This novel takes place at the very end of World War II, when the complicated nature of words like "complicit," "political prisoner," and "German" started to emerge. The protagonist family and those at their inn are found tip-toeing around the realities of their lives, surrounded by war: They've just been trying to get by, to stay open, to stay together as a family while letting the country and the world work out its own problems. Unfortunately, their inn lies on the wrong side of some of the most important invisible lines of the last 200 years.
Described as an “illustrated novella,” and looking like a quirky coffee table book, A Field Guide to the North American Family (Knopf, $22), by Garth Risk Hallberg, is neither. This work, which Hallberg wrote before his 2015 New York epic, City on Fire, is an ingenious maze of a narrative based on the concept of the North American Family. Reminiscent of Lydia Davis’ seemingly quotidian pieces of pointed brilliance, Hallberg’s work is multi-layered, surprising, and deft. At one level the book uses a series of flash-fictions to recount the story of two families. At another, it’s an index of terms that readers can reference while reading the main plot—or savor for the wisdom they offer on their own. Then there are the photos. Each episode comes not only with its keywords but with a visual image. These are sometimes directly related to the text, like conventional illustrations, but often their relationship to the narrative is more elusive. Some pages look as if they’ve been torn from one scrapbook and pasted into this one, others look fresh and new. Grab this emotional map of North American family life and get ready to wander – it’s sure to be a warm, nostalgic trip.
History’s lasting voices tend to be first-person, taken from primary documents that bring back to life a perspective otherwise lost to time. With Olio, Tyehimba Jess attempts to provide lasting voices for slave performers that didn’t have any, as he employs every reasonable form possible in this exploration of slaves’ contributions to popular culture and the humiliations suffered by even the most prodigous talents. Consisting of fact amid historical fiction, Jess’ narrator is on a quest for information about Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, a man whose contributions to music are as likely to be argued over as they are to be revered. Conversations between some of Joplin’s closest acquaintances and the narrator are interspersed with glimpses of several other historically overlooked, enslaved performers. These performers include Blind Tom Wiggins (a fellow piano prodigy), a performer of “Coon songs,” a set of traveling siamese twins, and so on. Readers witness each of these performers’ struggle over the inherent self-effacement of their acts, as their talent and pride clash with an ingrained lack of self-respect, a lacking reinforced by every night’s audiences. As impressive as Jess’ work is in relating and empathizing with these talented performers, the most ingenious aspect of the work is indeed his expert command of the many forms he inhabits with his first-person perspectives. Specifically, contrapuntal poems that create dueling narratives within the same piece – poems that can be read two or three ways, brilliantly breaking down the central disconnect between imprisoned prodigy and oblivious audience. The result at times is satirical commentary as heartbreaking as it is historically apt. It’s just one stunning form among many that deliver hate and despair in concert with beauty and talent throughout.