No high-falutin’ philosophizing today, just a rundown of some new releases you should definitely know about.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: The Pulitzer Prize board and I don’t often see eye to eye, but I couldn’t fault them when they rewarded The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon is often awesome and always interesting; even when he released an excerpt of a failed, unfinished novel I wanted to read it. His latest fiction relates the saga of Brokeland Records, “a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland.” The opening of a new mega-store threatens the shop and its longtime owners, but are they really the best arbiters of neighborhood values? How does a community that prides itself on its progressiveness deal with change when it comes? Telegraph Avenue is a 21st-century social novel that stands with the greats of ages past.
NW by Zadie Smith: Smith published her first novel, White Teeth, back in 2000, and I’ve liked her work ever since, despite that she’s a good deal younger and more talented than I am. That first book was referred to by the critic James Wood as an example of “hysterical realism,” a term he coined to describe fiction that pursues “vitality at all costs” and consequently “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being.” I’m not sure how valid that criticism was then, but it’s certainly not now—Smith employs a more mature, less frantic voice these days, but she’s still one of the best at depicting life in a modern metropolis. Her characters are of all colors and classes, and she makes them collide oh-so-creatively. NW follows four childhood friends as they forge adult lives outside of the subsidized housing block where they grew up, and it’s one of the novels I’ve been anticipating most this September.
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz: Here’s another Pulitzer Prize-winner that I didn’t hate. Díaz won in 2008 for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but his literary triumph was offset by a disastrous breakup in his personal life. That catastrophe proved to be the impetus for this collection of stories, all about the travails of relationships. This is not an author who cries quietly into his coffee cup, though. He’s more likely to rage and sling Dominican-inflected profanity about the page. Raw though the book is, it’s never just a screed. Díaz has an insider’s understanding of the machismo that often traps his characters, and he’s remarkably frank and self-lacerating about the costs that mentality inflicts. There’s more real insight here than in a hundred self-help books.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max: It’s not fiction, but a biography of the most iconic fiction writer of this generation. David Foster Wallace enjoyed success from a very young age as the author of many acclaimed works, including his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, but his personal life was rife with troubles, from addiction to crippling depression. He killed himself in 2008 at the age of 46 after having tried to wean himself (with his doctor’s approval) off medication. Wallace was public about his struggles, but never romanticized them the way many of his peers and forebears did theirs. He was rigidly opposed to the myth of the tortured artist and long before his death had become a model and mentor to countless other writers and fans, making his death feel particularly tragic. As a writer, Max can’t compete with Wallace’s style (few could) but this is an essential read for anyone with any interest in Wallace’s once-in-a-generation voice.
All of the above books are out now or will be within the week. Coming later in September are others I’ve got my eye on. The Story of My Assassins by Indian writer Tarun Tejpal is based on real events—it tells the story of a journalist who begins to investigate the five hitmen who’ve been arrested on their way to kill him. It’s a crime novel with considerable depth, and it’s from Melville House, one of my favorite publishers.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling needs little introduction. This is the first adult novel from the woman who brought us Harry Potter, and I’m eager to find out what kind of literary chops she’s got when her canvas is an ordinary English town instead of an imaginary landscape filled with horcruxes and sorting hats.
In Sunlight and in Shadow is by Mark Helprin, the author of the beloved (by me and many others) Winter’s Tale, and his latest novel seems to be a return to that earlier book’s setting in a phantasmagoric version of New York. A soldier returning from World War II catches sight of a beautiful young woman on a ferry and a romance is instantly sparked that will play out across time and the city. Perhaps it was inspired by one of my favorite scenes from the great film Citizen Kane. I won’t quote the speech to you now, but I remember it as well as that old man remembered his lady in white.