The books we love coming out this week include new titles by David Grossman, Robert S. Levine, and David Philipps.
Grossman’s tender and disquieting latest (after A Horse Walks into a Bar) looks at three generations of women whose bonds are fissured by histories of restlessness and war. Gili, an aspiring filmmaker, has never forgiven her mother, Nina, for leaving her and her father when Gili was a toddler. Nina was raised in Yugoslavia and hasn’t recovered from her own sense of abandonment after her mother, Vera, an anti-Nazi partisan, was held in a prison camp for refusing to renounce communism. Vera, who’s both Gili’s biological grandmother and the stepmother of Gili’s father, Rafael, is the family’s center. When Nina visits for Vera’s 90th birthday party, she asks filmmaker Rafael to make a documentary for the family about their relationship; ultimately, Gili, who once worked as Rafael’s assistant, insists on having the final edit both out of a desire for creative fulfillment and to make sure they get the project right. The four talk, film, and revisit the dilapidated island prison, and their relationships shift as they grapple with Vera’s and Nina’s past. Grossman shines a light on the victims of the violent split between Tito and Stalin, as well as on the stories people tell themselves to explain, survive, and forgive. And in Vera, who is nimble and sharp at 90, endlessly self-mythologizing, and possessed of a broken Hebrew that Cohen renders into idiosyncratic broken English, the author has created an unforgettable character. This adds another remarkable achievement to Grossman’s long list.
Ryan (the Raven’s Shadow series) impresses with this fantasy trilogy opener set in the kingdom of Albermaine. The author makes buy-in easy thanks to three-dimensional characters and intelligent prose that grips from the opening sentence: “Before killing a man, I always found it calming to regard the trees.” These words are Alwyn’s, a quick-witted young man who belongs to a gang of thieves headed by a duke’s bastard. Alwyn is introduced while pretending to be witless in order to halt a procession of carts—thereby enabling his comrades to steal the loot and massacre those protecting it. The haul includes a confidential message concerning King Tomas Algathinet’s ongoing war with challenger for the throne Magnis Lochlain. Thanks to an epigraph teasing dramatic changes for Alwyn, readers know from the start that he will rise in station to become a knight in the king’s army—and that eventually Lochlain himself will describe Alwyn as the “far bloodier man” of the two of them. Ryan manages to make this early warning not to be charmed by the roguish Alwyn recede in readers’ minds—until a shocking betrayal brings it back to the fore and catapults Alwyn on his journey. Gritty and well-drawn, this makes a rich treat for George R.R. Martin fans.
University of Maryland English professor Levine (The Lives of Frederick Douglass) foregrounds in this enlightening and timely history the efforts of Frederick Douglass to persuade President Andrew Johnson and congressional Republicans to deliver “dignity and equality for Black people” in the years after the Civil War. Sworn into office hours after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson, a Southern Democrat who had freed Tennessee’s enslaved people in 1864, was initially seen as “more radical and progressive” than Lincoln. But he soon declared amnesty for rebel leaders and approved state governments led by ex-Confederate officers. Radical Republicans in Congress, alarmed by the passage of Black Codes restricting the rights of freedpeople, battled Johnson for control of Reconstruction, while Douglass and other Black leaders raised alarms about racist violence and urged the federal government to extend voting and citizenship rights to African Americans. Douglass also believed that Republicans should have explicitly raised “the harm [Johnson] did to Black people” in their 1868 articles of impeachment, and believed Johnson’s acquittal “further encouraged racist outrages.” Brilliantly spotlighting Douglass’s rhetorical strategies and mounting despair over the failure of Reconstruction, this trenchant study speaks clearly to today’s battles over voting rights and racial justice.
New York Times reporter Philipps (Lethal Warriors) presents an enthralling, blow-by-blow account of the 2019 court-martial of U.S. Navy SEAL platoon chief Eddie Gallagher for stabbing a wounded ISIS prisoner to death. Philipps traces the history of the Navy’s special operations force from WWII through the Cold War and Vietnam, as SEALs “developed a rogue outsider status that they wore like a badge of honor.” In May 2017, Gallagher’s Alpha team entered Mosul, Iraq, to assist in the battle against entrenched ISIS fighters. As the platoon progressed across the ruined city, Gallagher began to behave “like some two-bit cult leader,” pitting team members against one another and committing such abuses as stealing personal items, deliberately firing at civilians, and putting the platoon into “pointlessly risky situations.” After returning to the U.S., some SEALs came forward with allegations that Gallagher had murdered a 17-year-old prisoner and then posed for a photo with the corpse. Philipps describes how President Trump and Fox News pundits came to Gallagher’s defense, and recounts the shocking events of the court-martial (which ended with Gallagher’s acquittal on all but one charge) in riveting detail. This is the definitive portrait of a saga that exposed deep fault lines within an elite fighting force.
