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Short Takes

Capsule reviews of three books

THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO

By Karen Engelmann

Ecco, 416 pp., $26.99

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An intricately wrought social drama, laid into the world of 18th century Swedish society, “The Stockholm Octavo” is as appealing as a rare candy; it won’t necessarily fill you up, but it’s still a treat on many levels. The story concerns Emil Larsson, a customs officer from the hinterlands who loves what he calls the Town, a Stockholm still rather barbaric: “Farm animals resided in many of the houses, sod roofs moldered in disrepair, and one could not miss the pox scars, phlegmy coughs, or other myriad signs of illness.” Still, life in the Town had its charms, most notably the gaming house kept by Mrs. Sparrow, a consummate gambler, keeper of secrets, and seer; when she offers to read Larsson’s future in eight cards, he can’t refuse.

What follows is a dizzying story of political intrigue and forbidden romance, all played out in an array of lost arts, from the reading of cards to the language of ladies’ fans to the healing power of plants. Each has its own delicious vocabulary and in Engelmann’s debut, each word is savored.

LIFE AMONG GIANTS

By Bill Roorbach

Algonquin, 331 pp., $24.95

David and Kate Hochmeyer seem like golden siblings: tall and good-looking, athletic and academic stars, and bound for Ivy-league futures. Then their parents are murdered following their father’s involvement in shady business dealings, leaving the two orphaned, damaged, and forced to reckon with a mystery at the heart of their grief: Why were their parents killed? Though a loving family, the Hochmeyers harbored a nest of secrets, a chain of riddles involving a missing briefcase, stolen artwork, and the family’s neighbor, a famous and troubled ballerina. For David, a football player of imposing proportions, maturity brings a new question: how to rebuild a life crushed by grief, when “[g]uilt’s alchemy left me feeling nothing but fury.”

Consistently surprising and truly entertaining, “Life Among Giants” ranges across a sprawling landscape, encompassing football, food, ballet, and crime. Its sibling protagonists are both somewhat coy in revealing themselves, whether to a reader or to each other, but each is ultimately worth the investment. While Roorbach writes stunningly about the varieties of lust and near-love that David feels for a parade of women, the book’s most enduring, aggravating love story is between brother and sister. Part thriller, part family drama, “Life Among Giants” is deliciously strange and deeply affecting.

ODDLY NORMAL: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality

By John Schwartz

Gotham, 304 pp., $26

When John Schwartz’s 13-year-old son tried to kill himself after his first tentative attempts to come out as gay, Schwartz and his wife were shocked but not wholly surprised. Joseph, their third child, had struggled with challenges that had prompted experts to try labels from Asperger’s to ADHD and more. Besides his sensitivity, emotional intensity, and behavioral outbursts, they had suspected that Joe struggled with a deep sense of difference: They felt they knew, even before Joe did, that he was gay. In this compassionate, often painful account of his son’s early life, Schwartz, a New York Times reporter, tries to untangle the difficulties faced by Joe and all kids whose very identity puts them at risk for ostracism, bullying, and suicide.

When Joe’s problems at school first emerged, Schwartz and his wife felt a “reluctance to put Joseph in a diagnostic box,” a stubborn stance that some readers may find alien. Others, skeptical of hard-wired gender differences, might scoff at Schwartz’s certainty that Joe’s early affection for Barbies and desire to dress up as “disco yady” for Halloween hinted at a gay identity. That said, his parents’ suspicions proved on target, and their cultivation of friends they informally dubbed “the League of Gay Uncles” was a brilliant move. Once Joe got old enough to join gay support groups, he began to flourish socially and emotionally. Schwartz challenges well-meaning teachers and parents who insist that being gay is “no big deal” in a world in which gay teens face daily violence. He also makes clear that this book isn’t a manifesto, but it ought to persuade schools and parents to look at how they support these children.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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