This week: a superhero named Mann Man (who has the powers of Thomas Mann).
Our Only World by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) - “Valid criticism,” poet, conservationist, and national treasure Berry (The Unsettling of America) declares in his latest collection’s opening essay, “attempts a just description of our condition.” The book goes on to vivisect, with uncommon lucidity and common sense, the accruing damages of the “industrial economy and its so-called free market,” as well as our “commerce of violence” that profits from the “destruction of land and people” as shown in the essay “Our Deserted Country,” about the wastelands created by industrial agriculture. Berry’s crusade is not for conservation but repair, and in another selection, “Local Economies,” he offers a “reasonable permanence of dwelling place and vocation” as one remedy. Adhering to an uncompromising ethic that combines stern humility with compassion, Berry rallies a sense of hope (though “the task of hope becomes harder”) and responsibility for confronting growing physical and political problems, represented here by the tortured political rhetoric he unpacks in “Caught in the Middle.” These essays are classic Berry, balancing the fiery conservationist prophet with the lucid and thoughtful poet; the reflective farmer with the visionary writer.
Dreamless by Jorgen Brekke, trans. from the Norwegian by Steven T. Murray (Minotaur) - The discovery of the body of an unidentified young woman with her larynx removed propels Brekke’s outstanding second novel featuring Chief Insp. Odd Singsaker of the Trondheim police department (after 2014’s Where Monsters Dwell). The one clue at the crime scene is an antique music box that plays a haunting lullaby, “The Golden Peace,” which was written by Jon Blund, a 17th-century troubadour about whom little is known. The inventive plot seamlessly moves from the contemporary case to a 1767 police investigation into Blund’s disappearance. While searching for the elusive culprit, the insightful Singsaker worries that recovery from brain surgery has compromised his acumen—and that his marriage to American detective Felicia Stone, whom he met while pursuing a serial killer in the previous book, was too hasty. Fans of bleak Nordic crime fiction will find plenty to like.
At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise by Michael Brooks (Overlook) - Brooks (Free Radicals), a consultant at New Scientist, highlights numerous areas of research that give pause to many scientists and throw lay readers into confusion in this challenging and mind-bending work. This confusion follows in no part from Brooks's skills as a writer and explicator of science, but from topics that are difficult to face, whether it be the philosophical morass of human/animal tissue combinations called "chimera" or the startling finding that time as we experience it may well be an illusion. Issues of the nature of consciousness, animal personality, and our part in the "vast computer" that is the universe fill these pages. The hard-to-grasp concept of the Big Bang may, itself, be too simplistic to explain our current universe. Even concepts that aren't intellectually challenging, like the notion that medical practice ought to differ for men and women, strain the status quo of practice. Brooks handily works his way through these thorny problems, highlighting current research and researchers along the way.
The Forgetting Place by John Burley (Morrow) - Burley follows his fine debut, 2013’s The Absence of Mercy, with an even more impressive psychological thriller. Menaker State Hospital in Maryland houses those who are not fit for society, especially those whom society wishes to forget. Dr. Lise Shields, a member of Menaker’s psychologist team since receiving her medical license, works with patients who will likely never recover, or even improve discernibly. Nevertheless, she’s content with her routine—until she gets a new patient, Jason Edwards, who arrives unannounced and without documentation. Though she’s immediately suspicious, she can’t help bonding with her amiable, good-looking, but reticent patient. As her doubts about Jason’s institutionalization increase, so do the efforts of Menaker’s chief medical officer, Dr. Charles Wagner, to tamp down her investigations. Burley, himself a physician, renders the manifestations of psychological illness in such a way that both Lise and the reader must confront the terrifying nature of reality itself.
Peaks on the Horizon: Two Journeys in Tibet by Charlie Carroll (Counterpoint/Soft Skull) - In this passionate account, part memoir and part travelogue, journalist Carroll (On the Edge) documents fulfilling a lifelong dream as he journeys to Tibet to experience its mysteries and wonders. He waxes poetic about its beauty and philosophical about its treatment and exploitation by the Chinese, delving into Tibet’s rich history and culture in order to shine a light on just how the country has suffered under decades of occupation and subjugation. His story is interwoven with that of Lobsang, a Tibetan national who fled with his family to Nepal when he was five years old. As Lobsang grows up, readers see the heartbreak and longing of Tibetan refugees and exiles, following Lobsang’s quest to understand his homeland, which eventually leads him to attempt returning the same way he left: illegally. Lobsang’s story dovetails with Carroll’s as they find a mutual love of their surroundings, and a shared outrage at what Tibet has become under Chinese influence. Carroll’s passion for the topic bleeds on to the pages, making this both a love letter to Tibet and a call to arms for Tibetan freedom. By adding Lobsang’s tale, Carroll further humanizes the effort.
Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education by Morris Dickstein (Norton/Liveright) - A young man navigates the tensions between his Orthodox Jewish background and his calling as a literary intellectual in this rich coming-of-age memoir. Dickstein (Dancing in the Dark), an English professor and cultural historian, wanders episodically from his boyhood as a yeshiva student in New York in the 1950s, surrounded by a close-knit, eternally kvetching immigrant family, through adolescence, when his religious strictures were gradually displaced by books and a usually unrequited interest in girls, to his budding academic career at Columbia and Yale. It’s a mainly quiet and interior narrative of observation and reflection on ordinary life; Dickstein’s maturation is propelled by summer jobs, trips abroad, persistent conflicts between kosher living and the allure of secular lifestyles, strong friendships, and a deeply felt, luminously described romance with his future wife. Scholarship emerges as an engrossing, even adventurous activity in his vivid descriptions of often brilliant—though sometimes lousy—classroom lectures and seminars; his evocative portraits of such writers and critics as Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Harold Bloom; and his probing appreciations of novelists and poets (an extended exegesis of Keats is a tour de force).
Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance by Daisy Hay (FSG) - Benjamin Disraeli, a struggling novelist, and Mary Anne Lewis, a free-spirited, wealthy widow 15 years his senior, had a deep bond marked by overt romantic displays and shared ambition, even as Disraeli became British prime minister. Through strong scholarship and deft storytelling, Hays (Young Romantics) depicts the occasionally brutal evolution of their marriage and its power shifts: Disraeli was initially reliant on Lewis’s finances, but he slowly asserted his independence during his political ascension—and, in a show of gratitude, eventually gave her the peerage. Their letters to each other and sibling-confidantes reveal not only embarrassing personal struggles for the time—Lewis’s sins included dressing garishly and describing Disraeli in bed at social occasions—but also that Lewis saved them in the face of his ruinous debts. The letters give fascinating insight into imperial England’s upper-class mores and political considerations. Hays’s vivid account offers an empathetic, modern understanding of a passionate, seemingly mismatched couple who inspired each other’s great achievements in the restrained Victorian era—a relationship that remains every bit as absorbing as those in Disraeli’s own romantic novels.
The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth (St. Martin's) - Hepworth dazzles in this smart and engaging tale of three generations of midwives in Providence, R.I. Telling the story from three points of view—those of her grandmother, Floss; her well-meaning but often overbearing daughter, Grace; and Grace’s reticent daughter, Neva—Hepworth effortlessly switches from the past to the present, moving the story forward while skillfully providing just the right amount of backstory. As the story opens, Neva has just delivered a child at the birthing center she runs—and upon arriving at her grandmother’s home, she spills a pitcher of water, revealing the secret beneath her baggy scrubs: she’s 30 weeks pregnant. Hepworth uses this as a jumping-off point for the many secrets that follow—including one of Floss’s that could tear the family apart. Grace is determined to find out who fathered Neva’s baby, and her insistence makes Neva all the more determined not to tell. Grace herself never had a father, and Floss has never been open with her daughter about the subject. As Neva’s due date approaches, glimpses of Floss’s and Grace’s pasts are interwoven, allowing the reader to empathize with each woman and her decisions. This intelligent, well-plotted debut will draw readers in from the very first word and keep them engaged until the end.
Selected Letters of Langston Hughes edited by Arnold Rampersad, David Roessel, and Christa Fratantoro (Knopf) - Best known for poems such as “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and fiction such as the wry Semple stories, Hughes was also a prolific letter writer. When his friend Carl Van Vechten started a collection of African-American-related materials at Yale in 1941, Hughes immediately pledged all his papers. The sheer quantity of Hughes’s correspondence could easily fill many volumes, and this first-ever collection was judiciously assembled by Hughes’s biographer Rampersad, Roessel, who co-edited The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes with Rampersad, and Fratantoro. Arranged chronologically, the letters show the ups and downs of Hughes’s life, his financial and creative insecurities, and his support of younger writers. Literary stars such as Blanche Knopf, Countee Cullen, Ezra Pound, and Zora Neale Hurston, among many others, parade through the pages. Some of the most revealing selections include Hughes’s 1921 letters to his father about his desire to leave Columbia University, his loving and desperately self-effacing letters to his patron Charlotte Osgood Mason, and various letters detailing his discovery of a young Alice Walker.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (Random) - These nine stories may begin in familiar territory—a birthday party, a theme park, a bar, a spaceship—but they quickly draw readers into an imaginative, disturbingly ominous world of realistic fantasy and unreal reality. Like Kafka hosting Saturday Night Live, Link mixes humor with existential dread. The first story, entitled "The Summer People," in homage to Shirley Jackson, follows an Appalachian schoolgirl, abandoned by her moonshiner father, as she looks after a summer house occupied by mysterious beings. "I Can See Right Through You" features friends who, in their youth, were movie stars; now in middle age, she is the hostess and he is the guest star of a television show about hunting ghosts at a Florida nudist colony. "Origin Story" takes place in a deserted Land of Oz theme park; "Secret Identity" is set at a hotel where dentists and superheroes attend simultaneous conferences. Only in a Link story would you encounter Mann Man, a superhero with the powers of Thomas Mann, or visit a world with pools overrun by Disney mermaids.
