The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Louis Menand, Jon Dunn, and Kristy Woodson Harvey.
Subversive culture flourished under geopolitical tension and nuclear anxiety, according to this sweeping cultural history. New Yorker contributor Menand (The Metaphysical Club) surveys a panorama of avant-garde movements that emerged between 1945 and 1965, including French existentialism; beat poetry; the second-wave feminism of Betty Friedan; and the antiracist writings of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon. Scandalous art world scenes, from the abstract expressionists to Warhol’s Factory, and musical outrages like composer John Cage’s 4’33” are also explored. Menand excavates the socioeconomic roots of these developments, including how rising high school enrollment fueled the spread of rock ‘n’ roll, but above all he’s concerned with the tangled human relationships that nurtured them; he traces, for example, how the improbably intersecting passions and neuroses of Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady incubated “Howl” and On the Road. Menand writes with his usual mix of colorful portraiture, shrewd insight, and pithy interpretation, describing the “feeling of personal liberation achieved through political solidarity” of 1960s student activists as “a largely illusory but nevertheless genuinely moving sense... that the world was turning under their marching feet.” The result is an exhilarating exploration of one of history’s most culturally fertile eras.
Natural history writer Dunn (Orchid Summer) takes readers on a wondrous globe-trotting pilgrimage to seek out hummingbirds as their populations are threatened. He stops in Alaska to check on “the most northerly hummingbirds in the world” whose population is in decline (as are birds at the southernmost tip of South America), and visits Patagonia, Ariz., to see “a species at best scarce in the United States.” Dunn points to climate change, habitat loss, and hunting as reasons “the clock of extinction is ticking loudly for them.” Along the way, Dunn shares odd facts about the birds’ physiognomy and behavior—their tongues are so long “that, when retracted, they coil inside the birds’ heads around their skulls and eyes,” and male Anna’s Hummingbirds court prospective mates by making music with their tails. As in the best nature writing, Dunn paints striking pictures: he describes a bird “clad in an impossibly rich and overpowering imperial purple that, as traces of golden light from the lodge struck his breast, exploded into myriad sparks of palatinate life, each feather coruscating and glittering.” Dunn’s vivid prose, balanced with just the right amount of detail, will captivate birders and non-birders alike.
Chambers concludes her Wayfarers series (after Record of a Spaceborn Few) with this delightful, cozy novel of cross-species alien interaction. Ouloo, a furry Laru, conscientiously serves all her customers at the Five-Hop One Stop on the lifeless galactic way station of Gora while raising her moody adolescent child, Tupo. A satellite crash knocks out communication and delays departures just after three separate aliens arrive on Gora. Pei Tem, a scaled, cargo-running Aeluon, grows frustrated that she won’t make her rendezvous with her secret human lover. Roveg, an exiled arthropodlike Quelin, frets about missing a mysterious but vital appointment. And Speaker, a methane-breathing Akarak, worries about her weak-lunged twin sister, Tracker, who is still on their ship in orbit. As official statements continually push off the all-clear, the stranded group gets to know each other in fascinating, mostly congenial conversations. But things take a turn for the worse when Pei enters her once-in-a-lifetime “shimmering” stage of fertility and picks a drunken fight with Speaker—and their argument distracts everybody from noticing a crisis. There are some real moments of anxiety to keep the pages turning, but the highlights are the characters’ meaty debates and Chambers’s delightful exploration of cultural difference. Devoted fans and newcomers alike will thrill to this imaginative sci-fi confection.
Drori (Around the World in 80 Trees), a former trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, again masterfully blends science, history, and culture in this globe-spanning introduction to botany. In 80 illustrated chapters, Drori provides the evolutionary origins of familiar plants (the banana, for instance, is “an ancient hybrid of two wild species that still grow in South East Asia, with small, unappetizing fruit”), along with surprising revelations (the artichoke does not exist in the wild, but was bred from the thistle family) and introductions to obscure vegetation such as the tree tumbo, which Charles Darwin dubbed “the platypus of the plant world.” Drori also delves into how fruits have been used in rituals in different societies and faiths, and describes wedding garlands made of shrubs that are sacred to Greek goddesses, validating his introductory remarks that most of the entries “reveal as much about people as they do about plants.” Witty prose (“The nettle’s separate male and female plants are an understated couple”) is a further plus. An accessible and colorful volume, this will charm even readers who know little about the plant-world.
