This week, a book for people who love books, Jayne Anne Phillips's latest, and a story collection that dissects domestic life. Plus: Humans of New York, the book!
On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes (Knopf) - Journalist and unapologetic bibliophile Basbanes (A Splendor of Letters) sets out to explore the nature of paper and returns with an absolutely fascinating tale. Told in an engaging, accessible manner, his coverage of the topic is a wide-ranging, freewheeling, authoritative look at one of society’s most ubiquitous products, from its origins in China nearly two millennia ago through its methodical spread across the world. Basbanes digs into the means by which paper is made and recycled, manufactured and repackaged, created for mass consumption and manipulated as art.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Little, Brown) - With a knack for conveying robust detail in an economy of straightforward language, Catton untangles a dazzling knot of interwoven lives to explain how the town hermit, Crosbie Wells, wound up dead and the town whore, Anna Wetherell, drugged and disoriented. Her chosen setting—the New Zealand gold rush, and central figure—the fish-out-of-water Walter Moody, contribute to an atmosphere ripe for storytelling. And, from the beginning, this is the heart-pounding sport of the manifold suspects, witnesses, and possible accomplices.
Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon (Roaring Brook) - While the title makes it sound like they’re a couple, Australian author/illustrator Gordon’s crocodile hero and deerlike heroine remain unknown to one another until the penultimate spread, even though they live in adjacent buildings and have important things in common: a love of music (oboe for him, jazz singing for her) and “watching films about the ocean.” But that’s life in the big city—New York City, in particular, which Gordon brings alive through lyrical drawings and inventive collage.
In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place by Jessica Hollander (Univ. of North Texas) - Winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, Hollander’s debut collection effectively fuses the common (childhood adventures, unhappy adults) with the bizarre (a grandmother obsessed with buttons, a gym full of people refusing to wear clothes) to create an intriguing volume. Shunning traditional story structure, Hollander has a deft ear for dialogue, and she refuses to let characters converse in straightforward patter. Instead, these protagonists respond with non sequiturs, half-answers, or silence, and in the book’s 19 narratives (some as short as the single, looping paragraph of “If We Miss the Beginning”), domestic life is completely dissected.
The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya by Jane Kelley (Feiwel and Friends) - Two hurting souls—a newly homeless African grey parrot nervously plucking out its feathers, and an 11-year-old Brooklyn girl enduring endless treatments for leukemia—cross paths briefly, recognize themselves as kindred spirits, and understand that somehow they must find each other again. Zeno knows he is a “Booful, briyant bird,” because his late “servant,” Dr. Agard, told him so. Alya, too, knows her family loves her (“Mrs. Logan hugged Alya and stroked the top of her forehead for the 9,595th time”). However, the physical and emotional stress of their respective situations demands extraordinary hope.
Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon (Simon & Schuster) - In this meticulous authorized biography, Lennon offers a comprehensive and unflinching look at the life of the controversial American novelist, journalist, and filmmaker who dissected the zeitgeist from the 1950s until his death in 2007. Lennon, a personal friend and the literary executor of Mailer’s estate, had access to a trove of unpublished letters and interviews. The result stresses the extremes of ugliness and compassion that defined the author’s life and work.
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (Scribner) - At the core of this sprawling new novel from Phillips is a series of real-life murders committed in 1931. A man calling himself Cornelius O. Pierson woos Asta Eicher, mother of three and recently widowed, in polished letters promising fidelity and financial security. After Asta disappears with Pierson, aka Harry Powers, the killer returns to Asta’s home in Chicago to kidnap and brutally murder her three beautiful children. In Phillips’s retelling, Emily Thornhill, a lovely staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, covers the case with her photographer colleague, Eric Lindstrom, and the Eicher family dog, Duty.
JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency by John T. Shaw (Palgrave Macmillan) - Relying on archives, memoirs, and interviews with key players, Shaw, a senior congressional correspondent for Market News International, makes a convincing case for the importance of J.F.K.’s Senate years. This time frame is often referred to as simply a “stepping-stone” en route to the presidency, yet Shaw shows that during the nearly eight years that J.F.K. spent in the Senate (1953–1960), he “filled out physically, deepened intellectually, sharpened his writing skills.”
Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton (St. Martin’s) - Six months after Stanton got his first camera in 2010, he lost his job as a bond trader. Before that, he’d been spending his weekends photographing everything he could find in Chicago, returning home with more than 1,000 images each day. After a weekend trip to New York City floored him with the city’s wide variety of inhabitants, Stanton packed his bags and returned to launch “Humans of New York,” a photo blog that soon morphed into a Facebook page that garnered over 500,000 fans in a little over a year. Here, he presents his most striking images accompanied by commentary from his subjects.