This week: Anthony Horowitz's brilliant Agatha Christie–like mystery, plus an investigation into the Donner Party.
Written in Latin during the late fourth century C.E., this memoir from the North African saint—one of the earliest examples of autobiographical narrative—receives a wholly new translation by poet, essayist, and translator Ruden (Other Places). Approaching her subject with deep religious and historical knowledge, she chooses to translate Augustine as a performative, engaging storyteller rather than a systematic theologian. Beginning with his babyhood and struggles with early schooling, Augustine traces his own intellectual and religious development through adolescence into middle adulthood. Born to a family of both Christian and pagan faith, Augustine migrated to Italy as a young adult to pursue a career in rhetoric. Before committing himself to a life of celibate religiosity, Augustine spent roughly a decade in a long-term relationship with a woman, and the two had a son. Augustine also explored and ultimately rejected Manichaeism. He would become, during and after his life, a pivotal figure in the history of Christianity. While acknowledging that earlier translations may have been “learned and serviceable,” Ruden argues that much is lost when Augustine’s linguistic playfulness is downplayed. An extensive introduction delves into the translator’s decisions, particularly those that depart most sharply from those of her predecessors. The resulting work is delightfully readable while still densely theological. In this lively translation filled with vivid, personal prose, Ruden introduces readers to a saint whom many will realize they only thought they knew.
Boyd (Baldwin’s Harlem) breathes new life into the history of Detroit through stories of the city’s black residents from its earliest days to its bittersweet present. True to its title, the book documents the display of black determination, a mix of ingenuity, courage, and persistence in the midst of discrimination and repression. Boyd aptly highlights the complexity of the city’s racial legacy from its earliest days. Detroit was neither a slaveholding territory nor fully free; he tells of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who in 1831 escaped slavery in Kentucky for the promise of freedom in Detroit, only to be arrested in their new home two years later under the Fugitive Slave Act. A group of outraged black citizens rallied together to plan a jailbreak and secure the couple’s passage to Canada. By the 1920s, the city’s formerly small black population had ballooned into a bustling community, mainly due to Henry Ford’s $5 hourly wage, which attracted Southerners during the Great Migration. Boyd also examines the city’s black newspapers, Berry Gordy’s founding of Motown, and the fall from grace of the city’s youngest mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. He leaves no stone unturned, making his work an invaluable repository of all that is black Detroit.
Felix Yz, the 13-year-old narrator of Bunker’s captivating debut, is just like everyone else. Well, mostly. At age three, Felix was fused with Zyx, “a hyperintelligent being from the fourth dimension,” during an accident involving one of his father’s inventions, which also killed his father. A dangerous procedure to separate Felix from Zyx is scheduled to take place in 29 days, and Felix is determined to make the most of the intervening time. Felix tells his story via his blog, using Zyx’s perfect recall to recount conversations verbatim as he contends with bullies and works up the courage to talk to his crush, a boy named Hector. Felix’s humor, vulnerability, and strength give this story its big heart, which is rounded out by a loving family that includes Felix’s mother, piano prodigy older sister, and genderfluid grandparent who goes by Vera or Vern on different days. Set against a countdown to the unknown, Felix’s story is a love letter to anyone who feels out of place and a testament to the beauty of being “different.” Ages 10–up.
Davis (The Ethics of Transracial Adoption), a professor of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia, challenges readers to consider why binary sex identity categories are used so pervasively in our everyday lives, and whether such routine categorization is needed. Sex-identity discrimination, the author argues, happens to both transgender and cisgender individuals whose appearance is at odds with observers’ beliefs about how masculine and feminine people should look in public, and the routine sorting of individuals into sex identity categories invites discriminatory social and institutional policing of individuals’ sex identities. In four brief chapters, this work examines four common locations of sex-identity sorting: sex markers on identity documents, sex-segregated restrooms, single-sex colleges, and sex-segregated sports. Davis consistently pushes readers to consider whether the practice of sex sorting bears any rational relationship to the goals its proponents claim to further: fighting identity fraud, promoting personal health and safety, addressing sexism in higher education, and encouraging fair play in competitive sports. An appendix offers guidelines for conducting a “gender audit” of organizational policies and practices, encouraging critical self-assessment of everyday acts that unnecessarily invoke sex and gender classifications. The author, a transgender man of color, approaches this topic as both an expert scholar and an individual whose own identity has been subject to hostile scrutiny.
