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Articles by

<Jeremy Medina>

05/22/13 4:00am

Life After Life
(Little Brown/Hachette)

Atkinson’s latest novel has garnered considerable attention and acclaim, and it’s no wonder: its high-concept premise—involving a character who lives, dies, and then lives again, repeatedly—is as provocative as it is head-scratching. But beneath the fantastical construct, Atkinson has fashioned a delicate, deeply felt latticework of life and all its infinite possibilities.

That said, Life After Life tests how much faith a reader is willing to put in an author. The novel’s first third is arduous: the main character, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910 and dies in fits and starts repeatedly during childhood. But Atkinson—the author of many novels including Case Histories, one of the most acclaimed in recent years—deserves your trust. As the fragility of life at its infancy gives way to adolescence and adulthood, the novel starts to spin off in interesting and often surprising ways.

This isn’t Cloud Atlas transplanted to historical England—Ursula is not reincarnated. Instead, as she dies in one reality, she slowly develops inclinations to avoid repeating her mistakes in another. In one reality, she and her sister drown in the ocean as children. But in another, she survives the accident. Later, she marries a violent man who beats her. In another, she marries a German—and becomes closely involved with Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler. Both World Wars loom largely in the background, and no timeline of Ursula’s is unaffected by their carnage.

Through these parallel timelines, Atkinson reveals a ponderous meditation on the sheer magnetism of life; on how the choices we make, or don’t make, combine with circumstances outside of our control (like, most notably, war) to define our lives. While the premise will undoubtedly enthrall some and leave others cold, Life After Life is not only a triumph of form and structure—it’s also one of feeling and thought. There won’t be a more original book this year. Or one more debated about.

02/27/13 4:00am

Wise Men
By Stuart Nadler

(Little Brown/Hachette)

This debut novel is a strange, fascinating, multi-faceted mélange of fathers and sons, racial tension, obsession, memory, love, and ultimately death. And it’s stunning. Told in three parts in three time periods, the novel opens with a plane crash. It’s 1947. A Boston Airways plane bound for New York nosedives in Narrangansett Bay in Rhode Island, killing all of its 60 passengers. This turns out to be the single defining moment in the lives of Arthur Wise and his son, Hilly.

Arthur, a lawyer, ends up representing the families of the flight’s victims. His lawsuit captures the public’s attention, and propels him to become the wealthiest and most famous lawyer in the country. Five years later, Arthur moves his wife and Hilly (now 17) to a summer home on Cape Cod. By this point, Arthur’s success has exacerbated his worst qualities—his arrogance, conceit, bloodlust, and most of all his prejudices. The Wise family employs an African-American caretaker, Lem Dawson, and Hilly takes pity on him because of how cruelly his father treats him. Lem introduces Hilly to his beautiful niece, Savannah, and the two share an innocent, fleeting summer romance. And then everything changes—a secret Arthur’s been hiding threatens to be told, and Lem is quickly fired and sent to prison. The novel then leaps ahead to 1972 to find Hilly fixated on tracking down Savannah—to apologize, to atone, to be with her, he’s not exactly sure.

Given Nadler’s pedigree—MFA in writing; multiple fellowships; a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation; he’s even been a contestant on Jeopardy!—you might assume his writing would lean toward the studied and stuffy. But no—Nadler’s prose is honest, open, achingly tender and, above all, compulsively readable. The book’s elegiac final passages, again on Cape Cod in the present day, are devastating in a way that begets reconsideration of everything that came before. Nadler shows us that if, by the end of our lives, our memories are all that we have, that can be comforting. And not.

11/07/12 4:00am

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Besides its bouncy title and glow-in-the-dark jacket, this novel has one other curiosity working in its favor: it reveres books as much as it does technology. The two work in tandem, in fact, to tell a mystery about a secret society of readers (yes, readers!) working together to decode ancient texts that will, in theory, unearth the answer to life’s perennial quest: immortality. But Dan Brown fans need not bother—it’s not that kind of book. Debut author Robin Sloan (a former full-timer for Poynter, Current TV and Twitter) expertly calibrates the old and the new to create an amiable, absurdist fable that pulls off the neat trick of feeling both timeless and timely.

Clay Jannon, an out-of-work digital marketer, gets a job in a bookstore run by a very old, very odd man, Mr. Penumbra. The bookstore, tucked away in a sparsely-visited nook of San Francisco, is open, for no discernible reason, all day. As the evening clerk, Clay is visited only rarely, by clientele of a specific sort: stern, nervous types, usually old, all there to borrow massive, dusty books (the “Waybacklist,” he calls it) that have encrypted code inside in place of words. Eventually—and with help from a parade of sidekicks including his wealthy best friend, artsy roommate, and techie girlfriend—Clay discovers Mr. Penumbra and his clients (clients, not customers) are all members of an underground society (or, perhaps more accurately, cult) whose presence stretches across the country and, perhaps, the world.

While the central mystery loses momentum as it unfolds, there’s real poignancy in the shared journey of each character, young and old. All are searching for a way to live forever, but the answer is much more interesting than the discovery of a fountain of youth—because, as Clay discovers, it’s ideas that last, not people. And as long as ideas last, so will books. Plus, as Clay puts it, “people like the smell of them,” so books have that working in their favor, too.

09/26/12 4:00am

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple

(Little Brown and Co.)

Though the title character is an agoraphobic, paranoid and manic middle-aged housewife who gets entangled in an FBI identity-theft investigation shortly before she vanishes, this novel is surprisingly grounded in reality. Bernadette Fox, once the most promising architect in the country (and recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant”), is now a menace to society. A professional humiliation forced her to flee Los Angeles for Seattle, where she’s loved by her husband Elgen, a Microsoft bigwig; idolized by her teenage daughter Bee; and hated by fellow moms, especially her neighbor, Audrey, and Elgen’s assistant Soo-Lin. Bernadette has cut off all ties to human interaction except for a virtual assistant she’s hired from India, Manjula, whom she pays 75 cents an hour to do tasks as simple as buy groceries and book the family trip to Antarctica. Just before the trip, though, a series of disastrous mishaps and erratic behavior convince Elgen he must have Bernadette committed. And then she disappears.

Semple’s background in television and comedy (including credits on Arrested Development) provide the foundation for this subversively funny novel and its all-too-rare blend of humor and heart. But the real ingenuity lies in telling the story through Bee, who has curated every bit of correspondence leading up to her mother’s disappearance; the majority of the story is told via emails, faxes, memos, letters, articles, police reports, ship manifestos and even her father’s TED Talk. That unconventional approach envelops us in this fishbowl world of wealth and privilege, and provides direct insight into each character’s psyche, especially Bernadette’s. By the end, the novel becomes more than a suburban black comedy or gumshoe detective story—it’s a powerful mosaic of mental illness, artistic temperament, and family melodrama. In a time when everything is a version of something else, how extraordinary—and exciting—to read a novel that sub-verts conventions to create an experience that feels so fresh.