This week, Gaiman tackles "Hansel and Gretel," plus more locked-room mysteries than you can shake a stick at.
Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd (Doubleday) - In his typically elegant and measured prose, prize-winning biographer Ackroyd (Shakespeare: The Biography) brilliantly brings Chaplin to life. Beginning with Chaplin’s birth in a poor South London neighborhood, Ackroyd traces his career, from his earliest notices in a play called Jim in 1903, where he learned the value of comic timing, to his stint with the Karno Company, which brought him, along with Stan Laurel, to America in 1910. Chaplin went on to work with Mack Sennett in Keystone films, insisted on working as his own director, made classic films such as City Lights and Modern Times, got involved in politics, and relentlessly pursued women. Ackroyd masterfully paints the colorful backdrop of the youthful film industry, in which Chaplin made a name for himself as one of the first real celebrities of his time, instantly recognizable around the world for his comic performances.
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong (Knopf) - Bracing as ever, Armstrong sweeps through religious history around the globe and over 4,000 years to explain the yoking of religion and violence and to elucidate the ways in which religion has also been used to counter violence. She goes back to the beginnings of human social organization and into the human brain itself to explain the origins of social structural violence as humans moved from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies into more socially stratified agrarian cultures that produced enough surplus to fight over, and violent myths that justified conflict. From there she reads sacred texts of numerous cultures to find their contradictions: they portray and justify but they also strive to check it. Ahimsa (nonviolence) is an ancient Indian concept; Israel’s prophets thundered against its kings; Christianity turned its other cheek but also mounted Crusades.
Radio Benjamin by Walter Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal (Verso) - This ebullient compendium collects Benjamin’s heretofore obscure and mostly untranslated radio broadcasts aired between 1927 and 1933. The majority were written for children, though there are a handful of literary musings, radio dramas, practical advice, and reflections on radio that aimed at adults as well. In his Berlin Youth Hour broadcasts, Benjamin addresses Berlin’s historical inheritance and cultural milieu, including its dialects, notable figures, architecture, and even its puppet theater. Benjamin also darkly recounts a number of historical catastrophes. In both their tone and mesmerizing array of subject matter, the broadcasts avoid the treacly condescension of contemporary children’s programming.
Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Lorenzo Mattotti (Candlewick) - Master storyteller Gaiman plumbs the dark depths of Hansel and Gretel, imagining the pair’s mother scheming to abandon them (“Two dead are better than four dead,” she tells their father. “That is mathematics, and it is logic”) and reveling in the witch’s cruelty. “Today, when the oven is hot enough, we will roast your brother,” she announces to Gretel. “But do not be sad. I will give you his bones to chew, little one.” Italian illustrator Mattotti contributes elegant b&w ink spreads that alternate with spreads of text. His artistry flows from the movement of his brush and the play of light and shadow. The witch’s house, tiled with baroque decorations and topped with a graceful tower, is unexpectedly beautiful; light pours through the barley sugar windows.
The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, trans. from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen (Scribner) - This memorable novel by Gavron (Almost Dead) follows the fate of a small, not-quite-legitimate Israeli settlement in the West Bank and its denizens. Othniel Assis and a few associates founded Ma’aleh Hermesh C in the recent past, both despite and with the aid of various Israeli bureaucracies. While the primary story line charts the course of the settlers’ fight against the inevitable barrage of eviction notices and subsequent reversals, Gavron moves beyond simple political farce by weaving together the stories, both simple and complex, of individual characters.
The Peripheral by William Gibson (Putnam) - Seminal cyberpunk author Gibson, who has spent the last several years writing the more-or-less present-day Zero History series of novels, returns to the future with this slow-burning thriller, ambitiously structured on either side of an economic and ecological collapse known afterward as “the jackpot.” In the hardscrabble “pre-jackpot America“ of our near future, gamer Flynne Fisher is covering a beta-testing shift for her ex-Marine brother when she witnesses what she thinks is a gruesome murder—“some kind of nanotech chainsaw fantasy.“ In a depopulated London decades post-jackpot, Wilf Netherton, a disgraced publicist, is caught unawares when his latest client‘s sister disappears. The resulting investigation kicks Gibson’s discursive narrative into high gear as Flynne, allowed across time lines by use of a “peripheral“ (“an anthropomorphic drone... a telepresence avatar“), proves to be exactly the savvy, principled ally that enigmatic Det. Insp. Ainsley Lowbeer has been looking for.
