This week: new books from Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ibi Zoboi.
Balint (Running Commentary), a research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, delivers a lively and balanced account of the international battle—fought in Israeli courts—for Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, letters, and diaries. Heard in 2016, the case involved three parties: the National Library of Israel, the German Literature Archive in Marbach, and Eva Hoffe, who inherited the documents from her mother. But the story begins much earlier, in 1924, when Kafka died of tuberculosis and his close friend, Max Brod, could not bring himself to follow Kafka’s last instructions to burn his remaining papers. Instead, Brod devoted most of his life to promoting Kafka’s legacy. When Brod, who fled to Palestine during WWII, died in Tel Aviv in 1968, Kafka’s papers passed to Brod’s secretary and confidante, Esther Hoffe, Eva’s mother. In addition to relating this background, Balint thoughtfully examines the arguments brought up at the trial: what Judaism meant to Kafka, who wrote in German, “steeped himself in German literature,” and wondered, in his diary, what he had in common with other Jews, yet discovered a love of Yiddish theater and Hebrew; Israel’s ambivalence to Kafka and diaspora culture; and the ways both Israel and Germany claimed Kafka’s legacy. Well-researched and insightful, this suspenseful work illuminates the complex relationship between literature, religion, culture, and nationality.
Deprivation, abuse, and fear oppress inmates and guards alike in this hard-hitting exposé of the for-profit prison industry. Mother Jones reporter Bauer, who wrote about being imprisoned in Iran for two years in A Sliver of Light, hired on as a guard in 2014 at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center, a private prison run by Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic). Equipped with a hidden camera and recorder, he found a snake pit of exploited labor and substandard correctional services. Bauer and his fellow guards were understaffed (sometimes three guards for a 352-prisoner unit), paid $9 an hour, poorly trained, and afraid of inmates; prison management veered between chaotic laxness and brutal crackdowns. With a $34-per-day-per-inmate budget, the prison axed educational and recreational programs and fatally skimped on health care (one inmate Bauer met lost both legs after officials failed to hospitalize him for an infection; another hanged himself after his suicide threats were ignored). Bauer vividly depicts Winn’s poisonous culture as he finds himself succumbing to its mind-set of paranoid authoritarianism (“Striving to treat everyone as human takes too much energy. More and more I focus on proving I won’t back down”). In addition, he sets his reportage in the context of a history of for-profit incarceration in the South that is rife with racism and torture. The result is a gripping indictment of a bad business.
Bunker, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, again provides an unusual look at American history with this accessible and riveting account of the ancestry and early life of Ben Franklin. Bunker’s diligent research and reconstruction of events from myriad sources were necessitated by Franklin’s own misleading writings; Franklin obscured and distorted his antecedents and upbringing, as when he falsely wrote that he grew up in poverty. Bunker convincingly rebuts that self-serving representation with thoroughly sourced details. Even before getting to Franklin’s childhood, Bunker traces Franklin’s family tree in fascinating fashion, starting with his great-grandfather Henry, born in England in 1573. That opening section showcases the political views and philosophies that would influence Franklin’s own: the Franklin family was affiliated with the Whigs, who advocated ideas that parallel those of the Founding Fathers, including “freedom of worship for dissenters, and taxation only with Parliament’s consent.” Bunker doesn’t glorify the family—he notes their support of slavery, a position that Franklin only renounced late in life—or gloss over Franklin’s failings, including repeated attempts to seduce other men’s wives. The result is a deep, nuanced examination of the formative influences on an iconic American figure.
It’s been nine months since an unnamed act of violence left runner Annabelle “broken and guilty and scared.” When an incident at a restaurant triggers bad memories for the high school senior, she takes off running, forming a plan to go 2,719 miles, from Seattle to Washington, D.C. In a powerful story of a survivor trying to regain a sense of justice and power, Caletti (Honey, Baby, Sweetheart) details a young woman’s harrowing psychological and physical journey across the United States. Thanks to support—written with tender detail, her younger brother and friends create a GoFundMe website, her grandfather trails her in his well-equipped RV, and a growing fan base cheers her on—Annabelle’s trek quickly evolves into a cause. What happened to Annabelle and why she feels compelled to run to the nation’s capital remain undefined until the book’s end, when a series of flashbacks playing in the heroine’s mind reveal clues as she battles exhaustion, dehydration, and pain during her 16-mile-a-day run. Caletti expresses familiar themes about what it can be like to live as a woman in U.S. society, constantly guarding against threat (“What are you supposed to do when you’re also required to be kind and helpful as well as vigilant?”). Annabelle’s determination to make a difference in spite of her fears sends an inspiring and empowering message. Ages 14–up.
