The Best American Comics 2013Edited by Jeff Smith; series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pp., $25
From Jeff Smith’s introduction to the new anthology The Best American Comics 2013: “So get yourself a glass of milk (or a bourbon), because in front of you awaits wit, style, danger, curiosity, philosophy, metaphysical visions, love, angst, sex, betrayal, and cutting-edge ocular techniques all folded into this thing — this experience — we call comics.”
Like the other entries in the “Best American” series, Comics is a tidy one-stop shop for short pieces and excerpts from longer works that have appeared recently. It’s a great way to dip a toe in the medium, to discover new writers and artists if you’re already initiated, or to indulge the nerd completist who may live deep down inside. In other words, there are lots of somethings for everybody.
Smith is the genius behind Bone, an epic and elegant series full of wit, warmth and humanity that’s like a mashup of Lord of the Rings and Peanuts. He’s an ideal candidate to select a generously diverse and accessible set of comics stories. So his tome contains a chapter from Alison Bechdel’s instant classic graphic novel/memoir Are You My Mother?.
Also on display is a piece of Craig Thompson’s artistic masterpiece Habibi. The selection shows off Thompson’s calligraphic and ornate pen and touches upon but doesn’t fully display the baptismal degradation Thompson achieves in the full book, a human coming-of-age story both universal and specific, taking place over millennia, where hope is achieved only after swimming a river of shit. Kinda hard to capture that in an excerpt.
Comics 2013 is a treasure box that debunks any still-held notions about the limitations of comics. (Spoiler alert: There aren’t any.) The book also has a list of other notable comics from the time frame, so you can hunt down what else is out there and see how the series editors did with their picks. Like, what’s John Martz’s Machine Gum? Can’t wait to find out. (Greg Akers)
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair
By Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books, 112 pp., $17.95
Anne Lamott follows her 2012 best-seller, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, with another short spiritual memoir, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. In its pages, she explores how to find meaning in life when faced with incomprehensible personal tragedy. In her usual style, Lamott does not give step-by-step instructions but instead offers vignettes from her own life threaded together with a central idea: The search for meaning begins with people “sticking together as we try to make sense of the chaos.”
Through the book, Lamott does precisely what she prescribes as the first step toward finding hope and meaning. She talks in detail about seasons when her life was in shambles. She discusses her childhood, where vulnerability was equated with weakness and it was not okay to acknowledge if you weren’t actually all right. She then tells how she unlearned that isolating approach to life and gives us permission to grieve as long as we need to.
It can be difficult to write about spirituality without implying you have life all figured out, but Lamott treats the topic with a non-preachy, non-exclusive attitude. She delivers anecdotes within the context of her own beliefs, but she expects readers to bring their own. And despite the seemingly heavy subject matter, Lamott keeps the mood light with humor and amusing observations. (Hannah Anderson)
Conceived by J.J. Abrams; written by Doug Dorst
Mulholland Books, 472 pp., $35
This intense mystery novel is hefty — more than 450 pages — and filled with the words of the fictional V.M. Straka, an anonymous, prolific author credited with conspiracies, murders and revolution. But the story in S. is not just Straka’s, typewritten on the pages of a book called Ship of Theseus. It’s along the margins and inserted between the pages as well.
Within those margins, we read messages between two college students at Pollard University: Jen, who is close to graduating without any idea of what she wants to do, and Eric, a literature graduate student who has been ostracized by his department. Eric’s study of Straka is his life’s work, while Jen just happens to stumble upon Ship of Theseus in the library on campus, where she works. The two begin to bond over their interest in the book — the major question being who Straka was exactly — which thrusts the reader of S. into a mystifying world of codes and hidden messages.
The third facet of S. is what’s shared, in physical form, between Jen and Eric: Notes, postcards and printed telegrams all add to the research into this intricate world.
S. is a page-turner. Not only are readers engaged by and immersed in this world of intrigue and espionage, they are also invested in the relationship between Eric and Jen, who are figuring themselves out, right along with the Straka mystery. The high production values of the book, the removable items pressed between its pages, and the quality of the writing make this strange world that much more real. (Alexandra Pusateri)
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
By Eric Schlosser
The Penguin Press, 640 pp., $36
If you get on Facebook every day and watch the latest serial cable TV dramas or follow a sports team while tweeting, it may do good to remind yourself about the threat of nuclear annihilation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, our culture has swept away all of the anxiety and fear that dominated life during the Cold War. It’s staggering how quickly we stopped worrying about the bomb.
