This week: a 3,000-mile journey around wild Alaska, plus Italian cuisine off the beaten path.
Travel writer Adams (Meet Me in Atlantis) wonderfully recounts, and emulates, the 1899 voyage organized by railroad tycoon Edward Harriman to survey the coast of Alaska. Using the writings of Harriman and his team of natural scientists—including John Muir, at that time the leading writer on the “relatively new” subject of wilderness protection—Adams follows along the Harriman expedition’s trail to compare what it found during its two-month, 3,000-mile adventure to present-day Alaska. Making “every important stop” that the Harriman team did, Adams details the state’s natural beauty, as well as the changes that have taken place since. For example, the town of Ketchikan, which in 1899 consisted only of a salmon cannery and a few buildings, is now Alaska’s sixth-largest city, and Yakutat, whose “total isolation” had made it known for “attracting the most extreme dropouts,” is now Alaska’s “unlikely surf capital.” He also gives an excellent account of the history and impact of the oil industry and climate change on Alaska: “The thinning ice that promises a potential boom for Nome’s economy and global shipping companies dooms Shismaref [an Inupiat fishing village] to near-certain disaster.” Adams gives readers an eye-opening look at the past and present history of a fascinating region.
A few months before graduating from Stanford, Cheyenne Florian, the narrator of this timely, unsettling thriller from Brown (A Necessary End), became an internet sensation when a nude video of her went viral, so she has reason to doubt the motives of billionaire Edwin Gordon when he offers her a newscaster job at his Independent News Network. During the interview on Gordon’s private plane at the Palo Alto, Calif., airport, he manages to persuade her that he’s hiring her for her talent, as displayed in her vlogs, and she agrees to fly with him to New York. Soon after joining the INN staff, Cheyenne is ogled by one male producer and groped by another. More disturbingly, an anonymous source starts sending her excerpts from the 1991 diary of another young female newscaster, whose experiences in the business oddly parallel her own. The constant pressures on Cheyenne as she seeks to avoid her predecessor’s unhappy fate, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, are convincingly portrayed. This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement.
In Deracine’s suspenseful debut, a 16- year-old girl navigates the high-stakes terrain of friendship, education, and cultural police in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Leena, whose dissident father is imprisoned, studies law and longs for college. Living in a home without men, Leena practices a risky custom called boyat, dressing as a man to escort her hardworking, tight-lipped, “full of secrets” mother on errands. Leena’s friend Mishail, a government official’s daughter, seeks adventure, wearing contraband lingerie, walking outside without a male escort, and flirting with boys, seemingly oblivious to the potential consequences: “Colored clothes could get you sent to the headmistress’s office. Boys got you beheaded.” Deracine offers an eye-opening window into the rigidly restricted lives, clandestine rebellions, and consequential choices of women in a land where “everything we want is forbidden or dangerous.” The perils inherent in trusting anyone affect all of Leena’s relationships, as bitter experience necessitates stringent precautions to distinguish allies from enemies. Whether describing the freedom of learning to drive (“Raw power flowed through my veins”) or her humiliating punishment when discovered disguised as a man (“I felt rather than heard my hair fall”), Leena’s commanding voice conveys her desperation, courage, and intellect in a riveting, ultimately exhilarating page-turner. Ages 13–18.
Gable (The Book of Summer) brings Polish émigré and artist Alicia Darr to vivid life in this sparkling novel, most famously her intense romance with then-congressman John F. “Jack” Kennedy in the early ’50s. After time in a German Displaced Persons camp, Alicia takes a job as a housekeeper for the bustling, chaotic Kennedy family at their Hyannis Port, Mass., compound in 1950. Sparks fly instantly when she meets Jack. They plan to marry until Jack’s father discovers that Alicia is Jewish. Brokenhearted, Alicia moves to Hollywood and soon befriends celebrities like Katherine Hepburn and Gary Cooper, eventually marrying actor Edmund Purdom and later the heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, Alfred Corning Clark, only 13 days before his death. Gable also explores Alicia’s time in Rome with eccentric artist Novella Palmisano, which leads to a few surprises in the third act. Brief interludes throughout detail the search for an heir to Alicia’s fortune after her death in 2016. Gale elegantly captures the glitter, glamour, and gossip of 1950s Hollywood without resorting to melodrama, and, while JFK is a perennially fascinating figure, this is Alicia’s story: a splendid portrait of a spirited survivor thriving in a man’s world, even as memories of Jack, her only true love, linger. This bittersweet tale will enthrall readers.
Hezroni builds on the characters and setup of 2017’s Three Envelopes in this nail-biter centered on the desperate efforts of an ultrasecret Israeli intelligence group, known simply as the Organization, to stop a sociopathic rogue operative. Many years earlier, agent 10483 was subjected to sophisticated rewiring of his brain that directed him to kill himself after completing a series of hits. The suicidal programming did lead 10483 to jump in front of a bus in 2006, but he survived, and after regaining consciousness almost a decade later, he embarks on an elaborate campaign of vengeance, which includes smuggling a nuclear weapon into the U.S. and targeting CIA headquarters in Virginia. Hezroni, who has a background in military intelligence, makes the larger-than-life plot feel plausible and again excels in portraying the conscienceless 10483, who’s capable of relishing a breakfast of croissants and jam while he burns an Organization member alive. Thriller fans will be enthralled as well as disturbed.
