This week, a millionaire map thief, the history of money, and Knausgaard's latest.
The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding (Gotham) - Considered by many to be a reputable antique map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III was also a thief who stole hundreds of valuable maps (some estimates put his haul at over 200) from libraries and other institutions and then sold them. Here, reporter Blanding (The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink) examines and contextualizes the curious case. What began as the occasional pilferage in order to keep his business afloat ballooned as Smiley’s debt increased exponentially, due in no small part to a grand lifestyle—the most glaring example of which was Smiley’s renovation of a rustic farmhouse, including a $105,000 kitchen from Italy. This is a highly readable profile of a narcissist who got in over his head and lost it all.
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles (Candlewick) - Following graduation from their high school’s special education track, two girls become wards of the state and are placed in an apartment where they live independently and cook and clean for their neighbor/employer, an older woman named Elizabeth. Sharp-tongued and aggressive, Quincy is defensive about her learning difficulties and the physical scars left by the source of her brain damage, “when my mama’s boyfriend hit my head with a brick.” Sensitive Biddy, who describes herself as having “moderate retardation,” overeats to mask past traumas, which include having given up her baby. Giles’s (Dark Song) background teaching special education students informs this blunt, honest, and absorbing story about two young women overcoming challenges that have less to do with their abilities to read or write than with how society views and treats them.
The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell (HarperCollins/Tegen) - While trapped in a cursed castle surrounded by thorns, 13-year-old Sand, a commoner who would rather apprentice as a blacksmith than fulfill his father’s aspirations by attending university, unintentionally resurrects Perrotte, a young noblewoman who once lived in the castle, which has been torn apart: “Nothing was whole here, nothing at all. Not a spoon, not a toothpick, not a bed, not a door.” In this ambitious historical fantasy set in medieval Brittany, Sand and Perrotte form an intense, prickly friendship as they fix what they can of the shattered castle and learn that “some things are not meant to be mended.”
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (Atria/Emily Bestler) - Screenwriter and producer Hayes (Payback) makes his fiction debut with an exceptional thriller that boasts an utterly credible narrator who has had so many covert identities he can barely remember his original name. Soul-weary Scott Murdoch (aka the Pilgrim) has retired from the top echelon of ultrasecret espionage, but duty and faith in the human spirit call him back into service. A lone-wolf Middle Eastern native whom the Pilgrim code names “the Saracen” has a sure-fire bioterrorist plot to destroy the United States. In the cinematic chase that ensues, the action traverses the globe, from the Oval Office to the dusty trails of Afghanistan, each scene fleshed out in the smallest resonating detail (e.g., a Down syndrome child’s laughter, the endless nausea of waterboarding). Like many pilgrimages, this one is painfully long and packed with unexpected menace, its glimpses of the goal fitful and far between, but readers will agree that this journey of body and soul is well worth the effort.
My Struggle, Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. from the Norwegian by Donald Bartlett (Archipelago) - The third installment of Knausgaard’s six-part autobiographical novel takes a deeper look at the author’s childhood. Set in the 1970s and ’80s on the vividly described island of Tromoya in southern Norway, volume three is more conventionally structured than the previous two. (The first book focused largely on the death of Karl Ove’s father, and the second followed the courtship of Karl Ove’s second wife, Linda.) Here, the adult narrator (“the forty-year-old creature who is sitting in Malmo writing this”) makes fewer appearances than in the first two installments, as he recounts his formative years. The sensitive young Karl Ove takes journeys with his neighborhood friends through the forest on the island, exploring the landscapes with curiosity and indulging his appetite for adventure and troublemaking. Progressing through early years at school, he plays soccer, chases crushes, develops interests in books and rock music, and seeks the guidance of his compassionate older brother, Yngve. This segment of a genre-defying and unusual novel will leave readers hungry for the following installments, and serves as a fine entry point into the series.
War and Gold: A 500-Year History of Empires, Adventures, and Debt by Kwasi Kwarteng (PublicAffairs) - The title’s implications aside, this is really a history of money—thoroughly satisfying and remarkably accessible. Aiming to explain today’s international financial turmoil, British historian and Conservative MP Kwarteng (Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World) begins with Spain’s conquest of America and its resultant bonanza of gold and silver. This bullion allowed governments to pay for wars and bolstered the European nation-state, yet it also fostered inflation, deficits, and a vast expansion of paper money—the three sins of classical economics. Centuries of financial bedlam paused during the Victorian era of gold-based stable currency and balanced budgets, but two ruinous world wars resurrected deficits and unprecedented government spending.
Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu (John Hunt/Perfect Edge) - Perhaps a century in the future, all humans suddenly go bald, putting wig factory owners like filmmaker and womanizer Larry Chao in the spotlight. Larry’s best friend, cameraman Nicholas Guan, fights for his own identity in this thought-provoking story where fakery is preferred over the real. Liu (Dr. 2) crafts a vivid, imaginative setting with lush descriptive phrases: “Beijing had become a city of vapors, a metropolis of neon calligraphy... Store names floated in mid-air, Mandarin phrases wandered the alleys like unforgiven spirits, and a sentence cried for redemption, crucified in mist.” What begins as a broad farce with spy girls and gadgets gradually becomes a serious commentary on the nature of self.
Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood (Penguin) - With her second collection, Lockwood (Balloon Pop Outlaw Black) continues to develop a poetics that interrogates those categories to which societies pledge allegiance: nation, gender, nature, and sexuality. Nothing is off limits here and often the poems’ responses to their subjects—whether natural, political, or epistemological—are a fumbling, projective sexual ecstasy: “Your sight and your hearing increase, like wheat/ and the wind in the wheat..../ Blue sky increases above the wheat/ and you know what it’s like to grow a... well.” At home where the startling is status quo, Lockwood’s provocative “Rape Joke” sees itself plain: “The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.” Fiercely smart and aching with imagination, she addresses what it means to be “a series of places where animal parts could emerge,” yet remains able to wonder “how can there be enough room in America to make what makes it up.”
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik (HMH) - Miodownik, director of the Institute of Making at University College London, writes a fascinating introduction to materials science, a discipline unfamiliar to most outside it. To “tell the story of stuff” he takes a photo of himself enjoying a cup of tea on his London rooftop, and proceeds to examine 10 of the materials in the photo. These materials (concrete, glass, plastics, etc.) are ubiquitous in the modern world and possess their own chemistry and history. Miodownik includes himself in his discussions so that, in the chapter on biomaterials, readers learn about his fillings as well as his disappointment that when he broke a leg as a child he didn’t receive the same upgrades as the Six Million Dollar Man. His humor helps highlight such facts as we are one of the first generations to not taste our cutlery, due to the properties of stainless steel, or that “the biggest diamond yet discovered... is orbiting a pulsar star” and is “five times the size of Earth.”
Red or Dead by David Peace (Melville House) - Here’s a tough sell for an American reading audience: a challenging, 700-plus-pager about a very successful English football club manager, based on a true story. About that “challenging” thing—the book is challenging, but not in a footnoted, stories-within-stories, tricky postmodern kind of way. No, this is an endurance test. Bill Shankly, the man this novel is about, is one of the great football managers of all time. He took over an ailing Liverpool Football Club in 1959 and over the next 15 years raised the team up from the scummy backwaters of lower-tier English football and turned it into a trophy-winning powerhouse.
We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt (Random/Lamb) - After the first chapter of this absorbing contemporary novel, readers will know two things about narrator Nell Golden, a high school freshman: she is extremely close to her sister, Layla, a junior at the same San Francisco school, and Nell is about to make an announcement that could drive the two of them apart. Written as a confessional, from Nell to Layla, the story goes on to tell how Nell’s idolization of her sister is challenged when rumors spread about Layla having an affair with the school’s hip art teacher. Stunned by the news, Nell is having her own romantic disaster, as well, falling for a boy whose lust she mistakes for love.
Never Love a Gambler by Keith Ridgway (New Directions) - This three-story collection presents the same black-and-bloody humor as Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child, complete with menace, surrealism, and plain old evil. The Pinter-esque title story follows a hard-luck lady named Dodo as she tries to save her son from her husband’s thuggish debtors and encounters a city of abandoned children and mad dogs. “Shame” is the confession of a haunted servant indentured to a nefarious master, trying to forget the unsavory business he is party to. These two stories succeed because of what they leave unsaid, but the third, “Ross and Kinder,” is explicit in the actions of murderer-for-hire Ross, whose list of victims is written on his hands, and Kinder, his cadaverous employer. Ridgway has clearly arrived to trouble our sleep with wit and violence, and, as this excellent sampling of his wares confirms, he is unlikely to leave, even if you ask him nicely.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Riverhead) - The Post family is going to Mallorca for two weeks of vacation, but for them clouds are forming over the sunlit destination: the tickets were already booked when it came to light that Jim, Post père, has recently committed transgressions grave enough to get him fired and infuriate Franny, his wife of 35 years. The couple’s youngest daughter, Sylvia, has just graduated from high school and her parents are anxious to have one last family holiday before she becomes an adult. Joining them are Sylvia’s older brother and his girlfriend, as well as Franny’s best friend Charles and his husband. Every couple, and indeed every individual, arrives with a mix of optimism and trepidation, along with a host of uncertainties that, by book’s end, are satisfyingly resolved.