This week: Werner Herzog walks on ice, Oliver Sacks's new memoir, and the golden age of murder.
The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough (Scholastic/Levine) - The odds against Henry and Flora becoming a couple are significant: Henry is white, Flora is black, and this is Depression-era Seattle. But their similarities outweigh their differences; at 17, they’re both orphans, musicians, and—unbeknownst to them—the current players in the centuries-old contest between Love and Death. Death’s player, Flora, is a singer and aspiring aviatrix; Henry, chosen by Love, plays bass and baseball. Airplanes and music bring Henry and Flora together, and though they feel something immediately, Flora, with a pessimism born of experience, is sure it can’t work. Love and Death are on the scene in human guises, manipulating people and events, and the book is really a tale of two couples: Henry and Flora, as well as the ultimate opposites-attract pair, Love and Death. Brockenbrough never sugarcoats the obstacles facing Henry and Flora’s love—whether human prejudices or supernatural manipulations—in this inventive and affecting novel, and the ending in which Flora, who has seen too many people die, realizes how love and death intertwine, is beautiful.
The Brink by Austin Bunn (Harper Perennial) - Bunn’s debut story collection mixes genres and styles in 10 ambitious, impressive tales. Among the strongest are “Getting There & Away”—a near perfect story that involves a honeymoon, a lost ring, an explosion, and the Bali nightlife—and “Ledge,” concerning a ship in the late 15th century that discovers the literal end of the Earth and a passageway between the living and the dead. Bunn drops his characters in a variety of locales: summer school, a basement, a Second Life–like virtual world, and the Heaven’s Gate cult just prior to its mass suicide in 1997. And while many of his stories speak to the ideas of physical and emotional loss, the author’s fearlessness in constructing interesting protagonists prevents any moments of déjà vu for the reader. These characters are uncomfortable in their own skin. Both “Ledge” and “Curious Father” contain men questioning their sexuality. And sometimes, these characters also create reader discomfort. “Griefer” finds a man so obsessed with technology that he fails to pay attention to his family, and in “When You Are the Final Girl,” Bunn crafts a particularly threatening protagonist in Randy, a man bent on drugging a teenage girl after a car accident disfigures his face. This is a compelling collection, and several of the stories are breathtaking.
Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo by David Crane (Knopf) - While taking an hour-by-hour look at the Battle of Waterloo, which was fought June 17, 1815, British historian Crane focuses less on the conflict itself than on what came to be called “the age of Waterloo” in Britain. Crane’s account of Napoleon’s defeat is somewhat disjointed, but he more than compensates with his superb, kaleidoscopic look at domestic life of the period. He introduces readers to the lives of such noteworthy figures as the poet Lord Byron, who, at the time, was in an unhappy marriage and heavily in debt after an affair with his half-sister. Readers also meet lesser-known but culturally significant individuals, including Benjamin Haydon, a painter of monumental historical scenes; prize-fighter Jack Shaw, who was killed in a cavalry charge at Waterloo; and writer Caroline Lamb, who that day was “putting the final touches on the longest suicide note in history.” Particularly interesting is the case of suspected, and possibly framed, murderess Eliza Fenning and the way it was used politically by Whigs and Tories alike. Crane accents his well-paced, fluid style with nice poetic touches.
The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story by Martin Edwards (Harper) - Crime novelist Edwards (Frozen Shroud), the archivist for the legendary Detection Club of crime authors, reveals the hidden lives of its members in a comprehensive and well-written narrative that combines biography with literary criticism. He focuses on the Club’s three leading lights—Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the lesser-known Anthony Berkeley—and how their output between the world wars helped define the detective novel as we know it. Along the way, he dispels numerous myths about Golden Age detective fiction: for example, that it was “an essentially British form of escapism... an effete counterpart to the tough and realistic crime fiction produced in the United States.” He documents his thesis that the Detection Club facilitated its members’ creativity through mutual support and “challenging [them] to take the genre to a higher level.” The trenchant analysis is coupled with revelations about the private lives of these very public authors, offering new information for casual fans and students of the genre alike, including details of Christie’s mysterious disappearance and Sayers’s secret child.
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon (Random) - The relationship between Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and the mother she never knew—Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), author of the incendiary tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women, who died 10 days after her daughter’s birth—is explored with remarkable insight and perspicacity in this exhilarating dual biography from Gordon (Mistress Bradstreet). The book illustrates the similarities between mother and daughter by devoting alternating chapters to their lives. Both were raised in emotionally turbulent households (although Shelley’s offered more intellectual stimulation); both had to leave home to find their identities as writers; and both lived as adults under the shadow of scandal—Wollstonecraft for her outspoken feminism and marriage to liberal political philosopher William Godwin, a critic of matrimony, and Shelley for her role in the notorious Byron-Shelley literary circle. Gordon’s perceptive reading of both women’s published works illuminates their core ideas, including complementary critiques of patriarchy, and identifies the emotional fault lines caused by the drama in their lives.
Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley (Harper) - Terminally ill from infancy, Aza is willing to accept that she’s dead. There’s a container of ashes to prove it. It’s on Earth, along with Jason—the boy who she’s long loved and who loves her in return—and every other familiar touchstone of her brief, angry existence. Yet Aza is very much alive on the massive Magonian airship Amina Pennarum, with a piratical captain, who declares herself Aza’s true mother, and a crew of jays, robins, owls—and one screaming ghost. Headley, who co-edited Unnatural Creatures with Neil Gaiman, riffs like an improv comic through the factoids of a Google age, giving her characters retentive memories and lightning search skills. Like the best improv, the first-person narration is funny, furious, and vulnerable. The haunting conclusion leaves many issues unresolved, but the ferocious, intelligent power of Aza and Jason’s bond is completely affirmed. Sweeping, strange, and built around a richly imagined world of chimerical bird-men and airships, the novel is ideal for fans of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone and its sequels.
Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris; 23 November-14 December 1974 by Werner Herzog (Univ. of Minnesota) - In late 1974, Werner Herzog was on a mission. He believed that his friend Lotte Eisner, a film historian, would survive a serious illness if he walked from Munich to Paris, where she was convalescing. This eloquent diary recounts his journey and his fleeting thoughts while walking. He offers typical Herzogian observations of the coarse salt on pretzels and the trusting faces of sheep caught in a snowstorm. But perhaps more revealing is his mix of pensive musings about loneliness and practical concerns about his blisters and swollen Achilles tendon, the constant rain, and finding a place to sleep. Herzog's slight narrative is captivating because his experiences humanize the legendary filmmaker. He is full of curiosity and wonder. Finding cigarette packets on the roadside or a bicycle discarded in a brook stimulates his imagination. A rainbow inspires confidence, while cranes flying in formation provide a "metaphor for him who walks." Even when he meanders into strange asides, such as a story about his grandfather, Herzog remains interesting.
My Struggle, Book Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. from the Norwegian by Donald Bartlett (Archipelago) - Part four of Knausgaard’s sprawling autobiographical novel gives a clear picture of narrator Karl Ove’s late teenage years and his transition from the reckless abandon of youth to the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. The book centers on the year he spends teaching children—some not much younger than he is—in a provincial town in northern Norway. Though his primary aim is to earn money to finance his writing career, he learns a bit about the quirks of smalltown living, making a few friends and enemies along the way. A large chunk of the book is devoted to the year or so leading up to Karl Ove’s decision to take the job, as he begrudgingly finishes high school. These sections give readers a clearer understanding of Karl Ove’s life after his parents’ divorce, and of his father’s downward spiral into alcoholism that ultimately led to his death (as described in book one). Meanwhile, Karl Ove drinks heavily, experiments with drugs, and gets into a bit of trouble. But he also matures and develops his own artistic sensibilities. The internal battle between his carnal urges and his ambitions and morals is an ongoing theme. Unapologetically crude, this entry is the funniest and least self-conscious in the series to date.
Christian Reconstructionism: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism by Michael J. McVicar (Univ. of North Carolina) - How is it that a man the author describes as “one of the most controversial ministers of the 20th century” is also a man whom most people have never heard of? Such is the story of R.J. Rushdoony and his campaign to introduce “Dominion Theology,” which champions a national government run by Christians that would “reconstruct” American society. Rushdoony set out to transform both Protestant Christianity and the American system, issuing a clarion call for Christians to engage, and ultimately control, American government and public education. Along the way, he enlisted the help of a large cadre of fellow thinkers, some of whom had different goals. Rushdoony’s ideas prevailed; his written works could fill a bookshelf. But infighting sank the movement: “the Reconstructionists could not agree with one another regarding the nature and meaning of Christian dominion,” McVicar writes. And thus the Reconstructionist idea has receded in the American consciousness, but not until it helped shape the politics of the American Religious Right. McVicar, assistant professor of religion at Florida State University, has produced a landmark work describing the rise and eventual fall of Reconstructionist thought.
The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl (Penguin Press) - In the days before e-books, self-publishing, and fan fiction, publishing was an even riskier undertaking—or so Pearl (The Dante Club) makes an entertaining case for in his latest, ingenious literary caper. The author imagines the life of 19th-century manuscript thieves called bookaneers, who unscrupulously published others’ novels on their own, thereby depriving authors of their financial due. It is Pearl’s contention that a historical 1890s international copyright agreement would soon put an end to this illegal practice, and he imaginatively conjures up two such bookaneers, Pen Davenport and his assistant, Edgar Fergins, who embark on one last mission, traveling to Samoa to steal a dying Robert Louis Stevenson’s final manuscript, The Shovels of Newton French. Arriving at the author’s mountain compound, Davenport, in the guise of a travel writer, finds competition from a rival bookaneer named Belial, who is passing for a missionary. And so the race is on to take Stevenson’s purloined manuscript and return with it to New York before the new law goes into effect. But standing in the way of literary glory are cannibals, incarceration, German colonials, and a betrayal from beyond the grave. Pearl gives the bookaneers a lively fictitious history.
