NYT: Newly Released Books


New York Times

Sept 15 2010

>From the Ottoman Empire to wartime Poland, rural Georgia to rural
Indiana, the contemporary novel thinks big this month. And the
literary world is big enough to make room for new work from the head
of a prestigious writing program and one of its recent graduates.

THE GENDARME By Mark T. Mustian 294 pages. Amy Einhorn Books. $25.95.

For most of Emmett Conn’s 92 years, his early life has been a mystery,
a casualty of memory loss caused by head injuries he sustained in World
War I. After developing a brain tumor, Conn finds fragments of this
lost past invading his dreams. He begins to remember the days before
he woke up in a London hospital and before he married an American
nurse who brought him to her home in Georgia. He recognizes himself as
Ahmet Khan, a young, brutish member of the Turkish military police –
“the gendarme” of the title – who is charged with overseeing the
deportation of thousands of Armenians in 1915, a forced trek that
contributed to wider massacres. Switching between the antiseptic
medical institutions of 20th-century America and the pitiless chaos
of the tottering Ottoman Empire, Mark Mustian reveals the unfeeling
man that Conn/Khan was and the man he became. At the center of the
transformation is a beautiful deportee. He saves her life, while she
rescues his humanity. PATRICIA COHEN

pages. Riverhead Books. $25.95.

The most vivid characters in Danielle Evans’s story collection are
in-betweeners: between girlhood and womanhood; between the black
middle class and Ivy League privilege; between iffy boyfriends and
those even less reliable; between an extended family and living on
your own. To say they’re caught between worlds isn’t quite accurate,
though; they tend to be hard-headed, sadder but wiser and, most of all,
funny. Here’s Carla on her stripper cousin in “Wherever You Go, There
You Are”: “I love her, don’t get me wrong, but she’s got … a big head
with wide almond eyes and a long blond weave, and while I can imagine
many reasons why men might pay good money to see a real live woman,
there’s something unsettling about so many of them paying to see a
real live Bratz doll.” Now 26 and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, Ms. Evans first drew notice in 2007 when The Paris Review
published “Virgins,” the story that opens this collection.


A CURABLE ROMANTIC By Joseph Skibell 593 pages. Algonquin
Books. $26.95.

Jakob Sammelsohn is the “curable romantic” in this novel, which sweeps
from a late-19th-century Polish shtetl to the Warsaw ghetto of the
1940s. Whether Jakob has an affliction that can or should be cured is
an open question, but as the novel begins, he has been married twice
by the age of 12, thanks to one divorce and one dead wife who turns
into an insistent ghost. In a Vienna theater Jakob falls for Emma
Eckstein, a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. His encounters with Freud and
his patient, not to mention love affairs and his “traumatized dream
state” as the Germans roll across Europe, fill the pages of the novel,
Mr. Skibell’s third. At heart, the book grapples with the nature of
exile. As Jakob notes, “For two thousand years, my people had lived
in the Land of Zion as though it were real; and although this is
perhaps not the place to say it, now that it’s real, I regret that
we too often treat it as though it were imaginary.” FELICIA R. LEE

pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $23.95.

“Write what you know” is classic advice, and Lan Samantha Chang,
the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has taken it to heart in
her latest novel, about the charged relationship between student and
teacher at a Midwestern writing school in the mid-1980s. The talented
and narcissistic Roman Morris craves the approval of his accomplished
and aloof poetry teacher, Miranda Sturgis. After the two engage in
an intense affair that includes personalized tutoring, Roman goes on
to a successful career, with prizes, tenure and a mortgage, while
his classmate Bernard struggles along in a cold garret – make that
studio – in New York City, working for decades on a single poem. Roman
sacrifices everyone he knows for his art, while Bernard sacrifices
only himself. The book probes questions that keep graduate students
talking late into the night: What is a poem? Can poetry be taught?

What price art? PATRICIA COHEN

SALVATION CITY By Sigrid Nunez 280 pages. Riverhead Books. $25.95.

Cole Vining is one of the fortunate few. After a flu pandemic kills
tens of thousands, including his parents, he’s taken in by Pastor
Wyatt, an evangelical leader in the Indiana town that gives the novel
its title. There this seventh grader’s life is a far cry from what it
used to be; days are filled with home schooling and Bible study as the
pastor, his wife and most of the community eagerly await the rapture
they believe to be imminent. But Cole is haunted by memories of his
parents – citified, argumentative, atheist to the core. With a cool,
evenhanded tone, Ms. Nunez conjures a near future dark around the
edges; during the outbreak, people personalize their germ-protecting
surgical masks with silly drawings of lips or vampire fangs, “but
a homeless man caught spitting in the street was mobbed and beaten
to death.” And even in apocalyptic times, parents worry whether a
13-year-old should be spending so much time online. SCOTT HELLER

pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.

August in Threestep, Ga., a town of three radios, poverty
and segregation, is hellish, according to Gladys Cailiff, the
11-year-old narrator of this Depression-era story. But some fairy
dust arrives in August 1938 with the appearance of Grace Spivey,
the new schoolteacher. Miss Spivey trades in stories – she has
been to Timbuktu, studied French in Paris and drama in London – and
she brings to life the exotic tales from her 10-volume set of “The
Thousand Nights and a Night.” She also aims to turn Threestep’s annual
town festival into a Baghdad-style bazaar. Mostly, Miss Spivey alters
how people see themselves, including Gladys’s pregnant older sister,
May, and Theo Boykin, a smart young black man who is a neighbor of
the Cailiff family. This coming-of-age tale, leavened with tragedy,
features stories embedded within stories as it moves back in time to
1775 Baghdad and 1864 Savannah. FELICIA R. LEE

From: A. Papazian