This week: an oral history of Bob Marley, plus an existential mystery in which a couple's neighbors strangely stop speaking to them.
A self-described “real daredevil, always looking for tides to swim against,” the 19th-century French legend Nadar is depicted with a vividness commensurate with his audacity in this scintillating biography. Born Félix Tournachon in 1820, he began publishing stories and sketches while in his teens and befriended Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and other literary luminaries. He then moved on to illustration, developing a distinct style of caricature marked by exaggerated heads and revealing facial features that made him famous in newspapers and periodicals under his nickname Nadar. He found his true calling in 1848, at the height of the photography boom, when he opened what would become Paris’s most famous photography studio and began turning out famous portraits of Sarah Bernhardt, George Sand, Champfleury, and other celebrities of the day. Toward the end of his life, Nadar spearheaded France’s hot-air-balloon craze and took the first-ever aerial photographs. Begley (Updike) situates his portrait of Nadar within a colorful evocation of the bohemian circles in which his subject both flourished and frequently provoked controversy. The book includes detailed descriptions of the nuances of Nadar’s unique photographic portraits. These descriptions capture the artistic qualities that attracted Nadar’s clients to his studio and that make these works his enduring legacy. 132 b&w photos.
In his first book, musician, left-wing activist, and sonic archivist Bragg has crafted a remarkable history of skiffle, a particularly British music genre. Initiated by amateur players obsessed with the blues, jazz, and folk, skiffle lured teenagers obsessed with all things American and eager to dance away post-WWII conformity and deprivation. With a DIY ethos and three-chord tunes, skiffle inspired a generation of British lads to pick up guitars, including among them Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, and a young extraterrestrial who would later take the name “David Bowie.” Roughly a cross between folk and R&B, skiffle quickly succumbed to the other two genres and faded from the charts, even as its former disciples led the British Invasion. Bragg impresses throughout with engaging prose and painstaking research. He further enlivens the text with personal insights and witty asides that give the material a unique cast few professional writers would dare. The introduction of dozens of new figures in the last third of the book diffuses the narrative but that’s a minor demerit to an accomplished work. Ending with a flourish, Bragg convincingly argues for the emotional connection between skiffle and punk rock, something Bragg would know about better than most.
In a remote lighthouse lives a shy, deformed man, the son of the long-departed lighthouse keeper, who has never been off the tiny island. Fishermen bring him supplies. For entertainment, he looks up words in a tattered dictionary and tries to imagine the baffling outside world they describe. (Reading that an oboe is an “instrument with holes and keys,” he pictures something like a violin studded with door keys.) Then a curious fisherman sends him a note, and a crack of light shines into his boxed-in existence. This small, graceful story becomes a lush fairy tale through Chabouté’s stunning black-and-white art; he lavishes loving detail on the hermit’s fantastic inner life and his daily routines on the starkly beautiful island. Chabouté is justly celebrated in his native France, and this is widely regarded as his masterpiece. It’s a visually stunning humanist fable.
Corby’s excellent seventh Athenian mystery (after 2016’s The Singer from Memphis) takes Nicolaos, the only private investigator in Athens; his pregnant priestess wife and investigative partner, Diotima; and Athenian statesman Pericles to the island of Delos: the repository of the treasury of the Delian League, a NATO-like mutual defense organization of independent city-states. Diotima’s plans to dedicate holy offerings to Artemis and Apollo are overshadowed by Pericles’s announcement that he intends to take the treasure back to Athens to protect it from the Persians, whose reconquest of Egypt makes them a more serious threat to Delos and other southern islands in the league. The Delians object vigorously, and Pericles’s efforts to overcome their resistance is complicated by a murder, which Nicolaos and Diotima must solve—and quickly. Once again, Corby combines an ingenious whodunit with convincing period detail. This humorous and educational ancient historical series gets better and better with each entry.
Set against the backdrop of the 1965 Los Angeles riots, this illuminating novel explores an African-American girl’s awakening to racial division in her community. Twelve-year-old Sophie’s family moves to a white L.A. neighborhood just months before Sophie’s older sister, Lily, will leave to attend college in Atlanta. It might be a step up for the girls’ status-conscious mother, but Sophie is miserable: her parents’ marriage is on the brink, her mother has hired the grim and critical Mrs. Baylor as housekeeper, and almost no one is interested in being Sophie’s friend. After Sophie meets Nathan—Mrs. Baylor’s handsome, college-age son (who is too dark-skinned to get Sophie’s mother’s approval)—she learns how destructive prejudice can be. Through his stories, Sophie begins to see the world differently, and when violent hate crimes break out in his neighborhood, Sophie witnesses firsthand the dangers from which she has been shielded. Expressing subtle and blatant bigotries alike, English (the Carver Chronicles series) movingly reveals how an impressionable and intelligent child learns from the injustices that touch her, her family, and her friends. Ages 10–12.
