This week, madness at the dawn of Hollywood, life in South Korea, and Kerry Howley's amazing "Thrown."
The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown) - In this provocative thriller, Bacigalupi (The Drowned Cities) traces the awakening of a smart, compassionate, and privileged girl named Alix Banks to ugly realities of contemporary life, while seeking to open readers’ eyes, as well. Alix’s life is thrown into disarray when an activist group targets her family, its eyes on her father’s powerful public relations business. Moses is a charismatic black teen living off the money from a settlement with a pharmaceutical company after one of its medications killed his parents. Along with four other brilliant teens who have lost family to this sort of legal/medical maleficence, Moses hopes to enlist Alix’s help to release incriminating data from her father’s files, à la Edward Snowden.
The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen edited by Ellen Datlow (Tachyon) - Superstar editor Datlow makes no missteps in this reprint collection of dark tales involving movies and moviemaking. The one original piece, Stephen Graham Jones’s “Tenderizer,” is a haunting exploration of tragedy on both a personal and national level. A.C. Wise’s “Final Girl Theory,” about a cult film that’s an “infection, whispered from mouth to mouth in the dark,” is disturbing and gory without fetishizing its horrors. Kim Newman’s brilliant “Illimitable Dominion” tells an alternate history of Edgar Allen Poe, Roger Corman, and American International Pictures that’s particularly suited to film buffs who will probably spot the (initially) subtle changes to the time line.
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig (Norton) - Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig blends the story of the “only product in American history so powerful that it needed no name” with the lives of the four-larger-than-life characters who dreamed, funded, researched, and tested it. Eig recapitulates much of what’s known about the discovery of oral contraceptives and adds a wealth of unfamiliar material. He frames his story around the brilliant Gregory Pincus, who was let go by Harvard after his controversial work on in-vitro fertilization; charismatic Catholic fertility doctor John Rock, who developed a treatment that blocked ovulation and, with Pincus, began human testing (including on nonconsenting asylum patients); and the two fearless women who paid for and supported their work, rebellious women’s rights crusader and Planned Parenthood pioneer Margaret Sanger and her intellectual heiress, Katharine Dexter McCormick.
Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld by Jake Halpern (FSG) - Author and journalist Halpern (Fame Junkies) reports from a “shadowy corner of the economy”—the world of consumer-debt collection, which “remains dysfunctional and largely unsupervised.” Our entry to this world is Aaron Siegel, a former banking executive who left his job on Wall Street in 2005 and returned to his hometown of Buffalo. He began to operate as a privately financed debt buyer—buying and selling debt, rather than trying to collect on it—and found an unlikely partner in Brandon Wilson, a former armed robber turned debt collector. Halpern’s narrative follows these two in the “aboveground economy” (that is, the consumer-debt marketplace)—tracking down a rogue collection agency that stole their debt, answering to million dollar investors, getting tips on deals at a Las Vegas debt buyer’s conference, etc. The author then delves into the inner workings of what he refers to as the “financial underworld.”
Thrown by Kerry Howley (Sarabande) - This sui generis debut threatens to remap the entire genre of nonfiction. Howley, a philosophy student disillusioned by “academic apple-polishing,” sets out on a quest to find the closest contemporary equivalent to Schopenhauer’s concept of an ecstatic experience. She finds it, unexpectedly, in the world of mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighting. Howley becomes a “species of fighterly accoutrement known as a ‘spacetaker,’ ” ingratiating herself into the lives of two cage fighters: Sean Huffman, a smash-nosed, cauliflower-eared veteran with a legacy of losing but never getting knocked out, and Erik Koch, a young, lithe, apprentice-level beginner “destined for the big shows.” Howley’s brilliant prose is as dexterous and doughty as the fighters she trails, torquing into philosophy, parody, and sweat-soaked poetry.
