Known as Reno, the town she’s from, the narrator of Rachel Kushner’s electrifying second novel, The Flamethrowers (Scribner, $26.99), is an aspiring artist infatuated with speed and risk. She’s also in love with an older Italian artist, but it’s only risk-taking that she can “trust.” Unfolding in 1976, Reno’s bildungsroman takes her from Nevada to New York to Italy, with each phase of her adventurous life upping the ante. Racing a motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats—experiencing “an acute case of the present tense”—she wipes out in a spectacular crash, but sustains only road rash and a sprained ankle. Back in New York, she meets self-described artists who argue about true revolution versus mere performance. Then, in Italy, Reno falls in with the Red Brigades and gets a searing lesson in what radical really means.
Tenth of December (Random House, $26), the stunning collection of short stories by George Saunders, landed him on the cover of The New York Times Magazine last winter with the story caption: “George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read all year.” Not far off. When we read the advance copy—well before the Times article appeared—it felt like having emerged from a penetrating, life-altering, and at once disturbing and exotic experience. Few writers today inhabit the interior spaces of their characters as Saunders does in these ten stories, while also conveying so richly and so creatively the hilarity, absurdity, generosity, and depravity of the world we live in.
Anthony Marra’s brilliant debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, $26), describes the horrors of war in battle-scarred Chechnya. Ordinary people there, however, carry on their lives with humor, perseverance, and a grave sense of history. At the heart of this story is Sonja, a talented and fearless doctor who operates in the remnants of a bombed-out hospital. Havaa, an orphan girl sought by the Russian army after her parents are killed and her home destroyed, is brought to the hospital for shelter, and she and Sonja develop a bond that provides a rare occasion for hope in this raw, devastated land. Marra’s deep understanding of people in crisis and his richly imagined depiction of a city ravaged by violence combine to make this an unforgettable reading experience.