This week: Margaret Atwood reimagines Shakespeare, plus Brian Wilson's memoir.
In The Tempest, Prospero is not just exiled king, magician, and father, he’s an impresario staging multiple shows: the storm that strands his enemies on the island; his pretended disdain for Ferdinand, whom he intends for his daughter, Miranda; the play within the play; and, some critics argue, the play itself. In this, the fourth Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation, Atwood underscores these elements by making her Prospero a prominent theater festival director. After being done out of his job by a scheming underling, Felix goes off-grid, teaching literacy and theater to prisoners and grieving a lost daughter. When he learns that the man who took his job, now a political bigwig, will attend the next production, he sees his chance: in this Tempest, it won’t just be Prospero who gets revenge. Former diva Felix is a sly and inventive director and teacher who listens to his cast’s input, and his efforts to shape the play and his plot make for compelling reading. If, at the end, things tie up a little too neatly, the same might be said of the original, and Atwood’s canny remix offers multiple pleasures: seeing the inmates’ takes on their characters, watching Felix make use of the limited resources the prison affords (legal and less so), and marveling at the ways she changes, updates, and parallels the play’s magic, grief, vengeance, and showmanship.
Bennett’s brilliant, tumultuous debut novel is about a trio of young people coming of age under the shadow of harsh circumstances in a black community in Southern California. Deftly juggling multiple issues, Bennett addresses the subjects—abortion, infidelity, religious faith, and hypocrisy, race—head-on. At 17, Nadia Turner’s life is topsy-turvy. Six months after learning of her mother’s suicide, Nadia winds up pregnant and decides to abort the baby. The unborn baby’s father, Luke—a preacher’s son—gives Nadia the money to terminate but falls back on his promise to pick her up at the clinic after her appointment, causing a fissure in their relationship. Nadia’s secret decision haunts her for decades—through college in Michigan, law school, and an extended trip back home to care for her ailing father. Meanwhile, the slow-to-build trust between Luke and Aubrey, Nadia’s bible-thumping childhood best friend, who knows nothing of Nadia’s past, is threatened when Nadia and Luke reunite and rip open old wounds after Luke and Aubrey’s wedding. There’s much blame to go around, and Bennett distributes it equally. But she also shows an extraordinary compassion for her flawed characters. A Greek chorus of narrating gossipy “Mothers” (as they’re referred to in the text) from the local Upper Room Chapel provides further context and an extra layer to an already exquisitely developed story.
Twelve-year old Lizzie loves living at a California wildlife park (her father is head zookeeper), knowing she gets to do things that “no other kid ever got to experience.” After she meets Tyler, a foster home runaway who has been hiding out at the zoo, he tells her about what happens there at night, including a mysterious visitor to the new Wolf Woods exhibit who may be making the wolves sick. Broach’s (the Superstition Mountain series) intrepid protagonists engage in sleuthing expeditions, first to determine the cause of the wolves’ illness and then to discover the location of John Muir’s lost cabin in Yosemite—moments Ratteree (Lilliput) captures in evocative pencil illustrations of human interactions with the natural world. Lizzie’s choice to follow Tyler into the wilderness (“He’d been left too often in the past, and the past was a thing you carried with you all the time, like a burr stuck to your heel”) offers just one example of the ways Broach’s characters wrestle with ethical questions throughout this gratifying, thought-provoking tale.
In this sweeping portrait, renowned journalist Cockburn (The Rise of Islamic State) synthesizes the maelstrom of conflicts that have enveloped the Middle East and North Africa since September 11, 2001. The book combines contemporary, on-the-ground dispatches and diaries with incisive retrospective analyses to cover the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, the Taliban’s resurgence, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) . Cockburn possesses authoritative knowledge of the region’s culture, politics, and history, and his perceptive, pessimistic forecasts have regularly been proven correct . His sober, informed, and insightful analyses are unique and invaluable for navigating the complexity of the region in its “age of chaos and war.” Cockburn attributes much of the region’s turmoil to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 —“the earthquake whose aftershocks we still feel”—which forms the book’s core. He reveals glaring gaps between Western government and media discourse and the reality on the ground; the ignorance, arrogance, and ineptitude of Western powers are common themes. Cockburn’s account of the Arab Spring is limited, but he offers a wealth of insight on the rise of Islamic State as well as fascinating tidbits on journalistic practice and risk assessment in conflict zones. This work is likely to be a reference for future scholars. Cockburn’s dispatches make for a somber, vivid, and gripping work of eyewitness history.
In the introduction to this magnificent book on Italian interiors, writer Caracciolo Chia mulls the defining quality of a selection of rooms from across Italy: what brings them together is not harmony, and not history, but that “they [are] all absolutely necessary and vital to the life, talent, and, sometimes, obsessions of those who made them. In other words, these interiors [tell] a story.” These interiors aren’t simply a display of exemplary art and furniture collecting (although they are often that), but of the imaginative working lives of their residents. Those represented include painters, sculptors, interior designers, couturiers, filmmakers, and more, and the contents often include the artist’s own work and those of friends and associates. The wide variety of interiors are awe inspiring. Some are determinedly classical, others wildly modern, some a riot of items, others simple—many rest in between. Some are decorated according to rigid schemes (one resident removes an object whenever another is added). Others are furnished entirely by instinct. Much of the most striking work was done by artists themselves—not merely paintings and sculptures, but trompe l’oeil wainscoting, wallpapers, and mosaics. Even the physical structures are noteworthy: some are grand historic chambers, one is a former pigsty. All are tremendous.