Eric Schlosser’s name is familiar from Fast Food Nation, his warning about how fast food was killing us slowly. This time out, Schlosser takes on our instantaneous vaporization in Command and Control, a book detailing the creation, maintenance and some terrifying mishaps regarding the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC, a division of the Air Force, won the nasty contest among the service branches to develop and service these new nuclear weapons.
Schlosser’s description of the early days of nuclear experimentation is revealing. Sweep from your mind all thoughts of labs and precision instruments. The development of man’s most destructive weapon involved experiments at the kitchen table in houses abandoned in the desert or in old Quonset huts. And the scientific controls were not the only slack ropes. When the military discovered the new toy, it very quickly placed an order for 150,000 of them. The control of the missiles and warheads was a boon to the Air Force. But the effort to acquire weapons was greater than the effort to develop or maintain them. The failures of the first tests with B-29 bombers make Obamacare look like a success on the order of the miracle of loaves and fishes.
Schlosser has the popular-history/policy-form under his control. The book reads briskly as it alternates between the historic development of nuclear weapons by the U.S. and the Soviets and the tale of what happened in a missile silo across the river in Damascus, Ark. Those old enough to remember will shudder over what we lived through and what threats we still face from our nuclear endeavors. Those too young to remember can be forgiven for calling us fools for allowing it happen. (Joe Boone)
Cross My Heart
By James Patterson
Little, Brown and Company, 448 pp., $29
Over the course of two decades, best-selling author James Patterson has created 20 novels centered on the action-packed life of Washington, D.C., police detective and psychologist Alex Cross. And the 21st installment to the crime, mystery, and thriller series, Cross My Heart, may be the most powerful one yet. In this latest book, Cross finds himself burdened with the task of finding a serial killer who suffers from multiple personality disorder and finds enjoyment in kidnapping and killing babies and prostitutes.
But Cross’ worries don’t end there. While embarking on a cat-and-mouse game with the killer, another crazed individual arises with malicious intentions of his own. They’re not aimed at random individuals within the D.C. area, however. Instead, the focus is on the thing that Cross cherishes most: his family.
Cross My Heart is in five parts — each one a new piece to the puzzle of Cross’ battle to apprehend the person committing the abductions and murders and to the plans of the maniac preying on Cross’ family. The book has it all: rape, murder, heartache, seduction, the list goes on. Written in the suspenseful style that’s made Patterson one of the world’s most popular authors, Cross My Heart is a page-turner well worth the price and your time. (Louis Goggans)
Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910
By Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer
W.W. Norton, 264 pp., $25.95
Michael Lesy was among a group of people asked to test out the New York Public Library’s website, and while he was clicking about, he happened upon “The Buttolph Menu Collection,” an archive of thousands of menus from the early 1900s. What he saw in those old menus offering Pommes Hollandaise, minced ham and oatmeal crackers was the collector’s intent: recording the history in food, not the history of food.
So inspired, Lesy and his wife, Lisa Stoffer, have written Repast, which captures the great social changes in America at the turn of the 20th century by focusing on dining out and all its elements — the food, the customers, the staff, the real estate. Though the book, with its glossy pages and huge blocks of quotes from source material, looks and reads like a textbook, the material itself is deeply engrossing.
Among the most vivid sections are those that deal with the mass influx of workers into the country’s big cities and the act of feeding them: scenes of counters stacked with food and workers grabbing from the piles and eating so quickly as to cause a dyspepsia epidemic; the African-American waiters’ strike in Chicago, broken by importing white women, paid at a lower scale, to do the job; and the introduction of automats beautifully wrought in wood and tilework and equipped with an intricate pipe system that delivered coffee. And, fittingly, included in Repast’s pages are many images of the menus from the Buttolph collection. (Susan Ellis)
Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD
By Martin Aston
HarperCollins, 650 pp., $29.99
Facing the Other Way, the first attempt at chronicling the 4AD record label, is an extensive one, with more than 600 pages of history, interviews and insights on the iconic British label.
