This week: Paul Theroux goes south, Ruth Reichl gets cooking, Leigh Bardugo kicks off a new series, and more.
Deep South by Paul Theroux, photos by Steve McCurry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - Travel writer Theroux finds the traveling easier and his insights more penetrating in this engrossing passage through the South. Celebrating the wonders of American driving, the New England native recounts several road trips from South Carolina through Arkansas, circling back to revisit places and people in a way he couldn't on his treks across foreign continents. His relaxed schedule lets him forget the journey and, instead, immerse himself in destinations that seem both familiar and strange ("Jesus is lord—we buy and sell guns," reads a billboard). This luminous sojourn is Theroux's best outing in years.
Untwine by Edwidge Danticat (Scholastic Press) - Giselle, an art lover, and Isabelle, a budding composer, are 16-year-old Haitian-American twins living in Miami. After the SUV carrying the girls and their recently separated parents is hit, Giselle’s world unravels. Danticat vividly represents the path from shock to healing as Giselle and her parents grapple with Isabelle’s death. Danticat’s gracious and poetic language haunts as Giselle moves through “star-blinding pain,” both physical and emotional, discovering the inner world of her sister and reconciling the guilt she feels at being the surviving twin. With a dynamic family of uncles, aunts, grandparents, and family friends, Giselle creates a bridge for herself, moving from twinned to “untwinned” and to a place where the best of her sister lives on in her. Danticat’s final scenes are at once heartbreaking and uplifting.
The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon (Greenwillow) - On Archer Helmsley’s ninth birthday, his grandparents vanish while exploring an iceberg in Antarctica. Two years later, Archer (along with his best friend Oliver, the fretful son of a newspaperman, and Adélaïde, a mysterious Parisian girl with a wooden leg) plans to embark on a rescue mission—if only his overprotective mother would let him leave the house. Newcomer Gannon reveals himself as a skilled storyteller, both in his writing and artwork. His quippy quotes, whimsically meandering exposition, and penchant for the gently absurd breathe life into his three main characters, while his full-color illustrations—precise, elegant, and haunting—are a delightful means of seeing into his mind’s eye. It’s a tender tale of friendship, untapped courage, and accidental adventure, filled with the spirit of exploration.
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday/Talese) - In the dystopian landscape of the unflappable Atwood’s latest novel, there are “not enough jobs, and too many people,” which drives married couple Stan and Charmaine to become interested in the Positron Project, a community that purports to have achieved harmony. There is a catch, as Positron leader Ed explains: citizens are required to share their home with other couples, alternating each month between time in prison and time at home. The novel is full of sly moments of peripeteia and lots of sex, which play alongside larger ideas about the hidden monsters lurking in facile totalitarianism, and, as implied by the title, the ability of the heart to keep fighting despite long odds.
My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl, photos by Mikel Vang (Random) - When the doors closed at Gourmet magazine in 2009, editor-in-chief Reichl came to terms with her professional upheaval by plunging herself into her greatest pleasure—cooking. The year of healing and rediscovery journaled in this cookbook reveals the simple pleasures that the former New York Times restaurant critic and James Beard Award–winner recaptures when she steps back into her home kitchen, where it all started. Her recipes, introduced by haiku-like images of smells, tastes, sounds, and cityscape, read like kitchen conversations and have an inviting, informal cook-along-with-Ruth tone. The dishes are clearly fun and uplifting for Reichl, and the unexpected shift from culinary guru to happy home cook chases her blues away.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (Holt) - When the score of a lifetime presents itself, criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker assembles a crack team of talented outcasts. Their mission: to rescue a prisoner from the most secure prison in the world, so that the secrets he holds can be exploited by the right people. As Kaz and his compatriots put together a daring plan, they contend with old grudges, mistrust, lingering secrets, and deadly rivalries. Naturally, things go wrong once they start their mission, and now they must escape the very prison they sneaked into. This has all the right elements to keep readers enthralled: a cunning leader with a plan for every occasion, nigh-impossible odds, an entertainingly combative team of skilled misfits, a twisty plot, and a nerve-wracking cliffhanger.
Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor (Knopf) - MacGregor, director of the British Museum, constructs a materialist history, spinning a collection of historical vignettes from objects both ordinary and extraordinary. MacGregor’s survey of German history moves erratically in its journey from the German victory over the Romans in 9 C.E. to the 21st century, but he maintains a theme in the innate fragmentation of German identity—a fragmentation based as much on ideology as geography. Through artifacts as varied as a sausage, Gutenberg Bibles, and a porcelain rhinoceros, MacGregor illustrates how a composite German identity was forged and the country came to be. His concise lessons in German history form a cogent and fluent account that gets as close to the core of German identity as any book by a non-German could.
Kissinger: Volume I: The Idealist, 1923-1968 by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press) - In the first of a planned two-volume Henry Kissinger biography, Harvard historian Ferguson traces Kissinger’s life from his birth in Germany in 1923 through his service in WWII and growing career as a foreign policy expert, culminating in his 1968 appointment as national security advisor to newly elected President Richard Nixon. To readers’ benefit, this is as much a history of post-WWII and Cold War foreign policy as a biography of Kissinger. Jumping off from Kissinger’s high-level involvement in the 1961 Berlin Crisis and his role as an advisor in the early years of the Vietnam War, Ferguson offers a detailed and provocative examination of how foreign policy is developed in the midst of theoretical and political crosscurrents. Kissinger’s views on Vietnam and his involvement in several failed Johnson administration Vietnam peace initiatives provide a deeper dimension to the complexities of American Vietnam policy. Ferguson endeavors to provide nuance around Kissinger’s approaches to the challenges of Cold War foreign policy.
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc) - Butcher opens the imaginative Cinder Spires series with this sweeping fantastical epic with pseudo-Victorian sensibilities. In this strange realm, some cataclysm has left the surface world uninhabitable, but the ancient Builders created spires that stretch miles into the sky. Transportation, trade, and warfare are conducted by way of airships. The AMS Predator is captained by Francis Grimm, formerly of the Albion Fleet, and when Grimm’s quick action saves his spire from a devastating attack, he and several members of the Spirearch’s Guard are sent on a secret assignment to prevent disaster. Butcher brings a fresh and exciting perspective to secondary-world steampunk, giving the reader a thrilling ride.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (S&S/Atheneum/Dlouhy) - In this painful and all-too-timely book, two authors—one black, one white—present a story of police brutality. Reynolds voices Rashad, the innocent victim of a police beating; Kiely writes Quinn, a horrified witness. The book moves quickly, starting on a Friday night with the boys—classmates who don't know each other—preparing for a party, and ending with a social-media-inspired protest march one week later. The scenario that Reynolds and Kiely depict has become a recurrent feature of news reports, and a book that lets readers think it through outside of the roiling emotions of a real-life event is both welcome and necessary.