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Ten books to read in October

Jennifer Egan, Manhattan BeachEgan
whose A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle award, has outdone herself with Manhattan Beach. It’s an astonishing noir-tinged novel set in 1940s Brooklyn.

With intimate focus, she follows Eddie Kerrigan, a tough Irishman who survives the Depression by taking a job as a bagman to mobster Dexter Styles, and his daughter Anna. Five years after Eddie disappears, Anna becomes the first woman diver in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, repairing warships and offering acute assessments of the “naked prejudice” of her supervisor and the eerie pleasures of underwater work. Egan crafts unforgettable scenes and builds to an explosive ending that blends submarine attacks on a US warship off the African coast with a domestic crisis that threatens Anna’s future. (Credit: Scribner)

Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint
This wide-ranging first collection from Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Eugenides is a delight. In the opening story, Cathy brings a book – “a kind of medicine” – to her 88-year-old friend Della, who is sliding into dementia, and finds a way to replace clinical treatment with loving care. In the title story, Matthew, an English-born cosmologist, watches his life implode after a US teenager accuses him of rape. A research mission among the Dawat in West Papua frays the nerves of an expert in “human intersexuality”. A middle-aged poet, once a promising Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, turns to larceny to supplement his salary at a Chicago billionaire’s small press. Ten stories dense with sensuality and ironic detail. (Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Cristina Garcia, Here in Berlin
The Visitor, the Cuban-American narrator of Garcia’s new novel, returns to Berlin in 2013 to find the city “post-apocalyptic” and herself invisible in late middle age. She comes in search of stories. And she finds them in unexpected places – parks, museums, outdoor cafes, the aquarium, along the Spree River. She learns of the fate of the 3,715 animals in the Berlin Zoo during World War Two from the zookeeper’s son. She listens to a child born of the Nazi breeding program, a lifelong Berliner whose only time outside the country was to study “the oratorical styles of black preachers in the South” for Nazi propaganda purposes, and a Cuban held as a POW on a German submarine. Ingeniously structured, veering from poignant to shocking, Here in Berlin couldn’t be more relevant. (Credit: Counterpoint Press)

Isabel Allende, In the Midst of Winter
Over three days in early 2016, as a blizzard lashes Brooklyn, Lucia, Richard and Evelyn become linked after a car accident on icy streets. Snowbound in Richard’s brownstone, they share personal secrets. Evelyn, an undocumented teenager who has fled violence in Guatemala, is so traumatised she rarely speaks. And she’s terrified because she was driving her employers’ car without permission when Richard crashed into her. Chilean-born Lucia is a visiting professor at New York University whose research into the disappeared after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup mirrors her own losses. Richard, the NYU academic who hired Lucia, is haunted by tragedies spun out of his long research stay in Brazil beginning in 1985. Isabel Allende’s masterful blend of history, suspense, and rising passion, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, makes for yet another riveting novel. (Credit: Atria Books)

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties: Stories
This first collection, longlisted for the National Book Award and Kirkus Prize, introduces an original genre-blending voice. In the fable-like The Husband Stitch, a woman falls in love, marries and raises a child with a man who she cautions to never touch the ribbon around her throat. In Mothers, after a woman’s lover hands her an infant girl to raise, she recalls flashes from the dawning of their love to “the last night of us” and moments in the future. In another story, strange viruses creep eastward across the country from California until a single woman survivor, isolated on an island off the coast of Maine, makes an inventory of “every person who probably loved her.” Time spirals in these stories; bodies are erotically charged yet impermanent. And surprises abound. (Credit: Graywolf Press)

Daniel Alarcón, The King Is Always Above the People
A celebrated author offers 10 stories with dozens of characters, many of them young men struggling to find a path but often taking on roles they didn’t choose. A 19-year-old moves to the capital and builds a life based on half-truths. A blind man teaches a 10-year-old how appearance is key to begging. A young actor accompanies his father to his provincial village to settle the affairs of his deceased uncle and begins to act as if he were his more accomplished older brother. A young academic on leave from his job, his wife and son, drifts into the home of a woman whose husband is at sea and finds himself having sex with her, and then with other women. These are complicated stories, told with consummate skill. (Credit: Riverhead Books)

Nicola Lagioia, Ferocity
Winner of Italy’s Strega Prize, Ferocity, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar, is a hypnotic novel, a feverish drama unfolding in 1980s Bari. Lagioia opens with a lyrical description of a “fleet of moths” circling on a moonlit night. A young woman enters the villa’s garden. Naked, ashen, covered in blood, she stumbles along, ultimately walking down the center of the state highway and into the path of a speeding car. A reported suicide. Clara’s tormented half-brother Michele investigates obsessively. Was her death tied to their father, dubbed “the vandal king of the Gargano Coast”? To her husband, who witnessed her coming home covered with bruises? Or the men she was seeing: the judge, the surgeon, the politician? The mystery of what happened to Clara Salvemini takes us down dark pathways of familial and societal corruption. (Credit: Europa Books)

Amy Tan, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir
Going through memorabilia, letters and photos to write her illuminating new memoir had “the force of glaciers calving”, writes Tan. Her deep dive into documents brings insights into her writing process (she is eloquent on the value of emotional memory and intuition, honest about how haltingly she writes). She describes the impact of the death of her older brother when she was in her teens, and of her father six months later, both from brain tumors. She details her fraught relationship with her mother, and shares family secrets that have informed her work (her mother left behind three daughters in Shanghai when she came to the US; her grandmother committed suicide). Perhaps the most powerful takeaway: “My childhood with its topsy-turvy emotions has, in fact, been a reason to write.” (Credit: Ecco)

Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham
This weighty (1000-plus pages) and eloquent sequel to the Pulitzer winning Gotham provides multiple vantage points on the explosion of New York City into the world’s financial, cultural and social capital in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Wallace begins in 1898 with a parade honouring “the birth of an urban Goliath” – the consolidation of New York City’s five boroughs into one metropolis – and concludes at the end of the Great War. His acute thumbnail sketches of hundreds of movers and shakers include JP Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Emma Goldman, Alfred Stieglitz, and WEB Du Bois. Wallace’s dynamic contribution to urban history focuses on the marginalised and working class as well as the top one-percent, expanding our vision of the past in innumerable ways. (Credit: Oxford University Press)

Naivo, Beyond the Rice Fields
The first novel from Madagascar translated into English is by a Malagasy writer who goes by the pen name Naivo. His lyrical chronicle traces the lives of Tsito, a young slave whose community is destroyed by Merina soldiers, his new master Rado, and Rado’s young daughter Fara. The two are educated by English missionaries, who, in seeking converts to Christianity in this land of seers and soldiers, foster “animosities that would eventually tear our community apart.” Naivo gives dramatic intensity to the time of the Imerina monarchs, beginning in 1785 with the reign of Nampiona, a reformer king who declared, “the seas are the limits of my rice fields,” and ending in 1849, when the persecution of Christians and sympathizers reaches its peak under Queen Mavo. Translated from the French by Allison M Charette, this is a fascinating window into Malagasy history. (Credit: Restless Books)
(BBC)

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