This week: David McCullough on the Wright Brothers, Kate Atkinson's follow-up to "Life After Life," and the definitive biography of Saul Bellow.
The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora (Grove) - Acampora’s debut creates a portrait of a fictional upscale Connecticut suburb, Old Cranbury, through a series of linked stories that are intelligent, unnerving, and very often strange. In “The Umbrella Bird,” a woman eases into her new life as a housewife in a stuffy neighborhood only for her husband to trade his lucrative job for a career as a spiritual healer. In “The Virginals,” a woman obsessed with the town’s early American history resorts to criminal measures to preserve it. The book’s best entry, “Afterglow,” centers on a wealthy businessman who pays off a doctor in order to gain a troublingly intimate glimpse of his wife’s anatomy. In each story, Acampora examines the tensions, longings, and mild lunacies underlying the “beady-eyed mommy culture” and sociopolitical “forgetfulness” marking Old Cranbury. At the same time, Acampora’s picture of the town—rendered in crisp prose and drawing on extensive architectural detail—is as irresistible as it is disturbing.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown) - The life expectancy of RAF pilots in World War II was notoriously short, with fewer than half surviving the war. But Teddy Todd—the beloved younger brother of Ursula Todd, whose life in all its variations was the subject of Atkinson’s Life After Life—beats the odds. Inner peace means resuming a life he never expected to have in a now-diminished England. He has nightmares; a wife he loves, although not necessarily enough or in the right way; and, eventually, a daughter who blames him for her mother’s early death and never misses a chance to mention the blood on his hands. As much postwar story as war story, the book is also a depiction of the way past and present mix. Atkinson fans know that she can bend time to her will, and here she effortlessly shifts between Teddy’s flying days and his middle and old age, between his grandchildren and their awful mother, and back again. Atkinson makes us feel the power of storytelling not as an intellectual conceit, but as a punch in the gut.
Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum (Viking) - Bausum offers a powerful and moving account of the pivotal Stonewall riots of 1969 and the struggle for gay rights in the U.S. The riots occurred after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a grungy, mafia-run gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. “The tension of that night and countless previous nights and hundreds of lifetimes of abuse burst the dams of person after person. The crowd became a mob, and the mob began to riot.” Bausum’s conversational storytelling whisks readers back to an era when homosexuality was criminalized; after a brief introduction to the night of the raid (“For starters, there was a full moon. And it was beastly hot”), the narrative backtracks a decade to set the context for the violent demonstrations that ensued.
How to Bake Π: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng (Basic) - Cheng, a lecturer in mathematics at both the University of Sheffield and the University of Chicago, sets an ambitious agenda for herself: to explain to non-mathematicians how mathematicians think and to educate readers about the tools mathematicians employ when seeking solutions to complex problems. She begins each chapter with recipes (mostly desserts) that she then employs to illustrate the thought processes that underlie mathematical reasoning—a surprisingly stimulating and successful conceit. Having grabbed the reader’s attention, Cheng playfully walks through numerous math problems of varying difficulty, taking care to provide understandable and illuminating solutions. She often departs from mathematical theory to highlight the pragmatic values of logic and rationality as employed by mathematicians in everyday life, and she possesses a lighter side that recognizes mathematical reasoning is not life’s holy grail, underlining her point with an entertaining, and wise, six-point indictment of pure logic as a tool with which to approach “all that life throws at us.” Cheng's combination allows her to demystify how mathematicians think and work, and makes her love for mathematics contagious.
Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen (Viking) - Sydney Stanford and her family are devastated when her older brother, Peyton, paralyzes a local boy while driving drunk and is sent to jail. Sydney’s mother throws herself into supporting Peyton (while seeming to scarcely acknowledge his guilt), and Sydney switches schools, carrying heavy guilt on behalf of the injured boy, David, and trying to escape the damage Peyton has left in his wake. Sydney’s parents virtually ignore her as they navigate the complicated prison system on Peyton’s behalf, even inviting his older friend Ames into their home, his leering presence making Sydney uneasy. Sydney finds relief with her new friend Layla, Layla’s family and friends, and especially her handsome brother, Mac. Dessen delves deeper than ever into the complex dynamics of families suffering loss and confronting changes that upend everything. The author’s many devotees are sure to enjoy this weighty addition to her canon.
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato (Melville House) - Wrapped in the form of pseudohistorical, multilayered investigative journalism full of footnotes from a skewed world that resembles our own, columnist Disabato’s first novel is a paean to the modern urban landscape. In it she relishes questions about pop culture’s relationship to intellectual culture jamming, the persistence of the ephemeral under the gaze of the obsessed, and the secrets behind public personas and public transportation. Equal parts unfolding suspense and literary treasure hunt, Disabato’s document claims to be her completion of journalist Cyrus Archer’s abandoned investigation of the search for Molly Metropolis, a rising pop music diva who disappears suddenly in Chicago while on tour at the height of her popularity. Archer’s interviews reveal the story of music journalist Cait Taer, who seeks out Gina Nix, her old friend and Molly’s personal assistant, after Molly vanishes. Disabato's book is simultaneously breathlessly exhilarating and beautifully haunted.
