There is a misleading amount of bosom on the cover of The Turncoat. A historical romance heavy on the history, it stars Kate Grey, a Quaker farm girl-turned-Rebel spy in Colonial Philadelphia. Along the way, she becomes an expert in coquetry, secrets and (of course!) the trials of love. Though the jacket copy suggests a straight-up romance between Kate and British officer Peter Tremayne, the story is more complicated. Tremayne is absent for stretches of the story, fighting a war or whatever, and his cousin/best friend/cad-about-town, the Byronic Bayard Caine, steps in to romance Kate, who’s now styled as Lydia, the most popular secret Rebel spy in Philadelphia. There are plentiful descriptions of piercing blue eyes, well-turned ankles and glossy queued hair.
It’s appropriate that the term “bodice-ripper” has fallen out of favor, as there is surprisingly little bodice-ripping — or bodice-carefully-removing — in The Turncoat. It’s historical romance for those who like military tactics front and center, genealogy gnarled and explicit sex scenes rare (but, uh, pretty darn explicit). For a Colonial Quaker, Kate Grey knows an awful lot about warfare and probably an accurately small amount about her hymen. (Don’t worry, her paramour gets a hand mirror and Kate gets educated.)
While most of the main characters are fictional, Kate’s spy-mentor the Merry Widow, who teaches Kate about makeup and prophylactic sea sponges, is inspired by the real-life Widow of Mount Holly. Rumor has it that widow was none other than dear Betsy Ross, although it’s doubtful she was as hot a shot. There’s also a leading role for English spy master John Andre, who just straight-up bests everyone at everything secret-related with great panache, and deserves an updated biography immediately. Or perhaps his own romance: Who needs Kate Grey when we can have the bisexual swashbucklings of the dashing John Andre?
(March 5, NAL Trade, 432 pp.)
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
“Oh my God! How is it?”
Friends, co-workers and strangers at coffee shops all squeal when they see the bright-yellow cover of Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories. Anticipation for the newest book by the semi-secret Philadelphian (she’s teaching at Bryn Mawr and allegedly living somewhere near the Art Museum these days) was palpable — considering her accolades, including a Pulitzer nomination and future HBO adaptation of her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, the commotion isn’t surprising.
In Vampires, Russell returns to the whimsical, dark fable-like stories that worked so well in her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Obviously imaginative, the pieces draw you in like oversaturated 35 mm snapshots of strangers. They have a core of transformation: death, rebirth, the reformation of memories, major U.S. presidents turning into horses.
Nearly all of Russell’s stories from Vampires have been printed previously, but to have them collected is to add context to their stand-alone strangeness. Reading them together takes away the shock of the twists, freeing up space to take in her turns of language and careful construction.
Of course, in any collection you have hits and misses — “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a bit too much like a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency post, and the aforementioned horse story, “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” seems like a dream you’d have if you fell asleep while watching Sondheim’s Assassins with a stomach full of nachos. But any misgivings these side steps might provide are quickly mitigated by stories like “The New Veterans,” the crushing “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” and the uplifting Kafkaesque “Proving Up.” These are where Russell’s strengths — her ability to make the familiar weird and the weird familiar — resonate.
(Feb. 12, Knopf, 256 pp.)
Raise a half-full Solo cup for the mostly well-meaning oafs, the dudes whose adolescent growth spurts push them out of the “regular guy” category and into grocery-carrying and fight-breaking-up duties. Gordon “Rank” Rankin Jr. — the temperamental giant at the center of Lynn Coady’s engrossing novel The Antagonist — knows the burdens of the oaf all too well. As a kid, he’s booting hooligans out of the family ice cream shop at the command of his short, hot-headed adoptive father. He eventually moves on to reluctant hockey enforcer, dive-bar bouncer and occasional bully. Goonish violence, and the accompanying shame, seems to follow him everywhere (“King Midas in reverse,” he calls himself), even when he’s paranoidly trying to avoid it. So tragicomically entertaining is Rank’s lifelong hapless oafism and family baggage (adopted, tiny dad, dead mom, etc.) that his old college frenemy Adam sneakily repurposes it all into a novel. Now a bit older and wiser, Rank responds to this exploitation of his life story with a year’s worth of emails to Adam, a hilarious and heartbreaking novel of his own that makes up the entirety of The Antagonist. Coady’s casual storytelling style is a stealthy vehicle for some wily insights into oft-ignored facets of modern masculinity. In her hands, everybody’s worthy of sympathy and dignity. Nobody’s a monster. Or everybody’s a monster. Or there’s no such thing as monsters.
