This week: new books from James Ellroy, Elizabeth Gilbert, and more.
Barton (The Bible: The Basics), editor-in-chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, provides a clear, comprehensive look at “the story of the Bible from its remote beginnings in folklore and myth to its reception and interpretation in the present day.” Barton writes with a jargon-free style, surveying in simple language what is known and not known about when the Hebrew Bible was written. He adopts a non-fundamentalist position that concludes that the account of the origins of the Israelites “was, at best, folk-memory,” given that they were recorded centuries after the events they describe. He offers a similar scholarly look at the dating of the writing of the Gospels and at how those texts have been interpreted over the centuries. That analysis supports his contention that no versions of either Judaism or Christianity “correspond point by point to the contents of the Bible,” despite fundamentalists’ claims to the contrary. Barton notes, for example, that observant Judaism’s dietary restrictions and Christianity’s doctrine of the Trinity go far beyond what the texts of the Bible state. He concludes that freedom of interpretation and commitment to religious faith are complementary, rather than antithetical. Barton’s rigorous, accessible history will appeal to academics and general readers alike.
Blondel’s captivating second novel (following The 6:41 from Paris) tracks an aging high school English teacher’s strange relationship with a famous young painter. Louis Claret, approaching 60, lives alone in a small, cold apartment in his provincial French city. His ex-wife, Anne, amicably divorced him years earlier and is happily remarried; his two adult daughters have moved away. Claret’s life changes when he is invited to Alexandre Laudin’s art opening. Laudin, a local celebrity whose painting has achieved national attention, was Claret’s student, but Claret barely remembers him. Laudin invites a surprised Claret to his apartment, shows him a stunning new sequence of triptychs, and makes an unusual offer: he’d like Claret to pose. Claret agrees, and each time he is painted, Blondel reveals more of his past through beautiful, italicized sequences. The experience lets him dwell on a life of roads not taken and of regret mingled with beauty. All along, Laudin reveals his true self, and eventually, Claret is given the chance to strip bare. The novel flies by with gentle humor, but it also poses complex questions about the meaning of art and sexuality, and offers an elegiac look at late middle age. Claret’s evolution is irresistible, and the story’s fundamental kindness sets it apart.
MWA Grand Master Ellroy’s stunning sequel to 2014’s Perfidia opens in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve 1941. Anti-Japanese hysteria has reached a fever pitch and shifting alliances of left-wing and right-wing groups struggle to work out the best way to profit off the war. Dudley Smith, a police sergeant, has taken an Army commission south of the border, ostensibly to thwart Fifth Column pro-Nazi subversives and suspected Japanese submarine encroachments in Baja, but in reality to set up a lucrative wartime business smuggling heroin and illegal immigrant labor. Meanwhile, the L.A. police uncover a body in Griffith Park. Brilliant forensics expert Hideo Ashida, assisted by a talented young scientist with secrets of her own, must grapple with his devotion to Smith and his own conscience as he begins to piece together an intricate story involving a decade-old gold heist and a lethal fire in the park. As Smith squares off against Bill Parker, an LAPD captain on the rise, things get complicated and ugly very quickly. Just when it seems that things couldn’t get darker, Ellroy peels back a deeper level of corruption. This obsessive, wholly satisfying probing of 20th-century American history deserves a wide readership.
Gilbert (The Signature of All Things) begins her beguiling tale of an innocent young woman discovering the excitements and pleasures of 1940 New York City with a light touch, as her heroine, Vivian Morris, romps through the city. Gradually the story deepens into a psychologically keen narrative about Vivian’s search for independence as she indulges her free spirit and sexuality. Freshly expelled from Vassar for not attending any classes, 19-year-old Vivian is sent by her parents to stay with her aunt Peggy Buell in Manhattan. Peg runs a scruffy theater that offers gaudy musical comedies to its unsophisticated patrons. As WWII rages in Europe, Vivian is oblivious to anything but the wonder behind the stage, as she becomes acquainted with the players in a new musical called City of Girls, including the louche leading man with whom she falls in love with passionate abandon. Vivian flits through the nightclubs El Morocco, the Diamond Horseshoe, and the Latin Quarter, where she hears Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Prima. Drinking heavily and scooting into the arms of numerous men, one night at the Stork Club she meets Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist, who plays a pivotal role in the tabloid scandal in which Vivian becomes embroiled. Vivian’s voice—irreverent, witty, robust with slang—gradually darkens with guilt when she receives a devastating comeuppance. Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the harsh truths of existence as the country plunges into WWII. Vivian—originally reckless and selfish, eventually thoughtful and humane—is the perfect protagonist for this novel, a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness.
