January 20, 2023
Books that are informed by the cultures of Iran, Vietnam, Denmark, and Ukraine will take you to faraway places this week, and deep into the minds of their protagonists. There are three debut novels, a historical love story, speculative fiction from over fifty years ago, and a story of the origins of psychedelia. Future, past, and present commingle in this thought-provoking selection.
Buyer, The Center for Fiction Bookstore
By Kaveh Akbar
Published by Knopf
A debut with this much hoopla makes one suspicious, but from the first few pages I was dazzled. Iranian orphan Cyrus is a recovering alcoholic living in America’s heartland where he is studying literature. His mother senselessly died on a plane mistakenly shot down by the U.S. Navy and his father died after a thankless career. But Cyrus has the heart of a poet and a soaring imagination. He decides to write a book about martyrs and travels to the Brooklyn Museum to see an exhibition of a dying performance artist. There he has a life-changing experience. Akbar’s unforgettable first novel will leave you breathless.
Tripping on Utopia
By Benjamin Breen
Published by Grand Central Publishing
The subtitle is promising—combining the great female anthropologist with America’s Cold War and psychedelic drugs is a most intriguing premise. This book will change your mind about how the ’60s invented drug culture, as it was already well underway with the previous generation. Viewing the history of its genesis from 1923–1980 through the adventures of anthropologists Margaret Mead and her lover Gregory Bateson (see Euphoria) makes for a lively narrative. Breen, an academic who has previously written on the global drug trade, takes us on a fascinating trip (no pun intended) from San Francisco to Manhattan, to New Guinea, Bali, and more..
By Andrew X. Pham
Published by W. W. Norton
Pham’s 1999 memoir described his 2,357-mile bicycle trip to discover his roots in Vietnam, and this heartbreaking first novel is inspired by his grandmother’s life there. The reader is plunged into the beautiful landscape of Phan Thiet during the hot season in 1942. The core of the novel is a love affair between a young single mother from Saigon and a Japanese major based in their village after taking over the local airbase from the Vichy government. Both brave and independent souls, their unlikely relationship is one of courage and resistance combining a beautiful love story with the harsh realities of French and Japanese colonialism.
By Sven Holm
Published by FSG
Translated by Sylvia Clayton
Holm’s reissued prescient novel is an exciting rediscovery from ’60s Scandinavia. Set after a nuclear holocaust, it takes place in a coastal luxury resort which was planned for just such a disaster. Reminiscent of C. Pam Zhang’s recent Land of Milk and Honey, both authors imagined a future where only the rich can afford to survive. Holm manages to capture the complicated morality of the privileged residents (“No one thought about protecting himself against the survivors or their demands on us.”) and the breakdown of the fragile society created within the hotel. The foreword by Jeff VanderMeer puts this prophetic piece of fiction in context..
By Tanja Maljartschuk
Published by Liveright
Translated by Zenia Tompkins
“Time consumes everything living by the ton, like a gigantic blue whale…” In one of the few of the award-winning Maljartschuk’s novels available in the U.S., a Ukrainian woman writer with a string of failed relationships is anxiety-ridden, suffering from severe OCD and panic attacks. She begins to see parallels with a Polish aristocrat and dissident who died a hundred years before, and who had his own psychological issues, including hypochondria. He left instructions upon his death to have his heart pierced because he was terrified of being buried alive. By telling his story our narrator also tells her own and the two threads form a powerful portrait of exile and oblivion.