This week, the definitive Tennessee Williams biography, how Aristotle invented science, and Lauren Oliver's creepy ghost story.
The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry (Roaring Brook) - Readers with a penchant for dark humor will relish Berry’s (All the Truth That’s in Me) tongue-in-cheek murder mystery set in a late-19th-century British girls’ boarding school. The St. Etheldreda’s School for Young Ladies, run by stern headmistress Constance Plackett, may not be paradise for its residents, but the students get an unanticipated break from their dull routines when Plackett and her odious brother drop dead at the dinner table one spring evening, apparently poisoned. Knowing opportunity when they see it, the girls hatch a scheme to dispose of the bodies and run the school on their own. Unfortunately, a killer is on the loose, and the girls could be the next victims.
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (Little, Brown) - Bezmozgis’s second novel (after The Free World) is a beautifully written exploration of the role fate can play in the finer distinctions between a heroic life and a villainous one. Baruch Kotler is a Soviet Jewish dissident who, after he is freed from prison, becomes a celebrated Israeli politician. When scandal forces Kotler to flee Israel for the Crimea with his mistress, Leora, a coincidence leads him to the door of Chaim Tankilevich, the man whose testimony led to Kotler’s imprisonment in a Russian jail 39 years ago. With all the makings of a standard revenge tale and told in Bezmogis’s trademark direct prose, the story resists oversimplification. Bezmozgis’s novel feels vast, its pages heavy with the complicated debts we owe one another, which are impossible to leave behind.
Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie (Harper) - This detailed historical novel takes readers into Gutenberg’s 15th-century Mainz workshop to experience the frustration and exhilaration of designing, typesetting, and rolling the first printed Bible off the press. Focusing on contributions made by Gutenberg’s associates, the story follows the apprenticeship of future publishing pioneer Peter Schoeffer from the day Peter’s adopted father, merchant-investor Johann Fust, tells him to give up life as a Parisian scribe in order to learn a new trade using Gutenberg’s secret technology and techniques. For unhappy Peter, printed texts seem less sacred, and certainly less artistic, than hand-copied manuscripts. Demanding and sometimes devious, Gutenberg proves a difficult boss; worst of all, the equipment still has bugs to work out. Only when Peter comes up with his own innovation does he appreciate print’s artistry and power. Despite obstacles posed by the Church, guilds, family, and friends, Fust, Gutenberg, and Schoeffer’s tenuous collaboration culminates in the Gutenberg Bible. Contemporary readers suspicious of digital texts will sympathize with Peter’s mixed feelings towards print. History buffs will savor the moment the inventor, the scribe, and the merchant make a decision that leads them out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance.
Eyes Wide Open: Going Beyond the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman (Candlewick) - “History is happening right here and right now,” writes Newbery Medalist Fleischman in this challenging and provocative overview of current environmental and sociological problems, which urges readers to think critically and broadly about the world. Throughout, Fleischman gives readers a toolbox of deciphering skills with which to recognize—for starters—the vested interests that guide decisions made by those in power, media and PR distortions, and both real and “shadow” solutions. Photographs, sidebars, and an array of suggested resources bolster the hard truths outlined (“Solving the environment requires looking straight at reality and calculating the costs of our lifestyle and options”). Few readers will look at the world the same way after finishing this book.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs (Scribner) - A man with seemingly every opportunity loses his way in this compelling biographical saga. Novelist Hobbs chronicles the life of Peace, who was born in a Newark, N.J., ghetto to an impoverished single mom and a father who went to prison for murder. Thanks to his mother's sacrifices and his extraordinary intellect he went to Yale and got a biology degree but when he returned to Newark after college, he became a drug dealer and was eventually shot to death by rivals. Writing with novelistic detail and deep insight, Hobbs, who was Peace's roommate at Yale, registers the disadvantages his friend faced while avoiding hackneyed fatalism and sociology. Hobbs reveals a man whose singular experience and charisma made him simultaneously an outsider and a leader in both New Haven and Newark, Peace was a pillar of his family and community, superbly capable in both settings, but he could not reconcile their conflicting demands.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton) - Writing with sympathy and insight, former New Yorker drama critic Lahr (Prick Up Your Ears) invests the Tennessee Williams of this brilliant new biography with the same vitality and honesty that the playwright used to bring his characters to life. Williams wrote that he “saw every play and every film I ever worked on as a confession,” and Lahr looks to his scripts as the chief means of understanding his turbulent life, beginning with the delicate poetry of The Glass Menagerie, which is encoded with sentiments from his fraught childhood relationships with his mother and sister. Quoting extensively from diaries, notebooks, and journals, Lahr depicts Williams as an artist who “made a spectacle of his haunted interior.” Though Lahr acknowledges the successes of previous Williams scholars, his achievement is not likely to be surpassed.
