This week: cows and UFOs in Mexico, "Robinson Crusoe" in space, and the best movies you'll never see.
The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See: Unseen Masterpieces by the World’s Greatest Directors edited by Simon Braund (Octopus) - In this fantastic book of "what-if" films, Braund, a British reporter, and his contributors provide short, snappy, and enthusiastic discussions of movies that will likely never be made. From Brazzaville, an indecently proposed sequel to Casablanca, to Warhead, the "most bonkers James Bond film you'll never see," this "phantom film festival" even includes the notorious, rarely screened Jerry Lewis concentration camp comedy, The Day the Clown Cried. Overstuffed with fascinating trivia, gossip and "what happened next" sidebars, this book provides insights on why Hitchcock never made No Bail for the Judge staring Audrey Hepburn; uncovers Stanley Kubrick's cross-indexed gallery of 15,000 images for his uncompleted Napoleon; and tells of the mouthwatering prospect of a Marx Brothers/Salvador Dali collaboration.
The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson (Knopf) - Filled with political intrigue and emotional tension, Carleson’s riveting novel features a teenage refugee caught in a web of deceit and conspiracy. Fifteen-year-old Laila grew up believing she was a princess and that her younger brother, Bastien, was heir to the throne. After her father’s assassination, however, when her family flees to the United States, she learns that the world views her father as a cruel dictator (“ ‘Repressive regime,’ that damning alliteration, chases him throughout the newspapers like a dog nipping at his heels”). Carleson dramatically illustrates Laila’s culture shock in a suburb of Washington, D. C., not knowing whether she can trust her friendly American classmates or if she should befriend fellow refugees resentful of her father’s power.
Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to Bring Nazi Scientists to America by Annie Jacobsen (Little, Brown) - As comprehensive as it is critical, this latest exposé from Jacobsen is perhaps her most important work to date. Though Americans are quick to remember the United States’ heroic feats in WWII, they tend to be more amnesic (or allergic) toward some of our nation’s shadier activities in the effort—one of which seems to have been forgotten altogether. For just as some Nazis awaited trial at Nuremburg, others—namely prominent, potentially useful scientists—were secretly smuggled into the country by the U.S. government to help prepare for an ostensibly impending “total war” with the Soviets. Rife with hypocrisy, lies, and deceit, Jacobsen’s story explores a conveniently overlooked bit of history the significance of which continues to resonate in the national security issues of today.
Decoded by Mai Jia, trans. from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne (FSG) - A bestseller in his native China, Mai’s first novel translated into English opens with the introduction of the Rong family, as told in Chinese folklore: aboard a ferry in 1873, Rong Zilai leaves China to study dream interpretation in order to save his grandmother from her nightmares. After her tragic passing, Zilai decides on another course. On his return, he finds that his grandmother has willed him her silver, and with this inheritance, he opens Lillie’s Academy of Mathematics, the predecessor of N University, around which the remainder of the narrative is based. Mai’s careful attention to pacing and the folklore-inspired narration make for a fascinating story, neatly interwoven with complex mathematical theory.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Holt) - New Yorker staff writer Kolbert accomplishes an amazing feat in her latest book, which superbly blends the depressing facts associated with rampant species extinctions and impending ecosystem collapse with stellar writing to produce a text that is accessible, witty, scientifically accurate, and impossible to put down. The eponymous extinction refers to the fact that the current rate of species loss is approaching that of the mass extinctions that ended five previous geologic epochs. Kolbert’s reporting takes her from the Andes to the Great Barrier Reef, and from a bare rock island off the coast of Iceland to a cave near Albany, N.Y. Throughout, she combines a historical perspective with the best modern science on offer, while bringing both scientists and species to life.
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (Candlewick) - In a sorely needed resource for teens and, frankly, many adults, author/photographer Kuklin shares first-person narratives from six transgender teens, drawn from interviews she conducted and shaped with input from her subjects. The six “chapters” read like personal histories, with Kuklin interjecting occasional context and helping bridge jumps in time. Readers will gain a real understanding of gender as a spectrum and a societal construct, and of the challenges that even the most well-adjusted, well-supported transgender teens face, from mockery by peers and adults alike to feelings of isolation and discomfort in their own bodies.
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot (Knopf) - In 1996, 30 adolescent girls were taken from their school in Uganda and kept captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a ragtag rebel movement led by the notorious warlord Joseph Kony. Minot has taken this real-life event as the inspiration for her haunting new novel. In the voice of one of the survivors, fictionalized as Esther Akello, she relates the many horrors the girls endure, which include bearing their captors’ children. With brilliantly effective understatement, the novel conveys Esther’s complex psychological evolution—the emotional blankness that allows her to survive horrendous experiences, as well as the feelings of shame and guilt that threaten to overwhelm her at times.
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald, trans. from the German by Jo Catling (Random) - In this posthumous collection of six essays by Sebald (1944–2001), the last of his major works to be translated into English, the author of Austerlitz, among other works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, uses critical appreciations of five writers and one painter to explore the nature of the creative persona. Like his fiction, Sebald’s essays are hybrid constructions, blending literary biography and personal essay, with photos included throughout. Although their careers span some 200 years, his subjects—Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and the contemporary painter Jan Peter Tripp—bear certain resemblances, as all are products of the same Alpine landscape.
The Dealer and the Dead by Gerald Seymour (St. Martin’s/Dunne) - A war crime propels this stellar thriller from Edgar-finalist Seymour. One night during the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s, four Croat fighters crouch in a cornfield outside the town of Vukovar in eastern Slavonia as they wait for a shipment of arms that will enable them to fight off their Serb attackers. The arms never come, they are killed, and the town is almost destroyed. In the present, the name of the man who reneged on the arms deal, Harvey Gillot, has become synonymous in the history of the town with all that is evil. How Seymour develops his characters and manipulates them until they all end up in Vukovar is a testament to his talent and skill.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, trans. from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (FSG) - Mexican novelist Villalobos (Down the Rabbit Hole) fuses personal mythologies and political margins in his new novel, a riotous tall tale set in the hills of Cerro de la Chingada and narrated by young Orestes, whose perennial concern, despite his family’s crippling poverty, is wresting his daily share of his mother’s quesadillas from his six brothers and sisters, “all of them highly qualified strategists in the survival tactics of big families.” There’s Aristotle, the eldest; Archilochus; Callimachus; Electra; and the “pretend twins” Castor and Pollux, who go missing after a violent rebellion sweeps the countryside. Convinced that they’ve been kidnapped by aliens, Aristotle draws his brother into a search in which the imaginary merges with the realities of destitute backwater Mexico.
The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown) - A dust storm strands astronaut Mark Watney on Mars and forces his landing crew to abandon the mission and return to Earth in Weir’s excellent first novel, an SF thriller. Watney, injured by flying debris and presumed dead, is alone on Mars with no communication and limited supplies. He is, however, the mission engineer, the fix-it guy, and with intelligence and grit he goes to work to stay alive. Weir uses Watney’s proactive nature and determination to survive to keep the story escalating to a riveting conclusion.