The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Lisa Unger, Philip Yancey, and Kyla Schuller.
Christian writer Yancey (What’s So Amazing About Grace?) excavates his roots in the fundamentalist South in the 1950s and ’60s in this gripping memoir. Yancey was a year old when his preacher father died of polio after asking to be removed from treatment, expecting faith would heal him. Left alone with two toddlers, Yancey’s mother made her way as a Bible teacher who was well-regarded by her students but increasingly feared by her two young sons for her temper and her punishments. As Yancey entered his teens he saw himself as “born and bred a racist” and began to slowly unlearn the “Lost Cause myth” while questioning his fundamentalist church community: “A growing part of me resists the image of a red-neck fundamentalist.” During the social and political tumult of the ’60s, Yancey’s older brother, Marshall, became a hippie and was estranged from their mother, forcing Yancey to confront his growing inner turmoil. He goes on to describe a religious awakening at Bible college, where he also met the woman who would become his wife. Yancey’s eloquent descriptions of coming to faith and his exacting self-examination make this a standout. Exploring the corrosive role of fear in faith, Yancey’s piercing and painful account invites comparison to Hillbilly Elegy.
Advice columnist Wren Greenwood, the protagonist of this enthralling psychological thriller from Thriller Award finalist Unger (Confessions on the 7:45), meets Adam Harper after she joins the online dating app Torch. Wren and Adam begin an emotional affair that she believes will last, but three months later Adam vanishes, ghosting Wren by deleting all his contact information, including his Torch profile, and disconnecting his cell phone. Wren is further devastated when a private investigator shows up at her Brooklyn townhouse claiming that Adam may be responsible for the disappearance of three women, who, along with all their money, have never been located. The search for Adam forces Wren to confront her turbulent childhood, which included a violent father who insisted his family live off the grid. Readers will root for the appealing, intelligent characters, even when they’re not acting in their own best interest. Believable plot twists related to questions of identity and the value of friends who become family further elevate the story. Unger is on a roll.
In this passionate and persuasive survey of fault lines within the feminist movement, Schuller (The Biopolitics of Feeling), a professor of women’s studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, excoriates the “individualist, status quo–driven paradigm” of mainstream feminism and calls for a true intersectionality that approaches the fight for gender equality “in tandem with the fights for racial, economic, sexual, and disability justice.” Schuller’s enlightening method is to pair highly critical presentations of influential white feminists with profiles of lesser-known Black, Indigenous, Latina, and trans activists who were addressing the same issues through a different lens. For example, the racist rhetoric of women’s suffrage movement leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton is contrasted with poet and abolitionist Frances E.W. Harper’s critique of white women for “consistently choosing sex over race,” and the eugenic underpinnings of Margaret Sanger’s birth control activism are juxtaposed with Dorothy Ferebee’s concept of reproductive health access as part of a broader vision of care for Black Americans. Other notable pairings include Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg and Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and anti-trans feminist Janice Raymond and transgender theorist Sandy Stone. Schuller’s lucid and accessible analysis of her subjects’ lives and careers reveals that long before the concept of intersectionality was formally articulated, there were feminists fighting for it. The result is an essential reckoning with the shortcomings of mainstream feminism.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist De Vise (The Comeback) amply demonstrates his masterful storytelling and research skills in this definitive look at legendary blues musician B.B. King (1925–2015). Informed by his conversations with “dozens of surviving friends and relatives, bandmates and producers,” De Vise provides an intimate portrait of a cultural luminary “whose achievements transcended his genre.” Born into poverty on a Mississippi plantation in 1925, King fell in love with music at a young age, when the reverend of his church taught him the three guitar chords at the center of every blues song he would ever perform. In 1946, he left his life as a sharecropper and tractor driver to perform in Memphis, where he became a regional star before signing with a talent agent and touring internationally for more than 50 years. But even after finding fame, De Vise recounts, King endured his fair share of trials, including a fatal accident involving his tour bus that killed a truck driver, and money disputes with his business manager. These hardships, however, only serve to underscore the tenacity that led King to become “the greatest living guitarist” alive and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Even readers who aren’t fans of the blues will be engrossed by this nuanced look at an American icon.
The power of brief encounters is illuminated in this moving collection from essayist and editor Kinder (Delaying the Real World). As Leslie Jamison writes in her foreword, a letter to a stranger is “an account of brushing up—just briefly—against the infinitude of another person,” and the 65 pieces that follow respond to Kinder’s call to write a “letter to the ones who haunt us.” In “To the Man I Believe Was Good,” Lauren Groff writes to an old man she met in Palermo, Italy, as a teenager, who bought her a drink when she had nowhere to stay, grappling with the true nature of his intentions. Monet Thomas describes in “To the Pharmacist on Futong West Street” her encounters with a brisk pharmacist in Beijing, whose presence grounded her when she felt lost, and Sarah Perry recounts in “To the Woman Who Walked Beside Me” the maternal love she felt from a stranger in New York City who saw to her safe return home. Though the prompt is the same, the premise never gets tired, with the globe-trotting writers covering the gamut from strangers who offered a sense of safety or a sense of chaos. Bright and hopeful, this anthology is sure to delight avid travelers.
