This week: an account of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, plus the latest book from Jacqueline Woodson.
Arnold’s grim compilation of accounts of the Spanish flu that killed upwards of 100 million people in 1918–19 vividly evokes the tragedy. Starting with a potential “Patient Zero,” Pvt. Harry Underdown, Arnold tracks the relentless march of the virus across the globe. It struck healthy young men and women in an “innocuous” first wave in the early spring of 1918; this was followed by a stunningly virulent second wave in the fall, its spread aided by mass WWI troop gatherings and movements. Katherine Anne Porter and Thomas Wolfe wrote of the destruction in fiction; New Yorker editor William Maxwell bemoaned the death of his mother and newborn sibling as a time when “there was a sadness which had not existed before”; the horrified commander of a sickened regiment aboard a troop ship heading for France called the illness “a true inferno” that “reigned supreme.” Arnold recounts how the flu devastated Philadelphia, where more than 7,000 died in two weeks of October 1918, creating a shortage of undertakers and caskets. “There were no medicines, no doctors, nothing people could do to heal themselves,” one desperate survivor recalled. This well-researched and often overwhelming history serves as a stark warning of the threat of pandemic flu.
This electrifying debut by Carruthers, founding director of Black Youth Project 100, is part testimony and part activist’s toolbox with snippets of Carruthers’s personal history sprinkled throughout. Carruthers makes an urgent case for organizing movements and reexamining history through a black queer feminist lens to better equip activists in a “principled struggle” to end racism, ableism, homophobia, patriarchy, and ingrained prejudice. She outlines strategies on how to prioritize issues, build strong leaders, and adopt healing justice to bring about radical change. She devotes an entire chapter to the Chicago model of activism, which dates to the antieviction protests of the 1930s when “communist-inspired organizing... is said to have mobilize[d] five thousand people in less than 30 minutes to stop an eviction.” Carruthers, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and remains active in the community, points to the more recent success of the “Reparations now!” campaign, which, in 2016 after decades of work, won $5.5 million in reparations for victims of racist police violence in Chicago. Incantatory without being incendiary, strong but not strident, Carruthers argues for “a world in which everyone is able to live with dignity and in right relationship with the land we inhabit.” This handbook for the revolution is a rousing call for collective liberation.
“The liar has no history,” novelist Cercas (Outlaws) declares at the start of this mesmerizing biography of a fraud, only to disprove that contention in his quest to understand Enric Marco, a Spanish man who for decades famously represented himself as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps. In 2005, at the age of 84, Marco was revealed to be a fraud who had, in fact, volunteered for a work detail in Germany during WWII to avoid his mandatory military service in Spain. Cercas, who interviewed Marco, depicts him as a charismatic narcissist who misrepresented his anarchist proclivities during the Spanish Civil War, changed his name repeatedly to escape his past, and lied his way into high-profile positions after the end of the Franco dictatorship, serving as a spokesperson for former Holocaust survivors and members of the resistance in Spain. As Cercas investigates Marco’s psyche, he describes his own moral qualms about exposing his subject’s subterfuge. He likens Marco’s “novelistic imagination” to that of a fiction writer (such as himself) and also presents it as a personification of Spain in the post-Franco years, which invented “a noble and heroic past, in which most had been resistance fighters or anti-Franco dissidents.” This rigorous work shines a light not only on the methods of the deceiver but the willingness of the deceived to accept such falsehoods.
In this hard-hitting, action-heavy follow-up to 2017’s Kings of the Wyld, set six years later, a young woman joins the world’s greatest adventuring band as their bard, only to discover her new heroes come with their own sets of flaws and emotional baggage. For 17-year-old Tam Hashford, raised on tales of heroism and monster slaying, it’s a dream come true to tour with Bloody Rose and the rest of Fable: tattooed sorceress Cura, shape-shifting Brune, and druin warrior Freecloud. They’d rather tour the arenas instead of heading north to fight a new horde of monsters, but when their final gig—the one on which they plan to retire—goes horribly awry, it’s up to this group of misfits to overcome their inner demons and save the world from a cataclysmic evil. As with the previous volume, Eames joyfully mashes rock music elements and epic fantasy tropes to create the equivalent of a 500-page heavy metal guitar solo: loud, frenetic, unpredictable, and gripping. He perfectly depicts the pressures of the younger generation struggling to escape the shadows of their predecessors and establish their own identities, even as times change and the world demands more in return. This is a messy, glorious romp worthy of multiple encores.
