The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Steve Martin, Kennedy Ryan, and Emma Smith.
Martin—comedian, writer, musician, and “one of the few actors to play a sadistic dentist twice”—teams up again with New Yorker cartoonist Bliss in this irresistibly charming ramble through Martin’s career in film (following A Wealth of Pigeons). In a series of short comics, Martin reminisces about life on the set of such films as The Jerk; Three Amigos; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; and Bowfinger. In Hollywood, Martin learns how to act natural in front of a camera, discovers that the secret to writing a screenplay adaptation is to follow “the course of a failed marriage,” and finds friends in fellow comedians such as John Candy, Diane Keaton, Carl Reiner, and Robin Williams. In Bliss’s whimsical drawings, meticulously caricatured celebrities rub shoulders with comic-strip characters and Martin periodically wanders away from the narrative to talk to Bliss’s dog. The softly shaded pencil art moves smoothly between photorealistic portraits and loose, gestural cartoons as the material demands. Martin maintains his famous comedic persona of guileless arrogance, the jerk he’s played on and off since his early stand-up days. But his memories reveal a thoughtful, regularly starstruck performer who anxiously counts the laughs at a screening of All of Me and drives home from a viewing of Parenthood lamenting that “everyone in this movie is great except me.” Film buffs, comedy fans, and legion admirers of both the actor and artist will find themselves smiling from cover to cover.
Ryan (Reel) brings both tears and laughter in a powerhouse second-chance romance that shines a sensitive light on mental health issues. Following a stillbirth, Yasmen Wade spirals into a depression that drives a wedge between her and her preteen daughter, Deja, and ends her marriage to her first love, Josiah. Two years later, Josiah is still heartbroken over the divorce he never wanted, though he wrote his own fate by refusing Yasmen’s suggestion of couple’s therapy. It’s hard to move on when they live two minutes from each other, co-parent their two children, and remain partners in their soul fusion restaurant. When their son Kassim’s fifth grade teacher suggests that Kassim should see a therapist, Josiah surprises Yasmen by agreeing—and he even starts seeing one himself to support his son. As healing continues, the couple’s fire is reignited. Giving into passion would risk their fragile equilibrium, so they agree to get their lust out of their systems with one steamy night—but one night becomes many as each discovers new love, respect, and appreciation for the other. The struggles here are real and wrenching, and Ryan’s talent is such that, by the end, the characters feel like old, dear friends. This tender contemporary is a knockout.
“All books are magic. All books have agency and power in the real world,” writes Shakespeare scholar Smith (This Is Shakespeare) in this entertaining history. With a focus on “bookhood,” which includes “the impact of touch, smell, and hearing, on the experience of books,” Smith makes a colorful case that a book’s form contains as much “magic” as its content. In a chapter on how a book becomes a classic, she points to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The paperback of Carson’s environmental manifesto made it available to a wide audience—the 40th anniversary edition, published in a “handsome” hardcover Library of America volume, confirmed it as a classic designed to last. A section on the popularity of paperbacks details how they were sent to soldiers during wartime, and a chapter on book burnings points out that the act is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual,” plus reveals that through the destruction of unsold inventory, publishers themselves are the largest destroyers of books. With wit and verve, Smith concludes that a book becomes a book “in the hands of its readers... a book that is not handled and read is not really a book at all.” Readers should make space on their shelves for this dazzling and provocative study.
Landscape historian Griswold (The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island) considers the life of heiress Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon and her lasting influence on American horticulture and design in this impressive study. Incorporating thorough research and excerpts from Mellon’s personal archive, Griswold captures America’s changing social and cultural landscape through the eyes of a socialite who wanted to “always give something back.” Born in New York City, in 1910, Mellon developed a love of simplicity and nature from her grandfather. In 1948, she married Paul Mellon, co-heir to the fortune of Mellon Bank. Inspired by such designer friends as Jean Schlumberger and Hubert de Givenchy, Mellon honed a discerning eye for classic style, shaped her husband’s world-renowned art collection, and conceptualized understated home interiors and gardens. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy hired Mellon to craft a rose garden outside the Oval Office, and Jacqueline Kennedy hired her to restore White House interiors. After JFK’s death, Mellon designed the eternal flame that burns at his Arlington National Cemetery grave site. Griswold’s rich narrative highlights Mellon’s extravagance, but avoids mythologizing: “Bunny was not a legend but a person.” This is a fast-paced charmer for design enthusiasts and art mavens.
