Slate has asked a number of its contributors to review recent books of note in 300 words or less. Check the responses below for a handy guide to what’s worth reading this season.
Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. Nadine Gordimer’s latest collection of stories is not her strongest, but coming as it does toward the end of a 60-plus-year career, its inventiveness is impressive. Half the pieces, like the comic “Tape Measure,” written from the perspective of a tapeworm, feel somewhat miscellaneous—lightly erotic, satirical, sketchy—yet they enliven a landscape that might otherwise appear unremittingly bleak. The title story proceeds from a haunting conceit, not quite fully realized: a white professor of biology, formerly an anti-apartheid activist, hears a stray remark about Beethoven’s racial ancestry and becomes convinced that he himself must have mixed-race relatives descended from his rakish grandfather. It’s only in the second half of the collection that Gordimer hits her stride, with two devastating stories of intimate betrayal, “Allesverloren” and “A Beneficiary,” that are as good as any she’s written. Dedicated Gordimer fans will find Beethoven rewarding, but readers new to her stories should start with one of her earlier collections, such as Jump or A Soldier’s Embrace. —Jess Row
Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories by Steven Millhauser. Fantastical fashions, pastimes, and pursuits consume whole communities, only to disappoint them (or worse) in Millhauser’s newest collection of stories. Dresses balloon to the size of houses (and women slip out from under them unnoticed). A Babel-like tower finally reaches heaven, only to lose its mystique. Best, there is the pseudoerotic game in which friends stimulate each other to paroxysms of laughter: “We were bored, we were restless, we longed to be seized by any whim or passion and follow it to the farthest reaches of our natures. We wanted to live—to die—to burst into flame—to be transformed into angels or explosions.” This is classic Millhauser, and it won’t disappoint newcomers or longtime fans. — Amanda Schaffer
I, Tania by Brian Joseph Davis. When I first pulled Brian Joseph Davis’I, Tania from the new arrivals shelf, I narcissistically wondered if it was an elaborate hoax. Its apparent themes coincided so perfectly with my personal obsessions—the Symbionese Liberation Army, 1980s sports stars, Marxist-Leninist linguistics, kidnapped heiresses, suicidal rock stars—it seemed like a custom Build-a-Bear of a novel created just for me.
Actually, it’s not exactly a novel—more a freaky bouillabaisse of teases, jokes, and intellectual puzzles very loosely disguised as the memoirs and mad confessions of Tania. (Patty Hearst is never mentioned, but if you don’t recognize her SLA nom de guerre, chances are this book isn’t for you.) Rarely have the rules of narrative been more imaginatively ignored—the book is full of guest lists for parties that never happened, urban guerrilla fashion tips, and a glimpse at what a truly revolutionary sex-toy catalog would look like.
I, Tania is for people who like comic books but don’t care for the drawings, for readers who enjoy ‘70s television and Donald Barthelme, and for fans of The Bad News Bears. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to argue the merits of punk rock versus Detroit techno with Katie Couric live on daytime TV, it may well be the book of your fever dreams. —June Thomas
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Geraldine Brooks’ third novel is an excellent, fast-moving mystery that’s decidedly Brooksian. Thick currents of emotion run through a story grounded in meticulous, insider research. The characters are smart, flawed, questing, and above all likable. Unlike Brooks’ previous works, however, equal space is given to two lead characters: Hanna Heath, a hard-edged Australian books conservator, and the Sarajevo haggadah, a 15th-century Hebrew codex that went missing in the Bosnian conflict. When the haggadah unexpectedly turns up, Heath travels to Bosnia to examine it. From here the story alternates between the characters. Heath attempts to retrace the haggadah’s origins; in every other chapter, Brooks reveals the book’s actual past from the perspective of historical figures who came into contact with it. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish individuals all play unexpected roles in the story of the haggadah, and the largest divide is between people who respect human endeavor and those who callously dispose of lives and books. — Christine Kenneally
The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. Why is it that John Updike and Philip Roth can write novel after novel detailing the innermost thoughts of men at successive stages of life, and be duly celebrated for it, when Sue Miller’s equally precise, insightful renderings of women’s interior lives as they grow older are routinely passed over as highbrow chick-lit? Are men still getting a prize for being sensitive in ways that we take for granted in women? No matter. Just read Miller’s last two novels, Lost in the Forest (a sympathetic retelling of Lolita from the girl’s point of view), and this year’s The Senator’s Wife, and get educated.