In this provocative and passionate look at philanthropy, capitalism, and inequality, Giridharadas (The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas) criticizes market-based solutions to inequality devised by rich American do-gooders as ultimately counterproductive and self-serving. Giridharadas insists that “the idea that after-the-fact benevolence justifies anything-goes capitalism” is no excuse for “avoiding the necessity of a more just and equitable system and a fairer distribution of power.” He turns a gimlet eye on philanthropists who make the money they donate by underpaying employees; luxurious philanthropy getaways that focus more on making attendees feel good about themselves than on creating profound change; and tech companies such as Uber, which promises to empower the poor with earning opportunities, but has been accused of exploiting its workers. Giridharadas calls out billionaire venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar, who opines that “sharing is caring” but refers to labor unions as “cartels,” and profiles Darren Walker, who came from modest beginnings to end up president of the Ford Foundation, where his entreaties to philanthropists to acknowledge structural inequality fall mostly on deaf ears. In the end, Giridharadas believes only democratic solutions can address problems of inequality. This damning portrait of contemporary American philanthropy is a must-read for anyone interested in “changing the world.”
Magnificently combining historical, scientific, political, and philosophical perspectives, Harari (Sapiens and Homo Deus), a Hebrew University of Jerusalem history professor, explores 21 of what he considers to be today’s “greatest challenges.” Despite the title’s reference to “lessons,” his tone is not prescriptive but exploratory, seeking to provoke debate without offering definitive solutions. An early chapter is headlined with the lesson, “When You Grow Up, You Might Not Have a Job.” Not only will many jobs be lost to machines, but, Harari speculates, humans might not even be necessary to fulfill the role of consumers: “Theoretically, you can have an economy in which a mining corporation produces and sells iron to a robotics corporation, and the robotics corporation produces and sells robots to the mining corporation.” A chapter beginning with the lesson “Those Who Own the Data Own the Future” discusses how the improved human understanding of mind and brain, and the ability to manipulate both, raises the threat of control by those with access to one’s data, making the regulation of data ownership perhaps “the most important political question of our era.” Within this broad construct, Harari discusses many pressing issues, including problems associated with liberal democracy, nationalism, immigration, and religion. This well-informed and searching book is one to be savored and widely discussed.
Harvard librarian Hester Thursby, the heroine of Hill’s well-crafted, extremely promising debut and series launch, runs a side business locating lost people. She’s hired by Lila Blaine to find her brother, Sam, who ran away from their home in New Hampshire 12 years earlier, when he was 14, with his friend Gabe DiPursio. Lila says she wants to sell a piece of lakefront property called Little Comfort and split the proceeds with Sam. Hester soon discovers that Sam is now living in Boston under an alias and has insinuated himself into the life of wealthy socialite Wendy Richards, while Gabe is supporting them both as a freelance programmer. When someone at a party recognizes Sam, Sam decides it’s time to tie up loose ends and move on. Meanwhile, Hester has befriended lonely Gabe, who has built a homey domestic fantasy around her, but Sam views Hester as an obstacle and expects Gabe to help get her out of the way. An increasingly tense plot and striking characters—in particular, compassionate, conflicted, loving Hester—make this a standout.
Nobel Prize–winning-neuroscientist Kandel (Reduction in Art and Brain Science) delves optimistically into the current state of the “new biology of mind,” a sophisticated framework deriving from “the marriage of modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience.” Kandel consolidates data and ideas from core advances, including genetic research that proves some biological basis for various psychiatric disorders, and imaging techniques that indicate the function of specific brain structures. Emphasizing that brain disorders can yield insights into normal cognitive functioning, he looks to autism for understanding the social brain, depression and bipolar disorders for understanding the emotional brain, schizophrenia for understanding decision making, dementia for understanding memory, and Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease for understanding movement. His background as coauthor of the flagship textbook Principles of Neural Science is clear throughout, thanks to the highly accessible presentation, heavy on reader-friendly graphics and explanations of basics. Kandel’s deep compassion for people is also evident, as when he discusses how understanding the biological basis for mental disorders might take them out of the realm of legal culpability. The result of his work is an easily comprehended, meticulous synthesis of current research into the biological grounding of the human mind.
Jefferson Airplane guitarist Kaukonen’s candid and affectionate memoir resembles the rambling and free-flowing road trips he enjoys. The author began taking trips early in life as he traveled to Pakistan and the Philippines from his Washington, D.C., home with his father, who worked for the State Department. When Kaukonen was 16, he was inspired by a guitar-playing friend to play music and, with his father’s help, bought his first guitar. In high school, he met Jack Casady, who would become the bassist for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, and the two began a lifelong friendship and musical partnership. Kaukonen continued to develop his fingerpicking blues guitar style at Antioch College in Ohio, playing with fellow guitarist Ian Buchanan. After college, he headed to California where he joined the Airplane and played at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival. At the same time his music career was evolving, he sank into alcoholism, and his marriage with his first wife, Margareta, disintegrated, exacerbated by his own ambivalence. Kaukonen left Jefferson Airplane in 1972, pursuing the Hot Tuna project he and Casady had begun, but five years later, he decided to go out on his own. He now lives on a ranch with his wife, Vanessa, in southern Ohio, where he runs songwriting and guitar workshops. A mesmerizing storyteller, Kaukonen delivers a memoir as intricate and dazzling as his music.
