This week: new books from Susan Orlean, Barbara Kingsolver, and more.
Set in the Pacific Northwest, Bailat-Jones’s latest (following Fog Island Mountains) is a captivating exploration of bereavement, guilt, and forgiveness. Veterinarian Ella has a close relationship with her ferryboat captain father, John Tomlinson, and a contained life with her scientist husband, Neil. Her composed life implodes after her father is killed in an accident, leaving Ella unable to cope with her emotions, especially after discovering John had contact with Maggie, her long-absent mother. Maggie left when Ella was 10, and her childhood memories depict Maggie as an unmoored person given to bouts of irrational outbursts. Ella lashes out at Neil over John’s betrayal, deluding herself into believing the two of them had been united against Maggie. As she grapples with John’s hidden knowledge of her mother’s whereabouts, Ella discovers that she is pregnant. Devastated by John’s death, and reeling from discoveries he kept from her, Ella becomes a destructive force in her own life. It’s only after Ella finally seeks out Maggie that she is able to chart her own course. Bailat-Jones creates a complex and nuanced portrait of a family torn apart by mental illness and of the rebuilding process, making this novel both fascinating and stirring.
As accomplished as its subject, redoubtable socialite and women’s suffrage crusader Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Fowler’s engrossing successor to 2013’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, again showcases her genius for seeing beyond the myths of iconic women. In 1874, 21-year-old Alva Smith and her three sisters have impeccable antecedents but no money. Marrying well being the only way to keep her family secure, Alva sets her sights on railroad scion William K. Vanderbilt. Her effort pays off—William inherits $65 million in 1885—though she finds neither love nor sexual pleasure with her amiable, self-absorbed husband. Wealth offers scope for Alva’s formidable leadership skills: in the same years she bears three children, wins the parvenu Vanderbilts a position in elite society, and collaborates with architect Richard Hunt on a series of influential projects. Impeccably virtuous and self-disciplined, Alva nevertheless faces frequent censure for her lack of feminine deference, particularly when, in her 40s, she refuses to ignore her husband’s infidelity. Instead, she negotiates a divorce, weathers the scandal, and finds new fulfillment. The novel doesn’t sentimentalize its subject’s unsympathetic moments and qualities, and Fowler puts Alva in a clear context, revealing the narrow constraints of her era, class, and gender, and the fierce courage and creativity with which she negotiated them. Though the novel’s lavish sweep and gorgeous details evoke a vanished world, Fowler’s exploration of the way powerful women are simultaneously devalued and rewarded resonates powerfully.
In this sprawling multivolume novel, the events of one woman’s life over the course of a year in New York hearken back to several decades’ worth of German history and political upheaval. Gesine Cresspahl is a German woman in her mid-30s who lives with her daughter in New York and works for a bank. Johnson’s novel opens in the late summer of 1967, and proceeds through the following year day by day, with all of the political turmoil that that entails—both in the United States and behind the Iron Curtain. Interspersed with this are occasional meditations on the New York Times and, more prominently, the story of Gesine’s family over the course of her early life. In this way, Johnson covers the rise of fascism in Germany, the wartime experience there, and the separation of the nation into East and West. The novel’s 1967 segments occasionally trace the aftereffects of fascism and sometimes parallel the tumultuous American politics of the moment, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Johnson keeps the line between past and present murky, which seems in keeping with his larger points about the nature of history as it’s remembered versus history as it’s lived. The growing political consciousness of Gesine’s daughter, Marie, provides a wonderful counterpoint to the novel’s themes of crises personal, national, and global. This is a haunting and unforgettable portrait of the momentous and the historical.
