This week: books from Oliver Sacks, Barbara Kingsolver, and Virginia Woolf. Plus: an outstanding graphic memoir on bipolar disorder.
The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn (Knopf) - This weighty book distills a lifetime of learning of one of our most authoritative historians of colonial America. Continuing his exploration of the demographic origins of the colonies (begun in The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction), Harvard professor emeritus Bailyn offers a history of the colonies built up of brilliant portraits of the people who interacted in these strange and fearsome lands.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney (Gotham) - Eisner nominee Forney confesses her struggles with being diagnosed as bipolar in this witty and insightful memoir. Beginning with the manic episode that led to her diagnosis, Forney chronicles her journey toward reconciling the dual natures of bipolar disorder: a dangerous disease, but also a source of inspiration for many artists. The long journey of medication and therapy is kept from gloom by Forney’s lively, likable cartooning.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper) - With her powerful new novel, Kingsolver (The Lacuna) delivers literary fiction that conveys an urgent social message. Set in a rural Tennessee that has endured unseasonal rain, the plot explores the effects of a bizarre biological event on a Bible Belt community.
Illiterature (Story Minutes, Vol. 1) by Carol Lay (BOOM!) - The page-length stories in this collection of Lay’s Story Minutes newspaper strip provide readers with a window into her brilliant and original mind. In general, about Lay’s minute-long stories are 12-panel, modern-day fables that may or may not include elements of comedy, tragedy, realism, horror, science fiction, or dystopian fantasy. These stories, like the final line of a poem by Emily Dickinson, end on a note that threatens to leave the reader both disoriented and illuminated.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid (Little, Brown) - Before his death in 2004, an ill Manchester asked former Cox newspapers journalist Reid to take his research notes and finish writing the final volume of his trilogy. The long-delayed majestic account of Winston Churchill’s last 25 years is worth the wait.
The Boy in the Snow by M.J. McGrath (Viking) - The two-week 1,150-mile Iditarod dog sled race from near Wasilla to Nome, Alaska, forms the backdrop for McGrath’s outstanding second mystery featuring half-Caucasian, half-Inuit Edie Kiglatuk (after 2011’s White Heat). A native of Ellesmere Island, Edie comes to Alaska to help her ex-husband, Sammy Inukpuk, who’s trying to regain his self-respect by racing.
Magnificence by Lydia Millet (Norton) - Suddenly alone after the death of her husband, Susan Lindley is unmoored in Millet’s elegant meditation on death and what it means to be alone, even when you’re not. When Susan’s boss, T., goes missing in a Central American jungle, her husband, Hal, flies down to find him, a “generous” gesture that Susan sees as an “excuse to get away from her” after an “unpleasant discovery, namely her having sex with a co-worker on the floor of her office.” But when T. appears alone at the airport, bearing news that Hal has died in a mugging, Susan takes her husband’s death as “the punishment for her lifestyle.”
Later Poems: Selected and New 1971-2012 by Adrienne Rich (Norton) - This big and important selection begins at the point where Rich (who died in March 2012) became a national political figure: Diving into the Wreck (1973), with its often-quoted title poem, became a must-read for 1970s feminists, while The Dream of a Common Language (1977), with its central sequence “Twenty-One Love Poems,” set a new standard for writing on love between women.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks (Knopf) - We think of seeing—or hearing, smelling, touching or inchoately sensing—things that aren’t there as a classic sign of madness, but it’s really a human commonplace, according to Sacks’s latest fascinating exploration of neuropsychiatric weirdness.
Perry’s Killer Playlist by Joe Schreiber (Houghton Mifflin) - Following the literally explosive events of Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick, 18-year-old Perry Stormaire’s life has both settled down and markedly improved. His band, Inchworm, is on the rise, and he has a new, well-connected girlfriend, Paula, who has just helped book Inchworm on a 12-city European tour. Too good to be true? Oh, yes, it is. No sooner do Perry and his bandmates arrive in Venice then he’s reunited with Gobija Zaksauskas, the lethal and gorgeous Lithuanian assassin-for-hire who Perry attempted to take to prom in the previous book.
Staten Island Noir edited by Patricia Smith (Akashic) - Staten Island, the last of New York City’s five boroughs to enter Akashic’s noir series, serves as the setting for this exceptionally strong anthology.
Little Caesar by Tommy Wieringa, trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Grove/Black Cat) - As Wieringa’s second English-language novel (after Joe Speedboat) begins, down-and-out musician Ludwig Unger returns to coastal Kings Ness, England, where the houses are in constant danger of tumbling into the sea and the rabbits are all inexplicably diseased, making it immediately clear that we’re in surreal territory despite the lucidity of the narration and prose.
On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf (Paris Press) - “In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality,” writes Woolf, and she proves her observation correct in this essay (originally published in 1930), which leaps from observations of clouds to heaven to Shakespeare in stream-of-consciousness prose that, by design, borders on delirium. Her immersion in this mental state rings all the clearer for its contrast, in this edition, with “Notes from Sick Rooms,” an essay written by Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen in 1883.