This week: the latest from Martin Cruz Smith, Erin Morgenstern, Carmen Maria Machado, and more.
Film historian Basinger (I Do and I Don’t) returns with this exhaustive and exhilarating survey of the American musical. Basinger starts by discussing the filmed vaudeville shorts that played in theaters even before Hollywood switched over to exclusively producing sound features in 1929, and goes all the way up to 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody. All the while, she examines each major development in musical film, such as how, in the early 1930s, the innovative use of sound and camera movement by directors Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian made “what formerly had been a stage-bound tradition” into a viable Hollywood genre. Basinger is informative and insightful on everything from celebrated classics such as Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain, to forgotten—yet once surprisingly popular—“singing cowboy” films such as Melody Ranch and Boots and Saddles. Because of the rigorous scholarship, readers will feel they are in good hands when Basinger digresses from strict facts into opinion—for instance, her scorching dislike for the 2016 Oscar-winner La La Land, which, unlike classic-era musicals, is “not energetic, optimistic, or determined to pin down joy for its characters”—in short, “it’s not American.” The depth of her dislike feels telling: this is a passion project for her. That passion should be infectious for all readers of Basinger’s monumental but fleet-footed epic.
Colfer’s clever spin-off of the Artemis Fowl series focuses on Artemis Fowl’s twin younger brothers—hyperintelligent Myles and near-feral Beckett, both 11. With their older sibling on Mars, the fraternal twins are dragged into a madcap adventure when they’re kidnapped by Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye, a 150-year-old duke seeking the secret to immortality, which he believes rests in the venom of a diminutive troll that the twins are protecting. Sister Jeromina, a nun and agent of the secret organization ACRONYM, also has them in her sights. Meanwhile, Lower Elements Police Specialist Lazuli Heitz, a pixel (pixie-elf hybrid), seeks to rescue the imperiled troll—and the twins by extension. A globetrotting caper transpires as the myriad factions attempt to outwit, outsmart, escape, and double-cross one another. Colfer’s trademark tongue-in-cheek narrative voice is on full display, his characters existing in a preposterous balance between sincerity and absurdity, mad science, and technology. Though a working familiarity with the previous books is handy, this series opener is accessible and entertaining: the fast-paced plot, filled with unexpected betrayals, death-defying feats, and secret train cars, will appeal to Fowl readers established and new. Ages 10–14.
Grayling (The God Argument), founder of London’s New College of the Humanities, presents an impressive, comprehensive catalogue of great thought and thinkers in this sweeping survey. Focusing on Western philosophy (a concluding section sketches Indian, Chinese, African, and Arabic- and Persian-language philosophical traditions), the volume chronologically surveys significant thinkers—including, but not limited to, Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, who emerge here as the foremost figures—and enlivens discussions of their schooling, influences, and arguments with judiciously applied anecdote, such as how Thomas Aquinas’s brothers smuggled a prostitute into his room in a (futile) attempt to stem his religious fervor. Overviews on related schools of thought are equally enlightening, clearly distinguishing, for instance, between Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of early Rome, 19th-century movements like positivism and pragmatism, and the 20th century’s diverging analytic and Continental schools. Perhaps Grayling’s greatest strength lies in his ability to categorize, contrast, and clarify complex ideas, such as Plato’s theory of forms and Kant’s categorical imperative. Elegant, clear, and precise, Grayling’s sweep through “the principal areas of enquiry” distills philosophy to its main concerns: discerning the nature of reality, the principles of sound society, and how to live a good life. Clearly outlining “the little patch of light” that he pictures as comprising human knowledge, Grayling’s superb work is an indispensable resource for any “serious student of ideas.”
Chronically ill Chloe Brown’s near-death experience is the catalyst for a thrilling, life-altering adventure that will keep readers riveted. Chloe, living but not thriving in present-day England, is on her daily walk when a car just misses crashing into her. Realizing life’s too short for her to settle for her boring routine, she creates a list of ways to change her life—starting with moving out of her family’s home and into her own apartment, and working up to traveling the world—but discovers that she needs a little push to follow through. Enter her new building superintendent, Redford “Red” Morgan, a tough guy with a heart of gold and a hidden artistic talent. Their relationship begins antagonistically, but the more time they spend together, with Red coaching Chloe through her list, the more sparks fly. It’s quickly clear that the question isn’t whether they’ll get together but whether they can overcome their past traumas to turn their fling into something that will last. Chloe is a fantastic heroine with a refreshing voice; she’s understandably prickly given all she goes through as a black, overweight, disabled woman, but that edge doesn’t make her any less endearing to Red or the reader. She feels real and so do her struggles. Red is also dynamic and fascinating. Both characters need to change their lives and stand up for themselves, and readers will find them inspiring. Best of all, the romance is sizzling hot. This contemporary is a page-turning winner.
