This week, what rabies has to do with To Kill a Mockingbird, the new James Lee Burke novel, and the woman who figured out the ocean's floor. Plus: the growing group of "nonbelievers" in the U.S.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday) – This beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read centers on two women: Bostonian Elizabeth Endicott arriving at a compound in Syria to provide humanitarian aid to Armenian refugees in 1915, and, almost 100 years later, Laura Petrosian discovering what looks to be a photo of her grandmother being used to advertise an exhibit about “the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.” A powerful novel depicting a quest to uncover one’s heritage.
Creole Belle: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster) - MWA Grand Master Burke continues to raise the bar for himself, and the reader, as shown by his lyrical, insightful 19th Dave Robicheaux novel. While the New Iberia, La., deputy sheriff is recovering in a New Orleans hospital from a bullet wound, he receives a visit from Cajun singer Tee Jolie Melton, who leaves him an iPod loaded with music, including the blues song “My Creole Belle.” Only thing is, Tee Jolie supposedly disappeared months earlier, and her teenage sister, Blue Melton, has just turned up frozen in a block of ice. This is another stunner from a modern master. Read a Q&A with Burke.
Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury) - In this lucidly composed, skillfully contextualized first complete biography of David Wojnarowicz, former Village Voice reporter Carr reveals how the controversial artist’s life experience shaped his art and politics. Tracing his early life as a withdrawn, unstable student, sometime hustler, and store clerk in the troubled New York of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Carr reveals the artist’s struggle to express his emerging gay identity and the violent intensity of his family life.
The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist (Penguin Press) - Historian and former marine Crist makes the case that the United States is already enmeshed in a hidden war with Iran that has raged unacknowledged for decades. This shadow war is characterized by espionage, assassination plots, and frequent eruptions of open hostilities, and exacerbated by egregious missteps and blunders by both sides. Enriched by hundreds of interviews with key players as well as the author’s own experiences in the Persian Gulf, this is a comprehensive and readable account of American-Iranian hostilities since the 1979 revolution.
A Pimp’s Notes by Giorgio Faletti, trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – This unforgettable crime thriller set in 1978 Milan centers on narrator “Bravo,” a pimp whose girls involve him in a multiple homicide at a financier’s villa, which may be linked to the Red Brigade’s abduction of former prime minister Aldo Moro. The story line takes some unexpected paths en route to a powerhouse ending that matches some of the best in near-contemporary noir.
Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt (Holt) - In 1952, geologist Maria Tharp started a scientific revolution that would change our ideas about how continents are created yet 60 years later hardly anyone remembers her name. Armed with only sketches of Tharp’s early life, Felt’s biography reimagines her progression from a nomadic childhood through scientific breakthroughs with a vivid, poetic touch, revealing an idiosyncratic and determined woman whose “vigorous creativity” advanced everyone’s career but her own.
The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan (Soho Crime) - At the start of Edgar-finalist Hallinan’s heartrending, unforgettable fifth Poke Rafferty thriller, travel writer Rafferty collides with an overweight man around 65, possibly a German or American, on a wet Bangkok street. The man, whose head is oddly sunburned, manages to say a woman’s name before expiring from multiple gunshots. When the cops at the scene insist the man wasn’t shot, Rafferty knows he’s headed for trouble. Forced to betray his best friend, Rafferty uncovers evidence that the Pentagon has resurrected the Phoenix Program, which the U.S. used in Vietnam, to counter Muslim terrorists in southern Thailand. Hallinan gives his readers no chance to escape from his somber conviction that what America has become by pursuing the war on terror was never what America was supposed to be. Read an essay from Hallinan on blending fact and fiction in books.
Small Damages by Beth Kephart (Philomel) – After her father dies, Kenzie is pushed closer to her friend Kevin, and by spring, she’s pregnant. Her mother decides to send her to a bull farm in southern Spain, where she’ll work until the baby is born and given up for adoption. Small Damages is written as a tender, honest letter to Kenzie’s unborn child that becomes more complicated when the woman Kenzie meets in Spain is better than her own mother and farmhand Esteban is a more standup guy than her baby’s father. This beautifully written “summer of transformation” story will have readers feeling as torn about Kenzie’s choice as she is.
Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans by David Niose (Palgrave Macmillan) - America’s secular demographic—those who report “none” when asked for religious identity—is growing faster than any other religious identification, especially among 18-to-29-year-olds. A lawyer and president of the American Humanist Association, Niose explores secularism’s extraordinary rise and shows how it offers hope for more rational, inquiry-based public policy and discussion. Optimistic about the increase in secular activity—the growth of college and high school groups, humanist chaplaincies, secularity as a course of study—he finds that secularity offers the best hope for the future, and he makes a passionately strong, though at times repetitive, case for why secularism is so beneficial for the U.S. Read Niose's essay on why secularism is good for America.
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Viking) - In this ambitious and smart history of the virus, Wired senior editor Wasik and public health and veterinary expert Murphy (who are husband and wife) start with the Greeks and their love-hate relationship with their hounds, move to the Middle Ages—when Islamic scholars made the first real advances in understanding the disease—and barrel through to the revolutionary “germ theory” discoveries of the late 19th century. Look for delightful detours into cultural manifestations of our fear of rabies, including a survey of vampire, werewolf, and zombie literature and films— from Charlotte Brontë to Anne Rice, and right up to the Twilight series. Read a Q&A with Wasik and Murphy.