The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Leonard Cohen, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
The late singer-songwriter and novelist Cohen (Beautiful Losers) leaves readers with an enthralling collection of work written in the 1950s and ’60s, as complex and dark as his lyrics. The unnamed narrator of the title novella is an aimless, solitary 35-year-old Montreal man who leads “an underground existence.” After the narrator learns his grandfather needs a place to live, he takes the older man in. It turns out the grandfather and narrator are ruthlessly violent—in one harrowing scene, the grandfather joins the narrator in beating the narrator’s girlfriend—and the story ends in a stunning reversal. In “O.K. Herb, O.K. Flo,” the narrator muses bitterly on Montreal’s cold surfaces: “All the stone you could want to fool yourself that life is substantial.” The narrator goes to a bar and meets a mediocre jazz player named Herb, who confides he’s going to convince his former lover, Flo, now married, to commit adultery. Herb passes out, leaving the narrator and Flo to discuss the situation. “Polly” follows a junior high girl who orders two younger children to do a variety of demeaning tasks in order for them to hear her play her recorder, such as taking out her trash. Cohen (1934–2016) writes brilliantly of desire and cruelty as his desperate characters yearn for connection. This is magnificent.
Rothman-Zecher (Sadness Is a White Bird) delivers a rich and engrossing narrative of two Jewish immigrants in the U.S. and a Black writer who translates their story from the Yiddish. After a massacre at the fictional Zatelsk shtetl during the anti-Bolshevik pogroms in the early 1920s, survivor Leyb Mireles makes it to the U.S. as a young boy. Over a decade later, 19-year-old Leyb meets Charles Patterson, a 33-year-old communist ghostwriter, at a Philadelphia speakeasy catering to gay men. They strike up a friendship, but after Leyb misconstrues another man’s actions as sexual advances, the stranger beats him. Leyb is then arrested in a police raid and further assaulted. The violence triggers Leyb to remember the attack at Zatelsk, and after his release he tracks down Charles and the two men become close. Meanwhile, Gittl Khayeles, 33, another survivor who rescued Leyb from the massacre and who’s spent the intervening years in various Ukrainian and Belarusian cities, arrives in Philadelphia at the behest of a rich Jewish woman who summons Gittl after reading her poem about the pogrom in a literary journal. Gittl clings to an oft-repeated mantra, “all the world is not darkness,” while searching for Leyb. She eventually writes Leyb’s and her stories in a Yiddish manuscript, which Charles then crudely translates in 1935 (he calls the shtetl a “dustvillage”). As Rothman-Zecher gradually unfolds the remarkable stories of how Gittl reconnects with Leyb, and how Charles comes to possess Gittl’s manuscript, Charles offers droll commentary on his creative license as a translator and sustains an inventive blend of languages (“Leyb inbreathed one breath through his nose, awaytook one glass from Charles’s hand, downdrank half its contents in one zhlyuk”). It’s a powerful story, brilliantly told.
Journalist Hunter-Gault (In My Place) brings together 50 years of her reportage in this powerhouse collection. Much of the work is from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and PBS Newshour—but the earliest piece comes from a 1961 issue of The Urbanite magazine in which she provides a vivid account of the violence that occurred during the integration of the University of Georgia: “I rushed in, only to be stopped in my tracks by another crash as a Coca-Cola bottle followed the brick which had ripped through the window a moment before.” “Poets Extol a Sister’s Unfettered Soul,” written in 1973, covers a festival in Mississippi that celebrated the life and work of poet Phyllis Wheatley; a 1975 piece from the Times highlights racial pay disparities in the U.S.; and “Postscript: Julian Bond,” a 2015 New Yorker article, is an ode to the life of the civil rights activist and U.S. Representative. The most recent work is a New Yorker article from July 2021, “The Dangerous Case of Eskinder Nega,” about an Ethiopian journalist imprisoned under the country’s “sweeping, not to mention vague—but let’s do mention it—antiterrorism law.” Whether covering the TV show Black-ish or politics in South Africa, Hunter-Gault employs razor-sharp thinking and a keen journalistic eye. This solidifies her status as one of the greats.
Via Carota: A Celebration of Seasonal Cooking from the Beloved Greenwich Village Restaurant: An Italian Cookbook
With the mission “to transport” readers to “another place and time, where we have breathed in the rustic beauty and uncomplicated flavors,” chefs Williams and Sodi deliver a swoon-worthy collection of dishes from their distinctive New York City restaurant. The recipes—mostly simple, plainly stated, and vegetable forward—capture the essence of their culinary experience in Italy. The dishes are organized by season and are further subdivided by main ingredient, which is helpful for home cooks looking for meal ideas based on what they’ve got in the pantry. The chefs elevate their selections with small touches, such as the crunch of spring onion and celery in panzanella and a warm honey syrup drizzled over an olive oil cake. Perhaps the best example of this is Via Carota’s signature insalata verde, a piled-high mix of soft, peppery, and lacy greens whose vinaigrette is a balanced blend that employs a bit of warm water to help it emulsify (“It’s a favorite. Enough said”). Even the more luxurious plates of lobster with fresh tomatoes and spaghetti, and a 10-layer cacio e pepe lasagna, are accessible thanks to clear directions and helpful tips. Glimpses of their operation come to life in casual notes, such as describing how tomatoes ripen on a tall rack in the kitchen, and in handsome photography, with images showing how crocks of citrus perfume the dining room in winter months. This is sure to please lovers of Italian food and initiate even more pilgrimages to its namesake eatery.
