This week, Toni Morrison's new novel, the astounding story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, and Montmartre at the beginning of modernism.
Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick (Crown) - In this powerful memoir, Bolick, a cultural critic and contributing editor to The Atlantic, takes an unusual approach to telling her life story, by focusing on her five “awakeners”: great women of the past whose work and experiences inspire her to build the life she wants. Bolick learns from the example of essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Edith Wharton, and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick delves into the history of her awakeners while rounding out each of their individual narratives with her personal experiences. She also reflects on current expectations of women and marital status, backing up her musings with a handful of statistics and facts. Bolick’s intense and moving combination of personal, historical, and cultural narratives will inspire readers—especially women—to think about what they want their own lives to be, and how close they are to their goals.
Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon (Norton) - In this wonderful novel chronicling the life of one of painter Edouard Manet’s primary models, Gibbon takes readers on a mesmerizing, erotic journey not only to another time and place but inside the mind of an artist. When we meet Victorine (the opening line is, “That day I am seventeen and I am wearing the boots of a whore”), the young girl who will become Manet’s muse, we are presented with a self-aware teenager, poor but full of imagination, with a penchant for drawing and a hunger to experience life. She is drawn to the mysterious Manet, who befriends Victorine and her roomate Denise, and what starts as a harmless ménage à trois becomes something much more when Trine (as Manet calls her) forces the artist to choose between the two women. As their affair develops, Trine comes to learn that Manet wants her to pose for him, which she does with increasing abandon, though she knows the relationship won’t last. Using spare, evocative prose, Gibbon shows us a young woman on the verge of finding her own artistic voice.
Big Weed: An Entrepreneur's High-Stakes Adventures in the Budding Legal Marijuana Business by Christian Hageseth, with Joseph D'Agnese (Palgrave Macmillan) - In this lively look at the evolution of legal marijuana, Hageseth, founder of the company Green Man Cannabis, describes going from a complete newcomer in 2009 to a respected industry figure and multiple Cannabis Cup winner. Though Hageseth is clearly an aficionado, happy to talk about marijuana’s benefits, he approaches the topic as a businessman and entrepreneur, or, as he puts it, “ganjapreneur.” He speaks of finding financial backers, the fundamental disconnect between state legality and federal illegality (try finding a bank willing to accept drug money), law enforcement caught up in rapidly changing statutes and attitudes, and other problems legal growers face. “The legalization of marijuana is like the ending of Prohibition,” he states, before comparing the current market to another past era: the Wild West. Hageseth, whose goal is to create the first weedery, or marijuana winery, is making an entertaining but bumpy journey: unreliable business partners, uncooperative banks, financial setbacks. Whatever the reader’s views on the subject, this is an ideal insider’s look at an industry in a time of momentous change.
The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition by Amy Kittelstrom (Penguin Press) - Mention of religion in the public square today is commonly associated with political conservatism. This analysis from Kittelstrom, who teachers history at California’s Sonoma State University, serves as a reminder that many religious liberals were instrumental in guiding American society in its quest for moral and social progress. The seven individuals discussed—including John Adams, William James, and Jane Addams—are drawn from a wide swath of history and a broad range of occupations and ideologies, but they share the conviction that religion “doth not deserve that Sacred Name, if it does us no Good.” Religious liberalism changes the focus of faith from the world to come to the here and now. Kittelstrom’s history stands out for its deeply textured treatment of each of these profoundly important thinkers, permitting appreciation of the influences that brought them to an enlightened view of faith and its sociopolitical implications.
GBH by Ted Lewis (Soho Crime) - First published in 1980, this gritty tale of paranoia and violence from Lewis shines an unflinching light on London’s thriving pornography scene in the 1970s. In the past, George Fowler was the undistributed kingpin of hardcore pornographic films known as “Blues,” and he lived the high life with his devoted wife, Jean, the two sharing a penchant for violence and sex. In the present, George is hiding out, alone, in the seaside town of Mablethorpe under an alias. Jean, who also pulled double duty as his bookkeeper, discovered someone in the distribution operation—which in the days before the Internet involved a series of middlemen to produce and ensure discreet delivery to recipients—was skimming substantial amounts. This sent George and his seemingly trustworthy right-hand man on a hunt to find the person—or persons—responsible, with dire consequences. As George’s vendetta unspools in the past, it becomes clearer why he’s hiding out, as every new face in town is greeted with fear and suspicion.
