This week: inside the Attica prison uprising, plus Nathan Hill's panoramic debut novel.
In a book that could have easily been titled Love That Cow (or Hate That Cow, actually) Newbery Medalist Creech uses short chapters that blend poems and prose to trace a displaced city girl’s adjustment to life in a “boat-bobbing/ sea salty harbor town” in Maine. After 12-year-old Reena’s parents move the family to Maine from “a harlequin city/ of sights and noises,/ of museums and parks and music,” there’s more in store for Reena and her younger brother, Luke, than cold weather, lobster, and blueberries—starting with elderly Mrs. Falala and her menagerie of pets, including Zora, a cow as cantankerous as her owner. At their parents urging, Reena and Luke begin helping Mrs. Falala with chores, and before long Reena has agreed to take care of Zora and show her at the local fair, which requires work, patience, and help from more experienced livestock handlers. As Reena learns that a little kindness works wonders for both people and animals, Creech’s spare narrative creates vivid, emotion-packed images of landscapes, characters, and “that/ wild-eyed/ heifer,” Zora, that will stay with readers.
Rather than submit to the established account of Alessandro de’ Medici’s life, Fletcher (The Divorce of Henry VIII), associate professor in history and heritage at Swansea University (U.K.), persuasively argues that he suffered assassination twice: “first with a sword, then with a pen.” De’ Medici gained notoriety for being the brutal biracial illegitimate Duke of Florence and an unlikely heir to the dwindling Medici family of bankers and rulers. But in this revelatory work, Fletcher rescues him from the well-known caricature his opponents manufactured while revealing his strengths and weaknesses as an often populist Medici prince. De’ Medici left limited primary documents, but Fletcher distills an extensive array of both sympathetic and antagonistic contemporary sources into clear explanations that give context and a more balanced look at a city-state on tenterhooks and a man struggling to maintain order. To her considerable credit, Fletcher navigates dense central European politics and competing Medici claims with ease, allowing readers to focus on de’ Medici’s life within the context of the financially and politically unstable city. Throughout this compelling narrative, de’ Medici’s unlikely story and extraordinary life finally feel revealed as Fletcher gives him a welcome new complex legacy.
Harrison does an even better job of integrating a fair-play mystery with the tensions of early 1920s Ireland in her second whodunit featuring the Reverend Mother Aquinas than she did in its predecessor, 2015’s A Shameful Murder. Mother Aquinas is shopping in a Cork market when a shot rings out and city engineer James Doyle drops dead. She spots journalist Sam O’Mahoney standing near Doyle’s corpse, holding a pistol. No one takes seriously the reporter’s claim that he just picked up the weapon after someone dropped it on his foot. And Sam had a strong motive for the killing: he was fired from his job after he wrote an article exposing waste and corruption in the city’s government that included allegations of wrongdoing on Doyle’s part. Sam’s distraught mother begs Mother Aquinas to exonerate him, and while the Cork convent head refuses to perjure herself, she vigorously pursues other suspects. Well-drawn characters, including a lead capable of sustaining a long series, complement the clever plot.
Hill’s first novel offers an ironic view of 21st-century elections, education, pop culture, and marketing, with flashbacks to 1988, 1968, and 1944. The action begins in 2011, when Samuel Anderson, an English professor who prefers playing World of Elfquest online to teaching Hamlet to college students, learns that Faye, the mother who abandoned him when he was 11, has been arrested for throwing stones at flamboyant ultraconservative presidential candidate Sheldon Packer. News media repeatedly show Faye’s photo from her young hippie days along with a video of the attack. In an attempt to help his mother and himself, Samuel digs into Faye’s past, focusing on the Iowa town where she grew up and 1968 Chicago, where she unwittingly became caught between protesters and police. Samuel’s search—with assistance from Pwnage, an Elfquest savant—uncovers a judge with a 50-year-old grudge, a grandfather with a 70-year-old secret, and a world where the official story and the truth often diverge. The Nix of Hill’s title is a Norwegian mythological being that carries loved ones away, a physical and metaphorical representation of fear and loss, much like the Under Toad in John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Like Irving, Hill skillfully blends humor and darkness, imagery and observation. He also excels at describing technology, addiction, cultural milestones, and childhood ordeals. Cameos by Allen Ginsberg, Walter Cronkite, and Hubert Humphrey add heart and perspective to this rich, lively take on American social conflict, real and invented, over the last half-century.
