This week: memoirs from John Kerry Lisa Brennan-Jobs.
Nine tales—four from the past, four in the present, one set in the not-too-distant future—compose Batkie’s stellar debut, all memorably portraying an ineffable yearning from well-drawn characters who may have known or will know better times. “When Her Father Was an Island” pairs a Japanese girl’s longing for her MIA father throughout her life with his experience defending his country in an unnamed war on an isolated island, waiting for decades to hear whether or not the war has ended. In “Foreigners,” the arrest of a Russian family for espionage in a suburban neighborhood is the catalyst for a depressed American divorced mother with a rebellious teenaged son to reflect on how her life has imploded and isn’t what she thought it would be. “Cleavage” examines one woman’s experience with cancer—her removed breast haunts her and impacts her sensuality. And in “Those Who Left and Those Who Stayed,” a piece of Alaska splits off into the ocean, and nine townspeople forced to live on an ice floe grapple with their uncertain future in different ways. In this remarkable collection, Batkie creates strong, evocative imagery with economy and precision. She elevates both the common and uncommon experiences of her characters, resulting in something quite extraordinary.
In her incisive debut memoir, writer Brennan-Jobs explores her upbringing as the daughter of Apple founder Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan, an artist and writer (the couple never married). The book opens with Jobs’s deteriorating health from cancer, but the author quickly backtracks to her early childhood, filling in details of her birth (including Jobs’s initial denial of paternity, a claim debunked through DNA testing). Brennan-Jobs’s narrative is tinged with awe, yearning, and disappointment. Initially, Brennan-Jobs lived with her mother, who supplemented welfare with waitressing and cleaning houses. In time, Jobs became interested in his daughter, and in high school Brennan-Jobs lived with him, becoming the go-to babysitter for his son with his wife, Laurene Powell. Later, when Brennan-Jobs declined a family trip to the circus, Jobs, citing family disloyalty, asked her to move out and stopped payment on her Harvard tuition (a kindly friend offered aid, which Jobs later repaid). Bringing the reader into the heart of the child who admired Jobs’s genius, craved his love, and feared his unpredictability, Brennan-Jobs writes lucidly of happy times, as well as of her loneliness in Jobs’s spacious home where he refuses to bid her good-night. On his deathbed, his apology for the past soothes, she writes, “like cool water on a burn.” This sincere and disquieting portrait reveals a complex father-daughter relationship.
Coleman stuns with this imaginative, astounding debut about colonization. Coleman is a member of the Noongar people of Australia; when she writes of a dry land where settlers enslave the natives and carry out a ruthless extermination campaign against those they cannot pacify, readers will naturally assume that the story is set in Australia, though the setting remains nameless. The book begins as Jacky flees the homestead where he is kept in servitude and frequently beaten. He is headed home even though he no longer remembers where that is. Sergeant Rohan of the Colonial Troopers is tasked with capturing the young man, so he recruits some settler lads and pursues Jacky through the hot and forbidding terrain. Coleman broadens the narrative by including characters such as Esperance, a young leader in a camp of free natives, and Johnny Star, who roams with a band of native outlaws. Midway through, Coleman suddenly upends the narrative with the revelation that the settlers are not what they seem. With this twist, Coleman universalizes the experiences of invaded indigenous populations in a way that has seldom been achieved. Artfully combining elements of literary, historical, and speculative fiction, this allegorical novel is surprising and unforgettable.
