This week: Alice Hoffman's prequel to 'Practical Magic,' the man who captured Lincoln's ghost, and more.
A keen photojournalist’s eye serves Alpeyrie well as he painstakingly recounts his capture in 2013 by rebels during Syria’s civil war. The Paris-born American is an extraordinary observer of the suspenseful (as when plotting an elaborate escape attempt) and the routine (as when describing the defiance of unscrewing a light tube so he could sleep at night) activities that a hostage must reconcile in order to keep his sanity. Beyond the fascinating details he provides, Alpeyrie is a sympathetic narrator, sober about the causes of war and his relative suffering in it (he is beaten, often chained to his bed, and is forced to urinate into and drink from the same glass). The second half of the book serves as a forum for his open-minded, authoritative views on geopolitics, the clash of cultures, his own profession, and the ethics and intrigue of hostage taking that are as engaging and honest as the account of his ordeal. Throughout, he offers frank discussions about the illusion of freedom and the lure of violence, and offers a touching appreciation for the parental love and support he receives. The author both humanizes and scrutinizes his captors, whom he provides with tips on working out, having sex (which he demonstrates on a pillow), and swimming at a nearby pool. In this harrowing story, Alpeyrie offers insights that deserve attention.
Bacigalupi’s intense and violent follow-up to Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities finds Tool—a powerful “augment” made from animal and human DNA—finally in control of the Drowned Cities (the onetime District of Columbia) after years of battle. Before he can take in his victory, he’s attacked by a missile strike and barely survives. He makes his way to the small ship that belongs to Mahlia, who—along with former soldier boy Ocho and his crew—is running her own operation, smuggling art and other artifacts out of the Drowned Cities. Meanwhile, Tool’s creator, General Caroa, is determined to end his existence—after all, Tool has found a way to overcome his programming, and he answers to no master. Bacigalupi’s environmentally ravaged world remains both richly described and terrifying, his characters diverse and complex. Through Tool, he explores free will and the consequences of humans playing at being gods. Not unlike the previous books, this amounts to a bloody, brutal race to survive, and is well worth the wait. Ages 15–up.
Barnett’s collaborations with Klassen often draw humor from knowledge withheld. Readers giggled because they knew Triangle was up to no good, and they saw the giant diamond that Sam and Dave missed while digging. In this big-hearted, gleeful caper, everyone shares the laughs. A sweet mouse with pink ears encounters a wolf in the forest. He escapes, right? Wrong. The wolf gobbles him up. Which is awful, right? Nope. It’s surprisingly comfortable inside the wolf. In fact, a duck is already in residence. “Where did you get jam?” the mouse asks over breakfast. “And a tablecloth?” It’s the wolf who suffers. “I feel like I’ll burst,” he moans, as the mouse and duck feast over a candlelit dinner. When a hunter closes in on the wolf, help comes from an unlikely place (and gives new meaning to the phrase “inner resources”). Klassen trades the spare look of his Hat books for a softer, more painterly style. Much of the action plays out against the warm, walnut brown wash of the wolf’s insides; Klassen lingers on the soft grays of fur and feathers. The domestic trappings of the wolf’s interior provide laughs (there’s a full kitchen and record player, the mouse gets hold of a hockey stick), as do touches of Gallic elegance (the mouse and duck dress for dinner, and there is wine). The story’s timeless, fable-like feel is bolstered by its traditional cast and old-fashioned fairy-tale language: “Oh, woe!” cries the wolf. “Oh shame!” Life can turn the tables pretty quickly, Barnett suggests, and only those whose outlooks are flexible will flourish. “I may have been swallowed,” says the duck, “but I have no intention of being eaten.” A rare treasure of a story, the kind that seems to have been around forever. Ages 4–8.
