White Ivy by Susie Yang (e-book and e-audiobook available on Libby and Axis 360 apps): Ivy Lin is no monster, but sometimes, when sufficiently motivated, she does monstrous things. She doesn’t just covet what others have; she is consumed by cravings for wealth, status and a boyfriend whose all-American (in her mind, this means white and patrician) good looks are nothing like her own. In Chinese American author Susie Yang’s debut novel, we meet Ivy at several different stages of life. She grows from fretful child to moody and self-loathing junior grifter. By her late 20s, she has evolved into a smooth, sophisticated adult, determined to attain her American ideal by any means necessary. Her looks and circumstances have improved, but her desperation never fully evaporates. Rather than a traditional thriller, White Ivy is a slow-burning, intricate psychological character study and coming-of-age story full of family secrets and foreboding. Ivy isn’t an outsider simply because she’s an immigrant; she stands out even within her own deeply dysfunctional Chinese American family. Their treatment of Ivy exposes the minor harms of everyday life–the tiny slights and subtle hits that leave marks that never fade. Alienation appears to be Ivy’s natural state, and this is never more clear than when she is closest to getting what she wants: popularity, respect and, most of all, a romantic relationship with her childhood crush, the beautiful scion of an old-money New England family. Despite the book’s inevitable ending, Yang allows her main character ambiguity. Ivy is strangely, uncomfortably relatable and ultimately unknowable. Her transgressions are mostly minor, yet her sometimes vicious inner monologue shows that she has the capacity for far harsher misdeeds. Perhaps that is the point–that the dividing line between ordinary wrongs and acts of true evil is razor thin. So when signs start to suggest that something very bad is about to happen, the violent act is all the more jarring. Ivy brings to mind other desperate, liminal characters, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Readers will find a lot to appreciate in this sharply observed psychological thriller.
Paper Bullets by Jeffrey H. Jackson: Although it’s been 75 years since the end of World War II, accounts that reveal the resilience of ordinary individuals in the face of the Nazi regime continue to emerge into the historical record. In Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Jeffrey H. Jackson, a Rhodes College professor specializing in European history, unearths the fascinating story of two women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, whose “resistance activity grew organically out of life-long patterns of fighting against the social norms of their day.” After 20 years of immersion in the art scene of Paris, Lucy, a photographer and writer who published under the name Claude Cahun, and Suzanne, an illustrator whose professional pseudonym was Marcel Moore, found themselves under German occupation on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. The two women had retreated there in 1937 out of concern for Lucy’s chronic health problems, posing as sisters to hide their true relationship. Jackson links the women’s involvement in resistance work to their personal experiences as artists and lesbians whose lives constantly put them at odds with expectations placed on them as the daughters of wealthy families in France. These expectations included gender identity and expression, which they explored in both their personal lives and art as a fluid spectrum between masculinity, androgyny and femininity. Jackson’s previous works include Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris, and he is adept at bringing the vibrancy of 1920s and 1930s Paris to life, including the cafes, nightclubs and personalities that were part of the thriving gay and lesbian community to which Lucy and Suzanne belonged. This carefully researched volume also includes fascinating photographs, artwork and excerpts from the women’s letters and articles. The author’s attention to detail and prodigious research skills are also on display as he recounts the saga of the German occupation of Jersey and the women’s growing determination to do something to resist. They began small enough, ripping down German posters and announcements and making graffiti. They also created their own anti-Nazi artwork and slipped subversive messages (the eponymous “paper bullets”) onto the windshields of police cars or into the pages of German-language magazines on local newsstands. Their efforts at fomenting doubt among the occupying forces escalated, eventually leading to their arrest, imprisonment in solitary confinement and a dramatic trial in which they were sentenced to death in November of 1944. Their sentence was later commuted, but they remained confined until the war ended. The final section of Paper Bullets details these women’s postwar lives. Lucy died in 1954, Suzanne in 1972. In an epilogue entitled “Why Resist?” Jackson addresses some of the issues that led to the women’s commitment to the cause of freedom. Their story, he notes, “invites us to look at a history of the war from the bottom up, to think about the complexities of ground-level responses to conquest.” Impeccably researched and meticulously sourced, Paper Bullets is a welcome and timely portrait of courage and creativity.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans: Racism is an insidious beast. It can find its way into any situation, as Danielle Evans shows in the stories and novella in The Office of Historical Corrections. Evans emerged as an important voice in American literature with her 2010 debut short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and she once again demonstrates impressive artistry and humor as she chronicles shocking episodes of discriminatory behavior. In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop for a replica of the Titanic, but she never gets to work the museum’s princess parties because, her boss says, of historical accuracy: There were no Black princesses on the Titanic. In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a white college student poses for pictures in a Confederate-flag bikini and is surprised by the pain it causes Black students. Other stories dig deeper, such as “Anything Could Disappear,” about a Black woman forced to care for a 2-year-old Black child who is deliberately left next to her on a bus by the child’s white caregiver. Not every story deals with race, as with the funniest story, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” in which a “genius artist” stages public apologies to the women he has wronged. However, most stories do, and the sharpest piece is the title novella, about a government agency that adds emendations to incorrect placards at historical sites, a job that becomes surprisingly dangerous. As a child, the novella’s protagonist consoled a Black friend who had lost a debate tournament, declaring her a better debater than her white competitors. “But it’s never going to be enough,” replied the friend. Evans’ book shows that that painful truth hasn’t disappeared.
