This week: the sequel to The Wind in the Willows, a must read essay collection from James Wood, and the definitive Springsteen biography. Plus, a masterful WWII book from Alex Kershaw.
Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison (Delacorte) - Benison successfully applies a classic Agatha Christie framework to a contemporary setting in his impressive second whodunit featuring Rev. Tom Christmas (after 2011’s Twelve Drummers Drumming). Christmas, who has been vicar of St. Nicholas Church in Thornford Regis for less than a year, finds himself in the midst of another murder investigation. Some months earlier, Will Moir, coach of a cricket club for teenagers, “flared with rage at Harrison Kaif in language unbecoming to an adult charged with children’s welfare” during a practice. This unfortunate incident may have led the 14-year-old to commit suicide soon after. When Moir is poisoned, the obvious suspects are members of the dead boy’s family.
Ruins by Orson Scott Card (Simon Pulse) - Continuing the epic science fiction series that began with 2010’s Pathfinder, this overstuffed but fascinating second installment sees trapper-turned-royal-exile Rigg and his companions exploring more of their compartmentalized world, while mastering their various time travel–related abilities and negotiating complicated interpersonal relationships. The way Card explores time travel, logic puzzles, and parallel societal development, as well as the clever fashion in which various problems are resolved and the engrossing details of the world he has created, keep the plot moving forward—and often backward in time.
Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone) - Drawing on exclusive interviews with members of the E Street Band, including Clarence Clemons’s final interview, and unrestricted conversations with Springsteen’s family, friends, manager Jon Landau, and Springsteen himself, Carlin takes us on a fascinating journey through Springsteen’s childhood, youth, and his rise to fame out of his early years playing in bands such as the Castiles, Earth, and Child to his most recent concerts in support of his Wrecking Ball album. Carlin energetically drives through the streets of Asbury Park, the bars and arenas around the world where Springsteen continues to work his magic. This is the definitive biography on Springsteen.
City of Saints by Andrew Hunt (Minotaur) - Set in 1930, Hunt’s triumphant mystery debut introduces Salt Lake County deputy Art Oveson, a loving family man and committed Mormon. Haunted by the unsolved murder of his father, who was primed to be Salt Lake City’s next police chief, Oveson is finding his way on the job when he gets involved in a complex and politically sensitive homicide. Helen Pfalzgraf, wife of a doctor who’s one of the community’s leading lights, was repeatedly run over by a car. The crime comes in the midst of a heated campaign for sheriff, with the incumbent, Oveson’s boss, eager to stay on the good side of the city’s power brokers by steering the investigation away from Dr. Pfalzgraf. Winner of the 2011 Hillerman Prize, this hard-edged whodunit with echoes of James Ellroy warrants a sequel.
Life Goes On by Hans Keilson, trans. from the German by Damion Searls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - Stunningly accomplished and self-assured for such a young writer this novel, published initially in 1933 when Keilson was in his early 20s, gives a haunting portrait of Germany between the two world wars. The Seldersens have a small clothing shop, which they’ve owned for 25 years. Now the economy is awful and business extremely slow. Their solemn and studious son, Albrecht, is 16. Albrecht’s friend, Fritz, is the opposite: physically strong, a fine athlete with an outgoing personality; his father, a plumber, has been working since the age of 14. Both Fritz’s parents and Albrecht’s are determined that their sons have everything needed for a brilliant future. Both methodical and acutely sensitive, this book is a wonderful achievement.
Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly, illus. by Clint Young (Holt) - In this sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic, The Wind in the Willows, Kelly supplies a boatload of mayhem and mishaps for Mr. Toad and company. An “Animal of Action,” Toad has tired of messing about in boats and stealing motorcars. He sets his sights skyward with predictably disastrous results: a crash, a head injury, and a daring expedition to recover the lost aircraft culminate in a battle waged with birthday cake and baguettes (in place of swords). While Kelly’s story is more plot-driven than Grahame’s, she evokes an old-fashioned feel by retaining the original’s Britishisms, translated for American readers with explanatory footnotes. It’s an affectionate follow-up to a classic of children’s literature, one that succeeds on its own as a humorous and adventurous romp along the riverbank and into the Wild Wood.
The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau by Alex Kershaw (Crown) - In his latest WWII narrative, Kershaw (The Longest Winter) examines the war through the experiences of Felix Sparks, an American law student–turned–soldier who saw action in some of the bloodiest campaigns of 1943–1945. Sparks was initially assigned as a second lieutenant with the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division (the so-called “Thunderbirds”) and ended his service as a “world-weary” lieutenant colonel. Kershaw follows Sparks and the 157th as they land at Sicily, help liberate Rome, push on through France, and are among the first American troops to enter Germany. Kershaw’s portrayal of his subject (based on interviews with Sparks, who died in 2007, and other survivors) makes for a riveting, almost epic tale of a larger-than-life, underappreciated figure.