The legendary New York Times photographer whose extraordinary eye captured high fashion and high society in his columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” turns his focus to his early years and early career in this surprising and sprightly posthumous memoir. Cunningham (1929–2016), who grew up in an Irish Catholic suburb of Depression-era Boston, recalls his first brush with fashion at age four when he donned his sister’s pink organza party dress. Though reprimanded by his Boston-proper mother, the incident didn’t deter him from a lifelong obsession with clothes and couture. After dropping out of Harvard at 19, Cunningham moved to New York, where he worked in carriage-trade retail and then struck out on his own as a high-end hat designer whose often outrageous millinery was inspired by fruit, fish, and fowl. His antics and adventures—hiding behind plants at a Chanel show or under a table at a debutante ball, sneaking into the Waldorf Astoria to glimpse Queen Elizabeth—give readers a front-row seat on the mid-century fashion world, and the black and white photos, many featuring a dapper, young Cunningham beaming ear to ear, document a fantastical bygone era. For all the book’s frivolity, Cunningham is a truth teller in an artifice-draped world: he calls some of the customers who bought his hats “star-spangled bitches... full of conniving tricks to get the price as low as possible” and singles out Women’s Wear Daily publisher John Fairchild as a fake who played favorites. The glamorous world of 20th-century fashion comes alive in Cunningham’s masterful memoir both because of his exuberant appreciation for stylish clothes and his sharp assessment of those who wore them.
Di Cintio (Walls: Travels Along the Barricades) offers a powerful and perceptive reflection on Palestinian culture in a memoir that mixes travelogue and literary appreciation. He is surprised to travel through Israel and the occupied territories and discover so many “brokers of beauty”: poets, playwrights, and novelists producing stories of growing up, falling in love, disapproving parents, having conflicts over religion, and breaking rigid gender roles. Di Cintio writes, “The women of Gaza write themselves a life on the page that Gaza itself denies them.” Di Cintio also explores the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and dives into café culture, interviewing a new generation of writers who discuss over coffee and shisha, or hookah, their nuanced feelings about occupation, cross-generational trauma, the burdens of history, and their insistence on writing works that privilege storytelling over revolutionary rhetoric. Di Cintio’s prose is wonderfully descriptive, whether portraying libraries and bookstores dedicated to preserving and promoting a cultural history threatened with elimination or recounting stories of novels being written in prison on cigarette wrappers. This is a refreshing and hopeful reminder that on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are countless people who wish to live their lives free of the hatred borne of geopolitical conflict.
In this engrossing tale by Eisen, former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, the changes of 20th-century Europe are illuminated by the stories of one historic Prague building, some of its notable residents, and the author’s mother, a feisty Holocaust survivor. When Eisen, appointed to his post by President Obama, moved in 2011 into the palace of the title, now the U.S. ambassador’s residence, he was intrigued by a Nazi label on an antique table. What, he wondered, was the true story of the mansion, constructed between the world wars by Jewish coal magnate and banker Otto Petschek as an homage to European culture? Eisen’s nonagenarian mother, Frieda Grunfeld Eisen, wasn’t surprised by his finding; she survived Auschwitz, only to flee her Czech homeland as the Communists consolidated power after the war. Eisen interweaves Frieda’s story with those of Petschek and his family; Rudolf Toussaint, the conflicted German colonel who lived in the palace during the Nazi occupation; Lawrence Steinhardt, the U.S. ambassador who kept it out of Communist hands; and Shirley Temple Black, who, as ambassador beginning in the late 1980s, witnessed the end of communism. Together their stories illuminate the ebb and flow of totalitarianism, painting a picture both hopeful and disheartening. This action-packed yet lyrically written page-turner confers a fascinating human understanding of Europe’s past and present.
A notorious conspiracy theorist searches for the hidden plan behind world events and his own existence in this revealing, claustrophobic biography. Journalist Jacobson (The Lampshade) explores the bumpy life of William Cooper, an influential conspiracist—he popularized the term sheeple—whose radio show The Hour of the Time and bestselling book Behold a Pale Horse found fans as diverse as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and rappers the Wu-Tang Clan. Jacobson follows Cooper’s convoluted theories about such subjects as UFOs and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks; his great project was the unmasking of a “Luciferian” conspiracy, involving powerful groups from the Illuminati to the Clinton administration, that he believed was creating systemic shocks such as price hikes and staged terrorist attacks to impose an invisible but totalitarian mind-control regime. In counterpoint to Cooper’s grand theory of everything is Jacobson’s picaresque account of Cooper’s chaotic personal life, full of abusive behavior, familial estrangement, and professional feuding, with a violent ending—he was killed in a shoot-out with sheriff’s deputies at his Arizona home in 2001—brought on largely by his own paranoia. Jacobson’s narrative is poker-faced about Cooper’s unorthodox beliefs but sympathetic towards the yearnings behind them and infused with colorful reportage on conspiracists. The result is an enthralling portrait of a dark but potent strain in American culture.
