This week: the oddly musical mysteries in the motion of the planets, plus love and art in 1950s Manhattan.
Appelfeld’s novel delineates the process of becoming a writer, with details incorporated from his experience as a Holocaust survivor and refugee. The title’s sleeping man is 16-year-old Erwin from Czernowitz (formerly Romania, now Ukraine). Erwin has withdrawn into prolonged slumber after suffering deprivation and the loss of family during World War II. Fellow refugees carry him to Naples, where he joins a group of older boys exercising together, studying Hebrew, and learning to shoot—they then take a boat to what will soon become Israel and continue their training there. Despite pressure to let go of the past, Erwin continues to retreat into dreams for visits home, including conversations with his mother and father. Erwin’s group of trainees is eventually sent to a kibbutz to build retaining walls, tend orchards, and guard against infiltrators. Awake Erwin now goes by the Hebrew name Aharon, while the sleeping Erwin shares his hopes and concerns with his parents. Before reaching age 18, Erwin/Aharon is seriously injured in a military action intended to protect the kibbutz. Recovery comes slowly and painfully, but at last he begins to write, in Hebrew: just family names at first, then poetry, and finally stories in remembrance of things past. Erwin/Aharon’s physical and spiritual journey reveals the effects of war and dislocation. It also highlights the consolation found in cultivating old connections and latent talents. Throughout, Appelfeld focuses not on historical events or moral judgments but on the formation of a writer, one much like himself, able to transform memory into transcendent prose.
In this moving follow-up to her 1997 memoir, Anything Your Little Heart Desires, Bosworth comes into her own as a memoirist. The earlier book focused on her father, Bartley Crum, best known as a left-wing lawyer who’d represented the Hollywood 10. In this one, Bosworth (Montgomery Clift; Diane Arbus) retraces some of the same material, condensing her father’s political life and her parents’ personal struggles with absence, alcoholism, and adultery before expanding her own coming of age as an actress and, eventually, as a writer. Perhaps inevitably, many of her decisions were colored by her dysfunctional upbringing: her disastrous marriage in 1952 (she was 19) to an abusive wannabe artist was a thinly veiled escape. Her relationship with Joseph “Pepi” Schildkraut, a married actor her father’s age, came just as her father was institutionalized for substance abuse. Her abortion as she was about to film A Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn unleashed a torrent of suppressed Catholic guilt. The men who haunt Bosworth’s raw narrative are her beloved brother, Bart Jr., who killed himself when he was 18, and her father, who killed himself six years later. In the end, Bosworth has no firm answers. They were prey, as she was, to “the ambivalent nature of choices between career and family, between romance and responsibility, between recklessness and restraint.”
At the start of Garber’s magnificent debut novel, the mysterious Master Legend invites sisters Scarlett and Donatella Dragna to attend Caraval—a magical multiday event that is part spectacle, part treasure hunt. Although their tyrannical father has threatened death if they leave home without his permission, Tella strikes a deal with a roguish sailor named Julian for transport to Legend’s private island—a plan that essentially involves kidnapping the conflicted Scarlett, who is weeks away from marrying a man she’s never met. Upon arrival, Tella is taken, and it’s revealed that she is the subject of this year’s hunt. Scarlett and Julian join forces to find her, but in a game in which secrets are currency and appearances deceive, Scarlett has no way of knowing whether she’s a Caraval player or Master Legend’s pawn. Intriguing characters, an imaginative setting, and evocative writing combine to create a spellbinding tale of love, loss, sacrifice, and hope. While the search for Tella drives the narrative, Scarlett’s quest for self-empowerment is equally captivating. Scarlett and Julian’s chemistry intoxicates, and Garber’s tantalizing conclusion will leave readers hungry for a sequel.
Bestseller Gardner’s edge-of-your-seat thriller brings back law-enforcement couple Pierce Quincy and Rainie Conner, last seen in 2008’s Say Goodbye. Quincy, a retired FBI agent, and Conner, an investigative consultant for the Bakersville County (Ore.) sheriff’s department, have been fostering 13-year-old Sharlah for three years and want to adopt her. When Sharlah was five, her father fatally stabbed her mother in a drunken rage. In self-defense, her nine-year-old brother, Telly, beat their father to death with a baseball bat. In the tragedy’s aftermath, the siblings were separately fostered. Now a security camera catches 17-year-old Telly shooting a clerk and a customer to death in a gas station. Telly’s foster parents are later found slain in their home. While Quincy and Conner work on protecting Sharlah and locating Telly, Sharlah makes plans of her own. Revealing chapters from the children’s point of view show them trying to match wits with adults. Devilishly clever twists propel Gardner’s tale of family bonds fractured, mended, and sometimes destroyed.