Black Flower by Young-ha Kim, trans. from the Korean by Charles la Shure (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - Popular Korean novelist Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself) chronicles the woeful tale of 1,033 Korean immigrants, who unknowingly sold themselves into indentured servitude. In 1905, lured by the promise of abundant food and work and eager to escape a regime in sharp economic decline on the eve of Japan’s impending invasion, these Koreans travel to Mexico’s Yucatan, where they’re made to toil in fields under harrowing conditions and given funds insufficient to feed their families. The story is told from a multitude of perspectives, ranging from the tyrannical overseers to the lowest Korean field workers (among them thieves, former soldiers, a fallen priest, and aristocrats). Spare and beautiful, Kim’s novel offers a look at the roots of the little-known tribulations of the Korean diaspora in Mexico.
A Royal Pain by Megan Mulry (Sourcebooks Landmark) - Mulry debuts with a delightful love story between Bronte Talbott and her modern-day duke. Bronte loves everything pop culture, including—perhaps especially—“royal gazing,” mostly because it annoys her intellectual father. After a disastrous relationship with “Mr. Texas,” for whom Bronte moved from her beloved New York to Chicago, advertising exec Bronte meets Max Heyworth, a “lovely young gentleman from England” and doctorial student in economics at the University of Chicago.
Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven (Harper) - A bookish second son, Wilder was painfully micromanaged by an overbearing father who was distressed by Wilder’s theatrical and literary inclinations—though such inclinations allowed him to take full financial responsibility for his parents and sisters once he found commercial success with the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Ray in 1928. “Wilder once called himself the poet laureate of the family,” and Niven gives ample evidence that this title was deserved. The real value of her extensive research comes in the seamless weaving of letters and journals that make up the full tapestry of the writer’s life.
The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin Press) - Generations of inept, thoughtless, and unaccountable generals have authored disaster, according to this savvy study of leadership in the U. S. Army. Veteran defense journalist and bestselling author Ricks (Fiasco) contrasts the army of WWII, in which unsuccessful generals were often relieved of command, with later eras, in which officers were untouchable despite epic failures (few generals were relieved during the Iraq War, he notes). Nowadays, Ricks contends, citing an officer in Iraq, a private who loses his rifle, is punished more than a general who lost his part of a war." Combining lucid historical analysis, acid-etched portraits of generals from "troublesome blowhard" Douglas MacArthur to "two-time loser" Tommy Franks, and shrewd postmortems of military failures and pointless slaughters such as My Lai, the author demonstrates how everything from strategic doctrine to personnel policies create a mediocre, rigid, morally derelict army leadership.
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin) - Shapiro’s novel is filled with delightful twists, turns, and ruminations on what constitutes truth in art. Broke and painting copies of famous artists’ work for a reproduction site, artist Claire Roth is enticed by gallery owner Aidan Markel’s request to forge a painting by Degas that was stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990 (in the largest unsolved art heist in history). As Claire works, she wonders if the painting she’s forging is legitimate. Meanwhile, Claire steps in when her blocked artist lover can’t finish his work for a deadline, essentially painting what becomes something of an art world sensation.
The Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) - Wolfson and Levao, professors of English at Princeton and Rutgers, respectively, revivify the original 1818 version of Shelley's classic in this illuminating annotated text. Beginning with a thoroughly researched introduction to the author's life and the "life" of Frankenstein, Wolfson and Levao draw parallels between the novel's themes and the losses and turmoil that plagued Shelley. Moving along, their commentary draws from an abundance of criticism, focusing primarily on the novel's allusions to Paradise Lost, Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and the myth of Prometheus. At a more local level, the duo dutifully notate Shelley's ingenious use of language and her husband's edits. This book is accessible enough for anyone desiring a deeper reading of the novel, and does just what a well-annotated work should do, shedding a bright light not only on the text in question, but also on its historical moment and literary forebears. Read an essay from Wolfson and Levao about Frankenstein’s legacy.
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, edited and with an intro by Dan Wakefield (Delacorte) - This miraculous volume of selected letters provides a moving and revelatory portrait of the famed author. The letters chart Vonnegut’s life from his service in WWII to his first steps in the world of publishing, his emergence into literary fame, and beyond. The grain of Vonnegut’s charming and unmistakable voice is palpable, along with his sense of humor that produces unexpected poetry on almost every page. The private and public Vonneguts both shine, as in his magical letters to his many children, or his painful reflections on divorce, war, and growing older.
The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays by James Wood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - This collection of 23 essays gathered from the New Republic, the London Review of Books, and the New Yorker offers the latest proof that Wood (How Fiction Works) is one of the best readers writing today. Devouring these pieces back to back feels like having a long conversation about books with your most erudite, articulate, and excitable friend. To read his essays on the works of Norman Rush, Aleksandar Hemon, Leo Tolstoy, or Lydia Davis is to relive the specific brand of joy created by a particular work of genius. Wood’s reviews are never just evaluations; more often they are passionate, sensitive discourses on the variations of authorial voice, the nature of memory, or the burden of biography. A must read.