This week, we highlight new books from Michael Riedel, Carolyn Mullet, and Lynne Truss.
This visually stunning offering from Crary, executive director of FlowerSchool New York, highlights the creative potential of flower arranging. In his view, flower arranging can be approached as high art, and he describes the excitement of watching “a bale of branches and a bundle of flowers... turn into a masterpiece in the hands of an expert.” To that end, Crary offers an in-depth description of what it takes to become a master flower arranger—someone who pairs “unique artistic vision” with horticultural expertise and a “deep grounding in the fundamental mechanics of working with cut flowers.” Accompanied by vivid color photography, the text takes the reader through the steps of assembling the necessary equipment (knives, pruners, wire cutters, waterproof tape), deciding on a color scheme (with various possible palettes), choosing the right vase, and then handling and cutting the flowers themselves. The book aims high and might seem daunting for the casual garden stroller and flower snipper, but the pay-off will be rich for any gardener who sees flowers as an ideal artistic canvas.
Riedel, a theater critic and longtime Broadway columnist for the New York Post, follows his bestselling Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, about Broadway in the 1970s and ’80s, with a masterful history of the key moments of the ’90s, “a decade of profound change” for the Great White Way. Riedel covers the decade’s biggest hits and flops: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1994 Sunset Boulevard, whose “abrupt collapse” signaled the end of the British invasion of plays including Webber’s production of Cats (1982) and Phantom of the Opera (1988). What followed was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (which premiered on Broadway in 1993 and had resounding success throughout the decade), and the groundbreaking Rent, which first took the stage in 1996 in the East Village’s New York Theatre Workshop. Riedel details how, thanks to the phenomenal success of culturally inclusive and innovative shows such as The Lion King, the decade’s productions had “put Broadway at the center of American popular culture in a way it had not been since the 1950s.” Riedel concludes with a strong argument that the successes of the 1990s paved the way for the current moment of “cultural phenomenon” musicals, and that Broadway “is in the midst of its new Golden Age.” Broadway aficionados and pop culture geeks will be entertained by this fascinating survey.
Mullet, a garden designer, leads readers on a spirited tour of 50 private European gardens. “The private garden has a special place in the roster of outdoor spaces,” writes Mullet, as a site that is at once natural and cozy. Before each photo spread, Mullet introduces the garden’s history, designers, and theme. Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire, England offers a “singular, sweeping panorama” designed by Tom Stuart-Smith in 2000, whereas Veddw in Wales was designed to honor the region’s farming community. In Scotland, she finds Charles Jencks’s scientifically themed Garden of Cosmic Speculation, where forking paths mirror the double helix structure of DNA and a grid of artificial turf and aluminum is arranged to suggest the warping of spacetime by black holes. In the Netherlands and Germany, the gardens Mullet surveys betray the common influence of contemporary Dutch Wave designer Piet Oudolf, with his style of soft naturalistic contours. In northern Spain and Italy, she finds a pair of gardens united by their success in growing olive trees in unforgiving climates, and in France, a château garden planted to emphasize the azures and silvers of the ancestral owners’ family crest. Homebound gardeners will be dazzled.
In bestseller Truss’s outstanding third Constable Twitten mystery (after 2019’s The Man That Got Away), three murders by milk bottle over three hours in 1957 Brighton, England, lead to editorials wondering whether the city has become “the new milk-bottle murder capital of Great Britain.” The dead are “a young beauty-contest runner-up barely old enough to have enemies; the second, a much-loved [Automobile Association] patrolman of spotless record; the third, a visiting radio celebrity known for ‘skits’ involving female impersonation.” The victims apparently have nothing in common except the killer’s m.o.—each was stunned with a pint bottle of milk before the bottle was shattered and the shards used to fatally stab them. The killings are an unwelcome development for by-the-book Constable Twitten, who longs for routine pounding-of-the-beat rather than yet another bizarre whodunit to unravel. Meanwhile, he continues to contend with the machinations of the police charlady, Mrs. Groynes, who only he knows is a master criminal, and with the antics of his clueless boss, Insp. Geoffrey Steine. In her ability to blend crime and farce, Truss is in a class of her own.
A disastrous blind date kicks off Bellefleur’s excellent rom-com debut. Elle Jones, an eternally optimistic astrologist, and Darcy Lowell, a tightly buttoned actuary who’s given up on love after a past betrayal, realize almost immediately that, though their physical chemistry is electric, their personalities mix like oil and water. Still, when Darcy’s brother, Brendon, who set them up, asks Darcy how it went, she says it was great to get him to stop worrying about her love life. Elle resents being pulled into the lie—but agrees to play along to get her own family off her back. As the women spend more time together, ironing out the details of their fake relationship and going on double dates with Brendon, they begin to see each other’s differences as turn-ons rather than turn-offs, and the line between reality and pretend blurs. Readers will be rapt by the sensuous love scenes once Darcy and Elle throw pretense aside—but Darcy’s inability to admit her feelings might still keep the couple from their happy ending. A moving subplot about Elle’s fight for her family’s acceptance rounds out the story, while astrology memes (“What brunch food are you based on your zodiac?”) and nods to Pride and Prejudice scattered throughout add texture. This is a delight.
