This week: new Thomas Pynchon, new Eric Schlosser, and a song that will save your life. Plus: tracking down Calamity Jane.
In Calamity’s Wake by Natalee Caple (Bloomsbury) - On his deathbed, Miette promises her adoptive father that she will seek out her mother, the notorious western legend Calamity Jane. What follows is a dark and thrilling adventure through the American Badlands in the late 19th century, brought to life by exacting prose and a gallery of gothic characters (including a hag claiming to be Miette’s dead father’s love and a woman who begs Miette to find her children’s bones at the bottom of a well).
The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski by Samantha Geimer and Lawrence Silver with Judith Newman (Atria) - Over thirty years after she had sexual relations with Roman Polanski as a thirteen-year-old, Samantha Geimer finally releases her tell-all memoir, an astonishingly well-written, engaging book that is admirably subtle in its depiction of events. The memoir, which winds its way through the painful vilification of her mother by the press, and a spectacular failure of the legal system, is masterfully clear-eyed.
Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei by Barnaby Martin (Faber and Faber) - Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, the co-designer of the Beijing Olympics’ celebrated Bird’s Nest stadium whose international reputation blossomed with the Tate Modern’s 2010 showing of the installation Sunflower Seeds, granted British journalist Martin (already an acquaintance of Ai’s) an extensive multipart interview in the immediate aftermath of his 81-day detention by the Chinese government in April 2011. A still-dazed, but nevertheless expressive Ai, who remains under house arrest, describes the harrowing, absurd nature of his detention and interrogation by police and military personnel.
A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam (Soho) - McAdam investigates the social dynamics of great apes within the cages of a Florida research institute. Researcher David Kennedy watches over a troupe of chimpanzees, monitoring their interactions, administering social and cognitive tests in order “to defy Noam Chomsky’s assertion that humans were unique for being born with language.” Weighty themes underlie McAdam’s spartan prose depicting the inner lives of research chimps. McAdam delivers a thought-provoking foray into the not-so-dissimilar minds of our ape relatives.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press) - Maxine Tarnow, a defrocked fraud investigator and daftly doting Manhattan mom, is still stuck in that early, "my husband...ex-husband" stage of an unwanted divorce. Maxi soon becomes embroiled in the mysterious case of one Lester Traipse, a superannuated Silicon Alley veteran who, along with the dotcom bubble, has just gotten popped. As you might expect in a Pynchon novel, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - Elise has endured a lifetime of social isolation and bullying at school. Walking alone one night soon after a halfhearted suicide attempt, the 16-year-old inadvertently ends up at an underground nightclub. There, an aspiring musician befriends her, and she catches the eye of Char, a cute DJ who agrees to teach her to mix music. But as talented, driven Elise spends more nights sneaking out to learn how to DJ (and kiss Char), her double life spins out of control.
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (Penguin Press) - In 1980 in rural Damascus, Ark., two young Air Force technicians (one was 21 years old, the other 19) began a routine maintenance procedure on a 103-foot-tall Titan II nuclear warhead–armed intercontinental ballistic missile. All was going according to plan until one of the men dropped a wrench, which fell 70 feet before hitting the rocket and setting off a chain reaction with alarming consequences. After that nail-biting opening, investigative reporter Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) goes on to tell the thrilling story of the heroism, ingenuity, mistakes, and destruction that followed. At intervals, he steps back to deliver an equally captivating history of the development and maintenance of America’s nuclear arsenal from WWII to the present.
Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection by Debora L. Spar (FSG/Sarah Crichton) - Barnard College president Spar (The Baby Business) skillfully addresses the state of feminism and suggests that, despite historic gains in education, the workforce, and equal rights, American women suffer under "an excruciating set of mutually exclusive expectations" resulting, paradoxically, from the proliferation of options that feminism made possible. Drawing on her experiences as well as extensive research, Spar lucidly traces how the movement's "expansive and revolutionary" political goals have evolved into a set of "vast and towering expectations" that trouble women at every stage of their lives.
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic Press) - Book two of Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle shifts from character-driven voyage of discovery to more of a paranormal thriller, ratcheting up the violence as the plot grows more complex. After the transformative events at Cabeswater in The Raven Boys, the context in which Gansey, Blue, Adam, Ronan, and Noah operate is further altered by the arrival of the Gray Man, a self-described hit man who replaces Barrington Whelk in providing occasional adult narrative perspective.
Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas (Crown) - This is a riveting fiction debut from Zailckas, whose bestselling memoirs Smashed and Fury portrayed the author as a young woman ravaged by alcohol addiction and anger. Never mind that Zailckas explores some of the same disturbing territory here. It’s the kind of book that keeps you up at night, featuring a mother to rival Medea or Mrs. Bates. Check out Zailckas's picks for the 11 most evil characters in book history.