The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy by Henry Hemming (Public Affairs) - Geoffrey Pyke, described in his 1948 Times of London obituary as “one of the most original if unrecognized figures of the present century,” always seemed to find himself in the right place at the right time, as Hemming documents in this masterful biography. In July 1914, with Europe on the verge of war, Pyke talked his way into a position with Reuters as special correspondent in Copenhagen. He was soon captured by the Germans and sent to the Ruhleben concentration camp, from which he escaped, writing a bestselling book about the experience. That alone makes for a riveting read, but Pyke’s story was far from over. Hemming details how Pyke also made lasting innovations in educational theory, criticized Nazi anti-Semitism, aided the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, convinced Winston Churchill that an aircraft carrier made out of reinforced ice was a good idea, and was suspected of being a Soviet spy. Hemming’s superlative text is nearly as nimble as Pyke’s mind, and he reveals who this remarkable innovator really was.
The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 by Zachary Leader (Knopf) - The first volume in this exhaustive project follows Nobel laureate Bellow’s life up to 1964 and the publication of Herzog. (A planned second volume of the biography will cover the last 40 years of Bellow’s life.) Leader (The Life of Kingsley Amis) begins with Bellow’s ancestors in Russia and walks us through his move as a child from Quebec to Chicago. From there, Leader follows Bellow to New York City; Minneapolis; Paris; Princeton, N.J.; Pyramid Lake, Nev.; and Río Piedras, P.R., reading through Bellow’s writing the same sense of itinerancy. Leader describes each year of Bellow’s professional and romantic life in extensive detail, drawing upon collected letters and new interviews. That life proves to be populated by dozens of friends, girlfriends, colleagues, and acquaintances, each of whom is contextualized and described in depth here. An impressive achievement, this biography gives noble due to one of the 20th century’s most significant writers.
Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich (Random) - Longerich (The Unwritten Order), a historian of modern Germany at Royal Holloway University of London, explores in depth three aspects of the career and life of the Third Reich’s infamous minister of propaganda: “his development from a failed writer and intellectual to a Nazi agitator”; his “efforts... to introduce uniformity into the [German] media, cultural life, and the public sphere”; and his “role as a wartime propagandist and advocate of ‘total war.’ ” He labels Goebbels a narcissist, an “ice-cold evil genius” who uncritically idolized Hitler for embodying the “German soul.” The book’s greatest strength—and greatest weakness—lies in Longerich’s deep explorations of the most intimate and specific aspects of Goebbels’s personal life. This biography is now the definitive work on Goebbels in English, and will be of major interest to scholars and serious students of the Third Reich.
Blue Fasa by Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions) - Mackey, winner of the 2006 National Book Award for poetry, “continues Nod House’s continuation of Splay Anthem and the work that came before it” as he extends two interwoven and ongoing serial poems: Song of Andoumboulou and “Mu.” Commanding in their cerebral and musical reach, the poems do not require knowledge of previous installments, though hints to the themes here are found in the collection’s title, which references the West African griot tradition and jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s song “Blue Bossa.” Mackey’s epic mode is one in which place, time, and personae collide and shapeshift, rendering a definitive origin or conclusion somewhat irrelevant. Indeed, this collection opens with a fraying of the self, first pulled apart by love, as the bereft narrator laments, “Insofar, this/ was to say, as there was an I it was/ no other, of late letting go no getting/ out. I saw myself I saw, no parallel/ track.” The “Insofar-I” construction reverberates throughout as quasimythic travelers are shaped and taken apart by forces personal, historical, environmental, and metaphysical. The book itself follows in this pattern of continual departures, sustained in Mackey’s remarkable erudition and singular lyric virtuosity.
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (S&S) - Mechanical invention is close to a religious calling in this reverent biography of the pioneers of heavier-than-air flight. Pulitzer-winning historian McCullough (Truman) sees something exalted in the two bicycle mechanics and lifelong bachelors who lived with their sister and clergyman father in Dayton, Ohio. He finds them—especially Wilbur, the elder brother—to be cultured men with a steady drive and quiet charisma, not mere eccentrics. McCullough follows their monkish devotion to the goal of human flight, recounting their painstaking experiments in a homemade wind tunnel, their countless wrong turns and wrecked models, and their long stints roughing it on the desolate, buggy shore at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Thanks largely to their own caginess, the brothers endured years of doubt and ridicule while they improved their flyer. McCullough's usual warm, evocative prose makes for an absorbing narrative; he conveys both the drama of the birth of flight and the homespun genius of America's golden age of innovation.
