Fiction Pick of the Week: "A Short History of Zaka the Zulu"
The downfall of a Jesuit school prefect.
The downfall of a Jesuit school prefect.
When he was 2, Strider was severely beaten by his mother’s boyfriend. Today, at 6, Strider lives with his grandparents in rural Maine, in and out of poverty, trying to make it.
Childhood lies and truthful, uncomfortable memories.
A girls' camp nature walk takes an unusual, grotesque turn.
The reappearance of an adult woman's imaginary friend from childhood.
Family relationships and the complexities of childhood imagination.
"Out the side door and into the yard. Plastic table, plastic sandbox in the shape of a turtle, two plastic chairs blown over. An empty birdfeeder. Ella had no idea why Blanket would be out here. This was why adventures needed preparation: because once they were underway they were always disappointments. In her backpack the string was unused, the flashlight unlit. She took the fork out just to feel like she had packed more wisely than she did."
A girl kidnaps a mysterious figure.
"What has he spared me, this Enzo Ponza? What, with his constant presence, has he prevented happening in my life, and what, if anything, has he caused to happen? Does he care for me, my mother, my children? Is he escaping something, or is he just biding his time? Why has he never once asked to leave? And why did I never investigate whether he had any living relatives to whom I could send a ransom note?"
A young boy, a pack of cigarettes, a looming summer.
"But he had found them. They were his, and he was going to smoke one or maybe three or four if that’s what he decided. And plus by himself, as in totally alone. And no one could stop him, no one, for that matter, would even know. He looked around again and saw the same—lazy cars and robins, the willow with its doves, an old man down the street, that was it, and sun and sky and breeze."
Strange beasts reenact scenes and memories from a woman's childhood.
"In the kitchen, the beast was pushing onions around in a pan. It glanced up, not minding me at all. I could hear a rustling sound just around the corner, where our kitchen table used to be, like the sound of my sister doing her homework or cutting pictures out of magazines. There was a small beast doing exactly that, holding a pair of red plastic scissors, snipping out pictures of animals. She was arranging the cutouts on the table: a cow, a giraffe, two dogs, and a bear."
Two classmates/Boy Scouts forge an uneasy, unspoken bond.
"I was aware that something in him seemed broken, he seemed to retreat, shrink, gradually something had turned in him. A chemical transformation, or imbalance. I felt a kinship in his pain, two notes struck in harmony. I wouldn’t realize how wrong I was until later, how I’d mislocated the ache. I thought I’d made this come to fruition, a product of my will."
An excerpt from All the Light We Cannot See, announced as a nominee for the National Book Award.
"Her fingers travel back to the cathedral spire. South to the Gate of Dinan. All evening she has been marching her fingers around the model, waiting for her great-uncle Etienne, who owns this house, who went out the previous night while she slept, and who has not returned. And now it is night again, another revolution of the clock, and the whole block is quiet, and she cannot sleep."
A single father's life is complicated by his son's new friend: a severed hand.
"That decided it—we would walk away. Let some other dad deal with the fallout of their kid digging up evidence of, what? A murder, maybe? A ritual dismemberment? The Mob torturing some poor fool before sending him to sleep with the fishes in the East River? My mind reeled at the possibilities. Whatever the case, getting involved was the last thing we needed, especially with me battling Mo for custody. I could see the headline in The Post: LET’S GIVE THE BOY A HAND! Her lawyer would have a field day."
A story of childhood trouble and minor delinquency.
"None of this, of course, has stopped any of them from pulling the girls’ hair or throwing pencils or losing track of time and getting locked out of school. He looks at the younger one standing there with his hands behind him and gives him a little shove. Everyone grows alert, awaiting the silent war. The boy drops his hands and looks back at him, and then they are all shoving and wrestling (carefully, quietly, so as not to attract attention, holding in their breath) and distracting him from his thoughts. The immediacy of the situation wanes. His father does not arrive. He relaxes, the wrestling over, rolls his foot over the soccer ball. They all stop and pant for a moment. There is still that space–the one in the corner of his brain–and as long as he can see it, he’s not quite safe."
On childhood amnesia, or why we don’t remember much before age seven.
A tale of two sisters with bodies that produce feathers.
"Up ahead a diesel semi had stopped, idling, its emergency lights flashing red in the mist, and on the wet tar and on Gale. I looked at her chest. The feathers were still growing, like a cancer. They would be as long as she was, longer. They would strangle, drown her. She ran to the cab of the truck, the door swung open far above. I couldn’t see the driver’s face."
A day in the life of a child in 1960s England.
"Carrie’s father was studying, in the evenings and on weekends, for a degree in politics, but on the day of a party he had to leave his books and submit to the different laws of the female domain, obeying the instructions that his wife rapped out, vacuuming and tidying, setting up the drinks tray. She followed impatiently after him, because he had no feeling for arranging the cushions or the flowers; he thought these things were not worth having a feeling for. The children exchanged sly looks and jokes with their father behind their mother’s back, conspiring against her remorselessness. But as soon as the guests arrived she relaxed into smiles, as if that other, sterner self had never existed."