Reykjavík Det. Insp. Hulda Hermannsdóttir, the 64-year-old heroine of this outstanding series debut from Jónasson (Blackout), is aware that she’s nearing mandatory retirement, but she’s still devastated when her boss, Magnus, tells her to prepare to stop working in just two weeks. To soften the unexpected blow, Magnus says that she can select a cold case to look into during her remaining time, and Hulda jumps on the opportunity to do something meaningful. She selects the unexplained death of a Russian woman, Elena, who had been seeking asylum when her drowned corpse was found in a remote cove more than a year earlier. Hulda’s suspicion that the initial inquiry was sloppy is confirmed when she learns that the assigned officer failed to follow some basic leads. Her doggedness in pursuit of justice for Elena rankles her superior, who claims to have been joking about her investigating anything else. Jónasson pulls no punches as this grim tale builds to its stunning conclusion, one of the more remarkable in recent crime fiction. Fans of uncompromising plotting will be satisfied.
Kingsolver's meticulously observed, elegantly structured novel unites social commentary with gripping storytelling. Its two intertwined narratives are set in Vineland, a real New Jersey town built as a utopian community in the 1860s. In the first storyline, set in the present, the magazine Willa Knox edited and the college at which her husband, Iano Tavoularis, taught both fold at the same time. They find themselves responsible for Iano's ailing father and their single son's new baby. They hope the house they have inherited in Vineland will help rebuild their finances, but—riddled with structural problems too costly to repair—it slowly collapses around them. Destitute after decades of striving and stunned by the racist presidential candidate upending America's ideals, the couple feels bewildered by the future facing them. Researching the home's past in the hopes of finding grant-worthy historical significance, Willa becomes fascinated by science teacher Thatcher Greenwood and his neighbor, naturalist Mary Treat, one of whom may have lived on the property in the 1870s. In the second story line, which alternates with Willa's, Thatcher's home is unsound and irreparable, too. His deepening bond with Mary inspires him, but his support for radical ideas like those of Mary's correspondent Charles Darwin infuriates Vineland's repressive leadership, threatening Thatcher's job and marriage. Kingsolver (Flight Behavior) artfully interweaves fictional and historical figures (notably the remarkable Mary Treat) and gives each narrative its own mood and voice without compromising their underlying unity. Containing both a rich story and a provocative depiction of times that shake the shelter of familiar beliefs, this novel shows Kingsolver at the top of her game.
In this stylish and complex memoir, Laymon, an English professor at the University of Mississippi and novelist (Long Division), presents bittersweet episodes of being a chubby outsider in 1980s Mississippi. He worships his long-suffering, resourceful grandmother, who loves the land her relatives farmed for generations and has resigned herself to the fact of commonplace bigotry. Laymon laces the memoir with clever, ironic observations about secrets, sexual trauma, self-deception, and pure terror related to his family, race, Mississippi, friends, and a country that refuses to love him and his community. He becomes an educator and acknowledges the inadequacies in his own education, noting that his teachers “weren’t being paid right. I knew they were expected to do work they were unprepared to start or finish.” He also writes about living among white people, including a family for whom his grandmother did the laundry: “It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” he quotes his grandmother. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel.” His evolution is remarkable, from a “hard-headed” troubled teen to an intellectually curious youth battling a college suspension for a pilfering a library book to finally journeying to New York to become a much-admired professor and accomplished writer. Laymon convincingly conveys that difficult times can be overcome with humor and self-love, as he makes readers confront their own fears and insecurities.
Sportswriter Leavy (Sandy Koufax) energetically narrates Ruth’s larger-than-life story in an entertaining and colorful biography. Troubled by their son’s misbehavior, Ruth’s parents sent the seven-year-old Ruth to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, across town from their home in Baltimore. There, Ruth developed his baseball skills thanks to Brother Matthias, who showed Ruth how to hit. Ruth joined the Baltimore Orioles in 1914, was sold to the Boston Red Sox a few years later, and a year later was traded to the Yankees. In his career Ruth had 2,873 hits, 714 home runs, and a lifetime batting average of .342, and as Leavy points out, Ruth lived as hard as he played; he “imbibed whatever life had to offer.” Ruth’s accomplishments and his appetites for drink and women (he had several extramarital affairs) coincided with the rise of sports journalism and marketing, and his manager, Christy Walsh, was instrumental in creating his public image. In 1927, Ruth slammed his 60th home run of the season, led the Yankees to a four-game sweep of the Washington Senators in the World Series, and embarked on a publicized three-week barnstorming tour of the country with Lou Gehrig to celebrate. Leavy’s captivating biography reveals Ruth as a man who swung his bat with the same purposeful abandon that he lived his life.