The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos by Leonard Mlodinow (Pantheon) - Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, opens his powerful new book with a story about his father, who as a starving prisoner at Buchenwald once traded his bread for the answer to a riddle. He writes that upon hearing his father’s story, he “realized then that search for knowledge is the most human of all our desires.” That is the recurring theme as Mlodinow follows scientific thought from its birth in prehistoric man to its blossoming in Aristotle, Newton, Lavoisier, Darwin, Einstein, and beyond. He discusses the intransigence of belief in a natural world ruled by gods before Aristotle and the subsequent intransigence of belief in a natural world ruled by too many erroneous Aristotelean precepts. He notes the suffering that can accompany the pursuit of knowledge—such as that of Galileo—as well as the enormous, wordless satisfaction. Breathing new life into science history, he frames narratives of great thinkers with serial scenes of his father’s great courage and curiosity, despite only having a seventh-grade education. Mlodinow’s point has been made before, but rarely so well: the quality that best distinguishes—and honors—humankind is not an ability to answer questions, but that “after millennia of effort,” nothing stops us from asking them.
Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age by Susan Neiman (FSG) - Accessible philosophy doesn't get much better than this insightful review of what Enlightenmentthinkers such as Kant and Rousseau have to offer people today. from Neiman (Moral Clarity), director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, tackles questions that are widely relevant: How do different kinds of experience help and hinder "our understanding of the way the world is, and the way it should be?" And "how do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?" Along the way, she offers piercing critiques of consumerist culture, illustrating how luxury creates "false needs that make us dependent," and of American society, in which citizens are distracted from the real issues by a bewildering array of choices about relative trivialities. Neiman's sense of humor ("Yes, even Kant could write straightforward sentences") is a plus, but her greatest strength is her ability to distill centuries of thought to their essence, provoking her readers along the way.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf) - In a fast-shifting terrain of “homonormativity,” Nelson, poet and author of numerous works of gender and sexuality (The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning; Bluets), plows ahead with a disarmingly blushing work about trying to simultaneously embrace her identity, her marriage with nomadic transgender filmmaker Harry, and motherhood. She mixes a memoir of her love for Harry with clinical depictions of their attempts to get her pregnant, as well as a critical meditation on the queer craft of “becoming,” investigating the ways that “new kinship systems mime older nuclear-family arrangements” and whether those older models are good, oppressive, useful, or fair. Nelson takes her title from the notion that the Argonauts could continually replace their ship’s parts over time, “but the boat [was] still called the Argo.” The new waters she’s sailing include learning how to be a stepparent to Harry’s young son and then a mother to her newborn, no longer scorning heterosexual “breeders,” and becoming much more forgiving of what she once saw as too-outrageous queer radicalism, since all—including her husband, undergoing his own gender voyage via testosterone therapy and surgery—have a “shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.” Her narrative is an honest, joyous affirmation of one happily unconventional family finding itself.
Divine Punishment by Sergio Ramirez, trans. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (McPherson & Co.) - Ramirez, former vice president of Nicaragua, published this noirish tale of murder and deceit while in office in 1988, and it appears in English for the first time in a wonderful translation by Caistor. The story, based on a real series of unsolved poisonings, takes the form of a legal case, replete with court reports, interviews, testimonies, depositions, and letters from the main players. This interesting and complex structure includes a barrage of character names, places, subplots, and substories—Ramirez effectively recreates an entire world of intrigue around the case. But the central story line revolves around the motives of the accused murderer, Oliverio Castaneda. Ramirez animates the small town world of 1930s Leon, Nicaragua, and its criminal justice system at a time that coincides with the country’s struggle to operate under a civil and judicial, rather than military, government. This is a big, beautiful novel—a compelling historical drama of competing narratives and colorful characters that is self-aware and tinged with black humor.
The Great Good Summer by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon (S&S/Beach Lane) - “It’s the surprise and mystery of it that makes us want to watch,” quips Ivy Green, age 12, about watching remote-control airplanes fly, though she could just as easily be talking about her story itself. Ivy is a classically risk-averse good girl, but when her mother runs off with a storefront preacher named Hallelujah Dave, she and an unlikely new friend (and borderline crush) break out of their shells and break all kinds of rules to restore order to Ivy’s family life. The real strength of this folksy novel, the first from picture-book author Scanlon (All the World), is its earnest, nonsaccharine treatment of what it means to have faith and to question it. As Ivy’s trust in her mother is shaken, so is her faith in God (“We wouldn’t be in this fix in the first place if it weren’t for God”). Readers will be rewarded with both genuine adventure and intense reflection as Ivy finds a balance between safe comfort and disquieting wonder.