CIA case officer Sam Joseph, the hero of former CIA analyst McCloskey’s exhilarating debut, aims to recruit Mariam Haddad, an official who works at Damascus’s Syrian Palace, in Paris. At a diplomatic party, Sam rescues Mariam, who’s part of a Syrian government delegation, from the unwanted attentions of another guest, and they agree to meet for a drink the next evening. Mariam becomes a CIA asset, Sam teaches her the tradecraft she needs to operate without detection under the watchful eyes of her palace superiors, and they begin an illicit love affair. Sam follows Mariam to Damascus, where the plan is to hunt down a brutal pair of brothers, palace officials who kidnapped and killed an American spy. Their mission expands to deal with a larger threat. McCloskey portrays the brutal inner functioning of the Assad regime, as well as the CIA’s occasional ineptitude, while detailing such elements of spy craft as avoiding tails, maximizing dead drops, and operating safe houses. Refreshingly, as shown in the relationship between Sam and Mariam, he dares to be sentimental. Espionage fans will eagerly await his next.
Popularity is the name of the game in the fresh, enthusiastic romance that launches the Ponto Beach series from Yardley (Level Up). After Lily Wang is snubbed by the cool kids of her Southern California high school, she’s all the more determined to become popular and break free of her old friend group, the “nerd herd,” among them jokester Tobin Bui. Ten years later, Lily’s a beauty influencer through her streaming channel, Everlily. She’ll do anything to maintain her success—even joining forces with goofball Tobin, who’s hit it big as gaming streamer GoofyBui. Working together could expand both their audiences and up their subscriber numbers, but spontaneous Tobin and hyper-organized Lily worry their work-style differences—and the past angst between them—will impede their collaboration. Despite the bickering these concerns give rise to, their first video goes viral—and viewers are soon rooting for the combative pair to get together. Yardley brings humor and humanity into the cutthroat world of online influencers, showing the realm’s pleasures and pressures. Both protagonists are delightfully flawed, and Yardley seamlessly weaves their backstories and details of their Asian American heritage into the fast-paced narrative. This smart, sexy tale of fame and friendship is a charmer.
Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside
Parks and Recreation star and woodworker Offerman (Gumption) ponders the goodness of the land and the corruptions of white, capitalist Trumpistan in this painfully woke and often misfiring memoir. He narrates three journeys: a hiking trip in Glacier National Park, full of stunning scenery and ruminations on the dispossession of Native Americans; visits to an organic sheep farm in England in 2019, where he repaired stone walls and rails against agribusiness that use “chemicals and machinery”; and a recent road trip from California to Illinois, during which he shuddered at unmasked diners and campers whose Trump flags brought to mind “a Klan hood.” Offerman extols the virtues of manual labor and communion with nature while denouncing “the dominant, white culture that... has been wrong in almost every way,” and vows to “listen to the grievances of the indigenous folks, the Black folks, the gay folks, [and] the Latinx familias.” Unfortunately, his labored jokes—“the main terror of park toilets: OPPPTYB (Other People’s Poop Particles Touching Your Butt)”—are overshadowed by fulsome rants: “If a person bases their worldview on the lyrics of these old songs... they could easily end up indoctrinated into the White Power army,” he huffs, the songs being “Home on the Range” and “America the Beautiful.” The result is a preachy, stridently unfunny travelogue.
Journalist Nelson debuts with a moving and meticulously researched account of the lives of the victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who brutalized and murdered 33 boys and young men between January 1972 and December 1978, burying most of them beneath his house on the outskirts of Chicago. Drawing on interviews with family, friends, and lovers, Nelson portrays each of the victims in full. Some had criminal records, some were gay sex workers, and many were regular kids. Gacy’s first victim, 16-year-old Timothy McCoy, came from an extended family and was taking the bus home from visiting cousins in Michigan when he accepted a ride from Gacy at a Chicago bus station. Nineteen-year-old Billy Kindred had a girlfriend, who to this day still wears his promise ring. And 15-year-old Rob Piest, a theater tech and gymnast, was described as shy and sweet by his co-workers at the Des Plaines, Ill., pharmacy where he met Gacy and became his final victim. (The efforts of the Piest family to find out what happened to Rob helped lead to Gacy’s arrest.) Gacy, who confessed to multiple murders, was executed in 1994. Nelson succeeds in giving Gacy’s victims a voice. This is a must for true crime fans.
Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs
James Beard Award–winning author Jacobsen (A Geography of Oysters) captivates with this dual narrative, both an eloquent and sensuous treatise on truffles and the enthralling story of his obsessive quest to learn everything there is to know about them. His love affair begins in the Piedmont region of Italy, at the peak of truffle season, where he smelled a white truffle for the first time. One whiff of the intoxicating aroma set him off on a passionate pursuit to learn more about the unassuming fungi: “I’d never understood the truffle thing, and now, suddenly, I had to.” From a nighttime truffle hunt with a famous trifulau (“as truffle hunters are called in Piedmont”) and a potentially illicit transaction in a hotel lobby to learning about the “false, misleading, and deceptive misbranding” of truffle oil in the U.S. and beyond, Jacobsen offers a thrilling dive into the secretive and lucrative world “of this subterranean wonder.” The real delicacy here, though, is the arresting prose used to convey his reverence and awe: “Slice open a truffle and you’ll see a beautifully marbled interior with a fine honeycomb of white veins... [that] produce[s] a dumbfounding cocktail of aromatic compounds.... No words can do justice to the scent of a white truffle.” While that may be true, Jacobsen definitely comes close.