This week, a Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights, a history of the world in 12 maps, and Michael Jackson as a white girl. Plus: would FDR have become president had he not contracted polio?
White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s) - New Yorker critic Als (The Women) delivers his first book in 15 years—a mesmerizing and varied collection of essays, some previously published. His eponymous “white girls” include Louise Brooks, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and others. Using his subjects as a springboard to analyze literature, photography, films, music, television, performance, race, gender, sexual orientation, and history, Als offers wry insights throughout.
A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton (Viking) - In an era when Google Maps is regarded as a standard convenience, this history of 12 epoch-defining maps—including Google’s—is a revelation. Renaissance scholar Brotton examines a cross-cultural sampling of historic world maps, exploring them as representations of both the Earth, and of the philosophical mores of the cultures that produced them.
Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare by Lloyd C. Gardner (New Press) - Counterinsurgency flopped in Afghanistan, declares veteran policy analyst and Rutgers emeritus professor of history Gardner in this uncomfortably shrewd analysis of America’s perpetual yearning for a high-tech, low-casualty way to win wars.
Hild by Nicola Griffith (FSG) - Award-winning LGBT author Griffith brings a sci-fi appreciation for alien culture and a woman’s perspective to this fictional coming-of-age story about real-life Saint Hilda of Whitby, who grew up pagan in seventh-century Britain. Daughter of a poisoned prince and a crafty noblewoman, quiet, bright-minded Hild arrives at the court of King Edwin of Northumbria, where the six-year-old takes on the role of seer/consiglieri for a monarch troubled by shifting allegiances and Roman emissaries attempting to spread their new religion. Watch a video of Griffith discussing her novel.
The F- It List by Julie Halpern (Feiwel and Friends) - Alex Buckley is reeling from the death of her father and the nearly unforgiveable thing her best friend Becca did the night of his funeral. Then Becca is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which forces a reconciliation between the two high school seniors and gets Alex entangled with helping Becca live out her expletive-based version of a “bucket list.”
Hostage Three by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury) - The Somali pirates who seize a British yacht dehumanize their victims by giving them numbers. Thus, millionaire banker James Fields and his new wife become Hostages One and Two. Hostage Three is his 17-year-old daughter, Amy, who narrates this perceptive and harrowing novel from Printz-winner Lake (In Darkness).
Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I by Emily Mayhew (Oxford Univ.) - In this singular work of “historical rediscovery,” Mayhew aims to relate the “central experience” that a wounded British soldier on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 would have had, from the blasted trenches to the ambulance trains and on to “Blighty” (a sentimental nickname soldiers used for Britain). The Imperial College researcher gives voice to those who braved the bullets, as well as those who risked their lives to save and comfort the injured.
Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Merridale (Metropolitan) - Merridale turns to what she considers the metaphor for much of that country’s beleaguered history—that is, the Kremlin itself. Using the Kremlin as kind of historical lens, Merridale begins her story with Russia’s obscure medieval origins, when a Viking tribe now known as the Rus invaded Slavic lands and began to lay the foundations of a culture and civilization with its indigenous peoples.
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, trans. from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif (Other Press) - The story-within-a-story-within-a-story at the heart of this novel features a doomed, Wuthering Heights romance set in postwar Japan, with the 20th-century Heathcliff riding the Japanese-American economic wave. Concentric narratives connect and transform into a critical appraisal of commercial expansion and cultural decline.
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher (Little, Brown) - Pitcher delivers a taut epistolary novel about a British teenager who writes to a Texas death row inmate and confesses her guilt in a murder: “You killed someone you were supposed to love and I killed someone I was supposed to love, and we both understand the pain and the fear and the sadness and the guilt and the hundred other feelings that don’t even have a name in all of the English language.” Though the writer invents her name, Zoe, there’s nothing false about her one-way letters that gradually reveal her turbulent and destructive romance with two brothers, Max and Aaron, which ends in a death.
Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland by Beau Riffenburgh (Viking) -This energetic biography sheds light on a master undercover operative for the famed Pinkerton’s Detective Agency. The iconic sleuth of his time, first hired by Pinkerton in 1873, McParland made his name (as well as the company’s) investigating the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irishmen whose crimes terrorized the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.
Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone (HMH) - In Stone’s latest bulletin from the dark side of the human condition, brilliant college student Maud Stack is having an affair with her English advisor, Steve Brookman, whose wife, Ellie, is expecting their second child. When Steve tries to distance himself from Maud, it leads to tragedy. The book is not so much a whodunit as an expressionistic collage of how others in this New England college town deal with the tragic event.
The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency by James Tobin (Simon & Schuster) - Many books have been written about Franklin Roosevelt’s life in politics, but here Tobin takes a risk by telling the story of one of the country’s most popular presidents from a largely unexplored angle. As the subtitle suggests, this book looks at Roosevelt’s life from the time he contracted polio to the time he became president, and does so with a compassionate view. To keep the book from becoming a maudlin sympathy tale, Tobin considers some obvious but important questions: How did Roosevelt overcome his “handicap” to become president? Would he have become president had he not contracted polio?