This week: John Lennon's secret island, a philosophical mind-bender, and why we believe conspiracy theories.
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Doubleday) - In his second novel, Barry (City of Bohane) imagines John Lennon in the year 1978, deep in a funk and trying to visit Dorinish, aka Beatle Island—an island in Clew Bay, in the west of Ireland, that Lennon owned. But the press is on his tail, the weather is terrible, and all the islands look alike. Lennon and his Irish driver, Cornelius, lie low, go to a local bar (where Lennon is passed off as Cousin Kenneth from England), and, mostly, talk. Not much happens—there is rain, wind, and mist; Lennon has recurring thoughts of his parents and the Liverpool of his youth; there’s an acrid encounter with some ’60s holdouts. The talk, however, is beautiful: half prose, half song. It’s Irish and sentimental and sly and funny and obscene, covering suicidal cows, the pleasures of cough medicine, The Muppet Show, and the way certain places exert a palpable emotional pull.
Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories by Rob Brotherton (Bloomsbury/Sigma) - Observing that conspiracy theories can be fluid in nature (“One person’s conspiracy theory is the next person’s conspiracy fact”), Brotherton, a former lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, nimbly sidesteps the rabbit hole of proving or disproving specific conspiracies by focusing on the phenomenon as a whole. The concept has been around at least since Nero’s alleged fiddling while Rome burned (as it turns out, he was out of town at the time and immediately sought to provide food and shelter for victims upon his return). Over the course of this all-too-short book, Brotherton illustrates how incomplete, contradictory, coincidental, and incongruent information can allow people to see conspiracies and connections where there are none, due in part to the theories’ plausibility and humans’ innate desire for order, as well as a given individual’s understanding of how the world works. Put simply, people want to believe.
Memory Theater by Simon Critchley (Other Press) - Named one of the best books of 2015 by PW, philosopher Critchley's debut novel is a not-quite-nonfiction story that is original, observant, and unexpectedly moving. In 2004, aging professor Simon Critchley discovers a stack of boxes belonging to his deceased friend and mentor, Michel Haar. Organized according to the signs of the zodiac, the boxes contain unpublished papers on Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Thomas Carlyle; Haar’s primary interest seems to have been in the Renaissance concept of the memory theater. Haar’s commentaries have particular relevance for Critchley, whose own memory was seemingly damaged in an accident years earlier; increasingly beguiled by the eerily accurate horoscopes that Haar left behind, Critchley resolves to build his own full-scale memory theater, populated with manifestations of his life and learning, to be completed at the hour of his death—which has been foretold by Haar in his papers.
White Leopard by Laurent Guillaume, trans. from the French by Sophie Weiner (Le French Book) - Fans of classic hard-boiled PI fiction will relish Guillame’s first book to be translated into English. French attorney Farah Tebessi approaches ex-cop Solo Camara, who works as a PI in Bamako, Mali, for help after her younger sister, Bahia, gets into trouble. Bahia, who’s a law student in France, was about to catch a flight for Paris from the Bamako airport when she was arrested for transporting 13 kilos of cocaine in her luggage. Since Farah believes that “buying off people is the national pastime in Mali,” she asks Solo to bribe the examining magistrate in charge of the case in exchange for dropping it. Solo agrees and succeeds in getting Bahia freed. When Bahia turns up with her throat slit in the Niger River, Farah asks Solo to find the killers and eliminate them. A former cop who served as a police adviser in Mali, Guillame delivers a tale of high-level corruption that will resonate with James Ellroy readers.
The Spectacle of Skill: New and Selected Writings of Robert Hughes by Robert Hughes (Knopf) - The staggering erudition of Time art critic Hughes (1938–2012) is on full and glorious display in this impressive collection. Excerpts from his two best-loved books—The Fatal Shore, about his native Australia’s history, and The Shock of the New, about modern art—are included, along with portions of his books on Goya, Rome, and Barcelona; essays on American modernists; and autobiographical material that includes previously unpublished essays. A sublime pleasure awaits readers: Hughes’s use of language and description is lush and pointed, his wit incisive and ever-present, his particularity of detail enthralling. Those who relished The Fatal Shore (the excerpts from which will make readers hunger for the complete book) will find much to admire in his assessments of the art world, and those who knew only his art criticism will be beguiled by his autobiographical tales, which cover such varied topics as his catastrophic, near-fatal car accident in 1999 and his love of fishing. Whether he’s taking down critic Clement Greenberg, expounding on the art market, describing the joys of Rome on a fine spring morning, or revisiting his childhood in Sydney, Hughes’s voice remains distinctive, opinionated, and engrossing.