In this excellent modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, aspiring poet Ayesha Shamsi juggles her dreams and the stifling expectations of Toronto’s Indian-Muslim community. She picks a practical career as a high school teacher and watches as her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, collects marriage proposals like trading cards. After a misunderstanding, Ayesha pretends to be Hafsa while planning a youth conference, where she is required to collaborate with conservative Khalid, a newcomer to the area. Ayesha pegs Khalid as rigid and judgmental on their first meeting because of his white robes and reserved behavior. She doesn’t object to arranged marriages, but believes compatibility is important, and she scorns Khalid’s complacency with accepting his mother’s choice of bride. Family loyalty is a recurring theme, as Ayesha puts her hopes of being a poet on hold while she earns money to repay her wealthy uncle and Khalid refuses to question his overbearing mother. As Ayesha and Khalid work on the conference together, Khalid learns to accommodate different viewpoints. With humor and abundant cultural references, both manifest in the all-seeing all-criticizing aunty brigade, Jalaluddin cleverly illustrates the social pressures facing young Indian-Muslim adults. Jalaluddin stays true to the original Austen while tackling meatier issues likes workplace discrimination, alcoholism, and abortion. Even readers unfamiliar with Austen’s work will find this a highly entertaining tale of family, community, and romance.
Nature writer Macfarlane (The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot) expands readers’ horizons while delving into the various “worlds beneath our feet” in an eye-opening, lyrical, and even moving exploration. His look at the network of roots below London’s Epping Forest leads into a discussion of the recent discovery that trees share nutrients with neighboring trees that are ill or under stress, a finding consistent with new ideas about plant intelligence and a “wood wide web” of interconnected plant and fungal life. In another section, Macfarlane descends more than half a mile below the Yorkshire countryside to visit “a laboratory set into a band of translucent silver rock salt left behind by the evaporation of an epicontinental northern sea some 250 million years earlier,” where a physicist is searching for proof of dark matter’s existence. Here, too, Macfarlane makes counterintuitive concepts fully accessible while capturing the poetry beneath the science, describing the tangible world humans perceive “as mere mist and silk” in relation to dark matter. Perhaps most importantly, he places humanity’s time on Earth in a geological context, revealing how relatively insignificant it is. Macfarlane’s rich, evocative survey enables readers to view themselves “as part of a web... stretching over millions of years past and millions to come,” and deepen their understanding of the planet.
In this soaring combination of social critique, memoir, and manifesto, Odets (In the Shadow of the Epidemic) urges gay men “to discover or rediscover identities that are internally rooted, self-expressive, and revealed in authentically lived lives.” Drawing on his psychological forebears (Erik Erikson and Judith Herman among them), his own experiences (including those unrelated to romantic love, like grieving his mother’s death when he was a child), and the stories of patients he has seen in decades of practice as a psychologist, he highlights—with literary flair—shared trauma, stigma, shame, and suffering that he sees as particular to gay men’s experience in America, often contributing to a compromised existence of failed conformity to social norms. Odets unpacks the difference between “gay” and “homosexual,” defining the former as “an entire internal life of feeling” versus a “single, objective behavior.” His discussions of gay men’s sexual expression and relationships are frank, compassionate, and open-minded. He writes, “Only through self-discovery and self-acceptance can we most fully realize our lives,” and that “in the end, authentic self-acceptance—or the lack of it—is almost the entirety of what defines a life.” Odets’s greatest strengths are his moving prose and ability to make the psychological material accessible and as fascinating and thought-provoking as the poignant stories. Gay men will find much to ponder here, but any reader can find meaning in this extraordinary, stirring invitation to re-examine assumptions about what it means to be gay and to have a good life.
Ohlin’s third novel (after Inside) is the engrossing, intricate tale of half-sisters Lark and Robin Brossard. In their Montreal childhood, Lark, a few years older, stands in for Robin’s mother, Marianne, who is mostly absent. Creative Robin is an excellent pianist while Lark is a quiet scholar. Lark wins a scholarship to a college near Boston, and her time there is the only period she isn’t tasked with being her sister’s keeper—until Robin appears at her doorstep during Lark’s second year. Lark becomes Robin’s guardian and the sisters move to New York: Lark to graduate film school as she hones her documentary filmmaking prowess and Robin to Juilliard for piano. Most of Lark’s time is spent working as an assistant for a reclusive director (who becomes her lover) and worrying after Robin, who drops out of school and aimlessly wanders. Later, in her mid-30s, Lark is desperate for a child, but her director-lover already has a grown daughter. When an accident upends Lark’s life, their roles reverse and Robin becomes caretaker of her sister. Ohlin smartly chooses a broad scope and expertly weaves Lark and Robin’s disparate lives into a singular thread, making for an exceptional depiction of the bond between sisters.
