Anthony Marra announced his presence a couple of years ago with his prize-winning debut novel set in war-ravaged Chechnya, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His new book, The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth, $25), returns readers to the former-Soviet region and the lives of people young and old whose experiences are marked by war, crime, and the devastating effects of a totalitarian regime. In Marra’s stories we meet an accomplished ballerina and her granddaughter, an artist who’s tasked with erasing disgraced people from official photographs, petty criminals, and myriad mothers, fathers, sons and daughters all trying to survive, first in the USSR, then in a Russia of chaos and nouveau riche. While each story is full and complete on its own, the links between them resonate in ingenious and surprising ways to create a tremendously satisfying whole.
Thirteen new stories and the contents of three previous books, The Visiting Privilege (Knopf, $30) is a stunning retrospective that shows Joy Williams as a fierce, uncompromising writer and an astute observer from the very first story, where a dying woman’s husband notes that the medication was dispensed “not for his wife but for her blood.” Deftly capturing the intimate impersonality of health care, Williams is equally unforgiving of America in general, where “having a gun was like having a pet or a child,” and where the wild west has become “many thousands of acres of grazing land with not a single creature grazing.” Then there’s Williams’s way with children. One boy envisions god as a magician who hypnotizes people like sheep so they’ll go calmly about their self-destruction. A little girl shows an aptitude for a career as a mortician. Many of these kids have lost a parent, some have stood by and watched—or even caused—deaths. They are wise—or at least startling—beyond their years. Meanwhile, the adults can’t seem to grow up. They have trouble making decisions. Their dogs meet bad ends after suffering canine versions of their owners’ neuroses. Even the “clouds aren’t as pretty as they use to be,” but people go on, looking for consolation, and settling for distraction with road trips, gin, and stories of “spectacular wrecks” they don’t realize they are part of.
Documenting life in crisp, haunting fractions of a second—the longest she can get it to Hold Still (Little, Brown, $32), Sally Mann has photographed everything from birth—a camera attended her second daughter’s delivery—to death, with her unflinching series of decomposing human remains at the University of Tennessee’s “body farm.” In between Mann has been busy with love and family, parenthood’s joys and fears, matters of race, art, horses, and dogs. Her memoir is a rich collage of her own and her family’s photos, news clippings, report cards, suicide and other notes, artifacts that do more than merely illustrate her powerful narratives. Mann is a riveting storyteller with a novelist’s sense of pacing, and the fine artist’s deft handling of image and tone. She has a special affinity for place, especially Southern places, from which she coaxes the rare “moments of visual revelation.” No slouch as a portraitist, Mann lets a terrific empathy shine through both her words and her pictures; driven to find out what makes people who they are, she also reveals herself, and while you’ll find her a restless, inquiring, uncompromising woman, she claims only to be “a regular person doggedly making ordinary art.”