The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Alison MacLeod, Tyler Merritt, and Kayla Chenault.
MacLeod (All the Beloved Ghosts) pulls off a magnificent nonlinear spin on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the censorship of literature during D.H. Lawrence’s life and beyond. Lawrence first glimpses Rosalind Baynes, the inspiration for Constance Chatterley, in 1915 Sussex. After he and his wife, Frieda, leave England—which has seized and destroyed all copies of The Rainbow—a few years later, Lawrence has a rapturous three-week liaison with Rosalind near Florence in 1920. He chooses not to leave Frieda, and infuses the charged sexuality of his bond with Rosalind—along with his frustration with his dead marriage and England’s hypocrisy, imperialism, and class divisions—into Lady Chatterley’s Lover, completed in 1928 and deemed much too explicit for commercial publication. In 1959, Jackie Kennedy, an admirer of the book and, like Constance Chatterley, a lonely wife, surreptitiously attends a hearing convened by the General Post Office of New York City to determine the legality of a new, unexpurgated edition. Soon thereafter, the British Crown decides to prosecute Penguin for its own uncut edition of the novel, and Rosalind watches from the balcony, while Jackie, back in the U.S., contemplates her future as the election unfolds. MacLeod covers an astonishingly broad range of incidents, eras, and themes in vivid prose, and depicts Lawrence’s supporters and opponents with equal insight and sympathy. Her Lawrence, meanwhile, muses that a good book “sent life sparking from stranger to stranger, across spaces, decades and centuries... over rows of typographical marks; those low boundary fences of the imagination, hurdled.” A triumphant demonstration of that power, this places MacLeod among the best of contemporary novelists.
Actor and comedian Merritt combines comedy, social commentary, autobiography, and religious musings to stunning effect in this kaleidoscopic take on race and religion in America. Merritt, best known for his viral YouTube video “Before You Call the Cops,” recounts his upbringing, during which he was constantly made to feel like a threat: “I have had a lifetime of white women reacting to me in fear, not because of my size, or because of my clothing, but because of my blackness.” Merritt also explores growing up in Las Vegas, his early interests in musical theater, and his chance decision to attend a Bible college. Peppered with pop culture references, wisecracks, and ironic asides, this powerful testament reveals many disheartening realities of being a Black man in America (such as an eye-opening exploration of the history of redlining and segregation in Stockton, Calif.), as well as “the power of proximity to break down barriers and forge real community.” In the end, Merritt effectively conveys the transformative nature of getting to know someone different than oneself. Readers will be awed by Merritt’s brutal honesty and inspiring grassroots approach to countering racial injustice and deep-seated prejudice.
Chenault’s mesmerizing debut follows the Lyons family starting in 1909 through a series of vignettes that create a mosaic portrait of the Bramble Patch, the Black section of fictional Midwestern city Napoleonville, which was “built on the bones of its dead.” The tale is framed by a request for information from the Napoleonville Historical society to Wanhope Lyons, who remembers the city’s racist, segregated history all too well and knows that even though his home has crumbled and his people have dispersed, no one who lived there will ever truly leave the Bramble Patch. The ensuing story is constructed of first-person accounts, news clippings, academic writing, and interviews, building a polyphonic narrative of a deteriorating community—and the demonic entity called the Barghest who feeds off them. Chenault’s short but powerful gothic work blends the best elements of folklore, horror, the blues, and archival history in resonant and lyrical prose. Fans of alternate histories, suspenseful literary fiction, and Black speculative fiction will be hooked on piecing together this intricate, entrancing tale.
Arriving Today: From Factory Floor to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy
Wall Street Journal technology columnist Mims chronicles a product’s journey from manufacturer to doorstep in his timely debut, an enlightening exploration of e-commerce. Combining studies of human ingenuity, technological advances, and labor practices, Mims begins at an electronics factory in Vietnam. Picking a USB charger as his object of study, he details the 14,000 miles it travels to North America, beginning with a barge ride to one of the busiest ports in Southeast Asia, where the gadget, housed in a shipping container, is transferred by a 13-story high crane onto a cargo ship (his awe at global freight is infectious; shipping containers, for instance, are “the one object most responsible for the state of today’s world”). He also explores the history of a labor system that prizes efficiency above all else, studying the design of an Amazon warehouse, the cabin of an 18-wheeler, and the passenger seat of a UPS truck to detail the toll of “stressful working conditions that push people to their limit.” Readers will be hooked by Mims’s ability to turn what could’ve been a dry supply-chain explainer into a legitimate page-turner. For those interested in what goes on before packages arrive at their door, this is a no-brainer.
Evans and Holmon, cofounders of the website Black Nerd Problems, bring their pop culture criticism to this wide-ranging, compulsively readable debut collection. Touching on such topics as the hidden depths of boxing-inspired anime Hajime no Ippo, the irony of Hamilton’s steep ticket prices, and Game of Thrones’s one Black character, Evans and Holman are often hilarious (The Lion King’s “Simba... is straight up landfill. Trash. Rubbage”) and always original. In addition to straightforward essays, some entries come in the form of high-octane, joyful dialogue between the authors, as in “Two Dope Boys and an—Oh My God, the Flash Got Fucked Up!” for example, in which the authors discuss the Flash: “I ain’t ever seen a hero get their body Earth’d like that since Superman’s funeral.” The most gripping essays use cultural events as an entry point to discuss larger topics: Evans’s “The Sobering Reality of Actual Black Nerd Problems” poignantly uses a local comics convention to open a conversation about the ongoing violence against and oppression of Black people, and “Go On: An Evergreen Comedic Series That Helped Me Navigate Loss” sees Holmon processing the grief of his mother’s death with the help of a short-lived NBC sitcom. This hugely entertaining, eminently thoughtful collection is a master class in how powerful—and fun—cultural criticism can be.