In this fine memoir, retired politician Kerry, descended from a wealthy Boston Brahmin family on his mother’s side, details a remarkable five-decade-long career in public service: decorated Vietnam veteran, antiwar leader, lieutenant governor and five-term senator from Massachusetts, 2004 presidential candidate, and secretary of state (2013–2017). He primarily discusses the joys and challenges of leadership roles in the political and diplomatic arenas; Kerry barely mentions his two marriages and two daughters, but recounts many close friendships, reflects on his political values, and writes movingly on issues of faith. He is particularly strong on the culture of the Senate, which “runs on relationships”—among those he befriended across the aisle was John McCain, who briefly considered joining him on the 2004 ticket—but lately has been corroded by the “spectacle and circus” of hyperpartisanship and showboating. Kerry also reveals his personable approach to diplomacy, as when he wooed China’s then–foreign minister Yang Jiechi at a restaurant overlooking Boston Harbor as part of a successful effort to obtain a U.S.-China agreement on emissions reductions. In recounting encounters with foreign leaders, he often takes the measured, understated, and sometimes euphemistic tone of the elder statesman, as when he describes incendiary remarks by Afghan president Hamid Karzai as “quite unhelpful.” This book reveals a man of quiet, passionate patriotism, immense intelligence, and thoughtfulness.
Kiesling’s intimate, culturally perceptive debut portrays a frazzled mother and a fractious America, both verging on meltdown. Thirty-something Daphne works for the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at a San Francisco university while raising her 16-month-old daughter, Honey, alone. Daphne’s Turkish husband, Engin, has been denied reentry into the United States. Daphne is also haunted by the death of a student, who was traveling on Institute funds. Tired of waiting for Engin to be allowed back and reaching the edge of a breakdown, Daphne packs up Honey and heads to Northern California’s high desert to take refuge in the house she inherited but rarely visits. She fixes tuna sandwiches and pancakes, finds her mother’s pomegranate-themed ornaments and collectibles, and attends her mother’s now nearly empty church, but the safety and emotional connection to her own childhood she seeks prove as tenuous as overseas communication with Engin in Istanbul or the local ventures that ensnare her: neighbor Cindy’s anti-government, anti-immigration secessionist movement and 92-year-old Alice’s scheme to visit the work camp where her husband served during World War II. Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations. But perhaps best of all is her thought-provoking portrait of a pioneer community in decline as anger and obsession fray bonds between neighbors, family, and fellow citizens.
Like Melville’s Moby Dick, on which it is based, Ness’s profound tale is one of obsession and prophecy, with a twist—it’s told from the whale’s perspective. The narrative introduces readers to a flipped world in which a technologically advanced Cetacean society dominates the oceans. “Call me Bathsheba,” the whale narrator intones, recounting her pod’s ill-fated hunt for the mythical human killer of whales, Toby Wick (“Our devil. Our monster. Our myth”). Led by Captain Alexandra—the most storied of the captains, a harpoon buried in her head—Third Apprentice Bathsheba and the Alexandra’s other apprentices happen upon the wreck of a human ship. They find a single man alive, his hand protruding from the hull and clutching a disk (a message? a map?). Realizing they are on the trail of Toby Wick, the whales take the human hostage, then take to the hunt. In expansive illustrations by Cai (Tintinnula), rendered in inky washes and linework that mimics the ocean’s currents, the whales fly through the water, rendered above, not below, the air-filled “abyss” that humans inhabit. The whale epic, particularly Bathsheba’s discussions with the human hostage, mounts an exploration of inherited prejudices, violence justified, and the far-reaching consequences of war. Ages 13–up.
