This week: a biography of Betty Ford, plus punk rock and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This lovely, energizing story from Michelin-starred chef Andrés and his frequent cookbook coauthor Wolffe (Made in Spain) provides an antidote to passivity and cynicism. Having done food relief work in Haiti in 2010, Andrés was ready to help feed the people of Puerto Rico after the island was ravaged by Hurricane Maria seven year later. Andrés tells how his nonprofit organization thrived despite the fumbling incompetence of government agencies and nonprofits—and an American president who “seemed to have no idea what his role was.” In a matter of days, Andrés and his volunteers had expanded an operation run by his friend Jose Enrique, a San Juan chef, making sandwiches, paellas, and stew (Andres has contempt for the idea that disaster victims deserve only lousy food). In between fighting with red tape–tangled FEMA officials and dealing with the Red Cross’s lack of organization, Andres quickly scaled up an operation with 20,000 volunteers that produced three million meals. “We solved the problems as they popped up,” Andres writes, “as chefs do.” This is a powerful story of the impact a well-meaning group can have on the world.
This is destined to be a World War II military history classic. Historian Beevor (Ardennes 1944) draws on archives, memoirs and existing scholarship to produce a top-notch WWII battle history of the Market Garden Operation, giving equal emphasis to the American airborne landings, the XXX Corps armored attack, and the British 1st Airborne Division battle for the Arnhem bridge. Excel- lent maps make the action easy to follow, and the author’s clear, quick prose makes for fascinating, informative reading. Beevor seamlessly transitions from the soldier perspective in the trenches to the perspective of the generals commanding in their headquarters, and balances the points of view of all the participants, including the Germans and Dutch civilians. He does not shy from the controversy surrounding this bold but ultimately unsuccessful allied offensive operation; why the operation failed and who was responsible are some of the central questions of the book. Though he breaks little new ground, Beevor clarifies the consensus argument that the operation’s failure was due to fundamental flaws in planning and puts forth well-supported opinions. Beevor’s superb latest offering, in keeping with his established record of excellence, is a must-read for the general military history enthusiast and the WWII history expert.
Creech (Moo) spins a heartfelt yarn about a boy’s struggles trying to raise a baby donkey. Ten-year-old Louie has repeatedly struck out with animals: worms dried up, a parakeet passed on, a found kitten ran away. But when his father brings home a sickly newborn mini donkey from Uncle Pete’s farm, Louie is determined to save the “pitiful-looking” creature he names Winslow. The infant requires bottle-feeding, injections, and almost constant nurturing, but Louie refuses to listen to others’ pessimism, including that of his new friend Nora. As always, Creech packs a tremendous amount of emotion between the lines of her understated prose. Readers will feel Louie’s longing for his older brother, who is serving in the military and signs his letters, “Remember me”; Nora’s lack of hope, which stems from losing her premature baby brother; and the children’s shared affection for each other and the tiny donkey. Animal lovers in particular will relish Louie’s hard-won triumphs and find joy in Winslow’s strength. Ages 8–12.
When a sedate, middle-aged London merchant falls in love with a beautiful prostitute, anything can happen—and does—in Gowar’s delightful debut set in the late 18th century. The mermaid of the title is a dubious specimen delivered to Jonah Hancock by the master of one of his ships that ply the high seas. After the creature causes a sensation in London, Angelica Neal, a gorgeous, narcissistic courtesan, is enlisted by her former mentor, Mrs. Chapell, the proprietress of a high-class brothel, to “entertain” Hancock so he’ll agree to bring his exhibit to Mrs. Chapell’s celebrated institution. Smitten and lovelorn, Hancock is rebuffed by Angelica, who is in the midst of another love affair and jokingly dares Hancock to bring her another mermaid. It’s only after she’s abandoned and left destitute by her feckless love that Angelica realizes there might be something to Hancock after all, especially since he does deliver the required second mermaid. That purported sea creature brings an element of mystery to a novel alive with wit and humor. Gowar has a marvelous gift for the felicitous phrase and for Dickensian characters (Mrs. Chappell “is built like an armchair, more upholstered than clothed”) and excels in astute social commentary, especially in descriptions of the lavish household goods, clothing, and food that money can buy—in contrast with the mean lives of the poor in Deptford, where Hancock’s shipping office is located. Angelica’s gradual perception of the shallowness of her hermetic world is counterpointed by the blossoming of Hancock’s niece, a shy 14-year-old, who comes into her own as his housekeeper. This is, indeed, a kind of fairy tale, one whose splendid combination of myth and reality testifies to Gowar’s imagination and talent.
