This week: new books from Haruki Murakami and Zadie Smith.
Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers
This comprehensive biography painstakingly charts the late Joan Rivers’s journey from growing up in Westchester, N.Y., feeling not at all pretty (the title of the book refers to a joke about how her mother hoped to pawn her off on a man, any man, who passed through town) to succeeding in comedy and becoming a veritable polymath of the business and entertainment worlds. Through interviews with family, staff, and comedy insiders, Vanity Fair contributing editor Bennetts (The Feminine Mistake) draws a portrait of the groundbreaking comedienne that is both deep and sweeping. She fact-checks Rivers on her own anecdotes, noting, for example, that she probably never met Marilyn Monroe, despite titling one of her books after a supposed conversation in which the actress told Rivers, “Men are stupid... and they like big tits.” Sometimes the portrait turns unsavory. Laughter gave Rivers power, which she was not afraid to wield against other women whom she saw as her rivals. She was the first to ask stars on the red carpet “Who are you wearing?”, a line of questioning resisted today by feminists for its lack of substance. Scared of losing it all, she stockpiled fancy china and Manolo Blahnik shoes. But Bennetts isn’t overly critical of Rivers, focusing also on her good deeds for “the little people”—like sending a badge from her TV show Fashion Police to a young fan—and her drive to succeed in a comedy world dominated by men. Bennetts’s reporting gives readers unparalleled access to her subject, which comedy fans, and those just fascinated by superstardom, will greatly enjoy.
The Nerdy and the Dirty
Gottfred (Forever for a Year) offers a hilarious and deeply honest look at high school love through the alternating voices of two teens. Penelope “Pen” Lupo is dating the most popular boy in school, yet at the cost of keeping her true self hidden, especially the sexually voracious part that Pen thinks makes her “Such. A. Freak!” Benedict Pendleton is as smart, cerebral, and socially obtuse as his academic father, but he’s also hiding an emotionally vulnerable part of himself that longs for connection. An unlikely couple to say the least, the two 16-year-olds find common ground at a winter resort, where they fall for each other and learn how to be “not normal” together. Gottfred creates addictive, true-to-life voices for both characters whose thoughts, decisions, and experience help guide the sex-positive relationship that takes shape. Although this novel includes detailed descriptions and discussions of masturbation, consent, and first-time sex, it’s never didactic or heavy-handed, and instead offers a raw, empowering, and lighthearted view of first love and teenage—and especially female—sexuality.
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
In this charming study, Johnson (How We Got to Now) examines how the seemingly frivolous and unproductive aspects of society—the things people do for fun, pleasure, and entertainment—have influenced, defined, and created the world. “This is a history of play,” he writes, “a history of the pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves as an escape from the daily grind of subsistence.” According to Johnson, the development of music led to the computer age, the invention of public eating and drinking establishments progressed to cultural and ideological revolution, and games of chance inspired the creation of whole new mathematical fields. In food, fashion, athletics, and commerce, Johnson explores the surprising ways in which one discovery follows from another, often over the course of centuries. “Ignore the pleasure those institutions generated,” he suggests, “and focus on the innovations or historical sea changes they helped bring about: public museums, the age of exploration, the rubber industry, stock markets, programmable computers, the industrial revolution, robots, the public sphere, global trade.” In an entertaining and accessible style, he takes tangents that arrive at sometimes startling conclusions, like a magician practicing misdirection. Less focused on the why than the how, Johnson connects the dots in a way that sheds new light on everyday concepts.
My Sister Rosa
When 17-year-old Che and his family move from Bangkok to New York City, his biggest concern isn’t adjusting to a new country or making friends: it’s his 10-year-old sister, Rosa. Originally from Australia, Che’s family never stays in one place for long, constantly on the move due to his parents’ work, but Rosa’s dangerous and calculating behavior is a terrifying constant. His parents brush off her actions, but Che is certain that manipulative Rosa is a diagnosable psychopath with a complete lack of empathy. While keeping a vigilant eye on Rosa, Che navigates life in N.Y.C., embarking on new relationships and going against his parents’ wishes to pursue boxing more seriously. Larbalestier (Razorhurst) offers a chilling contemplation on human morality—Che’s physical sparring in the ring has nothing on his go-arounds with Rosa, as they debate what it means to be truthful or “good”—while incorporating sharp commentary on privilege, faith, gender identity, and race. The tension of wondering where and how Rosa will strike next will keep readers riveted from start to finish.