Edugyan’s magnificent third novel (after Half-Blood Blues) again demonstrates her range and gifts. Eleven-year-old slave George Washington Black cuts sugar cane on a Barbados plantation owned by a sadistic Englishman named Erasmus Wilde until Wilde’s scientist brother, Titch, visits in 1830 to work on the experimental airship he calls Cloud-cutter. Titch makes Wash his servant because the boy’s weight makes suitable ballast for Cloud-cutter, teaches Wash to read, and nurtures his gift for scientific thought and illustration. As Wash is transformed—and confused—by Titch’s tutelage, Erasmus becomes increasingly punitive toward him. Titch, afraid for his protégé’s life, devises a risky nighttime escape on Cloud-cutter, which collides with the masts of a ship bound for Virginia. After arriving there, the two head northward, getting as far as the Arctic before Titch, insisting that Wash stay behind, strikes out into the snow for reasons Wash cannot understand. Not knowing whether Titch is alive or dead, Wash continues his travels and scientific work. But he feels compelled to find out Titch’s fate and learn why his mentor rejected him. Framing the story with rich evocations of the era’s science and the world it studies, Edugyan mines the tensions between individual goodwill and systemic oppression, belonging and exclusion, wonder and terror, and human and natural order. The novel’s patience feels essential: the characters’ many passages from painful endings to tentative rebirths are necessarily slow and searching. Crafted in supple, nuanced prose, Edugyan’s novel is both searing and beautiful.
Goodwin (Team of Rivals) further burnishes her credentials as a popular historian with this thoughtful revisiting of the lives of four presidents to whom she has previously dedicated individual books—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—with the aim of obtaining answers to eternal questions about leadership, including what life experiences contribute to it and whether “the times make the leader” or vice versa. She toggles back and forth between her subjects in sections that trace their upbringings and ambitions, the adversities that tested them (such as personal tragedies and crippling illness), and their approach to the major challenges that confronted them as presidents. She notes commonalities—each of the four was determined to outwork political opponents—as well as differences, for example contrasting Lincoln’s impoverished childhood with the privileged upbringing both Roosevelts had. The meat of the book is four chapters, one for each subject, about important episodes in their presidencies, with headings naming elements of their leadership styles (“Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction”; “Don’t hit unless you have to, but when you hit, hit hard”). Goodwin does not shy from criticism, especially of Johnson, whom she worked for in the White House and helped with his memoirs; she writes that he stumbled badly on Vietnam. But overall the tone is inspirational, setting forth examples of how to do leadership right.
At the start of Gran’s bold and stunning third novel featuring PI Claire DeWitt (after 2013’s Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway), Claire is headed for Las Vegas, Nev., in 2011 when she’s nearly killed by a crazed driver in Oakland, Calif. She manages to limp away from the scene, wondering who would have wanted to kill her. Flash back to Brooklyn in 1985, when Claire was the world’s greatest teenage detective. As a devotee of Jacques Silette, the French author of an obscure book called Détection, she and best friends Tracy and Kelly solved many cases. That same year Tracy vanished without a trace, and her disappearance has haunted Claire ever since. Back in 2011, Claire has discovered a lead in Las Vegas involving a rare comic book that may hold the key to what happened to Tracy. In a third narrative strand, set in Los Angeles in 1999, the 20-something Claire, who needs hours to earn her PI license, takes on a cold case involving the strange deaths of two artists. Mixing classic tropes of teen detective fiction with elements of eastern philosophy and a profound sense of the absurd, Gran takes readers on an unforgettable journey.