In his beguiling voice, Biespiel (A Long, High Whistle) guides readers through his coming-of-age as a poet, narrating his journey from a childhood and youth in Houston to college days in Boston and his early postcollege experiences on a Vermont farm. Biespiel became fascinated with language early in life, but it was in his high school Latin class that he really discovered the beauty and mystery of words. In 1984, he joined an amateur diving team for a couple of years, and he compares writing poetry to diving: “When it’s going well you don’t worry if you’re OK or if you’re breathing.... Your chest lifts, your nostrils inhale, your eyes narrow toward a threshold ahead as you keep up your typing.” Biespiel shows himself to be exhilarated as much by failure as by success in writing; his poetry reveals aspects of his inner world to him and shows him how to live better. Biespiel’s supple memoir of becoming a poet will surely inspire other writers to embrace the bodily character of writing and feel the power and, sometimes, the emptiness of the act of writing poetry.
Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is destined to become the empress of Feng Lu, and although she is initially uncertain about this foretold fate, the power it promises becomes too much to resist. Demons and bloody magic keep Xifeng’s face preternaturally beautiful and help her harness the power of her rivals in debut author Dao’s lushly written first book in the Rise of the Empress series, set in an East Asian fantasy landscape and inspired by Snow White’s evil queen. Inhabiting a role usually reserved for the villain, Xifeng schemes her way into the palace, losing her lover Wei in the process. The demons she faces are both literal and metaphorical, external and internal, and her tug-of-war with the forces driving her down a dark path makes for tantalizing reading. As she strives for wealth and becomes well versed in betrayal and politics, part of her longs for a simple life like the one she left behind, brutal though it often was. A fascinating examination of destiny, responsibility, and how choices shape a person. Ages 14–up.
In Diaz’s debut, a brilliant and fresh take on the old-school western, a young Swedish immigrant named Håkan is separated from his brother, Linus, en route to America. Håkan lands in San Francisco knowing only that he must get to New York to find Linus, but his journey becomes a series of increasingly dangerous episodes. He becomes a sexual hostage of a saloon owner with “black, gleaming, toothless gums, streaked with bulging veins of pus”; is roped into a kooky naturalist’s search in a dried-out seabed for a jellyfishlike proto-organism that supposedly created mankind; and is forced to kill marauders in self-defense. This latter episode leads to word spreading around the western territory that Håkan is an outlaw legend who literally keeps growing and growing in size, and, indeed, he becomes a giant by the book’s end. Diaz cleverly updates an old-fashioned yarn, and his novel is rife with exquisite moments: Håkan has moving relationships with a horse named Pingo and another traveler named Asa, there’s a drug-induced sequence in which Håkan looks at his own brain, and Håkan’s very limited grasp of English heightens the suspense of his tense encounters. The book contains some of the finest landscape writing around, so potent because it reflects Håkan’s solitude: “Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block.”
Hoffman delights in this prequel to Practical Magic, as three siblings discover both the power and curse of their magic. Susanna Owens fled her home in Massachusetts and settled in New York, where she marries and, with her husband, raises their three children, Franny, Jet, and Vincent. Susanna has done her best to keep them away from the powers of magic by forbidding such things as wearing black and using Ouija boards. But the children can’t deny their special abilities to perform such feats as communicating with animals and reading others’ thoughts. As they continue to grow older in the rapidly changing world of the late 1950s, the children’s curiosity about their heritage is rewarded when they are invited to visit their Aunt Isabelle in Massachusetts. There, the children hone their magical skills and discover that an ancestor had cursed them so that disaster would befall anyone who fell in love with them. The three siblings struggle with the curse, sometimes pushing away their beloveds and at other times succumbing to the allure of love only to see it end tragically. Hoffman’s novel is a coming-of-age tale replete with magic and historical references to the early witch trials. The spellbinding story, focusing on the strength of family bonds through joy and sorrow, will appeal to a broad range of readers. Fans of Practical Magic will be bewitched.
Drawing on his own interviews with Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus, who now lives in Israel, Spanish author Iturbe describes the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau in unflinching, straightforward prose (smoothly translated by Thwaites) that reflects his journalism background. A fierce lover of books, 14-year-old Dita helps out in the makeshift school of Block 31, the children’s block in the family camp, and volunteers to take care of eight precious but forbidden books, risking certain death if she were to be found out. The role of librarian for Block 31’s tiny collection gives Dita a sense of purpose in a bleak camp where death, torture, and humiliation are omnipresent. As Dita’s story unfolds, alternating between her present circumstances at the camp and her memories of Prague and the ghetto of Terezín (“a city where the streets led nowhere”), Iturbe interweaves the names and stories of other survivors and victims of Auschwitz, turning the narrative into a monument of remembrance and history. All but guaranteed to send readers searching for more information, this is an unforgettable, heartbreaking novel. Ages 13–up.
