This week, we highlight new books from Dave Chisholm, Ruth Stone, and Jon Butler.
Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California
Chisholm (Instrumental), a musician and cartoonist, delivers a biographical treasure on the life and music of bebop innovator Charlie Parker (1920–1955). The revered saxophonist/composer’s life was also consumed by prodigious addictions to drugs and alcohol, a tragic reality that Chisholm connects to the vicious racism of the time. Constructed around six chapters, or “choruses,” the narrative documents two years beginning in 1945 when Parker traveled to California as part of a band organized by Dizzy Gillespie. Each of these choruses—based on personal accounts by Gillespie, his lover Julie MacDonald, and record producer Ross Russell—is rendered in a different drawing style and color scheme and marks a different facet of the period. The result is a quasimusical narrative ensemble that reflects the technical structure of Parker’s music, offers ingenious visual representations of Parker and his improvisations, and provides a rare account of his charming personality and humility (such as in a delightful story of a weekend spent hanging out with a young white photographer). Chisholm’s drawings (with luminous coloring by Peter Markowski) combine a talent for skillful likenesses with a pliable and inventive expressive line. This superb book manifests the bleak circumstances surrounding Parker’s addictions while celebrating the musical genius that continues to influence jazz improvisors today. It’s an innovative exemplar of the graphic bio form and will win over Parker fans and jazz newbies alike. The final version will include a flexi disc, not heard by PW.
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee
Journalist Riesman unpacks the minutiae-gnarled debates swirling around comics writer and producer Stan Lee (1922–2018) in his eventful, myth-dispelling debut, while also telling a story that will resonate even for those who don’t know Spider-man from the Red Skull. With the caveat that reports of Lee are “where objective truth goes to die,” Riesman does his best to separate fact from hype. Lee, raised by Jewish immigrants in New York City, grew into a hustler and tall-tale-teller, and Riesman breaks down Lee’s life into three epochs. Pre-1961, he ground out stories for his cousin-in-law’s publishing company. In the 1960s he helped launch the series (Fantastic Four, Spider-man, X-Men) that redefined the comics genre. Lee became Marvel publisher in 1972, and Riesman characterizes him as perfecting the chipper “Stan Lee character” displayed in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column, where “he’d pontificate and rile up his base with slogans and jittery word-jazz.” Riesman delves into controversies about whether Lee—who never missed an opportunity to slap his name on a product—took credit from artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Later chapters detail Lee’s unhappy Hollywood sojourn, marked by subpar output, horrific family dysfunction, and scandals (two of Lee’s companies collapsed in potential criminality). This detailed, clear-eyed examination pulls back the curtain on one of America’s great storytellers and is sure to reignite debates over Lee’s legacy.
The Essential Ruth Stone
In this breathtaking distillation that draws from 10 collections and a nearly 60-year career, readers can see the literary evolution of the two-time Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the National Book Award in a new light. The poems are organized chronologically and selected by poet Bianca Stone, the author’s granddaughter. Selections from Stone’s 1959 collection, In an Iridescent Time, shimmer with rhyme: “At my center/ The bone glistens; of wondrous bones I am made;/ And alone shine in a phosphorous glow,/ So, in this little plot where I am laid.” Later poems shift from structured rhyme schemes to the looser, more plainspoken style that Stone is known for. Many of these poems orbit around her husband, who died by suicide in 1959 (“This I often rearrange, I don’t accept”), and to whom she continued to describe the world: “My trouble was I could not keep you dead./ You entered even the inanimate,/ returning in endless guises.” Throughout, Stone transforms sorrow into something layered and full of life. This stands as witness to the inner workings of her world and the extraordinary life she lived.
Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times
Historian Reynolds (Mightier Than the Sword) unpacks the diverse cultural influences that shaped the intellect, morals, and politics of Abraham Lincoln in this magisterial and authoritative biography. Reynolds's wide-angled view includes frontier social events, such as logrolls and cabin raisings, that marked Lincoln's early years; cultural moments including French acrobat Charles Blondin's tightrope walks over Niagara Falls in 1859, which Lincoln saw as a potent metaphor for his handling of the slavery issue; and humorist David Ross Locke's "wholesale assault on racial prejudice" through the persona of "the quintessential Copperhead," Petroleum V. Nasby. Reynolds also profiles drillmaster Elmer Ellsworth and pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll, both of whom played outsized, if little remembered, roles in shaping Lincoln's approach to the Civil War. Close readings of Lincoln's own writings bring insights into his character and thinking, and Reynolds's analysis of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address offer a deeper understanding of those near-sacred political texts, noting, for instance, allusions to the Bible and Euclidean geometry in the Gettysburg speech. With a knack for drawing unexpected but persuasive conclusions, and impressive command of his source material, Reynolds provides a portrait rich in texture and context, not only of Lincoln but of the America he inhabited and helped redefine. The result is a must-read addition to the canon of Lincoln biographies.
Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius
Holiday and Hanselman (coauthors of The Daily Stoic) explain in this stellar work the implications of Stoic dedications to truth, wisdom, resilience, and character. The authors present the work as a series of biographies of philosophers and ground each of the 26 profiles in the virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom that Stoics believes necessary to living a happy life. They distinguish “pen and ink philosophers” (more concerned with writing than living) from the Stoics, whose central tenet is summed up best by Marcus Aurelius’s: “Do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.” Including profiles of Stoics who were boxers, slaves, failed merchants, Roman senators, and occasionally “iron” women, each chapter provides a brief historical context before exploring the challenges of seeking a humble life in the Stoic fashion. Rather than offering prescriptive practices, the authors believe one can “learn more from the Stoics’ lived experiences (their works) than we can from their philosophical writings (their words)”: Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes taught Zeno to learn from humiliation; Cleanthes of Assos, a middle-aged water boy, preached stoicism at night in the streets; Chrysippius, a long-distance runner, stressed the value of meritocracy over the misjudgments of social position. This illuminating collection of biographies makes great use of Stoic wisdom to demonstrate the tradition’s values for any reader interested in ancient philosophy.
Novelist Serpell (The Old Drift) delivers a brilliant essay collection that, informed by semiotics, proposes a way of thinking about the human face that views each person’s countenance as possessed of culturally and individually constructed meaning that can change radically according to the beholder. To develop this idea, Serpell offers different examples of “stranger” (in the sense of both “uncanny”and “unknown”) faces. In the first essay, she discusses Joseph Merrick, the Victorian man known as the Elephant Man for his severe deformities. She asks what would happen “if we chose not to treat Merrick’s non-ideal face as a problem that stumps our aesthetic, affective, and ethical beliefs?” Each subsequent essay has a similarly bold question at its core. One muses over the dispute over the racial identity of Hannah Crafts, author of the supposedly autobiographical 19th-century slave narrative The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and what this says about readers’ desire to “put a face to the name” of an author, as they say, and, in this case, “a race to the face.” Another considers the different meanings assigned to the “blank stare” of bears by different participants in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, and why some people find sublimity, and others, terror, in the essential unknowability of wild animals. Serpell’s vital treatise is one readers will find themselves returning to again and again.
This transcendent and deeply unsettling collection introduces English-language readers to Italian science fiction heavyweight Farris. “Gabola” and “The Substance of Ideas” anchor the collection with bittersweet meditations on history and devotion, and are the closest Farris gets to comfort reading. Though some stories, like “A Day to Remember,” suffer from underexplanation, readers who take the time to read between the lines will be richly rewarded. And the title story is a gruesome standout, chronicling the friendship between two misfit surgeons as they construct ever more elaborate chimera—and ends in a twist that demands the story be read again, and again. Across all seven marvelous tales, Farris effortlessly melds near-future settings, a fabulist tone, and magical, bizarre details: including sea urchins that can confer skills like knitting or poker playing; a university full of feral, borderline cannibalistic biologists; and a computer capable of editing human memory contained inside a marble. Farris has the gift of making her wildly imaginative worlds feel fully lived-in. Readers of literary science fiction will devour this collection.
Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Days of the Lakers Dynasty
Sportswriter Pearlman (Football for a Buck) excites with this enjoyable, exhaustively reported, and unsparing portrait of the early 2000s Los Angeles Lakers. Pearlman chronicles the team’s turbulent rise, highlighted by coach Del Harris (“no pizzazz, no imagination, and just too much jabbering”), and portrays the underachievers (out-of-shape Glen Rice) and fringe players (hardened rookie Mike Penberthy, who refused to be bullied by Kobe Bryant) behind the team’s championship run. Pearlman explains that though the team won three straight championships (2000–2002), its continuing success was squashed by the inability of its two young, generation-defining superstars—endearing though undisciplined Shaquille O’Neal and enfant terrible Bryant—to coexist. The star throughout the narrative is Bryant, a teenage basketball prodigy with zero social skills and an unquenchable thirst for personal glory whom head coach Phil Jackson, who replaced Harris, deemed a “juvenile narcissist” and who Pearlman suggests obliterated Jackson’s team concept. Pearlman’s ability to uncover juicy anecdotes—O’Neal rapping about a rape accusation against Bryant on the team plane; Bryant prodded by teammate Karl Malone to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving—illuminates how egos and immaturity were the Lakers’ fatal opponents. This will be a three-pointer for hoops fans.
God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan
Butler (Awash in a Sea of Faith), professor of history at Yale, explores in this illuminating history why religious practice flourished in Manhattan during a period when urbanization and its associated “spiritual exhaustion” were destroying it elsewhere. Drawing on old maps, portraits, speeches, and church archives, Butler paints a vibrant cultural portrait of the streets of New York, “a city alive with religious and cultural change.” He compares this to the situation in Europe, where secularism was on the rise in the early 19th century, fueled by poverty, dysfunction of social services, and a lack of time for people to attend church services. In America, however, waves of immigration brought an array of religions to Manhattan, and the resulting religious pluralism gave rise to a lively faith community whose competing forces thrived by becoming “as much institutional and bureaucratic as theological.” This eye-opening history is sure to enlighten anyone interested in cultural histories of New York City.