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At 27, Masuda Sultan has, remarkably, earned her memoir rights. In My War at Home, we see her, at 17, languishing in an arranged marriage in Queens and longing “to disappear”; several years later, she is rallying a group of Afghan women in Kandahar to draft a Women’s Bill of Rights for the country’s prospective constitution. Afghan-born and New York-raised, Sultan has a thing or two to say about events of the past five years, and a rich perspective. She comes to believe that she “made it the United States for a reason”—so that she could “do something.”

There’s a propulsive quality to Sultan’s straightforward writing: You sense the urgency in her mission to convey not only her own story of divided identities and defiant self-discovery, but the myriad stories of those she crosses paths with. When she journeys into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in August 2001, reuniting with her parents’ families, and again after 9-11 (with a documentary film crew), we are offered delicate glimpses into a mesh of aching, “abandoned” lives. As an American, Sultan is viewed in Afghanistan at once as an infidel and a possible savior, and she absorbs the intense longings of those she encounters with a certain uneasiness. The discovery that 19 of her family members were killed in a U.S. attack on a village is recorded in a tone of shocked, numb clarity, yet Sultan’s response is unhampered by bitterness: She proves herself a coolheaded activist, capable of effecting real change.

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A Hit-and-Miss Pop Odyssey

The limits of tender-bellied celebrity journalism go head-to-head with essayistic grace in critic Touré’s Never Drank The Kool-Aid. The title means to convey the author’s immunity to his subjects’ spin; however, a few pieces suggest his bottle of Evian may have been dosed. That said, Kool-Aid‘s hit-and-miss pop odyssey still makes a most convincing argument for privileging contemplative journalism over glossy-mag wankery.

This hodgepodge of celebrity profiles, reportage, and social commentary illuminates the difficulty of writing seriously about popular culture in a hyper-mediated age. Playing the public’s perceived demand for gossip and conspicuously Cribs-esque consumption against itself by stylishly documenting both is an ambitious walk on the finest of lines, and whether or not Touré pulls this off can be taken on a piece-by-piece basis. Those dealing with Touré’s own conflicted relationship to hip-hop culture and proffering insight into that fraught discourse (his pleasantly rambling Believer interview with

?uestlove from the Roots is the book’s most candid and engaging) ring truest. When artfully shaped, meditation rarely reeks of pretension, and Touré’s craft is most airtight when divorced from high-stakes poker playing with Jay-Z and stacks of C-notes. But a wise man from the year 3000 correctly opined that a central complexity of hip-hop is that it is and it isn’t about guns and alcohol. This intriguing duality belies the fertile space between gun talk and “Jesus Walks,” and how tough it is to make uncaricatured music of either stripe. That same difficulty haunts those who write about it.

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The dreary 20th-century obituary—that résumé of family, degrees, job titles—has in two decades gone from glorified tombstone inscription to tipsy anecdotes recalled at a wake. Mortuary literature has become a surprisingly lively genre, and Marilyn Johnson’s entertaining amble through this transformation ably spans everything from the Sixth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference to, inevitably, an obituarist’s own funeral.

It’s not as marginal a subject as one might think; the most useful historical genres rarely announce themselves as such. Where else but in an obituary collection like Robert McG Thomas’s 52 McGs (2001) could you learn about the mocking 1930s student organization the Veterans of Future Foreign Wars? Or, in Jane O’Boyle’s Cool Dead People (2001), the librarian “who enraged segregationists back in 1959 when she refused to withdraw from circulation a children’s picture book about a black rabbit who married a white rabbit”? But then, this fine tradition ranges back to the bitchy obits of Aubrey’s Brief Lives in the 1690s and the trippy testaments of William Teggs’s Wills of Their Own (1876). Its latest literary rebirth was launched by James Fergusson at The Independent of London, and perhaps The Dead Beat‘s most telling revelation is that Fergusson previously worked as an antiquarian book dealer. Literature, at least, really can bring its dead back to life.