In Cooper’s surreal and elegiac conclusion to the George Miles Cycle (after Period), a writer named Dennis Cooper continues to recount his obsessive love for a friend from adolescence. Cooper declares a mission to convey a sense of George to those who “don’t give a shit about some weird cult writer’s books.” To get there, he tells his own story. At 10, Cooper’s skull was accidentally split by a rusty axe in an event that “subdivided” his consciousness, planting the seeds for his life as a writer. At 15, he meets 12-year-old George at an all-boys high school dance and talks him down from an acid trip. George wants a gun for Christmas, and Cooper imagines himself as Santa Claus, giving him a pistol and watching George shoot himself. Cooper also fantasizes about John Wayne Gacy’s final victim, Robert Piest, because Piest reminds him of George. The passage is one of many boldly transgressive and strangely successful moves in the fractured narrative. Nick Drake’s dark lyrics are a constant, eerie soundtrack to the boys’ young lives, summed up in one of Cooper’s trademark elliptical bon mots (“Nick Drake’s songs are like a pack of dolphins signaling his solitude incoherently to George and other introverted messes”). With tones of John Rechy and André Aciman, this offers a cathartic sense of closure.
Boston TV reporter Lily Atwood, the protagonist of this superlative thriller from Mary Higgins Clark Award–winner Ryan (The First to Lie), “has it all—fame, fortune, Emmys, [and] an adorable seven-year-old daughter.” Recently, Lily has acquired “a new and unerringly knowledgeable source,” known only as Mr. Smith, who has steered her and her longtime producer, Greer Whitfield, to some “slam-dunk stories.” Now, Mr. Smith seems to have delved deeper into Lily’s own story, in particular the incidents in her life she would prefer to keep hidden. The suspense builds as the narrative shifts among the points-of-view of Lily and Greer, and flashbacks to what happened to Cassie, Lily’s older sister, who disappeared without a trace 25 years earlier, when she was 18. The appearance of the father of Lily’s child, who hitherto has shown no interest in the girl, raises the stakes. Through masterful plotting and subtle characterizations, Ryan creates niggling doubts in the reader’s mind as to Lily and Greer’s motives while keeping the novel’s outcome deliciously uncertain. This is a fast-paced, surprise-packed treat.
Nine of these 12 outstanding stories from international sci-fi superstar Lem (1921–2006) make their English-language debut in this treasure trove of a collection. Lem’s prose shines in suspenseful chase sequences (“The Hunt”) and dense philosophical tracts produced by artificial intelligences (“The Journal”) alike, with a dry wit that manages to fit comfortably alongside the flashes of cosmic horror in pieces like “Darkness and Mildew.” In the satiric social commentary “The Invasion,” Lem posits an alien invasion of Earth by billion-year-old seeds simply looking for a place to germinate, while in “Lymphater’s Formula,” the planet is doomed by humanity’s inexorable if unwitting efforts to replace itself. Readers with a wry outlook will find many kindred spirits among Lem’s protagonists, like the unorthodox robot priest of “An Enigma” who stoutly maintains that brains made of jelly can indeed think, in defiance of “the rigid opinion of the Holy Office.” This collection shows off Lem’s range and further solidifies his place in the speculative firmament.
U.C. Davis history professor Reséndez (The Other Slavery) delivers a riveting account of the 1564–1565 Spanish expedition that was the first to cross the Pacific Ocean from the Americas to Asia and return, launching an era of global trade with the Far East. Spain funded the costly expedition out of a port in Navidad, Mexico, building four ships in secrecy from its competitor Portugal, and recruiting a skilled, multinational crew. Included were famed explorer and Augustine friar Andrés de Urdaneta and Afro-Portuguese pilot Lope Martín, who had achieved the highest rank available to a “free mulatto.” Once underway, the expedition’s lookout ship, piloted by Martín, became separated from the others during a storm. Reséndez evocatively traces Urdaneta and Martín’s subsequent adventures, including encounters with Pacific Islanders, a mutiny, and a near shipwreck. Though Martín’s smaller vessel was the first to complete the west-east return, Urdaneta, sailing on a much larger ship, received all the glory. Meanwhile, Martín and his captain were investigated in Mexico for leaving the expedition behind. While the captain was allowed to return to Spain, Martín was sentenced to be hanged for treason, yet he managed to escape. Enlivened by lucid explanations of navigational techniques, larger-than-life characters, and colorful anecdotes from the age of exploration, this is a rip-roaring maritime adventure.
Paroxysms of Southern white rage short-circuited Reconstruction, according to this concise yet powerful companion volume to an upcoming exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Museum directors Conwill and Gardullo gather an impressive line-up of historians and curators, including Eric Foner and Kimberlé Crenshaw, to document the brief period of post–Civil War uplift that delivered citizenship, voting rights, and, in some cases, land to newly liberated African Americans. The contributors also detail how so-called Redeemers worked feverishly to claw back gains that Congress granted, resulting in Blacks’ hopes for true equality being dashed by “terror, racist propaganda, and political malfeasance.” UCLA law professor and critical race theorist Crenshaw views America’s long history of “racial retrenchment” following “stirrings of freedom’s possibilities” through the lens of the 2015 attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist, and documents the role Black women have played in the “struggle for liberation.” Other essays link George Floyd’s murder by police officers in 2020 to the rise of “white terror gangs” in the 1860s and ’70s, and document recent campaigns to bring down Confederate monuments. Firmly planted in both the past and the present, this is an excellent introduction to an oft-misunderstood chapter in American history.