This week: Ayn Rand's connection to the 2008 financial collapse, America's youngest serial killer, and a modern retelling of "Madame Bovary."
The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis by Darryl Cunningham (Abrams Comicarts) - This work is both a highly effective example of graphic nonfiction and a strong critique of the connection between Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and the 2008 financial collapse. Cunningham (Psychiatric Tales) tackles this essential but byzantine subject with admirable clarity. The book examines how the attitudes and approaches of people—including former Federal Reserve Chairman and Rand disciple Alan Greenspan—helped establish the conditions for a worldwide financial meltdown. Financial institutions, sub-prime mortgages, and overwhelming greed did the rest. Although Cunningham is dealing with complicated economic matters, he is able to use straightforward panel arrangements and a simplified color palette to make the financial crisis accessible to the average reader; a detailed bibliography at the end shows the level of research. This book is a superb example of how powerful graphic nonfiction can be in taking complex events and making them frighteningly clear.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Random) - Over a century after the publication of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, poet Essbaum proves in her debut novel that there is still plenty of psychic territory to cover in the story of “a good wife, mostly.” But now, more than ever, it is clear that the conflict between the protagonist’s desires and her “tightly circumscribed” world is her own doing, and not a result of social limitations. Anna Benz is an American expatriate and mother of three, married to Bruno, a Swiss banker. In her nine years of living in a tidy suburb of Zurich, Anna (whose name is a Tolstoy nod) has never gotten a driver’s license, befriended other mothers, or learned Swiss German, the form of German spoken in Switzerland. Essbaum’s story opens as Anna attempts to break through her ennui and engage with the world. She starts a course of Jungian analysis with the inimitable Doktor Messerli and finally enrolls in language classes. Still, she’s drawn into a number of extramarital affairs that skirt the line between passion and passivity. In Essbaum’s capable hands, Anna invites the reader’s empathy rather than scorn. The realism of Anna’s dilemmas and the precise construction of the novel are marvels of the form
Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage by Barney Frank (FSG) - This detailed and accessible memoir certainly lives up to its title, as former Massachusetts Congressman Frank offers a warts-and-all portrait of his life in public service. His achievements in a wide range of areas, from financial reform to fighting discrimination against gays and lesbians, validate his belief that “pragmatism in the pursuit of my ideals was morally compelled.” Frank’s own struggles with revealing his homosexuality are interwoven with his time attempting to make the government work better, and he freely admits mistakes he made both in his private and public life. Frank effectively separates himself from well-intentioned liberals who—in his opinion—are sometimes not in touch with the real world, such as those in the 1960s who criticized the architectural design of low-income housing. He is unsparing, however, in his critique of Republicans, describing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq as “the worst single policy decision any U.S. President has ever made.” His experiences in Congress illustrate his approach to making progress: never letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History by Robin Givhan (Flatiron) - Washington Post fashion critic Givhan uncovers a little-known piece of fashion history: a 1973 show aimed at raising funds for Versailles Palace in France. The Versailles show put five American designers on the map in an era dominated by Parisian haute couture. Givhan provides illuminating insight into the styles of each designer, such as Oscar de la Renta's "ladylike formality," Anne Klein's groundbreaking designs for the modern working woman, Stephen Burrows's colorful palette and signature jersey dresses, Bill Blass's distinctly "American—not New York" sensibility, and Halston's simple tunics and ankle-grazing sweater dresses. In addition to the designers, Givhan introduces fascinating characters such as PR dynamo Eleanor Lambert, creator of New York Fashion Week, and the unprecedented number of African-American models in the Versailles show, including "runway queen" Billie Blair. At the gilded event itself, the French designers' ostentatious display was dwarfed by the raucous American production's "spontaneity, realism, and beautiful imperfection." Givhan paints a captivating portrait of the ethos of the era, from race riots and the Kerner Report to a "cultural... fascination with black identity" and glamorous nights at the disco, with juicy tales about arrogant designers acting out.
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (Little, Brown) - Hannaham's (God Says No) seductive and disturbing second novel grips the reader from page one. In the prologue, 17-year-old Eddie has escaped from a farm somewhere in Louisiana, terrified he's headed closer to a place "where someone might capture or kill him, [rather than] away toward freedom." Hannaham safely delivers Eddie into a new life, though one full of agonizing memories, "like dark birds poised to attack him." The narrative then shifts back to the story of Eddie's mother, Darlene, an educated woman devastated by the loss her husband, Nat, a community organizer in a small town in Louisiana. In her grief, Darlene disappears into a fog of drug use; Scotty, who is the book's charismatic narrator for most of the proceedings, is in fact the literal personification of crack ("Her idea of heaven was that the two of us could kick it together […] without nobody judging our relationship"). When Darlene is lured into taking a job on a mysterious farm, "it felt like the first luck Darlene had touched in the whole six years since she lost Nat." Instead, it's a horror show of human suffering, through which Darlene and Eddie struggle to reunite. Hannaham's skill at portraying the worst of human experience while keeping you glued to the page—and totally taken with the characters—is nothing short of magic.
