Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad
Hamlet in Haifa—what a concept! Sonia, an actress in London, visits her sister Haneen there after a long affair has come to a painful end. She’s pulled into said production on the West Bank, playing both Gertrude and Ofelia. It’s eerie and troubling how the play and real life echo each other. Doesn’t help that Wael, a young pop star, is cast as Hamlet; he’s in way over his head. And they’re doing it in Arabic. Checkpoints, spying, interrogations, demonstrations, and violence make for rough going. There’s an amazing denouement. Brilliant.
Biography of X by Catherine Lacey
The book is as puzzling as its subject: the enigmatic X who nobody seems to know despite her vivid presence. Including her own wife who’s trying to set the record straight after X dies and a flawed biography comes out. Mercurial X may have come from hardscrabble Montana but then shows up all over the place with many names and guises as an artist, singer, writer, and charismatic public figure. She often disappeared for long stretches—that was domestic life with X. Actual writers, musicians, artists appear fictitiously, supported by very official looking footnotes, which adds to the mystery. And Lacey has remade history, dividing our country into three regions with the South being the most reactionary. Plus, there are photos purportedly of X and others, but who knows where they came from. The concept of the book kept slipping out of my grasp (like X herself) but I was mesmerized by each twist and turn.
The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer
Subtitled In Search of Paradise, and boy, can Pico do paradox! Because the holiest of places are also sites of strife and tragedy and he conveys this vividly as he takes us from Persian gardens to Japanese temples to the banks of the Ganges and beyond. Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama accompany us as well, in word and story; Iyer traveled with the latter for 14 years. So profound, so human, and such good storytelling. One breathtaking report: a wild trip where the vehicle in which he was riding periodically broke down. Each time in the middle of nowhere out of the bushes would come a man who could twist wires together and send them on their way. Ideological certainty has brought about most of society’s ills. By contrast, half-knowing can give us glimpses into both literal and figurative paradise.
Sam by Allegra Goodman
Sam lives for her father’s sporadic reappearances in her life. He’s an itinerant magician, musician, and artist. Her mother Courtney soldiers on, working two jobs, hooking up with disappointing men, and bringing up her young oppositional son Noah, spawned from her bad second husband Jake. Sam is very bright but struggles in school. She discovers her bliss in climbing, is fiercely competitive and does very well but then gets snared by a relationship with Declan, her coach. When that crashes, so does she, betrayed both by her lover and by her father who keeps breaking promises (the primal wound). Courtney just wants her daughter to have a normal life and encourages her to get a certificate in accounting. But when Sam encounters geology at community college, the rocks evoke something in her that leads her to a better future. A very satisfying read.