This week: Mark Twain's round-the-world comedy tour, plus a devilish Highsmithian thriller.
Cronn-Mills (Beautiful Music for Ugly Children) tackles guerilla art, gender norms, and sibling rivalry in a whirlwind of a novel, aided by comics panels from Johnson (The Outliers). Seventeen-year-old Frankie Neumann doesn’t feel like he belongs in his theatrical family, with a mother and father who impersonate Frank Sinatra and Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, respectively, and a hellion of a younger sister, Lou, who alternates between theater practice and co-opting Frankie’s belongings for herself. When Frankie is asked by his crush, Rory, and her skirt-wearing cousin David to help street artist Uncle Epic with his installations, he says yes, despite the late nights and resultant irritated parents. Just when Frankie finds confidence in his own art, Lou begins to unravel, threatened by her friends over a prank gone viral. Johnson’s bold black and orange illustrations spotlight key plot points and emotions, emphasizing Frankie’s view of the world and his budding affections for David. Cronn-Mills’s consideration of the intersections between art and family is striking and heartfelt.
In his timely history of the black American ghetto and the thinkers who theorized and defined it, Princeton sociologist Duneier (Sidewalk) resuscitates the “forgotten ghetto” and the various ways it was understood. Tracing decades of scholarship that is inextricable from its political context, Duneier focuses on the prescient African-American scholars who were too often overshadowed by more prominent white academics. Post-WWII, Horace Cayton drew on the history of Jewish ghettos from 16th-century Venice to Nazi Germany, forging a metaphorical link between the Jewish and black ghettos and assisting his crusade against the racial covenants he saw as instrumental in the creation of the black ghetto. Kenneth Clark’s civil rights–era criticisms of “social work colonialism” and understanding of ghetto dwellers as “subject people” echoed Black Power rhetoric. William Julius Wilson’s analysis, emphasizing an economic framework over a racial one, gained traction during the Reagan era, and the tactics of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone reflect a modern, corporate mind-set. Duneier’s main lesson is perhaps the most damning: the intractability of the black ghetto results from a moral failure of white Americans, who remain unwilling to make sacrifices for the benefit of racial minorities. It is not an easy conclusion to hear, but Duneier’s far-reaching and incisive study makes it a hard one to deny.
In this fascinating account, Haag (Marriage Confidential) traces the history of America’s gun-making business, arguing that “the tragedy of American gun violence emerged from the banality of the American gun business.” Oliver Winchester, known as “the rifle king,” who founded one of the first private armories in America in early 19th century, is the focal point of the narrative. As Haag notes, former clothier Winchester could just as easily have been remembered as the country’s “men’s shirt king.” The gun industry began with the colonial rebels’ need for more uniform weapons whose parts could be exchanged in the midst of battle. But reliance on government contracts during wartime proved an unreliable business model, forcing manufacturers to seek out other markets for the prodigious potential output of their military-scale factories. They began aggressive ad campaigns aimed to convince ordinary citizens that guns were something they needed to own. Haag offers some practical suggestions for curbing gun violence that involve treating weapons as a consumer product that should be regulated—noting the anomaly that toy guns are subject to safety regulations, while real guns are not. Both convincingly argued and eminently readable, Haag’s book will intrigue readers on all sides of the gun control debate.
The talents of Judith Rashleigh, the sardonic narrator of Hilton’s deliciously Highsmithian thriller, the first of a trilogy, are clearly underutilized as an assistant at a top London art auction house and as a hostess at a seedy nightclub where she moonlights. But a mark she hooks at the club—middle-aged, married, and morbidly obese James—proves to be her ticket to the Riviera. With the aid of a femme fatale facility that surprises even herself, she enters a dangerous beau monde of possibility seemingly as limitless as the view of the Mediterranean from the billionaire’s yacht onto which she wangles her way. That is, if she can stay one step ahead of the law. As Judith assumes and sheds identities as effortlessly as her Louboutins during a twisty series of increasingly treacherous escapades (several X-rated), Hilton (Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince as Lisa Hilton) artfully conjures a glossy world where just about everything—and everyone—has its price. Optioned by Sony Pictures, this hot title has already sold rights in more than 25 countries.
The penultimate entry in Knausgaard’s autobiographical series centers on the trials and tribulations of a competitive young writer, as the protagonist, Karl Ove, adjusts to the various responsibilities and expectations of adult life in the city. Told chronologically, the book spans the 14 years the narrator spends living in Bergen, Norway, beginning with his enrollment at an exclusive writing academy, and leading up to the publication of his debut novel. Kept company by his older brother, Yngve, and a rich, memorable cast of supporting characters, Karl Ove leads the life of a self-conscious and hardworking yet feckless young man with lofty literary and romantic aspirations. He takes his craft and the direction of his life seriously but frequently finds his noble, long-term goals pitted against his lower, more immediate urges. Issues with alcohol that surfaced in book four define a good chunk of these pages, as they produce lasting outcomes that affect his relationships. The narrative, like the protagonist, strikes an impressive balance between the interior and exterior, as well as the cerebral and emotional; snappy and amusing episodes coexist alongside weighty, meditative, and essayistic passages on art and literature.
