The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Emily Ratajkowski, Rebecca Solnit, and Kalani Pickhart.
Model and actress Ratajkowski debuts with an intimate and accomplished essay collection that tackles big questions about internalized misogyny, the male gaze, female empowerment, and the commodification of sexuality. She describes her “defensiveness and defiance” when questioned whether dancing naked in the 2013 music video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was “anti-feminist,” and admits that her viewpoint on being a “so-called sex symbol” has changed in the ensuing years. Ratajkowski calls out men who have simultaneously taken advantage of and dismissed her, including Thicke, who grabbed her breasts without permission during the filming of the music video, and photographer Jonathan Leder, whom she accuses of sexually violating her during a photo shoot and then releasing a book of explicit images without her approval. Throughout, Ratajkowski reflects on her craving for men’s validation “even when it came wrapped in disrespect,” and examines the limits of succeeding “as a thing to be looked at.” She also recounts an early sexual experience that she later realized qualified as stalking and rape, and documents her struggles to deal with her mother’s serious health problems. Enriched by Ratajkowski’s insider perspective on the modeling industry and her willingness to wrestle with the power of the male gaze rather than outright rejecting it, this is an astute and rewarding mix of the personal and the political.
Solnit carefully charts the life of George Orwell (1903–1950) by focusing on his love of roses and all things natural in this brilliant survey (after Recollections of My Nonexistence). Her study of the “sublimely gifted essayist” and novelist is not a biography, she notes, rather “a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses.” After reading an essay in which Orwell expounds upon the power of trees, Solnit begins to see his writing differently, spotting more “enjoyment” in his work. She follows Orwell’s “episodic” life from his birth in northern India to coal mines in England, to Spain, and through his marriages, but begins with and returns often to his midlife in Wallington, England, where he rented a cottage in 1936 and planted his roses. She also traces her own interests that mirror his, such as climate, class, and politics—Orwell wrote “about toads and spring but also about principles and values and arguing with an orthodoxy.” A disquisition on the suffragists’ song “Bread and Roses” and a look at the rose trade in Bogotá happen along the way, but Solnit never loses sight of Orwell and his relationship to nature: “Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening,” he wrote. Fans of Marta MacDowell’s biographies of gardening writers will appreciate this lyrical exploration.
In Pickhart’s ardent, sprawling debut, a set of memorable characters attempt to lay bare the truths of recent conflicts in the Ukraine. Among the thousands of demonstrators gathered in Kyiv in 2013 and 2014 to protest Russian interference, the reader meets four whose lives have been shattered by the consequences of their country’s tragic history, which until 1991 never once included independence. Katya has fled Boston and a failing marriage to treat Euromaidan protesters in a makeshift triage site at St. Michael’s Monastery. While tending to a mortally wounded old Soviet pianist named Aleksandr Ivanovich, she discovers cassette tapes the onetime KGB agent recorded, addressed to his long-lost daughter. Katya also treats Misha Tkachenko, a selfless and courageous engineer from a town near Chernobyl whose wife died of radiation sickness. Misha has returned to the violent streets day after day, looking out for his friend and sometime lover Slava, another protester, blue-haired and fiery. Together their stories, which the author weaves in and out of the novel nonchronologically, create a portrait of the complicated and calamitous region. As Katya and Misha grow closer, Slava meets a doomed journalist with whom she falls in love, and through revelations in Aleksandr’s tapes, the reader learns how indelibly connected each of these major characters—and very many minor ones—are. This bighearted novel generously portrays the unforgettable set of characters through their determination to face oppression. It’s a stunner.
Kwak’s acerbic and hilarious hyper-masculine debut picaresque follows the adventures of Ricky Twohatchet, born Richard Powell, a semi-professional wrestler who’s searching for his father. Once a rising star, Ricky watches as his career falls apart after a debilitating neck injury at the age of 25 during a match gone wrong, a fall further cemented by an out-of-context viral video of him screaming “Fuck you, America!” His life in Omaha, Nebr., continues to crumble thanks to a dispute with his pregnant lover over an abortion that leads to an abrupt breakup. Left without much purpose, Ricky decides to search for Jeremiah Twohatchet, the man who courted his mother and then abandoned her before he was born. Kwak manages to enamor the reader with a protagonist whose Reagan-era machismo would likely turn off an audience of the social media age; so much of the hilarity ensues from his brusque skewering of modern millennial culture. (“Fuck QR codes,” he pithily says at one point.) As a prose stylist, Kwak is impeccable. Every sentence is explosive, energetic, confident and hyper-polished, as if meant to be shouted proudly in a stadium of thousands. Readers might be surprised to find, in Ricky Twohatchet, an enduring voice.
This illuminating conversation between naturalist Goodall (Reason for Hope) and Abrams (coauthor, The Book of Joy) teases out Goodall’s thoughts on why one should feel hopeful in “dark times.” According to Goodall, there are “four main reasons for hope: the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of youth, and the indomitable human spirit.” In unpacking her belief in the power of persistence, Goodall takes readers to her childhood home in England, where her family questioned if she had the constitution to travel to Africa; to Tanzania, where she studied chimpanzees and came face to face with “crippling poverty, lack of good education and degradation of the land”; and into her work as a U.N. Messenger of Peace. In the process, she cites having a spiritual sense of purpose as crucial to her hope and activism. Her infectious optimism and stirring call to action make this necessary reading for those concerned about the planet’s future: “we must not let this [pandemic] distract us from the far greater threat to our future—the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity,” she writes. “Find your reasons for hope and let them guide you onward.” Goodall’s rousing testament will resonate widely.
