Sunday, April 13, 2014

PW Picks: Books of the Week, April 14, 2014

By Gabe Habash)

Split by Cathy Linh Che (Alice James Books) - Che’s debut renders with tenacity and precision a childhood marked by sexual abuse, her parents’ experiences of the Vietnam War, and the legacies of violence that are carried through their lives. Che’s stark and intimate voice conveys isolation in the private trauma of “the child/ awake in the dim room/ of the sleeping house,” and, at the same time, the profound connection wrought through narrative inheritance. To be a daughter, a survivor, and a poet are all aligned in the need “to rewrite everything,” a need that Che navigates with brutality and tenderness, devastation and irrepressible endurance.

The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History by Judy Chicago (Monacelli) - When noted feminist artist Chicago was an undergrad, one of her history professors declared: “Women’s contributions to European intellectual history? They made none.” As she explains in the introduction to the first book to represent her groundbreaking mixed-media installation “The Dinner Party” (1974-79), this comment inspired her to create an alternative history of women’s cultural, political, and scholarly achievements. Consisting of 39 handmade place settings, celebrating notable women from the primordial goddess to Georgia O’Keefe, the installation has been permanent housed in the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art since 2007. Chicago describes the work’s genesis, evolution, its collective nature, problematic exhibition history, and public impact. Chicago offers a vibrant visual and textual encyclopedia of female achievement.

Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha (Knopf) - This first volume in a two-part biography of Gandhi from Guha (India After Gandhi) proves itself an essential work for its bold purpose, extensive research, and engaging prose. Seeking to address scholarly reliance on the Mahatma’s own writings, Guha looks to a broader range of primary sources, including both Gandhi’s allies and detractors, to explore his “less known and sometimes forgotten” early career. We experience Mohandas Gandhi as he lived and evolved into an “authentically global” prophet of peace, engaged in a process of “dialogue and reconciliation” with a conflicted world. Through this excellent volume, Guha demonstrates his deep affinity for the Mahatma with an honest examination of his personal development.

In the Course of Human Events by Mike Harvkey (Soft Skull) - In his debut novel, Harvkey heats incendiary current events to their boiling point, drawing on his own upbringing in meth-ridden northwest Missouri and his black belt in Kyokushin, a form of karate, to examine a young man’s life in Winter’s Bone territory. Twenty-year-old Clyde Twitty—who landed a factory job while still in high school, only to lose it a few years later—has a lot on his mind: his gig driving cars to auction brings in only $40 per week; his mother depends on Clyde’s support to pay her mortgage and maintain her hairstyling business, and he helps his handicapped uncle as well; and his best friend is in Nashville, a world away from Clyde’s hometown of Strasburg, Mo. But Clyde suddenly discovers a sense of purpose when he meets Jay Smalls, a self-styled karate warrior, whose stomach is as hard as his ultra-right-wing political beliefs. This is a provocative, unflinching look at the hate that poverty has fomented in places like Strasburg—“the town the American Dream forgot.”

Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes (Crown) - error lurks just below the surface in this excellent psychological thriller, the U.S. debut of British author Hayes. Claudia Morgan-Brown, a Birmingham, England–based social worker who's happily married and is the doting stepmother of four-year-old twin boys, finally has her lifelong wish: she's pregnant, and it's a girl. With her due date weeks away, Claudia needs a nanny; she doesn't want to give up her job, and her husband's work requires him to be at sea for weeks or even months at a time. Zoe Harper, the applicant Claudia hires, appears to be the perfect nanny, with glowing references and a way with children. But Claudia comes to distrust Zoe, who leaves the house at odd hours and has blood stains on her clothes.

The Boxer by Reinhard Kleist (Abrams/SelfMadeHero) - This graphic novel, which tells the true story of Holocaust survivor Hertzko “Harry” Haft, leaves a deep impression. Haft is separated from his family in Nazi-occupied Poland, sent to a series of concentration camps, and subjected to unimaginable brutality, including being forced by the SS to fight in a terrifying series of boxing matches. Readers need only observe Haft’s chilling physical transformation to see how remarkable his story of survival is. Despite the sheer inhumanity of his circumstances, Haft is driven by an indomitable will, fueled by the conviction that Leah, the woman he loves, is also somehow managing to survive the Nazi genocide. When his pugilistic skills lead him to a career as a boxer in America after the war, Haft can only hope that his rising success—which includes a shot at the legendary boxer, Rocky Marciano—attracts Leah’s attention and ultimately reunites them.

Casebook by Mona Simpson (Knopf) - Simpson’s sixth novel portrays a Santa Monica, Calif., family through the eyes of the only son, Miles Adler-Hart, a habitual eavesdropper who watches his mother, Irene, with great intensity. From an early age, Miles senses the vulnerability of his mother, a recently divorced mathematician, and throughout his childhood and adolescence feels the need to look out for her. When Irene falls in love with Eli Lee, Miles is highly suspicious. He enlists his best friend, Hector, to help him look deep into Eli’s background, going so far as to work with a private investigator. Simpson elevates this world of tree houses and walkie-talkies not only through Miles’s intelligence—“‘Hope for happiness is happiness,’” he tells Hector—but through the startling revelations he uncovers

The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor (Metropolitan) - With compelling force and manifestlike style, writer and documentary filmmaker Taylor lays out one of the smartest—and most self-evident—arguments about the nature and effect of technology in our digital age. “Technology alone,” she acknowledges, “will not deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it.” Despite the illusion of a level digital playing field, she observes, there are really only a handful of gatekeepers that provide access to information. “Amazon controls one-tenth of all American online commerce,” for example. She acknowledges that while the Internet allows us to witness amazing feats of inventiveness, “real cultural democracy means more than everyone with an Internet connection having the ability to edit entries on Wikipedia or leave indignant comments.”