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison (Knopf) - In Morrison's short, emotionally-wrenching novel, her first since 2012's Home, a mother learns about the damage adults do to children and the choices children make as they grow to suppress, express, or overcome their shame. The story begins with the birth of Lula Ann Bridewell, a midnight black baby whose mother cannot stand to touch her. Grown-up Lula Ann transforms herself into Bride, a stiletto-wearing, Jaguar-driving California executive with dark skin proudly accentuated by stylish white clothing. Amid preparations for the launch of her signature cosmetics line, Bride offers a gift-bag of cash and cosmetics to parolee Sofia Huxley, the kindergarten teacher Bride accused of sexual abuse 15 years before, earning Bride maternal approval and Sofia her prison sentence. Sofia's angry rejection of Bride's present, coinciding with the departure of Bride's lover, inspires such self-doubt that Bride fears regressing back into Lula Ann. A car accident lands her in a culvert, where a little girl keeping dark secrets of her own comes to the rescue. This haunting novel displays a profound understanding of American culture and an unwavering sense of justice and forgiveness.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua (Pantheon) - This print edition of Padua’s webcomic is a must-have for anyone who enjoys getting lost in a story as brilliant in execution as conception. Padua debut graphic novel transforms the collaboration between Ada Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron) and Charles Babbage (a noted polymath) into an inspired, “What If?” story. Lovelace was a talented mathematician and helped translate a paper on Babbage’s ideas for an Analytical Engine, the world’s first computer. The notes she added to the translation were so cleverly detailed that experts today recognize them as the first example of computer programming. Although Lovelace died a few years later and Babbage was left to tinker with his Analytical Engine until his death, Padua imagines an alternate reality where they build the engine and use it to “have thrilling adventures and fight crime!” The immensity of Padua’s research and the wit and allusions of her prose are striking, saying as much about what drove her to explore the possibilities of her protagonists’ relationship as about the protagonists themselves. Permeated by delightful illustrations, obsessive foot- and endnotes, and a spirit of genuine inventiveness, it’s an early candidate for the year’s best.
In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roe (Penguin Press) - Montmartre, the hillside district of northern Paris, lay at the heart of an emerging modernism at the turn of the 20th century, as aptly depicted in this new book by Roe (The Private Lives of the Impressionists). Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, and other famous modernists lived, worked, and congregated within its neighborhood cafes, bars, and studios. Roe painstakingly depicts Montmartre’s cultural and political history as well as the “distinctive melancholy” and beauty of its windmills, vineyards that “covered the steep slopes,” and artists painting at easels along the dirt roads, as well as the crumbling buildings and dilapidated shacks that housed both the poor laborers and artists looking for cheap rents. Although the book primarily revolves around Picasso’s life and work, it involves much more than painting, including the pioneering creations of fashion designer Paul Poiret and the frenzied arrival of modern dance with the Ballets Russes. Roe also provides insights into new methods of experimentation in artistic expression, including the emergence of Futurism. Roe’s accessible prose creates intimate portraits of an array of characters, but this is above all a vibrant illustration of a specific place in time.
