This week, we highlight new books from Alex Ross, Natasha Lester, and David Nasaw.
The 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) is all things to all people in this sweeping cultural history. New Yorker music writer Ross (The Rest is Noise) surveys the ongoing influence of Wagner, whose operas wrapped tales of gods, heroes, knights, Valkyries, rapturous loves, and apocalyptic infernos in enthralling music that mixed bombast with sensuousness, spirituality, and psychological complexity. Ross explores how Wagner’s protean music and ideology mesmerized “Wagnerians” of many stripes; infamously, his anti-Semitic polemics made him Hitler’s favorite composer, but he has also been claimed as an anarcho-socialist revolutionary and as an inspiration by Jews, feminists, gays, and blacks (for W.E.B. Du Bois, Wagner signified ethereal beauty beyond a racist reality). Ross follows Wagner’s long reach everywhere: Nietzchean philosophy, high-modernist novels, The Lord of the Rings, cowboy stories, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and such Hollywood epics as Birth of a Nation, Apocalypse Now, and Captain America. Ross manages to tame the sprawl with incisive analysis and elegant prose that casts Wagner’s music as “an aesthetic war zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longing for creation and destruction, its inclinations toward beauty and violence.” The result is a fascinating study of the impact that emotionally intense music and drama can have on the human mind.
In this fierce debut, a trilogy opener, Clarke conjures up a powerful, passionate tale of female friendship and found family. Senior Sideways Pike, a witch, is used to being considered a social outcast, but when the three most popular girls at school pay her $40 to spice up a Halloween party with a little magic, she accepts. Her spell spirals out of control and leaves chalk sigils and runes all over the house, making an impression upon her fellow high schoolers. The clique adopts her as their own, and the four soon form a coven, exacting vengeance upon their enemies and exploring the depths of their new magical and emotional connections. As Sideways and her new friends—Yates, Jing, and Daisy—grow comfortable with their power, they’re hunted by a family dedicated to “purifying the world” by eradicating magic. Sideways’s lyrically defiant voice memorably conveys the group’s rough-edged intimacy, and messages about magic’s ambiguity and teenage girls’ power grants this story a complex edge. Unapologetically queer—many of the characters, including Sideways and her adoptive dads, fall under the LGBTQ umbrella—and seething with raw emotion, this fantasy opens strong while leaving much to be explored in future installments.
Salmón (Eating the Landscape), head of California State University East Bay’s Indian Studies program, provides a beautifully illustrated and philosophically uplifting guide to indigenous North American plant use. For background, Salmón delves into the spiritual beliefs of various cultures, including the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and Arizona; the Cherokee, who once inhabited southeastern marshes; and his own people, the Rarámuri of Chihuahua, Mexico, originators of the “iwígara” concept “that all life, spiritual and physical, is interconnected in a continual cycle.” The bulk of the text consists of a glossary of plants’ traditional medicinal and ceremonial purposes. A particular highlight of this section consists of the perhaps surprising uses introduced for familiar species. The blueberry is a fine example of this, having been used to treat colic, fever, and varicose veins, and to improve night vision. Likewise, sugar maple trees can be used for more than syrup; their inner bark can also be used for “sore eyes and as a cough remedy.” Salmón includes vintage botanical drawings, b&w historical photos of the people from the cultures discussed, and color photos of the plants. This lovely compendium will strike a chord with many a nature-loving reader.
Lester (The Paris Orphan) entrances with this lush romance set in WWII Britain and present-day Australia. In 1940, pilot Skye Penrose becomes one of the first women to join the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian flying service that ferries planes from factories to Royal Air Force bases. On one of her missions, Skye comes face to face with her long-lost childhood friend Nicholas Crawford, a member of the American Eagle Squadron. Though Nicholas is already engaged to Margaux Jourdan, a stunning woman who works for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, he and Skye fall deeply in love. In 2012, Margaux’s granddaughter, Kat, an Australian fashion conservator, travels to England for work, stopping to check-in at her grandmother’s cottage in Cornwall. Kat is amazed to discover a closet of vintage Dior dresses that hint at a different life-story for her grandmother than the one Kat knows. Back in Australia, Kat is contacted by Elliott Beaufort, an author researching a book on WWII who believes that Margaux was actually a high-powered spy for the French Resistance. As Kat helps Elliott with his research, they embark on a sensual romance—but their love affair is interrupted when Kat discovers the real reason Elliott is searching for her grandmother. Lester’s magnetic characters, lyrical writing, and extensive historical research breathe life into this riveting tale. This is a stunner.
