This week: a journey through the heart of America's fast-food kingdom, plus Charles Manson, the CIA, and the secret history of the '60s.
Everybody, “no matter how refined the palate or how anointed the social status,” has a fast food pleasure, freelance writer Chandler states in his perceptive cultural history of the restaurants he identifies as a quintessentially American innovation. The book begins in a flurry of vivid portraiture of the genre’s titanic innovators. These tales of larger-than-life individuals—including the cussing-and-cooking “ham who served chicken” caricature Harlan Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and the famously “cruel” yet meticulously meritocratic Ray Kroc (McDonald’s)—start as glorious capitalist pirate tales but end with those idiosyncratic visions being “swallowed up by the burgeoning corporate state.” Chandler shows how the democratic spread of cheap, fast food reflects different periods in American history, from the prewar Upton Sinclair–inspired push for clean industrialized dining, to the postwar sprawl of prosperous highway-linked suburbs, and ultimately to the current divide over “interpretations of purity” in what constitutes healthy fast food. He throws cold water on the idea that “fast casual” eateries such as Chipotle are anything new, pointing out that their clean-looking aesthetic just harkens back to the industrial appeal of hamburger restaurants such as White Castle. This fun, argumentative, and frequently surprising pop history of American fast food will thrill and educate food lovers of all speeds.
This magnificent posthumous novel from Ginzburg (1916–1991), set in the early ’70s, is told almost entirely through a series of letters from one disconnected Italian family member to another. At the center of the epistolary drama is Michele, the son who has fled Italy for England. Michele’s mother, Adriana, constantly worries about his whereabouts and well-being. Michele’s sisters, meanwhile, must look after their mother in the wake of their father’s death. A prostitute named Mara crosses paths with the other characters and writes to Michele as she moves from temporary living situation to temporary living situation with a baby that may or may not be Michele’s . Michele eventually tells his sister that he is getting married in England. What can his mother do from afar? As she worries, she tells him she “wish[es] you happiness, if there is such a thing as happiness.” This is a riveting story about how even when a family drifts apart, the bonds of blood relations supercede the deepest disagreements. It’s also proof that Ginzburg is an absolute master of the family novel. Like Lucia Berlin and Clarice Lispector, Ginzburg may finally receive the recognition she so richly deserves.
Holmes’s debut charms, as a young widow and a former Major League pitcher learn to begin again. Evvie Drake has spent her whole life in Calcasset, Maine, and doesn’t feel as sad about her widowhood as she believe she should—possibly because she was packing up to leave her husband when she got the call about his deadly car accident. Then Dean Tenney, a former New York Yankees pitcher who has inexplicably lost his amazing pitching ability, comes to Maine to retreat from the media, and rents the apartment in Evvie’s house. Evvie and Dean grow closer, with the agreement that they not discuss her husband or his failed baseball trajectory. When Dean gets an opportunity to revamp his career with Evvie’s support, and she reveals some of the details of her difficult marriage to him, they develop trust and sparks ignite between them. But the future of their relationship depends on their ability to communicate and confide in one another. Believable, flawed characters are at the heart of this novel. At times deeply emotional yet sometimes extremely humorous, This is a satisfying crowd-pleaser.
Lee (Sonata in K) draws on her work as a poet, translator, and academic for this novel, which reads like a theory-infused dream from the Coleridgean pleasure dome. Language-drunk and story-simple, this novella is science fiction in the same way Finnegans Wake is sometimes called folklore. The narrator is a cloud—in the digital sense, and with a host of other nuances to the term—named Penny. She watches over the gardener Yang, a former government data “vigilante” now living hermitlike by the sea. She is, specifically, his cloud, though the two can no longer connect. Yang is keeper of the black bento box of algorithms, which was devised by the nine muses of the junta, the former rulers of Uberasia. The muses have vanished since a great data crash took down organized society. Using the algorithms, Yang seeks the seven harbingers of happiness that the junta foretold. But plot is hardly the point. Penny, a perennially hopeful AI, lives in her digressions and leapfrogging linguistic connections: “Please excuse this overgrown glossarium... Scripted with a prolix code, I generate multifarious queries to which I have no answers.” Yang does the same. Lee’s story is not about the journey; rather, it’s about the vast intricacy of human denotation, connotation, and dependency that language can depict but never capture. Lee releases the reader from the tyranny of narrative cause and effect, with exhilarating results. Though the work’s audience is quite limited, those happy few will love playing spot-the-reference or simply immersing in Lee’s glorious sea of words.
In his riveting debut, journalist O’Neill, assisted by coauthor Piepenbring, offers sensational revelations about the Tate-LaBianca murders at the hand of Charles Manson and his so-called family in Los Angeles in 1969. What began as a feature assignment for Premiere magazine on the 30th anniversary of the crime turned into O’Neill’s 20-year obsession with the murders. He questions the official narrative of the case, that Manson hated blacks and wanted to make it look as though the murderers were black revolutionaries, for instance, by writings pigs, a popular slang term for cops at that time, on the walls of both houses in the victims’ blood. O’Neill interviewed more than 500 witnesses, reporters, and cops in the course of his meticulous research. O’Neill suggests that drug dealers who knew Manson may have hired him to initiate “a vengeful massacre” on actor Sharon Tate and the other victims. O’Neill also uncovered the inexplicable leniency shown Manson and Susan Atkins before the murders by their parole officers when they broke the terms of their parole yet were never jailed for the offenses. In addition, O’Neill posits that Manson might have been one of the subjects of the CIA’s LSD/hallucinogens experiments. True crime fans will be enthralled.
Set in 1983, Shimada’s brilliant sequel to 2015’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders will thrill fans of golden age puzzle mysteries. Kozaburo Hamamoto, the president of the Hama Diesel company, has invited guests to celebrate Christmas at the unusual home he has constructed on Hokkaido. The building features intentionally sloping floors, and Hamamoto’s own rooms are in a tower resembling the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which can only be accessed by a drawbridge connecting it to the main structure. Self-styled sleuth Kiyoshi Mitarai investigates when a member of the party is stabbed to death with a knife inside a locked room. Oddly, the murder weapon has some string attached to it. Other bizarre elements include one of the victim’s hands being tied to the foot of a bed and a scream apparently issuing from the corpse a half hour after the killing. The tension rises as one impossibility follows another before an effective and dramatic reveal. Shimada combines fantastic crimes with a logical and fair solution likely to stump even the most astute readers.
At the start of Zander’s thought-provoking standalone sequel to The Swimmer and The Believer, aspiring diplomat Jakob Seger, an intern assigned to the Swedish embassy in Beirut, arrives in Lebanon in August 2015, several months before the nightmarish ISIS attacks in France. At a party, Jakob encounters the alluring Yassim, who says he’s a war photographer. The two begin a passionate affair that becomes all-consuming for Jakob. Three months later in Sweden, recovering alcoholic Klara Waldéen, a former European Parliament political adviser scarred from events in the earlier novels, attends her beloved grandfather’s funeral, where she reunites with her close friend Gabriella, an attorney who has exposed a Russian role in recent Stockholm riots. Eventually, the two narratives—Jakob’s fraught relationship with Yassim, who may be a terrorist, and Klara’s struggle to pull her life together—intersect on a flight across Europe with devastating results. Thriller fans who enjoy flawed, achingly human characters won’t be able to put this one down.