This week: new Richard Ford, how music was captured, and classic children's books get gnarly.
Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, illus. by Raul the Third (Chronicle) - Camper’s (Bugs Before Time) rocket-powered graphic novel stars a deliciously improbable trio: Lupe Impala, a beautiful mechanic with a mane of black hair and a limitless supply of automobile knowledge; Flapjack Octopus, whose eight arms can detail a car to a high gleam; and Elirio Malaria, a shady-looking mosquito who uses his needlelike proboscis to pinstripe cars with fantastic accuracy. Raúl the Third’s dazzling art, done with red, black, and blue ballpoint pen, fuses the energy of Mexican folk images, the naked passion of tattoo art, and the antics of Saturday morning cartoons. Lupe and her sidekicks want to start a garage, but they don’t have enough money. They enter a car competition (first prize is “a carload of cash”), find a beater, and plot their strategy.
The Burning Room by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) - An autopsy opens Edgar-winner Connelly’s superb 19th Harry Bosch mystery (after 2012’s The Black Box). Orlando Merced, a mariachi musician, was transformed into a symbol for urban violence by an opportunistic mayoral candidate when he was wounded a decade earlier, a random victim of a drive-by shooting. Merced’s death prompts a reexamination of the case, and Bosch and his young new partner, Lucia Soto, get to work. With his usual deftness, Connelly links the Merced shooting to an act of arson—an apartment fire that killed nine on the same day—and returns to his perennial themes: local politics, the media, the LAPD’s internecine warfare, and, of course, Los Angeles itself, from the wealthy enclaves of Mulholland Drive to the barrios of East L.A.
American Titan: Searching for John Wayne by Marc Eliot (Morrow) - In this incisive biography, Eliot (American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood) reveals the man behind the on-screen paragon of stoic, all-American manhood: an insecure actor (he would passively bow to the humiliating on-set insults showered on him by his mentor, director John Ford); a husband with mother-in-law issues and messy public divorces; a sex slave of Marlene Dietrich; an assiduous avoider of military service during WWII as he became the movie industry’s reigning action hero; and a sometimes guilt-stricken right-wing bully who helped enforce the McCarthy-era blacklist against leftists in the movie industry. Eliot’s narrative is briskly paced, with plenty of entertaining show-biz profiles and anecdotes, and not given much to thumb-sucking rumination, but his critical appreciations (and depreciations) of Wayne’s movies are pithy and evocative, from the mediocre Blood Alley, which imported Lauren Bacall “to add some romantic relief for the women," to the sublime western The Searchers
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (Ecco) - Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land, continues to reflect on the meaning of existence in these four absorbing, funny, and often profound novellas. The collection is set in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in the weeks leading up to Christmas 2012. Frank considers the evanescence of life as he travels to the site of his former home on the shore; has an unsettling experience with a black woman whose family once lived in his present home in fictional Haddam; visits his prickly ex-wife, who is suffering from Parkinson’s, in an extended-care institution; and meets a dying former friend. At 68, Frank feels “old”; his bout with prostate cancer has convinced him that he’s in the “Default Period of life.” Intimations of mortality (“the bad closing in”) permeate his musings, recounted in an unadorned, profane, vernacular that conveys his witty, cynical voice.
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin (Pantheon) - From the National Book Award– and PEN/Faulkner-winning author Jin (Waiting) comes a woman’s inquisition into the limits of her father’s loyalty to his nation and family. The narrative alternates between the present day and the years spanning 1949 to 1989. In the present, American-born Lillian Shang unravels her father Gary’s mysterious life as a U.S.-based Chinese spy feeding information to the Mao administration. She pieces together his evolution from student, to spy, then prisoner—he ultimately ended up being a high-profile mole caught by the CIA. Lillian undertakes her research primarily through Gary’s extensive diaries, bequeathed to Lillian by his longtime mistress. Gary’s story is too messy for journalistic prose alone, so Lillian travels to northeast China to connect with his other family.
