The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Donald Yacovone, Kate Beaton, and Julian Aguon.
Harvard historian Yacovone (coauthor, The African Americans) delivers a monumental assessment of “how slavery, race, abolitionism and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught in our nation’s K-12 schoolbooks” from the 1830s to the present. Spotlighting writers, publishers, and educators including John H. Van Evrie, “the nation’s first professional racist,” whose 1866 textbook A Youth’s History of the Great Civil War in the United States, from 1861 to 1865 “guarantee[d] that future generations would cherish white supremacy as the nation’s governing principle,” and Roscoe Conkling Bruce, the assistant superintendent of education for Washington, D.C.’s “colored schools” in the early 20th century, Yacovone documents the uphill battle to create history texts that accurately reflected the experiences of African Americans. In the decades before the Civil War, most textbooks avoided any detailed discussion of slavery; when mentioned, it was only as a source of political tensions between the states. Black narratives emerged in educational materials during Reconstruction, but were soon replaced by deeply flawed histories that promoted racist stereotypes and “categorically repudiated any version of slavery that stressed harsh or unjust conditions.” Yacovone’s survey is expansive and eye-opening, revealing that the problem was a national phenomenon—he calls out Northern authors for endorsing Lost Cause mythology and racist theories about the “supposedly gross incapacities of African Americans”—that greatly influenced the country’s political discourse. This troubling and powerful history is essential reading.
Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) delivers a masterpiece graphic memoir: an immersive, devastating portrait of the two years she worked at Fort McMurray and nearby oil sands in northern Canada. In 2005, Beaton, 21 and desperate to pay off her student loans, left her small Nova Scotia town for the booming wilds of an oil operation in Alberta. The human and environmental toll of energy dependence are painstakingly recorded on her Heart of Darkness–like journey: facing relentless sexism and misogyny (she estimates that men outnumber women 50 to 1 at the camps), Beaton moves through a series of gigs—doling out wrenches at “tool cribs,” desk work in the supply office—and acutely feels the object of intense scrutiny; the crass remarks are endless, and at one point men line up around the building to get a look at the new girl. When hundreds of ducks become caught in a hazardous waste “tailings pond” around the time a coworker dies on site, Beaton begins to connect individual and global consequences. While she documents her own traumas, Beaton also steps back to observe how the isolation can transform ordinary people, remarking, for instance, that hearing catcalls delivered in the familiar accent of her Cape Breton home region is especially cutting. The homespun drawings and intuitive pacing capture both the dreariness and occasional splendor of this frozen world, with flashes of the author’s trademark humor in the banter between her crusty coworkers. Beaton makes a shattering statement on the costs of ignorance and neglect endemic in the fuel industry, in both powerful discussions of its sociopolitical ramifications and her own keenly observed personal story.
In this incandescent debut, human rights attorney Aguon celebrates the power of thought and literature through probing reflections on finding hope in the face of an “unforgiving timeline.” Assuming “we have about eight years left to get our collective shit together... and ensure the future habitability of the earth,” Aguon meditates on the ways that “bearing witness” can help foster change in a declining world. In “The Properties of Perpetual Light,” he considers the brilliance of Black feminist Audre Lorde’s words, which attempt to “close some gap between blindness and our better selves.” The book’s title essay, meanwhile, addresses the inescapable grip of colonialism on Guam, Aguon’s homeland, while ruminating on his vision of a global justice movement anchored “in the intellectual contributions of Indigenous peoples... who have a unique capacity to resist despair through connection to collective memory.” Looking to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Aguon urges readers to “listen to one’s own heart.... anyone who interferes with another’s destiny will never discover their own.” In eloquent maxims that call forth comparisons to Thoreau, Aguon pits lofty ideals against a backdrop of racism, brutality, and habitat destruction, but optimism prevails: “What is hope,” he wonders, “if not a stubborn chink of light in the dark?” This is bound to inspire any activist.
Muir tackles a new perspective in this characteristically brilliant successor to Harrow the Ninth, which offers a much more personal and tightly framed focus than the rest of the Locked Tomb series. Nona’s been alive for six months with no memory of who she was before awakening in her new body. She enjoys working as a teacher’s aide, petting dogs, and hanging out with her squad of friends, and she has no desire to reckon with the world beyond her comfortable little life: the zombies, the resettlements, the giant blue sphere that hangs above her planet. But whether she likes it or not, Nona’s true identity is the key that shapes the empire, and with that empire in disarray, every force in the universe has their eyes on her, fixated on who she may have been and who she could become. Muir’s skill is such that readers will be desperate to find out the truth of Nona’s background but will still savor the quiet moments with this heartbreaking character. Nona’s lovely, simple, and occasionally silly voice works especially well in juxtaposition with the dark, dense backdrop of the series so far, creating a riveting contrast. Readers will be on the edges of their seats.