The stellar closing volume of Union University professor Poe’s biographical trilogy on C.S. Lewis (after The Making of C.S. Lewis) looks at the final 18 years of the author’s life. Pulling from Lewis’s letters, diaries, and ephemera, Poe crafts a meticulous account of Lewis’s later years, beginning with his efforts to honor his late friend, poet Charles Williams, by spearheading a collection of essays that doubled as a roll call for a literary network that included J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T.S. Eliot, whom Lewis loathed but invited to contribute out of deference to Eliot’s friendship with Williams. Fans of Lewis’s work will delight in stories about the creation of some of his most famous books, including how Lewis burned an early manuscript of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe after frosty reactions from fellow writers, as well as his struggle for control over the radio broadcasts that later became the theological treatise The Four Loves. Poe portrays the figures in Lewis’s life in vivid detail, examining at length the suffering of his alcoholic but devoted brother, Warnie, and the persistent health issues of Lewis’s elderly and exasperating friend, Janie Moore. The author’s command of primary sources coupled with a rigorous knowledge of the expansive secondary literature on Lewis lend this erudition and insight. This accomplishes the difficult feat of bringing a fresh perspective to the oft-studied Lewis.
Herrera’s deliciously sexy second Dating in Dallas workplace romance (after Here to Stay) starts when New York real estate mogul Theo Ganas’s personal assistant, the enterprising Alba Duarte, quits her job to start a book-themed interior design business in Texas. Theo has secretly been pining for Alba since hiring her three years ago, but he’s held himself icily aloof to avoid crossing any lines. He’s been waiting for her to move on to another job so that he could ask her out, but he wasn’t banking on her relocating to Dallas. When he’s invited to host a home renovation TV show, he seizes the chance to reunite with Alba, agreeing to take the contract only if they hire Alba as the designer. Alba can’t pass up the exposure—and she’s shocked to find a much transformed Theo. Gone is her insufferable boss and in his place is a charming flirt. Things heat up when they share a penthouse during filming, but Theo’s desire to take care of Alba conflicts with her need to be in control, threatening their budding relationship. The couple’s palpable chemistry, sensual love scenes, and laugh-out-loud banter make them a swoonworthy pair. Contemporary romance fans should snap this up.
This powerful novel from Ward (The Last House on Needless Street), originally published in the U.K. in 2018, won the August Derleth and Shirley Jackson awards. Justifiably so, as Ward’s skillful weaving of horror and mystery forms a dense, rich tapestry. In 1921, Little Eve commits a mass murder so heinous that, a quarter-century later, the villagers of Loyal still whisper about her attack on those with whom she shared the island of Altnaharra: cult leader Uncle, who ruled with honeyed fingers and the bite of a captive snake; Nora, perpetually pregnant; Dinah, tempted by the wider world; and Baby Elizabeth, a mute and filthy 11-year-old. Multiple narrative voices fill in the details of what happened, which initially appears to be a familiar, albeit exceptionally well-told, description of an incestuous cult devolving to its horrific end. Then Chief Insp. Christopher Black, in an improbable white suit, meets Eve on a woodland path, and the expected trajectory shifts deliciously. Ward works in so many motifs—Bible resonances, colonialism, science versus faith, and the pall of war, to name just a few—that the play of imagery is as engrossing as the plot twists, making this a rewarding outing from any angle. Horror fans won’t want to miss this.
This cogent and comprehensive chronicle by historian Hollinger (Protestants Abroad) outlines how Protestant America’s “two-party system” came to be. Divided between progressive, cosmopolitan “ecumenicals” on the one hand and conservative evangelicals on the other, this system, Hollinger contends, has shaped U.S. politics for centuries, and the “destiny of the United States as a whole remains significantly determined by individuals and groups who claim the authority to speak for Christianity.” The author details how “Protestant cultural hegemony” formed in the country’s earliest years and was disrupted in the 20th century by the assimilation of Jewish immigrants and the dissent of Protestant missionaries critical of Protestantism’s “religious parochialism.” The 1960s saw the split between ecumenicals and evangelicals grow as the latter resisted calls to engage in the civil rights movement while the former agitated for racial justice. Hollinger describes the decline of ecumenical churches, which lost a third of their congregants amid growing secularization by the 21st century, leaving evangelicals with a larger relative share of “Christianity’s hollowed-out remnant.” The history is thorough and often surprising, demonstrating how contemporary political fissures have been shaped by internecine conflicts within Protestantism. This is superlative religious history.