The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost
The “spirit photographs” of William H. Mumler (1832–1884) serve as a touchstone for reflections on photography and its impact on public perceptions of reality in this meticulously researched study of America’s dalliance with spiritualism in the 19th century. Trained as an engraver, Mumler began dabbling in photography in 1862, and the portraits he produced of ghostly loved ones hovering near mortal sitters captivated a culture obsessed with intimations of the afterlife. His best-known photo shows Mary Todd Lincoln being caressed by the ghostly hands of her husband six years after his assassination. Although accused of doctoring his photos and prosecuted for fraud in 1869 in a widely publicized trial, Mumler was acquitted for lack of proof and he eventually earned respect for developing the process by which photos could be directly transferred to newsprint. Manseau (Rag and Bone) provides comprehensive context for his chronicle of Mumler, placing him at the intersection of the Spiritualist movement and the rise of the photographic art, and in the context of the Civil War, which acquainted Americans with death on an unprecedented scale (and which yielded iconic photos by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner that were themselves sometimes manipulated for effect). Ultimately, as the author eloquently puts it, Mumler’s trial was as much about “the very nature of the soul and the religious commitments of the country” as it was about a huckster exploiting (and providing reassurance to) the gullible.
Moore, professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, seamlessly synthesizes the work of several colleagues (originally presented in the three-volume City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York) to provide a definitive look at how Jewish New Yorkers and New York City shaped each other. The lively narrative begins in the 17th century, with the arrival of the first Jews in North America, and runs through 2015. Moore brings readers deeper into the story with occasional asides that offer perspectives on what New York residents at the time would have experienced or observed (including anecdotes regarding slave ownership, economic unrest, and labor actions). Given the starting point of the community—23 Dutch-Jewish refugees whom Peter Stuyvesant sought to deport—the evolution of the Jews of New York into a powerful cultural and political force with a national and international impact is nothing short of remarkable. Moore makes this transformation comprehensible by providing vivid snapshots of the personalities who helped make it happen, including Rebekah Bettelheim, Sender Jarmulowsky, and Meyer London. Other historical lenses reveal unexpected connections, as when Moore explains how ports “served as formative nodes in emerging Jewish civic equality.” This is the best kind of popular history: one that does not sacrifice nuance or detail for accessibility.
Navarro’s brilliant mindbender of a novel opens in Madrid with the story of Susana, who describes her physical affect as “red-faced blondeness, my coming-apart-at-the-seams way of speaking, and a pair of eyes whose futile, terrifying ship-wreck said it all.” Susana places a personal ad for a sexual partner and winds up with a gay dwarf named Fabio with whom she plunges into an affair almost nihilistic in its intensity. Susana tells all this to her roommate Elisa, a struggling writer and editor with problems of her own. Elisa spends her nights exploring the ruined grounds of an old prison and the dilapidated outskirts of Madrid, and her days editing a ponderous memoir by the widow of a famous Spanish writer, all the while fending off an undisclosed psychiatric ailment. As she tries to adjust to her new medication, which distorts her already fragile sense of reality, Elisa becomes increasingly fascinated by the more willful and dramatically unhinged Susana, especially after she discovers her roommate’s curious pastime of making idiosyncratic maps of Madrid, and becomes fixated on the idea of exhibiting Susan’s work at a gallery. Together, Susana and Elisa set out to combine their artistic endeavors, only to become ensconced in each other’s madness in the process. Navarro’s exceptional novel defies easy interpretation, culminating in a breathtaking and surprising ending. The author is especially skilled at crafting the details and peculiarities of her two characters’ psyches, and the result is a singular novel of art, friendship, and lunacy.