Started in 1980 at the dawn of the British Post-Punk movement, 4AD put out the first records of bands such as Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins and the Birthday Party
Chronicling each influential year chapter by chapter, author Martin Aston seems to have left no stone unturned to dig up the dirt on the label’s roster, and at times his coverage can be a bit exhaustive. Music memoirs often give you a perspective on an artist (or, in this case, a label) you may not have ever wanted, and Facing the Other Way is no exception. Still, Aston’s work here is as astonishing as it is thorough, giving the reader an in-depth look into the pre-Internet era of underground music. It’s an interesting read for anyone looking to delve deeper into a lesser-known side of Post-Punk and underground music through the 1980s and ‘90s, but at 617 pages, Facing the Other Way is definitely more for the obsessed than the newly converted. (Chris Shaw)
Boys: An Anthology
Edited by Zach Stafford and Nico Lang
Thought Catalog, 193 pp., $5.99 (eBook)
As much as the LGBT community wants to put on a united front in the fight for equality, there’s a real problem under the surface. The foreword to Boys: An Anthology, a collection of essays written by gay men about vulnerable moments in their lives, sheds some light on this issue:
“Saying the word ‘boy’ in queer and gay male communities is constructed to mean a certain thing about what maleness is and isn’t, who is included in our spaces and who is left out. You can tell a lot about a society by those they push to the margins, and our community doesn’t leave much room for men of color, trans men, disabled men or anyone who doesn’t look like our friends.”
Boys sets out to correct the exclusionary aspects of the community by sharing the stories of gay men of every stripe — gay men of color, trans men, and white men alike. Many of the essays take on a “coming of (g)a(y)ge” approach, like the one about Shawn Binder accidentally outing himself during freshman year of high school on AOL instant messenger after he smoked weed and made out with a 20-year-old man. Or the time 5-year-old Noah Michelson was called a queer by the garbage man after he did a “burlesque-esque dance” in his underwear in the front yard. He’d no idea what a “queer” was, but Michelson told his dad, who angrily chased down the garbage man, which was OK because, in Michelson’s words, “I like being a queer.”
There are more serious stories, like the one about Erik Bellis, a trans man whose parents tried to kidnap him and take him to ex-gay therapy when he was 19. And Jaime Woo writes about the time he cropped his Asian face out of his torso picture on the gay male hook-up app Grindr. He got lots of messages from interested guys, many of whom asked to see a headshot. After sending a picture of his face, most of the men ceased communication.
Boys (proceeds from the sale of the book go to the Lambda Literary Foundation) accomplishes exactly what its editors Zach Stafford and Nico Lang hoped it would: It breaks down walls by showing the vulnerable pasts of the gay men included in the anthology. They are men from all walks of life, and no matter their skin color or gender identity, they all share moments of weakness, hope, self-doubt and self-determination. (Bianca Phillips)
The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling
By David Shoemaker
Gotham Books, 400 pp., $27
Professional wrestling is the Rodney Dangerfield of sports entertainment. In spite of its longstanding ability to sell out huge venues and attract massive television audiences, wrestling has never gotten much respect. With documentary films looking more thoughtfully into the subject and books like David Shoemaker’s wonderfully written The Squared Circle, that may be changing.
The Squared Circle is a thoughtful chronicle of professional wrestling’s wild history, with brief but detail-laden biographies of some of the ring’s greatest warriors: Gorgeous George, Randy Savage, Andre the Giant and Junkyard Dog, just to name a few. While Shoemaker tends to focus on dead wrestlers, he does touch on a handful of grapplers who are still with us, Jerry Lawler in particular.
American professional wrestling, considered “play-acting” from almost the very beginning, has only occasionally received serious attention in the mainstream media. Ironically, much of the lowbrow sport’s early story was chronicled in highbrow publications like The New Yorker, which in 1932 published this account by Joel Sayre: “If this be play-acting, then it is play-acting of the highest order and comes close to being the best entertainment in town. To cavil at it for being play-acting is to cavil at Booth or Barrymore for getting up off the floor and putting on his street clothes after the final curtain has been lowered on Hamlet.”
American professional wrestling evolved as a hybrid sport/scam mixing the excitement (and the grift) of carnival midway “catch” wrestling with bits and pieces of various legitimate wrestling styles and boxing. If the results were fixed — as was also the case with boxing — the skills and the showmanship were real. In The Squared Circle, Shoemaker captures this evolution in all its seedy glory and, like Sayre before him, makes it clear why those who focus on the fixed results are missing the point.
As Shoemaker points out, most modern fans only remember the last days of wrestling territories, when every region crowned its own world champions, often on wildly popular local television shows. That all changed in the 1980s when cable TV allowed for national wrestling broadcasts, wrecking local continuities. This significant change is colorfully documented by Shoemaker, alongside the larger-than-life characters who brought it about.