Memories of an abusive father and a mother's ghost.
"One night, he didn’t come home, and we went to bed without dinner. After you’d fallen asleep, I went to the kitchen to make a peanut butter sandwich. I didn’t make you one. I came back into our room and ate quietly. When our mother’s ghost appeared near the foot of your bed, she startled me: I had never before seen the moment of her appearance, and now I did, the flash of it, quick and bright, like an eye opening. I dropped my sandwich on the floor."
Child residents in a trailer park engage in a series of power plays.
"We stared at each other. A standoff that reminded me of our first showdown on the slide. I wanted nothing more than to push him. I imagined my hands in front of me. A simple gesture. He was so small, such a light frame; a mild shove would do it. I’d surprise him with a thrust of both hands, shooting out as if spring-loaded. His eyes would pop out, startled. Maybe he’d grin for a split-second, thinking it a joke."
A mysterious stranger in the woods; horrific escalations.
"When we were eleven Billy Jacobs told us he had seen three people standing at the edge of the woods. One was the redheaded man–or someone who from a distance resembled the redheaded man, a sicker, thinner incarnation of him. The three held big glass bottles as they waved to Billy. One let a cigarette fall from his mouth and the others shrieked with laughter. They stumbled away and were gone."
An inventive spoof on childhood mystery novels.
"Almanac's father fell face forward onto the concrete garage floor, dead, blood pooling beneath him, and ending Almanac's childhood right then and there."
A forgotten birthday cake sets off a chain of unexpected events.
"The door to the bakery is meant to be pulled, but I push hard against it, like a bird hitting the glass. The lady behind the counter settles eyes on me, so I pull myself up as straight as I can and pull the door. On a wooden board above the register a TV is playing The Today Show. Jane Pauley and Madonna won’t shut up about Madonna’s dress like it’s gonna end the Cold War and I have to wonder if I’m the only person in the world living with trouble. Be-hind the glare of the case, I can see the Cinderella cake covered in icy blue frosting thick as a comforter. A glass carriage flies across the surface in needle-thin icing. I put my hand to the glass—forgetting the lady behind the counter—smudging it, until she clears her throat.
A story of unhappiness and creative outlets.
"Last winter, when she was supposed to be designing a parking garage for a luxury shopping center in McLean, she built a city instead. She got the idea when she was surveying the lot where the parking garage was supposed to go. In her leather pumps and peacoat, she stood on the flat expanse and looked out; the land was a deep brown, lightly marbled with snow. She walked the perimeter, her hands in her pockets, her heels sinking into the dirt, her breath a white cloud in the air. She felt on the edge of something."
A deaf boy and his mother take part in an odd religious community.
"My mother wasn’t always this way. Before the accident we never even went to church, never mind twice in one day. Then my dad had to go and wrap his car around a tree and mumble some crazy shit about angels and white tunnels while he’s dying. It was just bad luck that brought us here. My mother Googled churches in the area, and it’s no surprise which ranked number one on the search results page."
A woman, spending the summer at the shore, entrances girls with a mysterious story.
"After what seemed like forever, the girls got to the water, Janice continued. There had been a sea breeze all day long. Now there was nothing except a feeling like something holding its breath. The girls waded in, enjoying the warm water on their feet and the burst of the first waves against their ankles, still warm but cooler, the shallow water mixing with water from the heart of the ocean, which was cold. The ocean is coldhearted; you don’t have to be a genius to know that. It makes boats sink. It makes you watch where you put your feet. If you choose to swim at the end of the day after the lifeguards have left the beach you take your life in your hands. You know that, don’t you? Janice gave everyone a piercing stare meant to drive her point home."
An actor, fresh from prison, attempts to reconnect with his son in 1950s California.
"And he had believed it. Everyone had. Since the day he’d been cast as Lev, Alexi had been aware that he was getting away with something—though, he reasoned, he’d never explicitly lied about anything. He just never told the complete truth. He may have, when asked about his American accent, mentioned the pronunciation workbooks stacked on his family’s kitchen table, as if he, and not just his parents, had pored over them nightly. He may have once, a little drunk at a party, pretended to forget the English words for the pigs in a blanket being passed around. He may have, that night and possibly a few others, begun sentences with, In my country . . . He may have, when asked by the film’s very openly communist director one night over steaks at Musso’s what he thought about Truman, parroted back what he’d overheard at the writers’ table, that he was narrow-minded and ruthless, his doctrine a farce and an affront to civil liberties. He may have, at Stella and Jack’s invitation, attended a number of meetings in their Hancock Park living room, where there may have been some pretty detailed discussions about following their Soviet comrades down whatever path they took. He may have, on one of those evenings, filled out one of the Party membership forms being passed around, simply because everyone else was."