Huisman’s excellent debut chronicles the life of a charming but volatile Frenchwoman. Catherine, a manic-depressive dancer and mother of two, is as prone to fits of rage and mood swings as she is to expressing her love for her daughters. Violaine, her youngest, recounts events that took place when she was 10, in 1989. Catherine’s third marriage has failed, and she intentionally drives her car with Violaine and Violaine’s older sister, Elsa, into oncoming traffic on the Champs-Élysées. They all survive, and the girls’ father, Antoine, Catherine’s second husband, arranges with their grandmother, Jacqueline, to have her committed. Violaine then charts Catherine’s bitter relationship with Jacqueline, and Jacqueline’s own painful history, having been forced by her parents to marry her rapist, Catherine’s father, whom she manages to later leave. Though Catherine has a short leg, she trains at eight to dance just like her mother, and the pair later open rival dance schools. Later, Catherine ends her stable first marriage for the wealthy Antoine. The novel’s final section follows Violaine and Elsa, now adults, as they try to carry out Catherine’s wishes after her suicide in her Paris apartment. Huisman’s storytelling ability is immense: Violaine unfurls the wide-ranging narrative like a raconteur at a party, and develops a kaleidoscopic portrait of Catherine. This thoughtful exploration of familial trauma and love will have readers riveted.
Former Rolling Stone contributing editor Edwards (The Tao of Bill Murray) uses his access to actor Samuel L. Jackson to deliver a rollicking, expletive-filled look at the life and career of “The King of Cool.” Famous for his performances in Jurassic Park, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Star Wars among his over 140 feature film appearances (“more than Bill Murray and Tom Hanks put together”)—Jackson’s path to becoming a movie star was anything but predictable. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1948 and raised by his single mother after his father abandoned the family, Jackson began acting out stories for himself as a child before pursuing acting as a serious career in college. His early stage successes led to his being noticed by filmmakers, and eventually his breakout role in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Studded throughout are amusing mini-reviews of Jackson’s films—which include fun trivia such as the number of minutes that pass “until he shows up” on-screen and humorous quotes (“dying is a happening thing”) pulled from interviews with the legend himself. Edwards is especially adept in his handling of Jackson’s personal life, including his triumph over cocaine addiction and involvement in the civil rights movement. This highly entertaining consideration of the prolific actor is long overdue.
In striking, emotive linocut prints that Sabaaneh (White and Black) likens to carvings on a prison wall, the Palestinian cartoonist’s debut graphic novel depicts how he maintained hope and sanity during his five months in an Israeli prison in 2013 while threading his narrative with other stories of his community’s suffering. A rectangular, blunted arrow–shaped bird visits and brings the artist stories from the outside world, a device that draws connections between literal prisons and legal and geographic ones, as in the case of a couple whose daughter is born at a checkpoint. Sabaaneh’s own niece is born while her father is imprisoned, and he must earn her trust when he’s released—only to be arrested again. Each story is devastating and outrage-inducing; the spare language and poetic illustrations convey the scope of a long, slow genocide. Sabaaneh draws himself as a tree, with branches reaching through barbed wire and a bird perched in his heart. Later, the angular bird’s rounder friends ask, “Who has wings and lives in a prison?” An illustrated primer at the back of the narrative provides a footnoted chronology of the occupation in the region. Haunted by snaggletoothed construction equipment and biased courts that throw him in a judge’s gaping mouth, Sabaaneh presents a world in which injustice is unending, but so is the strength of his people. This testament will remind readers of the human toll of political conflict, but also how humanity can never fully be taken.
Starling (The Luminous Dead) captivates and horrifies by turn in this intricately plotted, deliciously bonkers secondary world gothic fantasy. Mathematical, methodical Jane Shoringfield, not wishing to be a burden on her guardians when they move to the capital of Great Bretlain or to live in the still shell-scarred city where her parents died during a recent war, proposes a marriage of convenience to Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in her small town of Larrenton. Lawrence agrees on one condition: Jane is never to spend the night at his ancestral home, Lindridge Hall. But when a mudslide destroys her carriage, Jane is forced to break this promise, staying overnight at Lindridge Hall and confronting the secrets that haunt her new husband. The novel spirals out into a tale of creeping terror, both psychological supernatural, before a masterful third-act twist. Those with low tolerance for gore should be warned there are multiple graphic bloodlettings and surgeries, including one while the patient is still conscious. Gothic purists may initially balk at the secondary world setting, as it’s somewhat at odds with the genre’s emphasis on how women are imprisoned by real-world patriarchal structures, but Starling’s magic system is so spookily and fully realized, and the final twist so brilliantly turns the novel on its head, that even the most skeptical will be won over. This proves impossible to put down.
Journalist Seal (The Devil and Harper Lee) expands his 2009 Vanity Fair article “The Godfather Wars” into a revealing and entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes machinations of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film. Fifty years after its premiere, The Godfather still preoccupies the minds of film critics and historians, but Seal states that “some things remain overlooked, or misrepresented” about the film. With this he “untangle[s] the competing narratives and self-aggrandizing contentions that continue to enshroud [it].” Through extensive research and interviews with key actors and production staff, Seal weaves his tale with enthralling portraits of The Godfather’s main architects: author Mario Puzo, whose original 1969 novel saved him from an “insatiable” gambling habit; Paramount Pictures executive Robert Evans, who was struggling to save his tanking studio; Coppola, a Hollywood newcomer in need of a hit to establish his reputation; and, most importantly, a number of real New York Mafia kingpins who nearly derailed the film entirely. Along the way, Seal dishes up fascinating morsels for fans to savor—including how actor Richard Castellano came to improvise his famous line, “Take the cannoli,” and a detailed look at the way Marlon Brando transformed himself into the aging Godfather, Vito Corleone. Masterpiece yields masterpiece with this exuberant page-turner.