The late Breccia (Perramus) brings a stunning, nightmarish, and politically charged vision to Dracula’s final days in this wordless volume, which tells five disconnected tales as the vampire wanders through a city, encountering old lovers, would-be victims, and Edgar Allan Poe. Breccia (1919-1993), whose major surrealist works satirized the Argentinian dictatorship, first published these full-color painterly comics stories in Spain’s Comix Internacional in 1984. Their characters appear twisted and abstracted, an outward expression of moral decay. Together they reveal a desperately lonely figure who, despite the grandiosity of his mythology, is increasingly feckless in the face of a crumbling society. Some pieces run almost like jokes. For instance, Dracula roams a carnival, stalks a beautiful woman, and tries to victimize her, but he’s thwarted by a man in a Superman outfit (sans logo); when the hero follows the woman, lured by the promise of romance, he discovers that she herself is a vampire. The fourth installment, though, ends not with a punchline, but with a descent into nightmare, as Dracula navigates a hellscape overrun by secret police, cannibalism, and mass starvation. His immortal power useless, Dracula becomes a scared witness, and the episode ends with him clutching a cross and praying in a church—while unsubtle, the commentary plays against the familiar conventions of the character. Breccia’s gothic visions skewer the power of myth and make a salient statement about a society that would support fascist rule.
Blackmail throws together a widow and a soldier in Britton’s intoxicating finale to her Isle of Synne Regency series (after Someday My Duke Will Come). Margery Kitteridge receives a letter threatening to out her late husband as a deserter at Waterloo if she doesn’t pay up. She’s desperate to raise the funds but loathe to involve her wealthy family, who disapproved of her marriage. Daniel Hayle, the Duke of Carlisle, who’s heavily scarred from his own time in the war, needs an heir to protect his legacy. He accompanies his mother to the charming Isle of Synne hoping to find a wife without having to endure the gossip and gawking his scars would draw during a season in London. There he meets Margery, who’s declared she will never remarry, but offers to play matchmaker to the upstanding but socially awkward Daniel in exchange for the funds she needs. Soon, however, their intense mutual attraction and easy friendship distracts them from their goals. But can Margery let go of the guilt she feels for moving on from her first husband to claim her second chance? The central couple radiates strength and sweetness, and Daniel’s endearing shyness is sure to make readers swoon. This is a knockout.
Finding a balance between pain and pleasure is “essential for a life well lived,” writes psychiatrist Lembke (Drug Dealer MD) in this eye-opening survey on pleasure-seeking and addiction. Drawing on her experiences treating patients with various addictions, Lembke explains how the human brain’s pleasure center works and the effects of feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, and suggests the brain is “perfectly adapted to a world of scarcity.” However, the modern world is one marked by an “overwhelming abundance” (“The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle,” she writes, “delivering digital dopamine 24/7”) and, as such, those who struggle with addiction “have evolved a wisdom perfectly suited to the age we live in now.” To break the cycle of addiction, Lembke recommends beginning with periods of abstinence and reminds readers that chasing pleasure and avoiding suffering leads, in the long run, to more pain. “We must be willing to move forward,” she writes, “despite being uncertain of what lies ahead.” Readers looking for balance will return to Lembke’s informative and fascinating guidance.
Love becomes a battlefield in this unexpectedly haunting look by Vives (The Grande Odalisque) at how people in relationships can destroy each other. Two nameless lovers in the bloom of youth swoon over each other in a series of vignettes whose seemingly simple framing (an impromptu waltz lesson, brushing teeth together) belies the erratic passions lying beneath. Vives springs his trap sneakily, slipping in fantasy episodes —in one, a veteran paratrooper warns a new recruit before a jump, “You could get butchered down there”—that foreshadow and mimic the sudden emotional leaps in the relationship. The couple’s narcotized love-high is subtly downshifted after one unexplained argument opens a chasm between them. As the relationship clatters through breakups and reunifications, Vives inserts casually brutal scenes with doll-like avatars that offer fatalistic renderings of their real-world trauma: a man slams a board into a woman’s head and doesn’t answer when she asks, “Why did you do that?”; she stabs him while assuring, “It’s better for us this way.” The loosely framed sketchbook-style art on white backgrounds—far from the precise detail Vives is known for—holds a ghostly, unfinished, and somehow eternal feel. This artfully rendered fable captures the love, pain, and unbridgeable chasms of romance gone awry.