The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Amia Srinivasan, Javier Serena, and Helen Humphreys.
Philosopher Srinivasan debuts with a fascinating collection of essays on issues facing the feminist movement today. Calling on feminism to be “relentlessly truth-telling, not least about itself,” Srinivasan discusses consent, intersectionality, misogyny, and gendered violence, among other topics. In “The Conspiracy Against Men,” she points out that false rape accusations are more often made by law enforcement officials (in an attempt to convict the wrong suspect for an actual crime) than by women, and describes the slogan “Believe women” as both a “corrective norm” to a legal system that skews in favor of wealthy white men and a “blunt tool” that obscures how race, class, religion, and other factors affect the handling of sexual assault allegations. In “Talking to My Students About Porn,” Srinivasan revisits the anti-porn/pro-sex debates of the 1980s and early ’90s in light of how digital pornography has become a “built-in feature” of her students’ lives. Throughout, Srinivasan returns to the question of who has power, and how it is wielded to protect the status quo, rather than to remake the world as a fairer and more equitable place. Marked by lucid prose, innovative thinking, and a penchant for resisting easy answers, this is a must-read.
Spanish writer Serena debuts with a stunning portrait of a Roberto Bolaño–esque writer who strikes literary gold while facing a terminal lung disease. Like Bolaño’s alter ego in The Savage Detectives, Peruvian-born writer Ricardo Funes works at a series of campgrounds in coastal Spain while in his 20s. Fernando Vallés, a successful 30-something writer, visits and befriends Funes at Castelldefels, where Funes has gained a reputation for getting into heated debates over Latin American literature, but hasn’t published much himself. “It’s strange to think how forsaken he was back then,” Vallés recalls, “given the commotion caused, decades later, by any old manuscript found on his computer.” Vallés then spends the next two decades trekking from Barcelona to Funes’s home in Lloret, where Funes settles down with his wife, Guadalupe, and has two children. Guadalupe’s narration dramatically humanizes the now-mythical writer, describing his series of rejections, extended bouts of writer’s block, and cavalier approach to his worsening illness. Funes’s remarkable concluding monologue, which features a nested story invoking Borges’s “The South,” recalls his surprising and bittersweet success with heartbreaking depth, as he ramps up his productivity in order to leave a legacy for his family. This is a wonder.
“A visit to the herbarium is an exquisite kind of time travel,” writes poet and novelist Humphreys (Rabbit Foot Bill) in this delightful mix of memoir and field study. Despite climate change and habitat loss, Humphreys suggests, “there is still a profound need within human beings to connect to the natural world,” and, accordingly, she spent a year studying “the phenomenon of the herbarium.” This primarily included the “catalogue of dead plants” at Canada’s Fowler Herbarium, as well as the herbarium collections of Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau, who gathered more than 900 specimens. Humphreys offers impressive mini-biographies of figures who contributed to botany, such as Jack Gillett, a botanist who enjoyed skinny-dipping; W.G. Dore, a grass specialist who wrote “detailed and vivid” descriptions of the subjects of his studies; Lulie Crawford, who found the sample of dog violet now at Fowler; and the Indigenous people who cataloged and preserved flora before the herbarium. In beautiful prose, Humphreys describes her experience acquainting herself with plants: “In the virtual forest... I now find myself in a patch of violets that stretches on and on, file after file.” Readers who appreciated Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders will revel in these gorgeous explorations.
McGregor’s stunning latest (after Reservoir 13) explores the aftermath of a traumatic accident. Robert Wright has spent a good deal of his professional life as a technician at Station K in Antarctica with a team of geographic researchers. During a storm, Robert is separated from his crew and suffers a near-fatal injury. McGregor beautifully captures Robert’s ensuing struggle for survival through passages of fragmented stream of consciousness. After Robert’s wife, Anna, is informed he had a stroke, she flies to meet him in Chile, where he has been hospitalized. But the Robert she encounters is a very different man from the one she last saw: among other injuries, his stroke has severely affected the language center of his brain. As the survival story becomes one of recuperation, Anna, an academic who studies the effects of global warming, must care for her disabled spouse, and McGregor portrays the tribulations of speech therapy with as much drama and depth as the depictions of men fighting for their lives on an Antarctic ice floe. Readers will be drawn into Robert and Anna’s heartbreaking struggle, all rendered in McGregor’s crystalline language. This gorgeous work leaves an indelible mark.
