This week, Donna Tartt, Dan Simmons, and Bush and Cheney in the White House. Plus: Philip Roth analyzed.
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker (Doubleday) - The complex partnership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney undergirds this authoritative narrative of their tumultuous eight years in Washington. Baker, the senior White House correspondent for the New York Times, skillfully navigates how Bush, a national security neophyte, came to rely heavily on the former Wyoming congressman and secretary of defense, a consummate Washington insider.
Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr (Clarkson Potter) - M.F.K. Fisher’s great-nephew Barr, a Travel + Leisure editor, uses considerable research to recreate a momentous convergence of preeminent American food writers in Provence in the fall of 1970 that determined not only the trajectory of their subsequent careers but the direction of American food culture as well.
Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark (Farrar, Straus and Grioux) - Debut novelist Clark uses free verse to write a gripping story about a complex topic: the challenges of growing up transgender or genderqueer. Brendan struggles with his occasional desires to be a girl; in her own series of poems, Brendan’s devoted girlfriend, Vanessa, worries about why he is suddenly avoiding her. Meanwhile, transgendered Angel—whom Brendan meets near the teen center where Angel works—reveals her own painful journey; her intense story includes physical abuse and a hospital stay after being beaten up while working as a prostitute.
The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by Arthur Herman (Random) - In his sweeping new book, historian Herman contends that Plato and Aristotle had vastly different conceptions about the world, and that the various followers and interpreters of each thinker, throughout the ages, shaped the course of Western civilization. According to Herman, Plato views “the world through the eyes of the artist and religious mystic,” using intuition and ideals to understand the workings of the world, while Aristotle “observes reality through the... eyes of science,” using reason and logic as guides.
Reality Boy by A.S. King (Little, Brown) – King drafts a nuanced portrayal of a boy saddled with the nickname the Crapper because of his infamous behavior at age five on a reality show, Network Nanny. Now almost 17, Gerald Faust is ostracized by his peers, barely keeping his violent urges at bay, and grateful for his spot in special ed because, he says, “I need to not be on my guard all the time.... I need a place where I don’t need war paint to survive.”
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) - Drawing on conversations with Roth and featuring insightful close readings of his entire oeuvre, longtime New Yorker staff writer Pierpont offers a dazzling chronicle that traces moments from the author’s life and explores the “life of his art.” Pierpont develops the story of Roth’s writing chronologically, summarizing the plots and critical reception of each of his many novels, from Goodbye, Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010).
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (Doubleday) - Shorto conjures the anything-goes spirit of contemporary Amsterdam, with its pot-smoking and red-light districts, from the city’s fascinating past as a major port city. Amsterdam, to Shorto, was not only the first city in Europe to develop the cultural and political foundations of what we now call liberalism—“a society focused on the concerns and comforts of individuals,... run by individuals acting together,” and tolerant of “religion, ethnicity, or other differences”—but also an exporter of these beliefs to the rest of Europe and the New World.
The Abominable by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown) - Young American alpine climber Jake is invited on a “recovery” mission to find Percival Bromley, a British lord who vanished on Mt. Everest. Much of the novel is devoted to the strategies and techniques of mountain climbing as it was developing in the 1920s, and Jake, his friend Jean-Claude, and team leader Deacon spend a lot of time rubbing elbows and comparing gear with real alpinists of the era. But amid the wash of detail, Simmons plants crucial facts and conjectures about early-20th-century Europe that won’t pay off until Jake and his party are nearing the top of the world.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown) – Tartt’s third novel begins with an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum that kills narrator Theo Decker’s beloved mother and results in his unlikely possession of a Dutch masterwork called The Goldfinch. Shootouts, gangsters, pillowcases, storage lockers, and the black market for art all play parts in the ensuing life of the painting in Theo’s care.