This week, a haunting psychological mystery set at a school for troubled teens, "Against Football," and the culinary imagination.
Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond (Melville House) - Early on in this powerful polemic, before expanding on the numerous reasons spectators should more seriously consider the ramifications of the football, Almond (Candyfreak) declares that he’s been an avid, lifelong fan. Most of the arguments he espouses are familiar: football causes brain damage and lasting psychological conditions; football is largely unethical because it perpetuates a culture of bigotry and militant thought; and football perpetuates a manipulative system of crony capitalism that takes advantage of its players at the high-school, college, or professional levels. Further, Almond makes a convincing case for the theory that Americans have turned to football in order to meet spiritual needs that arose as a result of industrial and social progress. Perhaps the worst of it, Almond states bluntly, is that fans bear more responsible than they acknowledge, as they continue to watch greedily and passively despite being aware of these facts.
Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad by Brian A. Catlos (FSG) - Contemporary accounts of the Crusades were written by dueling theologians and “sycophantic courtier-poets,” each with their own particular ulterior motives and axes to grind says Catlos, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Aiming to strip “away the layers of literary varnish,” he notes that “we are left with frustratingly little, and much of it tentative.” Catlos alternates focus between figures whose stories have survived the passage of time—while accreting diverse myths and legends—and on those who have slipped into obscurity but who lived lives as fascinating and remarkable as they are unfamiliar. He concludes that violence in the era was more often a consequence of greed or external threat than of religious or ideological disagreements. Catlos's history is approachable, believable, and captivating.
Economics: The User's Guide by Ha-Joon Chang (Bloomsbury) - Cambridge economist Chang (23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism) wants to popularize his field through accessible writing and explanations of our material world. The result is a synthesis—half textbook, half browser—that the author suggests should be read in snippets. Chang notes depressingly that economic history has, for economists, turned into a “harmless distraction, like trainspotting, and at worst as a refuge for the intellectually challenged who cannot handle ‘hard’ stuff like mathematics and statistics.” What Change shows is that economics in its many guises is vitally important to our everyday lives, and as such remains fascinating, the opposite of Carlyle’s so-called dismal science.
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley (Little, Brown) - Earley has grown up. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star, both set in the 1930s and 1940s American South and concerned with the childhood and teen years of Jim Glass, has moved on. Although the seven works (a novella and stories) in this collection still take place in the South, it is often the New South: for example, rather than a train coming through a whistle-stop town with the famous ball player Ty Cobb aboard, as in Jim the Boy, there’s a Birmingham abortion-clinic bomber on the run in “The Cryptozoologist.” Earley’s attention to aging protagonists is a fresh direction. In the opening story, “Haunted Castles and the Barrier Islands,” a middle-aged couple that runs a little newspaper tries to bring a little zing to their marriage by booking a room at a costal inn, only to find themselves on the verge of slipping into the Atlantic, thanks to rising sea levels.
Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer (Norton) - It’s not often that a graphic novel generates the kind of prepublication attention that this rare graphic novel effort by the multitalented, Pulitzer Prize–winning Feiffer has generated, but this is no ordinary graphic novel. Intertwining the lives of five well-rounded female characters in an exceptionally complex narrative, the novel takes us through the Depression and war years at a pace that is positively frenetic. With hidden secrets, dual identities, mystery, and murder, Feiffer creates a fusion of genres that reads like a film noir written by a dramatist or a cartoonist’s version of a pulp detective story done as a stage play—all mediums that the author has triumphed in. The result is an achievement of tremendous breadth and scope.
The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity by Sandra M. Gilbert (Norton) - A rich stew of associations are served up in this rambling, flavorful survey of the cultural and literary meanings of food. Poet and critic Gilbert (Death’s Door) noshes from a vast buffet of eras and genres: scriptural eating, from Eve’s bite of the apple to the Last Supper; “food memoirs” that tell a life’s story through meals; abundant modernist fare, from Proust’s luscious madeleine to a Hemingway campfire cookout; kitchen-themed poems, mysteries, and movies, including the Pixar animated epic Ratatouille, which turns restaurant hygiene on its head; contemporary diet primers and bulimia confessionals. Sprinkled throughout are recipes, menus, and the author’s spicy recollection of her Sicilian-American family’s socio-gastronomic rites. Gilbert presents no particular thesis, but does tease out a theme: food’s role as the sine qua non of bodily reality, and thus intertwined with carnality, female eroticism, bourgeois pleasure, and, in Sartre’s Nausea, existentialist revulsion at virtually everything.
The Furies by Natalie Haynes (St. Martin's) - When Alex Morris accepts a former professor’s offer to fill a sudden vacancy at an Edinburgh school for troubled teens, the last problem the young London stage director anticipates is having too powerful an impact on her students. But that’s precisely what happens when the Greek dramas she assigns start to resonate with her fierce, yet fragile 15-year-olds—with life-shattering consequences—in Haynes’s haunting debut novel. Cleverly plotted, cannily paced, and unafraid to pose questions that don’t have easy answers, this accomplished psychological mystery demonstrates the way that sometimes it may take being lost in the darkness to enable us to glimpse the light.
Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins (Greenwillow) - Newberry Medalist Perkins (Criss Cross) writes a clever, off-kilter story of community support in this tall tale featuring three courageous squirrels. A crisis occurs when gray squirrel Jed is swept up by a hawk. Jed’s friends Chai and TsTs (it’s “the ‘Emma’ of squirrel names,” Perkins explains) rush to find where he’s (safely) landed, but they’re soon distracted by impending danger: humans trimming trees around “buzzpaths” (power lines) pose a threat to their habitat. Somehow, TsTs, Chai, and Jed (who eventually meets up with his pals after having a few adventures of his own) must persuade their friends and neighbors to relocate somewhere safer, not an easy task given the nature of squirrels (“Getting squirrels to listen to reason is like getting a tree to drop its nuts at your front door,” admits one). Readers, especially animal lovers and the environmentally minded, will relish the squirrels’ adventures, as well as Perkins’s laugh-aloud illustrations and equally witty footnotes.
Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre (Bloomsbury) - Two-tour Marine veteran Pitre’s affecting debut delivers an unflinching portrait of the Iraq war, both through flashbacks to the conflict and stories about its principal characters once they have returned home. The novel’s protagonists are 1st Lt. Peter Donovan, who receives a Bronze Star Medal after defending a downed American helicopter’s crash site under heavy fire in Ramadi; Lester “Doc” Pleasant, a medic dishonorably discharged for developing a dependency on his own supplies after witnessing a roadside IED explosion and the gruesome death of two members of his unit; and Kateb “Dodge” el-Hariti, a former student at Baghdad University who works as an interpreter for Donovan’s team, helping them deal with locals as they clear and reseal potholes containing buried artillery shells. Pitre’s restrained depictions of Doc and Donovan’s wartime doings and their labored readjustment to civilian life—which involves avoiding psychological triggers, drinking too much, and feigning interest in new career pursuits and girlfriends—is praiseworthy. But it’s the nuanced take on Dodge’s divided loyalties—to his family, country, and postwar identity as an activist in Tunisia pressing for President Ben Ali’s resignation—that imbues the novel with depth and integrity.
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell (S&S) - Twelve-year-old Wilhelmina “Will” Silver loves her “wildcat life” on a farm “in the hottest corner of Zimbabwe” where she rides horses, trains monkeys, and plays with her friend Simon. Disapproving neighbors consider her “a different species,” but her widowed father thinks her “irrefutably the most beautiful creature living.” His untimely death shatters Will’s world, and results in her being sent to an English boarding school. Will’s father’s dying words, “Courage, chook, ja?” sustain her in a mystifying new environment for which she has no preparation or advocate, where mocking classmates call her savage. Employing a close third-person narrative, Rundell (Rooftoppers) deftly conveys the terror that impels Will to escape into the streets of London, which she navigates with ingenuity and survival skills honed in Africa. Lyrical prose, Zimbabwean dialect, and evocative dialogue express Will’s internal and external worlds.
Feral by Holly Schindler (HarperTeen) - Opening with back-to-back scenes of exquisitely imagined yet very real horror, Schindler’s third YA novel hearkens to the uncompromising demands of her debut, A Blue So Dark, with its gut-wrenching portrait of mental illness. This time, the focus is on women’s voices and the consequences they suffer for speaking. Claire Cain was an award-winning high school journalist in Chicago when she was beaten nearly to death for a story. Serena Sims lost her life while pursuing a lead in the more confined purview of Peculiar, Mo. Their stories intersect when Claire’s father’s sabbatical lands her in Peculiar just in time to discover Serena’s body, surrounded by the eerie feral cats that infest the town. Schindler avoids cardboard character types—yes, there are jocks, princesses, and nerds, but the author reveals them as people squeezed into their labels, not defined by them.
As Red as Blood by Salla Simukka, trans. from the Finnish by Owen F. Witesman (Amazon/Skyscape) - Finnish author Simukka creates a tough, self-sufficient heroine in 17-year-old Lumikki Andersson in this first book in the Snow White Trilogy. The novel begins starkly, with a young woman’s freshly shed blood soaking the snow of a Finnish winter. Lumikki, who lives alone and attends a prestigious arts school, becomes enmeshed in the murder when she finds (literally) laundered money in the school’s darkroom. Soon, she is swept into an investigation of a dangerous drug cartel along with three schoolmates, including Elisa, the pretty, spoiled daughter of a local narcotics officer. In response to a childhood trauma, Lumikki has remade herself—independent, cerebral, distant; her unlikely friendship with Elisa is unexpected and endearing.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin/Paulsen) - Written in verse, Woodson’s collection of childhood memories provides insight into the Newbery Honor author’s perspective of America, “a country caught/ between Black and White,” during the turbulent 1960s. Jacqueline was born in Ohio, but spent much of her early years with her grandparents in South Carolina, where she learned about segregation and was made to follow the strict rules of Jehovah’s Witnesses, her grandmother’s religion. Wrapped in the cocoon of family love and appreciative of the beauty around her, Jacqueline experiences joy and the security of home. Her move to Brooklyn leads to additional freedoms, but also a sense of loss: “Who could love/ this place—where/ no pine trees grow, no porch swings move/ with the weight of/ your grandmother on them.” The writer’s passion for stories and storytelling permeates the memoir, explicitly addressed in her early attempts to write books and implicitly conveyed through her sharp images and poignant observations seen through the eyes of a child.