Cardiologist Jauhar (Intern) moves beautifully between “dual tracks” of “learning about the heart... but also what was in my heart,” with passages of memoir counterbalancing a lay-reader-friendly history of the development of cardiac medical technology. Covering enough physiology to make scientific details easily understood, Jahaur emphasizes how brave, desperate, and sometimes foolhardy experiments led to important developments, such as the heart-lung machine, which allows doctors to perform heart surgeries that take longer than a few minutes without causing brain damage. Alongside these medical success stories, Jauhar shares personal encounters with heart disease, through the deaths of family members and through his own diagnosis with coronary blockages. Jauhar achieves a balanced tone throughout, sharing profound admiration for what can be accomplished by treating the heart as a machine, while also urging the reader, and the medical community, not to undervalue of the significance of the “emotional heart.” To this end, he points to the fraught emotional dynamics of providing devices like defibrillators that can prolong life but also provoke traumatic stress and constant fear in the patients who use them. Throughout, Jauhar is thoughtful, self-reflective, and profoundly respectful of doctors and patients alike; readers will respond by opening their own hearts a little bit, to both grief and wonder.
Sure to inspire even deeper devotion among Lu’s fans, this sequel picks up just three days after the Warcross finale, raising complicated questions about the consequences of technology and power. Emika Chen, exempt from Hideo Tanaka’s unleashed algorithm thanks to a lucky accident, is reeling from Hideo’s betrayal and the knowledge that Zero, the hacker whom Hideo hired her to neutralize, is Hideo’s long-missing brother, Sasuke, whose disappearance drives Hideo to create Warcross and the algorithm. Having realized that the algorithm, meant to eliminate violence, may be causing people to commit suicide, Emika enters a tenuous partnership with Zero and the Blackcoats, a secret organization working to destroy the algorithm, and attempts to gain access to it by winning Hideo’s trust. Though Emika maintains her moral center, she struggles to do right as the virtual world crosses into reality and becomes personal: “There’s a point where the lines start to blur, and I am standing in that place now, struggling to see through the gray.” Lu’s futuristic world, with its immersive technology, feels dangerously within reach in this action-packed escapade with a thoughtful, emotion-driven core. Ages 12–up.
Macintyre (Rogue Heroes) recounts the exploits of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB agent turned British spy responsible for “the single largest ‘operational download’ in MI6 history,” in this captivating espionage tale. Building on in-depth interviews and other supplementary research, Macintyre shows Gordievsky expertly navigating the “wilderness of mirrors” that made up the daily existence of a Cold War spy—passing microfilm, worrying that his wife will turn him in to the KGB, battling an unexpected dosage of truth serum. In Macintyre’s telling, Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent turned KGB operative who gave up Gordievsky’s cover, functions as a foil and a vehicle for moral comparison between the KGB and MI6. In a feat of real authorial dexterity, Macintyre accurately portrays the long-game banality of spycraft—the lead time and persistence in planning—with such clarity and propulsive verve that the book often feels like a thriller. The book has a startling relevancy to the news of the day, from examples of fake news to the 1984 British elections in which “Moscow was prepared to use dirty tricks and hidden interference to swing a democratic election in favor of its chosen candidate.” Macintyre has produced a timely and insightful page-turner.
Journalist McConahay (Ricochet: Two War Reporters and a Friendship Under Fire) tells the gripping and often overlooked history of Latin America during World War II. Despite its proximity to the United States, it was by no means a given that the region would side with the Allies—many ethnic Germans, Italians, and Japanese lived in the region, Axis airlines ruled Latin skies until 1941, and Latin oil flowed to Fascist forces. With great verve and detail, McConahay recounts the reverberating “shadow war for the Western hemisphere”: the competition for control of the region’s airways early in the war; the dramatic rivalry over its strategic resources; the vast surveillance networks constructed by both sides throughout the continent; thrillingly told espionage and propaganda operations; Atlantic sea battles; the U.S. program of political kidnappings of civilians whose ancestors came from Axis countries; and the flight of both Jewish refugees and fascist criminals to the region. McConahay brings in a wide cast, among them Japanese-Peruvian detainees, Brazilian soldiers, Nelson Rockefeller, and spies such as the Canadian-born British intelligence agent William Stephenson. Throughout, McConahay reminds readers of the damage the U.S. has wrought in the region over two centuries. This lively book, driven by colorful personalities, strikes the ideal balance between informative and entertaining.