In this haunting memoir, National Book Award–finalist Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) discusses the mental and physical abuse she was subjected to by her girlfriend. The book is divided into short, piercing chapters, in which Machado refers to the victimized version of herself as “you.” (“I thought you died, but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”) Machado discusses meeting the girlfriend (her first) in Iowa City, where Machado was getting her MFA. She masterfully, slowly introduces unease and dread as the relationship unfolds. The girlfriend turns threatening if Machado doesn’t immediately return her calls, starts pointless fights, and inflicts physical discomfort on Machado (squeezing her arm for no reason, for instance). The hostile environment turns utterly oppressive, yet Machado stays, becoming further disoriented by someone who inflicts harm one minute and declares her love the next. Machado interestingly weaves in cultural references (to movies like 1944’s Gaslight and 1984’s Carmen) as she considers portrayals of abuse. She points out that queer women endure abuse in their relationships just as heterosexual women do, and queer abusers shouldn’t be protected: “We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented.” The author eventually leaves her toxic relationship behind, but scars remain. Machado has written an affecting, chilling memoir about domestic abuse.
Built from fables, myths, and fairy tales, Morgenstern’s long-awaited second fantastical novel (following The Night Circus) delves into a vast subterranean library, the Harbor on the Starless Sea, a giant, maze-like, subterranean library where all languages are comprehensible to everyone, and time moves differently. Its wonders include moving statues, edible stories, and a sea made of honey. Narrative-obsessed grad student Zachary Rawlins happens upon an old, authorless collection in the campus library. Among the tales of an improbable land of books and their devotees is an anecdote from Zachary’s own childhood, a time when he found a magical door but chose to walk away, disbelieving. Desperate to understand and longing for a second chance at adventure, Zachary investigates and finds a literary party thrown by a secret society. He goes through a painted door in Central Park and into the Harbor itself, now long past its heyday and mostly deserted. Aboveground, the secret society is trying to close as many doors as possible, hoping to keep the Starless Sea hidden. Aided by otherworldly Mirabel, whose motives and history are obscure, and alluring Dorian, a former society member who opposes the closing of the doors, Zachary works to understand how the Harbor fell into disrepair and what he can do to protect it. He also learns what it means to be not just a reader but a part of the story, and what happens after that story ends. This love letter to bibliophiles is dreamlike and uncanny, grounded in deeply felt emotion, and absolutely thrilling.
A ghost of the Cuban revolution haunts the pages of this vivid and emotional literary fantasy from Older (Shadowhouse Fall). Marisol Aragones died after Castro gained power and the Cuban revolution turned sour, but she can’t remember how or why. Now a disembodied spirit in early-2000s New Jersey, with only a tenuous foothold in the land of the living, her one hope for piecing together her past is through her nephew, Ramon. Marisol spends her days observing—and criticizing—Ramon’s work as a hospital security guard and DJ and his hopeless feelings for his no-strings-attached fling, Aliceana Mendoza. At night, she infiltrates his dreams to give him visions of what little she remembers of her life during the revolution. These dreams send Ramon on a quest to uncover long-buried family secrets, dragging a difficult truth from his mother and traveling with Aliceana to Cuba, where the resistance works against the government in secret. Older’s descriptions of Cuba, both past and present, are thoroughly transportive. This moving story of family and freedom is sure to captivate readers.
