Friday, August 06, 2010

Friday Fiction: Twenty Under Forty - Writers to Watch

For the first time in more than a decade, The New Yorker published a "20 Under 40″ list of promising fiction writers in its June 14, 2010 issue. Most of the authors on the list are represented in the Copper Queen Library's Fiction collection by at least one title. Here is the first half of the "20 Under 40" list, including short summaries of titles held by CQL:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
**The Thing Around Your Neck - The tension between Nigerians and Nigerian-Americans, and the question of what it means to be middle-class in each country, feeds most of these dozen stories. Best known are "Cell One," and "The Headstrong Historian," which have both appeared in the New Yorker and are the collection's finest works. "Cell One," in particular, about the appropriation of American ghetto culture by Nigerian university students, is both emotionally and intellectually fulfilling.

**Purple Hibiscus - Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut, it begins like many novels set in regions considered exotic by the western reader: the politics, climate, social customs, and, above all, food of Nigeria (balls of fufu rolled between the fingers, okpa bought from roadside vendors) unfold like the purple hibiscus of the title, rare and fascinating. But within a few pages, these details, however vividly rendered, melt into the background of a larger, more compelling story.

**Half of a Yellow Sun - Based loosely on political events in 1960s Nigeria, this novel focuses on two wealthy Igbo sisters, Olanna and Kainene, who drift apart as the newly independent nation struggles to remain unified. Olanna falls for an imperious academic whose political convictions mask his personal weaknesses; meanwhile, Kainene becomes involved with a shy, studious British expat. After a series of massacres targeting the Igbo people, the carefully genteel world of the two couples disintegrates. '

Chris Adrian
**A Better Angel - These stories, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, and McSweeney’s, demonstrate more of Chris Adrian's endless inventiveness and wit, and they confirm his growing reputation as an unusual literary voice of darkly magical comic tales. In “Stab,” a bereaved twin starts a friendship with a homicidal fifth grader in the hope that she can somehow lead him back to his dead brother. In “Why Antichrist?” a boy tries to contact the spirit of his dead father and finds himself talking to the Devil instead. In the title story, a ne’er do well pediatrician returns home to take care of his dying father, all the while under the scrutiny of an easily disappointed heavenly agent.

**Gob’s Grief - Blending history and fiction in the tradition of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, this skillfully imagined first novel follows Walt Whitman as the poet unwittingly aids the son of early radical feminist Victoria Woodhull in constructing a machine to bring back the Civil War dead; indeed, to abolish death altogether.

Daniel Alarcón
**Lost City Radio - Imparting comfort while reading the names of missing people to her war-ravaged listeners, radio host Norma finds her life irrevocably changed when a young boy from a remote jungle village provides a connection to her long-missing husband.

David Bezmozgis
**Natasha and Other Stories - Like the author of this remarkable debut collection of seven linked stories, the protagonist, Mark Berman, emigrated with his parents from Latvia to Toronto in 1980. Bezmozgis writes with subtlety and control, moving from Mark's boyhood arrival in Canada to his adult reckoning with his grandparents' decline, rendering the immigrant experience with powerful specificity of character, place and history.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
**Ms. Hempel Chronicles - A National Book Award finalist in 2004, Bynum returns with an intricate and absorbing collection of eight interconnected stories about Beatrice Hempel, a middle school English teacher. Ms. Hempel is the sort of teacher students adore, and despite feeling disenchanted with her job, she regards her students as intelligent, insightful and sometimes fascinating. Bynum seamlessly weaves stories of the teacher's childhood with the present — reminiscences about Beatrice's now deceased father and her relationship with her younger brother, Calvin — while simultaneously fleshing out the lives of Beatrice's impressionable students.

**Madeleine Is Sleeping - An immensely obese woman who sprouts two magnificent pairs of wings, a lonely housewife who grows strings to match her husband's viol, and a lascivious, wealthy widow are just a few of the fantastical characters who populate the enchanting world of Bynum's debut. Written in brief, dreamy segments (appropriately enough, since the title character has fallen into a Sleeping Beauty–like slumber), the book alternates deftly between reality and illusion as it follows Madeleine down a path of sexual, artistic and personal discovery.

Joshua Ferris
**The Unnamed - Tim Farnsworth is a handsome, healthy man, aging with the grace of a matinee idol. His wife Jane still loves him, and for all its quiet trials, their marriage is still stronger than most. Then, one day, he stands up and walks out. And keeps walking.

**Then We Came to the End - It's 2001. The dot-com bubble has burst and rolling layoffs have hit an unnamed Chicago advertising firm, sending employees into an escalating siege mentality as their numbers dwindle. As a parade of employees depart, those left behind raid their fallen comrades' offices, sifting through the detritus for the errant desk lamp or Aeron chair. Written with confidence in the tricky-to-pull-off first-person plural, the collective fishbowl perspective of the "we" voice nails the dynamics of cubicle culture — the deadlines, the gossip, the elaborate pranks to break the boredom, the joy of discovering free food in the breakroom. Arch, achingly funny, and surprisingly heartfelt.

Jonathan Safran Foer
**Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Oskar Schell is not your average nine-year-old. A budding inventor, he spends his time imagining wonderful creations. He also collects random photographs for his scrapbook and sends letters to scientists. When his father dies in the World Trade Center collapse, Oskar shifts his boundless energy to a quest for answers. He finds a key hidden in his father's things that doesn't fit any lock in their New York City apartment; its container is labeled "Black." Using flawless kid logic, Oskar sets out to speak to everyone in New York City with the last name of Black.

**Everything Is Illuminated - Jonathan is a Jewish college student searching Europe for the one person he believes can explain his roots. Alex, a lover of all things American and unsurpassed butcher of the English language, is his lovable Ukrainian guide. On their quixotic quest, the two young men look for Augustine, a woman who might have saved Jonathan's grandfather from the Nazis. As past and present merge, hysterically funny moments collide with episodes of great tragedy — and an unforgettable story of one family's extraordinary history unfolds.

Nell Freudenberger
**Lucky Girls - A collection of five stories, this book is set in India and southern Asia. The characters — rootless, often enroute to someplace else — find themselves variously attracted to or repelled by unfamiliar landscapes where every object seems strange and every emotion is heightened. Living according to alien rules, these characters are also vulnerable in unexpected ways which make you want to keep reading.

Rivka Galchen
**Atmospheric Disturbances - Imagine what it might be like to realize that the person you love is, in fact, not the person you love but a doppelgänger: or, what Leo Liebenstein coolly terms a "simulacrum" of his wife Rema at the outset of the novel. David Byrne's infamous cry that "this is not my beautiful wife" seems the most likely response, but Leo's reaction to this sea change takes unpredictable and dazzlingly plotted turns in the story that follows.

Nicole Krauss
**The History of Love - A hauntingly beautiful novel about two characters whose lives are woven together in such complex ways that even after the last page is turned, the reader is left to wonder what really happened. In the hands of a less gifted writer, unraveling this tangled web could easily give way to complete chaos. However, under Krauss's watchful eye, these twists and turns only strengthen the impact of this enchanting book.