This week: secrets of the CIA, and a novel set inside Manhattan's famed Barbizon Hotel for Women.
This poignant tale of a boy whose twin brother is facing his own mortality is both heartrending and uplifting. Eleven-year-olds Jamie and Ned find a strange creature—part human, part fish—washed up on the beach of their small British island after a storm. Adventurous Ned, who has cystic fibrosis, is positive that it will bring good luck and insists that they keep it in their already-packed garage full of treasures. Cautious Jamie, however, worries that this creature, whom Ned names Leonard, might foretell something more ominous. As Ned’s condition worsens and he is increasingly drawn to Leonard, Jamie’s misgivings only increase. Avery (My Brother’s Shadow) captures the boundless imagination of childhood and the reckless abandon with which these boys approach caring for a mysterious sea creature, and he doesn’t shy away from the brutality of real life. Through Jamie’s thoughtful narration, readers are treated to a hauntingly beautiful story about brotherly bonds, wrenching grief, and the untethered hope that everything will somehow work out.
Davis’s impeccably structured debut is equal parts mystery, tribute to midcentury New York City, and classic love story. It showcases the intersection of two women’s lives at the famed Barbizon Hotel, whose notable residents included Joan Didion, Grace Kelly, and Sylvia Plath. In the present day, journalist Rose is kicked out of her upscale condo at the former hotel for women after her lover reunites with his wife. While doing research for an article on the grisly 1953 death of Barbizon maid Esme, she stays in the apartment of reclusive octogenarian tenant Darby. Darby, who has been a Barbizon resident for over 50 years, knew Esme and was connected to her demise. Rose’s investigation quickly becomes her obsession and refuge when her father becomes ill, her career implodes, and her hopes for a relationship with her married lover fade. “I need to know... how to start again,” Rose says as she digs to the bottom of the mystery of Esme’s death. Darby and Rose, in alternating chapters, weave intricate threads into twists and turns that ultimately bring them together; the result is good old-fashioned suspense. Through the two characters, Davis juxtaposes the elegance and dark side of a bygone era—its jazz, glamorous models, career-minded women, and nascent heroin market—with the crass, digitally obsessed, and cutthroat media world of today. What crosses the divide is the chance for disappointment and loss to give way to purpose and love.
Available in English for the first time, this 1956 classic of Argentine literature presents a riveting portrait of a mind deteriorating as the 18th century draws to a close. Zama is a provincial magistrate of the Spanish crown, obsessively seeking elevation to "a stable position in Buenos-Ayres or Santiago de Chile." But his service to the Gobernador goes unrewarded, and as the 14 months of his posting stretch into nine years, Zama's connection to his distant family frays and then vanishes. He moves from an unconsummated affair with the wife of a nobleman to impregnating "an impecunious Spanish widow" and on to a "stunted, monstrous woman." Zama's mind degenerates along with his romantic prospects, and it's in the nearly imperceptible transmutation of Zama's fixation on "soft, mild love" into a fascination with the existential "horror of being trapped in absurdity" that Di Benedetto proves to be a vital master. Zama makes a last-ditch effort to secure a "better destiny" by joining a legion venturing ominously into the country to capture a former bureaucrat accused of fomenting "rebellion among the Indians." The final images of the novel are haunting and unforgettable. This extraordinary novel, whose English translation has been so long in coming, is a once and future classic.
In this slender, elegant novel from Flood (No Name Baby), half-Navajo/half-white Tess, 13, feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. Schoolmates at her Flagstaff boarding school call her names like Pokeyhontas; on the reservation she looks—and sometimes feels—more white than Navajo. Set against the backdrop of the Iraq War (the book opens with a memorial ceremony for a young Navajo woman killed in combat, and Tess’s beloved older sister, Gaby, is deployed soon after), the book successfully presents Tess’s shifting emotions as she grapples with the vicissitudes of a close sibling relationship, revels in her daily runs in the desert, and struggles to bond with a temperamental horse. Navajo traditions, ceremonies, and family relationships are described with gentle reverence; even the butchering of an ewe is depicted as a beautiful act. Navajo words and phrases are used throughout in a fashion that always feels natural. Flood lived and taught on the Navajo Nation for 15 years, and this quietly moving story of Tess’s growing maturity as she searches for her cultural identity resounds with authenticity.
Bestseller Gross (Everything to Lose) revisits the horrors of Auschwitz in this harrowing, thematically rich thriller, which marks a significant departure from his previous contemporary suspense novels. In the spring of 1944, both the Germans and the Allies are pressing toward the transmutation of uranium into atomic weaponry that could win WWII. Gross postulates that the U.S. Manhattan Project, headed by Robert Oppenheimer and joined by renowned refugee physicists like Denmark’s Niels Bohr, lacked one vital component—but the Nazis have incarcerated the world expert in that area, Dr. Alfred Mendl, in Auschwitz. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of the OSS, backs a near-suicidal plan to send a desk-bound Jewish intelligence officer, Nathan Blum, who escaped from Nazi-overrun Poland, into Auschwitz to rescue Mendl. Alternating between scenes of American hope-against-hope optimism and Nazi brutality, Blum’s deadly odyssey into and out of this 20th-century hell drives toward a compelling celebration of the human will to survive, remember, and overcome.
Houston (Shady Characters) reminds readers of the joy of reading print in this history of the book, lovingly crafted and embellished with arcane anecdotes. Chapters are arranged by the parts of a book: page, ink, pen, type, illustrations, and the binding that brings it all together. Houston begins with the creation of writing, moving to the search for something to write on. He explores papyrus, parchment, and paper in their many forms, along with the need to find inks that suit each one. Houston challenges popular misconceptions—“if Gutenberg is to be credited with anything it must be that he made [the printing press] work”—and offers anecdotes of particularly thrilling moments in the book’s development, such as the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, where the earliest complete codices known were found. Houston appreciates words, too. He derives the origin of the word syllabus, for instance, and explains the differences between illuminated and illustrated manuscripts. Technical discussions of the printing press, lithography, and binding are enlivened by stories of their creators’ missteps. Houston’s fixation with this object is a delight, and his understanding of how history is written and his clear delineation between speculation and established fact are very refreshing.
Intrigued by the many memoirs of former American spies, British historian Moran (Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain) proceeded to read them all and then write them up in this delightful account of true spy stories and the agency’s often-bizarre responses to them. With the CIA’s incorporation in 1947, officials yearned for the equivalent of Britain’s draconian Official Secrets Act but agreed that Congress would never pass it (the 9/11 attacks eventually did the trick, leading to the passage of the Patriot Act). To their relief, the 1950s were a golden age of espionage. Moran says few objected as the CIA dropped agents behind the Iron Curtain to foster insurgencies (all failed) and “overthrew popular governments in Iran and Guatemala.” The roof caved in 1960 when a U2 spy plane was shot down over Russia, followed by the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Former spooks became critical of the agency, Moran explains, but their employment contracts required that all writing be vetted, so CIA censors regularly delayed action for years; redacted huge, largely uncontroversial passages; and hounded said critics. America’s rightward swing in the 1980s, coupled with the rise of terrorism, diminished criticism but not the steady stream of unflattering memoirs. In Moran’s hands, the CIA’s 60-year battle to rein in ex-employees becomes an irresistible niche history that mixes cruelty with tragicomic wackiness.