Tracing two lives on two continents, Nettel’s novel is an engrossing examination of what happens before and after a brief affair. In New York, misogynistic book editor Claudio, originally from Cuba, romances an older woman he doesn’t respect, and depends on a precise routine each day. Across the Atlantic, Cecilia settles in Paris, far from her home in Mexico, to work on a postgraduate degree, and starts a relationship with her ill bookseller neighbor, Tom, who is obsessed with cemeteries. Tom leaves for Sicily in hopes of spiritually confronting his disease, and while he’s away, Cecilia meets Claudio, who is traveling abroad with his lover, through a mutual friend. The pair strikes up a whirlwind romance that continues once Claudio returns to New York. Though this illicit relationship fizzles, the duo is uniquely changed by their time together—Cecilia amplifies her dedication to Tom; Claudio turns his attention to running marathons—and as Nettel (The Body Where I Was Born) chronicles Cecilia and Claudio’s return to normalcy, the impact of their fleeting romance ripples through their relationships and decisions. Nettel’s sharp, potent novel depicts how even the briefest relationship can affect the rest of a life.
Taneja’s impressive debut uses King Lear as a template but fearlessly carves a territory of its own. While remaining close to Shakespeare’s plot points, she offers a portrait of modern India both panoramic and complex, through the eyes of six main characters. The story begins in 2012 with Jivan Singh returning to his native New Delhi after 15 years in the United States. The illegitimate son of towering Indian magnate Devraj Bapuji, Jivan has come home as his elderly father prepares to hand off his business empire, but to whom? There are three daughters—Gargi, Radha, and Sita—as well as Jeet, a surrogate son and offspring of Devraj’s right hand, Ranjit. Jeet’s case for succession is weakened because he’s gay (given the conservative nature of the business establishment), a fact he’s loath to admit. Jivan, as a semi-outsider, is the ideal opening guide for the reader. The perspective shifts to Gargi, “custodian of her father’s office.” Business gives Gargi an adrenaline rush like nothing else. From Gargi, focus travels to Radhi (Regan to Gargi’s Goneril), who’s as “feminine” and sensual as her older sister is “masculine.” Sections devoted to Jeet and Sita follow. Short chapters of Devraj speaking directly to the reader are interspersed throughout, and the plot follows his rapid mental and physical decline while Radhi and Gargi battle for control of his empire. Taneja’s intricate, literary prose is heavy in both detail and reflection. This is a work of epic scope and depth that’s bracingly of the current moment.
In Teo’s stirring debut, an adolescent friendship ripens and festers in the oppressive heat of Singapore. It’s 2003, and 16-year-old social outcast Ng Szu Min grapples with her weight, social awkwardness, and her mother, Amisa, who has a fan following due to her role as a ghost named Ponti in a cult film. Decades earlier, young Amisa leveraged her beauty to remake herself in the globalizing city as a B-film actress. It is the voice of Szu’s friend, Circe Low—reminiscing as an adult—that gives context to the surreal wanderings of the Ng women. Outside of the toxic social hierarchy of their all-girls school, Szu and Circe consider themselves “citizens of nowhere.” Although they come from different worlds, the two become best friends after meeting. Wealthy Circe is enchanted by Szu’s bizarre home life, which features hack séances run by Amisa, who believes she is a medium. Szu appreciates Circe’s honesty and humor whenever she comes over, making her feel more comfortable amid the specters of her cold mother’s beauty and the void of her absent father. But the fiery fascination between the two burns quickly, leaving a blistering resentment. Teo’s relatable yet unsettling novel smartly captures earnest teenage myopathy through a tumultuous high school relationship.