Category Archives: New fiction

*** The Pelican by Martin Michael Driessen

In the waning days of Yugoslavia, a shady mail carrier decides to blackmail his neighbor, whom he caught cheating from his wife. He will soon get a taste of blackmail himself, and The Pelican: A Comedy takes us through the complicated and very entertaining relationship between the blackmailers. It’s funny and absurd and a great escape.

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*** Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

Small Days and Nights stars an Indian woman who uncovers a disabled sister when she comes home after her mother dies and decides to move to a small village with her. It will be a struggle, unsurprisingly.  The book sometimes turns into a travelogue (her father lives in Venice, improbably) and the whole premise is not quite believable, but the portraits of the complex characters, and the exotic setting, are intriguing.

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*** Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone is staged at an elaborate sixteenth birthday party, from which we go back to the parents and grandparents of the birthday girl, who faced racism, gentrification, and the errors of teenagers to get to that point. The author has a wonderful ability to get into the head of characters of very different ages to share how they view the world and how they act on their perception.

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* Inland by Tea Obreht

Inland is an ambitious story that attempts to bring together a murderer who insinuates himself into an unlikely camel caravan in the Southwest and a pioneer woman in Arizona whose husband went in search of water and older sons have momentarily disappeared. It’s ambitious indeed, and also very slow moving–and there are ghosts and voices, neither of them I particularly enjoyed. Some moments are well captured, especially when it comes to the woman’s feelings about her children and her marriage, as well as the tough living conditions in 19th century Arizona, but I felt like a very thirsty camel when I finally came to the end.

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*** Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

I long resisted reading Nothing to See Here because I had serious doubts about a story that featured self-igniting children. How contrived! How silly! Well, I was wrong. Kevin Wilson has the magic touch when it comes to writing about children (see here and here) and the self-igniting children become completely normal, in a way, as well as symptomatic of the crazy family in which they leave. Also normal is the devotion of their unlikely nanny, strangely loyal to someone who betrayed her in the past. Let’s just say that you will never look at politicians the same way after you read the story.

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* All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

Family patriarch is dying, and dies. He was a cheater, professionally and personally, and a violent man, and in a few days his wife, his daughter, his son, and his daughter-in-law will uncover many of his secrets and the family will implode as each flashback adds to the mayhem.

It is well observed but I found it all pretty tedious.

 

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*** The Years That Matter Most by Paul Tough

 

Paul Tough has made a career researching and writing about education (see here for instance). In The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, he tackles college, and the outcome is much superior to The Meritocracy Trap, which I reviewed last week. He exposes the tactics of so-called elite colleges to massage their rankings upward (granted, the blind devotion of many parents to the same rankings fosters a dangerous escalation). He shows how low-income and first-generation students are systematically pushed to the side.

He also shows a number of successful programs, some happy accidents (as when the Texas legislature required its universities to automatically accept the top 12% of students in any high school), some carefully crafted (as one at UC Berkeley I briefly taught for). What they show is, by investing enough resources in outreach and mentoring, it is possible to find, enroll, and graduate students from across the income spectrum. We must do it.

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