This week: Marilynne Robinson, dinosaurs, and dark matter.
Two Brothers by Gabriel Bá and Fabio Moon (Dark Horse) - This work goes far beyond its publicity hook, which is that Eisner award–winning Brazilian twin brothers (Casanova, Daytripper) have adapted Milton Hatoum’s classic novel about twin brothers to the graphic novel form. Narrated mostly by Nael, the illegitimate son of one of the brothers, the tale is presented in a nonlinear narrative with multiple flashbacks, as stories within stories begin to fill in the greater family chronicle spiraling around the twins and their simmering rivalry and hatred. The intricate secrets and lies at the heart of families are set against a backdrop of almost cinematic cityscapes and vistas. Bá and Moon present the naturalistic dynamism of Brazil in their art: sweeping, dramatic organic shapes against the sharp angularity of the people. The stark b&w art crackles to express the subtleties of palpable, barely contained tension between kin, a brutal police beating, and the erotic electricity of an exotic dance. Bá and Moon bring a cool, confident sharpness to their narrative to reflect the shades of gray in this powerful family saga.
Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President by Betty Boyd Caroli (S&S) - The spouses of the world's most influential movers and shakers rarely receive similar attention to their lives, regardless of the influence they may have had, but biographer Caroli (First Ladies: Martha Washington to Michelle Obama and The Roosevelt Women) bucks the trend with this enticing and fun examination of Claudia Alta Taylor "Lady Bird" Johnson. The ascendance of Lyndon B. Johnson. to the White House has been dissected and criticized since he reached the office. He was known for being rude to his closest associates, ridiculing his opponents, and blowing up on his staff. Caroli posits that if it hadn't been for his wife cleaning up his messes, L.B.J. would never have reached such political heights. Johnson was born in Karnack, Tex., to an abusive businessman of a father and a closed-off mother. Being brought up in such a tumultuous household taught Johnson ambition and drive, qualities that later would prove invaluable. As Caroli tells it, she was the real driving force behind every ally L.B.J. ever gained, and she ran interference for him with the press.
These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (Delacorte) - Josephine Montfort, one of the wealthy elite in 1890 New York City, is supposed to finish school, marry a suitable gentleman, raise a family, “and that is all.” But smart, self-assured Jo desires more from life—and wants to become a reporter like Nellie Bly. When Jo’s father unexpectedly dies, and she discovers that his death wasn’t an accident, she teams up with an intrepid reporter named Eddie to find out what really happened. They uncover secrets that upend everything she has known, and Jo risks her reputation as they visit checkered parts of the city and she starts to fall for Eddie. While this isn’t a short book, Donnelly’s (Revolution) action-packed chapters propel this compelling mystery. Through Jo’s sheltered perspective, readers learn about class disparity right alongside her, and Donnelly is as adept at describing an opulent ball as she is a seedy neighborhood.
Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan (Doubleday) - The great singer-actor contains multitudes in this vast, engrossing biography of Frank Sinatra’s mature years. Completing his bestselling Frank: The Voice, Kaplan follows the 17-year span from Sinatra’s Oscar-winning role in 1954’s From Here to Eternity to his (first) retirement in 1971, a period when he was a commanding Hollywood star and the acknowledged master of the American songbook. Kaplan delves with gusto into Sinatra’s seething contradictions: swagger and insecurity; sensitivity and callousness; deep loneliness amid a perpetual throng of cronies; an omnivorous sexual appetite that encompassed polar opposites Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow; lordly generosity combined with tyrannical control and a violent compulsion to push people around (most memorably when, while dressed as an Native American woman at a benefit event, he got in a shoving match with a cowboy-costumed John Wayne and then, to work off his anger, had a bodyguard beat up a parking attendant). Kaplan’s sympathetic but unflinching narrative revels in the entertainer’s scandalous private life while offering rapt, insightful appreciations of his sublime recording and stage performances.