Howrey (The Wanderers) delivers a poignant family story of alienation, regret, and desire. Carlisle Martin, 43, a Los Angeles choreographer, has learned that her father, Robert, whom she hasn’t seen for 19 years, is dying. As the daughter of two professional ballet dancers, Carlisle was a natural talent, and was especially driven to impress the astute Robert and his effusive partner, James, a ballet teacher. Growing up, she visited Robert and James two weeks a year (from her home in Ohio with her mother), relishing in the magic of their decadent Greenwich Village home. She especially craved James’s stories and strived to be closer to the pair. As she narrates in a flashback of her life at 24: “My father, I love, and James I sort of want to be. Maybe I mean: have?” But then she did something Robert won’t forgive her for (the details of which don’t come out till much later), and went on to build a career without the help of her family. Now, she learns she might inherit Robert and James’s house, according to the terms of her grandfather’s trust, causing a painful flood of memories and tension with the couple, whom she assumes want her to give the house to James. The fraught scenes provoke staggering bursts of emotion, such as a flashback to Carlisle at 12 returning from New York to Ohio and realizing she doesn’t feel like she belongs with her mother’s new family. Howrey expertly builds tension, leading the reader to feel alongside Carlisle both the draw of ballet and her anxiety about her reunion with her father. It’s a breathtaking performance.
The Covid-19 pandemic revealed that there are limits to what an online world can and should provide, according to this provocative account from journalist Sax (The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter). Sax posits that virtual substitutes for work, school, and religious activities missed much of the point: Zoom learning, for instance, drastically limited the ability of teachers to interact with their students, and he cites studies that suggest remote work led to burnout. The online shift, Sax writes, came “at a tremendous cost to our humanity,” but a digital world doesn’t have to be the norm. Instead, Sax imagines an “analog future” that’s less a Luddite’s utopia than one that “incorporates all the hard lessons we learned from those difficult years when we lived through a screen” and consists of more outdoor dining, better libraries, accessible outdoor space, and no virtual school, which he calls one of “history’s terrible ideas.” With moving anecdotes (as when his daughter cried because online school offered “ ‘just the work, but none of the fun’ of regular school”), Sax presents a solid case that technology should keep the “real world front and center.” This up-close look at the costs of digital convenience delivers.
Set in 1943 and 1944, Christie’s excellent sequel to 2017’s The Single Spy picks up immediately after the previous book’s events. Having saved Prime Minister Winston Churchill from a Gestapo assassination plot in Tehran, Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, a Soviet spy under deep cover as a German intelligence officer, turns himself over to the British expecting gratitude and sanctuary. Instead, the British put Alexsi back in the field as a double agent, assigned to the German SS headquarters in Rome. There he transmits coded messages back to England, beds an Italian princess, and avoids reprisal from German soldiers and Italian partisans. Christie’s knowledge of old-school tradecraft is exhaustive, and his portrayal of the genuine Ardeatine massacre of more than 300 Italian civilians in 1944 is haunting. A reluctant operative driven more by self-preservation than quaint notions of duty, Alexsi nevertheless possesses a deep core of personal honor. If he can’t prevent Nazi butchery, he at least won’t participate, and when the opportunity to escape finds him, he’ll instead risk it all to do the right thing. Fans of Ken Follett’s and Len Deighton’s espionage novels will find much to admire.
Rowbottom (Jell-O Girls) delivers a complex and deeply engaging portrayal of a woman looking back on her career as an Instagram model. The narrative fluidly alternates between the near future, when Anna is in her mid-30s, and her rise to influencer status in 2017 at 19. After moving from Houston to Hollywood straight out of high school, she’s quickly scouted by a seedy but famed manager, Jake Alton. Jake and Anna soon begin a sexual relationship that, while consensual, is centered on an uneven power dynamic; he also gives her drugs and talks her into breast implants. At 35, a much-transformed Anna has returned to Hollywood not for a comeback but an undoing. Alone in a hotel room, she drinks wine and pops pills the night before a risky facial procedure called aesthetica, which involves the reversal of her implants and rhinoplasties. “The in-between time,” Anna narrates, “before results are final, is my favorite of any procedure... my body working to heal, my brain acclimating to the bruises and swelling until one day they’re gone and the transformation is complete.” Rowbottom brings as much tension to the story of Jake’s manipulation in Anna’s past as she does to the aesthetica, which Anna knows she might not survive. The subplots are equally rewarding, among them Anna’s inability to save her troubled single mother, and the reappearance of Anna’s childhood best friend, a successful runner who is struggling with anorexia. It all builds to a scorching commentary on society’s blindness toward female pain. Fans of Mary Gaitskill’s work and Black Mirror will flock to this pitch-perfect novel.