On the Move by Oliver Sacks (Knopf) - The celebrated bard of the brain's quirks reveals a flamboyant secret life and a multitude of intellectual passions in this rangy, introspective autobiography. Picking up from his boyhood memoir, Uncle Tungsten, neurologist Sacks explores the complexities of his adult experience, including his homosexuality, which yielded a number of intense but transitory affairs; obsessions with weight lifting and motorcycles (complete with leather wardrobe); and a ravaging addiction to amphetamines. While Sacks's physical and emotional lives are more prominent here than in past writings, he's still fascinated with the mind and presents absorbing disquisitions on Tourette's syndrome, autism, visual processing, and the Darwinian struggle of mental processes. His loosely structured narrative takes innumerable detours, rambling among memoiristic snippets (including a pungent story about a journey through America's truck stop culture), sketches of writers and celebrities (W.H. Auden, Robin Williams, Francis Crick), moving portraits of close friends and family, and, as always, engrossing case studies of neurology patients. Sacks's writing is lucid, earnest, and straightforward, yet always raptly attuned to subtleties of character and feeling in himself and others.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill) - As one of the conquered Scholar people, Laia has grown wary of the ruthless Masks that enforce the Martial empire’s laws. But the lesson doesn’t hit home until Masks imprison her brother for aiding the Scholar Resistance. Desperate to save him, Laia agrees to spy for the rebels as a slave in Blackcliff, the hellish school where Masks are trained. Her mission becomes all the more dangerous when the empire’s prophetic Augurs announce that, for the first time in centuries, four newly graduated Masks will compete for the emperor’s throne. One of these “Aspirants,” Elias, had been on the verge of desertion before he was chosen, and he only stays to compete because of the Augurs’ warning that he will never know freedom unless he undergoes the Trials. Tahir’s deft, polished debut alternates between two very different perspectives on the same brutal world, deepening both in the contrast.
SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly) - Bestselling Tamaki (This One Summer) returns with an offbeat coming-of-age graphic novel about mutant teenagers at a school that teaches magic alongside other, more prosaic, school subjects. Showing its origins as an infrequently updated webcomic, the book opens with one-page vignettes, which are choppy and abrupt. But as the comic progresses the characters become clearer, the vignettes get longer and more developed, and the book becomes an often painfully blunt look at the insecurities and cruelties universal to teens—even flying teens. The central story focuses around Marsha, a tomboyish, frumpy broom-flyer, and Wendy, her beautiful best friend who can transform into a fox. Marsha’s very real love for Wendy drives the text, but other students have their own agonies, which they keep hidden in plain sight. The humor is sometimes slapstick, but more often it offers ultra-dry observations on modern disengagement. Tamaki is playful and loose with her art, unafraid to be experimental as she draws us into a world where true feelings are the greatest danger.
Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (Milkweed) - Canadian author and memoirist Wagamese (Indian Horse) has penned a complex, rugged, and moving father-son novel. Franklin Starlight, a 16-year-old Ojibway Indian, is summoned to the Canadian mill town of Parson’s Gap by his alcoholic father, Eldon Starlight, to discuss an important matter. Franklin goes reluctantly, since he has a dysfunctional and distant relationship with his dad. (Franklin was raised by a rancher identified only as “the old man.”) Eldon persuades Franklin to take him on a 40-mile journey to an isolated ridge to die (he suffers from a cirrhotic liver) so that he can be buried “in the warrior way.” Wagamese deftly weaves in the backstory as Eldon, racked with heartache and horror, relates different episodes from his past (when he’s lucid enough). Initially, Franklin is unsympathetic to his father’s plight, which seems to be caused by a lifetime of boozing and womanizing. However, as Eldon tells his tales, including that of his harrowing ordeal in the Korean War, which precipitated his chronic drinking, Franklin comes to see his father in a new light. Wagamese’s muscular prose and spare tone complement this gem of a narrative.
The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood (Brandeis Univ.) - Relating literature to life and vice versa, the four essays collected in this volume from Wood—the first three originally written for Brandeis University’s Mandel Lectures series—provide virtuoso displays of eloquence and insight. In “Why?” death is presented as a bookend to life that encourages us to find structure in the moments lived between the beginning and end of being, just as a well-wrought work of fiction creates a sense of meaning in the events between its beginning and end. “Serious Noticing” uses Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss” as a touchstone for studying the times in a life that “represent those moments in a story where form is outlived, canceled, evaded.” “Using Everything” is a delightful remembrance of the author’s youthful discovery of criticism that is more “passionate redescription” than academic analysis, and that deploys literature’s own “language of metaphor and simile.” Wood often draws on his personal life, as in “Secular Homelessness,” wherein he likens watching his children grow up American in a country where he is not a naturalized citizen to reading about fictional characters. His prose is rich in verbal artistry and laced with references to an abundance of writers. These essays are clearly the work of someone who has read widely and with infectious enthusiasm.