New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin) doubles as an investigative reporter and an institutional historian in this sprawling account of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Public Library. On April 29, 1986, just before 11 a.m., a fire broke out in the stacks of the main branch and burned for seven hours, destroying 400,000 books and damaging hundreds of thousands more. Harry Peak, the man police believed started the fire, was arrested but never charged. Orlean’s investigation into the fire—Was it arson? Why would Peak, a struggling actor and frequent patron of the library, want to burn it down?—leads her down the library’s aisles of history, as she seeks out books on the flawed science of arson forensics along with titles from California serial killer Richard Ramirez’s reading list to better understand the minds of psychopaths. Along the way, she introduces readers to California Public Library system staffers, among them Arin Kasparian, on the circulation desk; Kren Malone, director of the main branch; and Glen Creason, a senior librarian whose tenure spans “the fire [and] the AIDS crisis, which killed 11 librarians.” Midway through, Orlean reveals her own motivation for her return to long-form journalism: her mother’s dementia has made her acutely aware of how memories are doomed to be forgotten unless they’re recorded. This is a persuasive reminder of the importance of libraries, whose shared spaces house historical treasures built with the common good in mind.
Loosely inspired by Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, the successor to Perry’s 2016 novel, The Essex Serpent, is an unforgettable achievement. At 42, British-born translator Helen Franklin lives in Prague, denying herself love and pleasure to atone for an unnamed wrong she committed 20 years before. In December 2016, she has a disturbing encounter with her friend, university professor Karel Pražan, during which Karel clutches a leather file and speaks wildly of Melmoth, a specter that folktales claim was among the women who glimpsed the risen Christ. After denying her sight of God, she was cursed to wander forever, seeking out the wicked in the hopes that bearing witness will win her salvation. When Karel suddenly disappears, Helen delves into his file, which chronicles Melmoth’s appearances to individuals culpable of individual or collective acts of cruelty. Soon, she too is haunted by a shadowy figure and drawn inexorably toward a reckoning with her past. Though rich in gothic tropes and sinister atmosphere, the novel transcends pastiche. Perry’s heartbreaking, horrifying monster confronts the characters not just with the uncanny but also with the human: with humanity’s complicity in history’s darkest moments, its capacity for guilt, its power of witness, and its longing for both companionship and redemption.
In this thoroughly engrossing cultural study, Poole (In the Mountains of Madness), a history professor at the College of Charleston, persuasively argues that the birth of horror as a genre is rooted in the unprecedented destruction and carnage of WWI. Filmmakers and artists, many of them veterans, he proposes, saw in horror imagery a way to critique war, and thereby “transformed fantasy into a simulacrum of reality.” Poole locates glimpses of the war’s horrors in work produced during and soon after it—not only explicit references, as in the trench warfare art of Otto Dix and the war dead rising at the end of Abel Gance’s film J’Accuse, but in more subliminal images: the technologized tools of killing in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony”; the somnambulist who unthinkingly obeys an authoritarian master in the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; images of body dismemberment in Freud’s essay The Uncanny. Although some may feel that Poole overstates the proliferation of war horror images in the arts, his extensive and well-supported citations will make it hard for readers who haven’t considered the wartime context for horror’s emergence to forget it.