The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry (Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious) - The unnamed narrator of this exceptional spy novel from McCarry (The Shanghai Factor) vows to avenge his father, a disgraced secret agent. The narrator engineers his own recruitment into “Headquarters” (McCarry’s name for the CIA) and, after training, begins his career as a covert agent, hunting and killing terrorists in the Middle East, though he never forgets his chief purpose in life: exacting retribution on those responsible for his father’s downfall. Amzi Strange, the deputy director for operations and his father’s former enemy at Headquarters, brings the narrator back home, where he decides to implement his plan by infiltrating the remains of a terror organization in Latin America that was led by the charismatic Alejandro Aguilar. The narrator begins an affair with Aguilar’s 29-year-old daughter, Luz, and eventually they marry. McCarry spins his riveting story in unexpected ways; the writing is always subdued but brilliant, leading unsuspecting readers to collide straight into the unforgiving wall of a stunning ending. In a cover blurb, Lee Child says, “Charles McCarry is better than John le Carré.” Many thriller fans will agree.
The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) - The breadth of this anthology, which spans over a century and includes everything from straight pastiches and parodies to fully developed whodunits, is but one of its virtues. Among the 83 selections, Penzler offers works by authors better known for other fiction, such as O. Henry, A.A. Milne, and P.G. Wodehouse, as well as tales from Holmes scholars such as Christopher Morley and Leslie Klinger. Settings range from Baker Street to unfamiliar terrain, not necessarily on Earth. The variety of approaches is an eloquent testament to Conan Doyle’s genius in creating such an iconic character. One gem, which may be new even to Sherlockians, is “The Adventure of the Murdered Art Editor,” penned by none other than the classic American illustrator of the Holmes canon, Frederic Dorr Steele. Perhaps Penzler’s most significant contribution is rescuing from undeserved obscurity talented writers who have captured the Watsonian narrative voice and combined it with brilliant deductions and mesmerizing plots, such as Rick Boyer (“The Adventure of Zolnay, the Aerialist”), August Derleth (“The Adventure of the Remarkable Worm”), and James Iraldi (“The Problem of the Purple Maculas”). This volume is a must for all fans of the great detective.
Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Viking) - In this first fully researched biography of Clementine Churchill, British political reporter Purnell (Just Boris) reveals a smart, savvy, and independent-minded woman who disagreed with her husband on such political issues as women’s suffrage, and on personal matters such as “holidays, gambling, and even their own son.” Based on extensive interviews with three generations of the extended Churchill family, as well as archival work in Britain and the U.S., Purnell’s work aids readers in appreciating Clementine’s personality, her domestic life, and the political context that she and Winston lived in and helped to shape. While she spent much of her 57-year marriage apart from Winston, Clementine was fiercely loyal and immensely helpful to him, as shown through anecdotes featuring key figures with whom she and Winston interacted, especially during WWII. Purnell shows empathy for her subject, but she doesn’t spare criticism, particularly in portraying her as a distant, somewhat neglectful mother of the couple’s five children—all of whom led troubled lives, except their youngest daughter, Mary. This exemplary biography illustrates how Clementine’s intelligence, hard work, and perseverance in often difficult circumstances made her every bit a match for her remarkable, intimidating husband, and a fascinating figure in her own right.
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe by Lisa Randall (Ecco) - Using accessible writing and vivid examples, Randall, a theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist at Harvard University, examines the indirect role dark matter may have played in the extinction of the dinosaurs, as just one example of the unlikely connections to be found in the universe. She builds her argument methodically, moving from discussions of the big bang and galaxy formation, through prehistoric extinction events, and into the way dark matter interacts with other forces and particles. Scientists detect dark matter indirectly, Randall says. In space, a massive object bends light as it zips past, so that object’s mass can then be determined by measuring the bend. Its gravity can also perturb the motion of other bodies passing through the area. Randall proposes the existence of a dense disk of dark matter inside the galactic disk of the Milky Way. As stars—including our sun—rotate around a galactic center, they and their planets cross the dark disk. On Earth’s pass-through, the dark disk’s gravity could have perturbed an icy rock in the Oort Cloud, sending it on a collision course with Earth. Randall covers a lot of ground, but does so smoothly even when addressing some of science’s most abstruse subjects. Hers is a fascinating, tantalizing theory, linking life on Earth—or the extinction thereof—with the very origins of our universe.
