This week, we highlight new books from Carl Rollyson, David Hajdu, and Bill Clegg.
In this intense debut memoir, Harding writes of the aftermath of a traumatic experience as a teenager. In 1978, at age 14, she was abducted from a church across the street from her Omaha school by a ski-masked stranger, 17-year-old Charles Goodwin. He rapes her and demands ransom from her parents before tying her up and leaving her near a set of train tracks. Goodwin, who had a criminal record and served in juvenile detention, was far from Harding’s only source of trauma, though. Harding recounts heartbreaking tales of her abusive, mentally ill mother, who locked her and her sisters in an unheated garage during the winter as punishment for minor offenses. “They say with severe crimes there’s no avoiding the aftermath,” Harding writes. “What they don’t say is how post-traumatic stress can become a disorder because of your childhood family, the one you’re trying to survive.” Even as she fears for her own mental state, struggles with PTSD, and loses her father to suicide, Harding breaks the cycle of abuse taught to her by her dysfunctional family, and she is now happily in a healthy relationship. This moving story of grit and resilience will resonate with readers long after the final page is turned.
The concluding volume of this two-part biography of Faulkner shows Rollyson, a Baruch College professor emeritus, as both a careful observer of Faulkner the man, and an adept and perceptive reader of his work. Rollyson devotes much attention to the lingering influence of Faulkner’s lucrative but creatively frustrating work as a screenwriter, in a period that saw him largely turn his back on Hollywood and refocus on novel-writing in Oxford, Miss., receiving a Nobel Prize for his fiction in 1949. While Faulkner viewed his Hollywood sojourn as a mere “interruption of his novelist’s mission,” Rollyson argues that it made Faulkner produce “a different sort of fiction,” both in using cinematic techniques and in actively trying to move past the film industry’s “conventional plotlines and pieties” in works such as The Wild Palms and Absalom, Absalom. Rollyson also delves insightfully into Faulkner’s passionate extramarital affair with Meta Carpenter, a fellow Mississippian he met in Hollywood; his prodigious bouts of drinking; and his enigmatic personality, which used a courtly and reserved manner to mask his troubled inner self. Rollyson’s painstakingly researched and beautifully written biography should be a touchstone for Faulkner scholarship for years to come.
Beck returns to small-town Potomac Point (first visited in If You Must Know) in this memorable and deeply felt contemporary. Anne Sullivan and her teenage daughter, Katy, move to Potomac Point hoping for a fresh start far away from Anne’s soon-to-be ex-husband and his new lover. When Anne hires Dan Foley, her high school crush, to renovate her grandparents’ house so she and Katy can move in, Dan discovers a box of mysterious memorabilia from Anne’s grandmother’s past—including photographs of a man who is not her grandfather. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for Anne to get answers about it from her grandmother, who’s suffering from dementia and fighting the demons of regret. Meanwhile, the move and the drawn-out divorce exacerbate Katy’s previously ignored mental health issues. Anne must find a way to help both of her loved ones while also finding time to remember who she is outside of her family’s demands on her. Beck spins a poignant, multigenerational coming-of-age tale as these three women navigate their identities, dreams, and love lives. Complex and introspective, this is by turns heart-wrenching and infectiously hopeful.
Set in 1930s England, Edgar winner Edwards’s sequel to 2019’s Gallows Court is a triumph, from its tantalizing opening, in which an unnamed dying man begins to explain an unspecified perfect crime, through its scrupulously fair final reveal. Rachel Savernake, an enigmatic figure fascinated with mysteries, is tipped off by Reggie Vickers, who works in Whitehall, that someone is about to be murdered. Gilbert Payne, a publisher believed dead, is set to travel, incognito, from London to his mother’s funeral in the country. Rachel warns Gilbert that his life is in peril, but he ignores her, and ends up dead under the wheels of a train. Meanwhile, Rachel’s reporter friend, Jacob Flint, is approached by Leonora Dobell, one of the country’s top criminologists, who seeks an introduction to Rachel, who later attends a house party at Leonora’s home, Mortmain Hall, on the Yorkshire coast, for “acquitted murder suspects,” whose ranks include other individuals Reggie mentioned to Rachel. The labyrinthine plot builds to a logical explanation. Edwards, the current president of the Detection Club, a group of British mystery writers founded in 1930, impressively channels Agatha Christie, one of his predecessors in that position.