A Tolstoy quote about a stranger coming to town is the spark for the 19 selections in this exceptional Mystery Writers of America anthology. Steve Hamilton’s “A Different Kind of Healing” imagines that one such stranger is Charlotte, a nurse who’s moved to New York, attracted by the incentives the Big Apple’s offered to deal with a nursing shortage. As the Covid-19 pandemic looms, she’s drawn to a rape victim who appears in the ER, because of a dark incident in Charlotte’s past, which leads her to seek the eponymous means of relief. Hamilton has rarely been better in the short-story format. Koryta also stands out with “P.F.A.,” an acronym for People from Away used by Janice Jardine, a mean-spirited busybody who lives in a small Maine town, to refer to non-natives. Jardine must deal with a newcomer from Florida who refuses to defer to her wishes. Jonathan Stone distinguishes himself in “Russkies,” in which secrets and guilt linger from more than a half-century in the past. Other contributors include S.A. Cosby, Alafair Burke, Michael Connelly, and Lori Roy. This is the best kind of anthology, consistently excellent and inventive.
Harvey (Feels Like Falling) delivers a heart-wrenching tale of love and loss in this tearjerker. Journalist Amelia Paxton is ticking life goals off her list—including a New York Times “Modern Love” column about her perfect marriage—when she catches her husband in a tryst with her male hairdresser. Shocked, she flees to her North Carolina hometown to regroup. While there, her research for a story about frozen embryos leads her to discover her childhood friend Parker and his late wife Greer had frozen four embryos. Amelia was diagnosed with primary ovarian insufficiency at 14 and thought she’d come to terms with her infertility, but she changes her mind and determines to serve as a surrogate for Parker and Greer’s embryos. After she gets back in touch with Parker, the two eventually fall in love, despite Amelia’s fear that Parker won’t get over Greer. Harvey brings her characters to life, including Greer, whose heartbreaking journal entries reflect on scans of the embryos and imagine the family she and Parker would have. These passages are particularly wrenching, making the book’s happy ending all the more moving. Fans of women’s fiction will devour this.
Winter (Handyman) uses a notorious 1955 case as the inspiration for a riveting crime novel set in that same year. Homicide detective Arne Anderson and his partner, Melvin Curry, investigate the murder of 22-year-old Teresa Hickman, whose strangled body was found on some disused streetcar tracks in her Minneapolis neighborhood. A diamond ring on her finger appears to rule out robbery as a motive, and the autopsy reveals that the victim, who was pregnant, recently had sex. Anderson and Curry learn that she was a patient of Jewish dentist H. David Rose, who treated her just hours before her death, sedating her to perform the necessary procedures before walking her home. The dentist, who admits she accused him of having impregnated her, later changes his story, claiming to have blacked out while driving her home. When he woke up, she was gone. Rose is arrested and put on trial. Winter does a masterly job maintaining suspense about the outcome and Rose’s guilt, and deepens the narrative by integrating the city’s pervasive anti-Semitism into the plot. This is a superior roman à clef.
University of Alabama history professor Rothman (Flush Times and Fever Dreams) delivers a harrowing portrait of how the domestic slave trade “helped define the financial, political, legal, cultural, and demographic contours” of 19th-century America. Focusing on three business partners—Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard—who ran the largest slave-trading operation in the country, Rothman explains how Congress’s 1808 ban on the importation of enslaved people “effectively creat[ed] a federally protected internal market for human beings.” When Natchez, Miss., banned slave-trading in 1833 in large part because Franklin had been caught dumping diseased corpses into a ravine, he simply moved his operation a mile outside of the city and continued receiving and reselling thousands of slaves bought by Armfield and Ballard from declining tobacco plantations in Maryland and Virginia. Rothman delineates the links between the domestic slave trade, the forced removal of Native Americans from the Southeast, the growth of the American banking system, and the establishment of national transportation networks. Through meticulous archival research, he debunks the myth that slave traders were social outcasts and tracks how their brazen advertisements and abusive treatment of captive men, women, and children were used by abolitionists to stoke public outrage. This trenchant study deserves a wide and impassioned readership.
Qiao Hongmei, the heroine of this riveting tale of suspense from Yan (The Lost Daughter of Happiness), met Glen, her professor husband, years ago as a student in an English class he was teaching in Beijing. The two are now married and live in California, where he still teaches and she’s finishing her PhD thesis. One morning, Hongmei receives an anonymous email from someone who saw her at a restaurant the previous evening while she was dining with Glen and another couple. Vaguely dissatisfied with her marriage, Hongmei begins to correspond with her “secret talker,” revealing details of her early life in China that she has never disclosed to anyone and letting her long-repressed regrets come to the surface. The tone of the secret talker becomes gradually more alarming and even threatening: “you brought this on yourself. You can’t escape now. Invasion always hurts a little.” Yan’s pacing is impeccable as she delicately but inexorably builds toward a thought-provoking finale. Readers of tense literary fiction will find much to like.