As richly detailed as the history is, one gets the sense that it has been included here almost accidentally. Shoemaker is clearly happiest, and most in his element, when telling the stories of wrestlers like Captain Lou Albano, Ravishing Rick Rude and the Ultimate Warrior, a wrestler so strong even death couldn’t keep him down for long.
Whether you’re a wrestling fan or just a fan of good writing and stories, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling delivers. (Chris Davis)
Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia
By James McCourt
Liveright, 336 pp., $26.95
Novelist and cultural historian James McCourt’s new “meta-memoir,” Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia, is a curious mixture of autobiography and invention, a rambling personal history that is sure to delight a select few and alienate the rest.
Following his mother’s deathbed directive to “tell everything,” the author embarks on a dreamlike journey through New York City (the “lasting city” of the book’s title), telling stories of his past to several seemingly fictional characters and ruminating on everything from memory to Bette Davis.
Like Queer Street, McCourt’s 2003 history of gay Manhattan, Lasting City can be both fascinating and frustrating. The “Author” (as McCourt calls himself throughout the book) gives the reader the story of his life in fragments, zigzagging through time and alternating between stream-of-consciousness musings on opera and art and erotic descriptions of illicit sex fantasies. Imagine the style of William Faulkner as told through the eyes of a fabulist queer theorist, and one can get an idea what McCourt’s up to.
McCourt’s journey brings up multiple histories, both personal and familial. A drive through Columbus Circle with a fictional cab driver evokes a “nightmare scenario” of the young writer caught masturbating in Central Park, an event that never happened but easily could have. A late-night conversation with an aging “culinary service provider” (also fictional) produces some painfully real memories of McCourt’s tough-as-nails mother. While there is much here for dedicated fans to glean from his life, McCourt’s true purpose is to explore the power and effect of memory and how it shapes the stories we tell about ourselves.
“Nothing happens front to back, absolutely nothing; that’s just premeditated compensation for the fluctuations of memory,” McCourt states midway through the book. Those “fluctuations,” which provide Lasting City with its momentum, can be tricky to navigate, but McCourt’s gifted prose is more than worth it for those willing to hop on his eccentric cab ride through the city that lasts. (Kelly Robinson)
Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation
Harper Design, 288 pp., $45
In a photograph near the front of Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation, host Don Cornelius stands on a riser to the right, his right arm raised as if in toast. Below him a sea of brightly dressed dancers gyrate. And in the background, glowing in neon red, are two words that have become synonymous with jubilation: SOUL TRAIN.
As Questlove writes in this new coffee-table book, Cornelius devised Soul Train to counter mainstream depictions of African Americans as unsophisticated. Debuting at the dawn of the 1970s, a decade that saw the promises of the civil rights era curdle and crumble, the show presented the best in black music, fashion and dance. A model of suave decorum, Cornelius presided over it all for 1,100 episodes in 20 years.
Questlove is the drummer/bandleader for the eclectic Philly Hip-Hop outfit The Roots, but more crucially for this project, he’s been a Soul Train obsessive since he was 3 years old. Following the show’s unprecedented run in syndication (up through the early 1990s, when Cornelius mysteriously stepped aside as host), he writes as an objective historian and excited fanboy, dutifully relating the facts while explaining how the show informed his own music. His history is far from definitive, as he too often brushes aside — or ignores — any criticisms of the show, but his personal reminiscences are often poignant.
Nevertheless, his text is overshadowed by the photographs. More than half the book is devoted to the ’70s, when artists and dancers were intent on outdoing each other in terms of sartorial flamboyance: Chaka Khan defiant in her fur bra; the Trammps looking like psychedelic mad hatters. Upstaging both Joe Tex and James Brown, dancer Damita Jo Freeman may be the only woman who can move in a still photo.
As Soul Train progressed from the ’70s to the ’80s, the afros were slicked down and the outfits scaled back. Musically, Soul Train expanded to include many excellent Hip-Hop and Pop acts, yet inventive ostentation became passé. As a result, the photographs from this period are much less lively. What remains throughout the show’s entire run, however, is its sense of sublime celebration, as though there was no problem in the world that couldn’t be solved with shuffling feet and shimmying hips. (Stephen Deusner)
American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
By Deborah Solomon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pp., $28
I’ve never been much of a CG fan. Though I was dazzled to see — but, after an hour or so, dazed by — Hugo. (In 3D.) Consider me more a student of old-school stop-motion: the writhing mythological creatures of Ray Harryhausen, who died this past May; Douglas Trumbull’s slow-moving and majestic spacecraft in 2001 (over and above that same film’s mind-bending “star gate” sequence); the nightmare precision of the Brothers Quay.