Ginder (Driver’s Education) takes family dysfunction to its hysterical limit in this joyously ribald, sharply cynical, and impossible-to-put-down examination of love and loyalty. Mining the rich vein of comedy and drama inherent in a lavish, over-the-top wedding, Ginder spins the stories of siblings Alice and Paul, half-sister and bride-to-be Eloise, and their mother, Donna, as they make their way to Eloise’s nuptials in a quaint hamlet in the southwest of England. For Alice and Paul, the trip is fraught with a troubled family and personal history: they’re both in poisonous and doomed relationships and see Eloise as the snotty daughter of a rich, absent dad, and Donna as a coldhearted widow who quickly ditched all remnants of their father after his death. During the boozy prewedding days, the resentment and secrets come tumbling out in outbursts and dangerously, hilariously bad decisions. As a happy ending seems to slip further out of sight, Ginder provides far better: laughter and hope. “Love may disappoint,” Paul tells cold-footed Eloise before she walks down the aisle, “but that doesn’t absolve us from the duty of loving.”
Bestseller Horowitz (The House of Silk) provides a treat for fans of golden age mysteries with this tour de force that both honors and pokes fun at the genre. In the prologue, an unnamed editor sets the tone by describing how reading the manuscript of Magpie Murders, the ninth novel in a bestselling mystery series by Alan Conway, cost her her job and many friendships. In the text of the manuscript itself (which is accompanied by a bio of Conway and blurbs from real-life authors Ian Rankin and Robert Harris), Poirot-like sleuth Atticus Pünd, a German concentration camp survivor who has settled in England, tackles an Agatha Christie–like puzzle in 1955 Saxby-on-Avon. The verdict of accidental death seems warranted in the case of housekeeper and unrepentant busybody Mary Blakiston, who took a fatal fall down a flight of stairs at Pye Hall, since no one else was in the locked manor house at the time. But rumors that her estranged son wished Mary dead lead his fiancée to seek Pünd's help. The identity of the person responsible for Mary's death is but one of the questions Pünd must answer, and Horowitz throws in several wicked twists as the narrative builds to a highly satisfying explanation of the prologue.
Levingston (Little Demon in the City of Light), nonfiction book editor at the Washington Post, comprehensively evaluates the antagonistic interplay of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy during the civil rights movement. He contrasts the unstoppable forces of King’s soaring oratory, Christian principles, and moral authority with the immovable objects of Kennedy’s privilege, political calculation, and presidential power. Their push and pull unfolded in a cultural cauldron that encompassed the Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom rides, King’s stints in jail, the children’s crusade in Birmingham, Gov. George Wallace’s segregationist stand at the University of Alabama, and the march on Washington. Students of the movement will appreciate Levingston’s portrayals of two key behind-the-scenes movers and shakers: Harry Belafonte, the entertainer who served as the intermediary between the pastor and the politician, and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, whose early support of King was pivotal in the pastor’s triumphal moving of the president from political agnosticism to action, which led to President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Through his persistence, King developed a successful strategy for speaking truth to power,” Levingston writes. “Although ambivalent from the start, President Kennedy demonstrated that progress occurred when power listened and learned.”