In this lucid and well-researched history, Kaldellis, a classics scholar, examines the rapid expansion and subsequent contraction of Byzantium in the 10th and 11th centuries. This work serves impressively as both a general introduction to the political, economic, and military history of the period and a narratively engaging and clear interpretation of the causes and effects of the empire’s rise and fall. The book nicely balances explication and commentary; Kaldellis includes details that bring his history to life—such as the facial hair patterns of a Byzantine enemy or the spouse selection process of an empress—and frequently turns a critical eye on his modern and historical sources, evaluating their credibility in reporting and interpretation. The work is thus both educational and enjoyable, almost a canonical model of how to write history for both lay and professional readers. This is a welcome introduction to Byzantine history, which is little known in the West relative to earlier Greek or Roman periods and deserves wider understanding and discussion.
Kelman’s (How Late It Was, How Late) peregrinating novel is a powerful meditation on loss, life, death, and the bond between father and son. Sixteen-year-old Murdo and his father travel from Scotland to America to visit an aunt and uncle living in Alabama. As the family grapples with the recent death of Murdo’s mother, the father and son find it increasingly difficult to speak with one another. Their interactions are an accumulation of near misses—attempts and failures to communicate in the midst of loss. As we explore the American South through the eyes of a thoughtful Scottish teenager, we see it afresh—the severe weather, racial tensions, zydeco music. Murdo, an aspiring musician, is enthralled by his encounters with American people on American land, and his growing connection to these new surroundings mirrors his struggle to cope with a loss that seems almost impossible for him to comprehend. Throughout the novel, Murdo’s observations are prone to long, circuitous paths, but they are strikingly astute. Like in his previous works, Kelman has created a fully-realized, relatable voice that reveals a young man’s urgent need for connection in a time of grief.
Lynch’s (Red Sky in Morning) wonderful third novel follows a teenage girl through impoverished Ireland at the height of the Great Famine. Grace Coyle is 14 in 1844, when her mother dresses her as a boy and sends her off to find work to save herself and her destitute family. Grace travels with her 12-year-old brother, Colly, south from Urris Hills. Before they reach Donegal, Colly dies, but his ghost continues to accompany Grace, alerting her to dangers that prove far more plentiful than food or employment. Mistaken for a hireling named Tim, Grace finds work on a cattle drive and a road-building project. She then ends up an itinerant drifter alongside one-armed John Bart. What John and Grace cannot earn, they steal; the ghost of a woman killed during a botched robbery also becomes Grace’s traveling companion. Grace eventually makes her way to Limerick before heading home, persisting even when she loses the ability to speak. In Gaelic-lilted poetic prose, Lynch evokes nearly five years of misery: the Samhain (end-of-harvest festival) after flooding destroys the harvest, wintry deprivation, endless days on nameless roads, starvation, and desperation. Heart-wrenching images include Grace’s pregnant mother dragging Grace to the killing stump to chop off her hair, Grace eating stolen seed potatoes, and much worse. Lynch’s powerful, inventive language intensifies the poignancy of the woe that characterizes this world of have-nothings struggling to survive.
Nine-year-old Robin loves detective stories. So when the police arrive the night her parents are killed, she mistakenly believes she is now part of her favorite radio series. It’s a harsh awakening for her to realize that South Africa in the 1970s is a place far more violent than those stories. With her parents gone, Robin’s aunt puts her in the care of a Xhosa nanny, Beauty, a woman with her own tragic secrets: Beauty has vowed to stay in Johannesburg as long as it takes to find her daughter, Nomsa, who has disappeared after a student protest ends in bloodshed. However, as the days stretch into months, Beauty finds herself growing increasingly attached to the motherless white child she is being paid to raise. Likewise Robin grows to love Beauty, despite knowing her dead parents would disapprove of her close relationship with the black woman. In this standout debut Marais handles topics such as grief and racism with a delicate intensity that will make readers fall in love with her characters. From the first few heartfelt chapters to a fast-paced and heart-wrenching ending, Marais has created a stunning historical drama that shouldn’t be missed.
Matt, a gay high school junior, is bent on uncovering the reason his older sister, Maya, suddenly left town after meeting up with senior soccer star Tariq. Certain that something happened between Maya and Tariq, Matt works to earn Tariq’s trust, ignoring his own attraction to him while planning his revenge. Though Matt insists that he doesn’t have an eating disorder, he limits his food intake, believing the hunger sharpens his senses and allows him to see beyond the facade of everyday life. Each chapter opens with Matt’s rules detailing the “art of starving,” and readers will realize the depth of his dangerous downward spiral straightaway. Believing “if someone knows what you want, they can hurt you in all sorts of ways,” Matt is a master at suppressing his urges, but there is nothing romantic about debut novelist Miller’s portrayal of anorexia; his descriptions are often graphic and disturbing, and discussion of Matt’s future is brutally honest. As Matt’s body deteriorates and his “powers” reach new levels, readers must decide for themselves what is and isn’t real. Ages 13–up.
