Tea Obreht makes her sparkling debut with the folkloric Tiger's Wife, and another new author, Cara Hoffman, holds her own with the creepy but elegant So Much Pretty. A Jay-Z biography falls short, but Jonathan Coe's Maxwell Sim, a humorous novel about Internet loneliness, provides an acerbic glimpse of modern times.
The Tiger's Wife
by Tea Obreht
In The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht deftly weaves the past with the present, fantasy with reality and superstition with the cold hard facts of war and its aftermath. The book is set in a country presumed to be the former Yugoslavia and draws on the rich folk culture of that region. When the novel opens, Natalia, a young doctor, learns that her beloved grandfather has died alone in a remote village. As she tries to find out more about his death, she learns more about his life through two fables: the story of the deathless man whom her grandfather claims to have encountered several times during his life, and the story of the Tiger's Wife, a richly imagined tale of his encounter with an escaped tiger that haunted the village where he grew up. These stories are told against the backdrop of Natalia's own life. As Obreht follows her protagonist across borders that once did not exist into a country that was only recently enemy territory, she creates a vivid sense of the complexity of a region ravaged by civil war.
If you grew up reading fairy tales you will love this book. If you are drawn to stories that are steeped in the real world, you will also find much to love in The Tiger's Wife. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather anchors a story that encompasses both rural village life in the years during World War II as well as life in an unnamed city before during and after the civil war. Obreht left Belgrade with her family at the age of 7 to escape that war. But her understanding of the culture of her homeland is deeply ingrained. Though only 25, she writes with extraordinary insight about an inbred world that thrives on distrust and superstition but can also be elevated by the power of myth and the strength that comes from stories handed down from one generation to the next. - Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent
Hardcover, 352 pages; Random House; list price, $25; publication date, March 8
Empire State Of Mind
How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office
By Zack O'Malley Greenburg
Empire State of Mind tells the story of rapper Jay-Z (aka Shawn Carter) and his rise from drug slinger to tape slinger and, later, to corporation runner. The best-selling musician, who has had more No. 1 records grace the Billboard charts than Elvis (second only to The Beatles), no longer makes all his money from rapping — and he hasn't for years. According to author Zack O' Malley Greenburg, he invests in brands and then boosts their sales by dropping their names into his music. He ensures that his partnerships are as profitable as they can possibly be with savvy product placement and cross-promotional deals. Carter is also very good at realizing when the brands he invests in or represents are at the top of the market and cashing out (see: Armandale Vodka, Roc-a-Wear). Greenburg even suggests that Jay-Z's marriage to Beyonce is something of a corporate merger, and that any children the couple might have would allow both of them to move into more markets and make even more money.
In the introduction to Empire State of Mind, Greenburg floats the idea that Jay-Z's business acumen is so sharp partly because when other people attempt to make money from his work (or even his persona), he insists on the biggest cut possible of their profit. Greenburg suggests that's why Jay would not consent to an interview for this book — he even says that's why Jay took his long-shelved autobiography, Decoded, off the shelf, rushed it to publication a couple months ahead of Greenburg's book and gave interviews all over the place to promote it (listen to our Fresh Air interview here). I felt the absence of Jay-Z in this book acutely. No matter how often Greenburg inserts lyrics from Jay's songs to reveal his innermost workings, Greenburg hasn't managed to peel back even the first layer of the rapper's motivations or intentions. Despite Greenburg's experience covering music and finance for Forbes since 2005, he simply cannot tell us what goes on behind closed doors or nondisclosure agreements. Relying on songs that Jay-Z wrote as entertainment, to sell, even in combination with interviews with people close to Jay-Z over the years, is a poor substitute for the man himself. It can't stand up to an autobiography. — Frannie Kelley, editor at NPR Music
Hardcover, 240 pages; Portfolio; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 17
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim
By Jonathan Coe
It was only a matter of time before someone wrote a novel examining the psychological impacts of social media and Internet addiction on our lives, and that person (this month, anyway) is Jonathan Coe, a British novelist who deserves more attention on these shores. His latest, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, is a meditation on loneliness and disconnection as it relates to the Internet era. Maxwell Sim, his schlumpy, downtrodden narrator, has 70 friends on Facebook, but no real shoulder to cry on when his wife leaves him. He decides to take a trip offered by a friend to drive a Prius to a remote British isle (as part of a promotional gig for an organic toothbrush company), and along the way he falls in love with the voice coming through his GPS system. Feeling as lonely as ever, Sim decides to court his ex-wife online by adopting a fake Web persona, an act that — as you can probably guess — does not have the intended results. Maxwell Sim is funny, acerbic and, most of all, a novel that could not have been born at any other time than the present.
