This week: a talking pig, a political disaster, and a gripping WWII spy story. Plus: Bruce Wagner's latest.
The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker (Pegasus) - In this updated edition of her landmark 1994 biography, Barker (former curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth) expansively narrates the story of a family that left an indelible mark on literary history. The epic volume begins with patriarch Patrick and moves through the lives of his most famous children: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Despite their compulsive writing habits and creation of fantasy worlds, Barker emphasizes that the Brontës were a normal family, though one that suffered terrible tragedies. Barker restores a rich context to the writers and their works by recounting their education, creative collaborations, and frustrated love lives. Most fascinating is Barker’s attention to the pseudonymous publication and reception of the Brontës’ first poems and novels. The sensitive and elegant writing stimulates genuine pathos for the doomed family, and this volume is sure to remain the most readable scholarly standard for years to come. Check out Barker's ranking of the Brontë books.
Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick by George Cotkin (Oxford University Press) - In this entertaining companion to Moby-Dick, California Polytechnic State University historian Cotkin addresses the novel chapter by chapter, briefly invoking a chapter’s premise before exploring its subjects, themes, and author, as well as the novel’s life, reception, and legacy. Cotkin’s comprehensive method is attuned to both popular representations and individuals who have heeded the novel’s call to “dive into the mysteries of meaning, into the storms of existence.” There’s the novel’s presence in the art of Red Grooms and Frank Stella, its reverberations in Hart Crane’s poetry and Cormac McCarthy’s novels, as well as its use in Abbott and Costello’s comedy routine, in marketing whale meat, and in Star Trek, where Ahab manifests as Khan, villain (and Melville devotee). Check out Cotkin's exploration of how the white whale has infiltrated our culture.
American Empire: 1945-2000: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home by Joshua B. Freeman (Viking) - Covering the glory years of 1945–2000, Freeman is at his best when he turns his critical eye on America’s turbulent internal affairs, delving into Truman’s contested Fair Deal reforms, the McCarthy communist witch-hunts, Eisenhower’s cautious civil rights record, LBJ’s ambitious Great Society programs, Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, the return of “corporate capitalism” and Reagan conservatism. Though at its peak, America’s power exceeded that of the Roman and British empires in cultural, economic, military, and political terms, the nation’s postwar dreams were never completely fulfilled, says Freeman. This epic survey provides a fuller understanding of America’s postwar achievements and challenges, without the bias, drama, or despair of other books on these important issues. Read an essay from Freeman on three events that shaped postwar America.
The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis by Joshua M. Glasser (Yale University Press) - Glasser’s examination of the low point of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign offers a gripping account of the political earthquake that ensued when Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, the hastily picked and poorly vetted vice-presidential candidate, was forced to disclose a history of hospitalizations for depression and treatments that included electroshock therapy. This proved disastrous for the Democrats, after a bitterly contested convention in which South Dakota senator McGovern, whose reputation for basic decency—but weakness in delegating and exercising authority—was tested by the scramble to secure the nomination. Glasser maintains an even tone in his well-researched recounting of the nomination process, which included a failed bid to bring scandal-plagued Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy onto the ticket.
Edmund Spenser: A Life by Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press) - The last biography of Edmund Spenser (1554–1599), author of The Faerie Queene, was issued in 1945. It is probable that no one will have to write another after this one from Hadfield (Shakespeare and Republicanism), a professor of English at the University of Sussex, who includes a whopping 2,500 endnotes in addition to 60-plus pages of bibliography as part of his record. Considering the skimpiness of documentary evidence, such levels of scholarship are impressive. The most visual of Elizabethan poets, Spenser was a highly stylized innovator whose ornate versification and influence have been left largely behind by modernist and postmodernist sensibilities. Hadfield, who previously has published on Spenser’s crucial years in Ireland, makes a case for the centrality of Spenser’s work while setting the record straight on his colonialist ambitions.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre (Crown) – “Any method of seeking the truth can also be used to plant a lie.” Therein lies the root of the brilliantly dangerous Allied plan (which MI5 called Double Cross)—recounted by Macintyre with the same skill and suspense he displayed in Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag—to throw off the Germans and launch an assault at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The key to the plan—convincing Germany that the impending attack would come either at Pas de Calais or in Norway—was the careful manipulation of five double agents, each feeding misinformation back to their German handlers. Macintyre effortlessly weaves the agents’ deliciously eccentric personalities with larger wartime events to shape a true tale that reads like a top-notch spy thriller. Check out our Q&A with Macintyre.
Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig by Russell Potter (Penguin) - In this charming debut novel, Potter imagines—fully and movingly—the story of the “learned pig,” based on an actual 18th-century novelty act that toured the U.K. under the aegis of Samuel Bisset. The real-life pig was simply a trained beast who responded in rote to his master’s commands, but Potter’s conceit is that Toby reads and thinks: the book purports to be his memoir, beginning with his birth in 1781 near Manchester. The lucky pig is saved from the butcher’s block and becomes a sensation, touring England, Scotland, and Ireland, and meeting some of the celebrated figures of the era, including Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, poet Anna Seward, and William Blake. The use of old-fashioned typography, capitalization, and woodcuts complement the 18th-century prose style, creating an immensely readable, clever, and fun novel. Check out our Q&A with Potter on how he made a pig talk.
Someday Dancer by Sarah Rubin (Scholastic/Chicken House) - It’s 1959, and 14-year-old Casey Quinn of Warren, S.C., knows she was born to dance, even as she imagines her neighbors’ opinion of her: “She ain’t got no grace, and she ain’t no beauty, neither.” In a lively first-person narrative, Casey shares her determination to live her dream, despite her family’s poverty, which has prohibited dance lessons and kept her mother and grandmother working long hours to make ends meet. Deftly balancing themes of good fortune and passion, hope and heartache, Rubin’s fine debut will appeal widely to artists and dreamers alike.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Scribner) - In Stedman’s deftly crafted debut, Tom Sherbourne, seeking constancy after the horrors of WWI, takes a lighthouse keeper’s post on an Australian island, and calls for Isabel, a young woman he met on his travels, to join him there as his wife. In peaceful isolation, their love grows. But four years on the island and several miscarriages bring Isabel’s seemingly boundless spirit to the brink, and leave Tom feeling helpless until a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a living child. Stedman grounds what could be a far-fetched premise, setting the stage beautifully to allow for a heart-wrenching moral dilemma to play out. Check out a Q&A with Stedman.
Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner (Penguin/Blue Rider) - In Wagner’s latest “entertainment,” aging, struggling screenwriter Bud Wiggins (from Wagner’s debut, Force Majeure) is tapped to script a film for 12-year-old Biggie Brainard, the damaged brain behind booming Ooh Baby Baby productions. Biggie yearns for his mother and tracks her online as she spelunks the caves of the world. Bud lives with his mother, Dolly, and longs for the day she dies. Their chapters are braided with that of other Hollywood stars and black holes: Michael Douglas dreams of remaking All That Jazz, with a few major changes. Reeyonna, a pregnant teen, runs away from her mother, Jacquie (a Sally Mann-like artist-cum-Sears-Portrait-Studio photographer), with her “pharaoh-looking” boyfriend, Rikki. Written in hyper-hilarious, brilliant prose, the book renders an obsessive pop-culture nightmare of surprising realism and light, illuminating the meanest corners of its characters’—and our culture’s—desperation. Check out PW’s profile on Wagner and "porn culture."
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead) - The people in Battleborn are wounded yet compassionate, despairing and lonely, but always open to a hug, a kiss, a way out, a way in, or a fleeting moment of companionship. These aren’t characters in stories, but human beings perpetually yearning for warmth. Claire Vaye Watkins has apparently sprung fully formed into the narrow pantheon of young writers willing to take narrative risks, eschewing trend and style for depth and wisdom. Entering the varied lives is akin to watching a tightrope walker high overhead, moving with steady confidence without a net. There are no missteps, no wobbles, no hesitations in these original narratives.