Capturing Music: The Story of Notation by Thomas Forrest Kelly (Norton) - Before the era of recording—before wax cylinders, vinyl, or digital media—songwriters, composers, and musicians relied on sheet music and musical notation to disseminate their works. In this marvelously witty and engaging chapter of music history, Kelly, a Harvard musicologist, thoughtfully reviews the long process through which musical notation developed. Accompanied by 100 color illustrations, as well as a CD that allows readers to hear how these early compositions might have sounded, Kelly’s chronicle traces the rise of notation from its earliest stages to its more developed manifestations in the late Middle Ages. Along the way, we meet the individuals actively trying to capture sound in verse or notation, from Notker, who used language as a means to capture sound, and Guido the Monk, who revolutionized the writing of music by introducing a very early system of notation that could guide musical performance, to Perotinus, whose notations captured rhythm.
The Graphic Canon of Children's Literature: The World's Greatest Kids' Lit as Comics and Visuals edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories) - Having been sparsely represented in the first three Graphic Canon volumes, children's literature is featured exclusively in this anthology of more than 40 fables, fairy tales, and classic stories adapted into comics. Like its predecessors, the book allows readers to see timeworn stories in a new light, whether it's Lance Tooks's trio of Aesop's fables, set in the worlds of tabloid celebrities and love-struck gangsters; Sandy Jimenez's take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, featuring David Bowie and Freddie Mercury; or R. Sikoryak's Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which spoofs Bil Keane's "Family Circus." Nearly all the contributors chose to adapt early, gnarlier versions of stories that were sanitized over the years, most notably by Disney for its animated films; through their efforts, the stories reclaim some of their original eccentricities and philosophical merit.
Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin (Penguin Press) - How did the “fugitive vagrant” Ioseb Jugashvili—poet, bank robber, student of Esperanto, and Marxist revolutionary—become Joseph Stalin, the architect of Soviet collectivism and the Great Purges? In this first volume of a planned three-volume biography, Kotkin (Uncivil Society) begins unraveling Stalin’s strange, monstrous life. This is an epic, thoroughly researched account that presents a broad vision of Stalin, from his birth to his rise to absolute power. The details Kotkin reveals of Stalin and the revolution seem absurd: as a youth he went by aliases including Pockmarked Oska and Oddball Osip and wore an Islamic veil on occasion to escape the attention of czarist authorities. At the beginning of Soviet rule, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky holed up in a former finishing school for girls where the headmistress was still living, even as they dismantled czarist Russia. Kotkin tracks the changing revolution, noting how Stalin and the Bolsheviks benefited from the disintegration of the old order.
Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers (HMH) - This final volume in LaFevers’s much-praised His Fair Assassin trilogy centers on Annith, the most brilliant of the young women brought up in the convent of St. Mortain, an ancient Celtic god still very much present in the tale’s 15th- century Brittany. Despite being unequalled with knives and bow, Annith has been refused assignment as an assassin by the Abbess even though her close friends, Sybella and Ismae, have already made their first kills. When a much younger and underprepared girl is sent out in her stead, probably to her death, Annith rebels, fleeing the convent. She hopes to aid the endangered Duchess of Brittany whose meager forces must protect their country from a French invasion. On her way, however, Annith meets Balthazaar—a Hellequin, one of the damned souls charged with bringing the recently dead to Mortain, but also “breathtakingly handsome in a dark, almost broken way”—and her life is changed forever.
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet (Norton) - Absurdity and paranoia permeate the latest novel from Millet (Pulitzer Prize finalist for Love in Infant Monkeys). The book follows a newlywed couple on their honeymoon at a resort in the Caribbean. Deb and Chip embody the modern American dream: they float above life, buoyed by career success, good looks, and booze. A couple of days into their vacation, a marine biologist, Nancy, disrupts their getaway when she chances upon a group of mermaids in the resort’s coral reef. After dispelling initial doubts, Nancy insists that the small crew that found the “mer” (politically correct nomenclature is key) proceeds with caution. She fears that if the information is leaked, hoards of reporters will descend on the island, endangering the mermaids and their reef home. Panic ensues when Nancy dies the following day in a suspicious drowning incident, and soon after media teams and soldiers flood the island. The original snorkel crew (Deb, Chip, a Freudian scholar, a Japanese VJ, a jaded academic) brainstorms how to save the mythical creatures.