In this standout collection, the Uruguayan Onetti (The Shipyard), who died in 1994, masterly depicts the seedy disillusionment of characters in a South American backwater. The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the short, trenchant tales of the 1930s and ’40s, the best of which include “The Possible Baldi,” “The Tragic End of Alfredo Plumet,” and “A Dream Come True.” The longer stories that follow are, like several of his novels, set in Santa Maria, an imaginary riverside town whose inhabitants—be they baronial planters, newspapermen, or drunkards—all seem baffled or defeated by the “incomprehensible ritual of living.” Onetti writes, “We all lie, even before words,” and many of the stories involve elaborate acts of self-deception and profound misinterpretations: a vagabond couple befriends a rich, elderly woman (“The Tale of Rosenkavalier and the Pregnant Virgin from Lilliput”); a newspaper writer’s estranged wife sends him lewd photographs of her with other men (“Most Dreaded Hell”); a husband punishes his wife for a long-ago indiscretion by paving over her beloved garden (“As Sad as She”). In the preamble to one memorable story, “Matias the Telegraph Operator,” Onetti’s narrator explains that “bare facts don’t matter at all. What matters is what they contain or carry, and then to discover what lies beyond that, and then beyond that, till we get to the deepest depths, which we will never reach.” There is a hint of Conrad in these misty tales that plunge beyond “bare facts” and conjure up a world suffused with misanthropy and meditative irony. Readers will be bewitched.
In the riveting fourth installment of Pico’s imaginative tetralogy, food, music, sex, and the void serve as means to reveal and dissect the speaker’s interior life. Stepping outside of his alter ego persona, Teebs, to wonder about the possibility of a “true self,” Pico resists the obvious narrative and claims that Teebs, perhaps, is more real than himself. The speaker declares himself a “recipe” made of the ingredients of his past and his family, defined by the intergenerational trauma of Native American genocide and displacement. His Native identity is both an albatross and an amulet of protection: “My spirits surround me like a cloud of disapproving aunties, keeping most of you at bay.” Amid the purposeful cacophony and confusion the poet throws at the reader, exacerbated by a lack of punctuation and erratic changes in line length, there are moments of stunning beauty: “What a better time than in the face/ of spring and the spring/ ephemerals—a bloom/ so/ short/ it puts the fleet in ‘fleeting feeling.’ ” Readers familiar with Pico’s work will find continuity from previous volumes; the poet’s present concerns and ongoing obsessions are proffered in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness format that is actually meticulously well-organized. New readers, as well, can easily dive in.
Powell’s debut is a not-to-be-missed tale of mystery, love, and community. The coastal town of Twillengyle is home to both humans and sirens. Most of the time, they coexist peacefully, so long as the townspeople carry iron to protect them from siren song, but sirens are blamed when the body of Connor, 12, is found on the shore, and many of the town’s residents begin clamoring to lift the ban that prevents siren hunting. But violinist Moira and friend Jude don’t buy the police’s siren story; having seen the corpse themselves, they believe that Connor was murdered as a step toward undoing their deceased fathers’ work establishing the ban. In the quest to discover the culprit and protect the sirens, Moira and Jude find they’re closer to the murderer than they thought. Featuring solid worldbuilding, unforgettable characters, and well-paced plot that fantasy and mystery fans alike will enjoy, this twisty, atmospheric story grips readers like a siren song while examining questions about what really distinguishes humans and monsters. Ages 12–up.
The phenomenal penultimate volume of Sattouf’s epic five-part autobiography takes a dark turn, charting the French-Syrian cartoonist’s descent into puberty in the late 1980s and early ’90s as his family fractures around him. Leaving childhood means leaving a life insulated from the cares and expectations of adults; the relationship between Sattouf’s father and mother is so contemptuous it’s brought out each other’s worst impulses. “I’ve had it up to here with Arabs!” Sattouf’s French-born mother screams during an argument. Meanwhile, Sattouf’s Syrian-born father, once a promising young academic, finds comfort and social acceptance in the embrace of fundamentalist religion and nationalism—which transform him into a misogynist and virulent anti-Semite. Sattouf’s parents now live apart, with his father teaching in Saudi Arabia and sending money to France, where Sattouf, his siblings, and his mother live. As an adolescent, Sattouf is more of a witness to this schism than an active participant, and his concerns center around a growing awareness of his body’s transformation, the loss of his childhood cuteness, and navigating the social politics of middle school. Drawn with broad comedic cartoons, these moments keep the toxic destruction of his family from overwhelming the narrative. Sattouf depicts the disappointments and uncertainties of growing up in a unique multicultural world in a way that’s sometimes tense, sometimes humorous, and always brilliant.