First-time author Khorram’s coming-of-age novel brings to life the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a culture steeped in tradition. After learning that her Iranian father is ailing, high school sophomore Darius’s mother decides to take the family to visit her father and relatives in Iran. Suffering from chronic depression and bullied at school in America, Darius isn’t sure how he’ll fare in a country he’s never seen. It doesn’t take him long to adjust as people welcome him with open arms, however, especially after he meets Sohrab, his grandparents’ teenaged neighbor, who invites him to play soccer and quickly becomes Darius’s first real friend ever. While the book doesn’t sugarcoat problems in the country (unjust imprisonment and an outdated view of mental illness are mentioned), it mainly stays focused on the positive—Iran’s impressive landscape and mouthwatering food, the warmth of its people—as it shows how a boy who feels like an outcast at home finds himself and true friendship overseas. Ages 12–up.
A historian of prison architecture attends a conference in Buenos Aires and gets sucked into a surreal neighborhood patrolled by dogs in this clever novel from Munson (The November Criminals). Boris Leonidovich, a professor from an unnamed university in North America, has come to Argentina for a conference at the request of his colleague and sometimes lover, Dr. Ana Mariategui. But when he arrives, Ana is nowhere to be found. She is missing from his scheduled lecture on the Butyrka prison, as well as the opening reception for the conference. After misplacing his keys to the pension where he’s staying, Boris wanders Buenos Aires in search of Ana and ends up following a pack of stray dogs that begins to grow as the dogs meander through the night. Two flower vendors Boris befriends explain that the dogs come from a crack in the wall of a cemetery and only started appearing after a recent epidemic. All the citizens place two bowls for the dogs—one for water, one for meat—and everywhere Boris goes he hears the same song being whistled and playing from radios. “Dog Symphony,” a cab driver tells him. With subtle humor and hypnotic prose (“my visual field fishbowled as I dragged sandy detritus of another sleepless night from my eyes”), Munson’s strange, highly stylized story morphs into a wry critique of authoritarian nationalism in the vein of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.
Unbeknownst to her parents, who write books about ghosts but have never seen one, 12-year-old Cassidy Blake has paranormal abilities: ever since she almost drowned, she’s been able to visit the spirit realm. She is best friends with Jacob, the apparition who saved her life, and whenever she encounters a phantom, she feels compelled to “cross the veil.” Constant specter activity exhausts Cassidy, so she is dismayed to learn that her family is headed for Edinburgh to film a haunted cities television show. There, Cassidy meets Lara Jayne Chowdhury, a girl with similar skills. Jacob doesn’t trust Lara, but Cassidy thinks the self-proclaimed ghost hunter could shed light on her own abilities and prove useful—particularly after they attract the attention of a malevolent specter. This atmospheric ghost story from Schwab (the Monsters of Verity duology) chills and charms while challenging readers to face their fears. Courageous, quick-witted Cassidy inspires, her relationship with Jacob is tender, and the thrilling conclusion is sure to gratify. Ages 8–12.
During the summer of 1982, five unlikely friends—Sep, Arkle, Lamb, Hadley, and Mack—stumble upon a strange stone box, and to memorialize their time together, they each agree to leave something important to them inside it. They establish three simple rules: “Never come to the box alone. Never open it after dark. Never take back your sacrifice.” Four years later, none of the original group has remained friendly. But when dead things begin to reanimate, and those sacrificed items make a surprising return, the group realizes that someone has broken the rules, and it’s up to them to fix things. Stewart (Riverkeep) again creates an atmospheric coming-of-age story with brilliantly executed elements of horror and comic relief. He weaves in moments of laugh-out-loud, almost absurdist humor to balance the story’s most frightening aspects, all the while carefully structuring a tale about growing up and leaving childhood behind. Ages 12–up.
Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) celebrates all that is essential and good for humanity—compassion, understanding, security, and freedom—in this touching novel about six children with special needs. Sixth-grader Haley and her best friend, Holly, don’t know much about their four male classmates when they are placed in a self-contained classroom. They soon discover the things that they do and do not have in common when, on Friday afternoons, their teacher takes them to ARTT (a room to talk). Here, without adult supervision, the class can have conversations about anything. Usually the students use the time to unburden themselves of problems ranging from a parent’s deportation to bullying in the schoolyard. Haley is the last to spill her secrets, about her mother’s death and why her father is in prison, and afterwards she is rewarded with a feeling of lightness, “like so many bricks had been lifted off me,” she says. Woodson’s skills as poet and master storyteller shine brightly here as she economically uses language to express emotion and delve into the hearts of her characters. Showing how America’s political and social issues affect children on a daily basis, this novel will leave an indelible mark on readers’ minds. Ages 10–up.