But I appreciate outstanding book design and a well-told story. The CG Story is both: impressive in scale (11 by 13 inches) and with many of its pages full-bleed close-ups from the history of computer-generated visual effects, beginning with a proto-computer in 1839(!) through to the state-of-the-art imagery in Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
As for the back story in The CG Story: It’s populated with programmers and designers who first had to fight to have their talents recognized by studios and directors; and it’s equally devoted to the technological advances in computer science that made the artistry possible. It’s also a story thoroughly researched by Christopher Finch, who’s already written on the art of Walt Disney, Chuck Close, and Norman Rockwell. But his CG Story is really something else. In a word: spectacular.
Rockwell’s work? I was never a big fan. But I never hated it either. Such skill is nothing to look down on. Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol didn’t look down on it. Gallery owners and museum curators didn’t when they began recognizing in Rockwell’s work its finer points. And Deborah Solomon doesn’t in American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, where she characterizes Freedom from Want — Rockwell’s illustration of a family gathered around a giant Thanksgiving turkey — as “one of the most ambitious plays of white-against-white since Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1.” Solomon may be right. But is her borderline S&M interpretation of the policeman in Rockwell’s The Runaway overdoing it?
It won’t seem so after reading in American Mirror of Rockwell’s long-term psychotherapy supervised by Erik Erikson, Rockwell’s preference for adult male company, and, let’s face it, Rockwell’s abundant use of boy models throughout his career.
Nothing outright unseemly in any of this. No reason in Rockwell’s lifetime for rumors to form and fly. I’m just saying. Because on these matters Deborah Solomon in her very readable American Mirror has plenty to say and make readers wonder. (Leonard Gill)
A version of this feature first appeared in the Memphis Flyer.
CINCINNATI-CENTRIC READS AND LOCALLY PRODUCED PROJECTS
By Joseph Bates
Curbside Splendor Publishing, 160 pp., $14.95
Area author Joseph Bates’ just-published debut collection of stories, Tomorrowland, is getting sweet notices from a variety of sources, including local novelist and University of Cincinnati professor Michael Griffith: “Tomorrowland is a revelation, combining slightly skewed or fantastic conceits, a darkly comic tone and wonderfully nimble, funny prose, all in the service of a surprisingly serious, touching vision.” Count us intrigued. Bates — a creative writing professor at Miami University — previously wrote The Nighttime Novelist, a guide for those with limited writing time (Jason Gargano)
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 416 pp., $27
Sisterland, the freshly minted fourth novel by Cincinnati native Curtis Sittenfeld, centers on twin sisters Kate and Violet, who have the unique psychic ability to see future events, among other less vital factoids. The narrative opens as Violet (Vi) predicts the specific day that a devastating earthquake will hit St. Louis, where the 34-year-old sisters were born and currently live — Kate with a husband and two young children; Vi with a new girlfriend and a burgeoning national profile due to her controversial prediction. Sittenfeld has quite a national profile, the result of two buzzed-about best-sellers: Prep, which The New York Times’ pimped as one of the best books of 2005, and 2008’s American Wife, which was loosely based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. (JG)
Literary Cincinnati: The Missing Chapter
By Dale Patrick Brown
Ohio University Press, 192 pp., $24.95
Cincinnati writer Dale Patrick Brown says, in her lively new book Literary Cincinnati, the city “can point to an impressive literary history, but rarely does.” Brown proceeds to remedy the situation with eminently readable accounts of literary figures, homegrown and visiting. Harriet Beecher Stowe is among them, of course, as well as Mrs. Trollope of Domestic Manners of the Americans, the Cary sisters and their poetry, the Mercantile Library and more. Illustrations include a photograph of the original Queen City Club at Seventh and Elm streets. Sinclair Lewis holed up in this formidable mansion in the early 1920s to write Babbitt. (Jane Durrell)
Cincinnati: Shadow & Light
By Michael Keating
Clerisy Press, 160 pp., $45
Emmy Award-winning photojournalist Michael E. Keating’s photographs graced the pages of The Cincinnati Enquirer for 34 years. That’s more than three decades of life in the Queen City, all of which is on display in Cincinnati: Shadow & Light, a handsomely rendered sampling of the photojournalist’s unique, emotionally incisive work — images that range from stark black-and-white shots of the 2001 riots to the colorful visages of the city’s various sports teams. (JG)