In this rich biography of author John Williams (1922–1994), Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) seeks to understand the man behind Stoner, a novel that was quickly forgotten after its 1963 publication but more recently has attained the status of midcentury American classic (and European bestseller). The Williams that emerges is not unlike Stoner himself: self-obsessed, given to petty feuds, and insecure about his abilities. Though Williams always thought of himself as a novelist first, he also made a sizable academic contribution in founding the University of Denver’s PhD program in creative writing. He toiled for many years teaching while also writing fiction at a glacial pace (“If Williams wrote half a dozen sentences he liked in a day’s work, he was satisfied”). However, after winning the 1973 National Book Award for the historical novel Augustus, Williams’s main reaction was disappointment at not receiving correspondingly special treatment from the university. Eventually, Williams’s alcoholism led him to neglect his students’ dissertations and to his removal from the writing program’s directorship in 1975. It is to Shields’s credit that by the end of this finely crafted biography readers will feel they have some insight into this talented, troubled enigma of a man.
World Fantasy Award winner Tidhar (Central Station) will leave readers’ heads spinning with this disorienting and gripping alternate history. Author Lior Tirosh, grieving a personal tragedy, travels home after years abroad and immediately has a series of strange encounters that pull him into a complex plot to destroy the border between worlds. He arrives in Palestina, the land that the Jews were offered on the Ugandan border in 1904, which both closely resembles and is profoundly different from the Israel of our world, and is followed by two government agents who are trying to stop the destruction of “borders,” though it’s unclear whose side they are really on. Tirosh discovers a niece he had forgotten, is accused of murder, narrowly dodges threats to his life, and takes on the role of a detective from one of his own novels as he tries to understand what is endangered and by whom. “No matter what we do, human history always attempts to repeat itself,” Tidhar writes, even as he explores the substantial differences in history that might arise from single but significant choices. Readers of all kinds, and particularly fans of detective stories and puzzles, will enjoy grappling with the numerous questions raised by this stellar work.
Nineteenth-century pianist and composer Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849) emerges as a reserved, inward man who creates passionate music in this expansive, authoritative biography. Musicologist and biographer Walker (Franz Liszt) paints Chopin, who was born in Poland and spent his adult life in Paris, as frail, consumptive and fussy, with a polite but aloof manner, a dry wit, and an aversion to disruptions and tumults. Though a Polish patriot, he avoided involvement in Polish uprisings against imperial Russian and Prussian rule and the French revolutions of 1830 and 1848. The saga’s great adventure is Chopin’s years-long relationship with the cigar-chomping, cross-dressing, scandal-courting novelist George Sand; he at first considered her an “antipathetic woman,” but she seduced and then became a caregiver to the sickly musician. Walker sets Chopin’s life against a vivid re-creation of the culture of virtuoso piano-playing in 19th-century Paris, where Chopin’s music stood out for its unaffected delicacy amid the clanging histrionics of rivals. Chopin sometimes seems like a cold fish, but Walker manages to unearth a warm, intelligent soul that matches the sublime music he wrote. The study is packed with information and insightful analyses of Chopin’s major works that will interest professional musicians, and even nonspecialists will be entranced by Walker’s piquant storytelling and graceful prose.
Walt (Taming American Power), a professor of international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, decries the American foreign policy of “liberal hegemony” as an abject failure and advocates “offshore balancing” in this thought-provoking work. Walt argues that, since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy community—“a highly conformist, inbred professional caste” that has refused to see the error of its ways and is partly responsible for Donald Trump’s electoral victory—has sought ”to spread democracy, markets, and other liberal values around the world,” believing that it “is both essential for U.S. security and easy to do,” as well as “good for the rest of the world.” After several chapters describing how militarized attempts to spread liberty and market-based economies abroad failed during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, Walt considers President Trump. In his analysis, Trump has combined the worst aspects of liberal hegemony with his own poorly considered attempts to institute “purely transactional” relationships that “forc[e] others to bear the greatest burdens.” Offshore balancing, the alternative Walt proposes, would see the U.S. committing its military forces only when necessary to protect its vital interests and relying on diplomacy and other “soft power” options as its primary means of interacting with the world. This excellent analysis is cogent, accessible, and well-argued.