An isolated boy witnesses a strange, terrible event in the wood near his house in this haunting novel by Hautman (Eden West). No other children live in Stuey’s neighborhood, so he has relied on his grandfather for companionship. After Gramps perishes during a storm, Stuey feels empty and alone but finds a kindred spirit in Elly Rose, who lives on the other side of the wood and, he finds out, shares a piece of his family history: their great-grandfathers—one a bootlegger, one a district attorney—were enemies who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the very area where the children usually play. When Stuey tells Elly Rose of their connection, she vanishes as mysteriously as their ancestors. Only Stuey knows what happened to her, but no one will believe his version of the story. As evocative as a David Almond novel, and as infused with heartache and affirmation, Stuey’s story will set imaginations spinning with possibilities about other worlds, ancient sins, and the power of truth. Ages 8–12.
Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of City Life
Sociologist Klinenberg (coauthor of Modern Romance) presents an illuminating examination of “social infrastructure,” the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Touring libraries, playgrounds, churches, barbershops, cafés, athletic fields, and community gardens, Klinenberg identifies the ways such spaces help prevent crime, reduce addiction rates, contribute to economic growth, and even ameliorate problems caused by climate change. He visits geothermal pools in Iceland, open to the public day and night, which provide a place for people to commingle despite the frigid weather; the Metropolitan Oval soccer complex in Queens, N.Y., where for the past 90 years local youth of all backgrounds have played sports; and the floating schools and libraries located on the riverbanks around Bangladesh that host courses on literacy, sustainable agriculture, and disaster survival, while also providing shelter to citizens unable to afford conventional protection from the region’s catastrophic floods. Klinenberg’s observations are effortlessly discursive and always cogent, whether covering the ways playgrounds instill youth with civic values or a Chicago architect’s plans to transform a police station into a community center. He persuasively illustrates the vital role these spaces play in repairing civic life “in an era characterized by urgent social needs and gridlock stemming from political polarization.”
In this meticulously researched and delightful biography, McCubbin (Mrs. Kennedy and Me) skillfully chronicles the life of former first lady Betty Ford, both in and out of the White House. Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer in 1918, Betty—the youngest of three kids and the only girl—was raised largely in Grand Rapids, Mich. After performance school in Bennington, Vt., “Betty felt like she had been ‘born to dance,’ ” writes McCubbin, and in 1936 she moved to New York City where she studied with the Martha Graham Dance Company. She returned home and in 1942 married William G. Warren, who worked in her father’s insurance company, but divorced in 1947. The following year she met and married Gerald Ford Jr., who in 1974 became the 38th president of the U.S. In Washington, D.C., the Fords raised three sons and a daughter—and after an old dance injury flared up, Betty became addicted to painkillers and alcohol. Her decision to publicly share her story, McCubbin explains, led to the 1982 opening of the Betty Ford Center in Southern California, and her openness about her diagnosis with and recovery from breast cancer allowed a generation of women to speak about a disease once viewed as shameful. McCubbin writes with great tact and sensitivity in this insightful and beautifully told look into the life of one of the most public and admired first ladies.