Downing (Changing Signs of Truth), codirector of Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center, which focuses on 20th-century Christian writers, considers how the writings of Christian scholar and mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) sought to discover “new conclusions on unchanging foundations” of modern Christianity. While best known for her crime fiction, Sayers was a prolific writer of religious dramas for radio and the stage, as well as academic works on Christian doctrine. Her stories and scholarship challenged dogmatism, relativism, the idolatry of language, British censorship laws, approaches to faith and atonement rooted in “an economy of exchange”—as well as those who hid or ignored the subversive nature of Christ himself. Sayers instead argued that “change can be joyously engaged as long as Christian faith remains rooted in the creeds of the early church.” Downing notes that Sayers disapproved of focus on the artists over the art, once decrying the “craze for the ‘personal angle’ ” that she believed turned criticism into gossip. While Downing tracks the course of Sayers’s personal and professional lives, she never loses sight of Sayers’s art and artistic process—a “theology of creativity” that she believed could “maintain ancient truth by handing it over to new expressions.” This is a powerful intellectual portrait of an important 20th-century writer who merits closer study.
Swiss-German writer Lüscher (Barbarian Spring) delivers an arch, fascinating satire of world-weary European skepticism and irrational American hopefulness. Richard Kraft, a cash-strapped German professor of rhetoric, heeds a call from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to give a presentation in response to a prompt adapted from an Alexander Pope dictum (“Why whatever is, is right and why we can still improve it”), hoping to win the $1 million prize for the best response. Kraft travels to Palo Alto, Calif., for the competition and stays with his old friend Istvan, who was a Hungarian dissident in the 1980s and shares Kraft’s love of free markets and the television show Knightrider. Once in California, Kraft suffers from writer’s block (“Has the California sun, beating down on your head day in, day out, dried up your brain?”) and is bemused by Silicon Valley culture. In one memorable scene that perfectly captures his unmoored status, he almost drowns in San Francisco Bay’s Corkscrew Slough. The narrative periodically leaves Kraft’s floundering to chronicle the intellectual, political, and romantic entanglements that shaped Kraft into the melancholy, reticent, and odd scholar he’s become. A Nabokovian, Pnin-like figure at once ridiculous and noble, Kraft is a “seer” who “perceive[s] the nature of things in their irreducible complexity,” which leaves him marvelously ill-suited to the fallacious boosterism required to write the winning presentation. His attempt, though futile, furnishes the gloomy humor and dense but never arid ruminations. This is a wonderfully strange novel, and one not to be missed.
Bestseller Horowitz’s masterly sequel to 2017’s Magpie Murders finds Susan Ryeland, who misses her previous work as a London book editor and publisher, discontent in her new life running a struggling hotel in Crete. Then she’s visited by Lawrence and Pauline Treherne, the owners of Branlow Hall, an upscale Suffolk hotel, who think she can help in finding their missing daughter, Cecily. Cecily disappeared shortly after calling her parents to say that an injustice had been done. At the time of Cecily’s wedding at Branlow Hall a decade earlier, Frank Parris, a hotel guest, was bludgeoned to death in his room. One of the staff, Stefan Codrescu, was convicted of the murder based on powerful circumstantial evidence. Cecily told her parents on the phone she was convinced of Stefan’s innocence after reading a mystery inspired by the Parris murder by the now deceased Alan Conway, one of Susan’s authors. Susan accepts the Trehernes’ generous fee and travels to Branlow Hall to investigate, which involves looking into Parris’s death and rereading the Conway novel for clues. Horowitz, who matches a baffling puzzle with a sympathetic, flawed lead, has never been better at surprising the reader and playing fair. This is a flawless update of classic golden age whodunits.
First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
Pulitzer Prize winner Ricks (Churchill and Orwell) delivers an immersive and enlightening look at how the classical educations of the first four U.S. presidents (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) influenced their thinking and the shape of American democracy. According to Ricks, the evolution of Washington’s military strategy during the Revolutionary War drew from Roman general Fabius’s defeat of Hannibal in 203 BCE. Ricks also documents classical antecedents in the construction of the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson’s architectural plans for government buildings in Washington, D.C., and analyzes 18th-century opinions on the ancient world expressed in Robert Dodsley’s textbook The Preceptor (“a blueprint for the Declaration of Independence”) and Joseph Addison’s play Cato (which inspired Patrick Henry’s famous line “Give me liberty—or give me death”). The Amphictyonic League, a confederation of early Greek cities, is partly responsible for the U.S. Senate’s equalized representation regardless of state size, Ricks points out. The book closes with suggested steps for returning America “to the course intended by the Revolutionary generation,” including “don’t panic,” “re-focus on the public good,” and “wake up Congress.” With incisive selections from primary sources and astute cultural and political analysis, this lucid and entertaining account is a valuable take on American history.