At the center of Kauffman’s wonderful debut, a novel told in stories, is Tracy, who first appears as a 10-year-old visiting her father, living on disability near Lake Michigan, and then at 13 as the neighborhood bad girl in a story about a sleepover. Two nearly perfect stories feature Tracy as an adult: one in which she interrupts her cousin’s moment of intimacy with his girlfriend at an Embassy Suites, and another in which Tracy, now a restaurant hostess, begins an on-and-off relationship with a younger coworker named Greenie. Readers are also introduced to other characters that circle her in and around Buffalo, N.Y., including alcoholic Jim; his troubled son, Charlie; and Jim’s ex-wife, Laura. Greenie himself gets his own story as he leaves Tracy behind for an ill-fated job in New Jersey, culminating in a memorable moment atop a Ferris wheel. Watching how these characters intersect is incredibly satisfying. In clear and vivid prose, Kauffman potently depicts lonely and isolated lives, marked by rash decisions made in the hope of finding connection. By the end of the novel, the pieces of the puzzle that is Tracy’s life fit together, her disappointments as much a part of her as her small victories, resulting in an undeniably moving and emotionally true portrayal of the kitchen sink of human experience.
Läckberg, Sweden’s bestselling “queen of crime,” explores near-unspeakable grief in her stunning seventh novel set in the town of Fjällbacka (after 2015’s The Drowning). Several mothers suffer in body and soul after losing their sons, in contrast to the happiness that detective Patrik Hedström and his wife, Erica, a true-crime writer, enjoy with their twin infant boys. Patrik is investigating the murder of Mats Sverin, the town’s finance officer, who was involved with the restoration of a dilapidated old luxury hotel as a ritzy spa, a man many people liked but no one really knew. With her trademark impeccable psychological insight, Läckberg intertwines subplots that personalize the devastation wreaked by Sweden’s drug trade, its biker culture, and its far too prevalent domestic abuse. Ghostly shadows from this searing entry will surely linger long in the reader’s imagination.
Former research physicist Sedgwick mines the mysteries of the solar system and human desire to craft a haunting and wonderfully ethereal debut novel about first loves, inescapable loss, and the search for one’s place in a complicated world. When Róisín, an Irish scientist studying comets, and François, a French chef, reunite at a research base in the frigid wilds of Antarctica in 2017, the two seem virtually broken because of their respective pasts. Róisín, who followed her intergalactic studies from Ireland and France to Hawaii and New York over the course of decades, spent just as many years trying to make sense of and move beyond an illicit relationship with her cousin Liam. François arrived at the base with his own baggage: Severine, his dying mother, had insisted throughout her life that the ghosts of her ancestors are real. Sedgwick tackles a centuries-spanning interconnected narrative by placing each chapter within the context of a comet’s appearance in the sky. The sections that chronicle Severine’s conversations with her dearly departed are marked by their magical realism, but those that explore Róisín and Liam’s star-crossed romance are the standouts, both quietly moving and delicately portrayed. Uniquely structured and stylistically fascinating, the multilayered story comes full circle in a denouement that is both heartbreaking and satisfying.
Picture book creator Spangler (Peg Leg Peke) turns to an older audience with a thought-provoking novel about two shunned teens who struggle to make sense of the world and themselves. At nearly six foot four and covered with hair, 15-year-old Dylan Ingvarsson has been nicknamed the Beast, but he doesn’t feel like one. Mostly, he leads a quiet life, earning top grades in his class and supporting his widowed mother. When Dylan breaks his leg falling off a roof, perhaps not entirely accidentally, and ends up in therapy for self-harmers, he meets an intriguing girl named Jamie, a talented photographer, who seems to like Dylan for who he is. For the first time, Dylan finds himself falling in love, but then he learns something he missed while he was zoning out in therapy: Jamie is trans. Sharply drawn relationships and true-to-life dialogue make Dylan’s interactions with Jamie, his mother, and his friends feel breathtakingly real. Spangler’s captivating portrayals of Dylan and Jamie offer piercing insight into the long, painful battle to shatter stereotypes in order to win dignity, love, and acceptance.
In this charming and powerfully written memoir that will engage a readership beyond the multitude of Beach Boys fans, Wilson honestly tells the story of his life from its humble beginnings in Southern California—where he was raised by a father who routinely demeaned, frightened, and beat him—to becoming a Kennedy Center Honoree for his 50 years of musical contributions to American culture. Despite his fame and success, Wilson comes off as a genuinely modest and gentle soul who, with the help of his second wife, Melinda, has come to terms with his ongoing mental illness, his past failures as a father, and the profoundly sad deaths of his brothers, Dennis and Carl, who, with Wilson, were core members of the Beach Boys. He goes into great detail about how the band’s dozens of hits were produced and the many music superstars who added to the lush, complex arrangements Wilson is famous for. He recounts the pain of his many breakdowns and stays in psychiatric hospitals, as well as the nightmare years when Eugene Landy, Wilson’s psychologist, brutally took control of the artist’s life, forcing him to produce music for financial gain. Wilson’s emotional authenticity is beguiling as he takes readers deeply into his mind, voices and all, to describe his unique manifestation of musical genius.