Pico’s brilliant, funny, and musical book-length debut finds his charming alter ego, Teebs, navigating the joys and difficulties of being a queer hipster “NDN” transplant to New York City from a California reservation. Teebs’s lines channel a rush of Internet slang and emoticons, run-on ramblings and sentence fragments, and poppy lyrical bursts (“All of these Adams,/ all of these Bens n them/ Benz and Rolls Royce’s”). He has a laundry list of beaux with nicknames such as Big-Arms-Ugly-Face and Pompadour, but his true beloved is an artist named Muse, “whose/ even slight squint bursts/ me into high July.” Teebs agonizes over Muse’s aloof behavior, quandaries about text messages, and the resigned admission that “Museless, I’m useless.” He is ambivalent about social media, denouncing the maudlin self-pitying Facebook posts of friends while praising his own cleverness: “I post a pic of Pangea/ on Insta for #tbt.” Though the poem exudes a summertime party atmosphere, Teebs calls out acts of homophobia as well as atrocities committed against NDNs, from their forced conversion by Spanish colonizers to the microaggressions of corporate cultural appropriation. He also invokes Gertrude Stein and Sherman Alexie as naturally as he does Beyoncé. Pico’s skillful rendering of Teebs’s coming-of-age attempts to create a cohesive identity out of his many selves proves to be entertaining, enlightening, and utterly relatable in the age of the smartphone.
Dog Man, “a brand-new crime-fighting sensation” created by surgically attaching the head of a police dog to the body of a policeman, gets his own full-color adventure in this terrifically funny spin-off comic from Pilkey (the character’s origins were previously revealed in Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers). Dog Man doesn’t play by the rules, whether it’s the rules about being housebroken or the ones about not giving the police chief slobbery dog kisses. But desperate times require maverick behavior: Petey the cat, one of the loopiest villains in children literature, has four chapters’ worth of evil plots aimed at taking Dog Man down—from destroying all books to make the world “supa dumb” (a tactic that will be familiar to those who read Pilkey’s contribution to Comics Squad: Recess!) to unleashing a “weenie-lution” of oversensitive living hot dogs (“We’re not cute, either! We’re gangsta!” insists their very touchy leader). Jose Garibaldi’s coloring makes every page of this superlative police procedural spoof look as sharp as it is silly, and readers (of any age) will be giggling from start to finish.
Reynolds (As Brave As You) uses a light hand to delve into topics that include gun violence, class disparity, and bullying in this compelling series opener. Seventh-grader Castle Cranshaw, nicknamed Ghost, knows nothing about track when a former Olympian recruits him as a sprinter for one of the city's youth teams. As far as Ghost is concerned, "whoever invented track got the whole gun means go thing right," something he learned firsthand when his father tried to shoot Ghost and his mother in their apartment three years prior. The trauma has had ripple effects on Ghost, including angry outbursts ("I was the boy.... with all the scream inside"), altercations at school, stealing, and lying. Joining the track team provides new friends, goals, and an opportunity for Ghost to move beyond his past. Ghost is a well-meaning, personable narrator whose intense struggles are balanced by a love of world records, sunflower seeds, and his mother. Coach's relationship with Ghost develops into a surrogate father-son scenario, adding substantial emotional resonance and humor to the mix.
Sinclair, a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award–winner, crafts her stunning debut collection around the beauty and brutality of the word cannibal, whose origins derive from Christopher Columbus’s belief that the Carib people he encountered consumed human flesh. Attacking this dehumanizing judgment born from white entitlement and denouncing the idea that blackness is synonymous with savagery, Sinclair ponders such questions as, How does a poet get inside the head of Shakespeare’s Caliban? How would Caliban define blackness without the filter of a white man’s bias? In the poem “Mermaid,” Sinclair shows how history is more than a time line; it’s the ghosts that haunt a family and the memories that live in their veins. She notes how the English attempted to stamp out Jamaican culture as if it were a weed, yet it grew “back thick, tenfold, and blackened with the furor of a violated man.” Sinclair’s vibrant imagery and arresting diction injects inanimate objects with soul; sunsets, islands, beaches, and wind are stirred to life. More than a connection to nature, water becomes a safe haven: “my grandmother’s wet skirt cast a web across// the sea.” This is a tight, focused collection, and through her visceral language Sinclair paints the institution of white supremacy as not just an individualized phenomenon, but as a ruthless and menacing force.
Thompson (Whose Detroit?), a University of Michigan historian with expertise in mass incarceration, brilliantly exposes the realities of the Attica prison uprising, in which 43 prisoners and guards were killed. Writing with cinematic clarity from meticulously sourced material, Thompson describes the uprising and its causes as well as the violent retaking of the prison grounds by police and correction officers. These events form the backdrop for the decades-long tale of New York State's cynical, politically driven prosecutions of inmates caught in the uprising, and the state's parallel effort to suppress attempts to expose the criminal conduct of law enforcement during and after the suppression of the rebellion. Thompson unmasks the government misconduct that delayed reparations for both inmates and correction officer hostages who were killed or wounded by law enforcement during the chaotic events. The excruciating detail underscores the dangers of governmental abuse of power. As the long drama unfolds many heroes arise, including members of the truth-seeking press and the lawyers who doggedly helped the unpopular inmates to secure a $12 million settlement. The villains include venal prosecutors and politicians who engaged in a classic cover-up. Thompson's superb and thorough study serves as a powerful tale of the search for justice in the face of the abuses of institutional power.