In this lively narrative, music journalist and former Berlin DJ Mohr takes readers on a profanity-laden, up-close-and-personal tour of the punk rock scene of 1980s East Germany. He follows notable figures in the scene—“Major” (who was 15 in 1977 when she became, in Mohr’s retelling, the first punk in East Germany), “A-Micha,” “Colonel,” “Pankow,” “Chaos,” “Otze,” and others—and their associated bands as they evolve from a handful of disaffected youths influenced by outside radio and bootleg Sex Pistols albums to a relentless movement of politically minded revolutionaries determined to change a corrupt system from within. Mohr makes clear the punks weren’t seeking a reunited Germany, just an East Germany where they’d be free to express themselves, yet their movement contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He chronicles the ongoing clashes between the East German authorities and several microgenerations of punks, describing a compelling war of subversion, persistence, attrition, and defiance, where every act meant to crush spirits and enforce conformity only helped to fan the rebellious flames. The short chapters and punchy prose, coupled with thorough research, give the reader a front-row seat to the events of the ’80s. This take on punk evolution is engaging, enlightening, and well worth checking out.
Moore’s debut explores the contradictions of Liberia’s tenuous 19th-century beginnings in this impressive fantasy that revolves around three indelible characters. A Vai girl, Gbessa, is cursed for being born on the day a wicked fellow tribe member dies. Thirteen years later, she is left in the woods to die but miraculously survives years of deprivation and a lethal snake bite. June Dey, born on a Virginia plantation, restrains his inhuman strength until seeing his mother brutally punished unleashes his rage. He flees slavery, discovering that bullets and knives bounce off him. Norman Aragon inherits the ability to become invisible from his Jamaican mother and fair complexion from his British father, who plots to take him to England for scientific experimentation. The three separately find their way to Monrovia and join together briefly to fight back against slavers. Gbessa narrowly escapes being kidnapped by slavers, gets taken in as a housemaid for a family of former American slaves that have settled in Africa, and endures the lingering prejudices of her employers after marrying into their social circle. June and Norman discover ongoing slave raids in the countryside and use their gifts to help the fledgling state’s fractured tribes fight European meddlers. Moore uses an accomplished, penetrating style—with clever swerves into fantasy—to build effective critiques of tribal misogyny, colonial abuse, and racism.
In this delightful historical fantasy set in a Civil War–era New York City in which dinosaurs never went extinct, a diverse band of orphans fight to save their friends from slavers and corrupt authorities. When the Colored Orphan Asylum is burned down during the Draft Riots of 1863, Cuban-born Magdalys Roca and her friends must escape the clutches of Magistrate Richard Riker. They soon find refuge in the Dactyl Hill community of Brooklyn, where they join a growing resistance against racism and oppression. Magdalys has a secret talent: she can communicate with dinosaurs, giving her team the edge they need to rescue their fellow orphans from Riker’s plan to sell them into slavery. In this series opener, Older (Shadowshaper) weaves historical fact with dinosaur-inspired fancy to create a society in which people fly on the backs of pterodactyls, conduct naval warfare with mosasaurs, and use tyrannosaurs as destructive weapons. Rooted in real events and attitudes, and appended with facts about the time, this fast-paced adventure makes for a memorable tale in which numerous characters of color take the lead. Ages 8–12.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Pawel (The Crusades of Cesar Chavez) continues to explore the California political landscape with this well-written and deeply researched dual biography of the late Pat Brown, the state’s governor from 1959 to 1967, and his son Jerry Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983 and reelected in 2011. The senior Brown is fairly described as a traditional politician whose career had a traditional trajectory, while son Jerry—called “Governor Moonbeam” by a Chicago newspaper columnist—is anything but: in addition to a peripatetic political career that included three runs at the Democratic presidential nomination, a term as California’s attorney general, and time as the mayor of Oakland, Calif., Jerry’s personal history involved formative years as a novice in a Jesuit seminary and a serious investigation of Buddhism. Pawel returns again and again to the connection between Pat and Jerry, who were respectful and tender toward one another despite their differences. She also underscores the powerful influence of women—specifically Bernice Brown, Pat’s wife of 66 years and Jerry’s mother; Anne Gust Brown, whom Jerry married late in life; and Jerry’s sister Kathleen, who made her own run at California’s governorship in 1994—in the two men’s lives. The backdrop for all of this is the rich history of California, illuminated with small historical details that are a testament to Pawel’s research. In her capable hands, readers will find the Browns and California captivating subjects.