North (Romeo and/or Juliet) presents a witty pop science guide intended for those demanding times when one needs to create a civilization from scratch. Framed as a manual for a time traveler, the illustrated narrative begins with a series of questions in flowchart-form to help users figure out where in time they’ve landed: Are there plants? Are there dinosaurs? Has the Big Bang happened yet? If the traveler in question is lucky enough to have landed some 200,000 years ago, North cheerfully announces, “you could actually be the most influential person in history.” Start by introducing the basics, five technologies fundamental to civilization: spoken and written language, “non-sucky” numbers (more than tally marks, and preferably including fractions and zero), the scientific method, and a calorie surplus, via agriculture and domesticating animals. The last is important, North explains, for those who don’t want to spend all their time hunting and gathering food. “Civilization Pro Tips” sidebars sprinkled throughout dispense additional suggestions (“Don’t forget to plant your legumes”), and wry humor keeps the discussion lighthearted. North’s “survival guide” is a fun, thoughtful, and thoroughly accessible reference for curious readers, students, and world-builders, as well as wayward time travelers.
“Class is an illusion with real consequences,” Smarsh writes in this candid and courageous memoir of growing up in a family of working-class farmers in Kansas during the 1980s and ’90s. A writing professor and journalist whose work has appeared in the Guardian and the New Yorker, Smarsh tells her story to her inner child, whose “unborn spirit” allows Smarsh to break the cycle of poverty that constrained her family for generations. Smarsh was born to a teenage mother, and the women in her family were all young mothers who hardened and aged early from the work it took to survive the day-to-day. Smarsh writes with love and care about these women and the men who married them, including her father and Grandpa Arnie, but she also lays bare their hardships (for many poor women, “there is a violence to merely existing: the pregnancies without health care, the babies that can’t be had, the repetitive physical jobs”) and the shame of being poor (”to experience economic poverty... is to live with constant reminders of what you don’t have”). It is through education that Smarsh is able to avoid their fate; but while hers is a happy ending, she is still haunted by the fact that being poor is associated with being bad. Smarsh’s raw and intimate narrative exposes a country of economic inequality that “has failed its children.”
Wall Street Journal correspondents Wright and Hope transform their investigation of a mind-boggling financial fraud into a nonfiction thriller tracking the rise and fall of Jho Low, the “alleged mastermind of a multi-billion-dollar scam.” In 2003, Low convinced an adviser to the rulers of the United Arab Emirates that he could broker deals between Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian governments. He then parlayed that connection into a relationship with a Goldman Sachs banker, who helped set up a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund in 2009, which was overseen by Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia and Low’s family friend. The authors contend that Razak turned a blind eye while Low siphoned billions of dollars from the state fund into a “byzantine labyrinth of bank accounts, offshore companies, and other complex financial structures.” Low, still a fugitive, used the stolen loot to “build a Hollywood production company, commission one of the world’s grandest yachts, and throw wildly decadent parties around the globe.” The authors explain how lax oversight enabled Low to carry out such a scheme. Complete with an epigraph from Jordan Belfort of Wolf of Wall Street fame, this is an epic tale of white-collar crime on a global scale.
“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood... the first thing they want to do is clean it up,” begins this Pride and Prejudice retelling that stands solidly on its own while cleverly paralleling Austen’s classic about five economically challenged sisters. In the role of sharp-tongued Lizzie Bennett is Zuri Benitez, who loves her family, her Haitian-Dominican heritage, and her ethnically diverse neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Bushwick. She’s less excited about the prospect of the neighborhood gentrifying, but the arrival of the handsome, wealthy black Darcy brothers, who move into a newly renovated mini-mansion on her block, catalyzes a plot studded with detailed nuances of culture clash. An ambitious poet with dreams of Howard University, Zuri (the family’s “hard candy shell, the protector”) fights her attraction to the younger Darius as her older sister, Janae, is swept up in Ainsley’s attentions. Zoboi (American Street) skillfully depicts the vicissitudes of teenage relationships, and Zuri’s outsize pride and poetic sensibility make her a sympathetic teenager in a contemporary story about race, gentrification, and young love. Ages 13–up.