Calvin by Martine Leavitt (FSG/Ferguson) - In a thoughtful story presented as a single, extended letter, Leavitt (Blue Mountain) explores the impact of mental illness through the experiences of a 17-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia. Calvin is obsessed with Bill Watterson and his comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. It makes sense: he used to have a best friend named Susie and a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, and now Hobbes has returned as a full-fledged, uncontrollable hallucination. Calvin figures that if he can just get Watterson to create a strip depicting the fictional Calvin as a healthy teenager, he’ll be fine as well, so he sets off on a perilous journey across a frozen Lake Erie from Canada to Cleveland. He’s accompanied by Susie, who may or may not be part of his delusions; either way, she’s the voice of reason as they meet an assortment of oddball characters on the lake and delve into philosophical matters. Funny, intellectual, and entertaining, it’s a sensitive yet irreverent adventure about a serious subject.
Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler by Shigeru Mizuki (D&Q) - A fresh take on one of the most notorious villains in history is not easy task, but with this terrifying book, esteemed manga artist Mizuki (GeGeGe No Kitaro; Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths)—who lost an arm as a soldier during WW II—gives readers a tight narrative that shows how a man of humble beginnings can rise to power, wage war and genocide, and come within a hair’s breadth of conquering the world. From Hitler’s failure to pass exams for art school, to his beer-hall radicalizing, the book carefully sets the backdrop for his inevitable rise. Mizuki’s canvas is a provocative one, juxtaposing medium-panel shots of Hitler’s day-to-day interactions with his inner circle and large establishing shots that oscillate between depictions of Hitler’s glory and Germany’s bombardment and ruin. He deftly balances dialogue and narration, never using a heavy hand or complicating the reader’s movement through the text. Impossible to put down, this is a candidate for the year’s best graphic novel.
The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free by Alex Perry (Little, Brown) - In this stunning book about the past, present, and future of Africa, foreign correspondent Perry (who’s written for Time and Newsweek) achieves the seemingly impossible: he writes about the continent from a Western perspective without trying to define Africa to the West, inviting Africans to speak directly to his readers. Perry starts his continental journey in Somalia during the catastrophic 2011 famine; moves on to the world’s newest and most volatile nation, South Sudan; and then works his way through 14 more sub-Saharan African nations. He places current crises into historical context, buttressed by on-the-ground reporting. Perry examines widely discussed issues affecting Africa (including famine, AIDS, humanitarian aid, terrorism, corruption, and Chinese influence), always mindful of the bearing each has on Africa’s future. Along the way, Perry bumps into George Clooney in South Sudan, watches Robert Mugabe speak to a crowd in Zimbabwe, and confronts Jacob Zuma in South Africa. The stories he tells, of average Africans trying to carve out a better life, have the vividness of fiction.
Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey by Ozge Samanci (FSG/Ferguson) - Turkish artist Samanci's graphic memoir tells many stories. It's a simple collection of her childhood memories (sent out to buy milk, she instead sneaks into the local school to find her sister); a description of life under a military government ("Every Turk is born a soldier!" her textbook declares); and a fearless examination of her struggle to escape her father's expectations. If teenage Samanci doesn't gain admission to Turkey's finest university and become an engineer, her father worries that she'll die penniless. (Meanwhile, she idolizes Jacques Cousteau.) Year after year, she takes exams, tries to keep up with her academically talented older sister, and wrestles with a crushing sense of inadequacy. It's only when friends tutoring her admire the doodles on her math notes—"I love the coffee-stain people," one says. "You can be... an artist!"—that her true self is revealed.
What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing by Brian Seibert (FSG) - New York Times dance critic Seibert’s first book is easily twice the size of most other debuts, and it contains thrice the content. The word comprehensive comes to mind, but is insufficient to properly describe the depth of detail Seibert achieves. Drawing on primary sources of every kind, from written accounts by slave traders in the early 17th century to personal interviews conducted in the 21st, the author breaks down not merely the origins art of tap dancing itself, but the racial and gender constructs that forced the industry—and its performers—to develop in the ways they did, while acknowledging his own white male privilege. Seibert profiles legends such as Fred Astaire and Bill Robinson alongside dancers who have become largely forgotten outside of dance circles, such as the Nicholas brothers, and modern masters including Savion Glover. Seibert has a tendency to jump about in time, but that doesn’t mar this fascinating, sharply written cultural analysis.