(Jan. 22, Knopf, 304 pp.)
The Resurrectionist doesn’t want you to know it’s not real. From the sober, matter-of-fact prose of the first half of the book to the extensive anatomical diagrams of the second, this historical horror-fantasy tries its darndest to maintain the illusion. It mostly succeeds — though not without some drawbacks.
The premise, as laid out in the faux-biography at the beginning: Spencer Black, supposedly, was a Philadelphia surgeon studying at the Academy of Medicine obsessed with Mütter-worthy human mutations like Siamese twins, extra limbs and “lobster’s claw.” From his studies, Black comes to the controversial conclusion that humans are distantly descended from mythological creatures — thus, the second half of the book is a reproduction of his Codex Extinct Animalia, an encyclopedia of mermaids, harpies, sphinxes and the like. Because Dr. Black’s supposedly an artist as well, the detailed scientific analyses of these creatures are accompanied by beautiful hand-drawn illustrations. (The advance copy was missing some of the art, but there were more than enough to get the idea.)
Philly-based publisher Quirk Books is best known for putting out the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies series, and The Resurrectionist could be seen as another addition to the “Victorian grotesque” niche. But much of Pride’s success came from its tongue-in-cheek premise. The narrator of The Resurrectionist remains almost completely neutral throughout the tale, which does have its benefits; Dr. Black’s story is convincing no matter how absurd or horrific it gets.
But it’s played a bit too straight for its own good. The story’s ability to thrill or chill has gotten lost in its stoic, found-document method of telling, resulting in a book that was probably more fun to write than it is to read. However, much like Dr. Black himself, The Resurrectionist’s willingness to be different makes it a fascinating curio.
(May 21, Quirk Books, 208 pp.)
PHL 2012: A Year in DIY
You don’t need to have heard of the bands in PHL 2012: A Year in DIY to appreciate the visceral energy of this handsome little photo book. The mostly word-free pages — assembled by esteemed Philly-music-scene site diyphl.com — are packed with sweaty drummers, screaming singers and crowds getting into it, often at the sort of small, off-the-beaten-path venues City Paper usually can’t write about for fear of risking their livelihood. Zia Hilty’s overhead shot of local hardcore heroes Paint It Black captures singer Dan Yemin dramatically pointing toward the heavens, or at least the ceiling of West Philly’s Golden Tea House. In a powerful two-pager by Alyssa Tanchajja, Steve Pid of Providence band White Load prowls the confines of Cloud City (also in West Philly), microphone at his side, blood pouring from his head. Though the photos in PHL 2012 were taken just over the last year, there’s an eerie and exhilarating sense of timelessness that connects this collection to the larger punk picture.
(Feb. 16, 60 pp.)
William H. Gass
The most immediately relevant fact about Middle C is how long it took to be written — William H. Gass’ previous novel, The Tunnel, came out nearly 20 years ago in 1995, when the author was a spry 70 years old. Middle C wears its author’s labors on its sleeve; even incidental bits glow with the effort of the polishing. When his hero unaccountably aces a test in high school, Gass points out how “guys smiled or winked at him, and Joey had to assume they felt he had somehow cheated his way to perfection. They did not honor good grades — on the contrary — but they prized chicanery, and any successful dodge, so long as it didn’t threaten the curve, and Miss Gyer had no curves. She was a tall woman made entirely of posture. The y in her name was her best feature.”