The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones (Viking) - It’s not often that a book manages to be both scholarly and a page-turner, but British historian Jones succeeds on both counts in this entertaining follow-up to his bestselling The Plantagenets (currently in production as a television miniseries). Previously, Jones explored the Plantagenets’ rise to power, while here he examines their destruction. He begins in 1422 when Henry V dies, leaving the throne to an infant, and continues for the next 100 years through the reign of Henry VIII. Following Henry VI’s descent into madness and the utter collapse of royal authority, dynastic “wars of politics and personality” erupted as England’s elite families fought over the throne. Jones breathes new life into an oft-told account of how the crown changed hands five times before a young Welshman with a dubious claim wrested it from Richard III in 1485.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim (Crown) - In this extraordinary and troubling portrait of life under severe repression, South Korean–born Kim, who emigrated with her family to America when she was 13 years old, chronicles the two semesters she spent teaching English to North Korean teens at a Christian missionary school in Pyongyang. Having visited the highly closed and secretive state as part of various official American and journalist delegations starting in 2002, Kim jumped at the chance to live and teach at the newly opened Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). “North Korea,” she writes, “has become a siren for the hankering mind,” and, despite some critical articles she had published and her work as a novelist (The Interpreter), she was accepted at PUST, a boarding school for the country’s male elite. Her earnest, obedient students elicited a warmly maternal, protective feeling in her, despite their ignorance of the outside world, their empty boasting of their country’s achievements, and the easy way they lied outright.
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King (Little, Brown) - High school graduation has already prompted Glory O’Brien to confront the chronic malaise she’s felt since her mother’s suicide 13 years earlier. Then she and Ellie, a friend who lives in a hippie commune across the street, swirl the ashes of a mummified bat (you read that right) into their beers, and both girls begin receiving “transmissions” from everyone they encounter: “We could see the future. We could see the past. We could see everything.” From these visions, Glory learns of a second Civil War, set in motion by misogynistic legislation aimed at preventing women from receiving equal pay for equal work. Writing an account of the events she’s learning about from the transmissions helps Glory see a future for yourself and understand the ways in which her mother’s legacy and her father’s love have shaped her into the thoughtful, mature young woman she is.
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann (Harper) - Many readers will come away from this stellar and gripping true-crime narrative utterly convinced by Mann's solution to the unsolved 1922 gunshot murder of William Desmond Taylor, president of the Motion Pictures Directors Association, in Hollywood. Mann (Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand) hooks the reader from the start, describing the discovery of Taylor's corpse by his valet in a prologue that reads like fiction. The author then provides the backstory with an engrossing and comprehensive look at the birth of the motion picture industry and the highs and lows it faced in the early 1920s, including the economic downturn of 1920–1921 and increasing efforts to censor its productions. Mann weaves these dynamics into the portrayals of Taylor and other key players, including movie baron Adolph Zukor, and three actresses, all of who become suspects in the crime.
The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs) - In a mammoth tome that’s as comprehensive as a single volume on an entire continent can be, Meredith (The Fate of Africa) looks at Africa through the lens of its native wealth. He begins, appropriately enough, with the statement that “ever since the era of the pharaohs, Africa has been coveted for its riches.” Working his way forward from that premise, he concentrates on one geographic area after another, up to the present day. Mansa Musa, the 14th-century emperor of Mali and the richest man the world has ever seen, and King Leopold II of Belgium, “owner” of the Congo and one of the world’s most despicable despots, make their requisite appearances alongside scores of other rulers, explorers, and generals. Meredith places the Atlantic slave trade in the context of the slave trades with other markets, including the enslavement of Europeans in North Africa. Gold, ivory, diamonds, and oil also receive their due as sources of wealth and conflict. Colonialism’s arc is traced, as are the disappointments, setbacks, and outright horrors of the postcolonial era.
