“Igifu," by Scholastique Mukasonga
French Rwandan writer Mukasonga’s superb collection (after the memoir “The Barefoot Woman”) conjures the lives of Rwandan Tutsis dwelling on the margins of society following the Hutu revolution in 1959 and during waves of genocidal killings over the next two decades. In the five stories, characters fear for their lives as Hutu-led governments encourage their slaughter; endure deprivation (igifu means hunger); and grapple with how to best honor their lost families and lost way of life. Notably, Mukasonga carefully attends to how individuals’ attempts to negotiate unspeakable tragedy can lead to sad, odd, and even grimly funny situations. In “Grief,” four Rwandan Tutsi girls visit a Burundi seminary’s neglected cemetery each day, pulling weeds and planting flowers, and imagine that “these could be our parents’ graves.” In “The Glorious Cow,” a proud Rwandan Tutsi teaches his son to herd imaginary cows (his were slaughtered in the genocide), forgoes drinking milk, and reviles a fellow refugee for keeping goats. (“Milking goats! What could be more shameful for a Tutsi?” the father says of his encampment neighbor, Nicodème. “Hardship had dragged Nicodème into the depths of degradation.”) Mukasonga’s collection is full of deeply human moments like this. Taken as a whole, it’s an impressive and affecting work of art.
— Publishers Weekly
“The Sea Gate," by Jane Johnson
Johnson (“The Tenth Gift”) spins an irresistible epic history of one family in Cornwall, England. After Becky discovers a letter sent to her recently deceased mother by a 90-year-old cousin, Olivia, asking for help, Becky heeds the call and travels to Cornwall, where the authorities want to send Olivia to an assisted-living facility. At Olivia’s decrepit old house, Becky is greeted by a foul-mouthed parrot (“ ‘F**k off,’ he says, so quietly it is almost an endearment”). As the days unfold through visits with Olivia at a nearby hospital, Becky discovers a kindred spirit in her elderly cousin, a painter whose work was renowned, but whose identity has been cloaked by the initials OK for decades. Seamlessly toggling back and forth between Becky’s point of view and Olivia’s, the story shifts from WWII Cornwall to the present day and takes an intriguing turn when Becky discovers a human bone in Olivia’s basement. Parts of the story are tough to take—an intellectually disabled child’s rape by a Nazi during WWII is particularly stomach-churning—though the villains are dispatched in suitable fashion. Johnson keeps the narrative speeding along, underpinning her tale with a large supporting cast, among them a housecleaner who secretly doses Olivia’s tea with rat poison and a builder who ties up the last of Olivia’s mysteries. Johnson’s powers of description evoke the setting’s living history and brings it to brilliant life. This sweeping saga is a must-read.
— Publishers Weekly
“Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town," by Barbara Demick
In this heartbreaking and doggedly reported account, journalist Demick (“Nothing to Envy”) views the tragic history of Tibet under Chinese rule through the stories of people with roots in Ngaba County, the site of the Mei kingdom in the remote reaches of Sichuan province. Demick recounts the region’s first violent encounters with the Red Army during its Long March in the 1930s, when starving soldiers “ate the Buddha,” devouring Tibetan votive offerings made of barley flour and butter as they fled Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Her survey of the Chinese Communist Party’s grinding, decades-long repression of Tibetans also includes the odyssey of the daughter of the last ruler of the Mei kingdom, who fled the family’s palace during the 1958 crackdown that eventually forced the Dalai Lama into exile in India; the harrowing story of an elderly market stall operator whose young niece was killed when Chinese troops fired on civilians in a 2008 demonstration; and sketches of monks and nuns who set themselves ablaze in protest of Chinese rule. “For the most part,” Demick writes, “they were regular people who hoped to live normal, happy lives in China’s Tibet without having to make impossible choices between their faith, family, and their country.” Demick captures her subjects’ trials and sacrifices with superb reporting and razor-sharp prose. This poignant history could do much to refocus attention on the situation in Tibet.
— Publishers Weekly
“Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath," by Heather Clark
Clark (“The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes”) offers a page-turning, meticulously researched biography of Sylvia Plath. Informed by never-before-accessed documents, Clark builds a narrative that gathers full force starting with Plath’s ill-fated Mademoiselle internship at age 20, and continues through her career as an acclaimed poet, her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, and her suicide at age 30. Clarke highlights bestselling author Olive Higgins Prouty as a generous source of emotional and financial support throughout Plath’s life, while casting doubts on the helpfulness of Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s close friend and her psychiatrist during the 1953 stay in a psychiatric ward that inspired her novel “The Bell Jar.” However, Clark places the greatest emphasis on the Hughes-Plath marriage, depicting it as a creatively charged and ultimately destructive partnership, in which Hughes’s moments of gentleness and supportiveness existed alongside rage and abuse. Finally, Clark provides a new and convincing theory that Plath’s suicide came about not impulsively, but in response to the possibility that she would again have to undergo the traumatic process of institutionalization. Clark’s in-depth scholarship and fine writing result in a superb work that will deliver fresh revelations to Plath’s many devoted fans.
— Publishers Weekly
- “Borrowed Time," by David Mark (fiction)
- “The Brothers of Auschwitz," by Malka Adler (fiction)
- “Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors," by Adrian Goldsworthy (nonfiction)
- “Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook," by Ina Garten (nonfiction)