The Forgers by Bradford Morrow (Grove/Mysterious) - Onetime forger Will, the refined if unreliable narrator of this artfully limned suspense novel from Morrow (The Diviner’s Tale), gets involved in the macabre mutilation-murder in a Montauk, N.Y., beachfront cottage of his girlfriend Meghan’s brother, Adam Diehl, who was, like himself and Meghan, a member an insular circle of rare book aficionados. But as soon as Will starts to discuss the blackmailing missive, written in Henry James’s distinctive hand, that undid his career as a forger, one hardly needs to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that much more is going on than initially meets the eye. Indeed, as the story of tenuously reformed Will’s attempt to move forward with a normal life with Meghan unfolds, the insights that Morrow offers into the lure of collecting, the rush of forgery as a potentially creative act, and underlying questions of authenticity render the whodunit one of the lesser mysteries of this sly puzzler.
Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts (Viking) - Military historian Roberts (The Storm of War) examines Napoleon Bonaparte’s life and times in excruciating detail, leaving out little, if anything, of consequence that happened to the legendary general and ruler of France during his 52 years. Roberts moves from Napoleon’s obscure Corsican origins to his meteoric rise to power, through his fraught personal relationships and his numerous military campaigns, to his sad and ignominious exile on St. Helena, where he died of stomach cancer. Basing his conclusions on a vast trove of Napoleon’s published letters and other contemporary sources, along with personal visits to 53 of 60 battlefields that figured in Napoleon’s career, Roberts argues that Napoleon was not only a brilliant military strategist but also a great statesman and a true intellectual. A micromanager, Napoleon effectively “compartmentaliz[ed] his life” to achieve success in both political and military realms—although less so with his wives and mistresses.
Shark by Will Self (Grove) - After declaring the novel dead in May in his Guardian article “The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s For Real),” Self returns with a new novel, and it is a maddening, uncompromising, serious, self-indulgent, and beautiful work. The second book in a planned trilogy, following Umbrella (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker), the novel reacquaints us with the unconventional psychiatrist Zack Busner. Busner is the proprietor of the Concept House, a mental health residence in which residents are given free rein. In an unbroken wall of text (no chapters or paragraph breaks), Self describes the many characters of the Concept House, including Lt. Claude Evenrude, who is scarred by what he did over Hiroshima as the target spotter for the Enola Gay, and Michael Lincoln, who watched men die as he floated in the shark-filled Pacific waters after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Their narratives, along with others, converge in a labyrinth of pyschedelic high modern voices, capturing the frightening bad trip of modern life.
Bomb: The Author Interviews edited by Betsy Sussler (Soho) - This essential new anthology from Bomb magazine offers a rich trove of author interviews. The 35 selections span 30 years, revealing many of the subjects at the height of their fame: Jonathan Franzen in 2001, Martin Amis in 1987, and Kathy Acker in 1983, to name a few. The interviews are not conducted with nameless interlocutors—rather, they're conversations between colleagues: Lydia Davis talks with Francine Prose, Junot Díaz with Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides with Jonathan Safran Foer, and Tobias Wolff with A.M. Homes. The collection format makes it easy to dip in—readers may succumb to the temptation to skip right to a favorite author's interview. Insights abound, with some writers revealing intensely personal feelings and others focusing on books, writing, and broader ideas about literature.
33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton (Norton) - Thornton (Seven Days in the Art World) paints a masterful picture of 33 artists, keenly bringing details of their lives to the surface with a skilled hand and without overwhelming the reader. The product of four years of work, the book is divided into its eponymous three acts; each chapter, or “scene,” focuses on one artist, with artists sometimes appearing in multiple “scenes.” The activist Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, receives much favorable attention; one notable chapter takes place in the wake of his arrest at the hands of Chinese government authorities. Married American artists Caroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons are surveyed together, then separately, in multiple chapters, with Thornton exploring their artistic relationships and the gender dynamics therein. Thornton builds on such analyses to offer astute, accessible commentary on the gendered dimensions of modern art.