As we begin 2015, our recommenders are heading into the wilderness. These books range widely through time and space, each embracing its own unique heart of contradiction—exile and home; passion and failure; reason and chaos; doubt and confidence. Heavy with both fictional biography and memoir, we bring you familiar faces from the dark woods of alienation and obsession. Dive into the new year with these five maps by which to recognize yourself and find a path through the forest.
The Same Roads Back by Frank Dullaghan, The Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann, Swimming Studiesby Leanne Shapton, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin, Fourth of July Creekby Smith Henderson
Number two on Kurt Vonnegut’s famous eight-item to-do list for fiction writers is: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” But not too much, one might add. Smith Henderson strikes the balance between likeable and unlikeable admirably in the protagonist of his debut novel Fourth of July Creek. Set in rural Montana, the novel follows Pete Snow, a social worker who rescues children from abusive and dysfunctional families. We like Pete. He gets kids out of dangerous houses with drug-dealing parents, as seen in the novel’s opening scene in which Pete responds to a domestic dispute between one of his clients, teenage Cecil, and his speed-addicted mother—Cecil’s on the roof of the house, Mom’s shooting at him with a pellet gun.Pete knows that this is noble work without being self-righteous about it. He’s funny. When the officer tells Pete that Cecil knocked himself out running into the tailgate of a pickup truck, Pete’s sole response is, “I imagine that was satisfying.” But as the novel progress, we begin to dislike him, too. He slugs Cecil in the stomach. He admits to alcoholism but does nothing about it. We’re not talking about quiet tippling here. He drinks himself into violence, punching out his own car windows on one occasion, then blacks out. He can be a bit of a misogynist.