for the little horror to eat it in the worst way possible.

Whatever you do, don’t mess with Frances Price. If you’re a waiter, and the “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five” who is the protagonist of French Exit enters your restaurant, make sure you’re polite to her, or she just might take out her perfume, spritz the centerpiece and set it on fire.

She has nice qualities, too—she gives money to charities and the homeless—but she’s also likely to leave for a ski holiday in Vail rather than contact the authorities when she discovers that her husband, a ruthless litigator, has died of cardiac arrest.

The tabloid scandal caused by her indifference hasn’t stopped her from living an extravagant Manhattan lifestyle since her husband’s death 20 years ago. But enforced austerity is about to begin. Her financial adviser tells her that the money she inherited has run out. Sell everything that isn’t nailed down, he tells her, and begin again.

When an old friend offers her the use of a Paris apartment, Frances reluctantly accepts. Soon, she’s sailing across the Atlantic with Malcolm, her 32-year-old kleptomaniacal “lugubrious toddler” of a son, and Small Frank, an elderly cat she is convinced houses the spirit of her late husband.

Patrick deWitt has great fun with this premise. He populates the story with such characters as Susan, the fiancée Malcolm leaves behind in New York; Madeleine, a medium who can tell when someone is about to die because they look green; and Madame Reynard, an American widow who befriends the Prices because of her fascination with the tabloid scandal.

If French Exit doesn’t always reach the zany heights it strives for, it’s still an entertaining portrait of people who are obsessed with the looming specter of death and who don’t quite feel part of the time they were born into.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Whatever you do, don’t mess with Frances Price. If you’re a waiter, and the “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five” who is the protagonist of French Exit enters your restaurant, make sure you’re polite to her, or she just might take out her perfume, spritz the centerpiece and set it on fire.

Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining station Lsel to the behemoth Teixcalaan Empire, carries the memories of her late predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, in her mind. Until those memories are forcefully and inexplicably removed, leaving her abandoned on a world whose people speak in poetic allusions; name themselves after flowers, abstract concepts and sometimes vehicles or appliances; are dealing with a looming war of succession; and want her dead more frequently than is, strictly speaking, healthy. Mahit must navigate this lethal maze and maintain her independence while choosing the right allies to keep her home from being devoured by the ever-hungry Teixcalaanli fleet. And all while searching for a way to regain her connection to Yskandr’s knowledge and guidance without of course, telling anyone she’d ever had such access.

A Memory Called Empire is a political thriller inspired by the Byzantine Empire and featuring plot points reminiscent of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”’s Trill symbionts and the linguistic games of Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star. It is science fiction, and is certainly operatic in scope, but calling it a space opera seems like cheating somehow, as if there’s something being left out. Arkady Martine’s prose is an incisive, self-aware blend of tense action and delightful humor. Scenes extolling the virtues of alcohol when forced to praise bad poetry and mocking an otherwise irrelevant character that named themselves after a snowmobile are sprinkled liberally amongst the murder attempts and diplomatic machinations. A Memory Called Empire is dense, packed full of ulterior motives and subplots and beautifully realized characters, but its variety makes it eminently readable.

But the most memorable aspect of Martine’s debut may be the society she has crafted. Teixcalaan is utterly fascinating, its libertine self-image and obsession with art and style mixed with an almost superstitious fear of the human mind. Its veneer of gentility, elegance and enlightenment is profoundly fragile, and all the more precious for it. Smiling with one’s mouth is gauche, but it is also deeply personal. Mastery of allusion and subtext are such clear markers of social and political power that only the highest and the lowest in Teixcalaanli society dare speak plainly. The empire is the center of civilization, surrounded by barbarians who live on space stations and burn and recycle their dead, and yet in times of civil war, its inhabitants commit ritual suicide to earn the favor of gods they don’t quite believe in. They fear the depths of the human psyche, yet live in a city and under the protection of a police force that are both controlled by an artificial intelligence.

Imperial Teixcalaan is a brilliantly realized world of contradictions, and A Memory Called Empire is filled with poets, politicians, spies, soldiers and a thousand degrees of moral ambiguity. Oh, and some of the best names in all of science fiction.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGERead our Q&A with Arkady Martine about A Memory Called Empire.

Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining station Lsel to the behemoth Teixcalaan Empire, carries the memories of her late predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, in her mind. Until those memories are forcefully and inexplicably removed.

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is hardly a typical biography; it’s more like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, narrated not only by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose but also by a host of colorful experts whom the author tracks down.

Posnanski says he was drawn to the legendary escape artist because he “sparks so much wonder in the world, even today.” Modern magicians seem to concur that, technically speaking, Houdini wasn’t a particularly good magician. However, crowds were mesmerized by his escapes and were convinced he could do the impossible. The great actress Sarah Bernhardt was so gobsmacked that she asked if Houdini could restore her missing leg.

The truth of the matter is that Houdini was a charismatic, brilliant entertainer who was obsessed with fame. This publicity genius was ruthless against critics and competitors and could not for the life of him ignore an insult. He loved making money but wore tattered clothes, preferring to spend his money on self-promotion, magic books and paraphernalia.

Even today, Houdini “lives on because people will not let him die,” Posnanski writes. He introduces readers to a variety of Houdini’s modern disciples, such as Kristen Johnson, “Lady Houdini,” who says that after she tried her first rope escape, “she felt alive in a whole different way.” Magician David Copperfield takes Posnanski on a tour of his private museum in Las Vegas, discussing his predecessor’s influence. Australian magician Paul Cosentino admits, “I guess . . . he saved my life. Little boys like me, we need Houdini, you know? He’s a symbol of hope.” As Posnanski concludes, “Houdini is not a figure of the past. He is a living, breathing, and modern phenomenon.”

When a talented writer like Posnanski tackles a subject as endlessly fascinating as Harry Houdini, the results are, quite simply, pure magic.

Hardly a typical biography, this book feels like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, as told by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose and through the voices of a host of colorful experts he tracks down.

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