The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science by Armand Marie Leroi (Viking) - Leroi (Mutants) lovingly rescues the reputation of Aristotle’s alternately meticulous and bizarre studies of animal behavior from the ruins left in the wake of derision during the Scientific Revolution. Leroi brings a modern sensibility to, yet evokes an air of timelessness with, his gorgeous descriptions of the ecology of the fishing villages of Lesbos where Aristotle both carefully dissected fishes and gave credence to the most fantastic of animal folk stories. His Aristotle creates systems of categories in a determined search for the reasons behind the existence of living things in their myriad forms. Leroi smoothly drops readers into Aristotle’s world of concocting elements and vital heat, of formal causes and nutritive, sensitive, and rational souls.
Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life by George Monbiot (Univ. of Chicago) - Investigative journalist, Guardian columnist, and visionary Monbiot (Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice) offers a gorgeous, passionate defense of “rewilding”: a conservation approach that primes unproductive land to develop a stable mix of plant and animal species without additional human intervention. Monbiot sees rewilding as the cure for our civilization’s “ecological boredom,” rejecting dour, short-sighted conservation efforts which statically preserve depleted lands like sheep-grazing meadows instead of offering the hope of wild places’ potential to return primal amazement and danger to the human experience. Traveling from the Amazonian rainforest to Romania’s Carpathians to the rivers and uplands of Wales, Monbiot blends convincing data about successes and failures in returning large animal species to the land with vibrant recollections of his experiences—both delightful and depressing—engaging with these places today and the people charged with caring for them.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton (HMH) - Morton (Starting Out in the Evening) offers up a fascinating family presided over by the irascible Florence Gordon, a 75-year-old New York City intellectual and feminist activist who likes to surprise, argue, and criticize. Florence never sought public adoration during her long career committed to women’s empowerment, but, now that she has been touted as “an American classic” by her young new editor, she finds she likes the attention. Her pending memoir will be her crowning literary achievement, but her family’s temporary relocation to New York from Seattle interferes with her process: she considers it an unwelcome intrusion into her well-established routine. Florence’s son, Daniel, is a Seattle policeman, an apparently disappointing career choice for the son of a famous feminist, and she cannot understand why she feels so little affection for him. She thinks his wife, Janine, is a vacuous suck-up and also has a difficult time connecting with her inquisitive teenage granddaughter, Emily, although the two eventually develop a tentative rapport. Florence never sees the disaster looming in her son’s marriage after an unexpected, life-altering medical diagnosis causes her to make two fateful decisions about her own future.
Rooms by Lauren Oliver (Ecco) - YA-bestseller Oliver’s (Before I Fall) assured adult debut skillfully weaves an innovative ghost story into a nuanced domestic drama. Upon Richard Walker’s death, his scattered family returns to clear out his house, which they hope to inherit. His ex-wife, Caroline, soothes bad marital memories with alcohol. His grown daughter, Minna, brings along her own six-year-old daughter, Amy, and a deep-seated resentment of her father, while his suicidal son, Trenton, struggles with teenage angst in the aftermath of a debilitating car accident. Trenton first senses the haunting presence of others in the home. The spirits of Alice and Sandra, two women who lived in the house at different times, now find themselves confined there together, squabbling with each other as they watch the family cope with Richard’s messy legacy. Soon a new female spirit close to Trenton’s age enters the house, and Alice conceives a dangerous plan to free herself of its prison.
You'll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Selected Stories of Elizabeth Taylor by Elizabeth Taylor (NYRB) - This captivating collection of 29 stories by Taylor—a British novelist who wrote 11 novels (including At Mrs. Lippincote’s) and four story collections—includes an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who edited the book. Most of the stories revolve around female protagonists in unremarkable English settings. The title story is about a young girl named Rhoda, who attends a ball with her father. Her glamorous mother is sick and unable to attend, but she advises awkward Rhoda not to be shy. Their dynamic is emblematic of the tension between expectation and reality that affects many of Taylor’s characters. Taylor’s vulnerable characters are simultaneously touching and heartbreaking.
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse) - During National Novel Writing Month, Darcy Patel, 18, pounds out a “Hindu paranormal romance” that earns her an advance hefty enough to fund a college education. Alas, Darcy has other ideas, moving to Manhattan to do rewrites and deferring admission to Oberlin. What follows are two stories, told in alternating chapters: Darcy’s path to publication, and the final draft of the book she wrote, also titled Afterworlds. Darcy’s new experiences inform her revision: falling in love for the first time makes her rethink the romance in her book. Her protagonist Lizzie’s story is more explosive, beginning with a terrorist attack that she survives by so thoroughly pretending to be dead that she slips into a ghost world, where she meets Yamaraj, a hunky “soul guide.”