The Senator’s Wife is the story of a lopsided friendship between new neighbors in a college town. The younger Meri has just moved to campus, escaping a hard-knocks Mid-western upbringing to follow her newly minted professor husband to Massachusetts. Delia is already a public figure in town, if an enigmatic one, the estranged wife of philandering Sen. Tom Naughton, now retired and settled at a safe distance in Washington, D.C. Meri hopes to learn from her sophisticated neighbor; at 74, Delia thinks she knows enough, finally, to put her life in order. They both have lessons coming to them—about love, sex, betrayal, and forgiveness—that Miller supplies with a deft hand and in a prose style that makes lucid seem muddy. You might find yourself putting this book on the shelf between Rabbit at Rest and The Human Stain. —Megan Marshall
Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina If you’re a fan of smart, gritty female detectives but haven’t heard about Paddy Meehan yet, you’ll thank your lucky stars for this tip. Scottish mystery writer Denise Mina introduced Paddy in 2005 with The Dead Hour; then came Field of Blood, and now we have Slip of the Knife. Three, count ‘em, three! For devotees of this genre, it’s a miracle akin to stumbling across three lost novels by Liza Cody or Sara Paretsky.
But Paddy is very different from the crime-fiction heroines who preceded her. She’s overweight and uncool, a working-class journalist in Glasgow, Scotland, grappling with all-but-lost causes, driven by personal demons and passionate loyalties. Her dark and compelling partner is the city itself, rendered with a depth of character equal to Paddy’s own. The brisk writing in this series is addictive, and so perfectly on key that the rudest bar scenes read like arias. —Laura Shapiro
John Sloan’s New York by Joyce K. Schiller et al. and Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush With Leisure, 1895-1925by James Tottis et al. John Sloan was famous early in the 20th century for his left-wing cartoons and especially for his paintings of New York life. He and a group of other painters became known as the Ashcan School thanks to their portraits of tenements and subways and the poor. But don’t let the dreary Ashcan label fool you: Sloan’s work radiates joy, even when he fumes over social conditions. A series of exhibits have just now generated two fine books: Life’s Pleasures, with lush prints from the entire Ashcan school; and John Sloan’s New York, which, if only because of its theme, is especially moving to me. These books make me realize how much my own ardor for city life owes to Sloan’s slashing red colors and his marvelous vigor. — Paul Berman
Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff. In Swimming in a Sea of Death, journalist David Rieff remembers caring for his mother, writer Susan Sontag, during the nine months she suffered from Myelodyplastic Syndrome, or MDS, a ravaging and almost always fatal form of blood cancer. In life, Sontag had an absolute “hunger for truth”; in illness, this became incompatible with her hunger for life—what Rieff calls her “deep refusal of death itself.” Sontag had beaten cancer twice before, but the bleak truth of MDS meant that this time she was almost certain to die. In such circumstances, asks Rieff, “is information, or knowing, power or is it cruelty?” He decided it was the latter, and chose to offer his mother reassurances rather than honesty. The guilt he has experienced as a result forms the pulse of the book. While the particulars of his struggle may be too narrow to interest all but true Sontag (or Rieff) aficionados, those who have cared for a terminally ill loved one may find consolation in Rieff’s unsentimental admission—rare in our culture—that grief, rather than fading, often endures. —Amanda Fortini
Starsdown by Jasper Bernes. Cyberpunk lyric, high-speed spread-out cityscape, jaded adventure amid fashion-forward rubbish: Jasper Bernes’ first book has all these dimensions and more. The West Coast poet and blogger places at the center of his volume a series of prose poems that follow the life of an outsider named Henry Halflife who makes one-of-a-kind art out of bank checks. Bernes circumnavigates Los Angeles (and the rarefied precincts of postmodernist theory) in wild, variable lines, discovering in parking lots, raves, hotels, and beaches—a panoply of SoCal foils for his restlessly associative, excitement-seeking mind. “In the sublight of weak states,” he finds “A few/ Cars left over from the petroleum era but/ Mostly just slots in the form of our evacuated/ Categories/ Of understanding called Lawn Care and The Rights of Man.” If you go out of your way to read William Gibson, John Ashbery, the productions of recent French cultural theory, or the details on any map of Los Angeles, you’ll find work to remember here. — Stephanie Burt
Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web by Sarah Boxer, ed. In assembling an anthology of blogs, Boxer displays tastes so broad as to accommodate ingratiating cranks and cunning charmers alike, and she hurdles what would seem to be the chief problem of assembling such a book—the likelihood of its emerging as fresh as Best American Weather Reports 2007—by seizing upon posts with a literary bent and respectable half-life. You appreciate them as found objects or fine specimens of voice or essays that haven’t grown irrelevant because they were, to their credit, irrelevant to begin with. The editor intends the 27 selections here as examples of “good bloggy writing,” a prose form that would seem to borrow its techniques from diary entries, op-ed pieces, pamphlets, postcards, deep captions, barstool gripes, cocktail-napkin jottings, bathroom graffiti, and runaway footnotes. Especially runaway footnotes. Ultimate Blogs is most engaging when the authors see their blog hijacked by their topics. Twisty Faster, proprietor of I Blame the Patriarchy, gets swept up in an argument about the sexual politics of fellatio. Music critic Alex Ross, after briefly touching on the subject of intrasymphonic applause, keeps returning to the topic over the space of five weeks and several thousand words, ultimately noting that it has overrun his blog like a weed. — Troy Patterson
Texas Death Row by Bill Crawford, ed. When I cracked open Texas Death Row, I thought, oooh, I see, it’s a catalog of all the folks who’ve been put to death there, not the kind of book you sit down and read cover-to-cover. Then, I sat down and read it cover-to-cover. Not only because I knew a few of the unfortunates who wound up “riding the needle” from my long-ago stint covering Texas prisons, but because it’s impossible to turn away from this inch-by-inch indictment of a culture that would feed a man with a 7th-grade education enough food to kill him right before actually doing so, and call that justice. (And how could anyone choke down a last meal of “fifteen enchiladas, onion rings or fries, eight pieces of fried chicken, eight pieces of barbecue chicken, eight whole peppers, ten hard-shell tacos with plenty of meat, cheese, onions and sauce, four double-meat, double-cheese, double-bacon burgers, T-bone steak with A-1 sauce, and a pan of peach cobbler?” No idea, but nobody dies hungry in Huntsville.)
Bill Crawford’s book contains no commentary, just basic biographical information about the 391 men and women executed in Texas in the last 25 years. On page after page you see person after person who never made it past the seventh or eighth grade, and crime after crime connected with drugs—so tell me again why you still hear Texans boo-hoo about that awful Ann Richards, making them fund schools and treatment programs? This should be required reading for anyone even thinking about uttering the words fair or deterrent or closure in connection with the death penalty. As this compilation of loss makes clear, most of these people weren’t thinking much of anything when they threw their own and others’ lives away. —Melinda Henneberger
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman. This book is essential to anyone looking for a) a love letter to Los Angeles, b) a chance to cultivate an obsession with Raymond Chandler, or c) a new model for writing intelligent nonfiction. It’s a colorful local history of the California metropolis in the first half of the 20th century plus an erotic biography with lots of speculative commentary interspersed, most of all on how Chandler conducted his unorthodox love life (he married a woman 18 years his senior). Freeman often veers into the first person, yet she retains some level of objectivity by always presenting multiple hypotheses.
The Long Embrace sheds more light on its subject than do most standard biographies. It turns out that Chandler’s love for his wife, Cissy, is essential to understanding how he constructed his female temptresses. And in evoking a centerless Los Angeles, Freeman helps us appreciate the essential vision of the Chandlerian mystery: that people, like the vast cities they inhabit, are really unknowable. —Tyler Cowen