Music critic Hajdu (Love for Sale) dissembles with tongue firmly in cheek in his inventive debut novel, which takes as its subject the “Queen of Bleak Chic,” a piano phenom who breaks out in the early 1980s after withdrawing from Juilliard. Pianist Adrianne Geffel has a neurological condition that enables her to express her feelings through music. Geffel emerges through an oral history told by her family members who reflect on her troubled childhood (she ran away at nine) and others. Many try to exploit her talent, such as a pompous fellow student at Juilliard who positions himself as her manager, or claim to understand it (“Readers interested in how musical art evolves... will be intrigued to read future pieces by me on Adrianne Geffel’s music,” writes a critic). After the oral accounts catch up to the height of Geffel’s success in the mid-’80s, they turn to her disappearance at the age of 26 and gain greater poignancy. The author establishes Geffel’s impact on American popular culture from the very beginning (one can be accused of “only geffelling,” “over-geffelling,” or “not geffelling enough”), which makes the various accounts of her credible and engaging all the way to the end. Hajdu’s vigorous send-up of the late-20th-century music scene sings.
Green (The Heart of the Matter), a rabbi and founding dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Boston, brings together 29 of his most stimulating “essays, short teachings, insights, and readings of Jewish sources” in this illuminating collection. Reflecting over 50 years of Green’s experience as a “Jewish seeker and teacher of Torah,” the entries are divided into three sections: “Soul” covers his religious journey, including his struggles with observance, the concept of submission to God, and the meaning of prayer; “Year” tracks the Jewish calendar, with Green’s reflections on holidays, fast days, and the Sabbath; and “World” addresses Jewish relations with Christians (helped by a recent multi-faith “awakening”), responds to American anti-Semitism after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and considers the relationship of American Jews to Israel by arguing Israeli society is approaching “a great self-examination” regarding its stance on security. A prologue makes clear the pieces are meant to be read independently of each other, as there is “no central ‘argument’ to this volume, no progression of thought from one essay to the next.” Nonetheless, all are animated by Green’s view that all true religions function as “a set of tools” to enable humanity to protect “that divine spark” in each human being. Admirers of Green’s body of work and newcomers alike will love this humane, accessible collection.
Nugent, founder of the recipe blog Pie-Eyed Girl, debuts with a showcase of visually stunning creations that are sure to wow on the table—and on Instagram. Pie art takes form in such chapters as “Field and Forest Inspirations” (recipes include the “Chocolate Cream Tart with Pinecones and Needles,” topped with condensed milk and almond “cones,” and a “Harvest Time Concord Grape Pie” featuring rolled balls of dough as “grapes”) and “Braid, Twist and Weave Patterns,” which takes the standard cherry pie up a few notches with two-tone braided butter and chocolate twists, and embellishes a “Latticed Chicken Curry Pot Pie” with strips decorated by lace impression. But Nugent’s not all about appearances; “Dough Primer” and “Essential Pie Skills” sections provide home bakers an essential foundation before venturing into the “Next-Level Pies” chapter with the likes of a savory “Salmon Wellington,” featuring a mouthwatering spinach-leek filling, with dill sauce to be served alongside the pastry-wrapped fish, crusty head and tail included. There’s also an elaborate “Apple-Cranberry Winter Wreath” pie that wraps crust scraps tightly around an abundance of the vibrant berries. Forget humble pie: Nugent accomplishes her goal of making spectacular desserts achievable for home bakers ready to crank out some brag-worthy quarantine pies.
In Lindsey’s exceptional third Rose Gallagher mystery, set in 1887, Theodore Roosevelt once again turns for help to Rose, who saved his life twice in 2019’s A Golden Grave, and wealthy Thomas Wilshire, her partner in the special branch of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency that deals with crimes with supernatural aspects. “Something evil” is going on at Roosevelt’s ranch in the Dakota Badlands. Over the winter, the ranch lost about two-thirds of its cattle herd. Before the cattle losses, locals spotted the ghost of a murdered gold prospector. In addition, a group of Sioux hunters came across a clearing littered with the eviscerated carcasses of missing cattle, horses, and other animals, which had been torn apart in a manner inconsistent with any known predator. The two operatives travel from New York City to the Dakotas, where Rose proves herself an admirably capable and forceful investigator in the effort to solve these and other odd mysteries. Lindsey keeps the suspense at a high pitch throughout. Fans of Preston and Child’s Pendergast series will be enthralled.
Clegg (Did You Ever Have a Family) delivers a thoughtful, well-observed story of a patrician New York City family and its Mexican servants. Dana Goss, heir of Edgeweather, her family’s Connecticut estate, has in her old age begun to show signs of Alzheimer’s. As Dana makes the trip to Edgewater from her townhouse in the city for the first time in 30 years, Clegg alternates the short chapters with views into in the lives of Dana’s childhood best friend Jackie, and Lupita Lopez, the house manager’s daughter, who grew up in the shadow of Dana and Jackie’s friendship and privilege. In the second part, Clegg swings down to present-day Philadelphia, where Hap, a journalist, sits by his father’s deathbed. Readers will wonder about Hap’s connection to the other characters, and where the story is going, though Dana knows the answer, and her revelations will upend everything. As the pieces come together, little is as it seems—on first, or even second, sight. The splendid prose and orchestrated maneuvering will keep readers turning the pages and send them back to the beginning, to read it all over again.