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If Chrissie Hynde had been an author rather than a rocker, she might have written “Home Town,” the first section in Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s polemic against “progress,” instead of “My City Was Gone.” Both artists lament the suburbanization of their native Ohio. Pierson grew up in Akron during the ’60s and ’70s. In The Place You Love Is Gone, she remembers it with the aching specificity of nostalgia, and catalogs with eloquent fury the changes that greed has wrought on the landscape since.

Part memoir, part philosophical treatise on the idea of home, part history lesson: Pierson’s lyrical prose weaves elements of all three into a whole poised somewhere between a narrative and an essay collection. The main sections correspond to the places Pierson has lived: Akron, Hoboken, and the Catskills of New York. She recalls an ’80s-era Maxwell’s and the onslaught of gentrification during her time in New Jersey, and then draws back to describe the wholesale destruction of upstate towns to create the reservoirs holding New York City’s municipal water supply. Throughout, Pierson’s lovely writing conceals a hard-edged truth: There are 6.5 billion of us, and in a generation there will be up to 2 billion more. She offers no prescriptions for stemming the tide of development. So-called progress is as intractable and inevitable, Pierson suggests, as our pure yearning for our places of origin.

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When the late Estonian writer Mati Unt told his friends that he was writing a book on electricity, his announcement was greeted “with sympathetic stares.” This is according to Things in the Night, which is, occasionally, that novel. As often, it’s a discussion of frozen cacti, a late-Soviet farce, and a chronicle of its readers’ boredom—the stories that popped up while Unt was fashioning his saga, becoming its occupiers.

While the conceit of self-aware, part-time fiction wasn’t much newer in 1990, when Things was first published in Estonian, it has a clear purpose here. In a political context of proscribed histories, the clean arc of linear narrative would read as eerily similar to propaganda. Even Unt’s radical heritage is oppressively pat, a collective score masquerading as personal memory. “I remember Cohn-Bendit, whom I’ve never met,” he laments. “I remember his speeches, which I’ve never heard, I remember the hall, where I’ve never been.” By contrast, “Cyclical time is less dangerous. There, the dangerous baggage of memories is small.”

Thus refusing the straight tale, Things flips the roles of subject and storyline, with electricity itself filling in for plot. Cultural sketches take shape within freak lightning storms, Ripley’s-worthy ampere legends, and misty odes to current. Things culminates in a tidy postmodern tautology: When a power outage threatens Estonia’s capital, the State symbolically threatens narrative—but if we know that, the scribe comes out on top.

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Marc Shell, a Harvard comp lit professor with a stutter, made a high school foray into literary criticism by comparing the speech patterns of Hamlet to those of Porky Pig. Both figures are “scant of breath” and speak “trippingly on the tongue.” Shell, whose principal told him that a speech defect was a “sure sign” of being “retarded,” invoked the fumbling pig (“Th-th-that’s all folks!”) to convince his classmates that the paralyzed prince had a medical condition as well as an emotional one. “Words, words, words,” Hamlet stammers. “Except my life, except my life, except my life.”

In Stutter, his impressive survey of cultural figures with “cloven tongues” (including God), Shell describes the trauma of being unable to speak right. If you can’t pronounce your name, he says, people will assume you don’t know it. One partial remedy for stammering is to take on a new persona: sing, act, learn a new language. Henry James dealt with his impediment by speaking French. Carly Simon “felt so strangulated talking” that she “did the natural thing”—perform music. For the more than 50 million people in the world with a “handicap in the mouth,” picking the right words becomes an emotional process. (When Somerset Maugham, also tongue-tied, read his novels out loud, he’d replace “difficult” terms with their synonyms.) Anxious and isolated, stutterers often find more creative modes of expression. It’s one way out of what Roger Rabbit calls “p-p-p-p-p-p-p . . . jail!” The other option is silence.

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An aging couple still reeling from the wife’s affair with an American soldier enters a fresh hell when the woman receives a diagnosis suspiciously like cancer in Nobuo Kojima’s Embracing Family, first published in 1965. Humorless Shunsuke can do nothing to please Tokiko, who blames him for her lost youth. They build an expensive Western-style house to compensate, but the wife’s illness removes her to an all-but-in-name cancer ward.