Even in Paradise by Chelsea Philpot (Harper) - Charlotte Ryder is from a modest working-class family, yet attends St. Anne’s, a private New England boarding school. After helping Julia Buchanan, a classmate from an infamous Massachusetts family, during a late-night drunken escapade, Charlotte—soon dubbed Charlie by Julia—is pulled into the complicated Buchanan orbit, even falling for Julia’s handsome older brother Sebastian. The girls quickly become inseparable, and Charlie is invited to spend the summer in Arcadia, the Buchanan compound on Nantucket. The Buchanans all but adopt Charlie as one of their own, but they also expect Charlie to help protect Julia from herself—a tall order given that Julia is unpredictable and still grieving the death of her older sister.
Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt (Picador) - Even though abortion “is found in virtually every society going back at least 4,000 years,” it continues to be a divisive, controversial issue in the United States. Pollitt (Virginity or Death!), a columnist at the Nation, regards abortion as a fact of life and makes an impassioned, persuasive case for understanding it in its proper context—“the lives and bodies of women” and their families. With wit and logic, Pollitt debunks the many myths surrounding abortion, and analyzes what abortion opponents really oppose: namely, women’s growing sexual freedom and power. She similarly addresses the notion of the “personhood” of the zygote/embryo/fetus and shows how, in spite of its small numbers (“only 7 to 20% of Americans tell pollsters they want to ban abortion”), the anti-abortion movement succeeds by focusing the debate on “life.” As Pollitt explains, objections to abortion have only surfaced within the past 140 years, and she illuminates the “anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes” at the core of today’s opposition, showing how its connection to patriarchal religious institutions provides much of its political power and funding.
On the Edge by Edward St. Aubyn (Picador) - New Agers beware! St. Aubyn’s take on the search for enlightenment as a cure for modern malaise is razor sharp and maniacally clever. The novel focuses on a handful of self-proclaimed spiritual evolvers: Adam, the gay guru who frequently changes credos but consistently champions what he thinks is globally significant; Brooke, the embarrassingly rich, needy guru-subsidizer; Kenneth, the shaman of “Streamism,” who is embarrassingly dependent on Brooke; Peter, the English banker who chucks married life to chase after Sabine, the gender-bending sex goddess, only to fall for restless, slightly guilt-ridden, totally available Crystal; an older couple hoping to rejuvenate their love life; plus other assorted fulfillment seekers and would-be providers. Parallel spiritual journeys begin at a San Francisco dinner party and come together at an Esalen tantric workshop. The joy of reading this novel derives not from the story but the storytelling.
Pandora's DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree by Lizzie Stark (Chicago Review) - Stark (Leaving Mundania) unveils her family’s arduous cancer history with her own heartbreaking discovery of and treatment for a gene mutation that put her squarely on her stricken relatives’ frightening path. Cancer haunts Stark’s maternal lineage; she, her mother, and her aunt share “a certain mutation on our BRCA1 gene.” The “feeling that life is guaranteed only until the date of your mother’s first cancer diagnosis has infected other relatives as well,” she notes, including a great-aunt and two cousins. Their diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes fuel Stark’s engrossing exploration of the science of breast cancer, from the discovery of the BRCA1 gene in the mid-’90s to the legal fight over the diagnosis of a BRCA1 mutation. Moreover, Stark’s relatives dealt with breast cancer in the 1940s and 1950s when “social norms made it even harder” to talk about the disease. “Though none of us would know cancer, we would know the curse of fear,” she writes.
The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley (Pegasus Crime) - This lively, lucid, and wonderfully lurid history from Worsley examines the fascination with murder in British popular culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The book opens with an account of the Ratcliffe Highway murders—two separate attacks that left seven people dead. These murders established the link between sensational crime reporting and robust newspaper sales, a gruesome correlation that shaped pop culture in the U.K. in the ensuing decades. Worsley's study takes a literary spin as she traces the emergence of detective fiction from its roots in the mid-Victorian "sensation" novel. She dwells at length on the genre's "golden age"—the interwar period, which saw the rise of female writers (e.g., Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers)—and subsequently shows how detective fiction gave way to the darker American-style thriller of the Cold War era.