Here are the titles from the latest Bookmarks Magazine that made it onto my to-read list:
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.
We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city’s demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life—divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house—and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang—who thrived and who faltered—and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both—and escape the merciless progress of time—in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.
Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss: A man is found wandering the desert outside Las Vegas. The cards in his wallet identify him as Samson Greene, a Columbia University English professor last seen leaving campus eight days ago. Thirty-six years old, with a wife, Anna, and a dog, Frank. But Samson doesn’t even recognize his own name, and by the time Anna has made her away across the country to pick him up, doctors have discovered a cherry-sized tumor in his brain; its removal eradicates the last twenty-four years of Samson’s memories.
Samson and Anna return to New York together, where Samson struggles to connect with the woman he knows he is supposed to love, with his career, with his home, with his “life.” He remembers his mother, his childhood in California, the basic shape and processes of the world, but everything else remains blank. In the meantime, Anna sees the same husband she has always seen, but every day has to steel herself against the notion that the man she loves is the Samson who remembers the last quarter century, the Samson who has been shaped by the history of their lives together.
Into these daily lives fraught with a peculiarly intimate tension comes a charismatic scientist who invites Samson to take part in a groundbreaking, experimental project involving the transfer of memories from one mind to another–all it requires is a trip back to the Nevada desert. It doesn’t take much to lure Samson away from his profound loneliness in the City–where he is stuck between missing the past life that surrounds him and yearning to enjoy the fresh start he’s been given–though Anna is never far from his thoughts as he embarks on the adventure that could mean the end of the old Samson Greene.
In Samson, Nicole Krauss creates an ordinary man who his facing a searingly new world with gritty poignancy and purely instinctual empathy. Reminiscent of early DeLillo, but with the emotional sensitivity of a budding Cheever, Krauss’s sharp, intelligent storytelling effortlessly peels away the layers of quotidian circumstances to reveal the subtle joys and woes of simple survival.
Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong: Linda Hammerick has a special yet burdensome gift–she experiences words as tastes. Linda’s boyfriends’ names, for example, remind her of orange sherbet and parsnips; her own name is mint-flavored. Depending on the speaker, listening, for Linda, can be delicious or distasteful. In the first part of the book, Linda interacts with her family: she dances with her eccentric uncle Baby Harper, whose sing-song voice limits her “tasting his words”; she faced off with her acerbic grandmother, Iris; deals with her adored father, Thomas, and her unsympathetic mother, Deanne, whose infatuation with a neighborhood boy leaves Linda vulnerable to his predatory advances. Woven into Linda’s story is the history of her home state, North Carolina–slaveholding days, the first airplane flight, and local Indian lore. But when a sudden tragedy brings Linda back home from New York City, she finds answers to a life that has been made up of half-finished sentences, as the secret of her origins and the clandestine histories of those around her are revealed one by one. Truong’s mesmerizing prose beautifully captures Linda’s taste-saturated world, and her portrait of a broken family’s secretive pockets and genuine moments of connection is affecting.
What is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman: On a stormy Nova Scotia night in 1967, the loner Wyatt Hillyer has come to terms with his life’s choices and self-imposed separation from his daughter Marlais. Realizing that one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is an honest picture of himself, Wyatt has decided to write his memoirs in the form of a letter on the occasion of Marlais’ twenty-first birthday. With great clarity and economy he slowly discloses the events of his parents’ scandalous deaths in 1941, his teenage years living with his aunt and uncle, the joys of fatherhood, and what led to his abandoning his only daughter and her mother. Returning to Canada’s Maritime provinces in his latest novel, What Is Left the Daughter, acclaimed author Howard Norman has created an unpredictable and absorbing story of an imperfect and tragic life at a turning point. This short and potent novel will leave readers replaying events and reconsidering Wyatt and the other unique characters long after reading the final pages.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell: In Let’s Take the Long Walk Home, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gail Caldwell has written a powerful and moving memoir about her coming-of-age in mid-life, and her extraordinary friendship with the author of Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp—fellow writers, AA members, dog lovers, and observers of life.
In her younger years, Caldwell defined herself by rebellion and independence, a passion for books, and an aversion to intimacy and a distrust of others. Then while living in Cambridge in her early 40s, “an age when the view from the hill can be clear and poignant both,” Caldwell adopts a rambunctious puppy named Clementine. On one of their bucolic walks, she meets Caroline and her dog, Lucille, and both women’s lives change forever.
Though they are more different than alike, these two fiercely private, independent women quickly relax into a friendship more profound than either of them expected, a friendship that will thrive on their shared secrets, including parallel struggles with alcoholism and loneliness. They grow increasingly inseparable until, in 2003, Caroline is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Caldwell writes: “It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.”
In her signature exquisite prose, Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion and grief in this wise and affecting account about losing her best friend. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is also a celebration of life and all the little moments worth cherishing—and affirms why Gail Caldwell is rightly praised as one of our bravest and most honest literary voices.