We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper: The true crime genre has been so successful in podcasting that one might forget it originated in publishing. Becky Cooper, formerly of the New Yorker, has already drawn comparisons to In Cold Blood with her true crime masterpiece, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence–and for good reason. On a winter night in 1969, Jane Britton, a 23-year-old grad student in the Harvard anthropology department, was brutally murdered in her Boston apartment. Aspects of the crime scene suggested that her murderer may have had some knowledge of ritualistic burials. For decades, rumors suggested that a powerful archeology professor killed her. Cooper, herself a Harvard graduate, finally decided to find out. Over the course of 10 years, Cooper turns over every stone trying to identify Jane’s killer. She perseveres mightily in her investigation, driven in part by the way she identifies with the quirky, complicated victim. This identification may draw in readers who see themselves in Jane, too. But for others, the author’s embrace of a stranger who died 50 years prior may never quite gel. The book is strongest when we’re empathizing with Jane–her romantic foibles, grappling with sexism within academia–rather than with the author. For aspiring journalists, Cooper’s impressive work in We Keep the Dead Close is a masterclass on how to do investigative reporting. She dug deep into archival research and interviewed most everyone involved in the case, drawing uncomfortable information out of her sources with particular skill while still withholding judgment. Along the way, the narrative ventures down rabbit holes and zigzags from Cambridge to Hawaii to Iran to Labrador. Cooper’s 10-year investigation is a meandering one that may drag on for readers who want a neat and tidy resolution. For everyone else, there’s so much to chew on in We Keep the Dead Close. The resolution, when it comes, is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.
The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): In his 12th novel, Jonathan Lethem returns to speculative fiction to tell a provocative tale of an isolated Maine peninsula after an apocalypse. In this particular apocalypse, known as “the Arrest,” some mysterious process has incrementally disables the world’s supply of gasoline, pixels and gunpowder. There’s no TV, no internet, no internal combustion engines, no firearms. This is a challenge for all the residents on the peninsula, but it is especially hard for Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, known as Journeyman, who once had a successful career as a Hollywood script doctor but now works as a butcher’s assistant and a bicycle deliveryman, pedaling in the shadow of his younger sister, Maddy, a local communal farmer. The peninsula’s isolation is enforced by a surly group of tribute-demanding bullies called the Cordon. Are they keeping outsiders out or insiders in? In there life, civilization or, better yet, electricity beyond their barricades? Busting past the Cordon comes Peter Todbaum in his nuclear-powered vehicle called the Blue Streak. Peter is Journeyman’s former Yale roommate and movie-making collaborator, and he arrives hoping to rekindle his estranged relationships with Journeyman and Maddy as well as his lifelong movie project, Yet Another World, a dystopian, apocalyptic love story. He comes bearing an endless supply of the rarest of rare–brewed coffee. He first enthralls and then alienates almost everyone with his endless stories and fabrications. And this is just the beginning. Lethem is a beguiling and very smart writer. Told in short, breezy chapters, The Arrest vibrates with sharp, satiric observations and layers upon layers of strange, often funny mashups of popular 1970s and ’80s end-of-the-world books and movies. Ultimately, Lethem’s plot resolves itself, but in ways that do not fully satisfy. This is deliberate. As his fans know, Lethem often plays a deeper game. There are some answered and many unanswered questions in The Arrest–so many that Lethem seems to be suggesting that even at the end of days, the familiar shapes of stories are insufficient, and life itself offers fewer resolutions than we hope for.