Roberts (Sunburning) continues to mine both quotidian and existential moments in another deeply satisfying collection of simultaneously deadpan and poignant autobiographical comics, delineated in slightly awkward but appealing black-and-white drawings. Roberts depicts moments of funny domestic life with her husband, Scott; their young daughter, Xia; their dog, Crooky; and her quirky but always supportive parents. Mixed in are more fraught concerns, such as living with bipolar disorder and a recent diagnosis of MS. The never-ending struggle to make art is also a recurring theme: in one outstanding sequence, Roberts muses on the old expression “Too much of a good thing,” which escalates into an exploration of the ebbs and flows—and overwhelming overflows—of her creative process. “Occasionally I’m stifled by overabundant creativity,” she confesses. In another reflection, she mulls over mortality, vividly recalling one of her final visits with her dying grandfather as he was having dinner: “I tried to memorize him eating without crying.” Her spare but evocative line drawings, with their generous use of white space, work in tandem with the direct and detached tone of her narratives, allowing readers to fill in the emotional spaces between visual pauses. Roberts is a unique and nuanced storyteller, and this proves her best, richest book yet.
Icelander Sjón (The Blue Fox) is something of a cult figure in the English-speaking world—but that should change with his genre-bending volume, a trilogy that has the zealous heft of a lifelong labor. The book begins in Germany in the chaos of World War II, as a Jewish man named Leo Löwe enters into an affair with a barmaid. Together they make a child of a sort named Josef—one made of clay and carried in a hatbox into Iceland. There, Leo gets caught up in a plot involving Nazi gangsters and a conspiracy to steal a golden tooth from the mouth of Leo’s archenemy. In 1962, Leo’s clay son Josef finally awakens and grows into a poet who attends medical school, where he encounters an unhinged geneticist with big plans for Josef, as well as Sjón himself. But all of this is still only half the story, as the main story line is stitched together with excerpts from Viking sagas, fairy tales, and creation myths. In fact, it might make more sense to consider this book an ornate frame story for the fables with which Sjón studs his narrative. Sjón is more than a novelist; he is a storyteller in the ancient tradition, and this work may be remembered as his masterpiece.
What appears to be an open-and-shut case—a perpetrator, a victim, a witness, and a confession—is anything but in this mesmerizing thriller from Irish author Spain (With Our Blessing and three other Tom Reynolds mysteries). After J.P. Carney, a broke loner, severely beats financier Harry McNamara in front of his wife, Julia, at the couple’s home in Dalkey, an affluent Dublin suburb, Carney confesses to the crime. He offers no explanation for the attack other than that he snapped. Julia harbors her own theory, but is loath to pursue it. Det. Sgt. Alice Moody, who has no such qualms, is determined to solve the case, even as top brass pressure her to let it go, satisfied with Carney’s confession and confinement to a mental health facility. Spain’s vivisection of guilt and revenge pulls readers through to a harrowing denouement. Even seasoned genre veterans will be riveted by this modern-day morality tale, which peels away layers of the present and past to reveal ugly truths and sins aplenty, from lust and greed to addiction and deceit.
New Yorker staff writer Williams uses the story of fossil enthusiast Eric Prokopi to illuminate the murky world of modern fossil hunting in this fascinating account. The story begins with Eric’s discovery, around age five, of a fossilized shark tooth off the coast of Florida, which sparked a lifelong fascination with prehistoric life. Eric’s passion led him to take a cataloguing position with the Florida Museum of Natural History, and later to teach himself how to prepare fossils for exhibition. Williams carries this tale through Eric’s starting a business to sell his acquisitions, to his prosecution in 2012 by the federal government for smuggling into the U.S. and auctioning off Tarbosaurus bones deemed the rightful property of Mongolia, where they were found. Williams provides just the right amount of context, from the long-standing tensions between paleontologists and commercial fossil dealers, to Mongolia’s hardscrabble history since the days of Genghis Khan. To this foundation of solid research, she adds a vivid storytelling style. The combination results in a triumphant book that will appeal to a wide audience.