Obe Devlin, 11, lost his only friend when new kids moved into subdivisions named for the things their homes displaced—Pheasant’s Nest, Oak Trail, the Orchards—on farmland that once belonged to his family. A perceptive narrator, Obe finds solace at the creek that runs through the slice of property his parents still own, which is where he first spots a strange animal whose most notable feature is his diet: plastic litter. Obe, whose father employs a win-at-all-costs strategy during family Monopoly games, names the critter Marvin Gardens but keeps him a secret—which turns out to be an especially wise move once he realizes that the animal produces highly noxious (and possibly toxic) scat. King (Still Life with Tornado) leavens a story replete with brutal environmental facts with a magical friendship between a boy and his “pretty gross pet.” A provocative exploration of human action and interaction on both local and global levels, as well as the interplay between past, present, and future, King’s novel will leave readers pondering how we treat each other and the planet.
Debut author Peterson recounts her trek to Southeast Asia to teach English and serve as a missionary, although she loathes the term because of the negative associations it carries. Like many who were raised in the Christian faith and have thought about overseas work, Peterson longed for God to do something big in her life, admiring the “glamorous” missionary stories of Amy Carmichael, George Muller, and Jim Elliot. Her memoir chronicles two years in a closed country where evangelism is forbidden (she can’t even tell readers her exact placement for fear of putting others in danger) and shares how her faith unraveled when she was discovered as a Christian. Forced to come to terms with results she didn’t want or expect, her understanding of God began to shift and grow in different ways as she experienced a spiritual reorientation. “Was ‘making a difference’ really something I was called to do?” she asks. “No verse in my New Testament asked me to make a difference.” Interspersed throughout her memoir are “interludes” that discuss the background of missionary work and the consequences—good and bad—that stem from it, which adds a nice touch of critical analysis to her personal narrative. Peterson is a thoughtful writer whose honest prose will appeal to any readers wanting to align themselves with God’s will, whether in a foreign land or at home.
With rare immediacy, Tyson (Blood Done Sign My Name) revisits the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi and the acquittal of those responsible in a gripping account of the cultural milieu of a racist environment. The work is informed by the retrospective of Carolyn Bryant (the woman whose short interaction with Till set the ensuing developments in motion), supported by the recollections of many who witnessed, participated in, testified to, and reported about the crime at the time, and strengthened by Tyson’s diligent research through contemporaneous accounts and archival materials as well as recent scholarship. Two families—the victim’s and the killers’—and their extended kinships occupy the center of the narrative, as Tyson describes the enmeshment of their lives with the legal apparatus that included several sheriffs, the prosecution and defense teams, the judge, and the jury (“all men, all white”). He also removes a multitude of other involved people from obscurity and gives them dimension. Tyson’s remarkable achievement is that each thread is explored in detail, backstories as well as main events, while he maintains a page-turning readability for what might seem a familiar tale. Cinematically engaging, harrowing, and poignant, Tyson’s monumental work illuminates Emmett Till’s murder and serves as a powerful reminder that certain stories in history merit frequent retelling.
An amateur scientist investigates oddly musical mysteries in the motion of the planets in this scintillating true-astronomy saga. Journalist Weschler (Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders) profiles Walter Murch, a celebrated Hollywood film and sound editor (for The Godfather and other movies) and renaissance man bent on rehabilitating a long-discredited 18th-century theory that the orbital distances of planets from the sun have fixed ratios. (The ratios also crop up among moons, asteroid and comet belts, and planets in other solar systems.) It’s a beguiling theory, well explained in Weschler’s brisk, lucid exposition, with possibly cosmic implications about gravity waves or dark matter and a piquant relationship to musical intervals, which have similar ratios between individual sound frequencies. The author sounds out astrophysicists on Murch’s theory and gets almost uniformly negative critiques—some orbits don’t fit the ratios; it could all be chance; gravity waves are too weak to corral planets into specific orbits, and there’s no other plausible mechanism to explain the ratios—to which Murch responds, often cogently. Weschler remains sympathetic to both sides in this debate between an inspired novice and skeptical pros, expanding it into a fascinating lesson on the nature of scientific understanding and the ways people seek it.