Lincoln's Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge & the Making of America by Brian McGinty (Norton/Liveright) - Despite a subtitle that suggests excessive hype, McGinty (Lincoln and the Court) makes good on his promise to articulate why a now obscure 1857 trial had much broader significance than one would expect of legal battle over transportation. What came to be known as the Effie Afton case began with the crash of the steamboat of that name on the Mississippi River between Illinois and Iowa. While no one was injured, the collision with a railroad bridge destroyed the boat—which had been transporting cargo and freight valued at $350,000—and its owners sued the company responsible for the construction and placement of the bridge. Abraham Lincoln, who was already a well-regarded lawyer, was hired to assist with the defense. McGinty illuminates the case’s larger issues related to the conflict between two modes of commercial travel (by water and by rail), while also demonstrating how decisions concerning transportation had an impact on the simmering tensions between North and South over slavery shortly before the Civil War erupted. This is a masterful popular history that places its focal point in a richly detailed wider context and will get readers interested in Lincoln’s legal career.
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (Ecco) - Newman’s latest depicts a dystopian future in which America has been decimated by “Posies,” a powerful plague that leaves few living beyond 20 years of age. Ice Cream Star, the novel’s 15-year-old narrator, is a member of the Sengles tribe of the Massa Woods, which was once Massachusetts. Ice Cream’s brother, Driver, the 18-year-old leader of the Sengles, has just begun coughing—the first telltale sign of the plague. During a standard raid of an abandoned neighborhood for left-behind supplies, Ice Cream and her fellow raiders capture Pasha, a stranger to Massa, who is a shocking 30 years old and knows a rumor about a Posies cure. Ice Cream begins her harrowing adventure to find it and save her brother—and maybe the rest of the country in the process. Written entirely in the broken English of these short-lived children, now generations removed from the plague’s onset, Newman’s novel is ambitious, taking on race, sex, class, religion, politics, and war all at once. What sets the work apart is its unapologetic narrator, whose fantastically unbridled, wholly teenage point of view renders each page a pleasure to read.
Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb, illus. by Gilbert Ford (Balzer + Bray) - “Some things in life change wham-bam, dramatic and sudden as a pin and a balloon. But usually, change is sneakier. More like that balloon leaking its air, deflating bit by bit.” Springstubb (Mo Wren, Lost and Found) follows Flor O’Dell’s search for sure footing as her safe, comfortable island life is rocked by change. Flor faces several potentially earth-shattering shifts in her family and friendships just as she’s entering sixth grade, each knock like “an invisible fist on the end of a long arm,” leaving her bruised and angry. Can friendship survive distance? Should she worry about her sister’s strange behavior? Will her parents stop fighting? Will Mama return to her big Spanish-speaking family? And who is that strange girl watching Flor everywhere she goes? While exploring familiar themes of the unavoidable changes of adolescence, the novel weaves complex layers of fresh, relatable imagery and charming characterization across education levels, cultures, and generations, beautifully teaching that our shared humanity is one thing that doesn’t change.
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra, trans. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (McSweeney's) - The title story in Zambra’s (Ways of Going Home) story collection establishes a casual, conversational, self-aware tone: the narrator recalls not informing his parents when he becomes an altar boy, nor telling the priest that he hasn’t gone to confession. In the story, lying doesn’t catch up with this boy so much as isolates him, a common condition among Zambra protagonists, while his mother’s music—the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Chilean easy listening—plays in the background. “Camilo” traces the friendship between two boys, uncovering how their fathers’ friendship ended years before on a soccer field. Soccer is also central to “Thank You,” where Mexico City kidnappers spare the lives of two tourists in honor of Chilean-born Monterrey player Chupete Suazo. The kidnappers’ dialogue (an obscene rant followed by sports analysis) exemplifies Zambra’s humor, and the story’s ending reverberates with his melancholy. Cats play prominent roles in two tales, both about feckless caretakers: a divorced father adopts what he thinks is a male cat until it has kittens; a slacker’s four-month house-sitting stint for his cousin is complicated by a runaway cat. Funny, sad, and strikingly honest.