The fourth installment of Lock’s the American Novels series (American Meteor) is the unflinching, penetrative, and bravely earnest account of fictional escaped slave Samuel Long’s (the fugitive of the title) time living in Walden Woods as Henry David Thoreau’s neighbor. After Thoreau’s death, Long reflects on his time with the American transcendentalists in his youth, when his freedom was tenuous and his sense of identity fluid. After Long makes his escape from slavery, Ralph Waldo Emerson gives him protection and asks that he stay in the woods with Thoreau and report on his progress. Along the way, Long becomes a part of Thoreau’s circle of luminaries, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Lloyd Garrison. As Long comes into his own, his famous compatriots are pushed to face the implications of the role they would have him play in their own narrative. Long’s remembrance of his friend is reverential while exploring the wider social context; he contemplates the intersection of his experience as a runaway slave—forced to put his life in the hands of white abolitionists like Emerson, while Thoreau’s experiment is paid for with privilege—and transcendentalist beliefs in man’s inherent goodness and individualism. With melodic prose that marvelously captures Long’s searing insights and rich observations, Lock’s imaginative novel is a stunning meditation on idealism and the cost of humanity.
A small book with a big narrative voice, this wacky new novel by Mabanckou follows the existential misfortunes of an orphan whose “kilometrically extended name” means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” Things were always bad for Moses at the orphanage in Loango, a place full of corrupt and unscrupulous administrators who treat children “no better than cattle.” But after the orphanage’s director and his cronies, all relatives, change allegiance as the socialist revolution takes over the Congo, Moses decides to escape to the city of Pointe-Noire with the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They agree to let him join them and give him the nickname Little Pepper when he spikes their food with chilis. The sordid streets of the city offer few better opportunities, however, and in colorful, weird prose, Moses recounts his few triumphs and many travails. His fellow escapees form a gang of petty thieves, but at 16, Moses is taken in by a kindly Zairian madam called Maman Fiat 500, who—with her employees, “ten girls, each more beautiful than the last”—provides him with the only family he will ever know. Moses ages quickly, spiraling into madness and forgetting. He wishes to become his own hero, Robin Hood, but he more closely resembles Don Quixote, eventually striking out on a last noble and violent quest worthy of his long name. This mythic, beguiling novel is a journey to discover what is hard-wired in us and what we make up about ourselves.
In sometimes heartbreaking and staggering prose laced with subtle and sardonic humor, Moghul (The Order of Light) shares what it looks like to hammer out an American Muslim identity. Amid depression and bipolarity, between being Pakistani and American, Moghul discovers that Islam is not a straitjacket but a free-flowing wardrobe of expression and being in which he lives as he moves through the modern world. The narrative, rife with pop-culture references and Qur’anic reflections, follows the author through adolescence and adulthood as he struggles to understand his intellectual heritage and the sometimes debilitating stress of being Muslim in a country where Muslims are always considered suspect. As Moghul loses himself and seeks himself, readers will appreciate his story as a second-generation Muslim immigrant, but also as a representative of the modern man: searching, groping, discovering, losing, loving, hoping, dreaming, and suffering. Highly recommended for its candor and relatability, this book will invite readers to fathom what it means to grasp Islam—and religion and spirituality in general.
In an exceptional novel in verse, slam poet Myers debuts with a powerful commentary on maternal inheritance and eating disorders. Ivy, a high school sophomore, is a self-described smart girl who “understands that/ discipline is success.” Since her parents’ divorce and her mother’s subsequent withdrawal into herself (“More far-off stares./ More wine./ More silence”), Ivy finds comfort in assuming control where she can, such as in math: “Numbers keep their promises.” When Ivy’s need for control moves outside the classroom, she begins to severely limit her food intake and to exercise excessively. As Ivy’s obsession grows and her body begins to fail, she is forced confront her familial issues and harmful choices in order to begin her journey back to physical and mental health. Myers makes striking use of the flexibility of free verse to communicate Ivy’s emotions and eventual loss of control. Ivy’s relationship with her mother and her understanding of what she has inherited from her— “the unspoken lessons/ that worm their way under my skin/ the things I wish I could unlearn”—are particularly absorbing and evocative. Ages 12–up.