Scanlan’s outstanding debut inventively adapts a real woman’s diary. This slim volume’s opening note states that 15 years ago at an estate auction, Scanlan found the diary of a woman who lived in small-town Illinois; the diary covered 1968 through 1972, and the woman was 86 years old when she started writing. Over the years, Scanlan “edited, arranged, and rearranged” the contents, the product of which is this volume. Each entry mostly consists of only two or three sentences per page, and the material is ostensibly normal. “D. washed my head. Fed all my flowers. No dogs in sight today” reads one entry; another reads: “Terrible windy everything loose is traveling.” The diary-keeper has dozens of acquaintances she sees (“Ruth came thru operation. Hiller’s house burned”; “Myra picked up 53 sparrows dead”), and fills these pages with activities (“That puzzle a humdinger”), movements (“D. out to cemetery, her head stone is being put up”; “Found nice teaspoon out in pasture”), and observations (“I weighed 120 had on blue & new shoes. My feet smelled some”). The book is a fascinating chronicle of Scanlan’s obsession, but, more than that, it transforms a seemingly ordinary life into a profound and moving depiction of how humans can love and live. Scanlan’s portrait of an everywoman feels entirely new.
Taliaferro (Great White Fathers), a former senior editor at Newsweek, delivers an impressive, eminently readable biography of the great conservationist George Bird Grinnell (1849–1938). In rendering a life that was “a study in romanticism, evolution, and progressivism,” Taliaferro meticulously draws from 40,000 pages of correspondence, about 50 diaries and notebooks covering Grinnell’s travels, 35 years of articles and editorials from his magazine, Forest and Stream, and Grinnell’s many books, including the history The Fighting Cheyennes, seven novels for boys, and an unfinished autobiography. Grinnell lived on the East Coast, in New York State and Connecticut, but he lived for the West. In addition to bestowing his name, “in a rare breach of modesty,” on a glacier and a lake in Montana, Grinnell formed the Audubon Society, cofounded the Boone and Crockett Club with Theodore Roosevelt, and “midwifed” Glacier National Park, while helping protect Yosemite and Yellowstone from developers. He just missed being among the dead at Little Big Horn, yet listened intently to Native Americans throughout his life and lobbied for them in Washington, D.C. Anyone who’s ever set foot in a national park and wondered how it came to be will find an important part of the answer in this expansive look at an equally expansive life.
Virji (The Skinny Book), a family physician and bariatric specialist practicing in Dawson, Minn., paints a harsh portrait of small-town America following the 2016 presidential elections in this clear-eyed memoir. Virji, of South Indian descent, begins with the story of moving with his family from Pennsylvania to Minnesota in 2013 to manage a hospital and open a weight loss clinic. Once there, Virji quickly makes friends and builds a successful practice. But in 2016, rural Minnesota becomes Trump country, leaving Virji with difficult questions about his place and purpose. Written in powerful vignettes that jump easily from flashback to present, the story revolves largely around a lecture Virji gave to a church, entitled “Love Thy Neighbor,” in which he attempts to answer commonly held misconceptions about Muslims. That lecture leads to more lectures, until Virji becomes an in-demand speaker in parts of rural America where Christian religious and political fervor dominate. Virji shows the community work he—and many others—are doing to combat a negative political climate through education and outreach. This is a vivid account of one man’s efforts to make sense of political tensions, racial hatred, and religious misunderstandings.
Winslow’s stellar debut follows the residents of a black neighborhood in a tiny North Carolina town over the course of several decades, beginning in 1941 and ending in 1987. At the center of the novel is ornery Azalea, nicknamed Knot. Twenty-six when the novel begins, she has moved to West Mills, where she now teaches in the elementary school, to get away from her middle-class family and to keep her drinking problem a secret from them. She never wants for male companionship, but her two closest friends are men with whom she has no romantic interest. Sweet, stable Otis Lee, who lives next door with beloved, mouthy wife Pep, keeps Knot grounded as she tries to choose between motherhood and independence. Gay bartender Valley, who spends years in D.C. and Europe between stretches in West Mills, provides her with a sense of the world outside. Events in that outside world, including WWII and the civil rights movement, touch lightly on the residents of the town, but most of their attention goes to personal relationships and to holding on to secrets that give them leverage over others. Knot is a wonderful character, with a stubborn commitment to her own desires. Winslow has a finely tuned ear for the way the people of this small town talk, and his unpretentiously poetic prose goes down like a cool drink of water on a hot day.