Tokiko’s situation has a Magic Mountain–like quality of deception; traditionally in Japan, the disease is kept from the patient, as awareness of mortality is thought to destroy the will to live. Kojima aptly describes the competitive gene that follows sufferers into the hospital, where they keep strict watch over fellow inmates’ rates of recovery and failure.

During one particularly dark night, Tokiko urges her husband to “stay calm and see the whole thing as comic,” but Shunsuke is unable to do so. The author likewise forgoes levity in a tale whose tragic nature at times becomes oppressive. The melancholic pair finds little redemptive power in a sickness that brings into relief their previous failures and their inability to make up for lost time.

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Pop! Pop! Pop! That’s the sound a Beretta makes when it’s fired into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a starting gun of a sinister sort for Richard Hawke’s
Speak of the Devil. The syllable ricochets throughout these pages—used to describe both an ex-pugilist’s legendary rabbit punch and the crumbling of a car window—like a subconscious bid for bestsellerdom, and seekers of Gotham-based detective fiction should take to this smart, sharply plotted debut. As the bastard son of the lionized (and vanished) former police commissioner, investigator Fritz Malone (got ethnic?) has a chip on his shoulder and a circuit board’s worth of connections. He’s the go-to guy when a cryptic criminal known as Nightmare starts exacting cash from the playboy mayor and inflicting wounds all over the city. Malone jumps from Astoria to the Cloisters to South Street Seaport, with enough Upper West Side stops to charter a tour bus.

The zigzag clue-crawl and teeming cast mirror the city’s vigor. As Malone says to the mayor, who wants to keep Nightmare a secret, “It can’t stay contained.” Or as a lawyer muses about a maniacal client, “I guess you can’t put out a restraining order to keep someone away from everyone else in the world. I guess that’s called prison.”

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Imagine I.B. Singer’s Elders of Chelm reassembled to issue yet another of their improbable edicts: No story about the Holocaust shall or shall not be written. The story has been exhausted by the Jewish inscription compulsion or the story has not been exhausted because it cannot be inscribed. Either way, it remains inadequately unrecorded and so the writing must continue. The Elders left undecided the fate of post-post-Holocaust fabulist (and Voice contributor) Joshua Cohen. He so precisely transcribed the very substance of the edict that they simply closed the books on him.

Cohen’s slender tales begin with a book big enough to hold them 30,000 times over: 6 million blank pages, “pure, virgin white, like the snow around Auschwitz.” If this sounds maudlin, it is. The blasphemous Hegelian synthesis Cohen’s continually undertaking puts the balm of his irrepressible lyricism on the ancestral wound. It’s difficult, as the writer-narrators often admit, not to pile on the prose bandages too thick. “This is not Anne being Frank,” one writes about the sacred blank book. This is not the artless hand of the witness, but rather that of the crafty successor, with the burden of bearing only secondhand anguish. Our fathers have told us too much, or not enough at all. Either way, the stories pile up, all too lovely swaths of them.

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We met one-half of the Courtney Love genetic equation in Nick Broomfield’s 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney, wherein the blaring ogre Hank Harrison admits to procuring a pit bull to discipline his willful child. Now mom Linda Carroll rather belatedly cashes in, Nancy Aniston–style, on her unhinged offspring’s notoriety with a memoir, which begins with a momentous phone call from hostile Courtney and then rears back to cover the first 45 or so years of Carroll’s life; Courtney is born on page 145. Her Mother’s Daughter recounts Carroll’s miserable childhood (like Margot Tenenbaum, Linda was unfailingly introduced as her awful parents’ “adopted daughter”), Catholic miseducation, early sexual pileups, four marriages, five surviving children (another died in infancy; an adopted son drifted to another family), midlife career launch as a therapist, and reunion with her biological mother, the writer Paula Fox. At 18, she bestows a single mercy fuck on a suicidal Harrison that begets a swiftly aborted marriage and the Molotov pharmaceutical cocktail that is Courtney Love. Not only is Carroll telling tales on her own kid, but she seems to share Love’s enthusiasm for just making shit up—she refers to a nonexistent Vanity Fair cover shot of Love in a wedding dress and makes the startling claim that songs from Hole’s aggro-sludge screamfest Pretty on the Inside “were all over the radio” in the early ’90s. Going by this book, she never listened.