Novelist and travel writer Thubron (Night of Fire) evokes in this breathtaking account the beauty and harshness of the 1,100-mile-long Amur River that forms the border between Russia and China. Setting out on horseback from the river’s source in Mongolia, where a campfire is “the sole human light seen only by wolves or woken bears,” Thubron travels by sailboat, train, and car to the Russian town of Nikolaevsk-na-Amure, where, “thick with silt and pollution,” the Amur empties into the Pacific Ocean. He writes sensitively and cogently about the life along the river’s shores, profiling the semi-nomadic Buryats, whom Stalin and his Mongolian counterpart, Khorloogiin Choibalsam, persecuted relentlessly in the 1930s, and the Manchu, who rose up from the region in the 17th century and ruled China for nearly 300 years. In desolate villages, aged cities, crumbling monasteries, and roadside shrines, Thubron documents the interplay of politics and history, contrasting the “subdued fatalism” of Russians living in the river basin with the bustling optimism of the Chinese, whose glitzy restaurants and markets mask signs of discontent. Thubron’s powers of observation and his dogged determination to complete this arduous journey—despite numerous injuries and a police interrogations—make this a top-notch travelogue.
In an amusing metafictional twist, Camilleri (1925–2019) plays a part in his elegiac 28th and final mystery featuring Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano (after The Cook of the Halcyon). Just shy of five o’clock in the morning, Montalbano’s phone rings. The caller identifies himself as Riccardino and says, “We’re all here already, outside the Bar Aurora, and you’re the only one missing!” Peeved at being disturbed, Montalbano tells the stranger he’ll be right there, hangs up, and goes back to bed. A second call comes an hour later—from his police colleagues, who ask him to come to the Bar Aurora to investigate the murder of Riccardo Lopresti. Montalbano feels “strangely certain—with a certainty as absolute as it was inexplicable—that the poor bastard who was shot was the same person who had called him on the phone before dawn by dialing a wrong number.” As motives begin to multiply, Montalbano’s investigation is muddled by phone calls from “the Author” spouting far-fetched suggestions on how to proceed. Incisive wit colors this insightful and intriguing farewell. The sad, poetic ending is perfect.
Winner of Multiple Hugo Awards, Datlow (Final Cuts) brings together 18 outstanding, atmospheric horror shorts from some of the biggest names in the genre—including Carmen Maria Machado, Stephen Graham Jones, and Joyce Carol Oates—in tribute to the work of Shirley Jackson. A trio of women explore a house with a bizarre secret in Elizabeth Hand’s “For Sale by Owner.” Cassandra Khaw’s “Quiet Dead Things” traces the fall of the sleepy township of Cedarville following a rash of inexplicable deaths. In Karen Heuler’s “Money of the Dead,” a grief-stricken woman buys back the spirit of her son from the afterlife. Benjamin Percy’s “Hag” tells of one woman’s reckoning with a cult on an isolated island. Each of Datlow’s chilling selections successfully honors the spirit of Jackson’s writing, suffused with both the darkest of human emotions and the terror of the supernatural. Any fan of Jackson’s oeuvre will delight in this anthology.
Oller (White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century) takes an epic and engrossing look at the history of New York City crime and law enforcement from the early 1870s to about 1910. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including state senate investigative hearings, Oller weaves an enthralling narrative that presents both the origins of the NYPD and of organized crime in the Big Apple. He examines the careers of pioneering police detectives Thomas Byrnes and Arthur Carey, whose efforts enabled the city’s police investigators to be regarded as being on the same level as Scotland Yard. Oller also describes how Gilded Age gang members and thieves evolved to become “low-life mirror images of the more exalted robber barons, who cut corners to earn their untold riches.” Oller also focuses on colorful lesser-knowns, like devoted mother and synagogue attendee Marm Mandelbaum, a prominent fence who expanded into “financing bank robberies.” True crime fans will relish what is likely to be the definitive account of this seminal period for lawbreakers and law enforcers alike.