Books Fall Picks 2013


Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

Keith Houston • September 24, W. W. Norton & Company, 320 pp., $25.95

Pilcrow. Interrobang. Octothorpe. No, not the names of obscure demons from The Lesser Key of Solomon, but typographical marks you’ve seen thousands of times, a world of symbolism with its own fascinating micro-history. The pilcrow—this little guy: ¶—once graced pages filled to grayness with text, demarcating paragraphs joyfully until the carriage return rendered it obsolete. The manicule, aka the little pointing hand born in England circa 1086, has largely remained the same, though the bullet point has far surpassed it in terms of popularity and graphic impact. If you’re still awake, you are the ideal reader for this surprisingly enjoyable and thoroughly researched—if literally marginal—chronicle.

At Least We Can Apologize

by Lee Ki-ho, 192 pp.

The House with a Sunken Courtyard

by KimWon-il, 240 pp.

Lonesome You

by Park Wan-suh, 264 pp.

A Most Ambiguous Sunday

by Jung Young Moon, 304 pp.

My Son’s Girlfriend

by Jung Mi-kyung, 232 pp.

No One Writes Back

by Jang Eun-jin, 212 pp.

One Spoon on This Earth

by Hyon Ki Young, 344 pp.

The Soil

by Lee Kwang-su, 528 pp.


by Kim Joo-young, 136 pp.

When Adam Opens His Eyes

by Jang Jung-il, 144 pp. • All titles October 7, Dalkey Archive

Read any great Korean novels lately? Read any Korean novels, like, ever? Take heart—Dalkey Archive means to give you a lot more Seoul. Not to mention Gwangju. Over the next year, their Library of Korea series will publish 25 books of contemporary Korean fiction. The first 10 arrive on October 7, already indicating that a veritable Brooklynful of accomplished, exciting Korean writers awaits us in these bracing paperbacks.

Jung Young Moon, winner of numerous Korean literary awards, is represented by the story collection A Most Ambiguous Sunday. While he claims that his stories are autobiographical, sometimes he’ll take a secondhand tale and fashion it into something like “Mrs. Brown,” about a couple of naive criminals who break into a suburban home.

Lee Ki-ho’s dark slapstick At Least We Can Apologize presents fictitious case histories of people owed public acts of contrition by institutions that mistreated them, and tells the story of the organization that secures these apologies for a fee. Jung Mi-kyung’s story collection My Son’s Girlfriend explores modern relationship problems, such as whether to order the live or dead octopus when arguing with your girlfriend about leaving town for six months to care for your aging father. Actually, you’ll find that information just as useful in New York.

At the Bottom of Everything

Ben Dolnick • September 3, Pantheon, 256 pp., $24.95

Ben Dolnick’s terrific, seemingly effortless third novel concerns Adam Sanecki, a 26-year-old in a tailspin, getting over his first love by having an affair with the married mother of his tutees and drifting through a non-career. But the terrible secret he shares with his estranged high school best friend Thomas has overwhelmed Thomas’s life, so Thomas’s parents call on Adam to journey to a foreign land to rescue him, possibly from himself. It sounds like relatively standard novel fare, but Dolnick’s prose has abundant charm, humor, and intelligence, a knack for vivid details and stunning metaphors, and so many richly imagined characters that it calls to mind an updated Fitzgerald. At several moments, Dolnick invites this comparison himself, which would be annoying if he hadn’t gotten so close to the mark.

Dissident Gardens

by Jonathan Lethem • September 10, Doubleday,

384 pp., $27.95

Is it mere coincidence that Jonathan Lethem’s bawdy, funny novel of a mother, a daughter, and the Communist party in Queens during the last century—his most realistic, political, Jewtastic novel in years—arrives so soon after the announcement of Philip Roth’s retirement? Probably, but Lethem’s timing couldn’t have worked out better. What’s more, instead of the persecuted non-Reds of Roth’s I Married a Communist, we’re treated to Rose Zimmer, an uncompromising American party member with serious leftist cred: “She . . . marched for blacks practically before they marched for themselves.” Her daughter Miriam’s a flower child for whom Communism is less inviting than joining a commune. At a time when the Tea Party dominates headlines with absurdity and ignorance, Dissident Gardens means to reconnect us with America’s progressive past—a history perhaps as ludicrous as Michele Bachmann, but at least it’s intellectually loopy.

The Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990–1990

by Miriam Elia and Ezra Elia • September 26, Blue Rider Press, 96 pp., $14.95

Fans of Henri, the existentialist cat of Internet fame, will probably fall even harder for diarist Edward the Hamster’s brief, pocket-sized belles lettres. As ill-fated as any pet hamster, the defiant Edward, unlike the others, “will not do tricks.” Instead, he desperately seeks connection and meaning before his tiny shade passes through its painfully brief earthly journey. He goes on a 16-minute hunger strike, he contemplates murdering his ignorant cellmate, he ponders freedom and existence. “Death is the final cage,” muses Edward. “None shall escape.”

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture

by Ytasha L. Womack • October 1, Chicago Review Press, 224 pp., $16.95

The late great writer-editor Donald Suggs used to joke about putting together an anthology called Crazy Black People, a compilation of art and writing by space cultists like the Nuwaubian Nation, musicians such as Parliament Funkadelic and Sun Ra, and oddball black arts figures like Robert H. DeCoy, author of The Nigger Bible. Pundit and filmmaker Ytasha L. Womack hasn’t exactly fulfilled Suggs’s original mission, but there’s considerable overlap between that project and Afrofuturism, her ebullient primer on all things black and science fictional. She’s created something that’s part memoir and part guided cultural tour of the galaxy’s black neighborhoods, stopping briefly to ponder Lando Calrissian, The Matrix, Blade Runner and its relationship to slavery, The Brother From Another Planet, the stargazing Dogon people of Mali, Octavia Butler, Grace Jones, OutKast, Samuel Delany, the Black Eyed Peas, and any other Negro who looks good in a silver lamé jumpsuit.

Half the Kingdom

Lore Segal • October 1, Melville House,

176 pp., $23.95

The venerable Lore Segal, now 82, saucily invites readers to stereotype her as an old person with her unflinching but humorous look into the waning lives at a nursing home called Cedars of Lebanon. A sudden, mysterious rise in the number of admittees with Alzheimer’s disease has sparked intense speculation about the institution and, for Segal’s purposes, a whole lot of paranoia. Half the Kingdom follows the home’s manager, Joe Bernstine, his wife, Jenny, their obnoxious daughter, Bethy, and numerous employees and patients to illuminate the freaked-out state of our nation, submerged in conspiracy theory, worried about surveillance, ignorant of the past, and headed toward an uncertain future.