MWA Grand Master Smith’s stellar ninth outing for Arkady Renko (after 2013’s Tatiana) finds the maverick detective, who serves as an investigator of special cases for Zurin, the Moscow Prosecutor, growing increasingly concerned over his inability to reach his girlfriend, investigative journalist Tatiana Petrovna, after she fails to return to Moscow as scheduled from an assignment. Arkady knows only that she went to Siberia. Meanwhile, Zurin orders Arkady to travel to Siberia to oversee the prosecution of Aba Makhmud, a Chechen terrorist. Zurin directs Arkady to insure that Makhmud, who tried to kill the Moscow Prosecutor, receives a lengthy prison sentence, and threatens to harm Arkady’s stepson if he fails to do so. Arkady is keener to go to Siberia once he learns Tatiana is probably still there, doing a story on Mikhail Kuznetsov, the so-called “hermit billionaire,” who may run against Putin in the next election. The stakes rise after Renko arrives in Siberia and becomes involved in investigating a Russian oligarch’s murder. Smith does his usual superior job of blending plot and setting. This is a must for any crime fiction fan interested in the underside of Putin’s Russia.
Winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Tariq’s daring debut explores the intersection of black, queer, and Southern identity through the concept of “bottom,” both as a sexual role and a position in the social hierarchy. The conceit is often playful, as in the repeated phrase “Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom,” which is woven throughout the collection: “His Tastykake/ cake/ His Doublicious Kandy Kake/ cake cake/ the bounce/ of his Little Debbie/ cake.” More often, this concept makes erotic submission continuous with historical traumas, torquing familiar expressions: “Take this moan as historical rendering,/ my downward-facing sigh. Thy rod/ and thy staff they come for me.” Charting a journey from Savannah to Michigan, Tariq’s confessionalism can be direct, as in the title poem (“I take my own pills as I once learned/ to sign for my mother’s birth/ control. Preventative measures”), or suggestively and wittily oblique: “He’s never had/ a black man. I’ve never had myself.” Readers of Robin Coste Lewis will appreciate Tariq’s archival erasures, while Natasha Trethewey fans will appreciate a journey to South Carolina’s “Ellis Island of Slavery,” where “baby strollers and casual dog walks/ file before a single marquee meant to hold/ place for history.” Reckoning with historical atrocities and making use of a variety of formal gestures, Tariq triumphs in creating his distinctive brand of blues.
Drawing on an extraordinary level of archival access, Travisano (editor of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell), a professor emeritus of English at Hartwick College, offers a definitive biography–cum–literary study of Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979). As Travisano asserts, even “her more elusive or enigmatic poems... seem almost transparent when biographical insights are sensitively applied.” Familial traumas (her father’s death when she was an infant and her mother’s struggles with mental illness) and a disrupted childhood spent being passed among various relatives found reflection in poems such as “Sestina,” which describes her realization that her mother had been institutionalized. Travisano follows Bishop’s career through her earliest juvenilia; her blossoming years at Vassar (1929–1934); her friendships with other poets, such as Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell; and her many travels—most significantly, the intended two-week stay in Brazil that stretched into 14 years, chronicled in the major work Questions of Travel (1965). Travisano also tracks Bishop’s accumulating honors—a 1946 Guggenheim Fellowship, 1956 Pulitzer Prize, and 1970 National Book Award—and deepening renown among her peers. Explaining how a writer who published barely a hundred poems during her lifetime left a lasting imprint on later generations of poets, Travisano’s essential volume illuminates Bishop’s life and, most valuably, her work.
In Bangladeshi American Zaman’s collection, his U.S. debut, the stark class lines drawn between those in the main house and those living outside of it in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are blurred as he navigates the lives of the latter with empathy, precision, and grace. In the title story, Kabir is torn between his love for his wife, Anwara, and his worry that she’s having too much fun playing mistress while the real master and mistress are away. Some stories’ characters orbit or serve the same main family, the Qureshis, as in “The Father and the Judge,” in which a father who’s worried about his daughter’s abusive husband travels to a city where one Qureshi is a judge to ask him for the authority and protection of his name. In one of the best stories, “The Holdup,” a wave of crime has gripped the Gulshan district; the intimate nature of the robberies means that it’s the servants that fall under suspicion. For Noor the cook, this suspicion results in a double victimization when he gets into an accident that “conveniently,” per the police, knocks him out as a robbery occurs. Modern-day Dhaka and its residents are generously represented in this powerful collection. Meticulously constructed in both language and emotion, Zaman’s stories sneak up on the reader and consistently deliver.