Jane Mendelsohn’s trademark lyrical, eloquent voice shines in her newest novel, Burning Down the House. A modern-day Greek tragedy, the book centers around Neva, named for the Neva River, which runs through northwestern Russia. We begin with child Neva, unknowingly sent by her parents into the sex slave trade, and we follow her journey from captivity, to escape, resurrection and then employment as a nanny in a New York real-estate mogul’s household. The family has a crumbling infrastructure held together only by its patriarch, Steve, who is only later in life recognizes the rot of hubris money without values attached begets. His children, all over largely varying ages, represent each phase of this great family’s self-ruination and destruction of the House of Steve. No gods exist in this world to keep mortals in check but Neva is the moral center, the Chorus and the river, steady, that runs ever on. It is a brilliant book, filled with the horrors people do to each other but that also exemplifies the most uplifting parts of the human spirit: endurance, healing and hope.
There are a lot of poets out there who fancy themselves rock stars but the trophy is currently held by Kim Addonizio and her latest book, Bukowski In a Sundress, only strengthens that conviction. With all the visceral honesty that defines her poetry, these essays strip bare the life of a poet known for her untamable approach to all things. She burns away the image of the bohemian literati lifestyle with stories about her broken relationships, struggles with drinking and the certainty that being a successful poet is probably one of the more ridiculous things to happen to anybody. Compulsively readable, Bukowski In a Sundress is Addonizio in top form: self-mocking, vulnerable, wild, funny, full of jagged edges and, above all, utterly unapologetic.
When a writer takes on the challenge of creating a work in the image of the Bard himself, she faces some mighty high hurdles. But the wonderfully talented Jeanette Winterson, OBE, who won the Whitbread Award for her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, more than rises to the occasion with this engrossing retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. With The Gap of Time (Hogarth, $25), Winterson lets Shakespeare’s characters loose in the modern world and spins them into a tumble of events that leads to the sundering of a deep friendship and marriage, and splinters the lives of three families. But the tale also includes a lost-and-found child who is destined to reunite them all. Winterson’s novel inaugurates Hogarth Press’s new series of contemporary retellings of Shakespeare’s works, and if this volume is an indication of what’s to come, the project will be a great success. Winterson layers her story in tight, controlled prose and we follow each character with an unflagging urgency right to the end—when the various plotlines come together with a satisfying crash. The Gap of Time is simply a delight.