After four story collections, Means delivers his first novel, and it’s a dazzling and singular trip. The novel within this novel is flanked by interviews, editorial clarifications, and multiple attempts at a suicide note by “author” Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who reconciles the death of his sister by writing the story of three wounded Vietnam vets and two wounded women connected by repressed—or “enfolded”—trauma. Returning vets have their traumas—and all other associated memories—erased by the Psych Corps, a federal agency created by J.F.K., who has survived six assassination attempts and three terms in office as the 1960s draw to a brutal close. Rake, on whom the enfolding treatment didn’t work, frees Meg from Corps treatment and keeps her captive on a murderous rampage across Michigan. They take shelter with fellow vet Hank, who has partially reversed his enfolding treatment and quietly plots to save Meg from Rake. Meanwhile, drug-addled Corps agents Wendy and Singleton embark on a “mission gone haywire” in pursuit of Rake. The two narratives alternate between briefly disorienting perspective shifts but eventually converge. Means (The Spot) writes stunning prose and draws his characters with verve—Rake is a memorable psychopath. This tale reads like an acid flashback, complete with the paranoia, manic monologues, and violent visions, proving that some traumas never go away.
Set in 1924, in an England still reeling from the loss of young men to the Great War, this elegiac tale offers a haunting portrait of lives in a world in transition. Its events unfold from the viewpoint of Jane Fairchild, a 22-year-old maid at the Berkshire estate Beechwood. On the titular day—a Sunday before Easter that the aristocracy traditionally give their help off to visit their families—Jane bikes to neighboring Upleigh for a final fling with Paul Sheringham, her wealthy lover for the past five years, who is soon to marry into another blue blood family. No one can anticipate that the day will end abruptly with a devastating tragedy—and, for Jane, an epiphany that marks the start of a future as rich and rewarding as it is unforeseen. The story lingers on the immediate aftermath of Jane and Paul’s tryst and Swift (England and Other Stories) invests its every detail—the order in which Paul hastily dons formal attire to lunch with his fiancé and their families, the casualness with which Jane explores his estate home in the nude—with gravity and symbolic weight. His depiction of a fragile caste clinging to traditions that define their sense of noblesse oblige while struggling to bear the era’s crushing burden of “accumulated loss and grief” is poignant and moving—as is his intimation of a brilliant personal destiny that rises from the ashes of a tragically bygone social order.
In a quietly assured story, Tamaki (This One Summer) introduces Montgomery Sole, the 16-year-old daughter of lesbian mothers and the president of her school’s “mystery club,” which consists of Montgomery discussing topics like ESP and healing crystals with her friends Thomas and Naoki. When a preacher from a hyperbolic, homophobic church à la Westboro Baptist moves into her small California town, Montgomery is nervous that his son, a fellow student, will single her out for having gay parents. Alongside this anxiety is her recent online purchase of the Eye of Know, a $5.99 amulet that purports to be a “portal to vision untold.” When Montgomery’s flashes of anger starting having mysterious effects on her targets, she begins to believe that the amulet might be responsible. Montgomery’s interest in the supernatural, along with her thirst to understand the unknowable, parallels her often-fruitless efforts to understand her classmates, her younger sister, and her own identity. Montgomery’s slow confrontation with reality creates a realistic, satisfying arc, and Tamaki’s economical storytelling results in dimensional characters whose struggles feel viscerally real.
In 1895, at the age of 60, Mark Twain, the nation’s highest-paid author at the time, faced financial disaster. To raise cash, he launched a yearlong lecture tour of 122 performances spanning several continents. As Zacks (The Pirate Hunter) relates in this deeply entertaining account, Twain’s rugged journey was redemptive. While restoring his spirit through the excitement of travel, the laughter of audiences, and the admiration of global high society, Twain made good money. Zacks’s book brims with side adventures, including intercontinental sea voyages and visits to African diamond mines. Australia welcomed Twain as a superstar with billboards calling him “the greatest humorist of the century.” Twain was fevered and sick in India, a land he nonetheless ended up adoring. His precarious finances became a well-known gossip item, but Zacks stresses that the public loved him all the more for his fortitude in crisis and successful efforts to pay off his debts. Twain spent four years in Europe after the tour and then returned to America to receive unprecedented tribute and adulation. Zacks’s narrative is well-researched with rich detail, some drawn from unpublished archival material at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and it will strike ardent Twain fans and history lovers as fresh and inspiring.