This week, a mischevious book about a crumbling mansion, 100 years done in 100 pages, and the truth about dinosaurs. Plus: the best book about Rhode Island...ever?
The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich (Ecco) - In a sparklingly mischievous debut, Aldrich peers into the intimate collapse of a once great Hudson River house—the “funny farm” of her Astor/Livingston/Chanler relatives. Spiraling way down from a long line of enterprising early Americans, financiers, socialites, and artists with illustriously entangled names, author Aldrich, whose great-grandfather was the famous music critic Richard Aldrich, reconstructs her early years growing up at the ancestral homestead of Rokeby, a 43-room mansion. Check out a Q&A with Aldrich.
The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja (Penguin Press) - Novelist and Chicago native Dyja (Play for a Kingdom) delivers a magisterial narrative of mid-20th century Chicago, once America’s “primary meeting place, market, workshop and lab.” Dyja covers the period from the 1930s through the 1950s, when Chicago produced much of what became postwar America’s way of life: Mies van der Rohe’s glass and steel skyscrapers; TV’s soap operas; Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s franchise; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire; and the Chess Brothers’ recording studio.
The 13-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths, illus. by Terry Denton (Feiwel and Friends) - Longtime collaborators Griffiths and Denton get metafictional in their latest book and the result is anarchic absurdity at its best. Young buddies Andy and Terry live together in the sort of tree house that kids dream about, complete with bowling alley, shark tank, vines to swing from, and underground laboratory. With so many distractions, is it any wonder that they’re late with the book due to their publisher, Mr. Big Nose?
Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) - Julio’s Day is the 100-year story in 100 pages of a 100-year-old man living in a small, mostly Mexican town in the American Southwest, from his first to last breaths, 1900 to 2000. A marvelous and tightly scripted epic whose last page is a heart-stopper.
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (Knopf) - By all rights, this excellent volume of Willa Cather’s letters should not be: in her will, the celebrated American writer specified that none of her correspondence was to be published, ever. Fortunately for general readers and scholars alike, that demand has not been heeded. The letters in this collection have been gathered from the 3,000 that survive in nearly 75 archives across the country.
Game by Barry Lyga (Little, Brown) - Lyga’s engrossing follow-up to I Hunt Killers again focuses on 17-year-old Jazz, the son of the world’s most prolific serial killer, but expands his world by fleshing out previously minor characters. Jazz is called upon to help the NYPD hunt Hat-Dog, a brutal killer who might be connected to Jazz’s now-escaped father, Billy Dent.
Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley (Little, Brown) - Playwright Riley’s debut novel is a harsh but compassionate look at nature vs. nurture through the lens of a polygamous cult. Sisters Amity and Sorrow were born and raised by their mother, Amaranth, the first of the 50 wives of a self-proclaimed prophet, the leader—“preacher, father, husband”—of a doomsday sect. When a confrontation with the law results in a fire, Amaranth grabs her teenage daughters, steals a car, and drives for four days until, exhausted, she crashes near a gas station in rural Oklahoma. Read Riley's essay on the American cult.
The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas, trans. from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Yale Univ.) - Rojas reinvigorates the martyred Spanish poet from the inside. Lorca, murdered in 1936 by Francoist rebels, narrates his own postmortem odyssey in energetic prose, full of vivid imagery and provocative discussion. Within the pages of this exceptional book, you’ll find encounters with Ulysses and Achilles, “Al Capone’s charity soup,” and a ghost café.
Westerly by Will Schutt (Yale Univ.) - The latest winner of the venerable Yale Younger Poets Prize turns out to be terse, well-traveled, resolutely unfashionable, and, finally, wise. Westerly is a town in Rhode Island, “where nirvana is a long time/ coming... the way stupid hope won’t shut up”; it’s also a direction for American history, for personal migration (“you find yourself relieved/ your world is set in the Midwest// and facts belong to this poem”), for the roaming imagination, where “Not everyone who dreams dreams the beach.”
Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - Eighth-grader Lorca has been self-harming since she was six years old, lately to deal with pain she feels due to her distant mother, who’s more focused on her demanding job as a chef, and her absent father. When she is caught cutting at school, she is suspended and her mother threatens to send her to boarding school. Lorca becomes convinced she can win her mother’s affections and forgiveness by making a favorite dish, masgouf, which her mother ate at an Iraqi restaurant years before. Soffer picks the 10 best endings in books.
My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek (Scientific American/FSG) - In this revealing work of pop paleontology, Switek (Written in Stone) travels across America to visit dinosaur fossils, but don't let the subtitle and descriptions of stunning scenery and trips down gravel roads mislead you—this isn't really a travelogue: each stop serves as but a jumping-off point for an examination of our changing understanding of dinosaurs. Check out a Q&A with Switek.
The Carrion Birds by Urban Waite (Morrow) - Waite follows his acclaimed first novel, 2011’s The Terror of Living, with another searing western noir. Three people face terrifying moral choices as they each wish for what they can’t have: life as it was before their small border town of Coronado, N.Mex., was doomed by its dying oil economy and the arrival of a Mexican drug cartel.
Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson (Norton/Liveright) - Two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard biologist Wilson muses on the nature of scientific investigation, his illustrious career, and what it takes to be a scientist in this thoroughly enjoyable collection of faux epistles. He’s at his best when lucidly articulating why science is so very important, and not just in terms of cures or curiosities.