The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson (FSG) - This probing, provocative collection by Pulitzer winner Robinson argues for the recovery of humanism as a response to the problems of our historical moment. Robinson's is a "humanism articulated in the terms of Christian metaphysics," based on a deep reading of the Bible and her self-declared Calvinism. She is as impressively erudite and incisive in dealing with Shakespeare's "theological seriousness" and the literariness of the Reformation as in examining the current American allegiance to science over wonder, competitiveness over generosity, technology over art. The essays demonstrate an engaging humility, a quiet voice pure of accusation or bombast, and insight touched with humor. Robinson's surgically precise prose and disciplined thought convey regret for human fallibility just as strongly as reverence for human potential. Her solution is a moral reparation—a reinvigoration of "the conceptual vocabulary of religion" and "a more considered understanding of the soul" that acknowledges "the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order." "To value one another is our greatest safety," Robinson writes, "and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error." Eloquent, persuasive, and rigorously clear, this collection reveals one of America's finest minds working at peak form.
My Life of the Road by Gloria Steinem (Random) - “If you want people to listen to you,” iconic women’s rights activist Steinem underscores in this powerfully personal yet universally appealing memoir, “you have to listen to them.” And that’s exactly what she’s done for the past four decades, crisscrossing the country in search of inspiring women and women—and men—to inspire. Steinem, a staunch advocate for reproductive rights and equal rights for women, long before either was fashionable in the public eye, writes candidly for the first time about her itinerant childhood spent with a father who itched to be constantly in motion and mother who gave up her own happiness for the sake of others. Vowing to distance herself from both her mother’s dependent lifestyle and her father’s peripatetic ways, Steinem ended up doing exactly what she never imagined: being a public speaker who’s constantly on the move. Highlights include her role in the 1977 National Women’s Conference—“It was my first glimpse of how little I knew—and how much I wanted to learn”—and her accounts of conversations with taxi drivers across the country.
Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf) - Stiles, winner of a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for 2009’s The First Tycoon, grounds this spectacular narrative of George Armstrong Custer in skillful research to deliver a satisfying portrait of a complex, controversial military man. The biography centers on the importance of period context in understanding character, incisively showing that Custer lived uncomfortably on a “chronological frontier” of great modern change in the U.S. Though Custer is best known for his fatal “last stand” at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, Stiles recounts how the officer first attracted national attention for his cavalry exploits during the Civil War. Stiles also delves into the role of celebrity in Custer’s life, tracing the ebb and flow of his popularity over more than a decade after the war, as Custer struggled to find a prominent place in the “peacetime” army that the U.S. deployed in the West against Native Americans. Custer’s personal life was tumultuous: he was a womanizer before and during his marriage to Libbie Bacon, and their home life was complicated by the presence of a freed bondswoman as well as persistent rumors that he had taken a captive Cheyenne woman as his “mistress.” Confidently presenting Custer in all his contradictions, Stiles examines the times to make sense of the man—and uses the man to shed light on the times.
The English and Their History by Robert Toombs (Knopf) - Proceeding from prehistoric times to the present at a commanding pace, Tombs (coauthor, with Isabelle Tombs, of That Sweet Enemy), an expert at the University of Cambridge on Franco-British relations, focuses on England and the English while paying due regard to their Irish, Scot, and Welsh compatriots. No one will confuse this work with the celebrated, sweeping multivolume histories of Macauley, Trevelyan, and Churchill, but this is nevertheless a brilliant distillation of a vast tale and arguably the finest one-volume history of any nation and people ever written. Rare is the historian who can maintain balance amid the interpretive snares posed by such a large subject poses, especially while making “memory and its creation an inherent part of the story.” Comprehensive, authoritative, and readable to a fault, this book should be on the shelves of everyone interested in its subject.