Moebius Library: The World of Edena
The first volume in Dark Horse’s new Moebius Library finally gives the legendary French cartoonist—long unavailable in English—the American welcome he deserves with a spectacular hardcover album of the entire Edena saga, annotated with notes from the artist and his studio. Spacefaring mechanics Stel and Atan find their way to Edena, a planetary paradise of lush jungles, welcoming gardens, and bronze deserts. Gradually they abandon the trappings of their futuristic society to reconnect with the land, discovering sex and sensuality along with unprocessed food. But a high-tech cult and a belligerent id-demon threaten to spoil their back-to-nature buzz. Glowingly illustrated in the elegant clear-line art and rich colors for which Moebius is justly revered, the book careens spectacularly through science fiction, fantasy, allegory, pop psychology, and psychedelia. That this ambitious saga began life as an ad for Citroën cars is only one example of Moebius’s transcendent imagination, now finally brought to English.
Ruler of the Night
Set in 1855, Edgar-finalist Morrell’s spectacular third and final whodunit featuring opium addict and author Thomas De Quincey (after 2015’s Inspector of the Dead) finds De Quincey and Emily, his 22-year-old daughter and partner in detection, traveling by train from London to the Lake District, where he hopes to stop a landlord to whom he owes money from auctioning his beloved books. When lawyer Daniel Harcourt, who’s also a passenger on the train, is strangled, the De Quinceys become involved in the subsequent investigation. With railway travel relatively new, the first murder ever on an English train causes an uproar and makes a speedy solution essential to restoring public trust. The powers that be, many of whom utilized the dead man’s services, limit access to Harcourt’s client files in a determined effort to cover something up. The narrative builds to a powerful but bittersweet ending that will leave readers hoping that Morrell eventually chooses to resurrect this superb series.
Absolutely on Music: Conversations
These chats between novelist Murakami and Ozawa, former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, contain intriguing insights about the nature of music. Over a two-year period (2010–2011), Murakami and Ozawa sat down to listen to and reflect upon matters as diverse as various recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, Brahms’s First Symphony, the music of Gustav Mahler, and the joys of conducting with Leonard Bernstein, whom Ozawa worked under in the 1960s. Ozawa reflects on the role of the conductor: “One of the distinguishing features of the conductor’s profession: the work itself changes you; the one thing a conductor has to do is to get sounds out of the orchestra; I read the score and create a piece of music in my mind, after which I work with the orchestra members to turn that into actual sounds, and that process gives rise to all kinds of things.” In response to Murakami’s question about the emotions a Japanese conductor feels when conducting the music of Gustav Mahler, an Austrian Jew, Ozawa reflects that when an Easterner performs music written by a Westerner, it can have its own special meaning. Ozawa admits that he doesn’t approach conducting with preconceived ideas about how a score should sound or be played: “I don’t have anything to say until I’ve got a musician right in front of me.” The tone of the book is deliberate and contemplative. In some ways, these conversations are High Fidelity for classical music fans.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Having thoroughly mined his South African upbringing in his standup comedy and monologues on The Daily Show, Noah here tells the whole story in this witty and revealing autobiography. Born to a black African mother and a white Swedish father, Noah violated the Immorality Act of 1927, which outlawed interracial relationships. Though apartheid ended a decade after Noah’s birth, its legacy lived on in the country’s nigh-inescapable ghettos and perpetual racial conflicts, continuing to affect his life as he came of age. Noah’s story is the story of modern South Africa; though he enjoyed some privileges of the region’s slow Westernization, his formative years were shaped by poverty, injustice, and violence. Noah is quick with a disarming joke, and he skillfully integrates the parallel narratives via interstitial asides between chapters to explain the finer details of African culture and history for the uninformed. Perhaps the most harrowing tales are those of his abusive stepfather, which form the book’s final act (and which Noah cleverly foreshadows throughout earlier chapters), but equally prominent are the laugh-out-loud yarns about going to the prom, and the differences between “White Church” and “Black Church.”
