Lee Rourke's first novel, THE CANAL (Melville House, June), features an unnamed, bored first-person protagonist, but the book doesn't have the quirky and solipsistic observations that solitude spawns and that many debut novelists cram onto the page. For lack of anything better to do, the narrator quits his job and sits each day by a London canal. A woman stranger soon joins him and relates a story that pierces his apathy: "I was uncomfortable with what she was saying . . . yet she excited me that moment more than I ever thought possible."
Michelle Hoover's THE QUICKENING (Other Press, June) begins at the turn of the century and vividly relates fifty years of hardscrabble midwestern farm life: "Those cows smelled good and warm. . . . Some might call it a stink, but that smell has always been home to me."
In the introduction to Pierre Guyotat's COMA (Semiotext[e], July; translated by Noura Wedell), Gary Indiana writes that the author's "understanding of identity uncovers a truth too intolerable to franchise," and indeed, Coma resists all attempts to tame, name, or sell its contents. This volume, the fourth of Guyotat's available in English, depicts the mental breakdown he suffered in the 1980s, as he began to "imagine a new language," which landed him in an asylum and eventually a starvation-induced coma. The urgency of Guyotat's cogitations is irresistibly conveyed: His I oozes into we until the reader is forced to ask, "Guyotat, c'est moi?"
ART, MUSIC & FILM
Legendary Manga artist Osamu Tezuka began drawing comics after earning a medical degree following World War II. In Black Jack, a series that ran from 1973 to 1983, he depicts a rogue surgeon capable of amazing feats of medicine and prone to fits of brooding and angst. In BLACK JACK VOLUME ELEVEN (Vertical, June), the dark doctor gets a case of the shakes, saves victims of a Parisian plane crash, and probes the scars of his past.
The vinyl buffs at Wax Poetics have raided the crates for COVER STORY VOLUME 2: ODD, OBSCURE, AND OUTRAGEOUS ALBUM ART (Powerhouse, June). Flipping through its pages provides a history of bizarre music, an education in ugly aesthetics, and a nostalgia trip for those who are fond of albums and album covers: preferring scratch and pop, the plank-size gatefold, to the cold convenience of pixels and bits.
Keya Ganguly's CINEMA, EMERGENCE, AND THE FILMS OF SATYAJIT RAY (California, June) is a study of India's most influential filmmaker, known in cinephile circles as the Akira Kurosawa of the Subcontinent.
MEMOIR & HISTORY
In the late 1940s, while languishing within the prison that once held his boss, Otto Dietrich wrote THE HITLER I KNEW: MEMOIRS OF THE THIRD REICH'S PRESS CHIEF (Skyhorse Publishing, June), an account of twelve years as the Reich's right-hand man. Dietrich, who once assured journalists not to worry, because Hitler did not seek "world rule," describes his clashes with Goebbels and his disillusionment with the führer as their empire collapsed.
Florence may be everyone's summer study-abroad destination, and the Renaissance fodder for pleasant reveries and Travel Channel celebrations, but in LOST GIRLS: SEX AND DEATH IN RENAISSANCE FLORENCE (Johns Hopkins, July), Nicholas Terpstra shows a darker side. Terpstra investigates the Casa della Pietà, a sixteenth-century shelter for women, where sexual abuse and brutal treatment were rampant and more than half of the residents died.
In FIXING THE SKY: THE CHECKERED HISTORY OF WEATHER AND CLIMATE CONTROL (Columbia, August), historian James Rodger Fleming places today's talk of geoengineering—the schemes to save the world from global warming by launching "solar shields" into space, say, or stimulating huge algae blooms in the sea—into the context of millennia of human plots to tinker with the planet, beginning with the rainmakers of ancient days.
Alex Cohen and Jennifer Barbee chronicle the rollicking world of Roller Derby in DOWN AND DERBY (Soft Skull, June). The authors, a journalist and a skater, detail the surprisingly intricate strategies of rough-and-tumble bouts between teams like the Sirens and the Cookies while conveying the giddiness of the sport's "huge wallops, big spills, pile-ups, and collisions that make hockey look as tame as a round of nursing home shuffleboard."
While the term sophistication is generally a compliment, its negative connotation of deceptiveness, frivolity, and foreignness has proved especially handy for today's Obama critics. Professor Faye Hammill's SOPHISTICATION: A LITERARY AND CULTURAL HISTORY (Liverpool Press, distributed by the University of Chicago, July), pursues the term's evolution over the past two centuries.
In WHY WE FIGHT, WHY OUR DECISIONS DON'T MATTER, and, most poignantly, WHY WE NEED LOVE (all Harper Perennial, August), author Simon Van Booy culls essays, stories, poems, and artwork, aiming to make the essential questions accessible with this trio of volumes—timeless debates in a pocket size.
The Life of Pi's Richard Parker, the tiger who joined Pi on a lifeboat, was genial—if not sophisticated—and not at all like the murderous feline of John Vaillant's THE TIGER: A TRUE STORY OF VENGEANCE AND SURVIVAL (Knopf, August). Vaillant's volume tells the story of Yuri Trush, a conservationist assigned to investigate a tiger attack. As Trush encounters the pulp and bones of yet another victim, he finds clues that indicate the Siberian tiger plotted the attack like the perfect crime and was as intelligent and vengeful as any human fiend.
In late 1940, the world's most famous detective novelist set out to find himself. A heart doctor had diagnosed thirty-seven-year-old Georges Simenon with a fatal condition, spurring the author to spend two agonizing years writing the soul-searching PEDIGREE (New York Review Books, August), as both a tribute to his ancestors and a letter to his soon-to-be-orphaned son—or so the story goes. Such tidy formulations deserve scrutiny, because Simenon was as adept at self-mythologizing as he was at pounding out Maigret mysteries (according to biographer Pierre Assouline, Simenon probably had the heart misdiagnosis cleared up within two weeks). Whatever the circumstances, Simenon wrote Pedigree with grand ambitions, envisioning an epic novel that would capture the truth of his Belgian childhood among "the human herd . . . the ordinary people, those who do what they're told" (and that would imply just how far he'd come since). The book, published in 1948 and long out of print, begins around Simenon's birth in 1903 and spans the years until the end of World War I. It is a tale in which, as Simenon put it, "everything is true but nothing is accurate." Assouline writes that Simenon worked at a leisurely pace and, tellingly, read the Diary of Samuel Pepys and Gone with the Wind while resting between sessions. The resulting volume, translated by Robert Baldick, is frank and messy, peppered with details that heap the weight of history onto its characters' unbowed backs. It stands out in Simenon's oeuvre because it sets his dexterous prose sketches against a grand backdrop of European history. Simenon's crabbed worldview and the tightly wound plots of his mystery novels are abandoned in favor of an expansive, open-ended style. Most surprising of all, though, are the book's moments of very un-Simenon sentimentality, like this melodramatic parting flourish: "She wiped her eyes and smiled 'Ah, well! Good-bye, Louisa. And thank you.'"
David O'Neill is Bookforum's assistant editor.