Winter Reads From Olga Grushin, Jane Smiley, and More

Winter Reads: Six big titles that will light up the darkest days of the year from Olga Grushin, Jane Smiley, and more.

Winter Reads: Six big titles that will light up the darkest days of the year


Balzano, Marco. I’m Staying Here. Other. Dec. 2020. 224p. tr. from Italian by Jill Foulston. ISBN 9781635420371. pap. $16.99. F

Balzano sets his fourth novel in the village of Curon in South Tyrol after this largely German-speaking province’s 1919 annexation by Italy, and readers rightly expect—and get—a heartfelt saga about the villagers facing their oppressive new Italian overlords and later the trouble that comes with Hitler’s rise to power. But as Balzano explains in an author’s note, the novel was initially inspired by his visit to the actual town, now submerged but for its belltower after the construction of a dam that we see threatening his characters as well. The story is related by Trina, whom readers first meet as a young woman defying the Italians to teach German clandestinely; she relates the story as if she were speaking to her daughter, who fled to Germany in the interwar years in search of a better life. By 1939, residents of the province are split by Hitler’s invitation to leave for the Reich, with Remainers like Trina and her husband roundly regarded with suspicion. When World War II descends, the couple flees for the mountains in a down-to-the-bone effort to survive, even as their son supports Hitler. VERDICT Fresh history and an ongoing sense of loss told in unadorned, surprisingly low-key language; for readers who take their historical fiction seriously.

Cárdenas, Mauro Javier. Aphasia. Farrar. Nov. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9780374257866. $26. F

No longer anxious for his former wife and two beloved daughters to go on their annual summer vacation so that he can recall old girlfriends and cavort with new ones; fretting about sister Estela’s mental health issues, which have cost her both job and home; and recalling an abusive family life that damaged his sister especially, Colombian-born American Antonio Jose Jiménez “tries to think about gradations of incoherence in fiction instead of his sister’s incoherence in Baltimore.” The narrative that results is a wild ride through Antonio’s mind, a Molly Bloomesque meditation both dense and lusciously liquid that could have been incoherent indeed were it not for Cárdenas’s superb crafting in this follow-up to his debut, The Revolutionaries Try Again. A database analyst at Prudential Investments who aspires to write novels, Antonio graces his monolog with references to classical music, films, and literature from Beckett to László Krasznahorkai in a way that’s refreshingly and unobtrusively erudite. (Soccer comes into play, too.) As in life, there’s no easy resolution for Antonio’s concerns. VERDICT Not for readers wanting straightforward plot, and the book does go on a bit, but language and literature lovers will soak up Cárdenas’s original work.

 Grushin, Olga. The Charmed Wife. Putnam. Jan. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780593085509. $27. F

“I want him dead because I hate the woman I am when I am with him,” proclaims the protagonist of this stunning new work from Grushin (Forty Rooms). Some women have thought that, but can this be true of Cinderella, the presumed embodiment of happily ever after? After 13 and a half increasingly distant years from Prince Charming, Cinderella leaves the palace one dark night to visit a witch who brews evil potions. But what starts as an acutely observed feminist understanding of her travails morphs brilliantly into a rich, multidimensional treatment of human relationships, particularly marriage. The prince can be faulted, but obtuse Cinderella barely knows herself or the truth behind her famed story. Even the mice that lovingly tend to her marvel at her failure to realize that “her one-note, romance-obsessed, cliché-ridden story might not be immensely more important or endlessly more fascinating than [their own] multigenerational, multi-dimensional, magical, militant, philosophical, and culturally diverse saga,” and Cinderella must face the cruel truth that she’s lost her spark. Not so Grushin. VERDICT An absorbing study of marriage, divorce, self, and responsibility, threaded with numerous retold fairytales and rendered in prescient, gorgeous language. Highly recommended.

 Hernandez, Catherine. Crosshairs. Atria. Dec. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781982146023. $27. F 

After environmental catastrophe leads to mass displacement, a fascist government rises in Canada and launches the Renovation. Wealthy whites rule, while those who are Other—Black, Brown, LGBQT, and more—are hounded, lynched, and placed in concentration camps
that purvey forced labor and genocide, though to the outside world they pass as workhouses furnishing much-needed jobs. Kay, a Queer Femme Jamaican Filipino man who worked as a drag queen before the Renovation drove him underground, hides in the basement of a white woman named Liv, who works for the resistance. Soon, Kay must go on the run again, joined by Iranian Trans Bahadur and assisted by Beck, a gay white soldier rebelling against the regime; eventually, they are persuaded to join the forthcoming uprising, though not before giving Beck an earful about his presumptions. Novelist/playwright Hernandez (Scarborough ) deploys the well-developed characters effectively, creating a chilling and persuasive portrait of a scarily recognizable dystopia and building to a satisfying (if a bit overblown) ending. VERDICT A near-future tale of oppression and resistance that is deeply resonant today.

Powell, Karen. The River Within. Europa. Dec. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781609456153. $24. F

“The universe was made up of two types of people, Lennie thought: those who wanted to smash things to pieces and those who wanted to keep the world just as it.” In this latest from Powell (Catching the Light), set mainly in early 1950s Yorkshire and winner in draft of the Northern Writers’ TLC New Fiction Reads Award, 17-year-old Lennie is out walking with her older brother, Thomas, and her semisecret beau, Alexander, when they encounter the bloated corpse of young sawmill worker Danny Masters afloat in the raging Stride River. Son of the late Sir Angus Richmond, Alexander lives at the once grand, now fraying Richmond Hall with his recently widowed mother, and Lennie’s position as daughter of Sir Angus’s private secretary makes their closeness difficult indeed. Powell investigates the relationship among these three young people and how Danny’s life and death have impacted them, plumbing both personal pain and shifting class assumptions in a quietly affecting story that can only lead to more tragedy. VERDICT Most readers will understand immediately what happened to Danny, but the point is Powell’s deft unpacking of human relationships.

 Smiley, Jane. Perestroika in Paris. Knopf. Dec. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780525520351. $26.95. F

As twilight descends on the Paris racetrack, a spirited filly named Perestroika (Paras for short) pushes against her unlatched stall door and walks into the City of Light. In her ambles, she befriends a dignified, beautiful dog named Frida, once companion to a street performer and now on her own. As they camp out on the Champs de Mars—a comfortably accommodating place, though thoroughly Thoroughbred Paras finds the carousel horses puzzlingly stolid—they meet querulous ducks Sid and Nancy and full-of-himself raven Raoul, even as Paras’s owners desperately hunt for their beloved horse. Paras is fed oats and apples by a bakeshop assistant (Frida has her own singular way of getting and paying for food) and meets a lad named Étienne, who lives a solitary life with his great-grandmama in a decaying mansion. Étienne manages to lead Paras home, leaving the birds in a tizzy and Frida circling the city to figure out how to reclaim her friend. VERDICT All’s well that ends well in this delightful yet never treacly celebration of interspecies cooperation from Pulitzer Prize winner Smiley. A bright and hopeful story that gently shares our need to belong.



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