In this claustrophobic, slow-burning, surreal novel in the existentialist tradition, NDiaye (Ladivine) explores a contemporary French social problem. Two teachers, Nadia and her husband, Ange, find themselves suddenly and bizarrely being treated “like wretched dogs” in the streets of their small French community. Nadia has no idea why, but it keeps getting worse: a strange wound develops on Ange’s stomach, and an elderly neighbor inexplicably forces Nadia to let him into their apartment to take care of him. Nadia becomes convinced he is attempting “something like our enslavement.” To find out what’s happening, she feels she must abandon Ange on a trip to visit her ex-husband and estranged son. Clues about the reason for their mistreatment accumulate—from Nadia’s belief that her granddaughter’s name, Souhar, is “perpetuating the indignity of our bloodline,” to an imagined conversation in a language “I tried hard to forget.” The subtly executed reveal of Nadia’s heritage allows NDiaye to artfully transform Nadia’s despair, which early on reads as purely philosophical, into an acknowledgment that she is a victim of French xenophobia. Nadia’s trip provokes a startling reunion, and only afterwards does she admit that despite having “inwardly snuffed out every visible trace of my upbringing,” the best she can hope for are comments like “It’s so hard for people like you.” NDiaye proves with this revelatory and devastating book how perilous such understatement can be.
In this searing, insightful debut, Rooney offers an unapologetic perspective on the vagaries of relationships. When Frances and Bobbi, former lovers and college students who perform Frances's poetry together, meet Melissa, a famed photographer who wants to do a story about them, the two young women's lives are transformed. Bobbi, the more outgoing and social of the two, has a crush on Melissa; Frances, ever the enigmatic intellectual, is intrigued by Nick, Melissa's glamorous actor husband. From Frances's point of view, readers experience the exhilarating and devastating emotional roller coaster of love, not only in the trajectory of her developing relationship with Nick but also in the layered, complicated relationship between her and Bobbi, as they traverse the rocky road from lovers to friends and back again and transition to the world of adulthood. Rooney lets readers glimpse the rich interior of Frances's life—capturing the tension and excitement of her attraction to Nick, how she justifies her feelings and treatment of the people around her, and how she is shaped by the separation of her understanding mother and her alcoholic father. Here, too, is a treatise on married life, the impact of infidelity, the ramifications of one's actions, and how the person one chooses to be with can impact one's individuality. Throughout, Rooney's descriptive eye lends beauty and veracity to this complex and vivid story.
In his page-turning oral history of Bob Marley (1945–1981), Steffens, a reggae historian and producer of a one-man show about Marley’s life, brings the singer to life through conversations with his bandmates, lovers, family members, and musical associates. Through this thoroughly engaging history, readers learn about the sometimes uneasy working relationships at Coxson Dodd’s Studio One in Kingston, Jamaica, during the early days of the Wailers; Rita Marley’s revelatory encounter with Haile Selassie, the Rasta god, on Apr. 21, 1966; and the responses of Carl Colby Jr. (son of former CIA director William Colby) to accusations that Carl tried to have Marley killed. In one conversation, Bunny Wailer (Neville O’Riley Livingston) recalls with joyous insight Marley’s songwriting process—“Bob writes bits of songs, as the inspiration come him write, and then him just put them bits there together.” Two of Marley’s band members, Gilly Gilbert and Danny Sims, recall the nights in 1980 when they opened for the Commodores at Madison Square Garden and more than half the audience left when the Wailers finished their set. In this highly entertaining and informative history, Steffens also includes dozens of photos from his own archive.
The intense but tenuous bonds of male friendship give shape and structure to this energetic, impressive debut from acclaimed Brazilian actress Torres. Set against the vivid backdrop of Copacabana, the episodic novel follows five contentious and devoted friends—Ciro, Silvio, Neto, Alvaro, and Ribeiro—from the hedonistic nights of their youth to the humbling days of old age. Beginning with the violent death of Alvaro, the group’s last surviving member, the story meticulously works it way back through the complicated lives of each friend, culminating with the operatic death of Ciro, who retains a spark of youth until his last moments. Torres paints a sharp, intimate portrait of male sexuality and psychology (including the experience of aging), illuminating the friends’ profound differences (such as between the decadent Silvio and the meeker Ribeiro) while never undermining the believability of their connection. As assured as the characterizations of the central characters are the investigations of the men and women who surround them, the wives who abide their exploits and the priests who speak at their funerals. The narration and momentum remain lively and sharp throughout.