Robertson, guitarist and songwriter for the Band, highlights his career, from his early days with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to the last waltz of the Band in 1976. A masterly storyteller, Robertson easily draws readers into tales of his youth and of his days with Bob Dylan. He describes the eventual formation of the Band and the group’s quick climb to fame. For the first time, Robertson tells his side of the story regarding his relationship with fellow Band member Levon Helm. In their early days, the two were close friends, but in late 1969, on the way home from a show, Robertson recalls that Helm lied to him about his drug use, and Robertson recalls: “Things changed in that moment. A distance grew between Levon and me that I don’t know if we were ever able to mend.” Throughout, Robertson provides an intimate look at the making of the Band’s farewell concert at Winterland—the Last Waltz—and describes the exhilaration, relief, and sadness of the night and the following days. Though it would have been nice if Robertson had included reflections on life since the Band and his own substantial solo career, this long-awaited and colorfully told memoir paints a masterpiece of a life in rock and roll.
At a dance class offered in a local church in London in the early 1980s, two brown girls recognize themselves in one another and become friends. Tracey has a sassy white mum, a black father in prison, and a pink Barbie sports car. The other girl, the narrator of Smith's (NW) powerful and complex novel, remains unnamed. Although she lives in the same public housing as Tracey, she's being raised among books and protests by an intellectual black feminist mother and a demure white father. As with Smith's previous work, the nuances of race relations are both subtle and explicit, not the focus of the book and yet informing every interaction. The girls both love dancing, but this commonality reflects their differences more than their similarities. Whereas Tracey's physical grace is confident and intuitive, the narrator is drawn to something more ephemeral: "a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved," she thinks. The book tracks the girls as they move in different directions through adolescence and the final, abrupt fissures of their affection; it also follows the narrator into adulthood, where she works for a decade as the personal assistant to a world-famous (white) pop star named Aimee. In this role, she's able to embody what she admired about dancers as a child: she travels constantly, rarely sees her mother, and has lost touch with everyone other than her employer. Once Aimee begins to build a girls' school in an unnamed Muslim West African country, the novel alternates between that world and the London of the girls' youth. In both places, poverty is a daily struggle and the juxtaposition makes for poignant parallels and contrasts. Though some of the later chapters seem unnecessarily protracted, the story is rich and absorbing, especially when it highlights Smith's ever-brilliant perspective on pop culture.
Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film
This well-written exploration of conspiracy, propriety, copyright, and public good versus private gain is seen through the prism of the world’s most famous home movie. Sometimes “personal history” is code for lazy research, but Zapruder (Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust) has doggedly followed the tortured life of her grandfather’s short 8 mm film, which captured the moment of President Kennedy’s assassination, through the shock of witness, media frenzy, FBI fumbling, conspiracy theorists, lawsuits, artists, and Oliver Stone. At the center of the story is Abe Zapruder, who died when the author was an infant. An immigrant from Ukraine, Abe eventually found modest success as a dressmaker in Dallas. For him, J.F.K. was the symbol of American promise, so when he sold his film to Life, it was with the understanding that the magazine would safeguard J.F.K.’s dignity—and give Zapruder $150,000 for it. The movie was sold back to the family for $1, 12 years later, when it became too much of a burden for the magazine. And there it stayed until 1993 when the government seized the film, even though it was on loan to the National Archives. What follows is a dispassionate discussion of how much the film is worth. Zapruder doesn’t shy away from the fact that her family made money from the film, but it was the government that decided the “small, depressing, inconclusive, limited spool of celluloid” was worth $16 million, reaffirming its position as a true relic, one of the few in a secular world.