Journalist Hirsch makes his fiction debut with a superb historical whodunit. In 1799, after four years studying law in Ireland, Justy Flanagan returns to Manhattan in search of the truth about the death of his father, Francis, a stock trader who reportedly hanged himself when Justy was 14. Convinced by new evidence that his father was murdered, Justy wants answers from William Duer, a “reckless speculator” and former ally of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who was Francis’s business partner before the 1792 financial crisis sent Duer to debtors’ prison. But when Justy goes looking for Duer in Manhattan’s New Gaol, he learns that his quarry is dead, and when he reunites with his uncle Ignatius, a powerful landowner who funded his education, he’s met with skepticism about his theory. Justy persists, nonetheless, and Hirsch effortlessly incorporates the political and economic background of the time into the mystery. Fans of Lyndsay Faye’s Gods of Gotham books will welcome this engrossing look at New York a half-century before that series.
Eating My Way Through Italy: Heading Off the Main Roads to Discover the Hidden Treasures of the Italian Table
Minchilli (Eating Rome) has lived in Italy for 40 years, since her parents moved the family to Rome from St. Louis when she was 12. Encyclopedic knowledge earned over decades informs this hybrid guide, cookbook with 34 recipes, and deep dive into essential ingredients such as Parmigiano Reggiano. To escape the crowds, Minchilli encourages visitors to Florence to head outside the city gates by bus or on foot and suggests that tourists may want to exit the “almost Disneyland-like area” around Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square and hightail it to the less busy islands nearby. The industrious author ferrets out unpretentious eateries like the fornelli of Bari—butcher shops that grill customers’ meat and may have a few tables. She goes anchovy fishing on the Amalfi coast and hunts down one of the few people remaining on Sardinia who makes thin-stretched filindeu pasta. Accessible recipes range from octopus cooked in the liquid it exudes to a tart filled with ricotta, cherry jam, and balsamic vinegar. Minchilli’s writing is crisply informational and often funny. Squeamish about seeing fish served with their heads? “Get over it,” she commands. Minchilli’s sure grip on Italian culture makes her an excellent culinary guide.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Morris (A Wilderness of Error) was once a graduate student under philosopher Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and this intimate analysis of flaws in that 1962 treatise is driven by Morris’s smart, conversational tone. Calling Structure, which introduced the phrase paradigm shift to mainstream culture, a “kind of postmodernist bible,” Morris writes that Kuhn’s much-lauded work is in fact “more often than not, false, contradictory, or even devoid of content.” Kuhn’s concept of how scientific change occurs through “incommensurability” between differing conceptual paradigms and his skepticism about the actuality of a real and verifiable world are denounced with logical and commonsense arguments resting on Morris’s insistence on the importance of objective truth. Numerous insights from past scientists, philosophers, and linguists are enlisted, including from Lewis Carroll, Bertrand Russell, and, most importantly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Morris credits as a key influence on Kuhn. Living thinkers interviewed here include Ross MacPhee and Noam Chomsky, who tells Morris that in his experience scientific debate is characterized not by “incommensurability” but the “commonality of cognitive capacities.” Throughout the heady discussion, Kuhn’s cantankerous personality is revealed: he once threw an ashtray at Morris, who is responding—albeit 45 years later—by lobbing this combative tome into the academic and practical world.
What if someone told you he was on a mission from God and you had to help him? What if that someone was the star quarterback and part-time bully at your high school, a guy who routinely calls you Neanderthal? That’s exactly what happens to 16-year-old Cliff Hubbard, and Norton (Marrow) takes this unlikely premise, loads it with even more unlikely events, and makes it work in this funny and sweetly oddball book. Cliff, who is huge—250 pounds and 6’5”—has been angry since his brother committed suicide. But when the quarterback, named Aaron, returns from a near-death experience with a list of things to do to make Happy Valley High School happier—which includes getting rid of bullies like him, drug dealers, and the sanctimonious Christian students who think they’re better than everyone else—Cliff signs on. Their utter cluelessness notwithstanding, the two make inroads on the list, improving not just their high school but themselves, and even finding love along the way. At the story’s core is an unsentimental treatment of a bullied kid and his one-time bully discovering their commonalities. That Norton accomplishes this without moralizing and in inventively rhythmic and pop-culture–saturated language only adds to the fun. Ages 14–18.
Originally published in 1942 and available now in its first unabridged English translation, this trenchant tale about life in Nazi Germany is notable for being one of the earliest works of fiction to acknowledge the existence of concentration camps. In the early years of World War II, seven prisoners escape from the Westhofen concentration camp into the nearby town, where several of their spouses and families live, including the ex-lover and child of one prisoner, George Heisler. Seghers provides a panoramic view of the town and its citizens, many of whom are indifferent or oblivious to the turmoil of the distant war, but her main point-of-view character is George, who struggles desperately to elude recapture and frets that “the community that supports and surrounds every person—his blood relatives, lovers, teachers, bosses, and friends—had been turned into a network of living traps.” The novel’s title refers to a torture reserved for concentration camp escapees that bears out Heisler’s fears about “how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being.” Seghers skillfully expresses the inner lives of her characters and their stories are consistently suspenseful. For all the grimness of its events, the novel ends with an affirmation of the human spirit that “in that innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.”