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These Are the Best Books of February

Books about time travel, insider trading, and haunted videotapes—plus George Saunders's first novel.
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Matthew Martin
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Matthew Martin
All Our Wrongs Today by Elan Mastai

There are two timelines: One is a post-scarcity world, a utopian version of Earth where things resemble the retrofuturism of The Jetsons (flying cars, jetpacks, teleportation, etc.), thanks to the invention of an engine that creates unlimited amounts of energy. The timeline we live in is, well, the darkest one. That sustainable energy source—the Gottreider Engine—was never invented thanks to a Bradburian time travel mishap from an extraordinarily bad time traveler.

It turns out that Jetsons timeline still has human problems, like daddy issues and unrequited love. Narrated by a likable but hapless buffoon, All Our Wrongs Today finds Tom Barren, the self-loathing son of a famous inventor, screwing up a test run of a new time travel device after his motives are compromised by his penis. All of his attempts to restore the first timeline only make things more complicated, as he tries to reconcile the life of his alternate self, his alternate family, and his alternate object of affection, alternate Penelope.

All Our Wrongs Today belongs in a burgeoning genre of books like Andy Weir’s The Martian that wrap self-deprecating dad humor around unabashedly nerdy science. In contrast to the gritty cynicism that surrounds most science fiction, All Our Wrongs Today could be better classified as earnest or normcore sci-fi. That’s not a knock—it’s actually refreshing, and none of that takes away from the braininess of the book, as Barren attempts to work through the convoluted consequences of alternate timelines. As a result, the characters—even Barren—feel a bit thin, but I suppose you come to science fiction for the science fiction.

Even for the book’s good spirits, there’s still a cautionary tale involved. Mastai introduces the concept of “the Accident,” that every new technology invented creates a new kind of negative corollary—the invention of the car, for instance, means now there are car accidents. And what sci-fi book would be complete if it didn’t connect that idea to human nature? “Every person you meet introduces the accident of that person to you. What can go right and what can go wrong,” Mastai writes. “There is no intimacy without consequence.”

Come for the time travel; stay for the accidents.

> buy on Amazon

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Matthew Martin
Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

At the center of Black Edge is Steven Cohen, a poker player with a degree from Wharton, who found success trading in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the early ‘90s, he founded the hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors, which at its height had accumulated $14 billion. Cohen is portrayed both as a genius and an asshole—a hard-ass boss that spent most of his time terrorizing his employees through a Bloomberg terminal. Cohen is motivated by competition. He encourages all the traders at SAC to find an “edge” over their adversaries—a “black edge” being insider information, the illegal knowledge that would prompt to a seven-year investigation of the company and ultimately lead to its downfall.

It’s easy to compare any exposé about finance to Michael Lewis, but this is an apt one. Though Black Edge doesn’t possess the language of The Big Short or Flash Boys, like Lewis, Kolhatkar’s best feat is showcasing her incredible depth of reporting. Sure, there are some prurient details of excess and partying, but the best moments of Black Edge have to do with the technical details. And it’s no small feat to make minute financial instruments interesting, or even intelligible. (It probably helps that, in addition to being a New Yorker staffer, Kolhatkar worked as a risk arbitrage analyst at two hedge funds before writing the book.)


Even more exciting is the way the Feds cobble together enough evidence for probable cause to get a Title III wiretap (if that sounds familiar, it’s the same thing from The Wire) and eventually construct a case strong enough to indict Cohen through informants and forensic accounting. Maybe the greatest lesson: Inside information can make a company, and inside information can destroy it too. And as seems to be the case with all stories of cracking down on the financial sector, the bad guys only ever sort of lose, the regulations never quite seem to stick, and Black Edge gains relevance in the way its history is likely to be repeated all over again.

> buy on Amazon

Matthew Martin
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

John Darnielle, better known as The Mountain Goats and the world’s foremost “Ignition (Remix)” expert, wrote one of 2014’s best novels, the elegiac Wolf in White Van. It was a small, cleverly structured book about a recluse who orchestrates a play-by-mail role-playing game (think, roughly, D&D via USPS) that two teenage players take so seriously that leads to one being injured, the other killed (okay, now think D&D via USPS by way of Slenderman).

The formulas for Darnielle’s second novel aren’t so clear. There’s still a central mystery, and it hangs itself on old pop culture references: At an Iowa video rental store in the ‘90s, someone is taping bizarre footage over the movies. But while Universal Harvester doesn’t quite reach the heights of Wolf in White Van, it gets dang close. It’s constantly unnerving, wrapped in a depressed dread that haunts every passage. But it all pays off with surprising emotionality, as the story carefully untangles the lives of the two people who work at the video store, both of whom have lost their mothers.