This splendid collection from novelist O’Hagan (The Illuminations) brings together three essays originally published in the London Review of Books that explore identity in the digital age through three figures: Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks; Craig Steven Wright, who may or may not be the creator of bitcoin; and Ronald “Ronnie” Pinn, who, despite a U.K. passport, mailing address, and gaggle of Facebook friends, is not real. The piece on Assange would be the standout in an ordinary essay collection, but this is not one of those, and O’Hagan’s study of the Australian hacker, for whom he once ghostwrote the first draft of an autobiography, while absorbing, pales in comparison with the profile of Wright (who comes across as an eccentric but altogether more likable character than the narcissistic Assange). But it is Ronnie Pinn, a digital identity created by O’Hagan based on a name from a headstone, whose pseudoexistence says the most about who we are now. O’Hagan’s grasp of storytelling is prodigious, and the ending of his essay on Pinn is a particularly inspired, even moving, piece of writing. Taken as a whole, this is an unmissable collection of up-to-the-moment insights about life in our digital era.
Plokhy (The Man with the Poison Gun), director of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, eloquently relates the historical ebbs and flows of Russian nationalism and imperialism. Condensing more than six centuries into 20 well-focused chapters, Plokhy shows how Russia has invented and reinvented itself, beginning with Ivan III, who in the 15th century claimed the title of ruler of “all Rus’ ” upon defeating the Mongol khans. Myth played a major role in establishing the early czars by linking them to the “Scandinavian Rurikid dynasty,” which successfully ruled Kyivan Rus’—territory that roughly includes present-day Western Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine—from 980 to 1240. Plokhy suggests that Russia’s preoccupation with this legacy became a persistent national headache, requiring many refabrications over several centuries and leading to many territorial conflicts. He describes how imperial leaders used these conflicts, as well as language and religion, to dominate other Slavic and non-Slavic peoples and lands. His coverage of the Russian revolution and the Soviet era includes a fascinating chapter on Stalin and the Kyivan myth, and he surveys the post-Soviet resurgence of nationalism. Plokhy’s thorough historical analysis places President Vladimir Putin’s 21st-century foreign policy in a firm historical context.
A Catalan novel banned in Franco’s Spain when it was first published in 1956, this enthralling work—translated into English for the first time—focuses on four young Catalonians struggling with faith and faithfulness during the Spanish Civil War. The narrative includes two epistolary sections set in 1937, as well as a recollection of the events 20 years later. The first part comprises letters from Lluis, a romantic, somewhat callous fighter in an anarchist brigade who woos the scheming widow of an executed nobleman while ignoring the woman he left behind, Trini, the mother of his child. Trini, in turn, unburdens herself in a series of letters to the couple’s mutual friend Soleràs, an eccentric and eminently quotable intellectual who “steal[s] from soldiers on the front line to give to whores on the rearguard.” The third narrator is Cruells (whose section is the only non-epistolary one), a young medical adjutant with dreams of becoming a priest. Troubled yet fascinated by Soleràs’s mesmerizing, blasphemous philosophizing, he develops a fraught relationship with Trini as well. These subtly drawn love triangles emerge against the backdrop of a country divided, in an era that “has preferred to slash the veils that cover birth and death, the obscene and the macabre.” Apparitions, lurid dreams, and disinterred mummies litter the novel, lending it a hallucinatory quality that pairs perfectly with the darkly comic depictions of wartime absurdity.
As Spring (Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade) points out in his excellent culinary history, six American writers introduced French cuisine to American restaurants and home kitchens and were responsible for the nation’s postwar love affair with French food and wine. Richard Olney, in Simple French Food and other books, demonstrated that good cooking was a matter of improvisation, like playing jazz. Julia Child and her collaborator Simone Beck Fischbacher produced Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which took the fear out of cooking French meals at home. Alexis Lichine introduced Americans to the bouquets and beauties of French wines in Wines of France and his more ambitious Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. Alice B. Toklas delivered a memoir told through the recipes of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook after her companion, Gertrude Stein, died. Novelist turned food writer M.F.K. Fisher recalled her own glorious moments of eating and drinking as a way of writing about some of her darkest life experiences in Gastronomical Me, and New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling wrote about glorious French repasts with brio and humor in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. Spring’s book is a wonderful culinary history.