Possibilities by Herbie Hancock, with Lisa Dickey (Viking) - Melodically weaving the notes of his personal life around his exploration of numerous music genres from classical and R&B to funk and hip-hop, renowned pianist Hancock elegantly composes a tuneful sound track of his life in music. While growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s, Hancock started playing piano when he was seven; four years later, he’d won a music contest and played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hancock’s intense focus on the intricacies of music, and his steadfast drive to learn about all aspects of life, especially how things work, led him to take up jazz as a teenager and to study engineering briefly in college. Hancock takes us through the opus of his early days as a pianist with Donald Byrd, the composition of his first song, “Watermelon Man,” and signing with Blue Note to record his first album, Takin’ Off. Just 23, Hancock got a call from Miles Davis asking the young pianist to come play with him in what eventually grew into the Second Great Quintet.
The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington by Gregg Herken (Knopf) - Cold War America was largely shaped by a close-knit group of individuals known as the “WASP ascendancy”: well-off, well-educated journalists, politicians, and socialites who lived in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Herken (Brotherhood of the Bomb), professor emeritus of American diplomatic history at the University of California, goes into exacting detail in this excellent account, which focuses on the players themselves—their backgrounds, relationships, rivalries, scandals, and opinions on the policies and events that defined the era. Two principal players were the highborn brothers Joe and Stewart Alsop, whose newspaper column, “Matter of Fact,” appeared in more than a hundred newspapers across the United States. Joe’s dinners, dubbed “zoo parties,” served as alcohol-fueled salons for a tribe which regularly included such figures as George Kennan, Phil and Katherine Graham, and the CIA’s Frank Wisner.
A Nation Wholly Free: The Elimination of the National Debt in the Age of Jackson by Carl Lane (Westholme) - Historian Lane delivers a superbly written exploration of a narrow subject in the fading past, making it feel surprisingly relevant to modern readers. Paying off the national debt, a topic that’s at the center of passionate debate today, similarly roiled the political scene 175 years ago. Lane describes how, under vastly different conditions, Andrew Jackson and his administration vowed to completely eliminate the national debt by 1835. They succeeded, but in the process were forced to bow to ideology and political pressure, killing the Second Bank of the U.S. and unwisely distributing surplus federal funds to state banks rather than using the money for infrastructure development. The result, according to the author, was the crash of 1837.
Us by David Nicholls (Harper) - In Nicholls's (One Day) latest novel, Connie Peterson wakes her husband Douglas in the middle of the night to tell him she may want to end their marriage. The family already has a European trip planned, the last before their son, Albie, leaves their London suburb for college, and Douglas, ever the scientist, hatches a plan to change Connie's mind: he will ensure their trip becomes an exemplar of the happy family they can be. Working against Douglas is the fact that he and his son have suffered a strained relationship from birth, and that Connie, an artist at heart, believes an organic vacation—one that evolves from the whims of any given day—would be a great improvement over Douglas's strict, pedantic itineraries. This is Nicholls's most ambitious work to date, and his realistically flawed characters are somehow endearing despite the many bruises they inflict upon each other.
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) - Penzler’s thoughtful introduction makes plain why this intelligently assembled anthology of 68 short stories will be catnip for fair play fans, since the locked-room story “is the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story.” He also notes that while the tales are “astoundingly inventive,” disappointment will be inevitable when the solution is revealed, “just as explanations of stage illusions exterminate the spell of magic.” Despite that caveat, Penzler has assembled a wide-ranging collection of the impossible, including murder in sealed environments or by an invisible killer who leaves no footprints in the sand or snow. There are entries by familiar masters of the subgenre—John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, Edward Hoch—as well as by mystery writers better known for other kinds of stories—Dorothy L. Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner, Georges Simenon, Dashiell Hammett—and even a straight detective story from P.G. Wodehouse.