Woke Up Lonely
By Fiona Maazel
Graywolf Press, 336 pp., $26
Compelling, contemplative and laugh-out-loud funny, Fiona Maazel’s latest novel, Woke Up Lonely, is a sprawling story of a wildly popular cult, the Helix, which promises a cure for loneliness. Desperate to be reunited with his ex-wife and daughter, cult leader Thurlow Dan takes four people hostage at his Cincinnati headquarters and soon things unravel into a “Waco-like” hostage standoff. The novel hits close to home for Cincinnatians when the characters descend into an underground system of tunnels filled with all manner of vice beneath the city’s streets. Maazel was a 2008 “5 Best Writers Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation and won the Bard Fiction Prize in 2009. (John J. Kelly)
Handcrafted Cocktails: The Mixologist’s Guide to Classic Drinks for Morning, Noon & Night
By Molly Wellmann
Betterway Home, 192 pp., $24.99
Local celebrity mixologist Molly Wellmann puts her classic cocktail stamp in print. This recipe book and historical guide tells the tale of pre-Prohibition cocktails and how to make them yourself at home with recipes for homemade simple syrups and bitters plus instructions for the correct way to shake, mix, pour and garnish a drink.Cocktail recipes are categorized into times of day based on when they’re typically served and their history, so look for drinks for the morning, hangover cures, the afternoon, happy hour, dinner and after-dinner digestives.There’s also a section on basic bartending skills to get your bar stocked and you ready to impress friends and family. (Maija Zummo)
Zits En Concert
By Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 208 pp., $16.99
Just because Jim Borgman retired from The Cincinnati Enquirer doesn’t mean his wit-infused pen is going dry. The Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist remains busy these days with his syndicated Zits comic strip, a collaboration with writer Jerry Scott that has flourished since its inception in 1997. The duo’s latest collection in book form, Zits En Concert, was published in October and again focuses on the exploits of Jeremy Duncan, a high school student and aspiring Rock god whose emotional and physical issues are portrayed with humor and insight. (JG)
The History of Us
By Leah Stewart
Touchstone, 384 pp., $24.99
Leah Stewart’s fourth novel, The History of Us, is a Cincinnati-set coming-of-age tale marked by psychological insight, a sneakily addictive narrative thrust and a deft use of dialogue. The story rotates around a family led by Eloise Hempel, a 45-year-old history professor whose acclaimed first book is rapidly becoming a distant memory and whose personal life is kept secret from even those closest to her. The History of Us opens as, 17 years earlier, Eloise is forced to leave her teaching gig at Harvard to return to her hometown — Cincinnati, a place she thought she left behind for a seemingly bigger and more satisfying life — in order to take care of her sister’s three young children following a fatal accident. The narrative then jumps to the present day, centering on Eloise’s increasingly strained interactions with the now-grown Theodora, Josh and Claire, all of whom are dealing with their own issues, all of whom have complicated relationships with the city and the Victorian Clifton Avenue house they’ve long called home. Stewart uses this setup to investigate the peculiar pull Cincinnati has on its citizens, a place where, as she writes in the book, “you could make a virtue of grittiness, take pride in not living in some cleaner, wealthier, wussier city.” (JG)
By Marjorie Celona
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $15
Shannon, the wholly unique central figure in Marjorie Celona’s first novel, Y, is marked by a fuzzy white afro, a lazy eye and short legs. An orphan since birth, Shannon is on a perpetual search for her true identity, an emotionally and physically stunted nomad we follow from her first breath to the beginning of the rest of her life at age 17. Y grabs one from its opening scene, which takes place at the local “Y”: “My life begins at the Y. I am born and left in front of the glass doors, and even though the sign is flipped ‘Closed,’ a man is waiting in the parking lot and he sees it all: my mother, a woman in navy coveralls, emerges from behind Christ Church Cathedral with a bundle wrapped in gray, her body bent in the cold wet wind of the summer morning.” The mother is Yula, whom Shannon spends the next 256 pages trying to find. Celona moved to Cincinnati in late 2011 to enroll in UC’s Ph.D. program for creative writing. (JG)