This week: The author of Little Bee tackles the world of professional cycling, Harvey Pekar tackles Israel, and why brain damage makes us "very, very randy."
Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human by Jesse Bering (FSG/Scientific American) – Bering gathers 30 eclectic essays addressing human activities with an evolutionary spin. Topics include: the evolutionary advantages of premature ejaculation, the relationship between a woman’s orgasms and her partner’s status and looks, and the “adaptive” aspect of suicide. These entertaining essays offer a cornucopia of ideas that will reward readers with hours of conversational gambits. Read our Q&A with Bering.
Gold by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster) – The author of Little Bee pens a thrilling and emotionally rewarding novel about the world of professional cycling. Zoe Castle and Kate Meadows met at age 19 trying out for the British Cycling Team and have been friends and rivals for 13 years now. Kate might have more natural ability, but Zoe is the more driven of the two. Things begin to heat up when the International Olympic Committee changes its rules so that only one cyclist, either Zoe or Kate, will be eligible to compete in the 2012 London Games. Cleave pulls out all the stops getting inside the hearts and minds of his engagingly complex characters. Read the book’s opening.
All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen (FSG) – This informative, gossipy, and entertaining biography traces three intersecting lives: Esther Murphy, a brilliant talker; Mercede de Acosta, a seductress who saved every scrap of memorabilia; and Madge Garland, the witty aesthete and style icon. Cohen, a professor at Wesleyan University, fully delineates the conventional biographical matters of ancestry, parents, schooling, marriages, affairs, friendships, breakups, work, and death. All We Know is a wonderful portrait of how three women made and remade themselves in a time when gender roles irrevocably shifted.
Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy (Random) – A masterful biography of the man who refused to subordinate the power of the church to the power of the state, and was martyred for it. Through his engrossing chronicle of Becket’s life and work, Guy, a history fellow at Cambridge, regales us with the tale of a man who, because of his own rhetorical and administrative skills became Henry II’s right-hand man and eventually his mortal enemy. Guy’s masterfully told tale of a man attempting to live up to his ideals amid political and religious intrigue brings Becket fully to life.
Die a Stranger: An Alex McKnight Novel by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur) - Every word counts in Edgar-winner Hamilton’s masterful ninth novel featuring ex-cop Alex McKnight, who gets sucked into a mystery when his friend Vinnie disappears. The event may be connected with illegal smuggling across the porous Canadian border. Through his emotionally intelligent characterizations, McKnight transforms what could have been a mundane plot into a sensitive exploration of tragedy and redemption.
Surviving the Shark: How a Brutal Great White Attack Turned a Surfer into a Dedicated Defender of Sharks by Jonathan Kathrein and Margaret Kathrein (Skyhorse) – Off Stinson Beach in Northern California, avid surfer Kathrein felt something in the water with him. Panicking and trying to paddle away, a great white seized his leg, pulling him underwater and thrashing him back and forth. Kathrein’s book covers not only his attack but his survival, and his transformation into a defender of sharks. A perfect beach read this summer, just as long as you don’t go in the water. Read an essay from Kathrein about the experience of the attack.
Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman (FSG/Hill and Wang) - Instead of the single-minded polemic that the title promises, this posthumous work by Pekar functions as a multipronged exploration of religious, political, and personal histories and is all the richer for it. Pekar structures his narrative as a long-running bull session with his collaborator, artist Waldman, as they amble around Pekar’s hometown of Cleveland. In his later life, Pekar becomes troubled by the growth of religious fundamentalism in Israel, West Bank settlements, and what he saw as destructive military policies. A sweet and simple epilogue by Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, provides the perfect capstone, noting how she planned a funeral that was properly Jewish and yet appropriately nonreligious.
Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield (Dutton) – This YA novel begins on the night of Becca’s high school graduation, her boyfriend, James, has sex with her in the back of his truck, then dumps her. The next day, the body of an unknown girl is found on the side of the road. The brunt of Rosenfield’s debut novel focuses on Becca, both in the present and in flashbacks that take readers through her romance with James, interrupted with occasional chapters that reveal Amelia’s last night alive. This layered and exquisitely written story explores the fallout from the murder as well as the dark side of love. Actions have real consequences in Rosenfield’s novel, and her suffocating small town setting is powerfully and chillingly evoked.
Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith (Simon & Schuster) - Afflicted journalist and editor Smith uses humor (such as his use of maxi pads to stem his profuse armpit sweat) as he explains the excess of thought and emotion also known as “Monkey Mind” in Buddhism. He traces its roots to his psychotherapist mother, a woman whose life is riddled with attacks she actively works to overcome in her 40s. Smith’s attacks are exacerbated by the loss of his virginity in a ménage à trois with two predatory older women whose advances he’s too angst-ridden to rebuff. Smith also reflects on college, where the abundance of freedom and absence of personal space induces frequent tear-choked calls home. Smith does a skillful job of dissecting the mechanics of anxiety as well as placing the reader in his fitful shoes. Read our Q&A with Smith.
Advent by James Treadwell (Simon & Schuster/Emily Bestler) - Debut novelist Treadwell ties together the fear and wonder of magic and adolescence in this revealing tale of age-old ambition clashing with newfound identity. Gavin, a troubled 15-year-old suspended from school after admitting he sees ghosts, takes holiday with his aunt Gwen, housekeeper for an ancient Cornish estate, Pendurra. Infused with the enchantment of forgotten places, Pendurra attracts other people who bear witness, involuntarily and at a cost, to otherworldly presences. When powerful artifacts crafted by Johannes Faust, the last magus, appear at Pendurra, the stage is set for Gavin and friends to uncover the secrets of their own heritage. Treadwell makes marvels from the simplest materials—a blooming rose, a rowan walking stick, a traditional carol—and brings his landscape to frightening and fascinating life.