Gass sustains the same pressure on his language throughout Middle C. He’s everywhere as witty and effortful as in that play on the two meanings of “curve,” and he builds up late-style sentences that would, for a lesser writer, make entire paragraphs. But the intensity and concentration that made The Tunnel so vengeful here make ironic counterpoint with the story, about a man at pains “to be a person who disappears because he is so like everybody else as not to count.” Even when it digresses into the obscurities of Thomas Hardy or the complexities of music history, Middle C remains a bleak black comedy.
(March 12, Knopf, 416 pp.)
236 Pounds of Class Vice President
South Philly native Jason Mulgrew has certain gifts, including a flair for colorful footnotes, a spectacularly mortifying family photo album, an encyclopedic knowledge of local junk food and, apparently, a variety of inventive techniques for masturbating. One thing he lacks is a sense of shame.
That’s lucky for readers, since his coming-of-age confessional, set first in the rough-and-tumble vicinity of Second Street in the ’80s and later in the more rarefied halls of St. Joe’s Prep, is an extremely funny (if stomach-turning) look at life as an overachieving, overweight and occasionally overcompensating city kid.
Blogger-turned-author Mulgrew picks up where his first childhood memoir, the bestselling Everything Is Wrong With Me, left off, drawing us into a world crowded with outsized and perversely lovable characters, starting with himself. Mulgrew spent much of high school wearing a fur cape and trying to move beyond the “gay best friend” zone before running for student government on the campaign promise that he’d deliver no less than the titular 236 pounds of class vice-president.
Hometown boosters will appreciate Mulgrew’s comprehensive taxonomy of Philly’s favorite foods (and South Philly’s best underage drinking spots). And anyone who was at one time a teenage boy will likely relate to Mulgrew’s retelling of his discoveries of the Beatles, beer and blue balls.
Writing a memoir funnier than the childhood photos scattered throughout the text (again: the fur cape!) is a tall order, but Mulgrew mostly manages it. Expect consistent humor, but not necessarily a point to it all: These are less tales of redemption than stories of poor decisions that happened not to lead to disaster.
(Feb. 12, Harper Perennial, 240 pp.)
The Phillies Experience
As the Phillies celebrate their 130th anniversary this season, they’ve amassed more one-volume histories than World Series trophies. Adding to the library is Tyler Kepner’s excellent new book detailing the team’s many joys and heartbreaks — sometimes both simultaneously, in the case of 1964 or 1993.
The book’s 220 illustrations include lavish color photographs of Citizens Bank Park, several rare action shots from the Baker Bowl and, amazingly, even one in-game photo from their original home, Recreation Park (at 24th Street and what’s now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) where the Phillies played from 1883 to 1886, plus pictures of vintage baseball cards and memorabilia. Despite this, though, if The Phillies Experience has a major flaw, it’s that while each season from 1900 onward gets at least one page (the 2007-2011 seasons are understandably given greater detail), the 1883-1899 teams are summarized in just six pages.
Kepner, a baseball writer for the New York Times, grew up in Philadelphia an ardent Phillies fan during the lean mid-1980s. He describes the recent renaissance: “The team that bumbled through 30 losing seasons in a 31-year span; that once tried to change its name to Blue Jays; that lagged behind every [National League] team in integration; that traded Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg … somehow, that team would one day become the envy of baseball.” The Phillies Experience is likely to be the envy of every local baseball fan come Opening Day. (March 23, MVP Books, 224 pp.)
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
This is the kind of book we want to never end. Not because it’s so brilliant, but because there’s no way to twist the final act into anything other than what it inevitably is. No matter how Peter Hook tells the story of Joy Division, the Manchester band for which he played bass, he can’t stop frontman Ian Curtis from committing suicide one day before their first U.S. tour. On May 18, 1980, we know Debbie Curtis will walk into the kitchen to find her 23-year-old husband with a noose around his neck. And as we get closer, each page is more devastating than the last.
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.)