The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (Knopf) - Hirshfield opens her beautiful eighth book of poems describing the copper bowls of a scale in perfect balance: on one end of the scales a woman in a wheelchair sings a traditional Portuguese fado, on the other end everyone else present hangs in attention. This moment, one that expresses the internal vastness of the individual, bleeds into the rest of the collection as Hirshfield seeks the idea of balance. In a collection where “an hour can be dropped like a glass,” the pieces are seen by the reader as a new whole. “The ideas of poets turn into only themselves,” she notes, and those ideas are both the most important and the least. She uses the quotidian to peer into the life cycle. When she writes, “Now I too am sixty./ There was no other life,” it is as if the whole world had reached that milestone before her and she is somehow the last to see it through. The book pleads with itself to remember the past; the moments where days drifted by and doors could open or close.
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee (Putnam) - Lee debuts with a vivid, nontraditional Western, set in 1849 on the Oregon Trail during the heart of the California Gold Rush. Filled with the expected difficulties and dangers of traveling the rugged, often hostile terrain, the novel features an unlikely protagonist—15-year-old Chinese-American Samantha, a passionate violinist—who offers a fresh perspective on the era and setting. Trapped in Missouri when her father dies in a fire, the orphaned Samantha accidentally commits a fatal crime and, accompanied by a teenage slave girl named Annamae, flees for California. Disguising themselves as boys looking to make their fortune, the fugitives soon team up with a trio of young cowboys; adventures ensue, with plenty of twists, as the girls struggle to keep their secrets from their new friends and the strangers they encounter. Growing romantic undertones with hints of uncertain sexuality add bonus interest to a story that distinguishes itself by integrating strands of Chinese lore and wisdom, Christianity, and music with themes of friendship, diversity, and survival.
Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan (Dutton) - Tiny Cooper, the memorable best friend from Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, gets his own star turn in this companion volume, which contains the script and lyrics of the autobiographical musical he wrote and staged in the original novel. With stage directions from Tiny (“Like myself, this musical is meant to be loud and spectacular”) and the lyrics to 25 ballads and showstoppers, the show opens (à la Matilda) with Tiny’s birth: “He should not be wearing a diaper. Instead, the person who emerges should be the large, stylish Tiny Cooper that you will see for the next two acts.” The musical charts the course of Tiny’s life as the “big-boned and happily gay” child of wonderful, football-loving parents and his quest for true love (“Mama and Papa didn’t know/ they were lighting the lamp/ the moment they sent me/ to Starstruck Drama Camp”). Though billed as a “musical novel,” there is no sheet music yet written for Tiny’s magnum opus. Levithan is hoping for a crowd-sourced soundtrack, encouraging amateur and professional composers to put music to his words. Broadway, are you listening?
The Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke (Papercutz) - Grunhilda the witch is out of work, but after hitting the classified ads, she secures a new gig in a school cafeteria. “Another day, another thousand cartons of curdled milk to hand out,” says Grunhilda, grinning. “I love this job.” Yes, Lucke’s (Sneezenesia) take on the adventures of a cafeteria employee is basically the polar opposite of Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady books. From the olive, stain-splattered backgrounds to Lucke’s scraggly-sketchy renderings and semi-grisly plot twists, this one’s for kids who like their comedy (and their magic) dark. Worried that she’s about to be revealed as a witch, Grunhilda, who’s cut from the same cloth as Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull, reluctantly agrees to create an intelligence potion for struggling student Madison. Thanks to interference from Grunhilda’s undead witch ancestors, the potion turns Madison into a toad, and Grunhilda tries to set things right. “Was this Mexican yam dug in the dark?” she asks a grocer while gathering ingredients for an antidote. “It’s certified fair trade, but I can’t commit to dug in the dark,” he replies. A wickedly funny start to this series.
The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Boston's Great Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo (Morrow) - Delving deep into the history of Boston circa the 19th century, Montillo (The Lady and Her Monsters) unearths a riveting true-crime tale that rivals anything writers in the 21st century could concoct. Jesse Harding Pomeroy, an adolescent from a deeply troubled family, earns notoriety in working-class Boston and surrounding towns by kidnapping and torturing young boys. The sensational journalism of the period soon turns him into a subject of grotesque fascination in the city and beyond. After Jesse is apprehended by court order and sent off to reform school, his mother secures a commutation that returns the teenager to the city, with monstrous results. A masterly storyteller, Montillo skillfully evokes the poor and patrician neighborhoods that served as a backdrop for the crimes, particularly after the 1872 fire that ravaged the city center. The police investigations that tracked down Jesse are stunning in their similarity to modern-day sleuthing. Alongside the graphic, disturbing details of Pomeroy’s crimes, Montillo chronicles the contemporary fascination with mental illness by writers such as Herman Melville, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and other paragons of 19th-century Boston. A host of doctors and lawyers also figure prominently in these pages, as they all try to understand what drove a young boy to commit horrific crimes that gripped a city for decades.