This week: David Grann's account of the 1921-1926 killing spree that formed the FBI, plus a wonderful biography of civil rights activist Pauli Murray.
Aslam’s exquisite, luminous novel is set in the imaginary city of Samara, somewhere in northern Pakistan between Kashmir and the border of Afghanistan. Nargis, an architect, has lost her husband, Massud, to a rogue American bullet, which hit him as he passed books in a human chain to a new library that he and Nargis designed. Their Christian ex-servant, Lily, and his daughter, Helen, whom Nargis and Massud have nurtured intellectually and whose mother was murdered by a Muslim, live next door. Helen falls in love with a Kashmiri named Imran, who turns up at Nargis’s house one day, having escaped from a group of jihadists with whom he trained. Bigotry frequently erupts into violence in their district, and each of these characters will suffer. Nargis is pressured by a military intelligence agent to forgive her husband’s murderer for blood money. Helen is pursued for blasphemous journalism. Lily, a Christian, and his lover, the widowed daughter of a local Muslim cleric, are exposed and pursued by a mob, which burns down their neighborhood. Lily disappears, and Nargis, Helen, and Imran flee to a secluded island, where they begin a strange but lovely idyll of love and friendship that sharply contrasts with what surrounds them. Hidden, the three lovingly repair a book written by Massud’s father that was torn to pieces by the authorities, using golden thread to stitch its pages together again. The Pakistan depicted in this harrowing novel is unbearably wrenched apart by terror and prejudice, but the dignity of Aslam’s (The Blind Man’s Garden) characters and their devotion to one another rises far above the violence.
Everything about the newest collection of diaristic ephemera and agitations from Bell (The Voyeurs) would point to another twee, myopic graphic memoir about nothing much in particular. Fortunately, Bell takes her boiling stew pot of anxiety and turns it into something far broader and more empathetic. The linked stories begin with a mix of events that involve Bell’s worries about work and her garden (a love that turns into a source of anxiety). After Bell’s mother, a hippie-ish sort who lives rough in distant northern California, loses her home in a fire, Bell flies out to visit—ostensibly to help, but also, she admits, because she’d like to be seen as a hero and the trip could provide good comics fodder. Bell’s vignettes peel back the layers of the mother-daughter relationship with self-deprecating comedy, displaying irritation but also patient forbearance. In one of the book’s more exceptional moments, Bell notes the wide range of types of mothers seen in movies, and points out that hers “exists outside of that continuum,” adding, “Yours does, too.”
Drawing on a varied CV (public defender, Supreme Court clerk, charter school cofounder, Yale law professor), Forman addresses a tangled and thorny issue—the part played by African-Americans in shaping criminal justice policy. A complex picture emerges, focused on Washington, D.C., as black inner-city residents are hurt both by “over- and under-policing” and as effective enforcement and fairer treatment of minorities come to seem incompatible to policymakers. Forman delineates the ravaging effects of cures with boomerang consequences—from vigorous prosecutions of relatively minor offenses that cut offenders off from public benefits, to black anti-drug activism that enables more punitive policing, to mandatory sentencing policies that prove unequally implemented. With regard to public policy, Forman’s attentiveness to class divisions in the black community (for example, the middle-class desire for increased numbers of black policemen, as opposed to the working-class goal of simply accessing new avenues of employment) offers an exemplary perspective. The book achieves genuine immediacy, due not only to the topical subject, but also to Forman’s personal experiences within the legal system. Possibly controversial, undoubtedly argumentative, Forman’s survey offers a refreshing breath of fresh air on the crisis in American policing.
New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Lost City of Z) burnishes his reputation as a brilliant storyteller in this gripping true-crime narrative, which revisits a baffling and frightening—and relatively unknown—spree of murders occurring mostly in Oklahoma during the 1920s. From 1921 to 1926, at least two dozen people were murdered by a killer or killers apparently targeting members of the Osage Indian Nation, who at the time were considered “the wealthiest people per capita in the world” thanks to the discovery of oil beneath their lands. The violent campaign of terror is believed to have begun with the 1921 disappearance of two Osage Indians, Charles Whitehorn and Anna Brown, and the discovery of their corpses soon afterwards, followed by many other murders in the next five years. The outcry over the killings led to the involvement in 1925 of an “obscure” branch of the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, which eventually charged some surprising figures with the murders. Grann demonstrates how the Osage Murders inquiry helped Hoover to make the case for a “national, more professional, scientifically skilled” police force. Grann’s own dogged detective work reveals another layer to the case that Hoover’s men had never exposed.
As teenagers, the Van Gogh brothers, Vincent and Theo, pledged to “be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” In this intensive exploration of their turbulent lives, Heiligman (Charles and Emma) focuses on their complex relationship and anchoring mutual bond. Writing in present tense, she follows them from their childhood closeness as two of six children of a Protestant pastor in the heavily Catholic Dutch village of Zundert into their contrasting adulthoods in France: painter Vincent’s life was precarious and erratic, while art dealer Theo’s was more stable and decorous, if often lonely. Heiligman tells the brothers’ story in short chapters, sometimes just scenes, and occasionally offers what she calls “croquis” (sketches) to give a better sense of “someone whose whole being cannot be captured on paper in one steady view. Like Theo.” She also recounts, in exhaustive detail, Vincent’s frequent cycles of descent into mental illness and subsequent rebounds, as well as the way the brothers alternately clashed with and clung to each other. Extensive back matter includes a character list, timeline, bibliography, endnotes, and author’s note.