Hugo Award–winning editor Williams collects 12 stories that dissolve the distance between humans and technology in this outstanding addition to the Twelve Tomorrows anthology series (after Twelve Tomorrows), which focuses on the relationships of the future. Technological advancements are compassionately juxtaposed with human frailties in Nick Wolven’s bighearted “Sparklybits,” in which the only stay-at-home mother of a multi-mom family must make a decision about their virus-infected smarthome. Chinese author Xia Jia’s fiercely ethical “The Monk of Lingyin Temple,” translated by Ken Liu, introduces a nanotech designed “so that people can, through the medium of the cloud, experience one another’s suffering.” Rich Larson’s wrenching “Echo the Echo” explores grief through neural upload technology. Balancing out this philosophical fare are more plot-oriented genre works such as Annalee Newitz’s “The Monogamy Hormone,” about a love triangle resolved through polyamory, and Suzanne Palmer’s “Don’t Mind Me,” in which parents implant content filters into their children’s brains. Pairing scientific precision with emotional insight, this accessible anthology makes a powerful case for featured author Nancy Kress’s assertion that “stories are made out of and for people.” Readers will be captivated.
Moskvitch (Call Me “Pops”: Le Bon Dieu Dans La Rue), a former Wired editor, delivers an enthralling look at neutron stars, “the small but ultra-dense and incredibly magnetic objects born out of the remnants of massive stars.” Despite the subject’s complexity, Moskvitch skillfully explicates these bizarre celestial objects, memorably dubbing them “cosmic zombies” for the way they send radio waves, gamma rays, and x-rays after the “death” of the stars from which they originate. Breaking up the science, she vividly describes visits to research stations across the world, from the “desolate, Mars-like landscape of the Atacama Desert in Chile” to the “huge radio-quiet zone in Pocahontas County in the mountains of West Virginia.” In addition to explaining how neutron stars are the source of most of the heavy elements like gold and platinum, Moskvitch looks at a related new scientific field, multi-messenger astronomy, which gathers all the signals generated by a cosmic event, such as two neutron stars colliding. Its scientific potential, she writes, is impressive and includes the prospect of using neutron stars as a galaxy-scale navigation system that can “guide humans to other worlds.” Carl Sagan devotees will relish this portrayal of a new frontier in science.
Historian Nasaw (The Patriarch) delivers a richly detailed account of what happened to the one million Holocaust survivors, former slave laborers, and POWs who found themselves in Germany at the end of WWII. He reveals the contempt some military occupation leaders, including Gen. George Patton, felt for these displaced persons, and expertly documents how a humanitarian approach to the crisis often yielded to narrow, long-term foreign policy goals and Cold War considerations. Nasaw details England’s hyperrestrictive policies on Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the nativist, anti-Semitic stances of U.S. lawmakers who were more focused on preventing communists from slipping into America under the 1948 Displaced Persons Act than they were on stopping Nazis from doing so. As a result, Nasaw writes, “untold numbers of anti-Semites, Nazi collaborators and war criminals acquired entrance to the United States.” Besides allowing enemy collaborators to enter the country, Nasaw contends, America’s incoherent policy also contributed to the last displaced persons not leaving Germany until 1957, a full 12 years after WWII ended. Nasaw skillfully and movingly relates a multilayered story with implications for contemporary refugee crises. This meticulously researched history is a must-read.
Léger’s standout conclusion to her trilogy of meditations on the lives of women (after Exposition) shuttles between the stories of Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who hitchhiked across Europe in a wedding dress in 2008, and the narrator’s mother, who was put through a grueling divorce in 1970s France. The narrator traces Bacca’s journey through the Balkans, noting how Bacca had “wanted to travel through countries that had recently experienced war.” Along the way, Bacca washed the feet of local midwives and vowed to “never refuse to get in a car.” After consciously placing herself at risk by traveling alone, Bacca was murdered in Turkey by one of the drivers who picked her up. The narrator then sifts through possible interpretations of Bacca’s self-destructive act, wrestling with her own “inability to grasp what was simultaneously significant and trivial in her gesture.” After an encounter with an unsympathetic male journalist, the narrator abandons an attempt to interview Bacca’s mother and visits her own mother, whose ex-husband had cheated on her but schemed to make her declared the guilty party in court. Now at the end of her life, the narrator’s mother tries to enlist her daughter to “defend, or even avenge” her, despite the narrator’s reluctance. Throughout, Léger offers striking observations on how making art distills experience, while references to the polar approaches of Leo Tolstoy and Svetlana Alexeivich—adorned descriptions vs. unalloyed reporting—inform Léger’s own method. Readers should not miss this smart, skillful reckoning with acts of selflessness, betrayal, and grief.