This week, a go-for-the-jugular noir, the new Alice Munro book, and the dark underside of the Elizabethan golden age.
The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford (Bloomsbury Press) - Alford, a fellow in history at Cambridge University, has delved deeply into 16th-century archives to unearth a history of the dark underside to the Elizabethan golden age—a page-turning tale of assassination plots, torture, and espionage. When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, Protestants saw her as the rightful heir; Catholics regarded her as the godless Henry VIII’s bastard daughter who had usurped the throne from its legitimate occupant, Mary, Queen of Scots. Thus, throughout Elizabeth’s reign, she was targeted by foes both within and outside the kingdom, from the 471 English priests working to return England to the Church’s fold, to the power-grabbing rulers of France and Spain.
A Perfect Day by Carin Berger (Greenwillow) - “The whole world was white,” writes Berger in this hushed vision of a snowy day. Berger’s collages, however, are no simple “white”: her hilly snowscapes are crafted from lined paper, handwritten ledgers, and typewritten pages in creamy off-whites and pale yellows. Berger follows the activities of various children with birdlike faces, layered in winter plaids, before they “go home to warm hugs and dry clothes and steaming hot chocolate.” The pared-down prose both suggests the quiet stillness of a winter afternoon and lends itself to thoughtful consideration of each spread.
Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli (Metropolitan) - Novelist and Rolling Stone contributing editor Binelli's first nonfiction book is a nuanced portrait of a once-great American industrial city that decades ago fell into decay, but which is, as of late, experiencing a ray of hope. As fascinating as Detroit's current, tentative renaissance is, Binelli masterfully provides a broader story, a 300-year tour through the formerly wondrous and now wondrously devastated metropolis. Check out the top 10 cities in literature, as selected by Binelli.
Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Gluck (Ecco and Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - Though Glück has held national fame since the late 1970s for her terse, pared-down poems, this first career-spanning collected may be the most widely noted, and the most praised, collected poems in some time. Here is the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Wild Iris (1992), whose talking flowers encapsulated birth, death, loss, and hope; here are the starkly framed family memories of her controversial Ararat (1990), and the careful, self-accusing humor of late work such as The Seven Ages (2001).
From Germany to Germany: Journal of the Year 1990 by Gunter Grass, trans. from the German by Krishna Winston (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - This memoir, covering 13 months of the key period of German unification, knowingly re-creates an era of doubts and hopes. Grass, Nobel Prize–winning author of The Tin Drum, finds himself engaged and coming to grips with well-known themes, such as the legacy of the Holocaust, as well as with contemporary events, such as the Persian Gulf War. Grass sensitively yet realistically contemplates the fate of the GDR citizen, this time set up to be duped by the instruments of West German capitalism.
The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri (Knopf) - Music’s most memorable da-da-da-dummm touched off a cultural and intellectual ferment that’s ably explored in this sparkling study. Boston Globe music critic Guerrieri opens with an engaging musicological investigation of how Ludwig van Beethoven orchestrated his Fifth Symphony’s urgent rhythms and unsettling harmonies into a work of unique emotional and rhetorical force: listeners agree that it says something powerful and profound, he notes, even if they can’t agree on what it’s saying. a fresh, stimulating interpretation that shows how provocative the familiar classic can be.
She Loves Me Not: New & Selected Stories by Ron Hansen (Scribner) - Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) is best known for historical novels so well researched and faithful to recorded fact that they’re barely fiction at all—and at first glance the stories collected here stick to the formula. In “Wilde in Omaha,” Oscar drops choice rejoinders on his American tour; the Polish priest of “My Communist” flees the cold war for sunny Palo Alto; “The Governess” and “The Killers” are knowing take-offs on Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. But in this edition, which draws on Hansen’s 1988 collection Nebraska, we’re treated to the full range of the author’s Midwestern pathos, from the fast-talking gear heads of “Mechanics” and the shocking cattle mutilations in “True Romance” to the title story’s unattainable showgirl, who presides over a grisly murder. Read Hansen's "Crazy," the shortest piece in the collection.
Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of the Small Presses edited by Bill Henderson (Pushcart) - It's been a good year at the small presses, and the 37th annual Pushcart Prize anthology is proof—much of the writing here, amassed from numerous publications, is excellent. This year’s edition features Karen Russell, the late Harry Crews, and Marilynne Robinson.
The Fact of the Matter by Sally Keith (Milkweed) - "I'd obsessed over all the old systems," asserts Keith in this third book, in which she creates systems—through leaps and variation—to subvert them. In "Knots" she writes, "The spine is a series where action begins," later continuing, "The spine is a series of knots under skin," and builds up to: "On a ship full of species the rhinoceros arrives in Portugal, a gift for the king.// It had been over one thousand years since anyone in Europe had seen one." At their best, these acrobatic movements from one fact or phrase to a disparate other are not whimsical non sequiturs but revelations bridging history and the inner life.
Cold Quiet Country by Clayton Lindemuth (MP Publishing) - Lindemuth’s impressive debut, set in the winter of 1971, is a go-for-the-jugular country noir. Josephus Bittersmith, 72, is the longtime patriarchal sheriff of a remote town in Wyoming that bears his grandfather’s name. Burt Haudesert is a lecherous militiaman and rancher who routinely raped his teenage daughter, Gwen. But Burt’s been found dead with a pitchfork through the neck, and Bittersmith, a philanderer and brutish lout, has been called in on his final day in office and on the eve of a blizzard to track down whoever’s responsible.
Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus (Farrar, Straus & Grioux) - In this insightful biography of beloved children's book author Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), Marcus (Minders of Make-Believe) draws upon dozens of interviews with those who knew L'Engle personally and professionally, as well as with representatives of "the thousands of students, teachers, librarians, aspiring writers, neighbors and others who crossed her path." The result is both impressionistic and satisfyingly complex.
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Knopf) - Munro can depict key moments without obscuring the reality of a life filled with countless other moments—told or untold. In her 13th collection, she continues charting the shifts in norms that occur as WWII ends, the horses kept for emergencies go out of use, small towns are less isolated, and then gradually or suddenly, nothing is quite the same. There are no clunkers here, and especially strong stories include “Train,” “To Reach Japan,” “Haven,” and “Corrie.” And for the first time, Munro writes about her childhood, in the collection’s final four pieces, which she describes as “not quite stories.... I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.”