Barbara’s Picks, Sept. 2013, Pt. 4: Atwood, Berg, Brook, Gurganus, Lethem, Rush, Shacochis, Vann

Atwood, Margaret. Maddaddam. Doubleday. Sept. 2013. 416. ISBN 9780385528788. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385537834. CD/downloadable: Random Audio. DYSTOPIAN FICTION
In this wrap-up to the magisterial trilogy begun with Oryx & Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood, the waterless flood has indeed descended, wiping out most of humanity. Ren and Toby have rescued poor Amanda from the Painballers and returned to the MaddAddamite cob house, while the prophet Jimmy recovers from a high fever, but the story really belongs to Zeb. One of God’s Gardeners in Oryx & Crake and an important resistance member in the follow-up, Zeb searches for God’s Gardeners founder Adam One, even as his own past—involving a murder, a lost brother, and a bear—is disclosed. Meanwhile, everyone gets ready for the coming battle. Funny, scary, insightful: dystopian fiction for adults.

Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. Putnam. Sept. 2013. 832p. ISBN 9780399159213. $40. BIOGRAPHY
For this portrait of our 28th President, in the works for over a decade, Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning biographer Berg had a jump on the competition. He was the first author to gain access to two recently discovered caches of papers belonging to Wilson’s daughter and to his personal physician. The result is reportedly a more intimate look at this important leader than we’ve had previously. In addition, as the author himself argued in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece, Wilson’s head-on battles with Republican opposition in Congress are particularly relevant today; Berg encourages politicians to “remember Wilson and the single factor that determines the country’s glorious successes or crushing failures: cooperation.”

Brook, Rhidian. The Aftermath. Knopf. Sept. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780307958266. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307958273. CD/downloadable: Random Audio. LITERARY/HISTORICAL FICTION
A Somerset Maugham Award winner for his first novel, author of the memoir More Than Eyes Can See (about his family’s travels through countries devastated by AIDS), and a regular contributor to the BBC radio program Thought for the Day, Brook is poised to break out with this third novel, with rights sold to 18 countries and film rights sold to Ridley Scott (the author is writing the script). In 1946, when Col. Lewis Morgan is tasked with managing the reconstruction and de-Nazification of devastated Hamburg, he moves his family into a beautiful house on the Elbe. But he doesn’t evict the owner, a widower with a high-spirited daughter, and the two families must negotiate profound bitterness and grief to reach some sort of understanding. Based on events in the life of Brook’s grandfather, giving the book added resonance.

Gurganus, Allan. Local Souls. Liveright: Norton. Sept. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780871403797. $25.95. NOVELLAS
Here’s something to celebrate: Gurganus is publishing his first work in over a decade, and the setting is Falls, NC, the mythic town that serves as the setting of his first novel, the knockout Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. The three novellas here depict the New South, which is not so terribly different from the Old South and maybe not so terribly different from any place where love and dread, dreams and conventions must clash. In “Fear Not,” a banker’s daughter hunts for the child she was forced to give up at birth. In “Saints Have Mothers,” a cult groups up around a vanished high school valedictorian. In “Decoy,” the eroticized bond between two married men is tested by an epic flood. Expect to hear lots about this book.

Lethem, Jonathan. Dissident Gardens. Doubleday. Sept. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780385534932; $27.95. ebk. ISBN 9780385534949. CD/downloadable: Random Audio. LITERARY FICTION
Lethem is the quintessential Brooklynite (the near-cultic Motherless Brooklyn did win the National Book Critics Circle Award), so it’s intriguing to learn that the setting of his latest title is mainly Sunnyside Gardens, a planned community in Queens. The time is the 1950s and 1960s, the characters include three generations of American leftists, and the theme is the disillusionment that can come with fervent belief. Despite the geographic shift, the book is reportedly deeply personal, not surprising when one recalls that Lethem grew up in a commune in Brooklyn before Brooklyn became the next Manhattan. Intensely anticipated—even the cover has received coverage—and a book that captures an important moment in American culture.

Rush, Norman. Subtle Bodies. Knopf. Sept. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9781400042500. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385350457. LITERARY FICTION
From 1978 to 1983, Rush and his wife served as codirectors of a Peace Corps project in Botswana, and his three works of fiction—the National Book Award nominee Whites, the National Book Award winner Mating, and the much-championed Mortals—are all set in Africa. Here, the geography is different—this novel is set mainly at an estate on the Hudson—and the tone is frothier, but the sharp observations about negotiating adulthood remain. In college, the charismatic Douglas headed up a group who saw themselves as superior wits, but now he has died, and the remaining friends gather at his estate with his beautiful Czech wife, Iva, to reflect on their hero and their past. Events are narrated by Ned, whose wife makes fun of the whole group even as Ned himself tries to determine what really bound them together.

Shacochis, Bob. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. Atlantic Monthly. Sept. 2013.640p. ISBN 978-0802119827. $26. LITERARY FICTION
In his first book in over ten years, National Book Award–winning author Shacochis moves from chaotic World War II Dubrovnik to a vividly rendered 1980s Istanbul to violent, poverty-stricken Haiti in the late 1990s, where a cool but seductive photojournalist named Jackie has been found murdered. To understand Jackie’s death, humanitarian lawyer Tom Harrington must investigate not just her relationship with the Special Forces agent assigned to protect her but her long-ago break with her father, a Cold War spy intent on having his teenage daughter follow him in the trade. One of my favorite writers, and with good reason; Shacochis raises morally tough questions within a significant political/historical frame, and his language is luscious.

Vann, David. Goat Mountain. Harper: HarperCollins. Sept. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780062121097. $25.99. LITERARY FICTION
Vann first popped onto the scene with the nonfiction A Mile Down, a Los Angeles Times best seller; since then he’s earned 14 awards (from the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction to France’s Prix Medicis etranger and Spain’s Premi Llibreter), appeared on more than 70 Best Book lists, and published in 19 languages. All of which bodes well for his new work, set on a 640-acre family ranch on Goat Mountain in Northern California in fall 1978. An 11-year-old boy arrives there with his father, his grandfather, and a family friend for the annual deer hunt, the boy’s first. But when his father spots a poacher and lets his son take a look through the gunsight, tragedy erupts. An impeccable stylist, Vann is an internationally best-selling author still aching to break out here; this book’s first printing is a modest 25,000 copies. I hope this morally stringent tale does the trick.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.