Briefly Noted Book Reviews


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Nov 24, 2023

Briefly Noted Book Reviews

Fire Weather , by John Vaillant (Knopf). In 2016, a wildfire ripped through the oil town of Fort McMurray, in Alberta, hot enough to vaporize toilets and bend a street light in half. It was the most

Fire Weather, by John Vaillant (Knopf). In 2016, a wildfire ripped through the oil town of Fort McMurray, in Alberta, hot enough to vaporize toilets and bend a street light in half. It was the most expensive disaster in Canada’s history. This alarming account tracks the destruction, the role of fire in industry in the past hundred and fifty years, and the disregarded alarms about the environment raised by scientists, dating as far back as the eighteen-fifties. “Climate science came of age in tandem with the oil and automotive industries,” Vaillant writes, and their futures are as linked as their pasts. The number of places facing fates similar to Fort McMurray’s is rapidly increasing, even as “our reckoning with industrial CO2” moves painfully slowly.

A Stranger in Your Own City, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (Knopf). The author, an Iraqi journalist, narrates the American invasion of his country and its aftermath by recounting the lives of a cross-section of Iraqi society, including a Shia man who swaps houses with a Sunni family as sectarianism fractures neighborhoods; a woman doctor working under the Islamic State in Mosul; and a fixer who extorts families whose sons have been detained by security forces, promising to lessen their torture for a fee. Abdul-Ahad is equally caustic about Saddam Hussein, the American occupiers, corrupt Iraqi politicians, and opportunistic religious commanders (“freelance criminal gangsters running their own death squads”). His kaleidoscopic view emphasizes aspects of ordinary Iraqi lives which are lost in the simplistic interpretations of outsiders.

Read our reviews of the year’s notable new fiction and nonfiction.

The Late Americans, by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead). This novel follows a group of people in Iowa City, many of them M.F.A. students, and explores the ways that dissonant conditions of class, race, and social circumstances can compromise our freedom to pursue art and our ability to fully understand those we love. Amid financial concerns, artistic frustrations, and the judgments, jealousies, and posturing of their classmates, the characters find solace in moments of shared tenderness that transcend the ever-present threat of alienation. In a workshop, one student suggests that another’s poem may “bend our sympathies,” and Taylor’s novel does something similar: his characters reveal selfish or even violent tendencies, but his multifaceted portrayals show each of them to be as innocent and as flawed as any human.

Instructions for the Drowning, by Steven Heighton (Biblioasis). These stories, by a Canadian novelist, poet, and musician who died last year, peer keenly into the penumbra surrounding death. A student, fervent and pious, accosts the great Harry Houdini. A man bench-presses at the gym; the bar slips and compresses his lungs; he struggles, but no one sees. A plastic surgeon begs his aging wife to allow him to smooth her wrinkles. Each story’s frame is precisely sized. Heighton’s stories wrestle with life’s uncontrollable endings and beginnings: birth, tragedy, failed resurrection. His characters grasp at time, even as it slips away—violent, sacred, apocalyptic, mundane.

Fire WeatherA Stranger in Your Own CityThe Late AmericansInstructions for the Drowning