Author Jonathan Coe manages to portray a lonely man's misery and sense of worthlessness in a very funny short novel that never disappoints. Coe brilliantly tells the story in the voice of a man who declares himself to be a "non-writer" and says he's reluctant to narrate. He does so anyway, continually reminding us of his incompetence as a writer. Cute. But in lesser hands, this could prove a bit too cute. Coe's strength is his ability to make his character — and Sim's indifference to the very things the likely reader of this book might cherish — believable. I found myself completely satisfied by page after page of compelling observation and plot. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is an adventure story in a familiar landscape of freeways and fast-food restaurants, and Coe navigates this territory with a comic brilliance I fully embraced. - Art Silverman, senior producer, All Things Considered
Hardcover, 336 pages; Knopf; list price, $26.95; publication date, March 8
So Much Pretty
By Cara Hoffman
So Much Pretty is a haunting, gloomy novel that defies genre — it is one part crime thriller, one part ambitious novel, one part prose poem. Hoffman's debut tells the tale of a series of horrific events that take place in Haeden, a small town in upstate New York, drawing on multiple perspectives to glimpse all sides of the same story. Two girls go missing in Haeden — first, waitress Wendy White. Recent-transplant journalist Stacy Flynn — who wants to get a big scoop and get out of town — decides to cover the White case with a controversial angle, using the girl's murder as a chance to ask big questions about assault, women, blame and deceit in a small town. Fifteen-year-old Alice Piper, a local brainiac and the daughter of Gene and Claire (who narrate much of the novel), reads Flynn's story and decides to do some probing of her own into the White case, connecting several dots and nearly discovering the killer — until she too goes missing. So Much Pretty raises questions about denial, violence against women and when a citizen should speak up, even if it puts another at risk.
I am not the kind of reader that goes in for gimmicks or noticeable literary devices — I also don't tend to read anything that could find its way into the "thriller" section of the bookstore. I should have picked up So Much Pretty and put it right back down again. But I didn't! I stayed up all night reading it, and then the next day, I found myself so sucked into Hoffman's world that I forgot to eat lunch. Sleep and nourishment aside, I don't regret taking a chance on it — I am already anticipating Hoffman's next book so I can do it all over again. Criticisms first: Hoffman does employ a kind of debut novelist's gimmick here. She writes each chapter from a different point of view, giving the book a "Greek chorus" feel (another sign of a first writer: She uses invented court documents and letters to fill in plot holes in her characters' knowledge) — but I didn't mind it after a while and found myself happy to hear several voices take on what in the voice of only one observer may have felt like an insurmountable tragedy. So Much Pretty is certainly a thriller (it made me double check my door locks), but it is more challenging than that would imply; Hoffman uses terrifying events to scratch at some darker issues beneath the surface, and like any promising novelist, she does so with more showing than telling. She points out the ways in which small-town communities rally around their own after a crime, and often let the truth (and in this case, women's rights) fall to the wayside. As the young Alice writes in a letter before her disappearance, "I think I have fallen through the hole in all the logic in the entire world and I can see now that nothing holds up and I am going to keep falling." This is, in essence, what reading So Much Pretty feels like. - Rachel Syme, books editor, NPR