The books we love coming out this week include new titles by J.H. Gelernter, June Jordan, and Nicholas Schmidle.
In 1803, with tensions rising between England and France, Capt. Thomas Grey, the hero of Gelernter’s impressive debut, decides to retire from being a British spy to make a fresh start in the United States, where he has a work offer from a relative in Boston. A year earlier, Grey, who was then the head of station in Malta for naval intelligence, was dispatched to North Africa to deal with Barbary pirates. On the voyage back to Malta, his wife was killed when their vessel came under French fire, and he fell into a depression. Soon after Grey sets sail for Boston, his ship is attacked by a French ship, and his skill with both rifle and sword helps to fend off the assailants. The damaged ship docks in Oporto, Portugal, where agents for a French-Irish intelligence network, believing him to be alienated from his country, invite him to join them. Grey considers the network a threat to Britain’s security and decides to play along to thwart it. Gelernter keeps the suspense high without sacrificing plausibility. Bernard Cornwell fans will welcome this promising new talent.
Wide in scope and singular in their articulation of atrocities, Jordan’s poems shine in this thoughtfully curated volume. Ordered so that each era of her work speaks to the next, her poems contemplate war (“What will we do/ when there is nobody left/ to kill?”) on a national, interpersonal, and intergenerational scale, and suggest that struggle may be inextricable from the human experience. Jordan (1936–2002) stands against established power in poems that reckon with colonialism and the police state through her distinctive use of cataloging, repetition, and linguistic play. She implicates the self in depictions of historical violence as a basis for the cultivation of empathy: “I am a stranger/ learning to worship the strangers/ around me.” As she contemplates land, borders, race, and gender, the reader, too, is invited to look closely at the world around them. In these rich, generous poems, to hold and accept divisive truths is an act of love and solidarity. “I am black alive,” she writes, “and looking back at you.”
Pham reinvents the memoir in a stirring debut that explores the power of language, art, and love. As an Asian American woman who felt alienated early on in her life, she poured herself into studying art and poetry to reconcile her need for closeness. In 11 essays, she interrogates desire in all its forms, beginning with an evocative piece about finding solace in the act of running. She aspires to the “affable stride” of fellow runner and novelist Haruki Murakami, but instead she runs “as if trying to lose my mind.” Throughout, Pham examines the emotionality of other artists’ and writers’ work and lives—from Barthes to Georgia O’Keeffe to Louise Bourgeois—as a way to better understand her own. In “Blue,” she reflects on escaping mental burnout in New Mexico, and remembers the painter Agnes Martin’s flight from New York, after a schizophrenic episode: “Agnes’s voices and visions didn’t inform her art-making process, but... dictated her actions—where to be, what to eat, what to own.” Ever-present, too, is the haunting of past lovers and her own sexuality, captured in prose that’s both beautiful and gutting. “If I could own it... become a woman with agency. It wouldn’t matter if I still hurt. At least I’d be able to describe it.” This is a masterpiece.
Translator Bernofsky (Foreign Words) teases out misperceptions about “unwaveringly devoted” Swiss author Robert Walser (1878–1956) in this masterful biography. “Not so long ago,” Bernofsky writes, Walser was “the greatest modernist author you’d never heard of,” though now his life is “full of gaps.” Arguably best known for his microscripts, works discovered after his death composed in minuscule writing, Walser was born to a middle-class family, but financial hardship after the family business collapsed meant that at age 14, he had to leave school. Walser moved to Zurich, then to Berlin with his brother, and finally back to Switzerland, where he began writing his signature short-form pieces. In 1921, Bernofsky writes, “mental illness became a complicating factor in his life,” and he entered an asylum where he stayed for the last 28 years of his life: he died alone, while taking one of his beloved walks. With skillful and lucid readings of Walser’s work, Bernofsky succeeds in creating a portrait of Walser as a “master craftsman”—his short-form essays “constructed elaborate edifices around the simplest topics,” while his 1921 novel, Theodor, showed “a layer of self-reflexive complexity” not seen in his earlier work. This balanced and meticulous account shines a bright light on a misunderstood and influential writer.