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad, trans. from the Norwegian by Sarah Death (FSG) - Journalist Seierstad (The Bookseller of Kabul) delivers a vivid, thoroughly researched, and suspenseful account of the 2011 massacre that killed 77 people in her native Norway. On July 22, Anders Behring Breivik disguised himself as a policeman and set off a bomb in Oslo's government quarter, killing eight. He then made his way to the island of Utøya, where he murdered an additional 69 people, most of them teenagers attending a camp sponsored by Norway's Labour Party. Seierstad's comprehensive investigation examines that fateful day, the events that led up to it, and the trial that followed. She also chronicles the troubled life and radicalization of the convicted killer, the mismanaged police response, and the government's reaction. The book features evocative portraits of some of the victims and brims with vivid descriptions of the villages, city squares, buildings, and fjords of Norway, touching on the country's politics, changing demographics, and cultural shifts. With a reporter's passion for details and a novelist's sense of story, Seierstad's book is at once an unforgettable account of a national tragedy and a lively portrait of contemporary Norway.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (HarperTeen) - With lyricism and potent insight, Shusterman (Unwind) traces the schizophrenic descent and return of Caden Bosch, an intelligent 15-year-old and a gifted artist. His internal narratives are sometimes dreams, sometimes hallucinations, and sometimes undefinable, dominated by a galleon and its captain, sailing with an enormous, sullen crew to the deepest point of the Marianas Trench, Challenger Deep. The metaphor’s not exactly subtle, but Shusterman finds unexpected resonance in its details—the tarry seams in the wood, the human ballast. External reality still registers: people around Caden run the gamut of humor, scolding, threats, and avoidance to pressure him into changing behavior he no longer controls. Shusterman has mined personal experience of mental illness with his son Brendan, whose line drawings mirror Caden’s fragmentation in swirling lines eerily reminiscent of Van Gogh. It’s a powerful collaboration, and crucial to the novel’s credibility. Though his story doesn’t necessarily represent a “typical” experience of mental illness, it turns symptoms into lived reality in ways readers won’t easily forget.
Murder Is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens (S&S) - Eighth-grader Hazel Wong lives in the shadow of her best friend Daisy Wells, a girl so flawless that even retching seems to agree with her. Inspired by pulp fiction paperbacks, the girls form a secret detective agency at their boarding school, opening their first big case when their teacher, Miss Bell, turns up dead. Set in 1934 England, this first book in the Wells & Wong Mystery series is part murder mystery, part diary, and a pitch-perfect snapshot of adolescent friendship. Daisy is the classic mean girl: privileged, selfish, and as beautiful as she is heartless—all qualities that Hazel lacks. (Narrator Hazel isn’t even the heroine of her own story!) The girls are in over their heads, but Daisy, used to bending everyone to her whims, refuses to admit it, so it’s up to pragmatic Hazel to save the case, and their lives. Their yin-yang friendship, like the camaraderie of Sherlock and Watson, is as integral to the story as the revelation of the murderer.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia (HarperCollins/Amistad) - For their third outing (after One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven), the irrepressible Gaither sisters of Brooklyn get on a Greyhound bus bound for Alabama. It's 1969, and Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are spending the summer with Big Ma, their father's mother, and a passel of other vividly drawn relatives. Delphine, now 12, again narrates (which must make Vonetta spitting mad). The bickering between these sisters is as annoying as it is authentic, and it mirrors a long-simmering feud between Ma Charles (Big Ma's mother) and her half-sister, Miss Trotter, who uses Vonetta to send spiteful messages back to Ma Charles. The back-and-forth allows Williams-Garcia to unspool the Gaithers' complex family history: as slaves, as blacks in the segregated south, and in relation to the Native Americans who once called the area home. It's reward enough just to spend more time with this feisty, close-knit family, whose loyalty to and love for each other trump everything else.
Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young (New York Univ.) - Temple University historian Young's clear style and a keen eye for good stories make this book a page-turner. He takes an elastic view of the concept of dissent, presenting it as anything “going against the grain,” and by not focusing on ideas alone, is able to cover a lot of territory. The result is a work that establishes the “centrality of dissent in American history.” The Puritans had barely arrived in the New World—for their own dissenting religious purposes—when Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson began their agitation against civil and religious authority. Over time, dissent became so widespread and so deeply ingrained in American society that people who shared a cause—for instance, 19th-century advocates for women’s suffrage—disagreed among themselves about the nature and expression of their dissent. Progressive thinkers didn’t have a monopoly on dissent; the Ku Klux Klan arose “to preserve white supremacy,” and, in the 1970s, conservative Christians mobilized to counter 1960s liberalism. Young convincingly demonstrates that the history of the United States is inextricably linked to dissent and shows how “protest is one of the consummate expressions of ‘Americanness.’ ”