Pearlman (Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement), a Northwestern University professor of political science specializing in the Middle East, collects powerful firsthand accounts from Syrians displaced by the ongoing civil war. In the introduction, Pearlman remarks that she and others initially doubted the Arab Spring would ever reach Syria, a sentiment repeated throughout. The book cannot cover the perspective of all Syrians, Pearlman acknowledges, but it does accomplish the goal of humanizing those interviewed, showing them simply as people rather than either victims or security threats. The book is divided into eight sections, with the first, “Authoritarianism,” dealing with Syria before the protests. After part four, “Crackdown,” the stories start to feel relentless in their despair—at one point, an interviewee says, “It had been so long since I heard someone died from natural causes”—but one would be hard pressed to call this a fault. It’s unsurprising to see the anger not just toward Syrian president Bashar al-Assad but also toward the international community, with its many “red lines” for Assad crossed and ignored. Nonetheless, the book is filled with hope, informed by an understanding of the unity possible in spite of the discord sowed by Assad.
Appearing two decades after 1997's celebrated The God of Small Things, Roy's ambitious, original, and haunting second novel fuses tenderness and brutality, mythic resonance and the stuff of front-page headlines. Anjum, one of its two protagonists, is born intersex and raised as a male. Embracing her identity as a woman, she moves from her childhood home in Delhi to the nearby House of Dreams, where hijra like herself live together, and then to a cemetery when that home too fails her. The dwelling she cobbles together on her family's graves becomes a paradoxically life-affirming enclave for the wounded, outcast, and odd. The other protagonist, the woman who calls herself S. Tilottama, fascinates three very different men but loves only one, the elusive Kashmiri activist Musa Yeswi. When an abandoned infant girl appears mysteriously amid urban litter and both Anjum and Tilo have reasons to try to claim her, all their lives converge. Shifting fluidly between moods and time frames, Roy juxtaposes first-person and omniscient narration with "found" documents to weave her characters' stories with India's social and political tensions, particularly the violent retaliations to Kashmir's long fight for self-rule. Sweeping, intricate, and sometimes densely topical, the novel can be a challenging read. Yet its complexity feels essential to Roy's vision of a bewilderingly beautiful, contradictory, and broken world.
Tamaki (This One Summer, SuperMutant Magic Academy) presents the adult, oblique side of her work in this revelatory collection of short stories. These strips are playful yet pensive; in the introductory story, the narrator asks, “Do I want to look at art at 2 AM or eat a donut in the park?” Many, including “Bed Bug” and “Half-Life,” track the formation and dissolution of romantic relationships. In “Body Pods,” a young woman goes through her history of romantic partners, all fans of the titular invented sci-fi movie. A surreal, dreamlike sense of dread and sadness pervades many of these stories, but wry sympathy for the often lost characters takes Tamaki’s already formidable cartooning skills to a new level. Artistically, obsessive-looking rendering juts up against spontaneous, sparse line work, mirroring the disorientation the narrators experience. Tamaki has delivered an essential collection of truly modern fiction in comics form.
Adopting an empathetic approach bolstered by studious research and geographical contextualization, biographer Wallis (David Crockett) reclaims the horrific story of the infamously ill-fated wagon train from the annals of sensationalism. Though nearly synonymous with cannibalism in pop culture lore, the Donner Party's 1846–1847 journey receives from Wallis a balanced treatment, showing that the surviving members who chose cannibalism did so as a last resort—and largely because saving their starving children was their priority. Wallis effectively mixes survivors' accounts, trip diaries, and other contemporary sources, delving deep into the backgrounds and dynamics of the multiple families involved in the four-months-long winter wilderness encampment. For example, Tamzene Donner transformed from a botanist who planned to open a school into a resilient mother and wife who fed her children human flesh and refused to leave her desperately ill husband during three different rescue efforts. Wallis explains that the caravan suffered multiple setbacks, including livestock thefts by Native Americans and an unusually long and harsh winter. The leaders also routinely made bad decisions, such as trusting an untested "shortcut" promoted by an armchair guidebook author. The Donner Party's struggles and determination continue to fascinate, and Wallis's comprehensive account of bravery, luck, and failure illuminates the realities of westward expansion.