There are brushes with horror in Harvester, especially as it opens up a plot line about an apocalyptic cult. But ultimately, this is a novel about grief and the way people try to fill those voids in their life. Like the bygone era of Blockbusters and VHS tapes, the things that are gone are gone forever, but it doesn’t mean we won’t long for them anyway.

> buy on Amazon

Matthew Martin
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

It might seem strange to read a thriller set in Japan, a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world. But it just means the crimes—particularly the unsolved ones—haunt the police even more. In 1989, a seven-year-old girl is held for ransom. When the police discover her body, they realize that she died before any of the ransom calls were ever made. The case goes cold, the killer never found. For motives almost as suspicious as the crime itself, the murder file is reopened fourteen years later.

It’s a great premise, and Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four delivers a solid thriller. But its best parts are—bear with me—about bureaucracy. Within the twisty trappings of this mystery is a novel of manners and tradition. Through the unsolved case, Yokoyama patiently unravels the elaborate machinery that constitutes the Japanese police system.

It’s a big book (566 pages!) but there are also still plenty of surprising twists. When it was originally published in Japan, Six Four was a Haruki Murakami-level phenomenon, selling over a million copies. Which is not what you would expect from a mystery that takes its time. But then again, Six Four is all about subverted expectations—of plot and of culture.

> buy on Amazon

Matthew Martin
A Separation by Katie Kitamura

A Separation is about, you guessed it, a separation. The divorce between the novel’s unnamed narrator and her literary author husband Christopher is inevitable (he’s been cheating), and it’s the waiting that’s the killer. But when Christopher goes missing, a phone call from Christopher’s mother Isabella forces the narrator to fly to Greece to keep up the guise. Little does Isabella know that our narrator is about to fly 1,500 miles from London to ask her son for a divorce.

At first, it appears that Katie Kitamura is building toward a final confrontation with Christopher. But that never happens, as the novel takes a somewhat dramatic twist halfway through, cleverly changing the shape of the book. The language is sometimes breathless or stilted, deliberately so to keep the reader at an icy distance. This works more effectively in some cases than others, but overall, the effect grants this slim novel a puzzling interiority that readers will have to decipher scene by scene. A Separation is less a book about what people are doing and more about what they’re thinking.

The ending will be divisive for some, given its lack of closure. But this is a novel about a separation; it occupies the ambiguous space before the finality of divorce—a smart, psychological story of uncertainty.

> buy on Amazon

Matthew Martin
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I would never tell you not to read a book by George Saunders, one of our country’s greatest writers of both fiction and nonfiction. But depending on what you want out of Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’s long-awaited first novel, I would probably tell you to set your expectations accordingly.

The thing that takes President Abraham Lincoln to the bardo, a Tibetan concept for the space between life and the afterlife, is the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie. The novel takes place at the height of the Civil War, and Lincoln is so overcome with grief that he frequently visits the crypt where Willie is buried. These moments are tender, if not a bit eerie too—a haunting dynamic that creates a strong central tension to the novel.

The most curious—and frustrating—part is that the novel is told through a chorus of voices, like an oral history compiled from historical documents (some real, others imagined). It’s clever the way Saunders blurs fiction and history, but if it sounds like a short story concept stretched to the length of a novel, I’m here to say it almost certainly feels that way. While I admire Saunders’s ambition for structure, Lincoln in the Bardo doesn’t prove that the conceit warrants 368 pages of it.

Saunders explores interesting territory, the space between life and death, and its metaphysical musings on spirituality are well-earned, if not a bit earnest. And while I’m not sure the whole thing works, this is still George Saunders. It’s not so much that he can do no wrong; it’s that his wrongs are always interesting. Lincoln in the Bardo is hopefully not his last attempt at the novel form, even though this definitely feels like a first.

> buy on Amazon
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Summary | 4 Annotations
Black Edge:
2017/02/12 09:06
It’s easy to compare any exposé about finance to Michael Lewis, but this is an apt one. Though Black Edge doesn’t possess the language of The Big Short or Flash Boys, like Lewis, Kolhatkar’s best feat is showcasing her incredible depth of reporting
2017/02/12 09:07
best moments of Black Edge have to do with the technical details
2017/02/12 09:07
Kolhatkar worked as a risk arbitrage analyst at two hedge funds before writing the book.)
2017/02/12 09:08