As Hook recounts the band’s quick life, with each step we’re searching for what went wrong. Hook’s answer? They were too young, and too stupid, and everything happened too fast. No time to see that Curtis, an epileptic who started having seizures at almost every show, needed a break. No time to see that his deteriorating marriage and his depression, and the band’s heavy touring, were taking such a toll. Not even his first suicide attempt was an adequate clue. They kept charging forward.
The atrocious destination can’t change, but Hook’s book finally puts meat on Joy Division’s bones where only thin myths previously hung. Unknown Pleasures is far more real (and so much less romantic) than Control, the 2007 Joy Division biopic. Here, four clueless, but incredibly creative, working-class kids somehow become the most promising, original rock band the world was about to receive. Even the band seemed surprised by it all. So surprised, sadly, that none of them realized what was happening until it was too late.
(Jan. 29, It Books, 416 pp.)
Jim Crace tells two stories in Harvest. The stories share a setting, and some members of a village’s cast of characters; they rub up against each other uneasily at the edges, but mainly stay apart.
The first story occurs right after harvest in a small, remote English village, where the well-worn rhythms of autumn are interrupted by a fire at the manor house and the arrival of two sets of strangers, high-born and low, who each become scapegoats for the villagers’ faults, fears and prejudices. Crace’s other, larger story is about enclosure — the 17th-century transformation of the English countryside from common fields to fenced pasture — which condemns the village commons to become a sheep farm.
Crace’s window on this moment comes from Walter Thirsk, one of the few characters who participates in both stories, and perhaps the only one who responds to his village’s fate with the appropriate fatalism. A relative newcomer, Thirsk arrived as the master’s man, and chose to marry among its people. A dozen years later and now a widower, he can share in the work and the harvest but is alone in knowing a world beyond the village.
Harvest sets Crace a difficult task: balancing the uneven halves of the story, then creating a character able to bridge the specifics of the past with the general (and, right now, timely) dread of capital and foreclosure. Crace does this, often beautifully, through Thirsk, whose narration is mannered enough to be timeless without becoming archaic, and methodical enough to serve character without stinting on interest and incident: an instrument fit perfectly to a man out of time and place.
(Feb. 12, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 224 pp.)
Arnon Grunberg, translation by Sam Garrett
Available in English for the first time since its 2006 release, Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza is the story of an obsessed patriarch in free fall. When protagonist Jörgen Hofmeester’s estranged wife returns home after three and a half years—having left him and their two daughters for an old flame and a houseboat—his nondescript bourgeois existence is threatened with total upheaval. First, he is laid off suddenly from his job at a publishing house. But most disturbing for Hofmeester is the news that his beloved youngest daughter, Tirza, is departing for a yearlong trip to Africa with new boyfriend Choukri, a man whom Hofmeester obsessively insists resembles 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Told in two parts, Tirza traces Hofmeester’s unraveling—his descent into unreliability and perhaps madness.
Grunberg’s work has drawn comparisons with Dostoyevsky in the past, and Tirza, with its almost claustrophobic focus on Hofmeester’s psyche, will doubtless be no exception. But despite its intense (and intensely interior) content, Grunberg’s prose throughout the novel is remarkably restrained. Though there are a few silted and awkward sentences — likely a result of its translation — the language on the whole is elegant and often quietly devastating: “Hofmeester was a man who had spent a lifetime in search of the right demeanor and who, now that that life was almost over, still hadn’t found it.” Psychologically thrilling, narratively compelling and ultimately disturbing, Tirza explores the incomprehensible violence that families inflict upon themselves and each other.
(Feb. 19, Open Letter, 452 pp.)
The Teleportation Accident
Like 2010’s Boxer, Beetle, Englishman Ned Beauman’s second novel is one of those pack-in-every-idea-he-can reads. The Teleportation Accident is nevertheless a successful comedy, not dense but deliciously detailed. Consider this descriptive nugget: “The evening was blustery, and nearby a hunchbacked balloon seller with two dozen red balloons stood shifting his weight against the tug of the wind like a Zeppelin breeder out promenading a whole litter of excitable pups.” Sex-starved German set designer Egon Loeser (a fitting surname for this sad-sack character) traipses from Berlin to Paris and Los Angeles in 1931. “The two subjects most hostile to his sense of a man’s life as an essentially steady, comprehensible and Newtonian-mechanical undertaking,” we learn early on, “were accidents and women.” Unburdened by principles, Loeser is driven by lust for lovely Adele Hitler (no relation!), who sleeps with anyone but him, and a fascination with designer Adriano Lavicini’s Extraordinary Mechanism for the Almost Instantaneous Transport of Persons from Place to Place, created in 1671. As World War II rages offstage in Loeser’s life, however, serious teleportation speculation dogs him, and he wants no part of it: “History is an alarm clock I want to throw through the window.” Many of Berlin’s refugee artists and intellectuals — along with posers, con men and rivals, all colorfully created — surround Loeser in L.A., to his hilarious frustration. Mix in horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, ghosts, spies, murder and classic porn, and Beauman accomplishes a fast-paced, witty and refreshingly rich tale.
(Feb. 26, Bloomsbury USA, 368 pp.)
Hope Against Hope
Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope takes on the Herculean task of dissecting the so-called school-reform movement that has come to dominate urban educational systems in ways that have been as controversial as they have been sudden. The book recounts the series of events that unfolded after the upheaval of the Katrina disaster, which was bizarrely seized upon by Louisiana officials as an opportunity to radically restructure a long failing school district. In a strangely coup-like move, reform officials fired the district’s entire teaching staff and pushed through charter control of all but 22 of the city’s 88 schools, a greater percentage than any other major city. In the ensuing years, the city has, for better or worse, become a living experiment wherein dozens of alternative educational models have emerged as wealthy elites venture to “fix” a district with a student body that is 90 percent black and at least 85 percent low income. Hope Against Hope details that entire process with journalistic precision and a remarkably unflinching objectivity, considering the polarizing nature of the subject — even the appellations “traditional” and “reform” for the dueling camps are scintillatingly charged. Carr clearly delineates the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, admirably delving into the complex racial, political and social ethos underpinning each, and melding historical context and hard statistical data along the way. For a policy wonk or, ahem, a journalist, this might be engrossing enough on its own, simply glimpsing the nuts and bolts of entirely new educational methods that run the gamut from inspiring to borderline scary. But what makes the book special is its focus on the experiences of the teachers, students and administrators that form the true core, the heart, of Hope Against Hope. Chronicled in an almost biographical fashion, Carr follows a struggling family with a daughter in a charter school, a rookie teacher and a veteran principal held over from the pre-Katrina district as they try to come to grips with a dizzying and ever-changing new world. Their stories are depicted honestly, their moments of supreme achievement and complete agony endlessly, maddeningly unfolding as they stumble through still-imperfect schools in a far from perfect city, not unlike Philadelphia. These stories bring a clarity and humanity to a process that is frequently muddied by politics and centered on the whims of policymakers, legislators and lobbyists — and so rarely informed by the actual experiences of the students they claim to be helping, or the teachers and administrators struggling against impossible odds.
(Feb. 26, Bloomsbury Press, 336 pp.)