This collection of seven stories and one essay from Kim (How Alike Are We) makes for a dazzling English-language debut. The essay, “A Brief Reflection on Breasts,” sets the tone for the gentle, humorous philosophizing of the collection as a whole. In it, Kim compares the value and necessity of science in science fiction to breasts on a woman, concluding that to focus on whether there is definitive science in a work distracts from the greater purpose of the genre. The slippery, mildly fantastical “An Evolutionary Myth” tells of an exiled prince in an era when evolution occurs at a much faster rate. “Between Zero and One” examines grief through the story of a bereft mother’s encounter with a strange woman who knows a surprising amount about time travel and quantum theory. And the title story finds robots debating a theory they consider to be laughable: that matter can grow organically. With a combination of subtle humor and poignant philosophy, Kim turns a genre-bending lens on human experience. This belongs on shelves next to Bradbury, Le Guin, and Murakami.
Chochois’s insightful storytelling and fresh, playful art turn what could be a grim topic—the science of amputation—into an engaging scientific tour. She frames the narrative around a fictional protagonist who loses an arm in a motorcycle accident. When he awakes in a hospital, pioneering 16th-century surgeon Ambroise Paré emerges from a portrait and takes the amputee on a weird and wonderful time-traveling tour of the history of amputation and prosthetics, from 10,000 BCE to an imagined transhumanist cyborg future. Woven throughout are tender, wordless interludes in which the amputee struggles to adapt to his new life with one arm, relearning how to drink tea, play video games, and hug his partner. Chochois’s skill shows in how she elegantly balances information with visual narrative, avoiding the text-dense pitfalls of many a science comic info dump. As the tale delves into discussing the finer points of phantom limb syndrome and diagrams of prosthesis design, Chochois’s clean, expressive linework remains full of charming details that keep the pacing airy. The amputee dreams of a prosthetic arm that ends in a handy whisk, tissue box, or lighter. (Sorry, a doctor explains, reality is much less exciting). This surprisingly delightful and empathetic examination offers an exemplar in the graphic medicine genre.
New Yorker staff writer Schmidle (To Live or to Perish Forever) tells the exuberant, guts-and-glory tale of Virgin Galactic’s efforts to travel to space. Vivid portraits bring to life the people behind the bold project: Burt Rutan was “the most influential aerospace engineer of his generation,” and his company, Scaled, designed a ship for Virgin; Richard Branson comes through as a brash free-thinker who managed to turn a record company into a space tourism venture; Mike Moses, an aerospace engineer who previously worked at NASA, tries to “shed some realism” on the company’s ambitions; and test pilot Mark Stucky is a retired fighter pilot who dreamed his whole life of becoming an astronaut. Schmidle tempers his take on these “test gods” with the harsh reality of their single-minded passion and its cost in terms of money, time, relationships, and in some cases lives—one of the most powerful scenes describes the test flight that killed Mike Alsbury in 2014. Along the way, Schmidle movingly tells of his relationship with his own father, a fighter pilot who was an instructor when Stucky was a lieutenant. With brisk prose, extensive interviews, and plenty of panache, Schmidle captures “the difference between fighter pilots and everybody else.” The result is a page-turner, perfect for anyone in search of a story about the incredible coming within reach. Photos.
This cycle of novellas by pioneering nature writer Stifter (1805–1868), offers a quiet and graceful meditation on place and history. “Granite” features a boy in trouble with his mother as he goes on a mountain stroll with his grandfather, whose tales of a historical plague dwarf the boy’s own small misadventures. The fabulist “Rock Crystal” follows a village shoemaker’s two children as they meander through a dangerous and snowy passage in the dark, their adventure becoming a Grimmesque tale in which the beauty of the outdoors tempts the children toward danger. No matter the subject or setting, Stifter’s narrators are always cataloging the finest details of the world around them: “I saw hosts of the little white-yellow flowers on the ground, I saw the greyish turf, I saw the pitch like drops of gold on the trunks... I heard the calm rustle in the needles.” Throughout, Stifter sheds light on such sweeping themes as the nature of storytelling, the legacy and drama of ancestral history and family traditions, and mankind’s many connections and obligations to the natural world. His writing, freshly translated by Cole, is full of wisdom and wonder.