Dumas fans will especially enjoy Jégo and Lépée’s thoughtful thriller set in 1661 France. Though the country is nominally ruled by young Louis XIV, Cardinal Jules Mazarin has been the country’s de facto leader for decades. As the cardinal lies on his deathbed, he’s shaken to learn that a fire set in his Paris palace was designed to divert attention from a burglary that netted the thieves some secret documents. Mazarin orders his adviser Jean-Baptiste Colbert to retrieve them by any means necessary. This effort ensnares the book’s D’Artagnan-like hero, actor Gabriel de Pontbriand, secretary to the playwright Molière. Gabriel stumbles upon coded papers concealed in the prompter’s well of the theater after one of the burglars fell through the roof. The machinations of a shadowy Rome-based conspiracy, as well as the jockeying for power in anticipation of a vacuum following Mazarin’s demise, ratchet up the tension, even for readers familiar with how that struggle played out.
Ten years after accidentally shooting and killing his baby sister, 14-year-old Sebastian is haunted by the loss to the point of considering suicide. When he meets Aneesa, a new neighbor whose brown skin and headscarf also make her an outcast, their friendship challenges his views of his self worth. Suddenly, Sebastian is making pizzas for their YouTube channel and not solely focusing on feeling like a pariah, “the kid who killed.” But he can’t outrun his past, and a climactic revelation is a gut punch, returning to the agonized and primal feelings that are essential to this gripping story. Lyga (The Secret Sea) expertly scatters reminders of Sebastian’s burden in benign, tossed-off phrases (of friends with siblings: “half the time it’s like they just wish they could kill them”), the prominence of first-person shooter games, and his best friend’s father’s prized gun collection, each of which reveals another facet of his trauma. It’s a raw exploration of persistent social stigmas, a beautiful study of forgiveness, and an unflinching portrait of a parent’s worst nightmare.
Sharp, shocking, and darkly funny, the essays in this sapient collection by cultural critic and performance artist Moore (Threadbare) expose the twisted logic at the core of Western capitalism and our stunted understanding of both its violence and the illnesses it breeds. Through such diverse avenues as the garment industry in Cambodia, modeling in New York, the history of the sanitary napkin disposal bag, the development of standard time, and the evolution of intellectual property law, Moore’s precise language, organized facts, and intuitive turns of thought uncover the casual and unremitting violence inflicted on the bodies of women by labor, marketing, and compulsive consumption. The book’s main topic, though, is illness, especially the rising incidence of autoimmune illnesses, of which Moore has personal and painful experience. In essays that look at drugs and treatment, her ability to diagnose the blind spots of Western medicine and the ableism of our very vocabulary for disease is as incisive and unsettling as the raw misogyny of the horror films she analyzes. Brainy and historically informed, this collection is less a rallying cry or a bitter diatribe than a series of irreverent and ruthlessly accurate jabs at a culture that is slowly devouring us.
Phillips-Fein (Invisible Hands), professor of history at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, makes municipal bonds exciting in this painstakingly researched revisionist account of the 1970s fiscal crisis that shook New York to its core. She argues that, although the city would go on to emerge from the crisis seemingly unscathed, its robust brand of social democratic politics would be lost forever. Paced like a thriller and extremely well written, the book chronicles the slow descent of the city into a fiscal abyss and its unlikely rescue by a group of hardened bureaucrats, altruistic investment bankers, and political power players who formed the Municipal Assistance Corporation. Dubbed “Big MAC,” the committee succeeded in passing austerity measures that gutted the city’s public services and institutions while restoring fiscal health—but at the cost of reorienting city politics towards the wealthy and paving the way for the glittering, profoundly unequal “hard-edged city” of today. Phillips-Fein narrates with almost cinematic flair, and by the time the credits roll, the significance of her accomplishment becomes clear. The book should be required reading for all those interested in the past, present, and future of democratic politics.
Historian Rosenberg (Divided Lives) thoughtfully crafts this deeply researched biographical study of civil rights activist Pauli Murray (1910–1985), whose life and work crossed multiple categories of 20th-century identity and politics. Born into a mixed-race, socially aspirational family in the Jim Crow South, Murray was orphaned young and raised within her extended family. During her adult life, Murray worked variously as a labor organizer, unpaid activist, and journalist for the black press. She went on to become a lawyer, teach in Ghana, earn a J.S.D. from Yale, win tenure at Brandeis, and eventually leave professorship to become an Episcopal priest. Rosenberg shows how Murray pursued an intersectional activism, repeatedly identifying the ways in which race, class, and gender worked together to constrain opportunity. The biography also deftly explores Murray’s relationships and private struggles with identity. From childhood, Murray understood herself to be male, repeatedly seeking (unsuccessfully) medical treatment for gender dysphoria; she was also attracted to, and formed lasting relationships with, women during an era when both same-sex attraction and transgender identity were suspect categories. Placing Murray in historical context with practiced ease, Rosenberg weaves these many threads together into an authoritative narrative that will introduce Murray to many future generations.