Trinchieri’s excellent third Tuscan mystery (after 2021’s The Bitter Taste of Murder) finds former NYPD detective Nico Doyle enjoying breakfast one Sunday morning at his rented farmhouse with his friends from the local carabineri station, maresciallo Salvatore Perillo and brigadiere Daniele Donato. A distress call brings the policemen back to the station, where hotel manager Laura Benati reports that her 80-year-old bartender, Cesare Rinaldi, has been missing for three days. The next morning, Nico goes to the assistance of Jimmy Lando, co-owner of the Bar All’Angolo in Gravigna, after Jimmy runs out of gas on the road from Florence. Nico, with the help of his dog OneWag, discovers Cesare’s body in the trunk of Jimmy’s car. Nico, Perillo, and Donato try to figure out the links between Cesare’s murder, the dead man’s missing 1972 Ducati 750GTs, and the sale of prime vineyard properties. Rabelaisian feasts (“Fried polenta with sautéed porcini mushrooms, garlic and parsley”) provide seasoning as the action builds to a festive, celebratory bar gala. Trinchieri makes crime solving adventuresome, fun, and flavorful. This is the best in the series so far. Bring on number four.
Grosvenor, former president of the National Geographic Society, presents an enthralling look at his consequential time “searching out and celebrating the planet.” The son of Melville Bell Grosvenor, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine, Grosvenor had his career laid out for him, though it didn’t make itself evident immediately. While an undergraduate at Yale in the early 1950s, where he majored in psychology, Gilbert volunteered to help clean up the destruction left by devastating flooding in the Netherlands. After documenting the tragedy and the region’s recovery in an article published in National Geographic, Grosvenor writes, “I was hooked, a convert to journalism.” By 1954, Grosvenor was working for the magazine’s illustrations division. As he details his ascent through the magazine—from becoming editor in 1970 to later heading the society as its president in 1980—Gilbert passionately recounts his effort to spearhead the society’s Geography Education Outreach program, an endeavor that put millions of dollars behind his belief that education about the world’s landscapes was key to tackling climate change. Just as captivating as Grosvenor’s accomplishments are humorous moments that cast the phenom in an endearing light, including when he was nearly trampled by a horse-drawn carriage after falling off a truck in Pakistan. The magazine’s many devotees will be riveted.
Stanley Crouch’s development as a critic is on full display in this standout collection of 58 essays, described by Mott in his preface as a sort of “intellectual autobiography.” “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Dues” is a stunning account of Duke Ellington playing at Disneyland in 1973, while “The King of Constant Repudiation” delivers a takedown of what Crouch considered phony activism: he writes of critic LeRoi Jones that “he has almost completely traded-in a brilliant and complex talent for the most obvious hand-me-down ideas, which he projects in second-rate pool hall braggadocio.” Nor did Crouch sympathize with hollow notions of machismo—he writes in “Miles Davis, Romantic Hero” about finding in Davis’s performances “public visions of tenderness that were, finally, absolute rejections of everything silly about the version of masculinity that might hobble men in either the white or the Black world.” Most of all, it is Crouch’s abiding humanism that comes through, casting a critical eye on “those ‘race men,’ Black or white, who think they love Black people but only as receptacles for theories that use data to remove the mystery from life.” This is an essential collection for fans of Crouch’s writing, or anyone interested in the art of cultural criticism.
Zoologist Bagniewska debuts with a brilliant tour of the animal kingdom’s oddities. Inspired by medieval bestiaries, or illustrated texts on creatures “containing natural history information (factual or otherwise), doused in didactic sauce with a strongly Christian flavour,” Bagniewska offers concise and witty descriptions of 100 critters. There are roundworms who “force ants into impersonating fruit,” a tarantula that “keeps frogs as pets,” jellyfish that defy death, peacock mantis shrimp with eyes that are “among the most complex in the animal kingdom,” foxes with ears so big they make up a third of their height, and butterflies that are “able to make crocodiles cry, only to drink their tears.” Bagniewska admirably moves beyond trivia and delivers insights into ecology and evolution (explaining, for instance, how mole salamanders, who form “a female-only species,” managed to survive, and how sea cucumbers evolved to protect themselves) and eschews simplistic conclusions: “Pretty much any such point can be proven or disproven if you dig into the animal kingdom deep enough,” she writes. Nature lovers will be eager to see what Bagniewska does next.