These are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:
1. The Mothers by Britt Bennett (Riverhead)
Bennett, just named by The National Book Foundation as one of its “5 Under 35” honorees, demonstrates her extraordinary talent in this debut novel. Set in a black community in Southern California, The Mothers focuses on a trio of friends coming of age and growing into adulthood. Partly narrated by a Greek chorus of “Mothers” holding forth — and providing moral perspective — from the Upper Room Chapel of an African-American church, this beautifully empathetic novel powerfully depicts life on intersecting fault lines of race, personal integrity, and loss.
2. Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century by Simon Reynolds (Dey Street)
In this nicely titled study, Reynolds examines, in high style, Glam Rock’s ascendance and enduring influence. A music aficionado who appreciates stars like David Bowie and Alice Cooper, and intellectual with a facility for thinkers like sociologist Erving Goffman and radical feminist Germaine Greer, Reynolds argues that Glam Rock resonated because it “wove together strands of the radical and reactionary,” and while it teemed with innovation in style, it was was also regressive in its escapism and flirtation with glamor. “Shock and Awe,” Reynolds argues, “is about sensation and mania as social facts, about mass hypnosis and mass hysteria as real phenomena in which thousands get swept up.”
3. El Paso by Winston Groom (Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton)
Forrest Gump, the story of an amiable, intellectually limited man who witnesses the big events in American history, became a best-seller and a an Oscar-winning film starring Tom Hanks. Nearly two decades after its publication, Groom has unleashed a new work of imaginative, peripatetic fiction. The 400-plus page novel El Paso, which is set during the Mexican Revolution, follows a Boston railroad tycoon with a huge cattle ranch in Chihuahua on a manhunt to rescue his kidnapped grandchildren. Groom infuses his story with real historic characters, including writer Ambrose Bierce, movie star Tom Mix, and socialist journalist John Reed, and sets it against the backdrop of war in the Sierra Madre. It is a rich and engrossing tale — something Hollywood will, no doubt, take little time to notice.
4. Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books)
Disappearing young women are having a cultural moment — we are in an an era of literary gone girls — and so is the late 1960s. Both of these of-the-Zeitgeist phenomena are present in Leavitt’s marvelous new novel Cruel Beautiful World. Leavitt brings to life the chaotic days of Vietnam War protests, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the Manson murders as the setting for a complex story of the relationship between two sisters and a predatory teacher. The result is a captivating, timely-feeling thriller.
5. The Best American Short Stories 2016, Edited by Junot Diaz, Series Editor Heidi Pitlor (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“On my way to the novel I fell in love with the short story,” writes guest editor Junot Diaz in his charming, modest, and winsome Introduction to the latest installment of this well-known annual anthology. Diaz chronicles his own struggles as a writer, and recounts how he learned his craft by studying short stories. This year’s collection brings together fine stories by famous fiction writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Karen Russell, familiar to readers of The New Yorker, but a great deal of the magic is generated by the appearance of less familiar names from publications like Missouri Review or Copper Nickel. Each of these outstanding stories is, as Diaz observes, a chance to listen “to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence.”